Cinema’s centennial in 1995 was greeted with a roster of international celebration. The festivities encompassed works by great directors from many countries that reflected on and scoured through a century of film. The investigations, however, were not only celebratory; various critical examinations of the institution of cinema also emerged. Many films explored cinema’s history of exploitation as well as its failure to really make an impact as an art form (see Godard and Miéville’s 2 x 50 Years of French Cinema ).
The initial energy of this international examination into the components and history of film soon wore off and dissolved into nostalgic television shows. However schools of filmmaking remain that are dedicated to the excavation of the moving image – its ontology, history, and possible merit. One of the most prominent groups dedicated to cinematic exploration of this kind is the contemporary group of Austrian avant-garde filmmakers, who gained momentum during the last decade. Avoiding easy historical categorisation, these filmmakers have tackled narrative, documentary and experimental cinema.
In this brief overview I will look at four key filmmakers whose work over the last decade adds up to a complex, multifaceted exploration of cinema at the point of its centennial. These filmmakers work with a range of material: “found footage” gleaned from early cinema to advertisements, scientific films to pornography. They explore the 20th century through film – searching and exposing hidden gestures, meanings and possibilities of the medium.
Gustav Deutsch – The Image Archive
Tradition is the handing on of fire and not the worship of ashes.
– Gustav Mahler (1)
Film is inherently a retrospective medium, capturing a moment that instantly becomes the past. The question of history and tradition is important to the filmmakers that I will discuss here and is a subject that Gustav Deutsch (b. 1952) tackles throughout his work. The above quote is taken from a short film (of the same name) that Deutsch made from nitrate film. Old, scratched, black and white film is overlaid with a colour sequence of what could be flames or just degraded film stock. In tackling nitrate film, the inflammable material used at cinema’s beginnings, Deutsch is defining his own attitude to the past, to history and to tradition. Throughout his work he endeavours to teach us about the future through the past. Rather than discarding lost or forgotten material or believing it to be dormant, Deutsch strives to reveal the untapped potential and energy hidden within the most mundane images. This passionate excavation is most visible within his monumental work in progress, Film ist (Film is/exists).
Film ist is an ontological investigation into the origins of film. It exists in two sections: Film ist 1-6 (1998) and Film ist 7-12 (2002), each consisting of six short chapters. 1-6 explores film’s birthplace as the scientific laboratory, while 7-12 takes its origin as the funfair and variety show. Deutsch’s exploration avoids recognisable material, preferring to use unknown images and sequences from the history of cinema (chapters 7-12 are compiled solely of films from the silent period). Deutsch constructs his chapters around various themes, collecting together motifs and repeated occurrences, spanning cultures and time periods, breaking films down into a collection of gestures and images.
The gaze back at the beginnings of the medium is meant to be focused on the present.
– Gustav Deustch (2)
Deutsch’s gaze brings with it knowledge of film history. He playfully constructs impossible sequences from unconnected material, taking a lesson from the experiments of associative montage developed by Lev Kuleshov in 1920s Soviet Russia. Deutsch’s collage technique does two things: it reveals the possibilities of film through exposing the mechanism of montage and it allows us to study the images as images, isolated from their context and/or narrative, with their uniqueness preserved.
One is struck by the incredible sequences that emerge from unconnected footage. Deutsch constructs strange kinetic sequences – like the flying pigeons and simulated car crashes in chapters 1-6 or the slapstick falls and the stray dog, impossibly running from image to image in chapters 7-12. By breaking the authority of the material and/or the narrative structure, Deutsch allows us to contemplate the design and the construction of images – like the many ways of integrating text into film as in chapter 10.
In chapter 9, titled Conquest, we see footage of exotic lands and strange tribes – originally shown alongside other cultural curiosities in funfairs. This footage of remote civilisations is inter-cut with images of turn-of-the-century European society, rendered just as distant and exotic as the African tribes. This project explores the idea of film as a looking glass onto different times, cultures and perspectives. Deutsch turns fiction into a document, turning the most artificial sequences into a valuable artefact.
Deutsch tackles the question of exhibition with the installation of the Film ist project (3). For this he digitally projected all the chapters simultaneously onto a circular screen suspended in the air. Here Deutsch is deliberately trying to engage with a wider audience and in a manner – a form of exhibition that most resembles early film screenings in public environments like circuses – that is apt given his original material.
With this project Deutsch illustrates the central paradox and creative potential of film that resides in the fact that it is a medium that is both a concrete record and a malleable possibility. In Stefan Grissmann’s words, “it is precisely because it is of the physical, that film is radically metaphysical – recording what is and organizing that into the way it could be” (4).
Dietmar Brehm – The Unseen
I prefer distance rather than closeness
– Dietmar Brehm (5)
If Deutsch is exploring the origins of cinema and its images, then his contemporary Dietmar Brehm (b. 1947) is dedicated to exploring the unseen and repressed history of film, its distortions, lies and perversions. Brehm, a photographer and artist as well as filmmaker, makes his films from old and discarded footage, ideally the sort that invokes some kind of erotic scenario. From each of the films that make up his most ambitious project Schwarzer Garten (Black Garden, 1987-1999), Brehm collected a small selection of material and meshed the divergent images into perverse, semi-abstract, meditations on sexuality and violence. He edits the three or four different types of images (be it medical/scientific film, images taken from television, pornographic material or footage Brehm shot himself) together into an obscure matrix. The original images are distorted and degenerated. They are often overexposed and their grain enhanced through re-filming. Brehm re-films the footage in such a way as to create throbbing, pulsating images that visibly flicker at varying rates: an effect that he refers to as the “pumping screen”. The overall distortion allows for the seamless integration of footage from different sources.
For Brehm’s earlier films he “formulated more abstract structures and blurred films, which drive the viewer from the film image into his own world of presentiment” (6). This intention is still present in these highly enigmatic and evasive films. The Schwarzer Garten series is pure pulp fiction: an amalgamation of material scraped up from the bottom of culture (violence, sex and horror) meshed together into Brehm’s own perverse type of horror film.
The fluctuation between identifiable sound/images and abstraction is a key element of these films. The soundtrack is often dislocated from the image – as in Macumba (1995) where we hear the sound of someone shaving throughout the film. The films operate as free-flowing meditations on the images that surround us in contemporary Western society, as in the images, lifted from television, of dead people in Blicklust (Dietmar Brehm, 1992) that are – essential for Brehm – images of people pretending to be dead. The films stretch a distorted mirror to television and cinema. They resonate with possible narratives, like the murder in The Murder Mystery (2nd Version) (1987/92), and possible readings, like the juxtaposition of an ethnographic film of Kalahai Bushmen with a black porno film in Macumba.
These films sketch an alternative history of the moving image – documents of people observed, examined, processed and reconstructed by Brehm. This exploration of the trash of the 20th century contradicts Deutsch’s more academic exploration and proposes a more underground and degenerately perverse origin and use of the medium. The emphasis on celluloid as the medium for voyeurs, pornographers and for exploitation rings true with other more high minded explorations of the moving image. Brehms’ dark view of cinema is similar to Godard’s, as his short film De L’origine du XXIème Siècle (2000) illustrates. In this film we track back through the century with film to end in 1900, and rather than finding the elegant observation or drama of the 1900s, we are confronted by an anonymous pornographic film; a poke in the eye for patronising nostalgia, casting a suspicious light over the history of a medium that was born anything but innocent.
Martin Arnold – Hidden Gestures
The cinema of Hollywood is a cinema of exclusion, reduction and denial, a cinema of repression. There is always something behind that which is being represented, which was not represented. And it is exactly that that is most interesting to consider.
– Martin Arnold (7)
If Deutsch and Brehm are archaeologists of a century of film, unearthing and exhibiting forgotten, lost or ignored footage, Martin Arnold (b. 1959) strives to discover and explore the gestures contained within familiar material from classical cinema. Arnold has established a reputation over the last decade for his progressive examination of film history and narrative cinema conventions. His film Piece touchée (1989) was the first major signal of his approach to narrative cinema. Here Arnold took 18 seconds of a ’50s B-movie and reworked the footage by repeating and looping single frames and short sections. This technique reveals the minute gestures, glances and compositions that are hidden within the short sequence.
The film starts with what appears to be a still image of a woman sitting in a living room. Then we notice that her finger is twitching nervously. Such small movements multiply and grow as the woman begins to turn her head to the door opening behind. The sense of anticipation is incredible. The actions are repeated allowing us time to scan the image, see the woman turning round and back, see the figure slowly appear from the ominous dark space behind the door. Arnold’s film appears to be primarily descriptive, but the attention to detail turns what could be a cold academic exercise into a tense kinetic experience: like the beautiful, but impossible dance sequence at the end of the film. Here Arnold cuts as the woman turns and continues the movement by inserting a mirror image of the same action, creating a continuous twirl.
In the second film Passage à l’Acte (1993), Arnold deconstructs a family scene from To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, US, 1962). The scene shows what appears to be a conventional post-war liberal family, with the parents (although the woman is in fact the next door neighbour) and two children seated at the dinner table. Through the manipulation of the chronological order and direct sound, Arnold turns this quiet domestic scene into a battle. The film starts with the son bolting out of the kitchen door; the sound of the door slamming is repeated to resemble gunfire. This, in turn, is followed by the heavy movements of the adults, unable to speak. Their words are distorted into groans. Their faces are fixed with painful smiles. The film deconstructs the image of the American family. Here is Arnold’s art: an art of deconstruction through close reading.
Arnold’s final film of the trilogy, Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy (1998), is the most complex. By combining separate parts of the Andy Hardy series and minutely manipulating their unfolding, Arnold reveals a perverse sexual drama in the American family. The film starts with a sequence where Andy Hardy embraces his mother. Through the repetitions his quick embrace is turned into an erotic massage. We see his mother’s face tremble with desire. We then cut to Judy Garland singing while waiting for Andy – here Arnold’s manipulation of sound comes into its own. Her lips tremble as the first vowels struggle to leave her mouth, creating an ambient drone; her words are stretched and fragmented. The stilted performance creates a tantalising tension exposing the anticipation and sexual longing in her song. Through the exposition of abstract, rhythmic patterns and underlying gestures these films propose a form of study and subversive rewriting of film history.
Although his work is centred upon subverting mainstream cinema, one detects a hidden agenda; Arnold seems to be setting a score with the films he loves, finding a place for himself within them. The cinema he loves is a cinema of people and character, of actors and performance. In his installation De-Animated: The Invisible Ghost (2002) (8), Arnold explores the presence and importance of actors and the fragility of narrative film language (continuity editing, shot reverse shot, etc). For the installation Arnold and a team of digital animators slowly remove actors or lines of dialogue from the old Bela Lugosi horror The Invisible Ghost (Joseph H. Lewis, US, 1941). Arnold is able to seamlessly remove actors from scenes leaving the camera to glide across an empty room with no action to follow. He also morphs actors’ mouths shut during conversations in order to omit a line of dialogue or an exchange with another character. Progressively the film is emptied of actors, dialogue and exchanges.
Arnold’s choice of film is perfect; The Invisible Ghost is about a mysterious relationship between Lugosi’s character and his dead/hiding wife, and his inability to accept that his wife has left him. The film starts with a dining scene where Lugosi has his butler serve his absent wife – and this is before Arnold’s intervention. This integration into the actual film makes Arnold’s manipulations difficult to decipher, drawing us into a state of insecurity and engrossing us in the foreboding and melancholy atmosphere established by the material. Arnold describes the film as “depressing” in the way it collapses narrative film language, rendering the camera angles, movements and edits seemingly arbitrary. The resultant film forms an interesting parallel with austere structuralist film that rejects the representation of the human figure.
The Invisible Ghost is a sad prophecy of cinema’s demise. It was designed to be shown in a specially built, old-fashioned cinema that is deliberately too large for the gallery’s regular audience. Arnold tackles the problem of cinema and pays tribute to its decline in the age of digital technology and the proliferation of the moving image. But Arnold also shows how film is attached to people. This work is Arnold’s critique and celebration of the importance of people, for and in the cinema. Arnold’s ambiguous tribute is optimistic, like much of his work he is striving to find the present in material from the past.
Peter Tscherkassky – Dreamspace
Mainly I am concerned with beauty.
– Peter Tscherkassky (9)
Peter Tscherkassky (b. 1958) was living in Berlin when he was first inspired to start making films with the newly available 8mm film stock. His work in this medium pushed its boundaries and explored the possibilities of its intimacy and grain. He describes his film Tabula Rasa (1987/89) as a summation of what he believed to be possible with the material. The film begins with abstract seas of grain and varying light densities before slowly moving out to reveal that the source of the image is the texture of skin, a suitably malleable surface whose texture and properties is an apt parallel for those of 8mm film. The film moves further out to reveal the source of the skin and to allow the figure, shape and movements of a woman to be recognised. The work displays a fascination with sensuality in film and parallels this with voyeurism and the desire to touch.
From this textural exploration Tscherkassky moved to a more in-depth exploration of the psychology of film and of looking in Parallel Space: Inter-view (1992). Here he explores film as a memory device, using it to replicate the search and the struggle for the self. The film’s structure is complex and intimate, referencing Tscherkassky’s childhood and parents, and laced with self-reflective references and intricate visual coups. The film is created from still 35mm photographs. When you print photographs onto the filmstrip you get a dual image because of the difference in the frame sizes. This duality is utilised throughout the film as a complex metaphor for the process of self-examination, as well as a critique of perspective and optics.
These two films show Tscherkassky’s mastery of technique and his intense theoretical approach. His next substantial project, referred to as the widescreen trilogy, is his most celebrated achievement and one of the most spectacular projects of recent years. The first film of the trilogy, L’arrivée (1998) was a chance for Tscherkassky to explore the widescreen aspect ratio and fittingly, for his first experiment, to pay tribute to the Lumière Brothers. It depicts the arrival of a train at a station, the image that heralded the arrival of cinema.
For the second film, Outer Space (1999), Tscherkassky used footage from the film The Entity (Sidney J. Furie, US, 1981). Obtaining a copy of the film (from Martin Arnold), Tscherkassky became obsessed with its fantastic narrative depicting a woman sexually assaulted by an invisible presence (10). For Tscherkassky, this film provided the framework for a long and cherished idea: to make a film where the material is integrated into the narrative itself. The film starts with the establishment of a suburban location and the wide frame; the image is illuminated sporadically, with only sections appearing at a time. This first sequence establishes the tense atmosphere and the fragile quality of the image. The female protagonist is introduced and in a flurry of cuts and disorientating superimpositions is shaken by the disruptions to the film image. The sound comes in and out of sync as the disruptions increase. Intricate superimpositions of small details plague the female protagonist. Windows, mirrors and reflections creak and fall apart as the frame of the film and the material itself threatens to obliterate the narrative. The struggle with the self recalls Maya Deren’s work with her own image, but the film takes a more material dimension. The representational is finally obliterated by the frame, soundtrack and sprocket holes.
For the final film of the trilogy, Dream Work (2001), Tscherkassky returned to pay homage to another beginning of cinema, this time the beginning of avant-garde film. Tscherkassky pays his respect to the pioneer of manual printing Man Ray and makes the most fantastic film of the trilogy. Tscherkassky hand-prints all of these films by placing objects (in this case the negative film, among other things) directly onto the filmstrip. This intricate process references the rayograph (11) and the idea of film as an indexical photogram. Working in the dark room, Tskerkassky individually exposed every frame by hand, by shining light through the desired image to expose the negative. This process allows for total control over which part of the image is reprinted, and by using a tiny light (a laser pointer) he is able to reprint isolated details, like an eye or hand, anywhere in the frame. This time consuming process is repeated for two to five layers of superimposition for each frame of film.
Dream Work turns the original material into a fantastic journey as opposed to the traumatic assault that characterises Outer Space. The film incorporates graphic dream sequences and visionary effects. It is a tribute to film as craft and dream. In referencing the early surrealists Tscherkassky points to an alternative history of film, one based in fantasy and in the triumph of the imagination.
Dream Work is a fitting work to conclude the overview. It is both conceptually and technically stunning. It is steeped in the history of a tradition that is far from over and also continues to look forward to new innovations and possibilities for the film medium. All four of these filmmakers are attracted to the material of film and cinema. Their work commands attention for its ontological examination of film’s history and place within contemporary society and the 21st century.
Gunning, Tom, Film ist. A Primer for a Visual World, [http://www.t0.or.at/~sixpack]
Morris, Gary, “Short Works By Martin Arnold”, Bright Lights Film Journal, Issue 25, August 1999
Rees, A. L., A History of Experimental Film And Video, BFI, London, 1999
Taubin, Amy, FLASH FLOODS On Peter Tscherkassky’s film “PARALLEL SPACE: INTER-VIEW” taken from “Eikon. Internationale Zeitschrift für Photographie & Medienkunst”, No. 7/8, Vienna 1993
Webber, Mark, “Counting the Waves: A summary of activity”, published in The Essential Frame: Austrian Independent Film 1955-2003, London, June 2003
- Quote from the film title Tradition ist die Weitergabe des Feuers und nicht die Anbetung der Asche (Tradition is the handing on of fire and not the worship of ashes, Gustav Deutsch, 2000). The quote was originally taken from the composer Gustav Mahler.
- Quote taken from press pack for Film ist, 7-12, January 2002
- Film Ist, 1-12, DVD installation (2002) was presented at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in 2002
- Taken from Film Ist, 7-12 Booklet, Stefan Grissmann, December 2001 (Translation: Tim Sharp)
- Taken from program notes for The Essential Frame: Austrian Independent Cinema 1955-2003, June 2003, London
- Taken from program notes for The Essential Frame: Austrian Independent Cinema 1955-2003, June 2003, London
- Quote taken from Martin Arnold’s home page
- De-Animated: The Invisible Ghost was commissioned by Kunsthalle Wien, and was exhibited there from 11 October 2002 to 9 February 2003. It is currently exhibited at the Fact Centre in Liverpool, from 4 July 2002 till 24 August 2003.
- Quote from a discussion post-screening of his work at the film season “The Essential Frame: Austrian Independent Cinema 1955-2003”, London, June 2003
- The film’s premise caused much controversy on its release, causing protests and pickets by feminist groups for its absurd central idea.
- The reference is to Man Ray’s work exploring film from a photographic background. His first short Return to Reason (1923) “begins with photographed salt, pepper, tacks and saw blades printed onto the filmstrip to assert the grain and surface” (A.L. Rees). Tscherkassky uses similar material printed on the filmstrip to pay homage to Man Ray’s technique.