Dream Work

(Peter Tscherkassky, Austria, 2001)


The realm of avant-garde or experimental cinema reverses the standard proportions of running times and the cultural values that are routinely associated with them: here it is shorts that overwhelmingly rule, and are better known, while features are the rarity, and often far less successful both artistically, and in terms of gathering an audience over the years. So it is to the avant-garde I turn to choose a favourite short film – and there is a lot to choose from.

Too much English-language discussion of experimental cinema is dominated by the Mount Rushmore of the American Avant-Garde: Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, Hollis Frampton, Yvonne Rainer, Ernie Gehr, and (token Canadian) Michael Snow. Masters of equal greatness and significance – Stephen Dwoskin in Britain, Len Lye from New Zealand, Marcel Hanoun in France, to name only three with long and extraordinary careers – get shuffled into the obscure background. That is why my thoughts run immediately to the amazing vibrancy of the Austrian avant-garde which lit up world cinema in the 1990s, and continues its explorations today. Even in this select bunch, the choice of an auteur is hard to make: Martin Arnold, Gustav Deutsch, Mara Mattuschka, Siegfried Fruhauf?

Contemporary Austrian experimentalists honour their forebears, Kurt Kren and Peter Kubelka, in the severely materialist attention they pay to the interplay of celluloid and light projection, the action of frames, and the permutation and combination of the smallest units of image and sound – as well as a suspicion of, and need to melt down, the whole racket of figurative representation. But something almost Pop is added to this approach in the ’90s: bits of old movies (the ‘found footage’ of advertisements, genre films), plus an intense approach to the soundtrack that evokes trance-dance music, sampling, DJs and their wheels of steel …

In the case of the great Peter Tscherkassky, the attachment to a not-terribly-known, even mediocre horror film of the 1980s – The Entity, directed by Sidney J. Furie and starring Barbara Hershey – took two films (and two-thirds of a ‘Cinemascope Trilogy’) to sufficiently exorcise.

The finale of this set, the magnificent Dream Work (2001) is, like many avant-garde films, impossible to put into words. Pulverising and recombining fragments of the original movie, it works with sensations, intensities, drives. The narrative material of The Entity is simultaneously dissolved into abstraction – strobe-like flashes and pulses of darkness and light, noise and silence – and expanded to infinity, scarier and more meaningful than ever.

Fantastique movies of every kind have always been concerned with the return of the repressed. Tscherkassky’s hyper-Freudian films – taking the Master’s dream work techniques of condensation and displacement to the heart of the cinematic apparatus via frame-defilement, montage and refilmed superimpositions (or what Thierry Kuntzel called the film work) – turn even the most seemingly banal or innocent sample of American screen entertainment into a formless cauldron of pure horror.

© Adrian Martin January 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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