Let’s start from an assumption: I am not a film critic and more in general I do not work exclusively on experimental cinema. This analysis of the avant guard director Peter Tscherkassky, born in Wien in 1958 and winner at the 67th Venice Film Festival in the “Nuovi Orizzonti” section with the film Coming Attractions, will probably lack those lexical elements and elements of analysis used by the most orthodox film criticism, and will inesorably be exposed to a radical reading of the following text.
In spite of that, my intention is to highlight the austrian director’s work, in terms of the importance that I think it has not only as far as cinema is concerned, but also and especially towards the production and the audiovisual research taken as an aesthetic-expressive possibility of the sound-image relationship.
Among the most anticipated hosts of the IX MAGIS Film Studies Spring School in Gorizia, which had place place at the beginning of April in the “garden city”, where the Isonzo river flows, Peter Tscherkassky presented a screening of some of its important films and had a lecture about his latest work Coming Attractions, created during a two years period of collaboration with his wife, the american filmaker Eve Heller. And on this artwork is based, of course, the interview which enhances and complements this article.
Peter Tscherkassky cannot just be seen as a director. He is so much more than that: he is a director, yes, but also an obsessive experimenter of languages, techniques, tools and expressive possibilities linked to the use and abuse of the filmic material. At the same time, he is a critical texts author, a planner of events related to experimental cinema and to foundfootage, and director of the Diagonale Festival (http://www.diagonale.at/) l in Graz and also an esteemed founder and director of the Sixpackfilm (http://www.sixpackfilm.com/), which since 1991 produces and promotes experimental cinema works and austrian video art.
Coming Attractions is a reflection on the possible contact points between old-school cinema and avant guard cinema, in their common ability to create a sort of attraction, hence the title of the work, between the director and the audience. Shifting the idea and the attention to the contemporary scenario, Peter Tscherkassky higlights in Coming Attractions the intrinsic possibilities hidden in the commercials, in the advertising messages, as a very peculiar way of starting a sort of emotional attraction between product (actor) and spectator (audience).
The audiovisual material for Coming Attractions is obtained by working out footage material coming from different adverstising campaigns. The austrian director uses the foundfoutage practice since a long, enriched by the CinemaScope format, as in the trilogy made up of some of his last works, just like Outer Space (1999), winner of many international awards, Dream Work (2001) and Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine (2005).
The footage searched, found and extrapolated both by the cinema history and contemporary films, becomes for Tscherkassky a starting point of an obsessive work on frame details, an iconographic deconstruction , a play on superimpositions, a direct attack to the senses of the spectator, absorbed by the rythm of the flicker. The eye searchs for a remaining of shapes in the projection which becomes just light and darkness; it looks for traces of the primary image which the film takes with itself, even in the most radical manipulation.
Through an anarchic and proudly analogue working modality, Tscherkassky is able to work with 16mm and 35mm film frames, “treating them” as individual shots on which to work on in the darkroom and which taking the most immsersive potentiality out of, in the editing and montage stage. Works such as Shot-Countershot (1987), Manufraktur (1985) and also Outer Space (1999) and Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine (2005) represent a clear example of how modern digital audiovisual composition techniques cannot be compared to the expressive potential, the synaesthetic ability and the multilayered complexity of the shots, reverse shots, lighting and montage techniques which only the work on Super8 films can ensure.
And, I don’t want to leave aside the beautiful work on sound, typical of each one of Tscherkassky ‘s films, often composed by the musician Dirk Schaefer, but also by the director itself, creating “optical” sound tracks directly in the darkroom, as in the case of L’Arrivée (1997-1998), Outer Space (1999) or Nachtstück (Nocturne), whose score supports and enhances (or maybe it is the contrary) the rythmic editing of images and the constant use of the flicker.
I spoke with Peter Tscherkassky about this and much more, in the following interview:
Marco Mancuso: I would like to start from your last work Coming Attractions, winner at 67th Venice Film Festival in the “Nuovi Orizzonti” section. Can you tell me something about the idea of the project and its relationships with your previous films? Expecially regarding the references to early days cinema, to the “attractive” dimension of cinema that is clear in this film even from the title, but that is clear and present in all your production…
Peter Tscherkassky: Well, about the relationship between Coming Attractions and my earlier films: If you view the entire CinemaScope trilogy and Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine there’s a lot of violence, it’s like a massive impact. For my subsequent project I deeply longed to do something different: a kind of comedy, a lighter hearted movie. When I viewed these wonderful commercials that had fallen into my hands, I knew they could provide the basis for such a new film. As to the connection between early cinema and the avant-garde in Coming Attractions, please see my homepage. There you can read a short text answering exactly that question
Marco Mancuso: Always speaking about Coming Attractions. It has been produced with Eve Heller. Together, you introduced the movie at the beginning of April, within the program of IX Magis Spring School / Film Forum organized by DAMS-Udine University. Can you tell me more about your collaboration?
Peter Tscherkassky: Up until now I produced my dark room films from the first to the last frame with a precise score as to the sequences and overall shape of the film. After generating this material in the darkroom, very little subsequent editing was required literally just a few hours. With Coming Attractions I took a different approach. I generated a great deal of material in the darkroom on the basis of extremely repetitive commercial takes and it was only after this phase that I got down to editing and shaping the material with the assistance of fellow filmmaker Eve Heller, who also happens to work with found footage.
She was able to view my material with the unbiased eye of someone who had not been immersed in it for over two years, and this perspective was extremely helpful. Also, as an avant-garde filmmaker herself, she has a fine sense of visual rhythms and sense of the significance of each individual frame. We were able to work on the fine cut of the film with a fast and deep mutual understanding. She also contributed to a few ideas that we ended up using for the soundtrack that was created by Dirk Schaefer.
Peter Tscherkassky: Basically, with each of my darkroom films I’ve developed further skills when it comes to manipulating the found footage, contact printing using different light sources, selecting imagery and initiating new ways of combining different source materials. Take a look at my first “pure” found footage film made in the dark room entitled Manufracture, which can be found on my DVD Films from a Dark Room (on the Index label). I think it’s a film I don’t have to be ashamed of, but it lacks the semantics. After I made that film I started to have a growing interest in “stories”, in tales to be told, and accordingly proceeded to develope narrative strategies.
As to the last part of your question, I would say that I am influenced by new technologies, and formats, however ex negativo: These forms are not just new and “innocent”, but were designed to replace analog film and analog film as a medium of fine art cannot be replaced by digital technologies since the materiality of the two media are completely different and have nothing to do with one another. I decided to make work that illustrates and celebrates the qualities of analog film which cannot be replaced by non-analog media.
Marco Mancuso: The avant-guard film making has been always considered iconoclastic. As you always pointed out, “the avant-guard authors work on an investigation of the actual image, whose reality must be created within that image itself”. Avant-garde filmmakers underlined the artificial qualities of the medium in their work and deprived the cinematographic image of its own identity, always working with technologies that have become electronic in the last decades.
So, what do you think about the contemporary (even digital or not, I don’t care) audiovisual production? Don’t you find a sort of parallelism, just after the big phenomena of found-footage that inspired a lot of contemporary production & performing practices, with avant-guard movements in terms of iconoclastic detachment from the actual image, considered more as a territory of aesthetical and technical analysys?
Peter Tscherkassky: To be honest, I am not familiar enough with more recent developments within the electronic and digital avant-garde to answer these questions. But from what I’ve seen and from what I know both as to the works and intentions behind them you are absolutely right. There seems to be a strong tendency towards abstraction, and if we choose to call that “iconoclastic”, we have a new sort of iconoclasm at work.
Marco Mancuso: You started working with Super 8 technics, that your recognized as “a microscope which allowed us to see beneath the skin of reality and make the internal lives of images visible in a way that was not possible with any other format”. All your efforts in terms of working with graininess, resolution, manifacturing, expressionism of shadows and lights, were always pushed towards a feeling of destruction, ruininess, pathos, expression; this happened to you, in those years in which “immaterial” media – video and computer-generated images – were considered the new central issue.
If you could imagine a new technology tomorrow, not even digital or virtual, in which direction would you like it could enpower the voyeristic and reality observation potentialities of super 8, 16mm and 35mm technologies?
Peter Tscherkassky: My work is deeply engaged with exploring the materiality of the medium. In this sense I cannot answer to how I would work with an imaginary medium of the future that has no specific qualities I can forsee. I need the friction of material limitations to generate my ideas.
Marco Mancuso: In many of your film works, you make use of what you called “the physics of seeing”. I’m very much interested in this psychological aspect of your movies, in the idea that a physical stimulus can lead the viewer to ask himself some questions about what he/she has seen. The sequence of the images in your movies, the almost solid use of the flicker, the assaulting use of shadows and lights, are tools that you use to go deep inside this research. I wonder why you never tried to explore the world of physical immersive audiovisual installation, to enrich the physical/psychological duality of your works. Is there any particular reason?
Peter Tscherkassky: No, not really. Let’s put it this way: Until now I have been interested in projected film. In the case of my dark room films I have used 35mm film, most often CinemaScope. In my opinion, as far as the art of moving images is concerned, this is the most powerful tool I can access and use to produce work on a really low-tech-level. And when I say “low-tech”, I mean it. You can’t imagine how low my technical level is when I make my films! As a consequence I don’t need a producer, I don’t need a big budget, I don’t need technicians, I don’t need to bother to find a space where I can set up an installation, I don’t have to take care of the presentation of the work, AND SO ON.
All I have to do is to find enough time and mental space to make my film. When I’m finished, I place it in the care of my distributors and my part is done. I see and experience my position in this regard as wonderfully privileged. This is not to rule out the possibility that the day may come when I have an idea, a concept, or a truly thrilling invitation to set up an installation and I take it on. And no doubt the specific physiological aspect of the context will be pivotal to that installation.
Marco Mancuso: Also sound, has a very important role in your films. A landscape which is always present on a primary level, always connected with rythm and impact of images. How did your inteterests in contemporary and electronic music and musicians influence you in terms of the sound scripts of your films? Did you try to develope some ideas or inputs you received from your listenings and studies of the past?
Peter Tscherkassky: I’ve always listened to contemporary music, ever since I got to know it at school at the age of 18. And I’ve always had a particular interest in Musique concrète in both of its forms: the early, “truly” concrète compositions, like those by Pierre Schaeffer and the early Pierre Henry, but also in its later form as electronical music, mainly developted by the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM) at IRCAM in Paris. To me it seems quite natural to try to combine my love for that specific music with my own films. But I’ve also used popular music like the Annie Cordy hit (in Happy-End), or Greek folk music (in Kelimba).
And of course I created “optical” sound tracks in the dark room, as in the case of L’Arrivée, Outer Space and Nachtstück (Nocturne). It has always been a truly challenging and rewarding experience to work with sound, and I am totally bent on more further experimentation in this regard. Besides, I’ve loved to cooperate with musicians and composers like Armin Schmickl, Kiawash Saheb-Nassagh and above all, with Dirk Schaefer who composed the soundtrack for Instructions and Coming Attractions.
Marco Mancuso: The use of found-footage is functional for you to show your idea of using film techniques to explore the notion of “film as a mirror” of reality. It always seemd to to me a very political and antagonist way to be an artist: this tense to transmit a sort of audiovisual energy to the viewer, it’s a very strong political act to me. From your first experiences and reference to Kubelka and the other Vienna Actionists to later use of violent rhythms of delay, fragmentation, looping and degraded image and sound, abstract cut and paste density, how your attitude to be a political film maker has been changing in the last years?
Peter Tscherkassky: I would say that every advanced art and art form has a tendency towards “enlightenment”, since to be understood and appreciated it needs an “enlightened” or at least open minded audience, with a willingness to reflect upon one’s own systems of understanding, of how we perceive and decode the world. I doubt that this makes me a “political” artist in the sense we normally use to consider that notion. But hopefully I’m a political artist in the way Theodor Adorno would describe it.
Marco Mancuso: The CinemaScope trilogy and also Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine were presented at Cannes Film Festival in 2002 and 2005. Moreover, in 2010 Coming Attractions won at the 67th Venice Film Festival. So, which is your approach to cinema industry or mainstream festivals?
Peter Tscherkassky: Well, speaking of “political filmmaker”, I would say that it is not my approach to mainstream festivals that has changed much over the years but perhaps the attitude of the industry itself has: I still don’t want to be part of the cinema industry or commercial cinema, but I do want my films to be shown and it seems as if mainstream festivals are increasingly into my project they invite my films, screen them and sometimes their juries give them awards.
And as long as I don´t get the feeling that this is corrupting my work, it’s fine with me. Of course these invitations have a strong side effect: they draw the attention of a wider audience towards the work of the avant-garde, so it really helps to spread the idea of a form of cinema that is not commercial, a form of counter-cinema.
Marco Mancuso: HYou had always worked as curator and developer of symposia, film programmes and festivals concerning film studies, film avant-garde authors, found footage. You were also director at Diagonale festival of Austrian films. Let us know more about your double figure of artist and curator, how do you manage it? And, how this double activity is integrated with Sixpack Film management and selection of works?
Peter Tscherkassky: I work as a curator and organizer to earn money. I wouldn’t make enough for a living just by making films. But I was always interested in developing and spreading the infrastructure for our films as well. And that was the main reason we founded Sixpack Film in 1991. Originally we only wanted to organize a found footage festival in Wien, one of the first of its kind worldwide, but then we decided to continue our work as a sales organization and distributor and up to now we have been truly successful. We wish that every country had an organisation like Sixpack Film.
It encourages young filmmakers to start and continue their work: It really makes a difference if you know that there is a good chance that your film or video will be shown at many festivals and other venues, or not. Anyway, I am still chairman of Sixpack Film, but I am not involved in the daily business. The selection of films which are represented by us was always, and right from the beginning, been in the hands of an independed jury. Every two or three years the jury members change, and by changing people there is a continuous flow of perspectives and opinions. It’s a system that has proven very effective.
Marco Mancuso: Finally, what are you working on at the moment? Any idea for the next film?
Peter Tscherkassky: At the moment I am working as editor of an English book about the history of Austrian Avant-Garde cinema, called Film Unframed. Eve Heller, who has been raised bi-lingual, is translating the German texts, and the book itself will be published by the Austrian Film Museum and Synema, as part of their ongoing and very successful publication series. The book should be out in November. That is when I will start to work on my next film and yes, I do have an idea, absolutely: so watch out!