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March 30, 2005

The CinemaScope Trilogy, 1998-2002

Peter Tscherkassky's elegantly conceived, idiosyncratically transfixing, and neuron-saturating CinemaScope Trilogy is made without a camera - a series of films entirely realized in the dark room using techniques of contact printing and variable exposure to transfer found film into unexposed film stock, then manipulated and processed to create the final works. Serving as both an homage to film as cinema, as well as an experimental study on the physical materiality of the medium (a philosophy similarly echoed by Peter Kubelka during the lecture and screening of Truth and Poetry at the 2004 Views from the Avant-Garde), the films reflect an intrinsic ability to distill the essence of human observation, sensation, and even psychology into the assimilation - and fragmentation - of interplayed images, rhythms, impulses, associative cognition, and instinctual responses.


L'Arrivée, 1998. Constructed as a multi-layered study on the meaning of "arrival", the first layer is a point of reference on the implicit audience anticipation for the seemingly delayed start of the film, as the familiar, audible hissing and popping of a recorded soundtrack accompanies an extended white screen that intermittently (and teasingly) reveal the silhouette of linear film stock straying into and out of frame to create a playful and evocative interactive illustration of the process of engaged waiting. The second layer is an ingenious reference to the Lumière brothers' L'Arrivée d'un train à la Ciotat as a steam engine train slowly approaches the station, a selection that seems particularly appropriate, not because of their pioneering work in filmmaking, but because of their continued influence in defining the structural conventions of narrative film with their microcosmic encapsulations of the "real" world - a series of visual stories with a beginning (or setup condition), an action, and a resolution. In L'Arrivée, the "action" comes in the synthesized forms of image duplication, fracture, collision, and decontextualization that result in the unsteadied and imbalanced chaos of a virtual train wreck. For the final layer, Tscherkassky impishly follows the Lumière narrative code in the tongue-in-cheek, hyper-romantic image of a luminous Catherine Deneuve in period costume emerging from the train and into the arms of an (understandably) enraptured Omar Sharif, a sequence from Terence Young's film, Mayerling (1968).


Outer Space, 1999. The most complex and innately unnerving installment of the CinemaScope Trilogy, the film immediately creates an atmosphere of sinister foreboding in its liminal, transitory images of an amorphous night sky, heightened ambient sounds, and skewed, awkward angled framing of a modest home on an eerily tranquil rural street. Assembled from excerpts of found film from Sidney J. Furie's, The Entity (1988), Tscherkassky transforms the introductory images of a deserted, seemingly alien landscape into a startling, profoundly fractured (or as the filmmaker suggests in the end credits of L'Arrivée, "manufractured"), and increasingly haunted portrait of human desolation and descent into madness. In addition to creating apparent visual malleability and disjunctions of space and linear time through the manipulation, superimposition, and resequencing of images, what is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the film is Tscherkassky's implemented strategy for reflecting the unnamed heroine's (Barbara Hershey) ambiguously real or imagined assault through the sensorially unrelenting stimuli created by an extended sequence of hyperkinetic, strobing flashes of intense light that seemingly explode and burn out before dissolving into unidentifiable abstraction, leaving in its wake the residual, irreconcilable fragments of a complete psychological rupture of the image and the self.


Dream Work, 2002. The film opens to the static shot of a pendulum-like, window shade pull against the sound of the ticking of a clock, a juxtaposition that seemingly reinforces a (waking) consciousness of time and physical presence, as a woman (Barbara Hershey) eventually enters the frame, slips off her shoes, brushes her hair, prepares for bedtime, and falls asleep. From this fleeting, introductory image of mundane ritual, the film then departs into unexpected and amorphous trajectories of dream state as residual imprints of memories and human interaction fragment, dislocate, replicate, and free associate within the subconscious - while simultaneously infused, reinterpreted, or transformed under the influence of fear, individual will, and desire. The most overtly sensual and tactile of the CinemaScope Trilogy (note that the images of disrobing serve as an apparent metaphor for the nakedness of the subconscious in dream state), the film is an appropriate homage to avant-garde artist, photographer, and filmmaker Man Ray whose early photographs not only represented the human body as a synthesis of malleable, abstract forms, but also pioneered the production of rayographs by placing three-dimensional objects in front of a photographic plate and exposing the composition to light in order to create an indirect, superimposed, composite image (a precursor to the film process implemented by Tscherkassky for the trilogy). Indeed, there is an inherent texturality and voluptuous to the film in the repeated sensorial cues of ticking clocks, personal grooming, massaging of limbs, and breathlessness and involuntary spasms of sexual arousal that are cinematically echoed in the sequence looping and frame stuttering of the physical film itself. It is this organic malleability of recollected images coupled with ritualistic repetitiveness that intrinsically illustrates the reiterative correlation between dream and reality in the film: a representation, not of a soul in conflict, but a mind in tenuous self-reconciliation.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 30, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, The CinemaScope Trilogy


I'm happy you saw it and wrote this powerful analytical rendition of the experience!
I didn't even notice it was Catherine Deneuve in the first installment.
I wonder if the soundtrack is composed or if it's only a result of the frame-by-frame cut of soundtrack portions. In any case it's really effective.
The playful arrangement of the found-footage is particularly creative to generate a multidimensional commentary on the artistic process of cinema.
I'd like to see this type of formal research used more widely in the editing work of non-experimental narrative cinema...

Posted by: Harry Tuttle on Apr 07, 2005 12:01 PM | Permalink

Funny, this must be Tscherkassky day, someone from Index Austria just dropped me a line to say that the Trilogy is available on a PAL DVD.

Hmm...interesting question on the soundtrack. On the one hand, I was pretty convinced that the voices in Outer Space were frame-by-frame cut (and distortion), but I'm not so sure about the pulsing/beating sound, especially since Dream Work features an identified soundtrack composer. But you're right, it certainly adds to the feeling of (appropriate) dissonance in the films.

Incidentally, I had initially thought that the Deneuve film was Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, and I was really impressed by how Tschekassky managed to reverse and re-contextualize that footage to make it look as though it was she and not Nino Castelnuovo who was boarding/departing the train!

Speaking of commentary on the artistic process, I also really liked the shot near the end of Dream Work where we see a (Tscherkassky's?) hand and what looks like a set of beads or washers shown in rayograph form: it is the most succinct encapsulation of the found film philosophy - that filmmakers are not only archaeologists of found film, but that they also leave an imprint (in this case, a physical one) in the re-purposing of it towards the creation of new art. Very clever.

Posted by: acquarello on Apr 07, 2005 12:45 PM | Permalink

I remember the strobing sound was excellent. The found footage are color I believe, and to print them in B&W with a soundtrack was like giving old silent films a voice producing the sound of its live system mechanism. We could hear the "pain" of the film reel being hatched or violently pulled out of the perforated tracks.

Didn't he use a mirrored copy of the Lumière footage to collide 2 trains frontally too?
Btw, I just saw a few Mekas shorts tonight he filmed in South of France. He went to La Ciotat, and filmed a 60ies train entering the station from the same point of view. Funny obsession of the experimental scene for the Lumières iconography ;)

As you noted in your review, the rayographed hand comes directly from a Man Ray film (was it Emak Bakia?) where the hand is also apparent. Another film your reviewed: Widrich's Copy Shop where the hand (of the actor) is printed by the Xerox (substitute for the Contact Print machine), another film shot frame-by-frame, with photocopies.

Posted by: Harry Tuttle on Apr 07, 2005 8:18 PM | Permalink

Ah, yes, good memory on the Widrich film, wasn't that what triggered the process of self-copying (after the photocopier started acting funny and he went home to sleep off the weird experience)?

If I remember correctly, the mirrored trains in L'Arrivée were taken from about a 45 degree angle train shot, so they were colliding in a 'V', as if both were trying to dock at the same station.

Incidentally, speaking of La Ciotat, Robert Breer also has an animation version homage of the Lumière film in the early part of Fuji as you see a view from the train as it approaches the station.

Oh, and on another six degrees of separation, :) Françoise Romand's grandfathers were either stationmasters or train conductors (I don't remember which) at La Ciotat and both of them can be seen on the Lumière film. She mentioned this in the context of her "fatedness" in her vocation as a filmmaker during the screening of
Thème Je.

Posted by: acquarello on Apr 08, 2005 10:02 AM | Permalink

I saw these films and they are amazing. Does anyone know how in detail Peter gets his results with the ray-o-gram images. What stock does he use? Bulb? Time? Any other tips I would like to try this method.


Posted by: Heidi Phillips on Nov 25, 2006 6:27 PM | Permalink

Hi there - I looked around the Tscherkasky site and couldn't find any specific details, but there is a contact form on there, so it might be worth a shot to drop him a line.

Posted by: acquarello on Nov 25, 2006 10:27 PM | Permalink

Rayography is a basic photographic trick in a dark room. The binary contrast Black-White makes the time/bulb indifferent I think. If it's a superimposition with moving images, 2 reels are combined on the splicer I believe, after one reel has been rayographed (thus the silhouettes just block the light).
I played with this on still photographs. It's not as home-made easy with filmstock though, you'd need a backlit table. And if you want an in-camera effect with only one reel, expose the silhouettes first, rewind and expose the rayographed film stock to your live action (which will be exposed in the white parts, for positive film).
I think Man Ray was doing a negative though... not sure.

There is probably a more helpful website out there with how-to drawings ;)

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Dec 04, 2006 3:41 PM | Permalink

Ah, Harry! Why am I not surprised that you've actually experimented with this. The closest I've gotten to this kind of experimentation was accidentally double exposing my Kodak Instamatic 120mm camera as a kid. :)

Posted by: acquarello on Dec 05, 2006 9:33 PM | Permalink

Actually I was wrong. I thought of a different type of images. I hope Heidi found the right recipe.
Man Ray only covered unexposed film with objects to block the light when briefly flashed. Just like Tscherkassky did for Motion Picture. That's why Man Ray films are negative (direct exposition), with white shapes and a black surrounding, and we also see the projected shadow marking a different shade of grey.
And it works like single-frame films, as lots of pins are put along the film strip (without frame positionning).

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Oct 30, 2007 6:00 AM | Permalink

Hi Harry, didn't Dream Work have those elements also, which is why it was dedicated to Man Ray? Somehow, I remember a demonstration of things like coins or marbles and shapes like that being exposed.

Posted by: acquarello on Oct 30, 2007 9:39 AM | Permalink

I believe he also superimposed these with live motion in the areas left unexposed. That's what confused me, as this requires a double exposure (like he does with the film perforations we see above).

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Oct 30, 2007 6:11 PM | Permalink

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