David Wojnarowicz 1954-1992
You Killed Me First, excerpt (1985)
Duration: 4'20" minutes
House of Self-Indulgence
Having just watched You Killed Me First from start to finish for the very first time, I would like to get into the mindset of Elizabeth (Lung Leg), or, I should say, "Cassandra," the sullen teen at the centre of this Richard Kern-directed slice/slab/piece of so-called "transgressive cinema." If you thought it was easy for me to identify with Cassandra, you would be wrong. Sure, I saw a lot of myself in Lung Leg's portrayal of alienated youth; hanging around my room all day listening to Wiseblood's "Motorslug," destroying my clothes (i.e. making them "cooler"), and acting like a total brat at the dinner table. But I'm not that person anymore. What's shocking is, how much I identified with Karen Finley as Cassandra's mother. It's true, I mostly envied the fact that David Wojnarowicz (Cassandra's dad) got to plow into Karen Finley's vagina with his penis on a regular basis (whether that "basis" was semi-regular or not is still open to debate). Yet, part of me empathized with her motherly distress.
Will wonders never cease? I just remembered the reason I started off on that tangent about Thanksgiving: You Killed Me First begins and ends on Thanksgiving. Yeah, yeah, they don't actually mention the t-word, but it's clear, judging by the large turkey on the table, that it's Thanksgiving. Anyway, what we see in-between these dinner scenes is some of the best teen angst ever to be captured on film.
Speaking of teen angst, remember how sad you felt when you heard that My So-Called Life had been cancelled? No? Well, I do. And the acerbic tone Richard Kern strikes in this film is the direction I would have liked to have seen My So-Called Life take if Angela Chase and the gang had made it to season two. Come to think of it, My So-Called Life and You Killed Me First already have a lot in common. Just replace Claire Danes' flannel-heavy get-up with a torn Scrapping Foetus Off The Wheel t-shirt, and you're already two-thirds of the way there.
"Lately, I can't even look at my mother without wanting to stab her repeatedly." ~ Angela Chase
Upon further inspection, it would seem that the Thanksgiving dinner from Hell that opens You Killed Me First is the same dinner that closes the film. How do I know this? Well, for one thing, all the actors are wearing the same clothes. And secondly, what occurs after Lung Leg's incoherent rant is an extended flashback sequence that tries to explain how we ended up in this sticky diaphragm of a situation.
Sitting down for turkey dinner on Thanksgiving, mom (Karen Finley) and dad (David Wojnarowicz) seem worried about their daughter Elizabeth (Lung Leg), who is constantly dropping her fork on the floor. On the other hand, their other daughter, Deborah (Jessica Craig-Martin) is a model of Ronald Reagan-approved docility. Asking her if she washed her hands, Elizabeth answers by saying, "fuck no." I like this chick already. When the topic shifts to Elizabeth's boyfriend, her father starts throwing around words such as "scum" and "slime."
Just as her mom is about to lose it (the lovely Karen Finley rocks when it comes to losing it at the dinner table), Lung Leg launches into this long tirade. Her piercing eyes filled anger, Lung Leg tells her parents how much she really hates them. As she's about to finish her diatribe, we go back to a, now, I don't want to say "happier time," let's just say, a different time. Doing what most teenage girls did in 1985, Elizabeth plays with her puppets while listening to industrial music.
It's when Elizabeth introduces her shady-looking boyfriend to her parents that we learn that she wants to, from now on, to be called "Cassandra."
You gotta love the scene where Karen Finley gives Lung Leg a haircut. Telling Elizabeth that she's giving her "the wind swept look," the kind you see in "Mademoiselle Magazine." She also calls it "the new wave look," and compares it to the hairdo Liza Minnelli sported at the time. Of course, Elizabeth/Cassandra does not approve of this. Which, I have to admit, I didn't quite understand. I mean, who doesn't want to look like Liza Minnelli?!?
Things continue to go downhill when Karen Finley buys Lung Leg a sweater at the local shopping centre. As expected, Lung Leg is horrified by this shitty garment. But get this, Karen tells her that she bought the cheapest one because she knew that she would probably end up ripping it up and writing "fucker anarchy" all over it. Awesome, eh? I wouldn't have guessed it, but Karen Finley is a cool mom.
Now, normally this is where I would declare the hair cutting and sweater buying scenes to be my favourite parts of the movie. But I can't do that. Not when there's a scene in the film where Karen Finley wears black stockings while being fucked from behind.
After a series of scenes that involve praying (Karen Finley in a pink dress), mock gun play (foreshadowing, baby), dead bunny rabbits, puking puppets, and art criticism (Karen Finley in a red dress), we're back where we started, the dinner table.
Spoiler alert: Shouting, "My name is Cassandra! You killed me first!" Lung Leg shoots Karen Finley in the head. This may sound like hyperbole, but I'm declaring Karen Finley's death in You Killed Me First to be the best movie death in film history. Why? The way she screams (which is complimented by some subtle arterial spray), pauses for a second, then violently rocks back and forth a couple of times (she almost falls out of her chair), before finally expiring was inspirational; I get goosebumps and half-moist just thinking about it. Call me a sick twist, but I could watch Karen Finley's death scene in You Killed Me First over and over again.
David Wojnarowicz in UbuWeb Sound