by James Hansen
In Gustave Deutsch’s found footage opus FILM IST. a girl and a gun, Detusch returns to a phrase from DW Griffith, revived by Jean Luc Godard, and appropriated to new heights by the contemporary cinema of spectacle which may have reached its zenith with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen – a film starring Megan Fox’s ass, Shia Lebouf’s libido, and a bunch of war-mongering robots. Cinema has come so far, in time at least, only to repeatedly have its artists revert to the most fundamental of questions: what is cinema? Deutsch’s mission with the FILM IST. series (of which a girl and a gun is the 13th section) isn’t actually to define what film is – as Tom Gunning points out, “Film Is.” whether we define it or not – but to look at all the facsimiles of what cinema can be. Here, accordingly, Deutsch digs into the transformative obsessions of sex and violence.
A girl and a gun takes as its starting point sex and violence, girls and guns, and, eventually, men and women as a battle of the sexes. Through archival footage found by Deutsch on laborious journeys through eleven archives, a girl and a gun follows the progression of sex and violence through the shifting nature of the planet, as well as men and women themselves. Beautiful as the found images may be, the undercurrent of violence shakes the cosmos, seen through the practices of montage, reappropriation of imagery, and uncovering early cinematic representations of power and pleasure through the pornographic. In the end, Deutsch’s point is well taken, but troublesome for its directness amid what seems to be an open ended exploration. Deutsch’s addition in music, enhancing the film’s modernity, crush the images by providing too thin a context in which to evaluate the imagery. For all the formal concern at the center of a girl and a gun, Deutsch’s music makes the formalism all too literal. Rather than explore the deepest realms of sex and violence, a girl and a gun disappointingly remains on the surface while it dodges an implicit question lingering throughout: what is the weapon that allows the sex and violence? The obvious, yet troubling answer – Film Ist.
Of course, this is all part of what makes cinema thoroughly undefinable, and it would be wrong to suggest that Deutsch’s work, in both a girl and a gun and the larger FILM IST. series, is attempting to narrow the terminology. Deutsch’s found imagery conjures up an emotional reticence seemingly completed through cinematic osmosis. Sitting in front of a screen and absorbing the images, Deutsch’s point is made clear in a fascinating and exciting way. Starting with calming images of nature which soon turn into obvious depictions of violence (guns, volcanos, etc.), a girl and a gun slyly morphs from this overly explicit mode of address to one of deeper categorization. Male doctors examining a female patient, intercut with strikingly similar positions in an early pornographic film, illustrate the mechanization and inherent violence embedded within a dominated battle of the sexes. The mood is eery, dark, and voyeuristic even in the most neutral of images. Cinema quickly turns from a mode of capturing pleasure to a being that exploits it.
It isn’t until the final frame, when Deutsch uses perhaps the most famous clip in a girl and a gun, when a man points at the camera (and the audience) with his gun and fires that film is held accountable, new violence directed itself, for the arguably vitriolic actions Deutsch uncovers. The images no longer have the context of their initial beings, but instead become a representation of cinema itself, and insodoing stand as a disturbing challenge for Deutsch in asking the question what is cinema. Film is, yes, but why film? Deutsch’s outside influence, – and here I mean in external decisions rather than his wonderful sense of montage – seen mainly in the simple, yet incredibly distracting music, ends up turning Deutsch’s polemical point around. Instead of allowing his filmic representation to embody what Walter Benjamin called an optical unconsciousness, Deutsch’s model is too directional and too driven by a would-be historical narrative for the images to speak for themselves. This perplexing misstep makes a girl and a gun all that more interesting for its workshop-like qualities, exploring cinema as a newfound chemical even 120 years after its advent, which provide the troublesome elements as an active counterbalance in a journey of cinematic expectation and attempted jouissance. Too problematic in its own method to be any kind of masterpiece and too enriching and well-constructed to go unconsidered, FILM IST. a girl and a gun is...and maybe that is just the way it’s supposed to be.