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INDEX IS. (1-4)
von Christoph Huber in Cinemascope , Fall 2007
 
INDEX IS. (1-4)


1. I guess it’s part of a film critic’s job that friends, especially those not in the film scene, regularly ask: "What is 'the' greatest movie ever made?“Not just for reasons of subjectivity, the answer makes little sense, and frankly I’ve found out that most people just want you to say ‚Vertigo’ (1958), Citizen Kane (1941) or some other canonical classic, so life (and cinema and its mainstream history) can continue unchallenged. But, subjectively, of course, for a few years now I’ve made it a point to reply (quite truthfully): "Why, Kurt Kren’s '37/78 Tree again’ (1978), of course“ – which usually just raises eyebrows.
So then, it’s my pleasure to expand on how a film they’ve never heard of, by a filmaker they’ve never heard of, embodies the beauty and contradictions of cinema in its essence – and does so in less than four minutes. Kren’s film has an additional advantage, not always the case in that grey zone we shall term for purposes of straightforwardness "avant garde“: it can be described quite vividly in words, and its genesis makes for a good story. For about two months Kren returned daily to the same spot in Vermont to shoot single frames of a tree (using a roll of infrared film well past ist expiration date). The succession of frames was not chronological, but Kren rewound the film according to a prearranged plan. The result is intoxicating, miraculously and mysteriously capturing time out of joint. In split seconds, seasons change and leaves are flashing in different colours, animals and clouds rush by, light and weather mutate constantly. In capturing decay and renewal of (and around) this tree Kren communicates the perpetual flux of the entire world, and a central paradox of cinema. The description usually arouses curiosity even in the most avant-garde-averse listener. So it’s nice that I can now add: "And it’s now out on DVD!“

2. Beyond the Shadow of a (Digital) Doubt
Three Kren DVDs are among the crown jewels of the Austrian project INDEX, previously mentioned in these pages in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s DVD column, but certainly worthy of further consideration. Recently this selection of "audiovisual publications relevant to the history of international and Austrian film, video and media art“ has expanded to 27 region-free silver discs. At index-dvd.at (bilingual German/English, online oders can be directly placed), the project is compared to a "small publishing house for quality literature“, and, indeed, the pleasingly frugal design – transparent cases, white bilingual brochures – as well as the (unavoidably, given the niche enterprise) considerable prices, fit the description. Not to mention the technical excellence: the transfers are flawless, closely corresponding to the original prints. (My sample basis: more than half of the DVDs and somewhat recent cinema screenings of actual prints of Kren, Peter Tscherkassky, and Valie Export). You can be pretty sure that any speckles or scratches are, as in the case of Tscherkassky or Gustav Deutsch, attribuable to the original material they used for their found-footage work.
Still, it’s unavoidable to pause and ask what remains of a film on DVD, something that seems especially crucial in an avant-garde context. The issue has been broached elsewhere, especially since the release of Criterion’s comparably well-conceived 'By Brackage’, which is a good example of both the problems and advantages of DVD transfers. The DVD experience of 'Mothlight’ (1963), for instance, seems to have little in common with its cinematic incarnation, with no projector beam to paint light patterns through the insect wings, etc. glued directly onto celluloid. Some hand-painted works, meanwhile, are transformed into something more akin to glass paintings on the TV screen – yet with their frame-by-frame changes, the hand-painted films are also a prime example of the access possibilities DVD offers to everybody vis-à-vis the previously rather privileged study of the works and their construction via still and single frames.
A notorious purist like Austrian avant-garde kingpin Peter Kubelka may decry any digital displacements as deformations on principle, and he has a point, which is quite effectively illustrated on a DVD that represents one of Kubelka’s lectures in the Austrian Film Museum (Peter Kubelka: Film als Ereignis, Film als Sprache, Denken als Film, made by Austrian video producers Zone). When Kubelka talks about his films, they’re projected, yet when his flicker classic 'Arnulf Rainer’ (1960) comes up, there isn’t even an attempt to film it off the screen: the video camera stays focused on the auditorium, heads and bodies repeatedly illuminated by flashes of light. Undeniably this conveys much better what it’s like to see 'Arnulf Rainer’ on a cinema than any digital transfer of the film ever could.
On the other hand, although it may inspire intriguing ideas about the hitherto untapped potential of mediating movies (maybe to be discovered by accident), this still doesn’t even compare to seeing Kubelka’s film properly projected. And his purism is probably what dictated the fact that the DVD of his German-language lecture has no subtitles, as opposed to the INDEX publications which have English subtitles where needed. So whereas Kubelka, who would certainly never allow a transfer of his films, even in INDEX quality, chooses to be deliberately limiting (and limited) to defend his idea of cinematic (and ones understand him at least somewhat given the enthusiasm with which DVDs are treated as the genuine replacement article for film, even by people who should know better), INDEX stands for a more pragmatic position, sensibly advocated by Peter Tscherkassky in an interview in the brochure for his 'Films from a Dark Room’: "One could take a purist position and say that these films are not to be shown in any other medium. But that would only lead to people sitting in the cinema filming off the screen, and then there would those entirely flickering, shaky VHS versions in circulation...I also see the DVD version as an invitation to go see the film on a large screen.“
Even more purposeful is Deutsch, who compiled a condensation of his chef d’oeuvre 'Film ist. (1-12) (2004) specifically for the DVD release, helped by the fact that this film, a (potentially endless) "work in progress“, operates on a principal variation and experimentation and as such can be easily edited down: the disc contains a 77-minute version, whereas the two (thus far) cinematic incarnations 'Film ist. (1-6)’ (1998) and 'Film ist. (7-12)’ (2002) were twice as long combined. As Deutsch states, these films remain for futher investigation, then proceeds to list the international distributors.
And indeed, even the name INDEX indicates the correct conception of the whole affair. The relation between DVD and film can be reasonably compared to that between a museum’s catalogue and the actual exhibits. And you won’t find a better DVD catalogue of often great cinematic work otherwise almost impossible to access, yet of crucial importance for Austrian film and video history – and, in quite a few cases, for film and video history period. Some drawbacks, which we’ll attend in a moment, should be allowed.

3. (Glimpses of) A brief History of Austrian Avant-Garde Cinema
Festival successes from Haneke onwards have put Austria’s long-fledgling feature filmmaking on the international map in the last decade or two, but ist tradition of experimental filmmaking is unsurpassed. Basically born out of a postwar rebellion against conformist society and cinema, it has been on the vanguard ever since. There was the pioneering structural work (especially by Kubelka and Kren) in the late 50s/early 60s soon followed by performance films of the controversial body-happenings by the Viennese actionists during the 60s, which developed towards a conceptual "expanded cinema“ bent. Despite great work in exile by Kren (who was forced out of the country after a scandalized "happening“ led to legal persecution) or the remarkable feminist/political films of multi-tasking Valie Export, a period of stagnation (or "exile“ into features) followed. In the 80s the "third generation“ (including Tscherkassky, Lisl Ponger, and Dietmar Brehm) brought a new burst of (subjective) energy, first closely connected to the grainy characteristics of Super 8 and then towards the 90s expansion into travelogues, fusions of documentary and experimental methods, and especially found-footage work, with Martin Arnold’s Hollywood deconstructions eminently successful on the international circuit. But diversification – from abstract videos, often in collaboration with Austria’s progressive electronic music scene, to animation – has continued, while a remarkable consciousness of traditions has survived: quite a few important Austrian avant gardists doubled as film historians, especially but not solely of the movement.
Even more important is the founding of the distribution collective sixpackfilm in 1990, which has freed the filmmakers from many logistical duties and given them time to persue their work more intensely. Of course sixpackfilm is also behind the INDEX project, collaborating with another worthy institution, Medienwerkstatt Wien. The latter is probably masterminding the releases more related to crossovers with the art world (like Leo Schatzl’s installations or the very 70s zeitgeist TV conceptual art of Peter Weibel) and historical documents like the untranslatable – but believe me, ist pun name on newsreels is inspired – 1980 video-activist endeavour "Volks Stöhnende Knochenschau“. Ouside of Austria that one may be just of curiosity value, but, as in most art/video works, at least there’s no worrying about transfer loss.
Which may be the case to some degree in the "real“ avant-garde films, but what you get is still worth cherishing: Michael Pilz’s immersive 16mm-study 'Parco della Rimembranze’ (1987) may just be the lovely echo of ist miraculous self on DVD, but it’s accompanied by the remarkable, hardly diminished New York video expedition 'Facts for Fiction’ (1996). And while the crucial "pumping screen“ flicker characteristic of Brehm’s films may feel too faint on the small screen – almost strange, given that the wild staccato effects of Tscherkassky’s masterpiece ‚Outer Space’ (1999) come through much clearly – the eerie, even disturbing ambience of his found-footage 'Black Garden’ series remains undeniable.
Probably it is because the ideas are so strong (and a major preoccupation of the Austrian avant garde is with seeing) that so much survives, be it the discursive beauty of Ponger’s 'Traveling Light’ journeys or the energic, nervy back-forth of Arnold’s 'Cineseizure’ going pop!, and yet stuck in a horrible groove, best exemplified by Judy Garland’s singing caught in an orgasmic shriek-loop in 'Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy’ (1998). Filmmakers underrepresented on the international radar (Manfred Neuwirth!) get their due, and significant ideas of Austria’s most important avant-garde waves can be gleaned. From Kren alone it’s the "Action Films“ (focusing on the performance films, one hopes he’ll soon be flanked by the great iconoclast Ernst Schmidt, Jr., whose work was recently added to the sixpackfilm catalogue) and "Structural Films“, including the glorious 'Tree Again’ as well as the early masterpiece '3/60 Bäume im Herbst’ (1960), cementing Kren’s status as cinema’s greatest tree filmmaker. The third DVD, "Which Way to CA?“, is given a documentary angle (as if Kren’s films wouldn’t explode any preconceived notions) and includes the deeply moving, melancholy work of his US exile, plus, as a bonus, the very personal documentary on Kren by Hans Scheugel, which is among the finest filmmaker portraits I know.
Similarly, two DVDs dedicated to Valie Export explore landmark 70s positions. Among the "3 Experimental Short Films“ are 'Mann & Frau & Animal’ (1970-73) and 'Remote...Remote...’ (1973), which wrestle complex, provocative discourse from seemingly simple setups. Another DVD is dedicated to her groundbreaking debut feature 'Invisible Adversaries’ (1976), a progression of her progressive ideas towards a fusion of different art forms, which has aged quite interestingly, and is still full of unpredictable and bewildering moments. Generally, female filmmakers are well-represented, from the subversive physical shenanigans of Bulgarian immigrant Mara Mattuschka from the 80s onward (priceless, representative interview quote: "it is possible to masturbate and while doing so, to stare at the radiator and all at once you realize the radiator is a part of you and also a thing in and of itself“), down to the more recent "Female Performance Art from Austria“, which, forming a nice circle, includes 'Neurodermitis’ (1998) by Kerstin Cmelka, who has actively followed in Export’s footsteps.

4. Across the Border/Coming Home
Another circle closes beautifully in the (so far) small international INDEX selection. The more recent batch of 12 DVDs saw two amusing inclusions: Józef Robakowski, Polish avant-garde art pionneer, and German Jan Peters, whose diary films are like nothing else. Starting out with the innocuous home movie 'I Am 24’ (1990), Peters has tried to "sum up“ his life annually in a constricted format, at first as a three-minute Super 8 reel. But soon his attempts to nevertheless present it as something completely different lead to increasingly hilarious, yet always staggeringly self-aware variations: a propos a year of relative poverty he claims resulted in him developing the film himself, which teems with surface scratches. The expansion of this comic universe culminates when, instead of 'I Am 35’, he realizes the (comparably) epic 20-minute short 'How I Became a Cave Painter’ (2001), about his new job at a theatre which (don’t ask) culminates in his delusions that he has to survive among Neanderthals thanks to his artistic skills. His misadventures lead to a scene that recreates what Deutsch in his introduction has described thusly: "The original cinema was a cave, shortly after the Earth’s crust solidified, into which rays of light were reflected though a tiny hole, creating a reproduction of the outside world, reversed and upside down“.
This marvellous coincidence must be a sign of how all the hand wringing about a (digital) "death of cinema“ may be just a luxury of misguided speculation. After all: Film Is. And, given how much there is of it, it’s sure nice to have an index.
 
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