(Note: The following is the last paper I ever wrote at Emerson College, an essay for my History of Experimental and Avant-Garde seminar.)
Looking for a world’s essence is not looking for what it is as an idea once it has been reduced to a theme of discourse; it is looking for what it is as a fact for us, before any thematization.
-Maurice Merleau-Ponty, "What is Phenomenology?"
Substitute “world” with “film” and one has a fairly instructive credo for digesting the work of Austrian avant-garde filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky (1958 - present). Since his first short film in 1981, Tscherkassky has sought increasingly imaginative ways of transcending conventional pictorial representation in cinema, producing radical aesthetic experiences that intentionally gesture towards visual coherence before completely unsettling any sense of spectatorial stability. Provocatively touted as “the most important and most internationally celebrated contemporary avant-garde filmmaker,” (Möller) much of his work has been the subject of psychoanalytic and philosophical analysis, but the films explored in this essay – Motion Picture (1984), L'Arrivée (1997/98), Outer Space (1999), Dream Work (2001), and Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine (2005) – suggest a desire to move beyond constricting modes of thought towards a new iteration of what Germaine Dulac deemed Cinéma pur; that is, a cinema with expressive qualities divorced from those of the other art forms based on “the power of the image alone” (34). Even as these films toy with structural framing devices, historically and theoretically loaded found footage material, and broader trends in the history of Austrian avant-garde cinema, their continual focus on material vulnerability reflects a larger interest in the fragility of various frameworks of thinking.
For the greater part of Tscherkassky’s career, this pursuit of pure cinema, absolute film, or immersive abstraction – whichever you prefer – has been tied to the photographic dark room. Starting with Motion Picture, Tscherkassky has been devoutly tied to celluloid film stock (both 16mm and 35mm) and hand processing (developing his film using his own chemicals and his own special methods). Integrating dark room manipulation of found footage stock into each of his works, not to mention producing his films entirely in this way for over a decade, Tscherkassky scratches, smudges, distorts, reprints, rephotographs, and multiplies his source material, in the process often abandoning any trace of the traditional point-and-shoot recording process that marks the vast majority of film production. Much of this work is accomplished with an optical printer, a device that allows one to scrutinize and maneuver individual film frames. Other times, Tscherkassky’s manipulation is entirely hands-on, in which case the effects seen in the finished films are produced through direct physical contact (abrasive or controlled) with the celluloid.
In these dark room exercises, Tscherkassky has evoked or directly incorporated a wide variety of films for his repurposing acts, all of which are emblematic of some larger trend in moving image history, if not unprecedented achievements on their own: Lumière actualités (the first films ever shot), Man Ray short films (pivotal early accomplishments in the French avant-garde), The Entity (a 1982 horror film that is representative of both the B-movie and Hollywood’s turbulent relationship with female subjects), and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (perhaps the quintessential spaghetti western). It goes without saying that all of these films were originally shot on celluloid, both Tscherkassky’s artistic tool as well as a fact of vital importance to the philosophical resonance of his work.
In violently interrogating the surface features of these films, Tscherkassky produces three core concepts that recur throughout his dark room films. First, and most conspicuous, is a demonstration of the convergence of representational and abstract forms: the original, legible imagery and the material distortion aroused by Tscherkassky’s working methods. Second is a simultaneous engagement with (both explicit and implicit) and transcendence of various noteworthy theories, including the semiotics of Umberto Eco, the structural ideas of Roland Barthes, the materialist writings of Peter Gidal, the psychoanalytic studies of Sigmund Freud, and the feminist concepts of Laura Mulvey. The final revelation is a complete immersion in affect, a dramatic intensification of the emotional/expressive content inherent in the original footage. The ultimate achievement of all of this is to overwhelm the urge for intellectualization. As Antonin Artaud suggests in “Cinema and Reality,” “no matter how deeply we dig into the mind, we find at the bottom of every emotion, even an intellectual one, an affective sensation of a nervous order (411).” That affective sensation is a consistent achievement in Tscherkassky’s body of work.
Motion Picture (1984), the first of Tscherkassky’s films to be created entirely within the dark room, exemplifies these ideas in their nascent form. The film dissects the Lumière brothers’ La Sortie des usines Lumière à Lyon (1895) – the first ever theatrical motion picture – by projecting a still frame from it onto 50 strips of unexposed 16mm stock hung vertically on a wall, revealing the resulting 50 X 80 cm “frame” to the viewer, and then running the exposed film strips through the projector at 24 frames per second so that only amorphous wisps of the original image flash by on the screen. It’s a simple structural game that Tscherkassky admits was an attempt to demonstrate Umberto Eco’s semiotic theory stating that isolated parts carry no meaning divorced from their whole, and indeed Motion Picture is infallible proof of this idea; a viewer uninformed of the background context would perceive no relationship between the film’s two halves (Tscherkassky 130). At the same time however, the film’s scientific basis is shifted to the background once its silent, serene pulsation of light and dark sets in. Tscherkassky exposes, at one end, an instantly recognizable image, and at another, total abstraction. Though bifurcated here, these two poles become increasingly entangled as Tscherkassky’s career in the dark room progresses.
In resurrecting the earliest example of cinema, Tscherkassky illustrates that this frail boundary between a legibly recorded reality before the camera and its material imprint on celluloid – a boundary that is forever on the cusp of being exposed – is inherent in the nature of celluloid-based filmmaking. Turning to yet another Lumière short for inspiration with L'Arrivée, Tscherkassky provided another conceptual cushion with which to frame his later work. The film opens with a blank white screen with speckles of dusty emulsion flaring up like a mirage of fireworks. Suddenly sprocket holes start to jolt in at the frame’s periphery, and following them is a shot of a train arriving in a station from Terrence Young’s Mayerling (1969) that echoes the central composition from the Lumières’ L'Arrivée d'un Train Ã la Ciotat (1895) (Tscherkassky 150). The image enters the picture plane horizontally, bobbing back and forth on its way in as if to emulate the task of a projectionist to properly align the image in the film gate. The technique acts as an instance of “foregrounding the inherent tension between interiority and exteriority” as discussed by James Leo Cahill in his essay on Tscherkassky (94). In L'Arrivée, this tension eventually leads to mangled visions of Catherine Deneuve exiting the train to embrace an approaching man, and in doing so the film shifts from a purely formal idea to an impression of subjectivity and narrativity, a trait that comes to define Tscherkassky’s dark room films from this point on.
The notion of Tscherkassky’s self-proclaimed “enjoyment of the opulent cinematic spectacle” starts to ring especially true with Outer Space, his most widely screened and well-known work (102). Here, the formal tension and implications of narrative in L'Arrivée leap forward in both sophistication and scope; Outer Space runs for ten minutes to L'Arrivée’s two and detonates that film’s already layered visual surface into a sensory assault. Drained of its original color, the climactic sequence from Sidney J. Furie’s The Entity that comprises the film’s source material features star Barbara Hershey being tormented in her domestic space by invisible demons, or, as filmmaker Guy Maddin puts it, “assaulted and raped by either real ghosts or awfully adept repressed traumas.” In Tscherkassky’s version, those traumas are cast as the film medium itself, conspiring around Hershey in a flurry of displaced sprocket holes, non-traditional chemical effects, and arduous superimpositions that splinter her into two, three, four, sometimes five or six visual fragments (face, head, hands, silhouetted body, etc.) As a film that is fundamentally about the image of a passive female object and her oppression within the narrative space, Outer Space is haunted by Laura Mulvey’s seminal feminist essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” but Tscherkassky’s violent disruption of time-space continuity denies any of the scopophilic pleasure that was central to Mulvey’s critique (835-36). Instead, the film attacks the accumulated oppression of women wrought by male filmmakers by unleashing the medium against a female subject, effectively making brutally clear the sentiment offered by Mulvey.
Ostensibly assuming one film was not enough to dismantle Furie’s unwieldy exploitation film, Tscherkassky followed up Outer Space with Dream Work, another repurposing of The Entity that gestures not toward Mulvey but rather toward Freudian dream theory and the work of seminal French avant-gardist Man Ray. The film appears to sketch the rough outline of a narrative: a woman (Hershey) enters her room, goes to sleep, dreams of a sexual encounter (Remembered? Misremembered? Fantasized? Constructed?) with a man, and seems to recount, cinematically, some of the innocuous moments of her day leading up to her sleep (taking her heels off, putting lotion on her legs, undressing). This dream gets increasingly frenetic and its images less legible as the film progresses; as is typical of these films, narrative hints gradually dissolve to reveal abstract spectacle. Nonetheless, Dream Work has a more readily identifiable structure than Outer Space. Indeed, the film’s titles point to the respective metaphorical realms that they occupy. In Freud’s terminology, Dream Work presents a nocturnal space where the superego’s ability to censor the id has collapsed and only “unchecked urges” and “primal impulses” remain, all of which take the cinematic form of countless layers, disembodied faces occupying several portions of the frame, aggressive monochromatic strobing, and a shifting dark haze caused by different areas of each frame being burnt out (Freud). Most strikingly, Tscherkassky echoes Man Ray’s Le Retour à la Raison (1923) in his use of photograms, or images produced by placing physical objects (in this case, nails) directly on the photochemical surface before exposing it to light (“Rayograph”). Tscherkassky gladly stretches Freud’s concept of dream “material” to also signify the analog special effects shaped by his own physical process (Freud, 44-54).
Despite their seemingly chaotic indulgence in spectacle, both Outer Space and Dream Work adhere, as semiotician Roland Barthes theorized, to “ the goal of all structuralist activity,” which is to “take the real, decompose it, then recompose it…in such a way as to manifest thereby the rules of functioning” (Barthes 158). If The Entity is the object, the films dissect its inner workings, exaggerate its affective qualities, and bring to light its theoretical underpinnings, augmenting the experience of the original film even as it illuminates its shortcomings. But Tscherkassky’s structuralist goal is far from academic or coldly intellectual. The “something new” referred to by Barthes as the ultimate creation of the structuralist act is not “intellect added to object” but rather affect added to object (158-159). Tscherkassky’s interested not only in the affect already existing in the visuals of his chosen source material, but also that which lies dormant within, between, and on the edges of film frames waiting to be exposed through a more complete exploitation of the physical medium. It’s almost as if his body of work acts as a corrective to filmmakers who did not achieve the adequate levels of intensity in their original execution.
This idea is fully realized by Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine (2005), a fierce 16-minute renovation of Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1968). (Tscherkassky has a long-standing debt to Leone; he admits to Once Upon a Time in the West being one of his earliest and “most moving cinema experiences” (102).) Mimicking Leone’s distress at the dissolution and moral degradation of the old frontier lifestyle as well as the Western genre itself, Tscherkassky’s film is a poignant metaphor for his own steadfast loyalty to celluloid in an increasingly digital moving-image environment that crystallizes many of the obsessions that have defined his body of work: indistinct narratives and characters being consumed by the machinery of the film medium, self-reflexive attention to the “defects” of analog film projection (sprocket holes, frame lines, etc.), and limitless manipulation of the source footage in a way that disregards initial chronology or cause-and-effect. Focusing on a single climactic scene in Leone’s film, Tscherkassky reduces the dramatic specifics to an orgy of voyeurism, confrontation, and death, which is reflected in the decay and stutter of the image. Violence enacted by the characters in Leone’s film merges with violence enacted by the filmmaker upon his medium, suggesting the disappearance of film stock as cinema enters a post-celluloid age where “machines can replace the work of projectionists” (Wegenstein 58).
Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine opens with a blown-out image of a man opening a window to peer through a telescope (looking quite like a camera lens) at events outside. What follows is a collage of images condensed through circular masks to suggest the function of the telescope, but these images do not belong to the same perspective. This disregard for spatial coherence implies cinema’s use of a variety of perspectives to create an illusion of time-space continuity, thus casting the man with the telescope as a filmmaker, opening a window to his own vision of the world. The film then shifts to reveal that vision – that is, Tscherkassky’s vision. Rugged frontiersmen approach one another in a barren landscape and a gunshot is fired, triggering a flickering assault of handgun photograms. The rest of the film extends this gunshot into a chaotic shootout, whereby the frame itself becomes a battleground of screaming, wincing men multiplied and scattered across the screen. As the brutality wears on, graphics intended for a projectionist (the “instructions” referred to by the title) start to invade the tenuous narrative onscreen; at one point, the word “HEAD,” signifying the beginning of the film roll, harmoniously syncs up with a tight shot of actor Eli Wallach hanging from a noose. Once these men are evocatively reduced to tiny silhouettes running against a vicious tide of churning abstraction, the overexposed image of a massive graveyard is introduced, at which point the man at the beginning puts away his telescope and closes the window. The film ends. The medium has swallowed the human figures contained within.
With Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine, Tscherkassky makes his most powerful argument for why celluloid must remain despite the threat of its demise: the totality of its expression transcends the oppressive force of narrative on dominant visual culture. Put similarly by theorist Drehli Robnik, the film concerns “the destruction of the regime of narrative and the regime of the gaze” (86). The same could be said of all of Tscherkassky’s films, which flirt with narrativity only to illuminate how insignificant narrative concerns are in general. In doing so, these films direct close attention to more neglected aspects of cinematic texts: filmmaking technique and the physical medium itself. “I decided to make work that illustrates and celebrates the qualities of analog film which cannot be replaced by non-analog media,” says Tscherkassky (Mancuso), even as he insists his work has nothing to do with material fetishism (Tscherkassky 160). Motion Picture, L'Arrivée, Outer Space, Dream Work, and Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine don’t represent fetishistic obsessions with celluloid as much as full expressions of the medium’s unique physicality.
In Materialist Film, Peter Gidal suggests that “the film material and the process of viewing together transform film into a new object and process,” finally arguing for a “filmic ‘trying to see’ instead of seeing, trying to know instead of (the illusion of) knowing” (7). His theory posits an approach to cinema appreciation that has less to do with post-viewing exegesis (academic thought) than with an active, evolving interpretive process that occurs during the viewing of a film (phenomenological activity). Again, Merleau-Ponty is a helpful reference point: “perception is, not presumed to be true, but defined as access to truth” (81). The dense, sensual, and overwhelming dark room films of Peter Tscherkassky provide dynamic examples of this direct perceptual engagement with cinema. In their pursuit of a distinct celluloid language, they obliterate any traces of other art forms that still haunt dominant cinema, leaving in their wake an immersive pulsating screen of light and dark, sprocket holes and editing table waste, disconnected limbs and haunted faces.
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-Dulac, Germaine. “Visual and Anti-visual Films.” The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism. Ed. P. Adams Sitney. Trans. Robert Lamberton. New York University Press: New York, 1978. Pg. 33-34. Print.
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