The Free Will and Testament of Zoë Lund

Film/Video Features
The Free Will and Testament of Zoë Lund
Feb 1, 2001, 12:52

When rumors of the untimely death of actress/writer Zoë Lund began to circulate in May of 1999 they were initially met with disbelief by those who knew of her from the films Ms. 45 and Bad Lieutenant. Surely a death notice more authoritative than the words “Zoë Lund 1962-1999” recently placed next to her photo at the Anthology Film Archives theatre in New York City was necessary if the public were to accept the reports. The foremost reason for disbelief in the rumors of her death, however, was the improbability that a woman whose life work had been associated with revolution, activism, and commitment would depart with such a whisper. Zoë died of heart failure on April 16,1999 in Paris, France, but there has been no public recognition as of yet save for a few earnest tributes that appeared on Internet message boards and a memorial tribute in Manhattan organized by Zoë's estranged husband, Robert Lund.

Born on February 9, 1962 in New York City, Zoë was a bright student with an inclination toward activism that manifested itself early on with her involvement in a student liberation organization. At the age of seventeen, two years after her own liberation from school, she became the personal assistant to Edouard (Yves) de Laurot, a filmmaker and critic with a history of political activism dating back to 1939, Warsaw, Poland. Zoë's first professional work was accredited to her birth name, Zoë Tamerlis, though in later years she was also known as Zoë Tamerlaine, Zoë Tamerlaine-Lund or Zoë Lund.

Zoë bore a prodigious talent for musical composition but felt that cinema offered a better medium for conveying ideas of importance. Though she harbored no aspirations of becoming an actress, at the age of eighteen she accepted the starring role in Abel Ferrara's second film, Ms.45. The film depicts the story of a mute garment worker who seeks retribution after being brutally raped twice in one day. As an act of survival, Zoë's character, Thana, bludgeons an attacker to death with an iron and takes possession of his .45 caliber handgun. Once armed, Thana is transformed into the Angel of Vengeance. Her newly adopted sensual appearance attracts a succession of men who are swiftly eliminated as they cross her path.

Given the minimal script and constant screen presence of Thana, Zoë was allowed a great deal of freedom in the formation of her role and hence played a large part in the consequence of the entire film. To play a character who is incapable of speaking, Zoë relied solely upon facial expressions and physical appearance to convey Thana's emotions as they metamorphosed from frustration to fury. The films sexual politics and strong female protagonist earned Ms. 45 a cult following among feminists but Zoë stressed that it was no more about women's liberation then it was about a mute's liberation, worker's liberation, or the liberation of any individual.

In the years following Ms. 45 Zoë appeared in a number of films. As the female lead in Special Effects, (1984, dir. Larry Cohen), she played the dual roles of an aspiring actress whose murder at the hand of her director is captured on film, and a lookalike whom the director hires in an attempt to complete a film which incorporates the original murder footage. She can also be seen in Exquisite Corpses (1989, dir. Temistocles Lopez), The Houseguest (1987, dir. Franz Harland), and a 1985 episode of the television show Miami Vice. Zoë also appeared alongside William Burroughs, David Byrne, Ann Magnuson, Sandra Bernhard, and others in Heavy Petting (1985, dir. Obie Benz), a documentary in which the cast members recollect their early sexual experiences.

In 1992 Lund once again paired up with Abel Ferrara in what may be her most celebrated project, the film Bad Lieutenant. In addition to playing the role of a junkie who administers a shot of heroin to the Lieutenant (Harvey Keitel), Lund was fully responsible for the writing of the film's script. The audience is meant to interpret the film as a modern-day Christ story. Bad Lieutenant tracks the sordid actions of a Manhattan cop as his life circles downward in a flurry of drinking, drug intake, excessive gambling, and sexual degradation.

Fully aware that his misguided soul has veered off track and in search of a locus for his reformation, the Lieutenant seeks redemption by submerging himself in the investigation of a criminal case. A nun was raped and tortured in a Harlem church and after the sister confesses that she is unwilling to turn in her attackers because she has already forgiven them, he vows to hunt the rapists himself. The Lieutenant succeeds in capturing the perpetrators of the crime but, in an unexpected turn of events, avails himself of the principles of forgiveness by performing an act of responsibility that ultimately seals his demise. Ferrara has been quoted as saying that the screenwriter whom he normally partnered with, Nicholas St. John, turned down the project as “he wasn't into the ‘asking questions' type of filmmaking.” The thrust of Lund's script is the search for the answer to the question “How much forgiveness must one give?”

In the late '80s, prior to Bad Lieutenant, Zoë set aside her acting and modeling careers to concentrate on writing. Other than Bad Lieutenant, none of the projects she worked on were to reach their final stages of development but within the Zoë Lund archives are a number of unpublished novels, short stories, essays, and fifteen unproduced screenplays. The philosophies espoused within these potent writings are similar to those that form the basis of Ms. 45 and Bad Lieutenant.

Zoë firmly believed that Eros and Power were interconnected and that female sexuality, when liberated, could play an integral role in the instigation of change. Both the physical transformation of Thana in Ms 45, and the violated nun in Bad Lieutenant dismayed that she failed to use her vagina to turn hate into love, portend the potential of explicitly channeled female sexual energy. Zoë also understood that thrill is a common response to female rebellion which can be skillfully exploited for revolutionary ends, and equated Ms. 45's Thana with Joan of Arc, the German terrorist Ulrike Meinhof, and Bertolt Brecht's “Pirate Jenny.”

Lund was an ardent aficionado of illicit drugs and she was outspoken about governmental attempts to control drug trafficking and needle distribution. Zoë, ironically perhaps, referred to heroin as her “drug of choice” and was a staunch advocate of using the drug to increase self-awareness and to gain personal insight. Though her own drug-related activities remained clandestine, she did not shy from addressing the subject in her work. In Bad Lieutenant, Zoë scripted the Lieutenant's spiritual turnabout to occurr during a revelatory hallucination that took place when her character fixed him with a dose of heroin while she recited a biblical reference to forgiveness. The film also conveys a reasonably strong anti-drug stance, as evidenced by the increasingly erratic behavior of the Lieutenant, but neither view is given precedence by the presentation of a morally inclined solution to the problem of drug abuse.

Lund frequently questioned the level of commitment held by those who referred to themselves as “leftists” or “liberals” and maintained that many of them lacked the audacity that is necessary to cross the line between reason and action. She mocked the jingoism used in media and politics and maintained that protestors often played an unintentionally collaborative role in the maintenance of established order.

Moral issues and political concerns were an integral part of Zoë Lund's work but the enlightenment of her audience never came at the expense of their entertainment. In a 1992 interview with the New York Daily News Lund said, “They are neither valid nor utilitarian, in the sense of getting your message across. The ultimate thing is to do something that is exciting and sexy, and within that you have the things that you want to say. The cardinal sin is to bore people.”

Though Zoë had numerous connections in the film industry who respected both her and her writing, she was rarely able to parlay these relationships into fruitful endeavors. Possibly because she maintained a lifestyle which necessitated that she exist on the fringes of society, Lund was never able to count on an inner circle to facilitate the development of her projects.

In September 1996, while acting as a “downtown street expert” for a Geraldo Rivera special entitled “Heroin,” Zoë recruits an interview subject who, when filming is complete, is sent to detox. Zoë may have been equally in need of help but becomes involved with the recruit's boyfriend, whom she met while working on the Geraldo episode. In February 1997Zoë moved to Paris, France to live with him. During her time abroad writing seemed to take a back seat to drugs when one of her foremost writing inspirations, heroin, was replaced with cocaine.At the time of her death Zoë was in the process of preparing a book that intertwined short stories of the lower east side of Manhattan with images of brand stamps used to identify bags of dope—it remains to be seen if this book will ever be assembled. Robert Lund is attempting to facilitate the release of some of her efforts, among them a novel entitled 490 (another reference to the number “seventy times seven” which appears in the biblical parable about forgiveness recited by Zoë in Bad Lieutenant) and a screenplay entitled Free Will and Testament. There could be no finer tribute to Zoë than for these undertakings to finally be made accessible to the public.


This article originally appeared in Your Flesh #44


Filed Under: Film-DVD-VideoFilm-DVD-Video Reviews

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