Starting in the late 1970s, Austrian filmmaker, photographer, and architect Gustav Deutsch began appropriating and recontextualizing found footage to create nearly a hundred works in the tradition of such artists as Joseph Cornell and Bruce Conner. In 2013, his filmography took a surprising turn when, working with his partner, the artist Hanna Schimek, he directed Shirley: Visions of Reality, a fictional feature that vividly recreates thirteen paintings by Edward Hopper to tell the story of an American actress from the 1930s through the early ’60s. This past weekend, following a brief and sudden illness, Deutsch passed away at the age of sixty-seven.
There’s hardly an artistic discipline that Deutsch didn’t at least dabble in after graduating from the Vienna University of Technology. He staged actionist performances, worked with music and sound, presented research projects and installations with Schimek in Morocco, cofounded the Aegina Academy with her in Athens, and as part of the group of artists known as Der blaue Kompressor, designed a park in Luxembourg. But Deutsch will be remembered for his films, and in particular for the Film ist. trilogy. As scholar Tom Gunning has pointed out, these films can be seen as a reply to the question posed by the title of the collection of essays by André Bazin, What Is Cinema? Gunning recalls that he “initially read Deutsch’s title as an act of predication: ‘Film is . . .’ followed by a succession of possible, non-exclusive, definitions: an instrument; material; magic; conquest, etc. However, he pointed out to me the power of the period following the ‘ist.’ The title is not an incomplete definition, but a complete reflexive statement: ‘Film is.’”
Gunning revisited the trilogy in an essay published in Gustav Deutsch, a collection published in 2009 on the occasion of a retrospective at the Austrian Film Museum. In Film ist. 1–6 (1998), an assembly incorporating material from science and education films, Deutsch “stripped these films of the explanations of physiology or psychology that originally accompanied them,” writes Gunning. “Without these reassuring explanations, much of the footage seems strange, dream-like, horrifying or amusing, grotesque. Instead of being processed for the information they hold, these images confront us in all their oddness.”
Film ist. 7–12 (2002) focuses on the first three decades of cinema, exploring the new medium and art form less as a technological innovation and more as a spectacle. Writing for the Village Voice in 2003, Ed Halter noted that this second installment “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.”
The title of Film ist. a Girl & a Gun (2009) references a quote attributed to D. W. Griffith and famously revived by Jean-Luc Godard: “All you need to make a movie . . .” Tackling nothing less than the story of all creation, Deutsch’s film is comprised of five movements: Genesis, Paradise, Eros, Thanatos, and Symposium. “Deutsch recombines shards of archival footage—vintage nature docs, silent melodramas, old newsreels, and ancient porn—to explosive effect,” wrote J. Hoberman in the Voice in 2009. “By the end, sex and violence, love and death, are virtually interchangeable. Film Ist. a Girl & a Gun is not subtle, but its literalism—which refines the avant-primitivism of older Viennese artists—is its strength. Deutsch has a sense of motion pictures as a form of sex magic.”
In 2004, on the occasion of a film series curated by Todd Haynes for the Tate Modern, Observer critic Philip French wrote about the love affair between cinema and Edward Hopper. French spotted Hopper’s influence in the work of directors as diverse as Alfred Hitchcock and Wim Wenders, but no homage is nearly as literal as Shirley: Visions of Reality. The film was met with mixed reviews but also with Austrian Film Awards for cinematography (Jerzy Palacz), costume design (Julia Cepp), and production design (Deutsch and Schimek). “In my previous work,” Deutsch told Karin Schiefer in an interview, “I established a connection between the images of diverse films. Through montage, I managed to create meaning contexts by attempting to unearth something that was not the original intention of the filmmakers.” With Shirley, he “intended to narrate thirty years of American history, the same time period that coincides with the creation of the pictures . . . The tableau vivant is a precursor of cinematography. It was a popular social pastime to re-enact famous paintings, and film in its early stages also assumed this form of entertainment. My main idea was to ‘vivify’ the pictures.”
At the time of his death, Deutsch was working with Schimek and the Austrian Film Museum on a research project, on the margins: the city, which brings screenings and exhibitions to various neighborhoods in Vienna. The next program will proceed as planned from November 14 through 22. Over the weekend, Schimek and the Museum released a statement noting that Gustav Deutsch “believed that aesthetic excellence could be combined with an uncompromising commitment to the social impact of art, but above all that, he was a gracious and generous person.”
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