Outer Space

(1)

Translated from the French by Alice Lovejoy

“A face is never photogenic, though at times its emotions are,” writes Jean Epstein (2). According to Epstein, film distinguishes itself from the other arts by the fact that it records thought through the body, both reinforcing it and awakening it. Often, “found footage” cinema aspires to exactly this capacity of thought; but only rarely does it manage to maintain the intensity of the original film’s emotion. Peter Tscherkassky’s Outer Space (Austria, 1999, length: 10′, B&W, Cinemascope) uses an original process, which gets at the very interior of the image, to lay bare the complexity of photogeny. By isolating, frame by frame, a “found” face, it attempts a reconsideration of the classical filmic body—the body become image, whose incarnation is the star. Tscherkassky’s work, alternating between analysis and emotion, refers on one hand to figurative elements specific to the genre—lighting, framing and scenography—and on the other hand, beyond these formal aspects, to the materiality of celluloid; the physical medium that supports the image.

The original material for this short found-footage film is The Entity (Sidney J. Furie, USA, 1982, length: 125′, Technicolor), an American horror film in the tradition of Poltergeist, starring Barbara Hershey. The film’s narrative could be summarized as a series of “disembodied” attacks endured by a woman; in Outer Space, this narrative is figuratively condensed. Its reduction rests on the fact that The Entity‘s narrative relies on readily-established codes: a woman feels she is being pursued, the aggressions take place in a closed space, and she becomes, through the image, the object both of desire and of the gaze—a situation that runs through the history of cinema from the first D.W. Griffith Biograph films to the present. In The Entity, the persecutors themselves are never visible, but leave, as invisible malevolent spirits, traces on the female body. The mise en scène uses Welles-ian and Hitchcock-ian horror scenes as a mold. With one small difference: in these “primitive scenes,” sexual aggressions against a woman do not take place in an incorporeal way (both on the diegetic level and in the image), but rather are prefigured and coded in such a manner as to remain mostly imaginary, and take place off-screen. It is precisely this mold, which relies on the function of the female face, that Tscherkassky’s work deals with.

Using only a small number of shots and scenes from The Entity, Outer Space dissects its fundamental elements, multiplies them, condenses them and recomposes them. The shots fall into two general categories: on the one hand, exterior shots of the isolated, uncanny (3) house—at once familiar and strange—in which Hershey’s character becomes the victim of the attacks; and, on the other hand, interior shots in which the attacks play out on the female body. The basis of Tscherkassky’s film work is the picture frame composed of superimpositions, created by collage and retouching: Tscherkassky cuts up parts of the original image with the aid of a laser pen, and recombines them through contact-printing.

The face, and all its constitutive parts, plays an essential role in the attack scenes: it is the site where desire translates into affect, the place towards which the subject (-spectator) is directed by the flow of the images. This function of the face is already evident in the original film, The Entity (4), by its specific figuration: one of the “attacks” takes place in the bathroom where, in one camera movement, framing separates Hershey’s nude body from her head, and, in the one following, her face is multiplied through a trick of mirrors. Outer Space adopts this mirror scene as a decisive figurative element in depicting the sexual attacks. Through his choice of images, Tscherkassky puts into play a kind of censorship, in the psychoanalytic sense. He transfers the representation of the libidinal attacks from the nude female body (the sort of literal representation of a “realization” of fantasy, perversion, and taboos that became commonplace in ’80s horror films (5)) to the face which, as an image, is punished for the spectator’s desire and repression.

In this condensed composition, the enclosure of the female body in the image, shown by Tscherkassky in its filmic, material dimension, goes hand-in-hand with the detachment of the face and its parts. The cinematographic aspect is inscribed in the image through flickering, traces of chiaroscuro, and sprocket holes, which are visible in the field of vision. In the middle of the film, the flickering, reinforced by positive-negative inversions, combines with the perforated picture frames to a point of complete abstraction (6). The figuration of the female body—from the beginning a precarious matter in Tscherkassky’s work—is thus simultaneously deconstructed as something imaginary, the object of projection, and as a material construction.

The relationship between the material aspect of the cinematographic mechanism and the analysis of the representation of the female star’s face is created in accordance with a progressive dramaturgy: Hershey’s face (in medium close-up or in close-up) is first shown in movement, covered with dark flickers, figuratively unstable, dissolving in soft-focus and multiplying silhouettes. In a second instance, a movement of her head, accompanied by an audible cracking, produces a double face: the initial before/after is condensed into a figurative co-presence. This multiplication is pushed to the extreme in a third image in which, as in chrono-photography, several moments featuring the same face are inscribed. Tscherkassky thus satisfies the idea of the “portrait in movement” formulated by Diderot during the 1767 Salon (7), the idea that seemed so essential to Béla Balázs: compared with painting, sculpture and photography, only film knows how to represent the play of physiognomy. This multiple portrait is followed by an assault of Hershey’s face against the door, the window, the mirror and the walls, which, in turn, leads to an attack of the filmic material against the figuration of the film. This attack bursts out through the edges of the film, and dissolves into a flickering image of the protagonist, who from this point forward finds herself enclosed not in the film’s diegesis, but inside a visible frame composed of the celluloid’s soundtrack and perforations.

Barbara Hershey in The Entity

In a fourth phase, finally, Tscherkassky deals with the “mirror attack.” In the initial image, Hershey’s face crashes into its own reflection in the glass, and is disfigured. The physical counter-attack she launches—throwing objects around her bedroom, breaking the blinds and shattering glass—is directed towards off-screen, imaginary space. This space’s continued invisibility transforms Hershey’s expression, filmed in close-up and disfigured by frowns, into a blind stare: what her terrified eyes (do not) see remains hidden. While her face becomes progressively disfigured, the image is itself fragmented into rectangles. The final flickering mirror image, a “soul in slow motion,” (8) as Epstein would say, reunites the two “theoretical” dimensions of Tscherkassky’s figurative work—cinematographic materiality and narrative coding. The film ends by materially reducing these two dimensions: the image becomes an abstraction, the figurative opposition of the female body and the space surrounding it ceases, and in the dark, only faces and parts of faces can be seen, doubled and multiplied, but always in a precarious, unstable, flickering form. With the close-up of Hershey’s eyes, a figurative structure of Outer Space closes upon itself again, returning to the close-up of the door from the beginning of the film, the shot that activated our desire in the first place: the desire to enter, through an image, the diegetic world. This, the first close-up of the film, gives way to a long shot in which a female figure is shown from the back, at night, approaching an isolated house. This close-up is a sort of face, affect in the Deleuzian sense, for the shot of the door “receives” a “face.” (9) At the end, the close-up or filmic detail devours everything; the potential portrait is eclipsed by a reliance on the eyes in order to disappear totally in the darkness.

Thus, with this molecular perception of the cine-eye, Peter Tscherkassky approaches the Epsteinian notion of photogeny and emotion. In his defense of the close-up, Jean Epstein says, “One does not escape from the iris. All around, darkness: nothing to catch the attention.” (10) And further: “A cyclops art. Monosensical art. Iconoptic retina. All life and all attention are in the eye. The eye only sees the screen. And on the screen, there is only a face, like a great sun.” In Outer Space, by the size of the shot, the face becomes recognizable as an abstract machine, as in the Deleuzian sense of faciality.

With this ending, Outer Space poses the question of the close-up’s status in classical narrative cinema, as Epstein defines it. While Epstein, in the ’20s, defended the close-up against a tendency to leave it out, Pascal Bonitzer’s commentaries 50 years later showed the shot’s ambivalent stature with relationship to imaginary space: since the close-up hides more from the gaze than it shows, it flattens the field of the image. In this manner, says Bonitzer, “it displaces the articulation of the film’s reading (…) from the ‘content’ of the image to the syntax of the shots, the mise en scène; displaces the attention from the ‘reality’ of the image to the functioning of the film (a menace to all representative scenography).” (11) These circumstances explain the necessity of a specific connotation of the close-up in classical narrative cinema, just as it explains avant-garde film’s fondness for the shot’s capacity to annul narrative “transparency.”

Janet Leigh in Touch of Evil

As a possible mold for Outer Space, as well as for its source material, one could look to Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958). Susan (Janet Leigh), like Barbara Hershey in Tscherkassky’s film, is represented as a trapped woman: she is the object both of desire and of the masculine gaze. As Stephen Heath demonstrated in his famous analysis (12), Touch of Evil‘s narrative logic hinges on the theft and restitution of the woman as “good object”, poised between the poles of the image and its extinction. Flickering and the flicker, as typical in film noir as they are in Tscherkassky’s work, are pushed to the extreme by Welles in the scenes where Susan is trapped and her husband cannot reach her, scenes in which she feels herself observed and surveyed: in the hotel, then in the lost motel, and finally in the Grandis Hotel in Los Robles. In the first hotel scene, Janet Leigh’s face is fragmented in black and white from the light of a flickering neon sign on a neighboring building: alternately, it shines or is plunged in darkness. In this sexually coded scene, through the course of which Susan is overwhelmed on her motel bed by Grandi’s envoys, possession is inscribed by the fragmentation into black and white of both her face and body. As soon as distance is abolished (through medium close-ups and close-ups), we hear the voice-off of Lila, the woman accompanying the hired men, who says, in place of the spectator, “I wanna watch.” Then, the shadow of one of the attackers isolates Susan’s eyes for a brief instant. Through metonymy, her eyes have taken on a blind look of terror that has no counter-shot and whose off-screen corollary must remain imaginary in order to generate “the pleasure of fear.” We find a comparable isolation of the eyes at the end of Tscherkassky’s Outer Space, thus inscribing The Entity in the tradition of Welles’s film.

Another mold for the filmic representation of terror is the shower sequence in Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960). It should be noted that, some years after Touch of Evil, the female face of this princeps horror film was played by the same star: Janet Leigh. Hitchcock combines, through a staccato of terrified expressions on the heroine’s face, the shock that creates fear, with the secret that generates anguish (or worry), with suspense (which activates fear and pity in the spectator) (13). In Tscherkassky’s work, the condensation of the attacks against Barbara Hershey takes essential elements from Marion’s (Janet Leigh) (14) murder: on the one hand, the alternation of oneiric, fantasmic and realistic visions; and on the other hand, the figurative opposition of the female face and the space that surrounds it. Nicole Brenez describes the first part of the shower scene as a montage of unidentifiable, abstract and unique points of view (emptiness, vagueness, lines) and repetitions of identical points of view on the female face. From her analysis of the two parts of the sequence (15), she draws the following conclusion: “The plastic principle of the sequence thus consists in injecting the shapeless into the distinct and precision into vagueness.” (16) One can similarly read in Tscherkassky’s use of an ’80s horror film the mold of a game calculated of actual and virtual images tied to the performative qualities of the cinematographic image—exactly in the same sense in which Nicole Brenez perceives psychotropes in Hitchcock’s figuration, looking at, above all, the effects of hallucination, the relationship of the mental image to the “objectal” shot, and the function of censorship.

In Tscherkassky’s work, the gesture of re-reading “found” images thus allows a theoretical determination of the status of the face in cinema, which is achieved through analyzing filmic constructions of feelings, emotions, and conceptions of the world. The re-reading of a conventional horror film allows one to decipher its codes—through a material “attack” on the field of the image, in showing the face’s enclosure in the frame, by way of the material dimension of a picture frame. Outer Space multiplies and isolates the face in its different parts, in order to expose, through the reciprocal game of the visible and invisible, a mold of fright. In such a way, the film sustains the virtuality of the fantasy with a plastic tension between figuration and abstraction. If “outer space” is a fantastical place, Tscherkassky redirects it from the spectator’s imaginary off-screen space to the off-frame space of the celluloid.

Endnotes

  1. This text is part of a longer essay that was originally published in German in: Christa Blümlinger and Karl Sierek (eds.), Das Gesicht im Zeitalter des bewegten Bildes, Vienna: Sonderzahl Verlag 2002, pp. 163-182. It was published in French in: Balthazar N°5/ 2002, pp. 20-23, where it was translated from the original German by Birgit Kirkamm with the collaboration of Mathias Lavin.
  2. Jean Epstein, “ Bonjour cinéma ” in Ecrits sur le cinéma, Vol. 1, Seghers, Paris, 1974, p.102
  3. Sigmund Freud dans son célèbre essai sur L’Inquiétant (das Unheimliche) le définit comme “(n’étant) effectivement rien de nouveau ni d’étranger, mais quelque chose qui est pour la vie d’âme de tout temps familier, et qui ne lui a été rendu étranger que par le procès du refoulement”. S. Freud, “L’Inquiétant” (1919) in Œuvres complètes, Tome XV, PUF, 1996, p.175. (IN GERMAN: Sigmund Freud, Gesammelte Werke Bd. 12, Frankfurt a.M. 1999, S. 254. IN ENGLISH: “The Uncanny” (1919) in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. J. Strachey, 24 vols, London, The Hogarth Press, 1953-1979, Vol XVII, pp. 217-256)
  4. The emphasis placed on the face is reinforced by the film’s action: a friend recognizes that Hershey has had worrisome encounters by the expression on her face: “your face is serious.”
  5. S. Daney, “Dix ans de cinéma, six lignes de fuite” in Bernard Blistène, Catherine David and Alfred Pacquement (dir.), L’époque, la mode, la morale, la passion. Aspects de l’art aujourd’hui, 1977-1987, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1987, p.69
  6. Abstraction with which Tscherkassky makes reference to Peter Kubelka’s structural films, such as Arnulf Rainer (1960).
  7. “In an individual, each instant to his physiognomy, his expression,” notes Diderot in his Essays on Painting. In his famous essay on the portrait Michel van Loo made of him, Diderot, cautioning his grandchildren, writes, “I had in a single day a hundred different physiognomies, according to whatever I was affected by (…), but I never looked the way you see me there.” In D. Diderot, Ruines et paysages – Salon de 1767, Hermann, 1995, p.82.
  8. Jean Epstein, “ L’âme au ralenti ”(1928) in Ecrits 1, op. cit., p.191.
  9. Gilles Deleuze writes à propos of the close-up: “this thing was treated like a face, it was ‘envisaged,’ or more ‘faceified,’ and in its turn it stares at us, looks at us …even if it does not look like a face. Thus the pendulum close-up.” Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1 – The Movement-image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Haberjam, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986, p. 88
  10. J. Epstein, “ Grossissement ”(1921) in Ecrits 1, op. cit., p.98
  11. Pascal Bonitzer, “ Le Gros Orteil (‘réalité’ de la dénotation, 2) ” in Cahiers du cinéma n°232, Octobre 1971, p.20
  12. Stephen Heath, “ Film and System, Terms of Analysis ” Part II in Screen vol.16/N°2, Summer 1975, p.91-113.
  13. Peter Wollen, Time-Image-Terror, Trafic n°36, Hiver 2000, p.63-73. Wollen refers to the Freudian distinction between anguish, fear and fright; three terms that are erroneously used as synonyms. Freud writes: “The term anguish designates a state characterized by the expectation of danger and the preparation for it, even if the danger is unknown; the term fear supposes a defined object of which one is afraid; as for the term fright, it designates the state that occurs when one falls into a dangerous situation without being prepared for it; it puts emphasis on the element of surprise”. S. Freud, “Au-delà du principe de plaisir ” (1920) in Essais de psychanalyse, Payot, 1981, p.50 (In German: Sigmund Freud: Jenseits des Lustprinzips [1920] In: id.: Studienausgabe, Bd. III, Frankfurt a.M. 1989, pp. 222)
  14. There are innumerable commentaries on Psycho that could be mentioned here. I wish to mention, however, following the judicious remarks Peter Wollen, the theoretical analysis of the shower scene by Nicole Brenez, which deals with the experimental aspect of the image’s treatment.
  15. Following the example of the second part of the sequence which, according to Nicole Brenez, associates the soft focus on the known body with the sharp focus on the unknown shadow, which acts as a synthetic body. Nicole Brenez, “L’étude visuelle. Puissance d’une forme cinématographique : Al Razutis, Ken Jacobs, Brian de Palma ” in De la Figure en général et du corps en particulier, DeBoeck, Bruxelles, 1998, p.313-335.
  16. N. Brenez, p.323

About The Author

Christa Blümlinger teaches at the University Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris. She is also a writer, art critic and curator, and has written for many magazines including Trafic, Iris, and Blimp. Her most recent books are Ohne Untertitel Fragmente einer Geschichte des österreichischen Kinos (Vienna 1996; together with Ruth Beckermann); Von der Welt ins Bild. Augenzeugenberichte eines Cinephilen (Berlin 2000, an edition of writings by Serge Daney); and Das Gesicht im Zeitalter des bewegten Bildes (Vienna: Sonderzahl, forthcoming; together with Karl Sierek).