Das Experiment


As the films of Peter Kubelka, Kurt Kren, and Valie Export attest, Austria has produced some of the finest experimental cinema of the past 50 years; their works achieve a harmony between conceptual profundity, near mathematical form, and engaging accessibility. Contemporary Austrian artists continue this tradition, as showcased in BAM’s well-programmed series of new Austrian cinema. Some of the finest avant-garde films of recent years are included. Peter Tscherkassky’s sublime Outer Space (1999) transforms a moment from the 1981 Barbara Hershey horror film The Entity into a dream-storm of gasps, crackles, flashes, and trembling clouds; a different metamorphosis is performed upon Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in Martin Arnold’s Alone: Life Wastes Andy Hardy (1998), as their voices and actions become elongated and reversed into animal bleats and robotic gestures. More lighthearted transmedia translations occur in Siegfried A. Fruhauf’s punk-folk alpine postcard animation Mountain Trip (1999) and Virgil Widrich’s self-referential Xerox narrative Copy Shop (2001).

One could argue that the deft balance of rigor and ease seen in the Austrian avant-garde reflects the country’s musical history, from Mozart to glitch. The latter part of this legacy is employed effectively in Gustav Deutsch’s Film Ist. 7-12 (2002). Deutsch’s compilation of footage from cinema’s earliest decades sets decaying, hand-tinted images of ancient modernity against droning, staticky electronic soundscapes by Christian Fennesz and Martin Siewert. The result is a hypnotic drift of relentless disjunctions: lions invade the sitting room of mauve decade aristocrats; a decapitated, haloed saint recovers her severed head; a black-cloaked apparition rises from a time-scratched sea.

Just as Film Ist. functions as a documentary of sorts, the documentaries in BAM’s series partake in experimental film’s exploratory, open-ended design. Michael Glawogger’s Megacities (1998), a world-spanning collection of slum and slaughterhouse images, functions as a Koyaanisqatsi of squalor. Megacities achieves crazy heights of abject tackiness; one sequence, in which a forlorn Mexican stripper is groped by johns to the almost religious wails of romantic Spanish-language pop, is so extreme that it becomes difficult to say whether it’s manipulative bad taste or pathetic brilliance.

A similar moral knife-edge cuts through two other documentaries: Dog Days director Ulrich Seidl’s Jesus, You Know (2003) and Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s four-and-a-half hour-long Elsewhere (1998). Seidl’s film is a portrait of Austrian Catholics in prayer, requesting help from God on matters of love and health, but appearing to speak only to themselves; Geyrhalter’s monumental travelogue interviews people living in unforgiving environments, from the African desert to Arctic snows. Both display a painterly composition that pits the lone individual against soaring architectural spaces or sweeping, inhuman landscapes. The formal properties of each are much stronger than the narrative, resulting in an immersive, atemporal quality.

The narrative features are no less atmospheric. Barbara Albert’s Northern Skirts (1999) and Jessica Hausner’s Lovely Rita (2001) take place in similar locales: anonymous Mitteleuropean suburbs of chain stores, fast-food joints, cheap discos, and house parties that comprise the worlds of their young female protagonists. (Albert’s Free Radicals will open here next year.) Quiet, cool, and subjective, both Skirts and Rita achieve a detached, contemplative air so rarely attempted by overcompensating American cinema, communicating a bittersweet beauty through the simple evocation of interior life.