Instructions For A Light And Sound Machine (2005)
Austrian experimental filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky has the most bizarre working method I’ve come across. He apparently only works on found footage which he doesn’t merely reuse. Using a specialized laser beam, he transfers the images partially from the footage onto a fresh stock, working painstakingly on a frame-by-frame basis, leaving certain areas of the latter unexposed. In other words, he literally ‘sculpts’ his film from the raw footage he gathers and gives them a whole new appearance and meaning. One could say that he is essentially responsible for every single speck present in the frames of his films. This fact is of utmost importance since the medium is the message in his 16-minute wonder, Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine (2005), a work that packs a wallop like a few films do. That Tscherkassky chooses Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), for his project is vital. Like the Kinski-esque man in it who steps in front of the camera to gaze into it, the Leone film is a self-conscious masterpiece that keeps the narrative to its bare minimum, dissolving the genre and asking us to see through its own construction (If he was allowed, Leone would probably have included the boom mike in the frame as well). Like the Italian film, Instructions is a work that has both narrative and formal concerns, but it goes one further in the way it calls attention to its narrative, its aesthetic and its medium, all at once. And how often do we see experimental films being made in 35mm CinemaScope?!
Instructions consists of a bunch of shots from the Leone film, almost all of which deal with Ugly/Tuco (Eli Wallach) running – for the treasure and for his life. Tscherkassky takes the shots through his elaborate transfer process, extracting, distorting, stressing and degrading them. Sometimes he repeats, reverses, negates, overexposes and overlaps the shots, creating a highly familiar yet vastly different stream of images. The soundtrack, likewise, is a dense collage of diegetic sounds and extra-textual mechanical noises. We hear a clamorous storm of bullets, the hum of a rickety projector, the footsteps of the characters, alarming wail of sirens and other cyclic machine sounds put together by Dirk Schaeffer. Instructions begins with a man – the surrogate audience – opening a window and peering into the horizon through his telescope. An exposed ellipse reveals to us that it’s Tuco arriving on a horse. Soon there are bunch of these ellipses as if a crowd of such men has gathered. We are soon thrust into a duel, bullets fly by, the image jars and switches between negative and positive, with lots of flickering of image and sound. The violence in film parallels the violence on film and, somehow, the latter prevents us from enjoying the former. The film is, hence, also violence on us, an assault on our senses. It’s sadism that’s being exhibited on every level – not just the filmmaker’s, ours too. By exposing the process of the film running, we are made to notice the politics of the narrative, of the form and of the material itself.
Tscherkassky seems to have found an apt metaphor for the filmmaking process in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. An actor in a film dies at the end of each frame only to be born again in the next, like how Blondie (Clint Eastwood) – the director stand-in – surrenders Tuco to the sheriff for hanging only to save him again. This seemingly never-ending cycle of death and resurrection pervades the entire film as Tuco becomes the Sisyphus-ean man caught in the loop of film, never being able to escape the tyrannical circle. In the final scene, he finds himself in a cemetery full of graves, which might all well be his own. He runs from one grave to another trying to find the one that will redeem him. But what he does not know is that he is not in control of his situation. It is Blondie who makes him run from one grave to another. It is Tscherkassky who makes him run from one direction to another and back. Tuco tries to evade death by trying to jump onto the next frame and perhaps even out of the film, to no avail. He is puppet in the hands of the filmmaker who distorts Tuco’s figure to give it a phantom-like appearance, as if the man is on fire. Tuco vainly attempts to enforce his reality, to free himself from the machinations of the narrative, the filmmaker, the audience and the projection system. But, even after the ‘Finish’ frame has arrived (which is immediately juxtaposed with the ‘Start’ frame), he is still running, wandering the limbo between life and death, never to see real light.
Instructions is a meditation on the nature of film and its relationship to cinema in this world of digital video. Tscherkassky’s film is highly rooted in the ontology of the material using which it is made and this inseparability of the movie’s medium, aesthetic and content is what gives the work its special significance. In the director’s own words: “I attempt to create art works that can only be made with film. In other words, if there were nothing other than the computer, hard disk and magnetic tape, then these works would simply not exist”. More than anything, Instructions illustrates how the film medium is inherently a vehicle of personal expression and how it bears the authorial stamp more deeply than any other modern medium. A scratch on a piece of film denotes human authorship while a smudge on a piece of digital video does not. The scratch – be it a conscious distortion on the part of the filmmaker or a folly of the projectionist – proves and particularizes the existence of the piece of work in the real world. It stands witness to the human elements of the cinema enterprise – from the production of a film to its exhibition. It’s an existential question of sorts for the work being created, like for Tuco here. The medium of the work has to be palpable and has to be subject to physical impairment in order for it to testify its being. May be that’s why the combustion and destruction of film stock always has some romanticism associated with it. The death is what establishes its existence.
A digital smudge, on the other hand, could happen anywhere within the production, distribution and exhibition systems. It might just be the corruption of a few thousand bits of data. It might purely be the work of a malfunctioning storage device. The smudge makes a film metaphysical by refusing to acknowledge its being in the real world (Tscherkassky’s film, in a way, could be read as an assault on digital video by film). In a sense, it sweeps the work off ground and makes it a bunch of floating images that find their meaning only in the minds of their beholders. Consequently, it is both interesting and problematic when one watches Tscherkassky’s film on the computer or on a DVD system. For one, the basic significance of the whole film is lost. It digitizes the analog. One is never sure if a particular defect in the image stream that we see is a part of the original film or a result of the inefficiency of the video encoder used. This additional dialectic goes to the extent of inverting the filmmaker’s and the spectator’s relationship with the film. The work ceases to be a set of instructions ‘for’ a light and sound machine and becomes a set of instructions ‘from’ a light and sound machine. We stop being the authors and the critics and become the passive screen on which the film projects itself back, assaulting and deceiving us with its glitches. Thanks to the proliferation of online video sites, we have managed to mass produce, more rapidly than ever, what was essentially to be found on a single reel of film. As Godard said, what we see is not even a copy of a reproduction.
In his seminal essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935), Walter Benjamin optimistically examines how the invention of film (more or less coinciding with the birth of psychoanalysis) changed the perception of the world at large and redefined the function of art. He argues that cinema, by its inherent necessity to be reproduced on a large scale (owing to the sheer amount of financing that goes into it, unlike other arts), destroys the aura – to use Benjamin’s terminology – around a piece of art. The question of authenticity of a work of art, in such a case, becomes irrelevant. Thanks to such mass production, a work of art is no more the centre of the world that connoisseurs must travel miles to see. Art is now delivered at our doorstep, so to speak. It frees cultural expression from the confines of an arthouse by making it accessible to a large part of the public, hence making the perfect tool for political mobilization. He writes:
Mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.
This invalidation of the question of authenticity by mass production, far from being a death knell for the arts as some purists may cry, obviates the need to own and collect works of art. Mass production, on the most basic level, thus seems to override socioeconomic disparities, freeing art of the classism and elitism inherent in a ritualistic approach to it (One could dig a little further to see the underlying contradictions within modern, assembly-line production and marketing). This liberation of the arts rings truer in the world of video streaming and peer-to-peer sharing, where even collection of reproductions of work of art, like DVDs, has become a futile exercise (the ritualist cinephile’s last hope is, then, boasting about the number of films she’s watched). So a work of art, essentially, is stripped down to being about its ideas and emotions and our responses to them than about its authenticity, ownership and geographical location.
Now, one could argue that films such as Tscherkassky’s (and others’ such as those of Stan Brakhage, which literally have its author’s signature imprinted), which thrive on the existence of a physical medium, only bring back the ritual culture generally alien to cinema (The tendency is also manifest when certain experimental films are auctioned for tens of thousands of dollars and even in certain tenets of the auteur theory). But one could also say that it’s their way of asserting their individuality amidst the ruthless homogenization of commercial cinema, over the effacement of a personal vision by the financial objectives of studios (Tscherkassky’s is very much a work of Second Cinema). Instructions, in particular, resorts to this ritualism only to illustrate the tyranny of film, the olden days when the author could make his material transmute on whim and even impart a part of his personality to his film. Not anymore. Authorship can no longer exist on the frame, only within it. As far as the physical medium goes, the author is dead now, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The film even seems to look forward to a newer, less egotistic cinema as suggested by the strange overlapping of ‘Start’ and ‘Finish’ frames. Now that Tscherkassky has mourned the death of the despotism of film, it’s time for some filmmaker to celebrate the democracy of digital video.
(You can watch the film here. The password to the video is “theauteurs”.)