Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Good Night, Salty Prince

Nick Zedd with his paintings in Mexico, D.F. Photo by David Barajas

Nick Zedd is gone. I’m sad. I’m surprised. I’m not surprised, but I so wish he wasn’t. A true blue bohemian and an artist of perverse genius. I knew him slightly over many years. We did business, such as it was. Nick was the top-selling artist for our MWF Video Club for many years. To call the money we made “chicken feed” is insulting to poultry. MWF did frequent screenings, but not of his films. Nick needed to control his own screenings for the money they brought him, just as he always tried to control his own distribution.* He sold entirely online when that became possible. Towards the end, he couldn’t pay to keep his website online.
Rent. The demon which Jack Smith, Nick’s early master, saw embodied in the “lobster landlord”. Jack, who was clearly insane, was an impeccable artistic mentor for pedigree, but a wretched example of how to live as an artist in the USA world. He inadvertently named an anthology “Hatred of Capitalism”. Sweet. Mad. (Nick apparently adapted the title for a later zine.)
Nick was a little more adaptable than Jack, but not much. He followed first in the footsteps of horror movie schlockmeisters. It was after his outing as a no-budget Ed Wood that Nick worked with Jack Smith. Jack was also a lover of genre. Orientalist fantasy was the source of his exoticism, and a lifelong infatuation with the short-lived Dominicana movie star Maria Montez.

Maria Montez, Jack Smith's muse

Nick Zedd’s early features were obviously terrible, but they were antic and funny. More importantly they were reviled by guardians of morality. They were in-your-face populist Super-8, the kind of art that makes kids realize they can do it themselves. He made numerous shorts. “The Bogus Man” prefigured his enchantment with conspiracy theories. A line from the film – “Why do I have to see this?” – is also the title of one of the few critical texts on Nick’s work.
I think Nick realized then that his job was to queer genre – horror, monster, splattercore murder, porn, outer space opera – all the crappy drive-in type movies-for-fast-cash of the ‘50s and ‘60s that came back into vogue as camp in the ‘90s. They made the fortune of the distro company Rhino, and the entertainment criticism of “Mystery Science Theater 3000”. They were the movies we loved to laugh at.

Greer Lankton, puppet master for "Bogus Man". Photo by Nan Goldin

It was hard to laugh at Nick Zedd. He had no tongue in his cheek. He was within it, emerging from the deepest of dark shadows. You don’t know me, you don’t understand me, you don’t like me, I don’t like you – but maybe you can be useful for me – a perfect ‘80s artworld attitude.
Nick Zedd comes out of the same moment as Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch. But those connected major auteurs twisted genre; Nick Zedd bent it, crumpled it, and threw it away.
Whereas the commercial genre movies of the mid-century reflected white American anxieties in an almost transparent manner – (J. Hoberman has written a series of books on precisely this cathexis of film and popular imagination) – the same stream of genre films today are successfully terrifying. They’re no longer semi-transparent reflections of anxieties, but prognostications of disaster – plague, war, exquisitely rendered planetary catastrophe. You want it, you got it. American death drive.
At the heart of many of those flicks are the characters of a patriarchal family struggling to survive the madness and return to sanity. That’s nice if you’re a boomer daddy. But what of the freaks?, those who don’t slot neatly into suburbia, or have taken great pains to escape it. Nick’s movies were made for them, and with them.
Beneath his crusty glowering persona, Nick was a hopeless romantic. For the “Wild World of Lydia Lunch” he followed the corrosive punk singer/ranter to the UK after she spurned him. Despite that their affair was over, and she had kissed him off in her trademark no uncertain terms, Nick made lemonade from his disjointed footage. A phone message from the diva, demanding that he get lost, was in the soundtrack. Not a romcom.

Connecting with strong women for his film projects led him to work with Kembra Pfahler in what may be his masterpiece War Is Menstrual Envy (1992). Kembra’s full-body reveal and beyond rock band, The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, was also named for a B-movie horror star. "Do you think about war everyday?" Kembra asks. "I do."

Kembra Pfahler and Steven Oddo in War

His long-running cable TV series “Adventures of Electra Elf and Fluffer” was co-written with its star, Reverend Jen. A “fluffer” in the porn industry is the PA whose job is to get the stud hard. Jen’s Fluffer was a little dog. The Reverend Jen is a voluntary elf, or an elf by election. Elves may look cute, but as any fantasy reader knows, they are really tricky.

Reverend Jen, "Graveyard of Make Believe"

In 2013 Nick Zedd participated in the MWF Video Club “assembly” at the New Museum, part of the XFR STN events. He sat in the ring of admiring fellow artists, his hair glowing orange, dressed in his long leather duster, one leg over the other. He eloquently expressed his contempt for the NYC world of culture and art within which he had undeservedly not succeeded. “NYU destroyed downtown New York, but at least they paid me to get out of town.” (NYU speculated in lower Manhattan property and evicted many; Fales library collection bought his archive.) It was delightful to hear him say what we all felt.
The New Museum did not pay to bring Nick from Mexico. I did. I learned during the course of that show how much an artist, once given a show at a museum, may have to pay to realize it. (In the unspoken terms of this sickly trade, the gallery pays because the museum show amps up the artist’s prices.) On the New Museum website, various foundations are credited with the event.
Nick was happy to come. He had to be in town anyway, he said, to pay a fine for putting a poster on the street for a film screening in his old neighborhood, the Lower East Side. Otherwise they’d put out a warrant for his arrest.

Nick’s community was strange looking people, the wierdest performers, aberrant has-beens, punks alienated by choice – casualties of normality and an underground of performers who would never be called upon by Hollywood of Broadway. Reverend Jen called them “sublebrities”. Even Lydia Lunch, clearly an incendiary talent, has never had a mainstream role. Nick became the filmmaking tribune of the NYC underground. His reward was that the monied mainstream pretended he didn’t exist.
It’s been nearly 10 years since the MMA’s “Punk: Chaos to Couture”. But that didn’t mean anything for artists like Nick. It means the posh bourgeois can dress like he did 30 years ago in countless variations on the styles mostly working class young people evolved among themselves.
The kinds of things that “system friendly” artists and filmmakers get – residencies, grants, museum exhibitions, gallery support – did not come to Nick. (Nor I imagine did he much seek them.) Finally he ran out of time to wait.
Honestly, when I met him for the first time he creeped me out. He was nothing like any other artist MWF was dealing with. His goth-punk appearance and sepulchral mien, and his weird little fans as they showed up for that first screening at the Colab “Exposion” show in ‘88 were an absolute unfit with the normal art crowd in Soho.
What I didn’t know then but was soon to learn was that the art punk movement had not ended with our crowd of No Wavers. (Nick wrote about some of them in his Underground Film Bulletin.) In fact the subculture was spreading throughout the country and abroad. And filmmaking was part of it, in large measure thanks to Nick Zedd’s work. He pounded pavements to sell his tapes to video stores all over NYC. He toured tirelessly with his films, playing clubs around the country and across the border. As he details in his drily humorous memoir Bleed, he was often censored, his shows shut down, even arrested and deported. For years not even art institutions or filmatheques would touch him, a fact that he was rather proud of.
Nick explained and rationalized his approach to filmmaking in the famous manifesto he wrote, the Cinema of Transgression. He was a critic with his own magazine – a zine, in fact, and an early version of the type – a film fanzine produced on photocopy machines. His writing style was corruscating, full of contempt, and always on the attack.
After some years banging away his films, once “banned at the Anthology Film Archives” were showing there. Jonas Mekas supported legions of filmmakers. Finally even the MoMA came around. The highbrow curators had finally retired.
With his strong caricatural persona and harsh critical voice, Nick found comrades-in-arms – a real Cinema of Transgression gang. This loose group was supported by the New York Underground Film Festival. Many of them followed Nick’s route of selling their films on VHS video, which was what we had begun the MWF Video Club to do.
Working with Richard Kern, Nick made one of my favorite shorts, “The King of Sex”. Kern was into porn, another genre of film. (Now he’s a successful softcore photographer specializing in young girls.) In this film Nick swaggers into a hotel room full of semi-clad babes apparently waiting to embrace him. Instead of the expected “action”, however, he just starts scowling and jumping up and down on the bed. So nothing “happens” as it should in a porno; there is only the setup. Finally instead of the expected profanation of the sacred human rite of reproduction, there is a bunch of kids playing – a punk pajama party.

The scene around the Cin of T artists was a hard one, as C. Carr tells in her book on David Wojnarowicz. Lots of drugs and bad behavior. Party-goers pay the consequences. Nick died from a fierce combination of illnesses.
As I said, I didn’t know him well at all. He didn’t really want to be known by me. Nick was an actor, and he played his role consistently until the end. His was a persona compacted of equal parts gunfighter, vampire, and crypt-keeper, with a liberal soupçon of transvetitism. He looked like he might want to hoodoo you, but really, he was a soft-shelled crab.
When he would look up at me, during some moment of talk, with a look of childish hope, as if at last, or maybe only this once, his dreams might be on the brink of being fulfilled – I knew there was a real person under there. I’ll miss him. Another New York diaspora artist I won’t get to see in hirs new habitat.
Twenty years ago, Nick Zedd wrote: “Everything that is valuable you discover by doing. Movies of the future should succeed in denying the possibilty of defining what they are…. Film can overthrow the powers that be only by making no concessions to the general public or the dominant ideas of our epoch. This means insurrection. I’m here to berate anyone who needs to be inspired.” – Nick Zedd in Clayton Patterson, ed., Captured: A Film/Video History of the Lower East Side (2005)

* To explain – the MWF Video Club idea came out of Colab; it was to be a distribution co-op. We dubbed product, deducting for costs (tape, label, machine wear), and split the take with the artist. Still, at wholesale discounting, mostly to Facets Multimedia, that money was small. Nick sold in quantity, however, and we dubbed as close to his master as possible – 5 at a time. Pirate operators like Kim’s Video (much revered today; much reviled then) dubbed from what Nick and MWF sold them and did not pay artists.


MWF Video Club, a Collaborative Projects project

David Harvey, “The Art of Rent: Globalization, Monopoly and the Commodification of Culture” (2009)

Emily Colucci does a deep dive into Zedd’s “transgression” on her blog, Filthy Dreams
“’Why Do My Eyes Have To See This’: The Cinematic Transgression of Nick Zedd”, July 21, 2013

Kembra plays a shopper at a record store (2010)
YouTube -- Kembra Pfahler (Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black) - What's In My Bag? (7:04 min.)
"Do you think about war everyday?" Kembra asks. "I do."

Reverend Jen (Jennifer Miller), Reverend Jen's Really Cool Neighborhood (2003)
Print only if you can find it. An excellent read.

New Museum: Moving Image Artists’ Distribution Then & Now
The site notes Nick's presence at the 2013 XFR STN events, but Colab’s MWF Video Club is not listed as a sponsor, as it should be

“Q-and-A with Nick Zedd” – a short interview while he was in town then
EV Grieve Thursday, July 18, 2013

the best recent article on Nick, interviewed in Mexico City, D.F. for Vice
Avi Davis, “Why Cinema of Transgression Director Nick Zedd Stayed Underground”, June 6, 2014

En Espanol – Mauricio Guerrero Martínez, “#WARPPresenta: Entrevista con Nick Zedd, el padre del cine de transgresión”, 16 agosto, 2019
Fotos: David Barajas

Nick Zedd - Ubu Web -- better than YouTube for his un-remixed works


  1. good take Alan, on Nick's goth/punk persona!
    one comment tho- Mario Montez was born in Puerto Rico
    not the Dominican Republic.

    1. Mario was the drag queen; Maria was the Hollywood movie star... I don't know Jack's relationship with Mario. I'm sure he knew her, no?