Jahr 1993


Film Threat Video Guide


#8 of 1993


 Mastering Machines, Meat & Movies


  Words: David E. Williams




Dieses Interview erschien in mindestens zwei weitere Magazinen:

Headpress und Film Threat Video von 1995



A Trail of agony from survival research laboratories to Nine Inch Nails

Filmmaker Jonathan Reiss forges ahead in his celluloid investigations of twisted metal, fragile flesh and plenty of well-placed subversion.

By David E. Williams


Through Vaughn I discovered the true significance of the automobile crash, the meaning of whiplash injuries and roll-over, the ecstasies of head-on collisions. Together we visited the Road Research Laboratory twenty miles to the west of London, and watched the calibrated vehicles crashing into concrete target blocks. Later, in his apartment, Vaughn screened slow-motion films of test calibrations that he had photographed with his cine-camera.

- from Crash, by J.G. Bailard


Despite whatever public perception has evolved around Jonathan Reiss‘ video and film work, he‘s a pretty normal guy. Sure, his office is decorated with blessed Tibetan skulls, glass cases filled with hideous insects and shelves laden with serial killer documentation (plus a nearly complete collection of Ballard first editions ) -but whose isn‘t these days?

So how does such a seemly average Jon, the product of a middle class upbringing and a UCLA education, devise a machines-only world in which steel-framed and bone-encrusted inhabitants cavort amidst tar-seeping walls? A viciously automated torture chair bent on literally devouring its occupants? A fetish dungeon populated by leather-clad vixens wielding cat ‘o nine tails against bare male flesh and piercing erect nipples with hypoderm-mic needles?


“I tried to get a hold of him for months!“ explained Reiss one afternoon, tooling his fashionably battered Dodge Dart through mid-day Los Angeles traffic. “Richard Kern was one person who knew how to self-distribute his films to a specific audience and I knew that same audience would be interested in the work I was doing with SRL, especially Bitter Message - but I never got the information Out of him.“ Pulling into a restaurant parking lot, Reiss added, “But that was years ago. We did it without him.“

And from the following conversation, it became obvious that the fiercely independent attitude that drove Reiss over the last ten years had not diminished - but intensified.

By 1981 Reiss had already cut his teeth producing, shooting and editing dozens of live concert videos as a part of Joe Rees‘ infamous Target Video organization (story p. 67). A sort of punk media collective, the grass-roots San Francisco group documented literally hundreds of bands and artists.

Included were The Dead Kennedys, Lydia Lunch with Teen-Age Jesus and the Jerks and early SRL performances featuring a bespectacled Mark Pauline toying with his then-crude mechanical creations - which Reiss, Rees and Pauline edited into Seven Machine Performances (1982), the first SRL video release through Target.

“So I became more involved with Joe on the next videos [A Scenic Harvest From The Kingdom of Pain (1984) and The Virtues of Negative Fascination (1986)],“ Reiss says. “I already had interest in the kinds of things Mark was exploring in his first shows - the effects of technology on society and power relationships - but the prospect of taking elements from them and recombining them with video was something else. We could redefine the events and emphasize specifics by removing extraneous material. That was a big part of what we were doing at Target anyways, but with music. Also, the SRL performances were very political without relying on words or lyrics - much more visual, so I felt there was a lot to work with and a lot of different aspects to the machines, other than just documenting the shows, that could be further explored. Using them in my film Baited Trap [in 19861 as these nightmarish dream figures was part of that idea.

“Of course none of the SRL performance tapes are documentaries - even the first [ Seven Machine Performances], which is relatively simplistic - but they present an essence of what it was like to be there. They work as a horror film might, in that you get the experience of terror without the physical danger.“

At least for the audience at home.

Leaving Target, Reiss focused on the development of an autonomous video division of SRL, attempting to redefine each successive video by success fully producing broadcast quality programming (The Will to Provoke in 1988) and, ultimately, a machine “purist“ scenario devoid of human presence or meaning - resulting in the machines-only short A Bitter Message of Hopeless Grief (1988).

That decade of subsisting on his wits and personal deficit spending turned this self-described “white boy from the suburbs born with every advantage“ into someone aware of the importance of filmmaking‘s dark side - business.

During the production of the triptych video document The Pleasures of Uninhibited Excess (1990), Reiss realized his direct association with SRL was coming to a close - with creative differences with Pauline and Reiss growing interest in doing feature film work hastening the split.

“I’d done most everything I wanted to with SRL, and while I‘d certainly consider future projects with Mark, it was time to do something else,“ the filmmaker explains diplomatically.

I first met Reiss while trying to secure video distribution rights to Bitter Message - and his other SRL related titles - which had never really been released in any organized manner outside of mail-order through SRL. To my dismay, Rick Rubin‘s iconoclastic Def American record label bad decided to dabble in video and tied up the entire SRL catalog. At the time, Reiss himself was tied up with problems regarding the fate of his first feature, Love Is Like That. Directed by his wife, Jill Goldman, the entertainingly bizarre romantic comedy (starring Tom Sizemore and Pamela Gidley) had fallen into a distribution hell it has yet to escape.

I was contacted some months later by a record company PR rep, who was seeking a director for an industrial strength, Nine Inch Nails music video. She explained that metals-specialist Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man) had been the first choice, but was unavailable - then off helming Tetsuo II: The Body Hammer - and wondered if I knew anyone of similar interests.

I quickly found pimping to be a natural talent - though I didn‘t tell Reiss he was a second choice.


The resulting video, for the tune “Happiness In Slavery“ from NIN‘s it-took-fucking-forever-and-only-has-six-songs EP Broken, took shape in a ware house near beautiful downtown Burbank over a perilously hot three days. But for some, the dry heat was only a secondary discomfort.

A masochist‘s ultimate fantasy, Reiss‘ Slavery premise offers a man consumed by ritualistic self-abuse - obsessed with the prospect of having a tormentor who will not listen to his shrieks of pain or cries for pity. The result was ‘The Chair,“ Slavery‘s brutally automated antagonist. Though it appears to be the manifestation of a Nazi dentist‘s wet dream, it‘s actually the product of Michael Burnett Productions, a local effects company responsible for the latex-built carnage in such Hollywood tripe as Universal Soldier. Powered by high pressure air lines, the contraption boasts multiple spiderlike arms wielding spinning blades, three-pronged pincers and gouging drills. The Chair is a torture device completely in tune for the 90s: High-tech yet malignantly Medieval. Like some La-Z-Boy Terminator, it will not stop until it completes its task - one that Reiss‘ storyboards have outlined in graphic, black-and-white detail. Let‘s just say that this clash of flesh and steel has the expected out come - times ten - as servomorors beat out muscle and bone again.

Performance artist/actor Bob Flannigan, who lay strapped within the steel and leather confines of The Chair, is nude - save for some smears and chunks of special makeup posing as bloody bits of skin and flesh. Flannigan is one of the few people on set who isn‘t sticky with sweat - just crimson-stained Karo syrup.

“The penis should be pointed down,“ Reiss explains clinically, circling The Chair and the MBP makeup artists working on Flannigan. “Otherwise it would appear that he was erect, and that wouldn‘t be correct for this shot.“

Yeah, as if a horrifically tortured man smeared with gore should have an erection in any shot.

Eyes searching for a pair of already “blood“ -stained hands to perform his obvious bidding, it‘s soon apparent to Reiss that the supposedly unshakable gore gurus aren‘t up to the task of repositioning the nonthreatening extremity. Out of the shadows appears Flannigan‘s girlfriend, Sheree Rose, to perform the dirty deed - much to the relief of the squeamish crew.


Directly inspired by Octave Mirbeau‘s 1899-penned, long-banned erotigore novel The Torture Garden -in which twisted desires play out against the backdrop of a Chinese garden where torture is practiced as an art form - the Slavery set features a small plot of tangled greenery surrounding The Chair. Two PAs will spend the following 48 hours trying to keep the array of vegetation alive, but it‘ll be worth it if only for the sake of the inherently sick joke attached. You see, within the context of the film, the plants feed on the blood and greasy spoils of processed Chair inhabitants - which are delivered via a metallic “asshole“ installed behind the machine‘s pedestal.

Like some annex to the Bitter Message machine world, the set similarly boasts a dirt floor, canvas coated surfaces and meter-long seeps of tar emanating from the walls. As designed by Liz Young, who not-coincidently art directed Message, the place seems like a natural habitat to Reiss, who jokes with the crew adjusting The Chair‘s power-recliner mechanism. Meanwhile NIN‘s Trent Reznor wanders about, videotaping the day‘s gruesome events.

“I‘d just suggest that we see some more meaty chunks come out, like more of a stream,“ Reznor comments after watching the MBP team force feed a choice mix of cow brains, foam latex and assorted gore through the sphincter-like orifice, eliciting nervously ghoulish laughs from the crew and retching sounds from several vegetarian-looking PAs. Pausing to watch another take on a video monitor, he confesses, “This is really amazing, I mean, the only other videos we‘ve done have been these little Super 8 jobs. But this - this is really happening.“

From the person who transformed a notorious living room in a certain house on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood hills into his recording studio - complete with a decorative American flag - Reznor‘s thrill over the afternoon‘s events bordered on irony.

The guts are run through the sphincter again and, much to every one‘s disgust, they have reached that magically realistic consistency; oozing out with a seriously gross splat. Satisfied, Reiss and others begin dressing the set with massive night crawlers - huge, slimy ones that immediately begin burrowing into the garden‘s soft brown soil and the even softer pile of glistening offal.

“Pretty glamorous, huh?“ says Reiss jovially with worm in hand as director of photography Gary Tieche captures the annelids on film with his wind-up Bell & Howell camera. Tieche is a guy of Clint Eastwood-like stature and vocalness who obviously prefers to communicate with his camera. He just smiles, peering into his eyepiece to see the magnified bait-worms twist amidst the blood, brains and blossoms.


Flannigan‘s chest heaves spasmodically as he battles a coughing fit brought on by his cystic fibrosis. Fortunately, the actor‘s real-life obsession with confinement as sexual gratification uniquely qualifies him for the role - making the situation less a torture than a personal challenge. He relates the experience to an old cartoon he bad seen as a child. Entitled Pigs Is Pigs (Warner Bros., 1938), the toon featured an automated chair that force fed its subject - an image that stayed with Flannigan, brewing seductively in the back of his mind as an early influence on his S&M lifestyle.

“I‘ve always had this erotic thing about force-feeding and being strapped to chairs, so this cartoon was always major for me,“ Flannigan later explained. “Years later, I acquired a copy and it was all there, just like I’d remembered it. So here I was, living out my fantasy.

“I don‘t know that Jon [Reiss] had ever seen the cartoon, I hadn‘t even told him about it until after I read the script, but he had seen a show I’d done a few years ago at a publication party for the Re/Search book Modern Primitives. In it, I was strapped to a chair and had all these clothespins attached to my body. They were attached by wires to a system of weights that would pull them off in order over time. Through osmosis, I think Jon picked up some elements of that, but it‘s really amazing how it would all come together in the video.

“I‘ve always liked the idea of machines doing something to me -  submitting to your fate. I‘ve also always been interested in time-based autoerotic sadomasochistic events for pleasure. Whether it be clothespins attached to me with dripping water filling a container, building up enough weight to pull it off, or locking myself up in handcuffs and waiting for a block of ice with the key inside to melt so I can get out - they‘re all mechanical things I have no control over. The Chair is exactly like that, but it‘s the ultimate. It‘s a suicidal final act. It‘s programmed to do certain things without even a person there to appeal to - you‘ve made the decision to be there.“

Of course one fundamental difference between the activities depicted in the Slavery video and Flannigan‘s S&M expertise is that the experience is inherently false, without real danger or pain.

“It wasn‘t a turn on,“ Flannigan admits. “With the crew, the fact that filmmaking demands you to break events into tiny segments - but it was an act that mirrored some real feelings and experiences. I think I scared some people on the set because I could imagine what it would be like to have metal claws tearing at my flesh - I could imagine that pain and and perform appropriately. It was fun to see their reactions - that was real.“

Since completing Slavery, Flannigan (also the subject of an upcoming Re/Search profile) has put this ability to work by acting in director Michael Tolkin‘s feature, New Age. In it, Flannigan graphically demonstrates his affinity for pain with a bed of nails.


The MBP team of Luke Khanlian and Dave Doupis are still dabbing Flannigan with faux gore of gelatin, mashed bananas and food coloring - promising Reiss that ten more minutes would ensure their work‘s authenticity. The director relents. After years of documenting live SRL shows with combat photography techniques that often put his crew and collaborators in the midst of barely controllable, flame belching, metal behemoths bent on destroying one another, Reiss appreciates the relative safety of “makeup effects“ as opposed to bodily harm.

A crewperson mutters that they feel as if they are working on a snuff film. In an abstract sense, they are - making Reiss‘ calm professionalism and smiles seem even more curious. But the feeling prompts others to take drastic measures.

One hulking production member confronts me in the bathroom, demanding that I give him the film in my camera. He claims that he‘d been caught in several of the shots I‘d taken of the set and that he couldn‘t allow people to know that he had been associated with such a heinous project. Fortunately, he wasn‘t a complete idiot and relented to my careful rebuttal -  asking only that I send the negatives and any prints including his ugly mug to a certain Van Nuys address, presumably for a hasty destruction. No problem, I lied, realizing it was time to leave.


As finished, Happiness In Slavery is at best reprehensible and repellent, garnering strong reaction from all who see it. Entertainment trade papers ran reports about it being a hit among record execs and those few civilians lucky enough not to rely solely on the panty-waists at MTV for access to new music - as the FCC regulations-less cable channel is apparently too preoccupied with the oh-so-alternative likes of Aerosmith to make room for the clip. Most entertainingly, a friend tormented director Oliver Stone with a copy - prompting him to run about the office clutching his genitals while demanding that it be turned off.

Keeping in contact with Reiss in connection to this story, I last saw him peering into a video monitor while working on a video for the Gothic-metal group Danzig - which followed clips for the groups Mindbomb and Proper Grounds. In one scene, a woman encased in a patent leather corset tortures a cadre of men with a whip, her stiletto heels and plenty of harsh looks. She appears to have the sadistic gusto of a professional.

Turning to me, Reiss pointed at the dominatrix and said, ‘That‘s my wife, Jill. Did you recognize her?“

Somewhat shocked, I adrnitted I hadn‘t.

“She really got into the role, but now every body probably thinks we‘re into that stuff -  like we have this complete subterranean room at home full of bondage gear.“

Yeah, right next to the blessed Tibetan skull collection.