While there might still be quality, dramatic television, there is little doubt the medium has lost it’s imaginative powers and any penchant for innovative, experimental, provocative, quirky aesthetics. Ernie Kovacs and Andy Kauffman are long dead. In addition to Kauffman, the 80’s did see Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Bakshi’s “New Adventures of Mighty Mouse”, but they have been relegated to distant memories. Then, in the 1990’s came Damon Zex; the underground cult icon from Columbus, Ohio’s short-lived public access television.
One writer speculated that Charlie Chaplin was nearly the sole silent super star to have survived sound because he alone understood it was a different art form. There is a reason that Chaplin, Keaton, Harry Langdon, Charlie Bowers, Theda Bara, etc. were inspirational fodder to later surrealist luminaries such as Samuel Beckett and Andre Breton. Those provocateurs understood and connected with elements from the silent art form which had it’s origins in vaudeville and can be seen in today’s performance artists such as Diamanda Galas and Damon Zex.
Much in early film, by today’s standard, was experimental because the rules had not yet been set as to what constituted ‘film’ and what did not. Luis Buñuel once said, “Moving pictures merely repeat what we have been told for centuries by novels and plays. Thus, a marvelous instrument for the expression of poetry and dreams (the subconscious world) is reduced to the role of simple REPEATER of stories expressed by other art forms.”
Damon Zex’s “Asana Assassin” (discussed below)
In lieu of today’s obsession for squeaky clean, hypernarrative Hollywood realism, reactions to expressionism, experiment, rough improvisation range from red flag dismissals such as “artsy” and “pretentious” to downright hostility. Audiences can numbly sit through porn fests such as Hostel or Passion of the Christ, but will react quite differently when aesthetically provoked.
Author Scott MacDonald nails it in his introduction to avant-garde film studies:
Mainstream cinema is so fundamental a part of our public and private experiences, that even when filmmakers produce and exhibit alternative cinematic forms, that dominant cinema is implied by the alternatives. If one considers what has come to be called avant-garde film from the point of view of the audience, one confronts an obvious fact. No one–or certainly, almost no one–sees avant garde films without first having seen mass-market commercial films. In fact, by the time most people see their first avant-garde film, they have already seen hundreds of films in commercial theaters, and their sense of what a movie IS has been almost indelibly imprinted in their conscious and unconscious minds by their training as children and by the continual reconfirmation of this training during adolescence and adulthood. The earliest most people come in contact with an avant-garde film of any type is probably mid to late teens (for many people the experience comes later, if at all). The result is that whatever particular manipulations of imagery, sound, and time define these first avant-garde film experiences as alternatives to the commercial cinema are recognizable only because of the conventionalized context viewers have already developed. Generally, the first response generated by an avant-garde film is, ‘This isn’t a movie,’ or the more combative, ‘ You call this a movie?’ Even the rare, responsive viewer almost inevitably finds the film–whatever its actual length in minutes–‘too long .’ By the time we see our first avant-garde film we think we know what movies are, we recognize what ‘ everyone’ agrees they should be; and we see the new cinematic failures-to-conform as presumptuous refusals to use the cinematic space (theater, VCR, viewing room) ‘correctly.’ If we look carefully at this response, however, we recognize that the obvious anger and frustration are a function of the fact that those films confront us with the necessity of redefining an experience we were sure we understood. We may feel we KNOW that these avant-garde films are not movies, but what are they? We see them in a theater; they’re projected by movie projectors,just as conventional movies are… we can see that they ARE movies, even if we KNOW they’re not. The experience provides us with the opportunity to come to a clearer, more complete understanding of what the cinematic experience actually can be, and what–for all the pleasure and inspiration it may give us–the conventional movie experience is NOT.
Elitism in artistic taste has become a dirty word and frequently one hears the
excruciatingly lame defense for not being able to handle it, “Well, it’s just my taste and doesn’t really matter.” “Taste”, which should be acquired, is a reflection of one’s willingness to confront, and evolve past, tradition.
Damon Zex wears his badge of Artistic Elitism as a warning to the bourgeoisie. He is an intellectual bad boy that no one can claim him as their own. He’s too literary to be truly claimed by the goth/punk crowds and too extroverted to belong to the avant-garde. Yet, his inimitable, individualistic surrealism has earned him a defiantly unique cult following who recall his public access show with genuine, if cautionary affection.
Predictably, Zex, and public access in general, posed a considerable threat. Damon Zex first appeared on Columbus’ Public Access Television in 1992 with “Zextalk,” although he had been developing the character since his first live appearances: “Cerebral Cortex Sellout” in 1984, his first video; “GLitznik” in 1987, and a series of music videos which played on Much Music in Toronto. Zex quickly became the forefront figure in public access television, a kind of metaphoric, wild man John the Baptist prophet emerging from the desert to predict the coming of a new gospel that attempted to re-define and distort those fabricated notions of television. Like all new prophets, Damon Zex adhered to a gospel in the most ancient of traditions. John the Baptist evoked Elijah, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky pointed to new languages in music, grounded in origins of Bach and Gesualdo, and Damon Zex was a kindred spirit to innovators such as Georges Melies, Kenneth Anger and Ernie Kovacs.
Zex adheres to a yogic perspective in his art and life so when the attacks came early on, he never responded to personal criticism, but only stepped forward (repeatedly) to defend the genre’s right to use television surrealistically. Zex found himself in the unenviable position of defending aesthetics. It was a losing battle. Damon Zex was attacked for three consecutive days on CNN’s Headline Feed. Since Zex, with an MFA in Multi-Media Performance Art, knew how to defend himself, the Columbus City Council Democrats went after a weaker public access figure, but created a cable advisory commission to deal solely with Damon Zex. Zex had faced the City Council before, so he showed up anyway, defending Public Access as a whole while, to his surprise, his many supporters showed up to defend him. He found himself face to face with a council of old ladies, who employed a type of ideological leftist fascism and right wing fascist resources to launch their attack. The Council felt its mission was to protect “The Status Quo.” Zex, who had sought to transform the art form and dispense with preconceived notions of the medium, found that he and public access in general had upset the sacred banal balance. It became something akin to the infamous “Degenerate Art Show” of Nazi Germany. One can imagine Zex standing before them, a bit like Mahler facing the New York Philharmonic’s Committee of Women. Zex called them New Age Nazis. The ladies wouldn’t touch Zex, but instead proclaimed another public access show “obscene.” The end result was that anyone under 60 was unceremoniously removed.
Public access in Columbus was finally yanked in 2004, but by then it had become a diluted caricature of its former self (the same thing happened to Indianapolis Public Access somewhat earlier). Before all this, Damon Zex had gained a more expansive notoriety which had taken an intentionally surreal course. He had appeared on shows like Howard Stern, Geraldo, and Jerry Springer, moving through the crass commercial media phalanx as an experimental action, which took absurdist theater to a new plateau through post modern conceptual performance art. Since the demise of Columbus Public Access Television, Damon Zex has appeared sporadically on UK ShockVideo, the BBC in England (which airs his “Breakfast with Damon Zex” on Britain’s Channel 4), and continues producing his work, some of which is available on his websites: damonzex.com, zexart.com, checkmatethefilm.com, along with a dvd “best of” here: https://www.createspace.com/280629
It’s unfortunate Public Access television has lost Damon Zex, because poring over his body of work reveals an idiosyncratic personality whose work has refined, and deepened without losing the ability to provoke. Indeed, if anything, his work has become increasingly provocative in its pronounced complexities, minimalism and a stubborn refusal to spoon feed his viewers. Zex’s multi-media work is produced by the aptly named Zexart and Dissonance Cafe.
Zex’s early work was clearly influenced by the onslaught of MTV. He acknowledges this and adds that early MTV inspired to him to create his multi-media works, while later MTV inspired him to quit watching television altogether. This sentiment comes together in Zex’s “‘MTV is Dead!” and was as necessary as Pierre Boulez’s infamous statement of “Schoenberg est mort” (in MTV’s case however, the statement was literally true).
In his approach to his art, Damon Zex has taken Picasso at his word that “great artists steal” and that every work, regardless of subject, is a self portrait. Zex’s absorption of Chaplin, Joseph Beuys, Andre Breton, Peter Sellars, and Ernie Kovacs only touch the surface. A critic once listed at least fifty influences on Picasso’s work. In a rare instance, the brash artist wrote the critic, not to chide him for listing his influences, quite the contrary, but to take him to task him for failing to list Paul Gauguin. Similarly, Zex has no vanity or false artistic pretenses. He will go to extraordinary lengths to discuss his love of other artists. His a refreshing and humble honesty.
Ohio State University students from the 90’s will almost always bring up the inevitable subject of their public access cult hero; Damon Zex and reminisce about their favorite ZexTalk episode.
‘Waking Nightmare” is an earlier, vampire horror parody that begins as a homage to Ed Wood’s “Plan 9 from Outer Space” and Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.” It ends with Zex eating a bloody tampon right out of his vampire girlfriend.
“Breakfast with Damon Zex” finds Zex going through a morning ritual that few are likely to repeat; a bowl of Rice Krispies mixed with a bottle of red wine and consumed until the puking point (and then consumed again).
In “Geek Temple” Zex is a televangelist who explains “God gave Adam and Eve really nice bodies because God liked to watch them f___k. God likes to watch you f__k too. When you love God, God’s s__t tastes good. God’s s__t does not stink. And if you love God, your s__t won’t stink either.” Media Hypnosis, combined with the god of money, abounds and thrives in a conceptually barren dark age.
“Hate-O-Rama” begins with Zex’s “F__K for drugs,” juxtaposed against Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bare Mountain,” then introduces Officer P.P. Piggly, who comes across a a mix between Chaplin’s Keystone Kop, Lenny’s Officer Krupke, and Sgt. Jim from The Blob. Zex then crams in as many “F’ bombs as he can squeeze into 6 minutes and snorts aspirin.
“Drinking and Driving with Damon Zex”, and the early psychedelic, self-titled “Damon Zex” were campus favorites and it’s easy to see why. In his youth, Zex astutely had his aesthetic finger on that proverbially surreal dorm room milieu, but one can indeed imagine the reaction of a random viewer, in the comfort of a quaint suburban home, stumbling upon the likes of Zextalk while channel surfing in Columbus during the 90’s.
As easy as it is to see why Zex was “THE” hip voice crying in the wilderness for Columbus in the 90’s, and as compelling as the films are, it’s almost, despite the tragic circumstances, tempting to say that the abortion of Public Access also freed Damon Zex because since then his films have become much more assured.
Maya Deren once bragged that she made films “for what Hollywood spends on lipstick”. Damon Zex is not given to fanciful illusions and cites the failure of both television and Hollywood where “budget and need for quick return silence any and all levels of experimentation.” Yet, he also remains optimistic and feels that the public at large is inching towards that moment of ecdysis, leaving behind its banal skin.
“Romance in the Park”, at first glance, looks like it’s going to unfold as a silent film styled sequel to the earlier “Waking Nightmare.” The post-film grain effect recalls film in its infancy, circa 1905 through about 1915. Zex pours himself wine on a park bench and then spies girlfriend Tamara Mitchell ,sitting on bench across the way, crossed legs, reading a magazine. Tamara begins to seduce him as she caresses her collar bone. Zex smiles and tongues his wine goblet. After some shared, distant interplay, the two join on Zex’s bench, share wine, sensually caress each other and the two minute film ends with Zex burying himself between her legs. The film ends at exactly the right moment. On paper, it may not sound like there’s much to it, but it’s a sublime piece, replete with Zex’s frequent theme of repressed sexuality, but without the youthful punchline. “Romance in the Park” is filtered through the dream-like quality Bunuel spoke of perfectly captures that inexplicable essence of the erotic subconscious.
“Kundalini Killer” and “Assana Assassin” feature Zex in front of his accomplished pen and ink works, which have an organic, yet frenzied quality, similar to the spirit of Edward Munch, Hieronymus Bosch, and William Blake. These two shorts are symbolically the forefront bookend of five films which reveal Damon Zex at the peak of his powers, a remarkable and highly personal period.
“Killer” and “Assassin” are surreal slithers, glimpses from a nether realm related to Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty.” Zex is in the process of a dark-hued, diaphanous molting. The influences of Chaplin and Peter Sellars have crystallized here and become quite distinct. Sellar’s Dr. Strangelove with the darker Chaplin of Monsieur Verdoux and fascist Hinkle have been duly processed through Damon Zex’s innermost, expressionist psyche.
These two films are yoga voodoo rituals and Zex is on the verge of a brutal act. Both films stem from Zex’s decade long study of yoga. Contrary to the watered down New Age Version Yoga, the practice was considered necessary for the warrior caste, ready to go into battle and take human life. The Kings and Rajas of India all studied yoga to perfect themselves, to cut through distracting illusions and connect with a supreme sense of self. There are, of course, numerous branches of yoga and Kundalini Yoga is a form of the Tantric teachings, which came into existence sometime after 500 A.D. and is based in yoga being an active meditation that utilizes the world, rather than rejecting it.
Damon Zex’s “Kundalini Killer”
In “Kundalini Killer” Zex holds an actual pose where one extends arms and moves perpetually while mentally focusing on a verbal mantra with each inhale and exhale. Zex warns that “if one is not completely centered, one can have side effects of madness from the most extreme Kundalini movements.” In “Killer”, Zex chose the notion of being an assassin, or psychic killer, for yoga, used like western black magic. In the face of all the new age touchy feely peace and tranquility yoga, Zex felt this aspect of yoga to be highly surreal. He expertly gauges just how far to proceed and tempers it with the seasoned knowledge of measured restraint; the result is something far more unsettling than anything he has thus far produced. He is, by turns, whimsical, direct, aloof, revealing, nonchalant, and salts it with a perfectly measured touch of stylized melodrama.
“Assassin” strips this down a further layer. “Yoga is for war” and Zex has wiped off his white face base and what remains is his direct flesh, highlighted only by his penetrating, mascaraed eyes. In contrast to the laying bare of his exposed flesh here, Zex removes a communicative layer and does not speak. Instead, he gives us voice over narration. This was a bold, daring and intelligent, decisive move. This Damon Zex is not about to cave in to overtly indulged, histrionic emoting, the flesh says quite enough. He interacts with and mirrors his own imagery. A cool toned, dada spirituality permeates throughout. The sharp cuts, elongated pauses, extreme penetrative close-ups and dreamy, disturbed horizons are all expertly judged. This is an artistic plateau that can only be reached through a rewarding and struggled process. Re-visiting an earlier work, such as “Zex for President” would be the equivalent of a sojourn back to an early college level creative period.
“Eyeball” and “Mask” are 40 second fluid tapestries that seemingly emanate from a previous unseen action, the equivalent of something akin to a slicing open of palm. They are extreme close-ups of Zex’s eye and face. They work very well within their brevity and appear as horrific miniatures in the Damon Zex oeuvre; surreal and hypnotic transcendental etudes, visual dissonance, almost Webernesque.
When jazz musician John Zorn released his album “The Big Gundown: John Zorn Plays the Music of Ennio Morricone” (which featured Diamanda Galas among it’s cast of characters), Morricone pronounced it a profound and flattering tribute. Morricone tributes were a dime a dozen but what made Zorn’s album so unique was that, in explosively reinterpreting elements of Morricone’s music, Zorn created a startlingly refreshing new work. Damon Zex is a kindred spirit here. By, fragmenting, expanding on, and employing guerrilla aesthetics towards those seminal influences he absorbs, his work goes far beyond something as banal as mere imitation.
After “Television is Watching You,” Damon Zex fell into a creative void. Upon emerging from this, he returned with a 27 minute film, his long laboured manifesto that goes to a realm even beyond “Assana Assassin” and “Kundalini Killer.” This symbolic bookend leads us to CHECKMATE (next week).