Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Experimental: Peter Tscherkassky on Mubi

Mubi has added a selection of work by the Austrian experimental filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky.  Tscherkassky specializes in the manipulation of found footage, or previously existing archival footage.  Using various techniques he foregrounds the physical materials of the film strip, often fluctuating between representational and abstract imagery.  He is a founding member of Sixpack Film, which since 1990 has distributed experimental films and video art to film festivals and venues around the world.  His work is also available on the Index DVD label, also from Austria.   

While Mubi features several Tscherkassky films, I'll focus today on Outer Space from 1999.  For more information about the rest of his work, the Australian website Senses of Cinema has a series of interesting articles on Tscherkassky's work and recent Austrian avant-garde filmmaking in a special section of issue #28.

Outer Space (Peter Tscherkassky, Austria, 1999, 10 minutes)
Mubi: A premonition of a horror film, lurking danger: A house — at night, slightly tilted in the camera’s view, eerily lit — surfaces from the pitch black, then sinks back into it again. A young woman begins to move slowly towards the building. She enters it. The film cuts crackle, the sound track grates, suppressed, smothered. Found footage from Hollywood forms the basis for the film. The figure who creeps through the images, who is thrown around by them and who attacks them is Barbara Hershey. Tscherkassky’s dramatic frame by frame re-cycling, re-copying and new exposure of the material, folds the images and the rooms into each other. It removes the ground from under the viewer’s feet and splits faces, like in a bad dream. Mubi link. 

The images in Outer Space originate in the American horror film The Entity (Sidney J. Furie, 1982), starring Barbara Hershey.  Tscherkassky uses various contact printing techniques to transfer the images to unexposed film stock, including in some sequences using a laser pen to expose only small parts of the frame at a time.  While the film does maintain some of the narrative elements from the original, it is just as important to see that the images are also organized by graphic and rhythmic principles.  The entire film strip, including the soundtrack and sprocket holes, is fair game for visual manipulation as the contact printing does not necessarily line up the frame lines to copy within the frames. The process also produces multiple exposures, staggered repetitions of movements, and ghost-like effects as Hershey moves through the frame.  The entire film strip is also fair game for the production of sounds, as different areas of the frame replace the area usually dedicated to the optical sound track, and the variations in light and density still produce sound.  The end result is more like a piece of experimental music than a narrative, as graphic and sonic rhythms and tempos attack and then recede and attack again.  But the representational imagery of Hershey as she valiantly fights back against a supernatural attack also drives our emotional response to the film.  Eventually, the visceral assault on the audience parallels the fictional attack on Hershey, and the film strip falls apart as the house seems to be torn to pieces. 

I first saw Outer Space projected in 35 millimeter cinemascope at the Sundance Film Festival in 2000, and it practically blew me out of my seat as a visceral experience.  It does lose a considerable bit of its impact on smaller screens (and perhaps even more on a computer screen) but it remains a technical tour-de-force.  If you do get a chance to see it on Mubi (or elsewhere), I'd like to read your responses in the comments section below.  --JLK

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