Footage Fetish

Ed Halter on Gustav Deutsch

Gustav Deutsch, Film ist. a girl & a gun, 2009, stills from a black-and-white and color film, 93 minutes.

FILM/SPEAKS/MANY/LANGUAGES (1995), an early one-minute piece by Gustav Deutsch made from bits of a Bollywood musical, might at first seem to merely advertise a multicultural message typical to its era: that cinema has always been a global phenomenon. But its construction says more. Deutsch embeds the words of the title as near-subliminal flashes, and the original footage has been reprinted to display not only the entire frame, with dust and scratches intact, but the optical sound track and sprocket holes as well, reminiscent of George Landow’s structural loop Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc. (1965–66). The physical material of the celluloid itself, Deutsch suggests, bears its own levels of significance, even as this sixty-second fragment evokes other narratives: not just the sugary love story that must have surrounded it but the low-budget industry implied by its very existence, as well as the place and time of its production, now visible as inadvertently documentary aspects of the image.

Working exclusively with appropriated footage for over a decade, Deutsch has become one of the major living practitioners of a tradition in avant-garde cinema stretching back to the works of Bruce Conner and Joseph Cornell. A major retrospective at the Austrian Film Museum properly situates Deutsch in the materialist vein of fellow Viennese filmmakers like Peter Kubelka, Kurt Kren, and Peter Tscherkassky. What distinguishes Deutsch from his forebears is his historical place at the tail end of celluloid’s reign: His practice thereby intersects with the increased role of archives in greater film culture, both conceptually and practically. This investigative aspect is most overtly allegorized in World Mirror Cinema (2005), which analyzes actualities shot outside of movie houses in early twentieth-century Austria, Indonesia, and Portugal, digitally zooming in on faces in each crowd, then linking them with fanciful doppelgängers discovered elsewhere in the archives. The cinema, Deutsch suggests, constitutes an uncannily preserved looking glass of the past, resiliently tangible yet inevitably slipping into the unreal.

Deutsch’s opus Film ist. 1–12, a symphonic meditation on the medium, was similarly produced out of footage acquired from a range of international archives. The first section, parts 1–6 (1998), looks at cinema as a scientific medium, reworking films from the technology’s beginnings to the 1970s, sussing out an unexpected poetry from various optical means of epistemological inquiry. In contrast, Film ist. 7–12 (2002) focuses exclusively on cinema’s first three decades, offering color-tinted sequences from ethnographic films and parlor fantasies chosen for their dreamlike, irrational qualities and set to staticky minimalist scores by Christian Fennesz, Martin Siewert, and others. His latest installment of the series, Film ist. a girl & a gun (2009), takes its title from a D. W. Griffith maxim (famously revived by Godard), stating that all a director needs are these two elements. Deutsch uses the concept as a jumping-off point for an exploration of Thanatos and Eros, infusing narrative, medical, and pornographic sources with mythic symbolism. As Deutsch reveals metonymic visual links between the genres—joining, for example, images of copulation, dancing, and knife fights—the boundaries between fiction and documentary grow both indiscernible and irrelevant.

A retrospective of Gustav Deutsch's film work is on view at the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna February 19–26. For more details, click here.