Last year’s Mad Max: Fury Road is the first feature film in a decade to rival the visceral impact of Peter Tscherkassky’s short films. Armed with a laser pointer and flashlights, Tscherkassky transfers 16mm prints of Hollywood films onto unexposed film stock. The resulting films are cubist reconstructions of film grammar. Alone in a small studio he doubles, inverts and burns expensive pictures into short stories of unyielding intensity. Seeing these films on a computer screen is surely better than nothing and better than most of what you'll find at the multiplex. Seeing them projected from celluloid is an unparalleled, alchemical experience.
His most well-known work, Outer Space (1999), reimagines the Barbara Hershey supernatural thriller The Entity in more existential terms. The source material, a quasi-classic, tells the story of a single mother stalked and raped by an invisible force. Tscherkassky casts the mechanics of cinema itself as the perpetrator, a creator-figure bent on destroying its pawn. Sprocket holes and the optical soundtrack punch holes in the image and strike at Hershey, who collapses into paranoia. Tscherkassky’s laser pointer isolates her eyes in widening terror. He destabilizes her physical integrity by multiplying her image to the point where she becomes a mass of misaligned, twitching features. He brings to mind the childhood daydream that the television is full of miniature people performing your favorite shows. She is trapped in this film, which seems intent on devouring her. There is a plausible feminist reading to the story, as well as a satiric one concerning Hollywood more generally. Ultimately these reactions are secondary to the exhilaration of the senses when it’s finally over.
More than any other filmmaker, Tscherkassky replicates the hazy visual field of dreams. The characters alternately jerk and glide while the spectator struggles to trace these movements and determine the scene’s unsteady contours. His work is palpable and unreal. It’s harder to recall the images themselves, layered and transient as they are, than it is to relive the physical sensations — tingling fingers, tight chest — they inspired.