Translated by Barbara Schwarz and the author
This essay was written in late 2000 and does not take into account Peter Tscherkassky’s most recent film Dream Work. It was originally published in Trafic, No. 44, Winter 2002.
The first book on Tscherkassky, edited by the author and published by the Austrian Filmmuseum, will appear in 2004 (English and German, richly illustrated).
In 1979 the Argentinean writer Diego Vildosola published an autobiographical fantasy-novel entitled The Wrong Sun. In this book, the hero Alejandro, now a grown-up man, reminisces:
At the horse races, we never cared who won. But we paid attention to the legs of horses which had lost their rhythm. Among the girls, we preferred those who never went out with boys. When going to the movies, we were looking for the ‘wrong’ ones. We watched these films not because of their well-worn stories and characters, but because they promised a better mystery: no magical images, but the magician’s work itself. Something that had never been seen before, but somehow emerged right from the centre of the visible world. In my diary of that time I listed all the great films I saw as on a map, like nations. Once the map was full, I imagined that I should start to make films which would invisibly wind along the borders, in my own private no-man’s land between the various nations.
How often is it possible to start afresh in art, to go back to a tabula rasa? The radical act of erasure, or the reduction of a meaningful object to the zero point of meaning (to the point of it being what it physically is), or the evaporation of a material thing into a thought or concept – all these artistic gestures are either unique, liberating and “powerful” (repeating them later on could only be “weak”, aesthetically illegitimate or even reactionary) or they are already elements of a repertoire, a known set of techniques, and thus always available to the artist. (In this line of thinking, the point of total erasure – “absolute zero” – would be just as strong or weak like any other in the field of aesthetic expression).
These gestures are unique only if one thinks of art history as a kind of inverted journey of conquest, as the progressive and linear colonisation of a finite world of perception – trying out one form of expression after another, and then declaring each of them occupied territory. This notion lies at the core of the mythology surrounding modern art, which gained hegemony in the West during the Cold War era. Step by step, breaking one bourgeois rule after another, modernity arduously achieves a new definition of aesthetics. This tale of modern art, however, is full of the same weapons and ideologies used by the bourgeois “opponent”: expansionist policies and the capitalist colonisation of the world are projected onto a progressive movement towards the innermost absolutes of art. Such a progressing cultural “frontline” (mobile home of the avant-garde and its unceasing exploration of the New, of new truths) is nothing but a mirror of the real “frontier”, the changing geographical border which in capitalism always needs to be crossed for the development of new markets. And just as Joseph Conrad’s “heart of darkness” was the territorial-philosophical point of absolute zero for the colonialists of the 19th century (or for the US soldiers in Vietnam), the “White Cube” of high modernism metaphorically serves as the “endgame” playground for the frontline fighters of art – the “heart of whiteness”.
The spirit of modernism still plays an important role in the term avant-garde film. This term is used mainly in countries where the “classical” avant-garde movements of the 1920s were not very prominent. In terms of the avant-garde, Austria and the United States of America, for instance, only really “caught up” during the 1940s and ’50s. Their avant-garde art movements were closely linked to genuinely modern “film art”. In Germany and France, on the other hand, the term “avant-garde” refers mainly to the area of fine art during the 1920s. When talking about radical artistic film practice since the post-war period, the most common term in Germany and France is “experimental film”. As a cousin to modern art myth, the dominant notion of avant-garde film history has also been shaped by various acts of “zeroing in” or being “the first to…” For example, the obliteration of figure in the work of Eggeling or Richter (circa 1920); the camera-less film of Man Ray (1923); the advance towards primal filmic “essence” (black, white, silence, white noise) in Kubelka’s Arnulf Rainer (1960), and, even more radically, the complete renunciation of celluloid in “concept films” and expanded-cinema happenings during the late 1960s.
Anyone who (like Peter Tscherkassky) started to contemplate serious film work during the late 1970s and early 1980s must have come across a number of contradictions and competing claims which could hardly be met anymore by the medium of film. 1. The traditional logic of modernism had reached its actual point zero (or, if you prefer, “dead end”). 2. In some quarters, the physical object (film) had become a concept (“film”). 3. Theory now seemed to be a legitimate, or sometimes even “final” form of artistic practice. 4. The 1960s belief that the old hierarchy of values in cinema would fundamentally change in favour of the avant-garde had already proved to be illusory (whereas in the art world this change actually took place). 5. Attempts were being made to describe a “second”, non-formalist avant-garde in film history with reference to feminism, neo-Marxism or psychoanalysis. In this parallel history of avant-garde film, narration and figuration gained a new legitimacy. 6.Video art offered itself to the art world as a new avant-garde “after film” (at least in terms of technology). At the same time, video spoke (at least in terms of technology) the new language of the masses – television. The music video channel MTV, founded in 1981, also explicitly speaks to the masses, and in its sales pitch the history of avant-garde film can be readily traced through the distortions of “feedback”.
From a point of view of high modernism, all these enterprises lean towards “post”-modernism: film acquires the melancholy aura of a death row prisoner. Psychoanalysis, however, permits new metaphors such as the “magic slate” (Wunderblock) described by Freud: a children’s toy which allows the user to delete what has just been drawn or written (making tabula rasa in order to start afresh) while “somewhere below, hidden”, everything that was previously written remains as a trace, as potential.
In this context, the oeuvre created by Peter Tscherkassky since 1979 seems paradigmatic: as an oeuvre of “crisis”. His work is the opposite of an “erratic mass”. It is not a carefree assertion of self by the artist, postulated without doubts (as might be said about Peter Kubelka’s or Martin Arnold’s work), but rather a series of tentative steps, characterised by intense reflection and an openness towards contemporary discourses on art. Tscherkassky’s career contains various suggestions for “survival strategies” of (post-)avant-garde cinema: trying to connect with and follow tradition; looking for transitional solutions; outlining film theories and transcoding them into “theory films”; moving into painful self-examination; celebrating the physicality of film; re-reading the history of the medium.
Considered individually, none of these suggestions can be completely rejected or totally accepted. Their striving for some kind of synthesis is certainly conspicuous, but from the very beginning Tscherkassky’s films also convey the view that the process of history offers no safe haven to past achievements. No canon is ever set in stone. This view allows both for the deconstruction of art-historical “climaxes” as well as the possibility to overcome periods of “depression”. Thus, over a period of more than 20 years, intimations of “rearguard action” can transform into liberating gestures of re-appropriating film.
In 1981, the American critic J. Hoberman declares the artistic breakthrough of Super-8 cinema as a “vehicle for personalised urban verité. Super-8 proved to be the ideal cinematic tool for the artist as either flaneur or voyeur.” Six years later, pessimism has already set in. In 1987, Hoberman writes that, at least in the United States, Super-8 has not managed to revitalise the avant-garde, but has instead stimulated independent fiction film production.
In Austria around 1981, the art of Super-8 film has quite different claims than in the urban (No Wave or New Wave) subcultures of New York or Berlin. The format offers its users an alternative, a step aside. By taking that step, they neither have to relinquish nor fall back on (or behind) the achievements and the rich tradition of Viennese avant-garde film. Nor do they have to jump aboard the fast-moving train of video art. Small gauge film can be seen as a remainder, a medium without dignity, only briefly touched upon by Peter Weibel and Valie Export (king and queen of Vienna’s experimental film scene in the 1970s) on their way from film to non-film (Nivea), to video and on to feature film production (Unsichtbare Gegner / Invisible Adversaries). With its range of hitherto unexplored possibilities, Super-8 offers a way out to a whole generation of film artists (Dietmar Brehm, Lisl Ponger, Peter Tscherkassky, among others) – a temporary and fragile way out of the dilemma of progress, a kind of trash-strewn path around the point of absolute zero. The “conceptual” generation’s critical stance towards image-making can be upheld, even though one has now returned to the image (since it is a completely different image).
Unlike any other format, Super-8 was a microscope, making visible the inner life of images by entering beneath the skin of reality (…) Most remarkable of all was the grain. While ‘resolution’ is the technical term for the sharpness of a film image, Super-8 was really never too concerned with this. Here, quite a different kind of resolution could be witnessed: the crystal-clear and bright light of a Xenon-projection gave us shapes dissolving into the grain; amorphous bodies and forms surreptitiously transformed into new shapes and disappeared again into a sea of colour. Super-8 was the pointillism, impressionism and the abstract expressionism of cinematography.
– Peter Tscherkassky, 1995
In this retrospective celebration of his preferred medium (which he worked with until 1989), Tscherkassky describes the artistic value of the small format, but he also comments on its primitive status (being cheap and easily available) as well as its libidinous quality: Super-8 stands for boisterous joy of the material, small scale excess and visual pleasures far beyond the phantasmatic identifications of Hollywood cinema.
This kind of breakthrough with its new claims for (and new criticism of) the image marks the beginning of all postmodern art. For Tscherkassky, however, it was also the start of a laborious journey. Before he was able to celebrate the “inner life of images”, he had to work through a range of problems and predecessors which, in the end, would prevent him from falling for the dreaded simplistic, “anything-goes” version of postmodernism.
Aderlass (1981), the earliest Tscherkassky film that is still shown today, deals with the complex status quo; the point at which the actual work for a young filmmaker begins. On a wall, one can read a kind of romantic metaphor of the artist as sexual offender, driven by dark desires: “I would kill again, I can’t help it”. The filmmaker appears briefly in front of the camera with his performer Armin Schmickl, and they both give a sketchy report of modern (film) art using words, performance and cinematic gestures. Fast edits, abrupt sound cuts and fragments of sentences reference the work of formative predecessors like Kurt Kren and Ernst Schmidt Jr. At one point, the performer says: “…something like that in 1981 …we had it all before”. He then smears blood all over his body and besmirches the legacy of Viennese Actionism with irony. The word “Aderlass” means “bloodletting” – an artificial extraction of blood. In 1981, one can still tear everything to shreds, one can still scream and bleed and be an expressive artist, but in doing so there are only two positions left – the eternal runner-up, acting out a pale imitation of some previous achievement in modern art, or placing oneself at a distance and speaking in quotation marks.
In Liebesfilm (1982), Tscherkassky changes techniques and comes up with a harsh and original film that refers to the opposite of expressive actionist art: structural film, a sobering ritual to exorcise the ideology of cinematic fulfilment. Two figures enter the image, moving towards each other: from the film’s perforation on the left a woman leans into the frame while from the right a man bursts into the centre. One single frame of film time keeps their lips apart, preventing them from kissing. This movement is repeated 600 times, accelerating slightly but continually. What took one second at the beginning, takes half a second at the end of the film. The obsessive repetition of unfulfilled desire, a primal image of commercial cinema, presented as an equivalent to the myth of Sisyphus: You desire, we give it to you – not! Unmistakably inscribing itself into a history of cinematic modernity, Liebesfilm offers a critical synthesis of Thomas Edison’s The May Irwin–John C. Rice Kiss (1896) and Andy Warhol’s Kiss (1963), a synthesis of kissing in mass entertainment and its ironic overdetermination in Pop Art.
Sometimes, however, even Tscherkassky succumbs to the pleasure principle. Erotique (1982), a small frivolous film, and Urlaubsfilm (1983), a mighty and penetrating film, reveal for the first time the libidinous attachment to the “private life” of Super-8 images. There is a sea of colour, but also the culpable confession of voyeurism: parts of a female body, bodies and voices that are brought into a flirtatious relationship with the audience only to be withdrawn again. The “artist as sexual offender” is the only one with access to the woman (at least to the woman’s traces in sound and image). As voyeur-with-a-brain, he is well aware of the problematic involved, so he carefully defines the borders where access and withdrawal meet. This is made particularly clear in Urlaubsfilm. Here, one kind of pleasure (visual pleasure, being withdrawn) is compensated for by another (the physical pleasure of Super-8 celluloid, pumped to the surface). Tscherkassky has filmed a female figure in a natural setting (meadow, trees) then re-filmed these images from the screen, and so on. This process has two main effects: the continual destruction of the original image reveals a painterly quality (reminiscent of Renaissance portraits at first, later turning into pure colour field painting, with patches of yellow, black, red and white); but it also reveals a new flickering rhythm dictated by the throbbing white light at image centre. The light seems to be devouring the film from the inside when it suddenly discovers the viewer, shining straight at him/her. This effect is of great importance in Tscherkassky’s later work, as are the references to a conventional film genre (“Urlaubsfilm” – amateur holiday movies) and to the general psycho-apparatus of cinema. At the same time, Urlaubsfilm proves that certain pictorial achievements in video can also be arrived at through non-electronic, filmic means.
Super-8 manages to hold its position although it is a precarious one. In the art world of the 1980s “immaterial media” become a central issue (“les immateriaux” was the title of an important exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris). These “immaterials” of art and popular culture are created by new machines such as videography and computers, and they are, of course, part of a larger development in industrial production and the global economy, leading towards a post-Fordist society. Tscherkassky’s emphasis on the tangible, the manuf(r)acture, can be understood as a reaction to this paradigmatic shift. Freeze Frame (1983) with its aggressive style addresses this issue in both production mode (material film) and imagery: construction workers, rubbish dump, building site, cement-mixer, debris, claw arm, mine, explosions … The integrity of individual images is undermined by ever more complex manoeuvres, but in fact, materiality reaches its full potential in the destruction and the ruins. The melting film frames at the end of Freeze Frame evoke the appropriate figure, and they do so with appropriate pathos. The entire fire of cinema materialises in the “frozen” frame, which has become stuck in the projector.
A different kind of reaction can be seen in Tscherkassky’s attempt to connect with the oeuvre of Peter Kubelka – the historical prototype for “material film”. Three successive films by Tscherkassky refer to three different films by Kubelka, not in a cheeky or imitative manner but rather as elements in his search for new concepts of film work. The reduction of film imagery to black and white, as proposed by Arnulf Rainer via “elementary physics”, is achieved by Tscherkassky in Motion Picture (1984) through historical-critical means, by transforming an existing film classic. Manufraktur (Manufracture, 1985), Tscherkassky’s first 35mm film and made entirely from found-footage, contains a nice homage to the “found” car races in Ferry Radax’s and Kubelka’s Mosaik im Vertrauen (1955). And in kelimba (1986), a very “Tibetan” film of dreams and doves, one immediately recognises the dancers’ silhouettes from Kubelka’s Adebar (1957).
Motion Picture and Manufraktur are efforts to rescue “materiality” partly by evoking the actual history of industrial film. In Manufraktur, Tscherkassky uses found footage from commercials: mainly women’s legs and cars, which he manipulates on the optical printer. He accelerates the images until they reach a furious speed resulting in a new kind of film space. In so doing, Tscherkassky anticipates his later working methods. In Motion Picture, on the other hand, he explores once more the options of conceptual film.
This film does not contain a single image Tscherkassky shot himself, but at the same time it does not contain any recognisable image from the film classic he worked with. We see nothing but black and white splotches on the screen while witnessing an absurd and seemingly paradoxical process consisting of several movements:
1. The way in which an unexposed filmstrip becomes space when cut into pieces and pinned, in grid-like fashion, on the wall of the dark room.
2. The way in which a moving picture loses its qualities of time and duration when turned into a single still – a still taken from the “very first film in history”, Auguste and Louis Lumière’s La Sortie des Ouvriers de l’usine Lumière à Lyon (Workers leaving the Lumière factory in Lyon); this still is projected onto the grid and exposes the film strips pinned up on the wall.
3. The way in which this (sculptural) space transforms back into time as the single film fragments are exposed, developed, re-assembled and fed once more through the projector.
4. And finally, the way in which time becomes (moving) image: the time it takes to “scan” or “read” the original film frame (still) and transform it into new frames is the exact duration of Motion Picture.
Whilst thinking about this process it is easy to lose your mind. On the other hand one can helplessly describe the result as “beautiful” or even “ridiculous”. The film itself is practically “nothing”; its images do not reveal their secret. The necessary clues are contained in the film’s intellectual and technical structure, in its immaterial aspect. This is both its curse and its fortune. Beauty here lies not in the object itself but rather in the train of thought the object gives rise to. Yet, there is still the question about the relationship between the Lumières’ and Tscherkassky’s film. Is it a fleeting or an incestuous affair – or even a sort of immaculate conception? And what exactly is happening with the workers at the Lumière factory? Tscherkassky is not the only modern filmmaker interested in this topic. Harun Farocki’s essay film Arbeiter verlassen die Fabrik (Workers leaving the factory, 1995) comes to mind. It is concerned with the political dimension of the title’s subject throughout film history. Ernie Gehr’s found-footage film Eureka (1974-79), on the other hand, scrutinises an urban scene from early cinema with a magnifying glass, thus highlighting both the past and the autonomous life of the images. In Tscherkassky’s film, the distance between historic artefact and today’s perception remains unbridgeable. He gives back movement to the workers who are frozen in a mythical still picture; however, it is no longer “their” movement and “their” time which might be translated by historiography. Tscherkassky instead furnishes them with “his” movement and “his” (or our) “illegible” time, and the link between the two areas is encoded. “If it were possible to see a code, one could say: this film is where it shows itself” (Michael Palm).
The technique applied here by Tscherkassky is similar to the digitalisation of an existing image. Motion Picture, a film from the early days of personal computers, feels like a prophetic comment on the seismic changes in late 20th century industrial and media culture. Its effect can be compared to the changes in late 19th century culture, metaphorically climaxing in the name “Lumière”. Workers are leaving the Lumière factory, the “light” factory, the film factory (which highlighted and mediated the Second Industrial Revolution). Ninety years later, they return once more, ghost-like, buried inside the “last” motion picture, confined to the material, swallowed up by both the historical and the binary code (the central factor of the Third Industrial Revolution, rendering workers and the idea of work almost invisible).
Crisis can be averted with a brilliant trick as seen in Motion Picture. Or one can simply declare the pronouncement of crisis invalid or partial as with Urlaubsfilm and Manufraktur (or a decade later, with Happy-End and Outer Space). In any case, the accumulation of libido alone is not enough to succeed. Self-confidence, experience and an understanding of the framework of references are necessary.
Tscherkassky makes use of Super-8 to escape the crisis only to be caught up in another one: In the late 1980s, “the death of cinema” strikes for the first time and it does so where the least resistance can be expected: Super-8 is being discontinued by the industry. Tscherkassky’s decision to move towards 16mm film should, however, also be explained by the general fragility of Super-8 in a preservation context – the quest to preserve (and have constantly available) your work becomes an issue as soon as the idea of a real and accumulating oeuvre starts to settle in.
Shot-Countershot (1987) and Tabula rasa (1987/89) are Tscherkassky’s last films shot on Super-8. It is at this time that he begins to print and project his work on 16mm. The two films can be grouped together with Parallel Space: Inter-View (1992) under the heading “Film theory / psychoanalysis / self-portrait”. The growing recognition and success of Tscherkassky’s films during this time may be linked to the subject matter – film theory as heavily influenced by psychoanalysis. Tscherkassky, who was undergoing psychoanalysis himself for several years, almost appeared to be more committed to film studies than to actual filmmaking. He decided, however, to apply this form of knowledge to film practice. In addition he analysed his own role in the machinery of desire.
The rhetoric of Tabula rasa and Parallel Space: Inter-View is based – in parts meticulously – on the writings of Christian Metz about the “imaginary signifier” in cinema, as well as the lectures of philosopher/psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (about the genesis of the subject). Tscherkassky even uses written text: chapter headings and passages from letters which appear on a computer screen (Michael Palm has explored these relationships at length in his 1995 essay quoted below).
Both films are characterised by the immediate, almost erotic beauty of their filmic material. Structurally, however, they’re highly complex and slightly didactic. This combination tells us a lot about the catch-22 situation of film-art as film-theory. The goal of perfection is only possible at the expense of comprehensibility. Certain avant-garde film lovers who prefer a more intuitive or “pietist” representation of the real might regard these films as too intellectual, with the artist at times appearing to block his own path (in Tabula rasa, even the music sounds “scientific”) – PT, the man who knew too much. On the other hand, one can interpret them as a further, unavoidable step by the artist in trying to keep up with his most recent (seemingly “ultimate”) discoveries about the cinematic apparatus and his own self. The films touch on the “private parts” of cinema and those of the artist (they can therefore be quite embarrassing for the viewer). This innermost something, however, can only be expressed in images, moving from the inside to the outside, thereby losing its alleged ultimate validity. Tabula rasa may end with a white screen, but this is just another image, the image of a screen glaring outwards: at us, at our space in the world and in the cinema. Parallel Space deals with the “physics of seeing” and the “physics of remembering” (as announced by the text onscreen). But the closer we move – along with the “I” of the film – towards an understanding of these terms, the more we begin to “stumble”. We lose our “vanishing point”, we “fall”, we “faint”, we “lose” ourselves “somewhere in-between”, we “reawake” (“nobody here…”) and suddenly we “feel watched”. This process brings up the question of desire, beyond “physics” – WHAT is there to see, what to remember? The final, fragile words of the film again refer to the world outside, the world of the others: “remember / I was for you / looking for you”.
Tscherkassky’s attempt to practice psychoanalysis via film goes deeper than we commonly assume in this context. It affects the technical basis, the concrete production mode of Parallel Space: Inter-View. The film consists of frames shot with a still camera, in portrait format. Projected as film, the image therefore alternates between the upper and the lower half of the photographic frame, thus creating a flicker effect as well as the sense of losing all spatial stability. But the more the film’s “I” and the viewer lose themselves in the collapsing images, the more they are fascinated by what they see. Tscherkassky’s workspace, the optical printer (the German word for it means “optical bank”) does not destroy visuality and representation, but memorizes and multiplies it. Looking for you (ironically written on a computer) obviously refers to the other human being, the rest of the world; but it also highlights a new or rediscovered visuality, sensuality, film. You may imagine an image. It may even be beautiful. And you may take it from someone else.
In the 1980s and early ’90s, found footage film work became the dominant form of (post)-avant-garde cinema around the world: cinematic appropriation art. In Austria, for example, filmmakers like Gustav Deutsch (Adria, 1990) and Martin Arnold (pièce touchée, 1989) and most other Post-Super-8 artists are working primarily with existing film materials. Tscherkassky had experimented with this technique in Freeze Frame and Manufraktur. In Tabula rasa, found footage is used only at the beginning as a kind of gimmick; in Parallel Space it figures more prominently. Here we find a dialogue of gazes featuring Lee Remick and Montgomery Clift taken from Wild River (1960) by Elia Kazan.
However, during the production of Tabula rasa and in connection with Tscherkassky’s studies of psychoanalytical film theory, a further work came about, a wonderful little film made of “leftovers”. Shot-Countershot only runs for a few seconds, and it is one of the best jokes in the history of film (as well as film theory). In this found piece from a Western, a cowboy’s (pistol) shot and the mortal reaction shot coming from his opponent are pointedly not represented by the standard editing principle of (camera) shot-countershot. Rather than using the conventional montage technique – cutting up the space between the two riflemen and then suturing the two shots together in order to create a new, illusionistic unity of space and time – the original filmmaker has preserved the integrity of a single shot and a single space. Without any editing tricks, action and reaction are presented in one “uncut” image of a character who also remains “uncut” – even if shot to death. Tscherkassky acts in a similarly “respectful” way by showing us this film fragment without further manipulation.
Shot-Countershot marks the earliest incarnation of Hollywood cinema in Tscherkassky’s oeuvre. Historically, avant-garde film has almost always disassociated itself completely from Hollywood, often gaining an aura of “frustration” along the way. By default, one could often glimpse its actual fixation with the almighty Goliath. In the era of found footage film, however (and in Tscherkassky’s work of the past 15 years), Hollywood is openly welcomed into the world of the very “small” filmmakers. Do not fear, this gesture seems to say. Do not fear, since there will be laughs aplenty. Nothing to laugh at, let’s hope (this superficial attitude, a widespread affliction of audiences and artists alike, completely underestimates the wealth of commercial cinema). Rather, the attitude might be to laugh with these found movies, to be beautiful with their beauty and to create new knowledge from their knowledge and their unconscious.
Happy End (1996), L’Arrivé (1998), Outer Space (1999). A happy ending. The arrival. Outer space. A tale from a children’s book, a picture book of genre cinema, or straight from Kubrick’s 2001. It should be possible, though far too simple, to draw the essence of Tscherkassky’s oeuvre from the titles of his most recent films. Vanishing points, central perspective, the imaginary point where space and history come to a head are mere construction aids used by the modern man of means to help mend the cracks in existence. So much we have learnt from Tscherkassky’s work as well as many other sources. We want to believe that, in the end, there will have been a deeper meaning. Beyond the dangers of central perspective, however, one may still note a growing sense of certainty and composure in Tscherkassky’s films. Some things have been worked through. Somebody made a splash, took a deep dive and returned to the surface unharmed. Experiences were made, hands were freed, and they provide the starting point for new deeds. It is entirely possible now, as in the case of Happy End (1996), to discuss Rudolf and Elfriede and to understand the value of their “crappy little films”. Made between 1960 and 1980, these are literally home movies, private documents from the generation of Tscherkassky’s parents – petit-bourgeois portrayals of one’s own living room, various birthday and Christmas parties, eating and drinking, being together.
Selecting and editing segments from these short films which he had bought at a flea market, Tscherkassky allows himself (and the viewer) to study certain conventions and structures of home movies. In this sense, he still functions as the “happy” film theorist. One of his most remarkable observations concerns the way in which Elfriede (and later also Rudolf, after having acquired a tripod and cable release) address the camera directly. Who is this invisible third man or audience they keep communicating with? Is it themselves as future viewers of their own films? Are they addressing friends or relatives? Or are they talking to history itself – to an unspecified “Later on” capable of breathing new life into their very specific “Then”? They certainly talk to Tscherkassky, and they talk to us; we are the implied and invisible ghost in their 8mm small gauge machine. Sending out their insurance policies for a life after death, they reappear later on, after death, as the very visible ghosts in our 35mm movie machine. Tscherkassky has honoured their policy. He has taken on a “task” and he has taken it seriously – the gentle humour of his film does no harm at all. Musically, he connects Rudolf and Elfriede’s effusive and quite ritual celebration to a French hit from the 1950s: “bonbons, caramels, esquimaux, chocolats”, a story of pleasures of the flesh which override all others, even the pleasures of cinema. The song avoids direct sexual connotations by a hair’s breadth, as do the film fragments. Towards the end of the film, Tscherkassky lets the found images recede into the distance and emphasises the ghostly play of the machine. From inside the “representational” and “narrative” song a quite different music emerges, an almost “imaginary” soundscape: Michel Chion’s Requiem aeternam. Lord, give them eternal peace. “The people in the film are celebrating and they are full of life, but by now they are also dead” (Tscherkassky) – about as dead as the cowboy in Shot-Countershot.
In films, a lot depends on the way in which death is portrayed. At the same time it must be remembered that cinema is not a suitable last resting-place. Cinema is not static; as a thinking medium it moves along all the things that cross its path. Thus, a second meaning of the word requies emerges: rest and recuperation, a temporary place where both the past and the dead can gather energy for another round through the ghost house.
Blowing up 8mm film directly to 35mm (as in Happy End) may be seen as an act of violence. Surprisingly, however, the tiny image does not burst like a balloon but thrives within a new and vast playing field. The amorphous flow of grainy shapes in any big-screen Super-8 projection gives way to a much more stable, brilliant representation of these intrinsically fragile, endangered images. Their original clumsiness and “impure skin” are being preserved as the artist refrains from any attempt at mechanical or digital retouching. In fact, the opposite is true: the blow-up process draws attention to the less commonly acknowledged impurity and fragility of 35mm film, a formerly dominant format now also in the throes of crisis (i.e. the “death of cinema”). From the early 1990s onwards, 35mm film has closed a number of exciting or “threatening” contracts (depending on one’s point of view) with digital technology, spawning various mutations not only in the fields of production and postproduction, but also in exhibition. Since mid 1999, digital projection of major films in newly designated digital cinemas has become a widely discussed option. Industry rhetoric now assumes that by 2015 a full conversion to “immaterial” film presentation will have taken place in commercial cinemas around the “clean” and “civilised” world.
Just as 35mm film is about to disappear as the “unconscious” carrier of everything that’s grand and spectacular in cinema, its physical-material aspect and specific chemical characteristics attract more and more public attention. During the 1990s, the preservation, restoration and exhibition of early cinema rapidly improved, technically as well as in terms of popularity (with “cultural” audiences, in film studies, and in the work of experimental filmmakers). Today, the field of intersection between avant-garde film and early cinema is one of the liveliest territories of aesthetic debate. This counter-movement in the midst of digital culture is understandable, but not necessarily reactionary. It helps sharpen the senses towards a historical-critical perception of the film medium, as film finally renounces its dubious task of promoting expansive ideologies of innovation and progress. (As a side-effect, even the digitally integrated audiovisual – today’s “newest” and “most progressive” medium-amalgamated – becomes available as an object of historical-critical discourse.)
We are all postmodern. And many of us cherish the wealth of early cinematic images – for a wide range of reasons. Because their peculiar nostalgic charm can be easily exploited (the Smashing Pumpkins and their smashing Georges-Méliès-style music video); because they offer critical metaphors for contemporary culture (Gus Van Sant and his melancholy Ballad of the Skeletons, confronting Allen Ginsberg with a 1907 Pathé death fantasy); because they allow for a view of modernity as a somewhat “postmodern” conglomerate of “pioneering” achievements and everyday popular forms (Stan Douglas and his gripping installation Overture, where Proust meets Edison); or because the deteriorated images show the ravages of time as a creative work in its own right (Gustav Deutsch’s recent found footage miniature, its title describing precisely what it achieves: Tradition is the passing on of fire, not the worship of ashes.)
The soundtrack of Deutsch’s film consists of tremendously vivid crackling and scratching (noise music by Christian Fennesz). Tscherkassky found a strangely similar sound in the very film material he used: L’arrivée, a final rehearsal for Outer Space, consists of 35mm film fragments manipulated during the process of contact printing. Before we see the first “proper” representation, we see the representation of transparent, unexposed film: nothing. Or rather: We see all the things which should ideally be invisible in transparent, unexposed film – dirt, defects, scratches flashing by like hieroglyphs of imperfection. On the soundtrack, these perceptions intensify. We hear a kind of automatic composition, the exciting “music” emerging from all mechanical processes, long before one “proper” note has been played. It is as if this “gramophone” was recording the noise of the machine while simultaneously displaying it as an art event.
Later on, L’arrivée presents us with footage from the feature film Mayerling, shot in Vienna in 1968. It features Catherine Deneuve in the role of Mary Vetsera. Fleetingly, and in black-and-white, one recognises the arrival of a train in a station. Thus, for the second time in Tscherkassky’s career, we see a fake Lumière film (in this case, L’arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat). We see the sprocket hole “railway”, a celluloid train jumping off the rails and hurtling against another one. And we see the incredible psychophysical LOCOMOTION that cinema must have had when it first appeared. In Tscherkassky’s train of thought, the railway – industrial modernity’s real means of transport – is mirrored by the birth of cinema – imaginary means of transport in cultural-industrial modernity – and mirrored once more by the present era (1998) which hands over the eternally “progressive” role of locomotive to the digital industries and offers the avant-garde a chance for “arrival”.
Tscherkassky calls his method of “manufracture” (contact printing and the simultaneous manipulation of the elements) an “archaic technique”, making it seem old-fashioned by implication. In contemporary archaeology, art history or concert practice, however, such archaic techniques are being widely used. To understand any original material and communicate its complexity, it is almost always necessary to re-learn the concrete working methods which brought it about in the first place; i.e. the concrete processes through which the social became form. The intellectual plasticity and persuasive power – the “presentness” – of an excavation site, a fresco restoration or a performance of baroque music won’t be achieved any other way.
Tscherkassky’s films cannot be reduced to their “archaeological” aspect, of course. But their impetus to ponder, analyse and uncover all material layer-by-layer is definitely bound to a dimension of depth (whatever the material in question might be – Hollywood cinema, the life of the mind, modernity, or the chemistry of Super-8 film). In this sense, Tscherkassky’s practical film criticism on the basis of found footage differs radically from seemingly similar and very popular strategies in visual art, for example most installations by Scottish artist Douglas Gordon. Using the video medium, Gordon transfers well-known Hollywood classics into the White Cube and leaves his signature by manipulating one single formal element. Polemically stated, films like Psycho, The Searchers or Taxi Driver are thus blown-up or, rather, artificially shrunk into one-joke-movies. As viewers, we watch the flaccid gaze of a media junkie who is mainly out to refine rather than fathom his/our drug and his/our addiction.
Tscherkassky’s most influential and most widely shown film Outer Space operates beyond this kind of addiction. The film makes use of a scene from the horror movie The Entity, starring Barbara Hershey. Still, its sensuality is not so much based on the primary pleasures of cinematic illusion – diving into dreamlike, magical images – but on a better mystery: making contact with the dream machine operator, with the magician himself. Outer Space bears witness to the historic and intellectual wealth and to the depth of experience which mark the “first” cinematic avant-garde, growing out of modern art – just as Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma tells of a richly layered “second” avant-garde which derives more from fiction filmmaking and popular culture. Both are political, postmodern and highly personal forms of archaeology. And they still carry the traces of their respective “first loves”: echoes of Adorno’s “autonomous art work” in the case of Outer Space; and the feeling of grief vis-a-vis cinema’s unfulfilled promise in the Histoire(s). Yet unconsciously the two works appear to move slowly towards each other, towards a third place, a possible mutual goal: the thing “that has never been seen before, but somehow emerges right from the centre of the visible world”. The hereafter, the repressed, the monster of horror films. History as it unfolds between stories and documents, between the recorded artefacts of image, text and sound; the movie monster machine, stirring in its lair.
Outer Space. The Entity. A small story from the limitless cosmos of cinema. A woman (Hershey) enters her suburban home and is attacked by an invisible monster, an “external force”. She fights back and waits for another attack. Tscherkassky uses this conventional Hollywood tale to tell another one. A woman (Hershey) enters her cinematic image where she is attacked by an external force, a “monster” visible only to us – harsh reality, the exterior area of the image, “negative space”. She is threatened by the soundtrack’s jagged trail of light, by the sprocket holes on the film’s edge, by the sounds of “manufracture”, by the sudden multiplication of her own image, by the perforation of her pictorial space, by being stuck in cinema time. The monster keeps rotating and eliminates the woman from the image. Victory seems complete, calm sets in. The woman however, defends herself and temporarily regains her integral representation. For the first time we hear her voice. The monster remains still, but operational. All mirrors reflect the woman’s image, but the woman can see all the mirrors. The opponents scrutinise each other, tensely, attentively. They could be allies. A tie.
This second story is materialist, self-critical and crypto-feminist. It is definitely not destructive, cynical and egotistical. And like the first story, it is both a drama and an allegory. The allegory tells of a particular moment in crisis, where the illusionary hero and the modern art-hero stop beating each other senseless as they suddenly recognise each other, their respective other. The first one – the woman Hershey, fighting for her image – suddenly sees the real (beyond fiction); the other one – Tscherkassky, the external force, schooled by modernist tradition to always deconstruct illusion – suddenly sees the reality of fictional images. Outer Space is no longer the “parallel space” of the avant-garde, but in fact the “world space” of cinema.
Outer Space is also no “Inter-View”, no “questionnaire”, but a lively discourse between artist and found material where both partners – “manufracture” film and genre film – bring their specific knowledge and abilities to bear. Tscherkassky’s “archaic technique” enables him to not just analyse but also reconnect the cinema apparatus to the real. It celebrates cinema as the umbilical cord to the world. This celebration originated in France; it was critically applied to American films of the ’50s (among others) then practically applied in the making of French films during the ’60s. The depth of space and sheer beauty of 35mm cinemascope sound film, its capacity to think and communicate, all these qualities were first recognised in musicals and melodramas, then pushed to the foreground by Le Mépris (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963). All this potential is stored in the memory and in the making of Outer Space. It may be heard and seen and felt: an electricity, a crackling between the fragile image of a human being and the fragile mechanics portraying both the human and itself.
Films by Gene Kelly, Jean-Luc Godard, Peter Tscherkassky. Films which know there is still something to be celebrated. Films that are out in the rain, yet are still about to sing in spite of it.
Palm, Michael, “Liebesfilme” in Alexander Horwath, Gottfried Schlemmer, Lisl Ponger (eds.), Avantgardefilm. Österreich 1950 bis heute (Avant-garde film. Austria 1950 until today), Vienna 1995