A confrontation with the codes of narrative-representational cinema is one of Peter Tscherkassky’s constant concerns. If one attempts to distill a constant from his films, then this must surely be the oscillation between the abstract and the concrete, between the dry and the sensual, which is the source of energy of his work. The question of belly or brain is one which Tscherkassky stopped asking long ago - for ultimately sobriety is the route to ecstasy.
How many doctors of philosophy do you know who are also accomplished filmmakers? One such person is Austrian-born (1958), Peter Tscherkassky. He lived in Berlin (1979–84) where he studied philosophy at university. He wrote his doctoral thesis on “Film as Art: Towards a Critical Aesthetics of Cinematography,” and he teaches filmmaking at the Academies of Applied Arts in Linz and Vienna.
I first encountered Tscherkassky’s work earlier this year (January 23, 2005) when Brett Kashmere and Astria Suparak curated a series of short films, entitled “Trouble: Hollywood Viewed by the Avant-Garde Cinema” at Cinémathèque Québécoise to accompany the art exhibition “INDUSTRIE/INDUSTRY: Oeuvres récentes/Recent works by Richard Kerr.” Fully half of the eight films programmed were Austrian (and one German), and the show climaxed with the “angst, spectacle and barrage” (to use Suparak and Kashmere’s words) of two 35mm works, Kerr’s collage d’hollywood (2003, Canada, 8 min.), and Tscherkassky’s incredible Outer Space (1999, 10 min.), in black and white and cinemascope.
Outer Space samples a sequence from a 1981 Hollywood film, starring Barbara Hershey, which was made in widescreen, but in colour (rather than black and white). This film is The Entity directed by veteran Canadian-born filmmaker Sidney J. Furie, which, unfortunately, I haven’t seen.* The internet movie database “tagline” certainly suggests that The Entity is indeed the film that is being sampled: “Something evil is after Carla Moran, and it will stop at nothing to get her.” The IMDb “plot outline” begins “Supposedly based partially on a true story, a woman is tormented and molested by an invisible demon.” Simultaneously, Tscherkassky reduces the original work by subtracting the colour, but adds so much more, by reworking it, superimposing images, fragmenting through rapid montage, and creating a new, highly aggressive soundtrack.
In the beginning, on a night-time exterior shot of a single story house, a flicker-effect, produced by Tscherkassky encourages blackness to predominate, as the camera (in the original film which is being sampled) gradually approaches the house and reveals Hershey’s figure, seen from behind. There is no sound and flashes (apparently of the same shot) are intermittently superimposed. With the camera now stationary, she moves towards the house, and a noise is introduced (which sounds like something going wrong with the projection), accompanied by a breaking-up of the image. Then a series of shots, probably replicating the point-of-view sequencing of the original version, takes us and Hershey into the house. The superimposition now becomes a constant effect, initially of lights flickering over images of her moving through the house, and later to provide multiple images of her face as she talks (to an unseen character) and screams. Instead of voices, we hear an increasingly loud cacophony of scratching and percussive sounds. At this, the midpoint of the film, additional sounds, including that of glass shattering, and fragments of music and voices which cannot be discerned are introduced, while the image, predominantly of her upper body trying to escape, viewed in rapidly-moving camera shots, completely breaks up. Images of lightning bolts are superimposed, negative stock dominates over positive, and white over black. We glimpse sprocket holes and as the work becomes increasingly reflexive, the sampled film disappears completely from view. We return to the outside of the house and when we re-enter it, crossed bars and Venetian blinds create an even more rigorous, vertical and horizontal segmentation effect. With the dominating sound of splintering glass, the Hershey character, invariably seen next to an omnipresent table lamp, appears to be beaten. But, she fights back, and her physical gestures and cries are repeated. (Throughout the film, we become intensely aware of repetition and variation being used as a central structuring device). At the end, Outer Space turns quiet both visually and aurally, on the impression that she has died. The last multiple images of her appear to be of a framed photograph.
Outer Space has gained a reputation over the years as being a key “experimental film” to see in an era when the golden age of the formal and textural experimental film in North America has long since past—the age of “high modernism” and of “lyrical” (e.g., Stan Brakhage) and “structural” (e.g., Michael Snow) film during the 1960s and 1970s. It also stands as an example of how Austria may well have become the centre of such experimental filmmaking in the last two decades, a situation that was recognized in Paris in 1996 with the Centre Georges Pompidou mounting a major retrospective entitled, “L’avant-garde autrichienne au cinema: 1955 – 1993.” Certainly, Peter Kubelka, who made the groundbreaking “flicker film” composed of only clear and black leader, Arnulf Rainer in 1960 has inspired new generations of his Austrian compatriots to follow his truly independent model of experimental filmmaking. And, we can understand that Outer Space is also representative of a new kind of cinematic experiment in returning to a reflexive exploration of the film medium itself (a “modernist” tendency), while sampling and reworking an existing film (a “post-modernist” tendency), and, most excitingly, perhaps, engaging the audience in a visceral theatrical experience: big screen and even bigger sound. I am persuaded that it is the last of these three tendencies that has brought this particular film a relatively extensive audience and appreciation—in 1999 and 2000 alone it was shown in 43 film festivals, world-wide. Peter Rist in OFF SCREEN, Volume 9, Issue 11, 30.11.2005
Peter Tscherkassky is without question one of the most innovative and interesting avant-garde filmmakers to have emerged from Austria during the last 25 years. He exclusively uses found footage, which is then heavily edited in his dark room. In a laboriously process, he manually alters every single frame until he has the results he is satisfied with. Tscherkassky has explained his love for very dense films with multiple layers and that is exactly what his films look like. Take for instance his highly acclaimed film ‘Outer Space’ which uses scenes from the 1981 horror film ‘The Entity’, but reorganizes them in such a way it becomes a totally different film altogether. In the original film, a woman is attacked by unseen forces and is sexually harassed by them. In Tscherkassky’s film, the woman is still attacked, but not only by unseen forces, but also by the film itself, so to speak. The film begins relatively unaltered, but grows more dense and frenetic as the film progresses, keeping in line with the suspense of the original movie. But when the woman is attacked, Tscherkassky injects a total new narrative -one of the film itself- and increases the amount of layers almost to the point of invisibility, until he finally tears his entire film apart, leaving only the clear film leader; the film then gradually reinvents itself. In this process, Tscherkassky exposes the mechanism of film, while at the same time tells a story, and it is exactly this tension between film structural preoccupations and narrative ones that seems to be central to Tscherkassky’s art. He considers himself a narrative filmmaker, but is just as well interested in the construction of the medium film itself. He uses deconstruction as a form of construction and tries to show us an alternative way of film narrative as opposed to the classical Hollywood narratives. In doing so, Tscherkassky not only presents us with the most beautiful and haunting images, but also forces us the rethink our conception of film and film narrative.
Let me first say that I think this is one of the best DVD’s Index DVD has offered us so far, mainly thanks to the high quality of the films presented here. Peter Tscherkassky has quite a unique approach to filmmaking, resulting in some of the most exhilarating avant-garde films I’ve encountered. The artist himself has stated he was very happy with the transfers of this DVD, but also emphasized the difference between experiencing these works on a DVD like this and seeing them projected on the big screen. Having personally been through both experiences I can most certainly attest to this claim: when I saw these films in the cinema it was almost like I was experiencing completely different films, because the intensity of the light, the different layers of the films and the use of Cinemascope in some films, literally scream for projection on the big screen. But as these screenings are quite hard to come by, this DVD is an amazing substitute, perfectly suitable for home viewing. Also included is a printed interview with Tscherkassky and some short notes on the various films. Highly recommended. Maikel Aarts in DVD Beaver , 2006