Winner, Best Undergraduate Essay in Film Studies, 2019-20
Surreal Exposures: Found-Footage Experiments in Avant-Garde Cinema
Barbara Hershey in Peter Tscherkassky’s Outer Space (1999).
As we watch a film, the continuous act of recognition in which we are involved is like a strip of memory unrolling beneath the images of the film itself, to form the invisible underlayer of an implicit double exposure.
– Maya Deren
In “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” André Bazin details how the invention of the camera freed the plastic arts from the human resemblance complex, or our desire to replicate and “embalm” the reality of our natural world: “photography does not create eternity, as art does, it embalms time, rescuing it simply from its proper corruption” (14). According to Bazin, the cinema creates objectivity in the arrow of time. He also reflects on the historic surrealists in his analysis of the film form, claiming that photography is well-suited for surrealist creativity because it produces an output resembling the objective reality of nature, a “hallucination that is also a fact” (16). Under closer analysis, Bazin’s interpretation of surrealist film does not hold true. As an amorphous artistic movement, surrealism has taken different forms over time. One of the common threads binding surrealism’s many historic manifestations is a focus on capturing the conscious and unconscious processes of the mind. In his “Manifesto of Surrealism,” ringleader André Breton muses on the importance of dream and memory: “man, when he ceases to sleep, is above all the plaything of his memory, and in its normal state memory takes pleasure in weakly retracing for him the circumstances of the dream, in stripping it of any real importance, and in dismissing the only determinant from the point where he thinks he has left it a few hours before […] the dream finds itself reduced to a mere parenthesis, as is the night” (15). It is only through conscious functioning (memory) that the unconscious (the dream) can become objectified. A parallel between this truth of human cognition can be made to that of the surrealist filmmaker; contrary to Bazin’s assertion, the filmmaker’s job is to reconstruct an external reality that does not precisely imitate nature. “Film, like thought, like the dream, chooses some gestures, defers or enlarges them, eliminates others, travels many hours, centuries, kilometers in a few seconds, speeds up, slows down, stops, goes backward. It is impossible to imagine a truer mirror of mental performance,” Jacques Brunius writes regarding the inherent surrealism tied to the medium (100). This tension between the assumption of an objective reality being portrayed on the behalf of the film and the form’s ability to translate unconscious processes to the screen is the basis for Austrian avant-garde cinema.
Perceiving an image as a stand-in for objective reality undermines the ability of the image to constitute an independent “self.” Cinematic illusionism, which treats film as a transparent “window to the world” (as Bazin describes it), blurs the tension between the film image and what is being represented. However, this window is the creator of the image, it derives sense and meaning from the objective reality it attempts to replicate. The experimental use of found-footage in the Austrian avant-garde places a newfound emphasis on the contrived nature of the image. “The prior generation had been concerned with the window and its construction; now the gaze through the window was thematicized. This implies perceptual processes as well as what is perceived. Instead of the window, what the window renders visible now served as artistic material, including all of its code’s,” filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky comments on the historic use of found-footage in Austria. Peter Tscherkassky’s Outer Space (1999) and Martin Arnold’s Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy (1998) deconstruct and reconstruct the found photographic image in ways that unleash something radical and subversive embalmed deep within the source film. Reworkings of Hollywood footage parallel the mental process of memory; the act of remembering is also an unconscious reworking of the past. The power of cinema as a critical tool becomes realized in their films, as the spectator is forced to conceptualize the breakdown of the film form to its most basic units.
In the filmmaking process, editing is the primary focus of post-production. However, in the reconstruction of found-footage films, it is the production. Surrealist reconstruction of found-footage traces back to Joseph Cornell’s careful reinterpretation of Universal Studios B-film East of Borneo (Melford, 1931) in 1936. Cornell, an American multimedia artist, is primarily known for his work as an assemblagist. While not an “official” member of the surrealist movement, his irrational compilations of found-objects into shadow boxes caught the attention of several members of the European Surrealist movement of the early 1900’s, including sculptor Marcel Duchamp and painter Salvador Dalí. In discussing Cornell’s shadow boxes, Jennie-Rebecca Falcetta comments that “Despite its often childlike aspect, Cornell’s system of ordering is not accidental, but a product of his genius for composition and visual rhyme. In making his boxes, Cornell experimented with placement and the visual language of sequence until the made work conveyed the desired effect – a result he may only have understood intuitively” (Long 320).
His compositional aesthetic carries over into the found-footage montage Rose Hobart (1936). Removing nearly every shot of East of Borneo not featuring American actress Rose Hobart, the experimental film repurposes her as a cinematic marionette, replacing the film’s original narrative with a repetitive emphasis on her bodily gestures. Cornell projected the film through a blue-tinted filter, closely resembling some of his found-object collages – particularly his 1946 construction, Pas de Deux. Like his shadowboxes, each snippet of East of Borneo used to create Rose Hobart could be picked apart and analyzed within the context of the original film, yet it is their ability to collectively create a unified composition that matters. When considered as a whole, Cornell frees a dream-like elegance trapped in the original narrative of East of Borneo.
Rose Hobart gazes into the offscreen in Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1936).
The post-production manipulation of onscreen bodies to surreal effects is Martin Arnold’s method of destabilizing cinematic illusionism. At its most basic level, the cinematic illusion is created by the rapid projection of still frames. By disturbing the 24 frames-per-second Hollywood standard, Arnold “unfixes” the cinematic bodies from embalmment. The seemingly innocent portrayal of the American dream found in the “Andy Hardy” films is transformed into a convulsive fever-dream in his 1998 work Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy. The short opens with a short embrace between Andy Hardy (Mickey Rooney) and his mother (Fay Holden). An innocuous gesture of familial affection is reinterpreted into an incestuous display of Oedipal lust. The slight movement of the mother’s chin as Andy kisses her on the cheek from behind is reworked into a sexual gesture, her expression radiating a hidden lust. Microscopic movements of her lips become eroticized and charged with newly unveiled implications. The slight movement of his fingers on his mother’s arms are emphasized, and as he pulls away from the kiss, Andy’s movements are reworked into simulating intercourse with his mother. By slowing and repeating these single frames, small gestures are placed under the microscope and critiqued. The manipulation of gesture evident here temporally unfixes the bodies embalmed within the naïve Hollywood film; the sexual repression trapped within the conservatively coded narrative is brought to light. Slowed far beyond 24 frames-per-second, we see Andy move away from his mother with her face still exhibiting desire. The slowing of the soundtrack that partnered the original film that accompanies this scene contributes to the rhythm of the bodies onscreen. Eerie and unsettling, the melodic order of the soundtrack becomes distorted, inflecting the images with a newfound sense of melancholy. The mother’s utterance of her son’s name as he steps away is broken down into singular sonic units, and his subdued response (“Yes mom?”) is affected with a seductive tone. The film pauses on the word “mom,” it becomes looped into a rhythmic utterance suggestive of sexual pleasure. Arnold explains his use of sound evident here as a way to structure noise:
Noise and language become sound events of equal value and importance. But this is not only due to repetition, but also to the fact that the forward and backward manipulations not only undermine parts of the structure of language but make previously unstructured sequence of noise appear to be structured. Since the noises now follow a certain order, language loses its sovereignty, its special status, which it gains exactly because its sequence of sounds is structured. (quoted in Cahill 7)
The futile emphasis on language and narrative in traditional Hollywood cinema is contrasted by Arnold’s focus on form and rhythm – which bear a visceral effect on the viewer that language and narrative alone can never induce. The movements of the bodies onscreen, namely those evocative of sexuality, exert an uncomfortable erotic energy that extends to the spectator.
Scene transitions in Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy are convulsive; they collapse the physical and temporal space between onscreen bodies and unveil a “hypertension” between narrative and cinematic form. When Andy leaves his mother to visit a singing Betsy Booth (Judy Garland), frames on either side of the scene transition are looped over one another. With the mother occupying a chair on the left side of the frame and Betsy on the right, the distance between the two collapses. It imparts an interaction between the two characters devoid from the source material.
Two shots edited together with rapid, convulsive alternation in Arnold’s Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy (1998).
The spastic transition also gives the impression of a mechanical defect on the part of the film. Akira Lippit describes these cinematic dysfunctions as follows:
Here the projector’s systemic dysfunction affects – or rather infects – the diegetic characters with a kind of technical virus, transmitted from apparatus to subject. An infection because the prosthetic structure of the memory machine makes the border between the natural and unnatural regions of the body, its internal and external organs, virtually indistinguishable. What is outside, therefore, is always also inside, while the inside circuits or orbits in the outside. This is the law of technology, as well as of the unconscious. (9)
Lippit also likens Arnold’s cinema to surrealist filmmaker Maya Deren’s notion of filmic “strips” of memory being both pieces of memory and acts of tearing. The act of remembering is also an unconscious reworking of the past. In this instance, the reworking of the past uncovers a suppressed narrative told entirely through juxtapositions of re-edited bodily sound and gesture, one that exposes the unconscious impulses suppressed by conservative-minded Hollywood cinema.
In the work of Peter Tscherkassky, we can see another surrealist rejection of the Bazinian cinematic illusionism present in Hollywood narrative cinema. In this instance, it is through the destruction of its most basic unit – the film frame. Unlike Martin Arnold, his surreal reinterpretation of found-footage is reliant on the physical, not digital, film reel. Outer Space (1999) is a disorienting re-imagination of conventional Hollywood horror flick The Entity (Sidney J. Furie, 1982). The “outer space” in the film does not reference a sci-fi alien invasion, but the aggressive intrusion of the negative space outside the film frame. Tscherkassky has described Outer Space as a “film in which the filmic material would permeate the marginal plot” (Pierson 29). Each frame in Outer Space contains numerous superimpositions of the source film, folding the filmic images atop one another and collapsing the narrative into a 10-minute collage. As a woman (Barbara Hershey) approaches and explores a house, the shaky superimposition of film reels blurs the spatial distinctions of the home. Dialogue between characters is obscured by the mechanical whirring of the cinematic projector, leveling the emphasis on diegesis and the presence of cinematic technology. James Cahill relates the blurring of spatial boundaries present in Outer Space to human psychological processes. In “Anacinema: Peter Tscherkassky’s Cinematic Breakdowns,” he writes that “the chronological passage of one frame to another, through Tscherkassky’s fragmentations and superimpositions, takes on the blurred temporal forms attributed to the unconscious, dreams, and haunting-which Derrida describes as breaking from a linear “chain of presents,” remaining historical, to be sure, but not dated” (95). In this sense, the film replicates the unconscious experience of memory. As she continues to explore the house, film uncannily breaks apart the woman’s body – it duplicates across time and space, her many forms coexisting across frames.
The woman (Barbara Hershey) divided, doubled, and assailed by the medium itself in Outer Space.
Like Arnold’s films, sounds are looped into a rhythm that compounds the eerie-ness of the film. In one sequence, the woman is frightened by clattering in the home. As the sound repeats with increasing intensity, a medium close-up of the woman’s face becomes doubled as the motion of her head turning is duplicated at different narrative time-points. A sharp ringing then overtakes the sound of the clattering, which then both conjugate into an unpleasant sonic distortion. Here, the “music” reinforces the viscerally disorienting nature of the images onscreen. Eventually, a complete breakdown of the cinematic machine occurs. This breakdown completely collapses the thin barrier between the film material and the diegesis, as the malfunction of the film directly causes the assault on the woman in the home. The boundaries of the frame are broken, we see the photonegative and positive of the film reel coexist onscreen, destabilizing the last strand of visual coherence. When this occurs, the “inner space” of the traditional narrative becomes deranged through the intrusion of the filmic “outer space” (Turim 214). The image becomes increasingly distorted until the narrative reaches a shocking total collapse. Showing only the sprockets of the film reel bouncing across the screen, music and sound effects from the film continue in absence of their accompanying images. We are then returned to the outside of the home, which is met with another convulsion of the image upon entry. This time, the woman fights back against the imploding machine. She snaps the film out of its seizure by striking it with a vase, an assault that is then repeated several times. With each repeated attack, she appears to bounce negatives from the film reel across the image and out of her domain. She also strikes a mirror with that same vase – “playfully exploding the notion of ‘film as mirror’” (Jacques). With Tscherkassky’s rebellion against classical cinematic immersion in mind, in a sense, the woman is reflexively fighting back against becoming embalmed within cinema-time.
Like the cinema of Martin Arnold, Tscherkassky’s imploding of the film form uncovers something hidden deep between the film frames of the source material. James Cahill asserts that Tscherkassky taps into a “filmic unconscious” to uncover details from the original image. Outer Space, he writes:
acts out the violation and deformation of film’s frames, presenting its instantaneous implosion and explosion. In its destruction of the illusionary articulations of narrative cinema – the language of cinema – and the frame that contains it and makes it legible, the film is nothing short of apocalyptic. […] the apocalyptic is a form of revelation, a revealing, and an uncovering that brings something to visibility. Tscherkassky’s cameraless cinematographic technique overlays inscription (writing with light) with uncovering: the bringing forth of something from the dark. (98)
What Tscherkassky uncovers is the artificiality of Hollywood narrative cinema; our voyeuristic tendencies as spectators become punished as we re-evaluate our relationship to the onscreen bodies.
By forcing us to question the onscreen body, Arnold and Tscherkassky create disorienting critical exercises in how we conceptualize the film form. If the grand-illusion of cinema is to quickly juxtapose individual frames into a coherent visual narrative, their films break down this illusion and demand the spectator to consider every aspect of cinema, right down to its foundational blocks.
Bazin, André. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” What Is Cinema? Vol. I. Translated by Hugh Gray, University of California Press, 2005.
Breton, André. Manifestoes of Surrealism. Translated from the French by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, University of Michigan Press, 1969.
Brunius, Jacques. “Crossing the Bridge.” The Shadow and Its Shadow: Surrealist Writings on the Cinema, edited by Paul Hammond, City Lights Books, 2000.
Cahill, James. “Anacinema: Peter Tscherkassky’s Cinematic Breakdowns (Towards the Unspeakable Film).” Spectator, vol. 28, no. 2, 2008.
Cahill, James. “The Cineseizure.” Included in booklet that accompanies the DVD Martin Arnold: The Cineseizure. Re/Voir, 2006.
Juliet, Jacques. “24 Frames a Second: Peter Tscherkassky, Gustav Deutsch and the Austrian Avant-Garde.” CLOSE, www.closeupfilmcentre.com/library/essay/24-frames-a-second/.
Lippit, Akira. “Cinemesis: Martin Arnold’s Memory Machine.” Afterimage, vol. 24, no. 6, 1997, pp. 8-10.
Long, Derek. “Reconstructing Rose Hobart: Joseph Cornell’s Recutting OfEast of Borneo.” New Review of Film and Television Studies, vol. 13, no. 4, 2015, pp. 313–353.
Pierson, Michele. “Special Effects in Martin Arnold’s and Peter Tscherkassky’s Cinema of ` Mind.” Discourse, vol. 28, no. 2/3, 2006, pp. 28–50.
Turim, Maureen. “Works of Dreams and Shadows. The Films of Peter Tscherkassky.” Film Unframed: a History of Austrian Avant-Garde Cinema, by Peter Tscherkassky, SYNEMA-Gesellschaft Für Film Und Media, 2012.
Tscherkassky, Peter. “Ground Survey. An Initial Mapping of an Expanding Territory.” Film Unframed: a History of Austrian Avant-Garde Cinema, by Peter Tscherkassky, SYNEMA-Gesellschaft Für Film Und Media, 2012.