A known face at film archives around the world, Austrian filmmaker and architect Gustav Deutsch is one of found footage’s most astute and assiduous artists. Deutsch — who’s currently being featured in a series at the Museum of the Moving Image — ranks among the great filmmakers who work without a camera, a small and for the most part unconnected group that includes Ken Jacobs, Joseph Cornell, Bruce Conner (A Movie), and Vincent Monnikendam (Mother Dao, the Turtlelike). They are the Dr. Frankensteins of the film world, cutting up and stitching together fragments of the celluloid body of the past.
Deutsch began digging into the archive in earnest in 1995, during the 100th anniversary of the medium. Reading one statement after another waxing on the nature and meaning of film, he turned to the source for some answers. Released between 1998 and 2009, the Film ist. trilogy (Film ist. [1–6], Film ist. [7–12], and Film ist. a girl & a gun) is his effort to describe and define film with itself — “Film ist.” translates to “Film is.” In Deutsch’s view, film simply is; whatever follows is just another possibility of the rich and ever-changing nature of cinema, one more example of what film scholar Tom Gunning calls “fil’s continous [sic] metamorphosis, its display of the secret life of existence itself.”
Culled from his growing haul of images and sounds — the project remains open-ended in design and presentation; Deutsch frequently collaborates with musicians on live and recorded scores — Film ist. (1–6) and Film ist. (7–12) piece together a story of the early history and appearance of film: (1–6) compiles scientific films, like those made by Eadweard Muybridge and others, exploring movement and perception; (7–12) brings together silent entertainment films by the likes of Georges Méliès, comedies, and documentary recordings. Film ist. a girl & a gun goes further into popular culture, roving through the early terrain of violence and sex, thanatos and eros, that made up much of the emerging medium (Pauline Kael would call this “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang“); it also includes selections from the earthly archive of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, clips of historical stag shows, peepshows, sex education, and animal sex behavior.
As theoretical and experimental as the Film ist. trilogy is, Deutsch remains playful and decisive throughout, maintaining a keen sense of image, contrast, time, and film history. One section flickers through a set of frames with damaged emulsions, abraded and smeared from a cleaning lady who used them in lieu of a rag to wipe the floor. Others toy with the rationality of cuts, juxtaposing people looking through a key hole or binoculars with a series of unexpected sight gags. Some segments seem to reference other films, as in the case of one that features an eyeball being excruciating removed from its socket — a nod to Un Chien Andalou? The films are a smart, witty tour through the early recorded moving world, at times even mesmerizing, a reminder of the embedded history and autonomous power of images.
Recently Deutsch has turned to live action, chronicling 30 years of a fictional woman’s life through 13 days and 13 Edward Hopper paintings. Over a span that begins in the 1930s and stretches to the 1960s, each day finds the woman in a different historical moment and in a different Hopper painting, all of them luxuriant tone poems about her moods and inner musings. Though a departure from found footage, Shirley: Visions of Reality (2013) retains Deutsch’s exacting approach and interest in the artifice and history of art and film: according to the director, Hopper was himself influenced by film noir, and he in turn influenced Alfred Hitchcock, Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorsese, and Wim Wenders, as well as the look and aesthetic of Blade Runner.
Deutsch’s sets in Shirley are so true to the reality of Hopper’s imagined texture and space, they practically boast of their artificiality. Hopper’s paintings “Morning Sun” (1952), “New York Movie” (1939), and “A Woman in the Sun” (1961), among others, are meticulously reproduced down to their distinctive color, lighting, and impossible design (armchairs so narrow that they’re barely usable). Deutsch and his cast and crew breathe life into these spaces, imagining how the paintings might sound and look if their frozen figures moved about. No other film, besides perhaps Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (incidentally, featuring Martin Scorsese), comes close to Deutsch’s re-creations of art on film, and few rival the lush pleasure of seeing Hopper come alive. (Photographer Richard Tuschman’s Hopper Meditations are now a distant second fiddle.)
When it come to narrative, however, Shirley is threadbare, not much more than Shirley’s yearning for artistic fulfillment. Twelve of the film’s 13 days fall on August 28, and each one is introduced by an all-too-similar news radio broadcast. The majority of the dialogue comes from Shirley’s uninspired internal murmurings. These bland conceits stretch an already limited storyline. Though individually strong, the episodes in the film don’t add up to a greater whole.
It’s no surprise that a filmmaker who uses fiction to explore reality and film’s past to reflect on its present is being celebrated at a museum. This weekend the Museum of the Moving offers a rare chance to view four Deutsch films on the big screen. For everyone else, you can catch some of his work on the internet, the future and forever archive.
The Film Ist. Gustav Deutsch series screens July 25–27 at the Museum of the Moving Image (36-01 35th Avenue, Astoria, Queens). Tonight’s 7pm screening of Shirley includes an “illustrated conversation” between Gustav Deutsch and Hanna Schimek, his longtime collaborator and partner, followed by a reception.