Much is made these days of the concrete impact of documentary, how much political change is inspired and how much money is raised by any individual film. It’s a controversial research topic, to say the least, one which can highlight activist value at the expense of artistic experimentation. It also doesn’t take into account the sort of nonfiction cinema that actually throws its subjects against a wall.
Peter Tscherkassky’s films possess an “impact” that is resolutely physical. His found footage nonfiction work takes preexisting images, ranging from Hollywood hits to home movies, and shapes them into dramatic statements of the tangible presence of film. His methods are sometimes so brash that their qualities emerge even when they aren’t viewed in the ideal circumstances of a 35mm or 16mm projection. This is a relief, particularly because Doc Alliance is featuring a great many of Tscherkassky’s films in a free online retrospective this week, running through June 7th.
The best example is Outer Space, a remix of the 1982 horror film that Martin Scorsese has called the scariest movie ever made. The Entity stars Barbara Hershey as a single mother beset by unseen supernatural forces. Tscherkassky’s adaptation, which is perhaps better described as a remix, leaves Hershey as the heroine but replaces the poltergeist-like villain with 35mm film itself. Many images of the actress, simultaneously flickering in different corners of the screen, are assaulted by the flashing and scratching of celluloid run amok. The result is an experimental extension of the visceral terror of The Entity, as well as a remarkably complex statement of the physical potential of cinema.
The nonfiction material of Outer Space is a horror film with tropes and genre expectations easily recognized even in this frayed form. Its most potent images are those of an actress playing a fictional character. By populating his film with so many variants of Hershey’s tortured expression, separated from the narrative context of the original story, Tscherkassky also draws attention to Hershey the actress. Even as it builds a new narrative, with 35mm as the villain, it also draws attention to the way of reading The Entity as a documentary of its own making.
So is Outer Space a documentary, as well? Its materials are nonfiction, and one could even say that it transforms a fictional element (The Entity) and turns it into documentary portrait of fear. At the same time, however, it has a narrative constructed from the use of 35mm film as a celluloid poltergeist. Hershey is not actually being tormented but her ever-flickering portrait is, and in a remarkably physical way. This makes Outer Space practically unclassifiable, which is a pretty compelling proof of its art.
Tscherkassky takes things one step further in Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine. The source material is The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and its star is Eli Wallach as Tuco. It begins with the famous sequence in which Tuco is saved at the very last minute from his hanging by the Man with No Name. Here, however, there is no rescue. Wallach dies, in a chilling turn of events that evokes the shock of a horrible accent on set. Then he wakes up in an enormous cemetery. In the Sergio Leone original this is the setting for the final Mexican standoff. In Tscherkassky’s version it’s a much lonelier place, a stand-in for a solitary heaven or (more likely) hell.
In this later short, Tscherkassky elevates the physical 35mm film from a malevolent actor to a dynamic spiritual force. The film stock first executes Tuco/Wallach and then welcomes him to his final resting place, an afterlife crafted entirely from celluloid. It is with this last gesture that Tscherkassky essentially works an apotheosis of his unique brand of physical cinema, taking film itself and allowing it the role of both god and heaven.
Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine: