Peter Tscherkassky’s Instructions

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. Continue reading


Cineblatz Randomised

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Usually, when I write these “randomised” posts, I use a random number generator to select three or four frames from a film; these then serve as starting points for a discussion of the film, hopefully from unexpected angles, focusing on the minutiae that reveal the broader concerns of the whole. See here for more examples. In this case, I’m using it as a way to still the torrent of Jeff Keen‘s two-minute collage film Cineblatz, and instead of using the number generator to tell me which minute from the film to examine in more detail, I have intermittently tapped the “framegrab” button to gather a gallery of stills from the film. You can click on any one of them at the bottom of this post, or see them, in sequence, in the slideshow at the top. Continue reading

Begone Dull Care: Norman McLaren Randomised

Norman McLaren

When I started a series of “Randomised” film analyses, an exercise which I have really enjoyed, I tended to use it as a counterpoint to the longer, more deliberate essays I was in the habit of posting around here. The notion of taking three or four frames from a film and using them as the steer for a discussion allowed me to work quickly in a more loose, but hopefully still interesting way. In a comment on one of the posts, Mathew Flanagan suggested the idea of applying randomisation to more abstract kinds of film. I pledged to follow it up, so here is my effort at his chosen film, Begone Dull Care, Norman McLaren‘s (co-constructed with Evelyn Lambart) animated accompaniment to a performance of Oscar Peterson‘s tune of the same name.

Begone Dull Care lasts for 467 seconds, so I thought I’d ask my random number provider to pick four frames out of those many seconds: 96, 145, 316 and 462. I’ll get started right away. If you’re confused about how this post works, I hope it’ll become clear what I’m doing as we go along…

Begone Dull Care 96th second

There may be a problem here – I thought about randomising something like Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight, which creates patterns out of insect pieces and leaves stuck directly onto the film strip. Each frame is an individual picture as much as it is part of a continuum of movement (as is almost always the case in a live-action film, so there’s a danger that the randomised analysis would end up looking for patterns in the scattered phenomena of the abstract film, as if it were a flickering Rorschach test conducted on the artist. I wouldn’t want to be looking for “messages” within the surfaces, scratches and bursts of colour in this film. It’s an experimental film in the sense of seeing “what would happen if…” rather than plotting out an agenda and deploying visual cues to effect it. McLaren may have tried to be led by the music towards a complimentary visual expression of its tonalities and rhythms, but it is still personally expressive. Another artist might have chosen a much smokier, cooler colour palette, falling back on the stereotypical association of jazz with silver, black and blue. McLaren had been inspired to paint directly on film, in part by Len Lye’s Colour Box (1935), and had finally obtained the right colour film stock to let him make Begone Dull Care in 1947. In this “shot”, red dominates, and the trail of marks that snakes up one side of the frame is presumably one that sneaks into the neighbouring frames, sidestepping the usual patterns of frame-by-frame animation that might be expected to construct the continuous movement of a single object (a cartoon mouse, for instance) out of incremental movements. Instead of simulating objects with a static camera position, these trails of scratches and indentations on the filmstrip propose a new wave of thinking about animated movement. It is freedom to deviate from the boundaries of the frame, just as improvisatory jazz might stray from the script of the musical stave or the strictures of the time signature.

Begone Dull Care 125th second

Too sweetly pink to be bloodstains, they remind me of flower petals. A couple of shades more scarlet and I might have thought of a bloodied shroud, but red for McLaren seems to be the tone of joy rather than of danger. We often think that red is the colour selected by nature to signify danger or poison to predators. In actual fact, the combination of yellow and black does a pretty good job of this, while red has been adopted by humans because it stands out most effectively against its surroundings, as when it’s needed to attract your attention on STOP signs or traffic lights. It’s a colour that pushes forward towards the eye, usually standing in stark contrast to everything outside of the frame (i.e. the surroundings in the cinema or of your front room if, like me, you’re watching this on DVD). These particular tangles and twists of red come in different shades, some looking like stains, other retaining what looks like fresh liquidity. They may bunch together in places, but they never cohere into discernible forms.

Begone Dull Care 316th second

Scratches on film can be caused by grit in the back of the camera or projector. They remind us of the materiality, the mortality of film. Nowadays, you can purchase digital stock footage of scratches to add to your own film to make it look old and worn. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez tried to authenticate their double-bill Grindhouse with this kind of simulated wear n’ tear. For this section of the film, the scratches take over. They don’t obscure the scene, they are the scene. Their parallel lines briefly evoke the lines of a musical stave or the strings of an instrument, but they shift thrillingly in accord with the suspended chords and notes of Peterson’s improvisation, which seems to be plotting its next move with care. This frame also reminds us of the stream of scratches from the first image above; here, the scratches don’t elaborate on their basis in vertical, transframe movement. Like figures on the screen of an oscilloscope they wait for sonic input to pluck their strings and create new formations.

Begone Dull Care 460th second

I couldn’t resist a fourth frame. Usually, the randomisation process is restricted to three images from the film, but there’s so much to see in this film that it really feels as though anything could be discovered within, and I rarely get the chance to slow down the film and pick apart its components. Could it be that these frozen frames kill off the film? They were supposed to be viewed not as discrete entities (though many, like this one, look like perfectly formed little abtracts on their own – there’s definitely a touch of Joan Miró on show here) but as flowing streams of sensory data to be felt and absorbed through the cumulative effects of their flickering squiggling shapes. This frame, more than the others (but similar to the first) looks like a collection of protozoa swarming under a microscope, as if the filmstrip is teeming with life. Is it a coincidence that most of the metaphors for which I’ve reached in trying to get a grip on this film have been those of scientific observation (Rorschach, oscilloscope, microscope)? Perhaps not. Perhaps I was unconsciously drawing those associations to try and find a comforting pattern in the potentially disturbing randomness. Or perhaps the film really does thematise a kind of enhanced vision, where music can be seen and fleetingly grasped.

Funeral Parade of Roses

“A feverish collision of avant-garde aesthetics and grindhouse shocks (not to mention a direct influence on Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange), Funeral Parade of Roses takes us on an electrifying journey into the nether-regions of the late-’60s Tokyo underworld.

Cross-dressing club-kid Eddie (played by real-life transvestite entertainer extraordinaire Peter, famed for his role as Kyoami the Fool in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran) vies with a rival drag-queen (Osamu Ogasawara) for the favours of drug-dealing cabaret-manager Gonda (Yoshio Tsuchiya, himself a Kurosawa player who appeared in such films as Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, and High and Low). Passions escalate and blood begins to flow – before all tensions are released in a jolting climax.” (Plot Synopsis from

It’s tempting not to review this film, but just to show a bunch of stills and leave them to stand alone as a recommendation to view the whole thing. Almost any frame can be grabbed and held up as a beautifully composed image, but mostly it becomes fascinating for the barrage of eclectic formal experiments.

While these stills show the exciting variety of shot scales and compositional spectacles, they don’t convey the ways in which the mash-up of documentary and fictional techniques drives the film forward. The film provides a mix of extreme narrative contrivance and naturalistic, Brechtian interview with ordinary people and cast members out of character. Peter’s interview to camera even hints at the plot twist which has not yet been revealed. Matsumoto wanted to blend together his disparate cinematic influences; he hails from a documentary background, but was fascinated by Italian neo-realism and the avant-garde, and each of these modes complements, comments on or occasionally undermines the others. Moments of apparently naturalistic documentary footage give way to blatant fabrication and vice versa. At every step, the fiction is undermined by images of its construction. Scenes are linked with bursts of leader film or still images. A sex scene focusing on Eddie’s ecstatic facial expressions is cut short by a shot of the scene being filmed, revealing that he is writhing alone on the bed. Is this scene telling us that Eddie is acting in adult films, or is it an entirely self-reflexive insert to puncture the fictional bubble? Even his final scene of self mutilation is interrupted by a contact shot of stills of the scene being shot, and a cheerful commentator who asks the viewer: “Frightening, isn’t it?”

Whatever it did for progressing the prominence of gay people in Japan, this is less a piece of authentic queer cinema and more an example of captivated sub-cultural tourism. The transvestite body is treated as a fascinating object, shot in fragments during sex scenes, and its always a surprise to see the lead character out of make-up; the camera seems to revel in the illusion that Eddie’s face creates. The pleasured look on his face, the gripped sheets, clutched necks, scraped backs and intertwined fingers would look like the average hetero sex scene if they weren’t dressed up in the garb of queer cinema. Maybe that kind of passing is the whole point of the film, but rather than allowing the queens the indulgence of full immersion in their masquerade, the film thematises the wearing of masks as a universal human trait to hide our true selves. Many scenes draw comic effect from the incongruity of pretty girls who are also prey to the inconveniences of guy stuff:

In addition, Eddie’s traumatic past comes worryingly close to claiming a correlation between incestuous child abuse and homosexuality, but these are minor reservations for an otherwise electrifying, exploratory film that keeps turning up one flourish of visual wit after another.

Read more:

Jasper Sharp, “Funeral Parade of Roses.”
Review at Cinema Strikes Back.
Review at Lucid Screening.
Review by Kevin Wilson at Thirtyframesasecond.