Sep 17, 2015

We Are Not to Blame




As a movement largely headed by dope-addled degenerate males of the fairly effeminate and, in some cases, heteroflexible sort, the Cinema of Transgression movement naturally attracted various deranged or otherwise damaged dames, including loudmouthed gutter slut Lydia Lunch and pint-sized whacked-out waif Lung Leg, but, out of all of these of these wayward women, probably none is more enigmatic, whimsical, and just plan strange than auteur Casandra Stark Mele (Death of an Arabian Woman, The Anarchists), who later completely disassociated herself from the underground film scene she belonged to and has go on to do various interviews where she has not held back when it came to trashing her ex-collaborators like Nick Zedd and Richard Kern.  A proud Italian-American who was not afraid to film her unclad pussy and her other carnal goods for her own largely oneiric films, Stark was initially the subject of panegyric praise by her one-time-boyfriend Zedd who once described her first film Dead On My Arm (1985)—a film based partly off the director’s childhood experience in a mental institution that was influenced by the theories of C.G. ‘Aryan Christ’ Jung—as a “masterpiece,” but, for whatever reason, things eventually grew quite sour between she and her decidedly degenerate male compatriots. Indeed, when Stark opted to conclude her semi-dreamlike short Wrecked on Cannibal Island (1986) with a provocative scene featuring a shot where “Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here” is written over her bushy guidette beaver that ultimately ends with a guy named Jack Natz performing cunnilingus on her, Zedd somewhat dubiously complained in his film zine The Underground Film Bulletin that the ending featured a, “gratuitous shock tactic which stupidly violates the film's internal logic.” While Stark would later complain in an interview featured in Deathtripping: The Extreme Underground (2008) by Jack Sargeant that Zedd, Kern, and Lydia Lunch were responsible for destroying the aesthetic and philosophical integrity of the Cinema of Transgression movement and noted, “Both Zedd’s and Kern’s films got much worse after they met each other and staring jerking each other off. A lot of the others who hung around the so-called scene got tainted by all this and a lot of the films started to suck. The creativity is sacrificed for opportunity. The violent and sexual imagery became overstated as quickly meaningless,” she did collaborate with the two male filmmakers on what is arguably her most ambitious film. Indeed, the 30-minute short We Are Not to Blame (1989) quite fittingly features both Kern and Zedd as sexually abusive lowlifes who invade Stark’s mind and/or body to the point where she completely loses her sanity in the end and begins to resemble one of the ghostly pancake-faced chicks from Werner’s Schroeter’s (in)famous Oskar Panizza adaptation Liebeskonzil (1982) aka Council of Love. A sort of unintentionally humorous and campy piece of quasi-phantasmagoric Super-8 Gynocentrism where female sexual masochism and male sadism is explored in an almost metaphysical fashion, Stark’s film demonstrates a certain uncompromising vulnerability, honesty, and tragically despoiled innocence that makes the cinematic works of her ex-compatriots seem like overly self-conscious hokey hipster posturing by comparison. 




 After a truly DIY lo-fi title sequence featuring the film’s title painted on a glaringly dilapidated apartment wall and a shot of “A Casandra Stark Movie” painted alongside a jack-o'-lantern, as well as various forms of stereotypical Catholic imagery, including the The Immaculate Heart of Mary, We Are Not to Blame introduces the clearly mentally perturbed protagonist Paula (Casandra Stark Mele) who screams into her phone like a bloodthirsty banshee after being blown off upon calling about a potential ‘copy-machine operator’ job (as Stark reveals in the documentary Blank City (2010) directed by Celine Danhier, she was struggling to make ends meet in the 1980s and was even once left homeless after cops raided her apartment). Meanwhile, while Paula proceeds to look through unpromising employment ads in a local newspaper, her estranged sister Denise (Laura Mae Jesson) is walking around NYC and is going to pay her an unexpected visit because she wants to get away from her abusive husband Jack (Richard Kern) and is desperate for somewhere to hide. When Denise finally arrives, she says to her sister, “I had to come. I really left Jack this time. I felt my head hit the floor one last time and something in me snapped” and begs her to let her stay, to which Paula replies in a fairly smug and self-satisfied way, “Well, of course you can, you silly fool. So it took a full whack from your dear hubby Jack to put you on the right track.”  While the two sisters are talking, the viewer also learns that the last time Paula saw Denise was when she intentionally burned her parents' house down, thus revealing that she has fairly maliciously destructive tendencies. After boring Denise by giving her a tour of her apartment just so that she can show off all paintings that she has created (notably, the paintings were actually created by Stark, who clearly also used the film as a less than inconspicuous mean to flaunt her painterly prowess), Paula makes her sister a spaghetti dinner where she eventually reveals the true extent of her mental derangement by stating after her sibling complains of being afraid of her husband, “I’m more scared of myself, I’m not scared of my man. I’m scared that maybe…these olives are really bugs and I’m not really even here…And maybe that I only think I’m eating olives and I’m really eating bugs.” Naturally, Paula’s mind begins to completely disintegrate as the film progresses. 



 When Denise complains, “I’m the one with the problems, you know,” as if she is competing in a victimhood contest and then expresses her undying fear that her husband might show up at the apartment while the two eat dinner together, Paula seems to have a schizophrenic premonition of sorts where she inexplicably smears spaghetti sauce on her face, climbs on the kitchen table while in a seemingly possessed state, and suffers a seizure of sorts. Of course, it does not take long for deadbeat husband Jack to show up and when he does he demands that Paula tell him where his wife is while sadistically smacking her in the face with a red rose. When Denise wakes up from a nap and finds Jack in the apartment, the seemingly dope-addled thug of a hubby starts beating her and Paula in a fashion that one would except from some boorish wife-beater-wearing wop thug like Jake La Motta in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980). Ultimately, Paula knocks Jack unconscious by hitting him over the head with a frying pan while he is busy beating Denise while she is lying in a bathtub, so the two sister subsequently decide to tie him to pole on the roof of their apartment building. In a mocking gesture, Paula places the same red rose that he repeatedly smacked her in the face with into Jack’s mouth, thereupon making him resemble some sort of hapless dime-store Don Juan. In between Denise attempting in vain to spoon-feed him canned crap while he tries to viciously attack her and calls her a “bitch,” Paula whips anti-gentleman Jack into shape by slapping him in the face while repeating like a playfully sadistic automaton, “You better learn how to behave yourself.” Aside from berating her sister’s scumbag spouse, Paula also enjoys lying naked in her bathtub while in awkward positions and singing like an autistic toddler while in a seemingly possessed state that reflects the progressive degeneration of her uniquely unhinged mind. 



 Somewhat curiously, Paula has a sex dream about Jack and even decides to tell her sister about it, stating, “I was dreaming about Jack all night long last night. I went up on the roof and while he was tied up we had sex together. And even though we hated each other, it seemed really necessary, like…Maybe in the future, lovers will be a thing of the past and people that hate each other will get together to have sex. Instead of my beloved, it will be my dearly behated,” thus hinting that she is probably a clueless masochist who wants to blame her fucked up sexual desires on some sort of malignant meta-sexual plague. After describing her lurid sex dream to a less than impressed Denise, Paula goes to check on Jack and discovers that he has somehow managed to escape from his bondage and is nowhere in sight. Seemingly obsessed with the idea of sharing carnal knowledge with her sister's violent deadbeat hubby, Paula later decides to diddle her puss while staring at her paintings, which are mostly comprised of cadaverous little girls that seem to point to some sort of ungodly childhood trauma that still plagues the protagonist. With Denise receiving her dream of her husband completely disappearing from her life, she and Paula decide to have a sort of mock funeral for Jack where they bury his personal belongings. After throwing Jack’s stuff into a hole they have dug in the middle of a secluded public park, Paula proceeds to bless the items by ceremoniously pissing on them. Unfortunately, the unintentionally farcical pseudo-funeral takes a turn for the worst when a longhaired wuss (Nick Zedd), who has been secretly stalking the sisters, appears out of nowhere, pushes Denise into the hole, and proceeds to rape Paula, who begins to wallow in having her pussy pillaged by some wayward weirdo as reflected in a large smile that eventually appears on her face while she is having her vag ravaged. After the somewhat brief rape, Paula grabs her sister Denise and they leave while Zedd curiously proceeds to fill in the hole that the two gal's dug. As an assumed result of the severe trauma that she has suffered at the hands of a sexually rabid proto-hipster ponce, Paula develops a special affinity for baby dolls and falls into a completely infantile state. Indeed, Denise screams hysterically when she wakes up Paula and discovers that her sister looks like a sort of punk rock Bride of Frankenstein. In the end, Denise also falls into a comatose state and sits by Paula’s side while she rocks back in forth in a rocking chair while holding a baby doll and smiling at the camera in a deranged exaggerated fashion in a scenario that echoes the collective female psychosis of the eponymous chicks in Robert Altman's 3 Women (1977). After the film’s end credits roll, Zedd is featured sitting at a kitchen table naked while attempting to spoon-feed one of Paula's baby dolls in a rather ridiculous yet nonetheless grotesque scene that is genuinely more disturbing and aesthetically loathsome than anything the War Is Menstrual Envy (1992) director has ever directed. 




 As the assumed result of her later renunciation of the Cinema of Transgression movement and largely interview-based personal war against Kern and Zedd, Stark decided to later reedit We Are Not To Blame and cut out all of the scenes featuring male characters, thereupon completely changed both the tone and narrative of the entire film and transforming it into a sort of innately incoherent dreamlike experience of surreally sisterly sort. When asked in an interview with Jack Sargeant why she decided to reedit the film, Stark replied, “I guess I was interested in seeing what it looked like if I eliminated all the antagonists, namely the men. They are suggested but not given any embodiment. I mean really, the whole purity of that film was the relation of the two sisters. So I was just amazed that when I took everything out that involved other people I just saw this purity there that I liked. In a way it’s like when you work at home sometimes…I don’t know, it’s something about simplifying things, taking out what isn’t necessary. It was kind of an experiment, I have both versions of it, I’m just interested in this version right now.”  Of course, Stark also took out “what isn’t necessary” in her personal life by ridding herself of Kern, Zedd, and the Cinema of Transgression and of course knowing that fact before watching We Are Not to Blame makes the film an all the more entrancing experience as a result, as if the filmmaker could foretell the bitter disdain that she would later develop for her ex-collaborators.  Notably, Stark, who is proudly Italian by blood (hence why she later began using her real Italian surname ‘Mele’ again), managed to gain a following in Italy, which is the only place that seems to distribute her films (the Turin-based publishing company Nautilus autoproduzioni released a VHS of her films under the title The Lost Films of Casandra Stark). Not unlike fellow NYC-based Guido auteur Abel Ferrara, Stark also had the opportunity to work in the old country where she shot part of her film The Anarchists (1994) in Napoli and was even featured on Italian TV while doing a film tour there (as the careers of Stark, Ferrara, Joe Dallesandrao, and various other Italian-American film figures seem to demonstrate, Italians seem to love the novelty of having Americans of Guido extraction working in their homeland). Undoubtedly what separates Stark from the rest of the filmmakers of the Cinema of Transgression movement, especially its most well known figures Zedd and Kern, is that she has a strong sense of spirituality (in her first film Dead On My Arm (1985), she gave a credit to C.G. Jung, not to mention the fact she is obsessed with Catholic imagery and themes), as well as cultural and ancestral heritage, hence why she is also probably the most intriguing and authentic figure that was ever associated with the movement, even if her films oftentimes feel like they were directed by the schizophrenic bastard preteen daughter of Werner Schroeter and Asia Argento.  As the film's title and content surely hints, We Are Not to Blame seems to be a film about coming to terms with sexual abuse and personal trauma.  Indeed, like many victims of childhood sexual abuse, Stark's character in the film has an irrational attraction to male abusers.  It should also be noted that Stark has accused both Zedd and Kern of being abusive and exploitative filmmakers, or as she stated in an interview with Sargeant regarding what she believes destroyed the Cinema of Transgression movement, “...it all became so mean and very abusive to the human spirit.  It was an art movement moving against itself, against healing.  It became a destructive force really, it became evil.”  Whether or not We Are Not to Blame helped Stark to heal is something that only she really knows, but it certainly gave me the somewhat dejecting impression that it was sired from the restless soul of an abused little girl who has been forsaken with having to live a lifetime of internal suffering as a result of some pervert(s) who wanted to experience a couple moments of sick forbidden pleasure.



-Ty E

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