>inside Outer Space

>There is no doubt that Peter Tscherkassky’s Outer Space (1999) is a nearly maniacal and transformative assault on the viewer. One cannot finish the film (only 10 minutes in length) without experiencing a deeply visceral response. This is not a review per se, but an exploration of the film’s meaning, and a call for other perspectives.

The narrative, or what there is of a narrative, is apparently rather straightforward: A woman (played by Barbara Hershey – though it is found footage from Sidney J. Furie’s 1981 film The Entity) enters a house and seems to be “attacked” by mysterious forces, which may be the film itself (explanation later), and then she seems to disappear/fade into blackness. Consequently, one could classify this film within the common “woman as victim” horror genre, but I think that may limit our understanding.

Regarding the physical film itself being one of the forces, or maybe the only force, attacking the woman has been wonderfully discussed at Senses of Cinema by Rhys Graham in Outer Space: The Manufactured Film of Peter Tscherkassky. Graham places Tscherkassky’s work in a theoretical context by stating:

. . . Tscherkassky is playfully exploding the notion of “film as a mirror” articulated by Christian Metz which was, in turn, stated in opposition to Bazin’s narrative concerned statement that film is a window to the world. As he fragments Metz, who before him fragmented Bazin, we know that Tscherkassky is searching for something more.

This fragmenting is central to Outer Space and to Tscherkassky’s oeuvre in general (so I understand, Outer Space is the only film of his I’ve yet to see). Graham goes on to say:

This is not simply an act of subversion, but something like the fractured cut and paste ethics of avant-garde composers; a mode of using the violent rhythms of delay, rupture, fragmentation, looping and degraded image and sound.

The question I have is whether or not the violent fragmentation of Outer Space is, in fact, an act of violence upon the woman in the film (as part of the narrative), or is it to be understood as a kind of commentary alongside the narrative, a meta-narrative of sorts. Or better yet, a doppelganger at a visually psychic level. In other words, might it be that what the viewer witnesses is the tormented struggle of a multiple personality disorder visually represented in such a way as to convey both the struggle and the terror of that struggle, and in such a way as to elicit within the viewer feelings of almost macabre panic. And all this regardless of whether Tscherkassky had Bazin or Metz in mind at all.

Note: Screen grabs from Outer Space are nearly impossible to obtain with any accuracy because no amount of screen grabs can convey anywhere near the true essence of the film or the viewing experience, especially the hyper-frenetic visuals, not to mention the unusual audio track. But here are several images that highlight some moments in the narrative.

There is a house at night. At first it is just a house, then we see a woman standing outside the house. The house is tilted to the right. Note: at this point the film’s visuals already appear highly unstable often with mere flashes and hints of both the subject and the physical image in a frenetic and almost random manner. This carefully crafted accentuating of the film’s physicality offers reminiscences of scratchy and poorly threaded 16mm educational films shown in school classrooms of days gone by. It should be noted as well that Outer Space is a film that lives in darkness, revealing itself only in bits and pieces, and moves back and forth between the denotative and the connotative without concern for the viewer’s capability for discernment. (Like I said, screen grabs just don’t do it justice.)

The woman begins walking towards the house.

The soundtrack pops and crackles. There is a hint of eerie music, made even more effective by being pushed to the background. There is also no context for the house. The setting seems to be nighttime, but one could also posit that the house might just a well be floating in nothingness – almost like the empty space between time periods in Time Bandits (1981). Now that’s a reference you didn’t expect!

Then a hand reaches for a door knob…

…grabs the knob…

…and turns it.

I highlight this apparently simple action because of its psychic symbolism. I was reminded of Maya Deren’s Meshes in the Afternoon (1943) and its use of psychological symbolism, not least of which include the key, the house with its rooms and staircase, and the going through doors. The narrative in Meshes is not about the world “out there” but the world deep inside one’s subconsciousness (or someone’s subconsciousness). I argue that Outer Space functions in much the same way. The house is not a house, but a psychic space. Turning the door knob is the act of opening up that space.

The woman enters the house. Almost immediately there is the possibility of more than one instance of her. In other words, another, second woman appears that is also the first woman, but with her hair down rather than up – the same yet different.

The second woman appears at first faintly in the background…

…then more prominently…

…then the first woman disappears (fades) as the second woman remains. At this point multiple images of the woman come and go, as though competing for a place in the psychic space.

Eventually there are three women seen in the film, all the same woman, yet all slightly different. The film’s frenetic qualities increase and the women seem to compete for dominance, both with each other and with the film.

And then, in this already disquiet film, the film seems to jump its sprockets and come free. Notice the sprocket holes through the middle of the image (below).

The woman becomes fearful as the physical film begins to take over the narrative space.

Eventually the physical aspects of the film (sprocket holes, frames, etc. – along with a soundtrack hard to describe) completely take over.

At this point the viewer is now being assaulted by the film via an intense stroboscopic effect. And eventually the physical film begins to subside and the house once again asserts itself.

We come closer to the house, look into its windows and see the woman again. The film seems to assert itself again over the woman. But the woman (is it the first woman?) directly fights, almost as though attacking the viewer or camera. She attacks and attacks…

…but as she does so, she also begins to fragment…

…and eventually she must come to a point of apparent resignation.

And then she slowly disappears into the darkness.

What we are left, at the end of the film is once again where we began, in blackness. The woman has faded into a non-contextual blackness, into nothingness.

The physicality of the film as a narrative element raises the question of the “film as mirror” and thus film as theory of film. But is this really what this film is concerned with? Is this truly a story of a woman and a film fighting each other? Or might we see the tremendous noise (visually and audibly) created by the film as a kind of metonymic foray into the disturbing psychological depths of a person fighting at their inner core – whether it be a spiritual fight or a psychological one? In this sense, the film is not about a woman fighting against a/the/all film, but a woman struggling with deep forces within her. Tscherkassky has had to grapple with the key issue that every artist must grapple, that is how best to convey one’s ideas or instincts with the materials at hand. In Outer Space he succeeds brilliantly – and leave us a kind of post-modern talisman with evocative muscle.

Outer Space is available on DVD from Other Cinema as part of the collection Experiments in Terror.

2 thoughts on “>inside Outer Space

  1. >Wonderful captures. I just saw this a month or so ago and wanted to do a similar post, but was unable to suitably capture the footage from the DVD. You point to an element that I like most about this film (well, after its pure physical/psychic effect; I cannot imagine what it is like to see this on film in a theatre), namely the openness with which Tscherkassky treats the possibility that his manipulations are attacking Hershey (and/or The Entity) or that his manipulations are an expressionistic outgrowth of the narrative of the film (his or The Entity) itself. It really was one of the most amazing viewing experiences of my life.One of my favorite moments among many is the introduction of the house at the beginning: at first it appears merely as a white speck on the black film, already among the many flecks and other elements of print damage Tscherkassky’s film features. Only after a moment does it grow or expand, defining itself as house and the setting for the narrative. Does every film flaw contain such possibilities? Such horror?

  2. >Daniel, thanks for your comments. Yes, Outer Space is a very difficult film to get screen grabs. It took me a while to get these. I almost didn’t do the post just for that reason. But then I figured “what the heck” and gave it a try. I like some of the grabs, but, as you know, no still-images can possibly do the film justice.Does every film flaw contain such possibilities?It could be that Tscherkassky is wanting to underline the raw psychological power that is inherent in cinema, and that affects us all. Therefore, his answer would probably be “yes.” It’s hard to say. That is one of the reasons I like this film: It allows for multiple meanings.

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