I started writing this post about the films of Peter Tscherkassky nearly three years ago, and never finished it: that happens sometimes, if I don’t have time to complete a bit of writing, or I lose my train of thought, or if I come across an article that says exactly what I wanted to say. I can’t remember what happened to this one, but I was reminded of the unfinished piece when I attended a talk by Tscherkassky at the newly opened EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam. It was the first time I’d seen the films projected on film, and it reignited an interest that had begun for me after seeing them on DVD and trying to use some of them in my teaching. Listening to him explain the incredibly painstaking methods he uses to create his films made me think the least I could do was knock out a few words in response.
It started for me when one of my students lent me a DVD of Tscherkassky’s short films. The one that really leaped out to me was Outer Space, which has become his best-known work. To sum it up, it comprises some found footage from Sidney J. Furie‘s raped-by-a-poltergeist drama The Entity (1982), which has been heavily manipulated to produce an audio-visual assault of its own. It’s unsettling, visceral and riveting, a flickering, stuttering monochrome remix, at times looking like a jammed projector, or worse, a projector possessed by some invisible force that wants to speak a different meaning through the material fabric of the original film. Watched in the dark, with the sound turned up, it’s a powerful demonstration of form commandeering content, as Tscherkassky engineers a reversal of the original film’s voyeuristic, violating gaze and helps its protagonist to retaliate. That’s a succinct version of what Tscherkassky does – he takes a footage form existing films and works by hand with the material fabric of the film print to make it tell a new story, to repurpose its images. His is a distinctly nostalgic methodology, since it depends upon the materiality of film and an archive of existing pictures, but it still feels remarkably contemporary, because it is concerned with the kinds of re-authoring that you see on video-sharing websites every day.
Tscherkassky says he must have watched The Entity about a hundred times in preparation for his own “remake”. When you watch a film that many times, he suggests, “the story starts to crumble”, and little moments start to take on much greater significance. His films work to elevate those tiny moments to new prominence, to rebuild the film around its incidentals, its contingencies, and he twists them into telling a story, or illustrating an idea, of his own devising. He located six frames (a quarter of a second) where Barbara Hershey is looking directly into the camera lens, and amplified this fleeting moment to a full-on return of the camera’s gaze.
I’d been looking for some films to put onto a programme of avant-garde or experimental shorts for students on a third year option module. It’s an area that interests me, but not one I’m any kind of expert about, and I understand that students for whom fictional narrative film is a fairly stable norm will find this stuff challenging. I too found avant-garde film daunting and distancing at first, as if it was speaking in an exclusive, coded language that I wasn’t supposed to understand. It takes practice and attention to come to enjoy or be fascinated by this stuff: you just need to find the gateway drugs, the films that make conceptual cinema an accessible, comprehensible experience and lead into the hard stuff. At various times, it might have been Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight or Norman McLaren’s Neighbours (or another personal favourite, Begone Dull Care). These are films that, to varying degrees, speak in a cinematic vernacular that is strange enough to feel daring but familiar enough to be intellectually legible or emotionally affecting. I suggest that Outer Space has become one of the “gateway films” of the 21st century. Michele Pierson has noted its status as a “showstopper” at international film festivals, and argues that Tscherkassky’s work in general fulfills “an avant-garde desire to interrogate the cinema’s occult power, to make visible and audible, what might otherwise be left latent or repressed.” For Pierson, whose first book Special Effects: Still in Search of Wonder remains one of the most important contributions to the scholarly study of filmic spectacle, these are films that foreground “special effects”, even though we might traditionally have been conditioned to associate that term with mainstream blockbusters; they “communicate in ways that sneak under spectators’ conscious wrestling with these films’ high degree of indeterminacy, to provide anticipatory feelings of recognition and insight that don’t necessarily cohere into readings.” We often think of special effects as the opposite of interpretive prompts: they replace intellectual engagement with dazzling display and explosive, annihilating visuals. But they are also technological showcases that can highlight the capabilities of the medium, even when they claim to be serving only the needs of a story. By describing the way the Tscherkassky films’ machine-gun montages assail their viewers as “special effects”, Pierson is not trying to explain away or diminish what they do, but rather to exalt the way they communicate through their effects and not through some obscurantist semiotic argot.
In talking through some of Tscherkassky’s work with my students, we began with questions about how to watch the films. Without a plot or characters to follow, what do we do with a film that eschews the instructive structures of story? Here was a film that may be overwhelming, but which one might not necessarily “understand” in any simple sense. I was fully engaged with it, without the emotional guidance that we usually get from an empathetic relationship between spectator and protagonist, and the sense of being acted upon by the film, almost physically jolted by it (I don’t think I can describe it better than the student who said it was like having his eyes and ears electrocuted), may be designed to make the viewer reflect not upon what the people inside the film are doing, but upon the troubled, complex relationship between spectator and medium. These films are, in the broadest sense, instructional, reminding you of the mechanics of the medium. In its formal dramatisation of the spiky, fragmented, and frayed interplay between the watcher (you and/or me) and the stimulus (the film), a Tscherkassky film obstructs access to the content (the characters and the original narrative) of a film by bringing the materiality of the film stock to the fore.
It was never immediately apparent to me how Tscherkassky’s films were made. I could see that there was some violence being inflicted upon found footage, but last week’s talk explained a lot without destroying the mystique or letting me fit all of the information in my brain at once. In short, his work is intense, focused and delicate: if the finished films look violent, it is only the result of very careful, measured preparation. If Stan Brakhage would sometimes scar and splatter his filmstrips in his attempts to directly engrave them with some emotional vestigia, Tscherkassky carries out a near-surgical operation on his materials.
He works on his films one metre at a time. That’s the width of his work-bench, and a reasonable way to segment his schedule. In a darkroom, he uses found footage like a stencil, masking areas of the raw film stock and then using a laser pointer or flashlight to expose his film to portions of a frame from the found footage. For Outer Space, he used a print of The Entity that he’d seen advertised for $50 (the shipping costs from the US were more than the print itself), and for Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine, he had been gifted a print of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. His latest film, Coming Attractions, is drawn from a store of advertising out-takes, mostly showing models repeating the same minute actions again and again, donated by a former student. As a side note, for my money, while it’s definitely a cut above most short films out there, Coming Attractions is less galvanising than earlier works because its staccato structure ( short segments built around a punning title) prevents it from building up the rhythmic momentum that made something like Outer Space such a rush.
So, Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine is an invitation to ponder the materiality of film, and Tscherkassky peppers it with the sign system of the projectionist. In a scene from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in which Tuco (Eli Wallach) is about to be hung, we see the word “TAIL”, and a scissors icon onscreen. These are cues given to projectionists to assist with the assembly of the film into the correct sequence, “head” and “tail” being the beginning and the end of the reel: incorrect identification might lead to the film being projected upside down; the scissors tell where to cut. Noting the phenomenon of “angel lust“, the terminal erection exhibited by some dying men, Tscherkassky overlays the film with a castration metaphor (the “tail” cut by the scissors) pieced together with the iconography usually used for the effective exhibition of the film itself. Symbols designed to give order and stability to the film’s screening are deployed for the deconstruction and redirection of part of an existing film. Whatever new stories Tscherkassky re-engineers his found footage to tell, the primary motivation is to construct those stories out of the fabric of the film itself rather than out of some external storytelling urge that might just as easily have found expression through other means. This is medium specificity at its most thorough and absolute, a reliquary of film’s forms, routines, and phraseology, made fresh through a rethinking of the structures we tend to take for granted.
Links and Reading:
- Peter Tscherkassky’s official website.
- Christina Blümlinger, “Found Face: on Outer Space“. Senses of Cinema.
- Rhys Graham, “Outer Space: The Manufactured Film of Peter Tscherkassky“. Senses of Cinema.
- Michele Pierson, “Special Effects in Martin Arnold’s and Peter Tscherkassky’s CInema of Mind.” Discourse 28.2/3 (2006): 28-50.