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Parts and Holes: Peter Tscherkassky's "The Exquisite Corpus"

Plunging into a celluloid sex dream.
MUBI is presenting the global online premiere of Peter Tscherkassky's short film, The Exquisite Corpus, running June 11 - July 10, 2016. The film will play at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York on July 1 and 3, and at Cinefamily in Los Angeles on July 1, 2 and 6.
While Peter Tscherkassky was arranging pornographic film strips into his latest found-footage phantasmagoria, The Exquisite Corpus, Eve Heller reminded him, "Don't you forget about men! I want to have my fun too, not just watch women." This is advice from one experimental filmmaker to another, but also a request from one spouse to another (the two are married). The Exquisite Corpus premiered at the 2015 Quinzaine des réalisateurs, but the film's raw materials come from disreputable, disposable skin flicks and stag films. While Tscherkassky continues his working method he calls "manufracture" (named after his 1985 film) that pulverizes and reconfigures just about every assumption of cinematic illusion—which process has brought him much acclaim as one of the most important experimental filmmakers in the world—he cannot divest pornography of its bodily power. Not that he intends to, of course, but Heller makes sure that his film does not, for all of its abstracted cinematic pleasures, reproduce his sources'—or his own—male gaze.
The Exquisite Corpus foregrounds the difficulty of that task. Film's obsessive voyeurism rarely eroticizes men, and cinema itself can be considered a medium of the male gaze (or, as we might say in 2016, the heteropatriarchal gaze), one unique in the history of Western art not for that gaze as such, but for its reproducibility. As Michael Sicinski noted in his TIFF capsule, "The 'male gaze' concept is presented so absolutely, as a cultural fact as essential to the functioning of film as focus or the replication of motion, that Tscherkassky practically raises Laura Mulvey (to say nothing of Freud) to the axiomatic status of Isaac Newton." Stretching back to early experimentation while writing his philosophy dissertation at the University of Vienna, Tscherkassky built his career with film artifacts ranging from the first Lumière recording, La Sortie de l'Usine Lumière à Lyon, to B-horror detritus and home movies. As material for his work, he draws no distinction between the totemic and the ephemeral. The Exquisite Corpus shows that cinema regards the cis-female body as both. With this film, Tscherkassky uses the culturally diffused logic of female objectification to reveal the mechanics of the gaze itself. Unlike other peeping-tom directors who configure their mise en scène to to imprison women's bodies as we surveil them—in frames-within-frames, all those windows and binocular mattes and viewfinder masks—Tscherkassky blurs and overlaps the erogenous zones in action, with no definite boundary or separation. Caresses and licks superimpose on themselves, off-kilter and out-of-sync, the edges of the image dilating and contracting. The sexual gestures seem rushed and over-eager. Yet, because they repeat without finishing (whatever that looks like, but there is a constant feeling of foreclosure), the connections are meditative, non-orgasmic.
It should come as no surprise, then, that The Exquisite Corpus is structured as the wet-dream delirium of a sunbathing beauty. Tscherkassky has explicitly linked his "manufracture" method to Austrian countryman Freud's theory of dream interpretation. He literalizes Freud's theoretical terms "condensation" and "displacement" as stripping down film images to iconic parts and moving them into a new context of other parts and other wholes. His procedure itself, much like dreams and film artifacts, is rooted in memory. One of the many ways he creates his miasmas of grain and light involves taking a 24-frame strip of found footage and locking it into a custom sprocket-board; next, he places a 24-frame strip of unexposed film and locks it in on top. Frame by frame, he takes a laser pointer (or sometimes a flashlight) and exposes the precise area of the found footage he wants. Because he can't see the images, he must rely on his memory. He repeats the process hundreds or thousands of times, overlapping tiny parts of different films, creating frames that have no foundation or foreground. The hyperactive boundaries of each part becomes a record of Tscherkassky's own physical and memorial impulses.
His most famous work, 1999's pupil-detonating Outer Space, used this technique on the lurid horror film The Entity to create an ontological nightmare out of an existential one. The Exquisite Corpus is comparatively relaxed and fluid, a willful fantasy. Even the violent sex overlaid with a screaming mouth expresses something closer to unspeakable desire than assault. The soundtrack similarly abandons the pummeling musique concrète that has been an underrated feature of Tscherkassky's cinema. Here, Dirk Schaefer's design builds from melodramatic motifs to industrial churn, with a luxurious interlude of whipping fabric. The dreaming woman's fantasies are anxious, but not panicked. The seductions, strokes, and insertions on display can be playful, but remain incoherent. The bodies rarely resolve into single entities or unified wholes. A triptych striptease, beckonings from one film to another, indecision between boudoir kink and sexless nudism. As in other avant-garde explorations of sex, like the masturbatory daydream anchoring Stan Brakhage's Dog Star Man and Naomi Uman's elision of women from found-footage porn in Removed, private stimulations provoke questions of how to place human people (without whom sexuality would be null) into shared or private imaginative pleasures—which is itself a question of cinema.
As a sort of first principle for resolving how cinema contains people, Tscherkassky respects the frame. For a long time he worked with Academy-ratio images, but when he finally composed in widescreen, he called it the Cinemascope Trilogy to mark the departure. All of the frame edges, sprocket holes, and optical soundtrack segments that race within his films refer to their own physical limitations at the edge of the celluloid. Loss suffuses his process. For his 1985 film Motion Picture, Tscherkassky laid out strips of film into a grid and exposed it to a frame from La Sortie. The strips are then projected top-to-bottom, left-to-right, like a digital image shown pixel by pixel. Yet the pulses of light and shadow do not reveal the whole frame. Bits and pieces fall into the cracks and sprocket holes. Blown-up, the image decays. Information exceeds its capture. The Exquisite Corpus takes this to an extreme. The frame itself warps, aspect ratios expand and contract the visual field, allowing new sensations in new areas. To imagine sex, Tscherkassky dissolves one of the very few precepts he held. When the dreamer wakes up and the film stabilizes, it seems like a happy ending, of a sort. For all of the raucous excess of imagination and technical virtuosity necessary to visualize sexual fantasy, in the physical, social world we don't need to do anything so complex. Desire is in the gaze.

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