A Test of Wills: The Films of Richard Kern
Published on September 21st, 2011 | by Cassady Dixon0
Running time: 70 minutes+ for each program
Unrated, but with films like “Thrust In Me” (1985) or “The King of Sex” (1987) you get the point
The work of Richard Kern tests one’s patience as well as the urge to call the authorities. He is the punk rock aesthetic if it ever really existed. If you throw David Lynch’s name around to show you’re edgy, then you should really put your money where your mouth is and check out the series of Kern shorts being screened at the Anthology Film Archives, September 23-24.
Kern’s journey through experimental film included the “Cinema of Trangression” era of the 1980s. These works pointed the mirror of avant-garde back onto itself, doubling up on the extremism and taboo material. Kern’s closest effort at playing it safe here would have to be an early music video of Sonic Youth’s “Death Valley 69.” The clip, a cacophony of sludgy guitars, banshee vocals and washed-out visuals of desert air force testing, only barely prepares the viewer for othr works in the collection.
“The Right Side of My Brain” and “Fingered” both feature singer-songwriter Lydia Lunch doing her due diligence in anti-social behavior. Both are saying something about the abusive nature of chauvinism through disjointed rape scenarios and dirge-like interior monologues. The acting and 8mm photography add to the amateur-hour feel, and if the point is to disturb and shock, these elements certainly add to that end in a greater fashion than if things were more slick and polished. The hyper-violent male characters serve to beat you over the head with feminist symbolism, but it’s always interesting to see where Kern will go next in upping the ante.
“You Killed Me First” seems like something John Waters might have mined in his earlier days. We are presented with a “Leave it to Beaver”-esque family (with Dad played by former New York artist David Wojnarowicz). The difference here is that instead of two sons we have two daughters, one being a picture-perfect WASP and the other being a hell-on-wheels early version of Juliette Lewis in “Natural Born Killers.” Everyone bickers back and forth, and eventually the yuppies get their just desserts, so to speak, at the hand of the redheaded stepchild. Kern must have known this was ripe material for satire and wit, the sheen of polite society up against the rebellious outcast daughter. Yet, he balks at every opportunity to make things more entertaining. Lines are shouted without any rhythm or pace, sets look thrown together and the violence almost loses impact via schlocky effects work. It’s a sight to behold: all shock and awe with very little perceptible deftness.
Still, this is a roller coaster of a series. The more short-and-sweet films provide jolts of energy that the longer works sometimes lack. Things get especially off-the-wall with “The Bitches,” which takes the familiar porn trope of one-man-two-women and, well, turns it inside out. And all one needs to say about “The Sewing Circle” is that it certainly lives up to its name, and don’t eat beforehand.
Suffice to say, Richard Kern is a fascinating individual. He went from the almost pornographic material here to become an in-demand photographer for the likes of Playboy and GQ. (There’s also quite a trove of new videos at VBS.TV.) He also did other music videos, from Marilyn Manson to the hilarious King Missile clip for “Detachable Penis.” He’s essentially a more transgressive Terry Richardson, the type who oozes a kind of uncomfortableness that makes you feel slightly unsure of your safety. His aura bleeds the East Village of the 1980s, with a constant stream of strung out junkies and prostitutes who make places like Tompkins Square Park their base. In their own way, these films are the perfect time capsule. Take the plunge.