Richard Kern’s Fingered (1988) is one of the masterpieces of the Cinema of Transgression movement. With bruising performances by Lydia Lunch, Marty Nation, and Lung Leg, the film scandalized critics and incited protesters to attack screenings. Supervert and Richard Kern have just finished collaborating on a book about death, Who’s Your Death Hero? Here Supervert speaks to Kern about the sex, drugs, and madness that went into the making of Kern’s most notorious film.
There’s an image of Richard Kern that I love but have never seen. It’s Kern introducing Fingered at the 1988 Berlin Film Festival. I’ve read about it and heard the story from the director himself. In the two years since Kern made the film with Lydia Lunch, Fingered had been racking up scandalized reviews. Critics thought it pornographic, vulgar, “viciously degrading fare… that gives the First Amendment a bad name.” The Village Voice called it a “horrible hegira of sex/rape/fists.” Protesters showed up at screenings to pour paint over the projectors or fling it at screens. Kern’s friend Nick Zedd had proposed in the Cinema of Transgression manifesto that filmmakers should “go beyond all limits,” “break all the taboos,” and make films full of “blood, shame, pain and ecstasy.”
Their rebellion came to a head the night Kern climbed the stage at the Zoo Atelier cinema in Berlin. In anticipation of walkouts, Fingered had been put last on the schedule. Kern did not do the usual preamble, thanking his actors or chatting about the travails of production. “Pointing the middle finger of both hands,” Variety reported, Kern “had two words for the audience. The second one was ‘you!'”
Now Kern chuckles about the bad press, vindicated by the fact that the Museum of Modern Art acquired the Super-8 film of Fingered for its archives. “I would get booked to show films,” Kern says during a recent conversation on Zoom, “and they would have no idea what I was going to show. These really straight people would show up. I’d sit backstage and you could see their faces cringing. That happened over and over everywhere I showed it.”
No wonder. Fingered was a cannonball that ripped through the conventions of film and exploded on impact with the viewer’s mind. It was compact, brutal, morally dubious. The performances by Lunch, Marty Nation, and Lung Leg were more than authentic — they were raw, as though the actors did not assume roles so much as reveal damaged psyches. The guerilla production gave rise to iconic images. I recall a friend who used to keep an outtake on the wall over his desk. It showed Lunch, bent over the hood of a car, being assaulted by a handgun. Fingered hurtles along at supersonic speed and, when its 20 minutes is done, you can’t unsee it.
It’s fitting that Kern offered middle fingers to the Berlin Film Festival because it was a fuck-you spirit that gave birth to Fingered. Kern and Lunch had made The Right Side of My Brain in 1985. Critics denounced it as pornographic and misogynistic, in spite of the fact that the film had been Lunch’s idea. Nowadays it might have been “canceled” on social media but instead the condemnation spurred the pair to hit back harder.
“Lydia and I were thinking,” Kern explains, “‘if they want to see porn or misogyny, we’ll show you what that looks like.’ That was the idea, we were just trying to be as offensive as possible.”
Lunch already had a concept for a new film. “Lydia wanted to do another movie and said, ‘I’ve got this guy I used to go out with, Marty Nation. We used to hitchhike around and when people would pick us up we would terrorize them.'” Nation would take out a hunting knife, for example, and laugh while stabbing it into the seats. Lunch’s idea was to channel that aggression into a film, gouging the viewer’s mental upholstery.
“Lydia had a really basic plot that she’s a phone-sex operator. She goes to meet one of her customers [Nation] then they pick up a hitchhiker and brutalize her.”
Fingered hurtles along at supersonic speed and, when its 20 minutes is done, you can’t unsee it.
Fingered is a mutant road movie and, appropriately enough, planning for it took place on the road. Lunch described the idea to Kern in New York then the two of them accompanied J.G. Thirlwell, whom Lunch was dating, on tour with his band Wiseblood. At each show, Kern’s film Submit to Me was screened before Lunch opened.
In San Francisco, Kern had a key insight. “You know when you see previews and the whole movie is in the preview? I saw one for the Gates of Hell. It’s a Lucio Fulci movie, Italian gore director. I thought, ‘This is so great. We can just make Fingered into a trailer. We won’t have to make the rest of the movie because we’ll put it all in the trailer. It’ll be 20 minutes.'”
The tour finished at the Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles on March 19, 1986. Working up the provocativeness they were about to put into Fingered, Kern and Lunch decided to fuck with the audience. “Lydia’s on the tiny little stage,” Kern recalls. “The place is packed. I’m heckling her from the back, saying ‘Get off the stage, you slut!’ She started hollering back at me. We’re going back and forth and Jet [also an actor in Fingered] was up there on the stage as her bodyguard. I came running through the crowd with a knife I rigged up. I’d already rigged up Jet with blood bags and I started stabbing him all over. The whole club just went empty. Instantly.”
Finished with the tour, the group — Kern, Lunch, Thirlwell, and Kern’s girlfriend, Audrey Rose, who assisted during the film shoot — gathered at a house off Fairfax Avenue. Lung Leg arrived on a flight from New York. “I don’t know how she got it on the plane,” Kern recalls, “but she arrived with this jar of crickets. She always had these weird animals. David Wojnarowicz said that when he first met Lung she was at a gallery carrying around a toad that she was going to sacrifice in a movie. If you’ve seen the shot I took of her with a salamander on her face, I mean, she came to my house one day and said, ‘Look, I’ve got these salamanders.’ I just said, ‘Let’s take a picture.'”
Kern also operated the camera for a film Lung Leg wanted to make, aptly called Worm Movie. You can find it on YouTube, presuming you want to see an attractive young woman putting a live worm in her mouth and sucking on it as though it’s a string of spaghetti. The crickets, however, did not end up in Fingered. Lung Leg released them in the place they were staying.
“The guy who owned the house said at night it was just like” — Kern makes cricket sounds with his mouth. The crew was thrown out and Lunch scrambled to find them other accommodations. Lung Leg was stowed by herself in an empty loft in downtown LA.
The last bit of preproduction to fall into place was pharmaceutical in nature. “Jim [Thirlwell] did a lot of acid at that time. Lydia smoked pot. I would do whatever because I was always detoxing from heroin. I would leave New York thinking, ‘This will be so easy, I’ll just detox,’ but then I’d be detoxing the whole way.”
Nation, who owned a hair salon in Venice Beach, realized Kern “was jonesing. He gave me this humongous bag of coke. That’s what the whole movie was — I was coked up the whole time.”
Taking the edge off heroin withdrawal with cocaine sounds brutal. “I was younger and more durable,” Kern says. “Just being in LA, not being in New York, was liberating. When you’re on some project you just get rolling and you don’t really notice it. Where I did notice it was in the edit room. I still had a bunch of that coke left so I was doing it in the edit room.” I ask Kern if he thinks the drugs had any impact on what he brought to the film as a director. He grins. “It’s one of those movies made under the influence, like those 1970s rock-n-roll tours.”
Principal photography took place during the last week of March, 1986. There was a basic outline but no script. “I was thinking of all these grandiose scenes but everything had to get toned down as we were shooting with no budget,” said Kern.
Lunch insisted that Nation not meet Lung Leg in person until her scenes so they left her alone in the loft while they shot around southern California.
“We laid out all these locations and who we were going to meet each day. I would tell Lydia, ‘OK, we’re gonna shoot these scenes tomorrow.’ She and Marty would go off that night and work out the dialogue. Tons of it was improvised but they pretty much worked out all that back and forth. They talk like that to each other anyway.” Because Nation lived in LA, he recommended many of the locations. The sex scene early in the film was shot at his salon in Venice Beach. The Snake Pit, where Nation stabs a weightlifter, had been his childhood home.
“It was right down the road from the Manson Family [at Spahn Ranch],” Kern says. “That made it special to me.” Nation, who went to school with the brother of Manson follower Nancy Pitman, could remember the Family’s black school bus parking in his driveway.
Taking the edge off heroin withdrawal with cocaine sounds brutal. “I was younger and more durable,” Kern says.
Most of the scenes were shot in one take, which put the actors into a gonzo mood. When Lunch and Nation race away from the Snake Pit, Pete Haskell improvised one of the film’s many memorable images. He grabbed the front bumper of the car as it reversed and allowed it to drag him out the driveway.
“He did that on the spur of the moment. He didn’t say anything, he just did it. That really made that scene.” The actors, Kern continues, “were just playing themselves” but their lurid roles impelled them to crank up the volume. The bag of coke and the atmosphere of aggression intensified matters to the point where the difficulty was not to get into character but to get out of it. Sometimes the frenzied action continued off camera.
“Pete had been hitting on Audrey, my girlfriend. At the end of his scene, I said something to him about it. He just picked me up and threw me against the wall. He was a scary guy when he was riled up.” Perhaps it was not entirely a surprise that Haskell came to a sad end. The 6-foot-2 veteran of the LA punk scene, “a really wasted dude” according to Kern, was murdered during an altercation with a roommate in 2008. “Those are the kinds of people they were,” Kern concludes.
The cinéma vérité quality of the acting extended to the onscreen sex. The film shared a problem with porn productions. How you get an actor hard for a scene? Porn has “fluffers.” Fingered had Lunch. “When Lydia’s talking to Marty on the phone,” Kern recalls, “we were shooting in a garage. I’m crouching down with the camera. Over there behind a tool cabinet I can hear Lydia. She’s got Audrey on the floor and I can hear her going, ‘Yeah, you like that, don’t you?’ She was doing shit to Audrey so Marty could get a hard-on.”
Among the outtakes that Kern shared with me, there is one I find particularly fascinating. The scene begins with Rose holding up the slate — scene 2, take 11, roll 13 — in front of Lunch’s spread legs. Several of Nation’s fingers are parked inside her as they wait for the snap of the slate. The outtake simultaneously captures the actuality and the artifice of what a critic called the “gaggingly real” sex in the film. Those sex acts happened but they were staged, contrived, directed. They were real but they were art.
In the finished scene, Nation pounds at Lunch’s crotch so savagely that it looks like he’s punching her in the vagina. I ask Kern about the film’s title. An inventory of its sex acts shows a distinct lack of the vanilla. There’s phone sex, masturbation, oral, anal, penetration with a foreign object, rape. Why was fingering chosen to represent the whole film?
“I didn’t pick the title,” Kern says. “Lydia called me up one day and goes, ‘I’ve got the title — Fingered.'” The two of them liked the double meanings — beating off, identifying a person to the police, giving somebody the finger. Also, Kern admits, “it sounded like porn.” It fit their strategy of one-upping the X-rated. Attracted by the title, a man might pick up the film only to have his salacious expectations cruelly subverted.
Kern says, “I can’t see jerking off — which is my definition of porn — to the sex scenes in there. No way. All the movies I made back then including in particular Fingered were geared to make you feel weird about sex.” That was the whole idea — not to get people to fuck but to fuck with their minds.
The gun scene is the pivotal moment in the film’s twisted psychology. Nation and Lunch bicker. He pulls to the side of the road, bends Lunch over a fender, assaults her with a handgun, sets the weapon on the hood then takes her from behind. Lunch picks up the gun. When you watch this, you’re not quite sure what she will do. It would be logical for her to threaten or shoot Nation. Instead she fires the gun into the air as he’s fucking her. At that moment you realize that Lunch is complicit, that she is aroused by the violence.
“That was a dream I had about another girl while I was out there,” Kern says. “I thought, ‘This would be great in a movie.'” Just as the acting was real, so too was the gun. But even though the scene was Kern’s idea, it says something about Lunch and what she was putting into her role.
“If you know anything about Lydia,” Kern suggests, “she’ll say straight up that that’s the kind of guy she is interested in.”
All the movies I made back then including in particular Fingered were geared to make you feel weird about sex.
Lunch writes about the psychology of it in her book Paradoxia. “I’ve always sided with the bad guys… I was merely trying to kill the woman inside myself, that part of me that had borne the brunt of prolonged incest, whose unresolved pain had manifested itself in sadism, pedophilia, and nymphomania.”
It becomes clear after the gun scene that Lunch, the victim, is also the victimizer. When she and Nation pick up a hitchhiker, Lung Leg, and assault her, it leaves the viewer feeling that a line has been crossed. It’s one thing for Lunch’s masochism to seem real. It’s another for Lung Leg’s terror to be so real. While the others were shooting, Kern explains, Lung Leg spent the week at the loft downtown.
“Lung stayed there by herself and did acid the whole time. Lydia was adamant that we keep her in the dark so the assault would be real looking. Marty didn’t meet her till the day we were shooting.” Kern’s voice lowers. “I felt guilty after he was beating her up. I think it was really traumatic for Lung. In the film when she says, ‘I live downtown’ and ‘I just want to get out of here’ what she meant was she wanted to get away from us — the whole bunch of us.”
In the one published interview with Lung Leg, she confirms that the film wasn’t a great experience for her. “I was really taken for a ride in this movie… Unfortunately there was no script, if I had seen the script I wouldn’t have had anything to do with it.”
And yet it’s a great film. Does the end justify the means? The very fact that you have to pose yourself the question adds to the film’s power. It is brutal not just for what it depicts but for the self-interrogation it demands.
Kern originally planned a different ending for Fingered. “The way I imagined it was that it would be night and they were getting chased through the woods by the sheriff’s department. There would be lights flashing all through the woods. But I started thinking, ‘How am I going to shoot at night in some woods?'”
It would have been a great scene but difficult to pull off with Super-8. Instead, the sound man, Tony Coke, whom Kern calls “the unsung hero of the movie,” hollers from off-screen, “LA County Sheriff. Freeze!” It might suggest that Lunch and Nation get their just desserts but there is something about Lunch’s body language in the scene that always gives me doubts. It’s the only moment in the film when she looks unsure of herself, vulnerable. Is she afraid? Or is this a new act she puts on to manipulate the sheriffs? It reminds me of an episode in Paradoxia where Lunch describes two cops chasing her down the street for shoplifting. Once they reach her, she flirts with them, hikes up her skirt, shows that the abstract power of the law pales before the concrete appeal of pussy. One of the cops slips her his phone number and she skips away to the subway. I imagine the denouement to Fingered the same — Nation gets the handcuffs while Lunch plays up to the cops and flirts her way to freedom.
When the shoot ended, Lunch and Nation went to the desert together to shake off their characters. Kern had plane tickets back to New York but the week left him hard up. “I was completely broke. I had just enough money to buy a big jar of peanut butter. That’s what we ate for two days until we got back to New York.”
I was really taken for a ride in this movie… Unfortunately there was no script, if I had seen the script I wouldn’t have had anything to do with it.
When I point out that he could have sold off some of the coke, Kern looks at me as though I’m crazy. “Are you kidding? That was free.” Back in New York, Kern edited the film and worked with Thirlwell on the soundtrack, manipulating sounds on a tape recorder and adding the Hank Williams song to the Snake Pit scene.
On a recent episode of her podcast, The Lydian Spin, Lunch described her reaction to the finished film. “When I first saw Fingered, I told Kern, ‘It’s not intense enough.’ Because I had lived it. I’m like, ‘It’s too soft.’ His mouth dropped open.” Kern vividly remembers the moment. “Yeah, she thought it wasn’t hard enough. I said, ‘Well, I think it’s pretty good and there’s not much we can do about it now. We’ve already finished it.'” The film premiered at the Cat Club in New York on July 6, 1986. Lunch introduced it with an 8-minute tirade about fucking. After the screening, Wiseblood performed tracks from its forthcoming album Dirtdish.
Ironically, that same month saw the publication of The Meese Report, an alarmist government study that positioned pornography as a sort of red menace for the 1980s. Lunch and Kern’s attempt to out-porn porn landed like a bomb in the “family values” conservatism of the Ronald Reagan years. The scathing reviews and the hate mail rolled in.
“The reputation started preceding the film,” Kern says. “It would get all blown out of proportion. Screenings were closed. I went around scared to death half the time not knowing what was going to happen.” SST Records, who considered distributing Fingered, got cold feet. “I was pretty excited about this ’cause at the time I was a huge fan of Black Flag and the SST label. When BF was touring, they came by my apartment on East 13th. They had already designed the VHS tape cover, posters, etc, and we had gone back and forth on a contract. Greg Ginn and Chuck Dukowski sat in my bedroom watching the film. Within ten minutes Greg Ginn gets up, says ‘We aren’t releasing this,’ and walked out.” It was a blessing in disguise given SST’s financial problems and notorious inability to pay royalties.
Kern points out that he and Lunch sought inspiration for Fingered in exploitation films, particularly John Landis’ 1963 movie The Sadist. Russ Meyer was also a major influence. “When I saw his movies I was like, ‘Wow, this guy just took a camera and shot all this stuff himself.’ I couldn’t believe one guy could go ahead and make a movie that is so fucking weird.” Now Kern is the same influence to college students that Russ Meyer was to him. They write to tell him, “We have Fingered parties at my dorm and everybody has to take a swig of beer whenever someone in the film says ‘fuck'” — which is a lot. The film must have the highest fuck-to-frame ratio in the history of the medium.
“I was trying with Fingered,” Kern reflects, “to be like, ‘You think that’s bad? I’ll show you bad.’ I was trying to make stuff that was as shocking and as badass as possible, even though I wasn’t a badass. I’d learned a lot from Beth B and John Waters. Beth B told me the quickest way to get noticed is just to be shocking.” Fingered may pinch a nerve but it clearly transcended its sources. The film canisters now sit in the Film Library at the Museum of Modern Art alongside works by masters ranging from D.W. Griffith to Andy Warhol. Fingered is not a pulp or genre movie. It’s one of the greats.
Supervert is the assumed name of a writer who uses the techniques of vanguard aesthetics to explore novel sexual pathologies. Supervert’s books include Extraterrestrial Sex Fetish, Necrophilia Variations, Perversity Think Tank, Post-Depravity, and Apocalypse Burlesque. His latest, a collaboration with Richard Kern, is titled Who’s Your Death Hero?
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