Wednesday, August 12, 2015


Black Garden is a sequence of six short films shot and edited by Austrian filmmaker and artist Dietmar Brehm between 1987 and 1999. It's one of the first works that I've seen in quite sometime that has managed to excite me on such a specific level: Brehm's films here occupy a cinematic position that could be called the "zero degree" of the horror film. Instead constructing a horror narrative out of characters, plot, etc, Brehm assembles found footage that he re-shoots ("pumps") on super-8 and 16mm film with footage he shoots himself into atmospheric invocations of terror. The films, each between 15 and 20 minutes long in duration, create a unique cinematic space that cannot be described, only experienced. The films operate with imagery taken straight out of JG Ballard's Atrocity Exhibition; Brehm re-shoots and combines pornography, bondage footage, visceral surgery documentation, images of aggressive snakes and scorpions.

In an interview he refers to his films as "stories," which I find fascinating and also revealing. With the exception, perhaps, of Macumba, there is no linear narrative to be found in the work, no matter how hard one stretches what's available on screen. But these "stories" are a different sort of narrative; a narrative of movement and atmosphere, where images are used not in terms of representation, but in terms of the affect they impose upon the viewer.

Because the films are inherently experiential instead of representational, the idea of a straight forward "review"--discussing plot points, acting, etc--seems somewhat futile. So while I plan to explore these films in further detail in the future, in the interest of my current excitement I'd like to present the series of notes I've taken on the six films that make up the sequence.

THE MURDER MYSTERY (1987/1992, 18')

I watched this years and years ago and found myself entirely bored by it--I remember very little about my experience other than the fact I specifically remarked that the soundtrack "didn't work" for me. This time around the soundtrack feels perfect: field recordings of a thunderstorm, rain, wind, occasional bits of children laughing. The film builds something that can barely exist on screen, rather is hinted at through light and shadow--it's almost primordial in its construction. Yet, what is it hinting at? A sadistic sexual horror. As such, this is horror film degree-zero, and I'd love to see it in a pitch-dark room projected onto a wall.
BLICKLUST (1992, 16')

Framed by shots of curtains billowing in front of windows, this is a film straight out of Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition. A film to be projected in the medical cinema within the diegesis of the book. Similar to The Murder Mystery in its construction of affect via refusing to cement details, here we are provided primarily with both footage of visceral surgery being performed inside of a wrist and footage of a bored woman in soft bondage. Where in The Murder Mystery it's how everything comes together that the terror is created, here it is the footage that lies outside of the dominate tone that ends up causing the most anxiety.
PARTY (1995, 17')

Not quite as successful as The Murder Mystery or Blicklust, but still carries a mood of simultaneous dread, ennui, trauma and anxiety. The most fascinating parts of this short is the footage of two scorpions fighting, the beautiful grain of super8 combining with the flicker of Brehm's "pumping" creating an unforgettable image.
MACUMBA (1995, 18')

In the matrix of experience, it seems that Brehm's films often take a shade from their own titles. In this case, "Macumba"--meaning "magic" and "witchcraft," two separate words that, in certain cases, carry the same meaning, but can often be considered to mean wildly differently things: witchcraft as "negative" in terms of its mode of generally being explained as an action upon (against) an enemy, and magic often positive, if considered in the connotation of, for instance, "Oh, what a magical evening!" And it is from this point from which we depart. The terror present, at least a terror of anxiety, in the other Black Garden films is mostly gone here (unless, I suppose, the viewer is repulsed or terrified of snakes?)--instead there's a pulsing combinatory effect that ends up working differently than the other films in the sequence. The experience is much lighter: we see close-ups of individuals smiling, whether in the anthropological footage or in the sex footage--in fact, the individuals on screen are happy. This makes me think of the second inscription of "Macumba" above: magic, what a magical feeling. It's not inherently a happy film, as Brehm refuses that sort of experience in Black Garden, perhaps, but rather there's a sort of airy ecstasy that floats through the duration. Similarly: the close-up super-8 shots of the cobra, "pumped" by Brehm, might be some of the most astonishingly perfect images of cinema.
KORRIDOR (1997, 18')

Scribbled while viewing:
Spatial exploration / lens confrontation / the overwhelming dimension of sound / the interstitial moments of sexual perversity / panning over a constricted body / an unsettling insistence / corridor of the title = the lens itself / voyeurism, the violence of BDSM (both men & women receiving the violence) / complicit abjection / the construction of an 'underworld'

Another entity that occupies a unique realm of terror: with the footage Brehm composes, he creates a sort of space that echoes the feeling of a terrible underworld. A space of perversity, where the image of terror is challenged regularly by the knowing complicity of the 'actors' involved. A man smirks, shirtless in bed next to a woman prostrate, not-moving. Is this a dead body? No, this is an image in a film, a found image reincorporated into a cinematic space. A beautiful terror, accompanied by a fragmented soundtrack that refuses as much as it inspire.
ORGANICS (1998/1999, 18')

This is not only the strongest film in Brehm's Black Garden sequence, it's also a near perfect film in its own capacity, as well as a perfect note to end the sequence on. As I was so taken by the film itself, I fear I have little to note here, though I did find a vertiginous sense of anxiety travelling through my body as the film unfolded before me on my screen. While some people fear heights for the corporeal sensation they experience before them, my body, and head, take that sensation and enjoy it, and that's what this film feels like.