The Index DVD label has provided a great service by making this collection of Mara Mattuschka’s short films, spanning a period of 20 years, available to the general public. Mattuschka, a Bulgarian born, Austrian based performance and film artist, creates dense, visceral worlds in her short films, full of ideas, visual wit, and passion. The DVD includes a booklet with an interview with the artist by Peter Tscherkassky (in English).
The first 9 films, all from the 1980s, are extremely short: between 2 and 4 minutes each. They are all black and white works made on 16mm, and they share certain obsessive themes and devices. They all feature the artist as performer (in the guise of her alter ego, “Mimi Minus”). Many of the films use the animation of lines of black paint over the artist’s body and every other available surface. This paint appears at times as blood, s**t, or simply as a primal force, indicating that artmaking for Mattuschka is a matter of wrenching feelings directly from her own body. Counterbalancing this sense of a visceral, body-centered art, is the highly sophisticated formal structure of the films, in which each shot and sequence is elegantly arranged in a highly condensed form, capable of carrying a multitude of meanings.
In “Kugelkopf,” the artist shaves her head with a straight razor and draws blood. (She squeezes her eye shut, in a teasing reference to the eye slicing shot in Buñuel’s “Un Chien Andalou.”) She then uses her bald head like the print ball on an IBM selectric typewriter: hurling it against a pane of glass to write with the blood. In “Pascal-Gödel,” she plays chess with herself, using a bottle of wine on a black and white tablecloth. As she gets more and more drunk, the black and white squares become increasingly overwritten with chaotic, messy patterns. In “Kaiser Schnitt” (German for “cesarean section”) she gives birth to a pot of alphabet soup, and pregnancy is compared to a gestation of language. Many of the films use a deft parody of popular genres (horror films, TV commercials, children’s films) that is both expressive and humorous.
These films are about a struggle for self-expression, artistic, sexual, and emotional. A recurring theme is the need to find balance, as in “Parasympathica,” in which Mattuschka appears as a goddess painted half white, half black, like Hel, Norse goddess of death and disease. The layering of ideas through text and imagery, in incredibly condensed form, will demand repeat viewings in order to be appreciated, making it particularly delightful to have these works available on DVD.
The 3 slightly longer works (10 minutes each) from the 1990s use an even more developed film language. The extremely lovely film “Beauty and the Beast” is one of the most sophisticated responses to the effect of motherhood on the life of an artist that I have seen. Autobiographical in impulse, like all of these films, it features Mattuschka’s baby. A sequence of highly poetic scenes, in which the artist lays the baby on sheets of music, plays a violin for him, and performs an elaborate knife dance for his amusement, are elliptically expressive of the parallel between the creative upheaval of making art and of being a parent. Mattuschka’s wish to impart her own joy, the joy of creativity bursting out of the body like a song, as well as teaching the subtle art of balancing life “on a knife’s edge,” is everywhere apparent in this film which is tender, yet still as bold and daring as the other films.
“SOS Extraterrestria” is a hilarious send-up of the “Godzilla” genre, in which a giant Mattuschka, dressing herself up grotesquely as a kind of sex goddess, stalks through various cityscapes, finally pleasuring herself by squatting on the Eiffel Tower. The film mocks the terror which the specter of female sexuality inspires in our culture. The last work in the collection, “Id” is the only work in color and made on video. I will confess that this piece, which presents an encounter between two rubbery, alien parts of the artist’s psyche, contains a kind of heavy-handed, concept-based humor which does nothing for me, although clearly a tremendous amount of thought and technical skill has gone into making the piece.
This collection of essential examples of short film from a major artist will keep you thinking, watching, feeling, and showing the work to your friends for a long time.