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Peter Tscherkassky

Alexander Horwath and Michael Loebenstein, Eds.
Filmmuseum Synema Publikationen, Wien, 2005
253pp. Paper, €18
ISBN: 3-901644-16-4.

Reviewed by Eugene Thacker
School of Literature, Communication & Culture. Georgia Institute of Technology


Once, when I was at a media festival in Germany, someone told me that the "avant-garde" response to digital media was one of two kinds: that which derived from Michael Snow, and that which derived from Stan Brakhage (or was it Peter Kubelka?...). I thought the statement was rather weird, though generous, given that Snow was actually in attendance at the festival, and that a great deal of the new film work being shown was heavily formalist. Nevertheless, I assume the person meant that these two trajectories in avant-garde cinema——one formal and ‘structural,’ the other material and, well, "destructural"——have had a resurgence in the era of digital film, DV, Flash, Director, and so on. Not being a film scholar, I let the statement pass on.

But I was reminded of these thoughts when I first saw a suggestively titled, short film called Outer Space. It was on a DVD that I rented, along with other contemporary avant-garde shorts, all of which reinvented or re-purposed the horror genre in some way. I remember being completely taken by this film, the director of which had a long name that, for the longest time after returning the DVD, I was always forgetting or getting wrong. The director, of course, was (and is) Peter Tscherkassky. The film——Outer Space——made such an impression on me, primarily because I was totally engaged in the film while, at the same time, totally aware of the film——as film. Now, this is arguably a characteristic of all avant-garde film, at once brining the viewer in while at the same time disrupting their immersion through the use of techniques both standard and non-standard. But Outer Space, like Tscherkassky’s other films, is very "digital"——and yet made by cutting and splicing 35mm film.

Let me stick with Outer Space, since it’s the film I’m most familiar with. It constitutes part of a ‘Cinemascope trilogy’ in black and white. The film itself is mostly appropriated from a 1983 horror film The Entity (staring Barbara Hershey…), in which a woman is attacked by an invisible ghost. Tscherkassky radically re-works the original, and what results is a 15-minute hallucinatory piece that can only be described as "filmic demonology." "Invasions" of all sorts occupy the film, and the frames from the original begin to reference other genres, including science fiction, the psychological thriller, even, in a strange way, melodrama. But the way in which Outer Space does this is by the intrusion of film itself into the film. There are many struggles: between narrative and abstraction, between the woman and the film material itself, and, as editor Horwath notes, a struggle for space——the space of photography, the space of film. Both Man Ray and Vertov haunt this piece.

Outer Space is nearly film. I say this in a double sense: It presents us with fragments of a narrative from which we can glean only the most general affects (violence, possession, the demonic), but we don’t know what the story is (or the plot, for that matter). It is also "nearly" a film because, as a medium, the film itself seems to be constantly on the verge of "breaking down" (can the material of film have a nervous breakdown?), always unstable, skittish, and frenetic. Nearly a narrative, nearly a medium. Outer Space is, however, only one work in Tscherkassy’s overall output. The monograph devotes considerate space to Tscherkassky’s early Super-8 shorts and his interest in body and performance, as well as to his interest in psychoanalysis, music, avant-garde film, and appropriation.

I’ve been wishing that a DVD collection of Tscherkassky’s work might be made available (with the appropriate region code…), but in the meantime I’ve been paging through the monograph of his work, recently published by Synema/Filmmuseum. The book contains extensive documentation of Tscherkassky’s films, including several sections of high-quality, glossy color stills. The essays——in German and English——include an introduction to Tscherkassy’s work by editor Horwath (contextualizing his work in relation to avant-garde film), and fascinating essay by Drehli Robnik (a reading of Tscherkassy’s Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine as a "messianic materialism"), and an extensive, personal meditation on photography and film by Tscherkassky himself. So, until the DVD is released, this book will be more than enough to occupy my interests.

To return to my opening: Tscherkassy’s "response" to digital media is not simply one of digital formalism, nor is it one of a nostalgic "return" to the purity of film itself. There is always a struggle with the medium, as if the materiality of the medium always divulges a "resistance" to the process of filmmaking. If anything, I would say that Tscherkassy’s recent work evokes a sense of film and photography always going outside itself, as ex-trinsic.




Updated 1st January 2006

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