Convulsive dreaming: The films of Peter Tscherkassky

Nate Dorr

outer space

1. All found footage
2. Meticulous manipulation entirely in the darkroom and without need of modern computer editing
3. The medium of film itself as subject, often in its simple material aspects

Of course points one and two, concerned as they are with the materiality of film, are really other aspects of the third. Which amounts to a very satisfying cohesion of vision. Which might, in other hands, result in films which were very intelligent and very well-thought-out — but dry and academic and of primary interest to film professors. But this is not the case at all. In Tscherkassky's hands these principles are dynamic and intense. Best to see for yourself:


<b>Outer Space [2000, 10m]

There's nothing static about this. Outer Space is all heavy dread and unease from the first moment, sensations which only increase as our mysterious protagonist moves through a house on the edge of disintegration, through a filmic reality on the edge of disintegration. And then everything does disintegrate, violently. To the point where the external, material nature of film actually intrudes into the field of view. This is apocalypse-grade dissolution of any sense of traditional film reality, and pretty jaw-dropping on first, unprepared encounter. (So I hope you've watched before reading this). Tscherkassky's obsessive commitment to analogue production methods, chopping, overlaying, and burning his fragments of image directly, allow the images to take on a frenzy and instability that would be very difficult to reproduce with digital effects. And it's key, too, that all of this adds up to a kind of narrative sense, to an edge-of-my-seat what-will-happen sensation in spite of the total deconstruction of the form. Not a traditional narrative, sure, but one that invites the viewer to construct their own sense with a with a unique urgency. This is about as much as experimental film can hope for — elegance and even excitement in both form and content.

Outer Space is actually the second part of Tscherkassky's Cinemascope Trilogy, begun the year before with the introductory L’Arrivée. He completed the series two years later with Dream Work, an apparent investigation of the film as collective dreaming, and of the pioneering photographic techniques of Man Ray.


Dream Work [2002, 10m]

All of these ideas were developed further with his follow-up, Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine, which employs convulsively shredded bits of a very familiar spaghetti western in a journey even further into the margins of material film.


Instructions for a Light & Sound Machine [2005, 17m]

Tscherkassky's own words give a good sense of the poetic logic behind the finale of Instructions: “Here, in the underground of cinematography, he encounters innumerable printing instructions, the means whereby the existence of every filmic image is made possible. In other words, our hero encounters the conditions of his own possibility…”

A strangely existential re-envisioning of the material, to be sure.

Bonus video links:
Manfraktur [1985, 2m53]
Get Ready [1999, 1m04]
Happy End [1996, 11m]

And most of this material is available on DVD through Tscherkassky's website.

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