Peter Tscherkassky: Films from a Dark Room / Attractions, Instructions and Other Romances Review
Experimental cinema made a reasonable showing in last year’s Sight & Sound poll. Held once every ten years to determine the greatest films of all time, the 2012 survey saw a top ten entry for Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, plus respectable vote tallies for established classics such as Un Chien Andalou, Wavelength and Meshes of the Afternoon. Particularly pleasing was the nod to Margaret Tait’s Portrait of Ga (it featured on five lists) not to mention the surprise inclusion of Peter Tscherkassky’s Outer Space. Four critics deemed it worthy of a top ten spot, as did two filmmakers – which is really quite impressive when you consider the film was barely 12 years old at the time and that avant-garde shorts usually take their time when making a mark, especially nowadays.
The two filmmakers, incidentally, were Peter Strickland of Berberian Sound Studio fame and Athina Rachel Tsangari, who wrote and directed Attenburg. They make for a strangely fitting pair, one of them having been responsible for esoteric horror thrills, the other concerned with deconstructivist methods. Indeed, if you’re looking for a handy summation of Outer Space then that combination of qualities kind of fits the bill. Over the course of 10 minutes, Tscherkassky takes footage from Sidney J. Furie’s 1982 feature The Entity and makes it entirely his own. The original film was a horror movie, supposedly based on genuine paranormal events that took place in during the 1970s, and remains most famous for the scene in which Barbara Hershey’s character is raped by an unseen presence. Much parodied (and ridiculed) over the years, it’s safe to say any shock value has diminished – or at least until Tscherkassky got his hands on it.
The Austrian filmmaker has referred to his works as “children of the dark”. Filmstrips (oftentimes from existing materials) are subjected to direct manipulation and effectively become reborn in his dark room. He unravels and reimagines, taking found footage or sequences from narrative features, such as the borrowings from The Entity, and then re-edits, reverses, repeats, partially reveals and, above all, re-layers. In effect, they become freed from their moorings – the syntax of commercial filmmaking, even the spool of the projector itself – resulting in a visual onslaught. His chosen filmstrips are invited to dance about the screen, revealing their sprocket holes and soundtracks as though possessed. In the case of Outer Space this makes for the perfect synthesis of original and ‘remake’; The Entity’s ghostly force having seemingly taken up residence in the celluloid.
Indeed, for all the reinvention, Tscherkassky is sure to maintain close contact with his source. Outer Space remains very much a horror film, just like The Entity, and as a result conforms to certain genre rules. Though the imagery has been entirely drained of colour, its initial passages remain largely intact so as to allow us to gain our bearings. We can determine the establishing shot in the opening seconds and immediately recognise the presence of Hershey. The original soundtrack also survives in part, complete with snatches of dialogue and portions of Charles Bernstein’s orchestral score. But as soon as the poltergeist makes its presence known, so too Tscherkassky’s brand of filmmaking begins to takes hold. The sheer intensity of it all makes for terrifying viewing: not simply because this is crash-bang cinema of the kind that forces a response from its audience, but also owing to the overall command. Outer Space may be an experimental work (a phrase that still comes with connotations of dry objectivity), yet it still understands the visceral power of concealment and suggestion. What we don’t see can be far more effective than what we do, and in that visual onslaught we are allowed only glimpses of what is taking place. Those hints, in combination with Hershey’s similarly manipulated screams, add up to one of the great horror movies of recent times.
Outer Space formed the centrepiece in Tscherkassky’s CinemaScope Trilogy. It had been instigated by L’Arrivée in 1998 and was concluded by Dream Work in 2001. Both made use of similar methods, only to differing ends. The former was an explicit homage to the Lumière brothers (its title being a nod towards L’Arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat), with the latter once again making use of The Entity as its primary source. This time around, however, it wasn’t so much the horror which would provide the central concern, but rather the Freudian aspects. Tscherkassky responds to the sexual elements and, as the title makes plain, the dreamlike qualities. A shade less relentless than its predecessor, Dream Work nevertheless demonstrates a similar level of control. It twists the raw materials to its own means, syphoning off depths that perhaps Furie was only dimly aware of.
And yet, sometimes, the depth isn’t necessarily the most important thing. That crash-bang quality can work entirely on its own terms, as was recognised by the commissioning bodies for the Vienna International Film Festival and the 2006 Mozart anniversary celebrations. A one-minute ‘trailer’ was produced for each, essentially delivering boiled-down but quick-fire Tscherkassky. The Viennale film, entitled Get Ready, woozily shifts from seaside tranquillity to the heat of traffic; polar environments separated only by the nimblest of re-edits. Nachtstück (Nocturne) makes use of Tony Richardson’s adaptation of Tom Jones for “a few seconds of passionate sensorial cinema,” to use Tscherkassky’s own choice of words. Both dazzle momentarily, prompting a smile before disappearing, performing exactly as they are expected to do.
It’s tempting to label Get Ready and Nachtstück as ephemera given their miniscule running times, though I doubt their maker would do the same. Early cinema serves as a key influence, especially those filmmakers who were active from the very beginning and their often seconds-long efforts. As well as L’Arrivée, the Lumière brothers also provide the inspiration for Motion Picture (La Sortie des ouvriers de l’usine Lumière à Lyon), while Coming Attractions reconfigures outtakes from television commercials into a series of homages: chapter titles such as ‘Rough Sea to Nowhere’ and ‘La Femme orchestre’ clearly punning in the direction of Birt Acres’ Rough Sea at Dover (from 1896) and George Méliès’ L’Homme orchestre (1900). Tscherkassky maintains a fascination with these early showmen and the purity of their fledgling medium. For them, celluloid provides a realm of possibilities, and that’s equally true of the Austrian too.
Needless to say, this love of cinema translates itself in numerous ways. Most obvious is the fact that Tscherkassky makes films that could only ever exist as films. Stills from his work have been exhibited in galleries, with consecutive frames presented side-by-side so as to highlight the juxtapositions, but these can only provide a watered-down representation. The likes of Outer Space need celluloid in order to be; the written word or mere illustration could never do full justice to their multitudes. (It should be added that this also extends to task of writing about them – perhaps it’s easier just to point readers in the direction of the DVD volumes and insist that they watch.)
The other facet of this love of the medium is Tscherkassky’s absorption of film theory. Sometimes he’s tongue-in-cheek about it all (the 22-second Shot – Countershot is essentially just a gag), while at others he is entirely serious. In the latter instances, the structuralist concerns can feel somewhat weighty: Motion Picture, for example, took 50 unexposed strips of film, hung them on a wall in a rectangular formation, projected a single frame from the Lumière brothers’ La Sortie des ouvriers de l’usine Lumière à Lyon onto them, and then re-projected the end results – which, in this case, amounts to abstract patches of black and white. As an exercise it has its purpose, but as a viewing experience the same can’t really be said. Fortunately, the vast majority of the selections on the Index DVDs is geared away from such experiments.
Of the two sets, Films from a Dark Room is arguably to the go-to volume for those yet to sample Tscherkassky’s particular brand of cinema. Here you’ll find the most immediate works, namely the CinemaScope Trilogy and Get Ready, with a handful of others (including Motion Picture) addressing some of the other concerns. Not that Attractions, Instructions and Other Romances should be labelled second best. It provides a wider-ranging overview, stretching from 1982 to 2010, taking in a greater diversity of works and including a pair of colour films. The Outer Space-type thrills are still accounted for, though, most obviously with Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine, which makes use of a sequence from Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. In truth, both sets should be picked up. But if you can only stretch to one, then Films from a Dark Room represents the best starting point.
Films from a Dark Room was among Index DVD’s very first batch of titles, released in 2006. It also became the first of their discs to sell out and so was re-released late last year. (The only change was to the sleeve design. Early Index releases had transparent cases save for some lettering with the inner booklet providing the cover image. This no doubt expensive practice has been replaced with traditional sleeves.) Attractions, Instructions and Other Romances first appeared in February of this year. Both sets are in the PAL format, region-free, come with an additional short as an extra plus a bilingual (German and English) booklet containing individual film notes and an essay or interview.
Given Tscherkassky’s use of found footage and the sheer level of manipulation at work, it can be hard to adjudge just how accurate these DVD presentations are. Certainly, viewers should really seek out big screen showings, though here you’ll find a perfectly satisfactory facsimile. Aspect ratios are adhered to (albeit without anamorphic enhancement), contrast levels are very good and colours (where applicable) are strong. Impressively, the visual onslaught of many of the films never causes the discs any problems – you would expect some artefacting to make itself known during the more hectic passages, but there’s nothing that I spotted. Clarity does vary from short to short, though I suspect this is down to Tscherkassky’s sources. Some look excellent, others less so. Soundtracks are similarly governed by the original footage in some cases, though there isn’t anything to cause alarm. Optional subtitles, English or otherwise, are not necessary given the nature of these films.
Both discs are available direct from Index DVD. For 'Tales from a Dark Room' click here. For 'Attractions, Instructions and Other Romances' click here.