Film Ist: a Girl and a Gun
Directed by Gustav Deutsch
Sex makes the world go round and, in Film Ist: a Girl and a Gun, the third entry in Gustav Deutsch's series of works exploring the possibilities of found cinematic footage, it also creates and potentially destroys it. Drawing on hundreds of movie clips from the silent era (Méliès and Porter, yes, but also, and more significantly, a generous selection of rare early pornos), Deutsch shapes his material into a mythological history of both the world and the cinema as seen in terms of the twinned forces of sex and death. Organized around a Greek-based origin story (the found footage is juxtaposed with citations from Sappho, Hesiod and Plato) and set to a wide-ranging, largely electronic score, Film Ist begins with an origin-of-the-cosmos myth conceived largely in sexual terms as the union of a male heaven and a "wide-bosomed" female earth. Moving on, Deutsch traces the devolution of sexual relations from a prelapsarian frolicking, through scenes of modern coupling that result in jealousy and retribution, to a final debased state of decadence in which rape and necrophilia lurk at the margins, before concluding with a sequence devoted to Aristophanes' famous Symposium speech and its attendant possibility of re-birth.
Running through this secret history of sexual behaviors is the inevitable undercurrent of violence. As suggested by the film's Griffith-via-Godard title, and as explicated by Tom Gunning in his essay on the filmmaker, one of the hidden legacies of the cinema is the substitution of the two instincts, the sublimation of sexual desire into violent fantasy and vice-versa. Through his archival investigations and his artful arrangement of the movie image, Deutsch draws out the inevitable links between the drives for sexual domination and its political, world-historical counterpart. The result is that Film Ist‘s wonderland of copulation is continually and inevitably fraught with danger. Even in the film's early Paradeiso section, the risk of violence is already present as the filmmaker pairs the frolicking of nymphs and children with images of men greedily investigating the edenic terrain. But it's in the film's two lengthy central sections that this buried thread becomes principal text.
In Eros, the third of the film's five parts, the love play of the civilized state is shown to result in stalking, murderous jealousy and duels, while in the fourth section, Thanatos, sexual decadence burns through in full force, illustrated through the film's most explicitly erotic footage, in which masked men and women copulate while striking progressively aggressive poses. Eros and Thanatos may be opposed instincts but, in Film Ist, they lead to the same place: the unleashing of a conquering violence. Making the link clear, Deutsch concocts increasingly emphatic montages confronting images of violent sexuality with those of flat out violence. Alternating shots of role-play masks with gas masks, unwanted advances with a Venus fly-trap catching its prey and, most baldly, canons being fired with vaginal penetration, he ignores subtlety in favor of a violent Eisensteinian clash of imagery. For a film concerned with tracing the origins and the cinematic representation of the closely linked instincts toward love and death, this somehow feels appropriate.
December 2-8 at Anthology Film Archives