It’s difficult to resist placing the feature-length silent film mash-ups of Gustav Deutsch’s FILM IST. series, of which a girl and a gun is episode 13, alongside the terser online efforts of YouTube collagists like Matt Zoller Seitz and Kevin B. Lee. All three contribute to an amorphous, hands-on tradition of film examination now referred to as the “video essay” (not to be confused with the “film essays” of Chris Marker or Alain Resnais, among others). Vaguely educational and very often lyrical studies of cinematic trends and/or eras (such as “following” shots, the legacy of Busby Berkeley, or, in Deutsch’s case, the rise of the cinematographer in 1920s Europe), the editorial stitch-work of the video essay democratically blurs the lines between film criticism, making, and curating. And due to the reliance on and rearrangement of preexisting materials, filmic video essays inherently, and essentially, reinforce the oft-neglected truism that cinema is first and foremost a procrustean art.
Until now, Deustch’s work has chiefly been distinguishable from that of his fledgling American counterparts by length (which is not at all a flippant consideration toward movies that possess only a whisper of an expository thread) and a concentration on early cinema. But there’s also an immediacy lacking in Deutsch’s latest FILM IST. entry, which rhythmically interweaves segments from dozens of antiquarian titles (some esoteric, others iconic) to imply the Freudian binary of sex and violence as a primeval cultural universal—as if we needed reminding. Divided roughly into five thematic segments, each with a ponderously Greek label (“Genesis” features copious examples of early nature and science footage; “Eros” is a splintered jaunt through the scruffiness of silent erotica), a girl and a gun seems less set on inventing new, illuminating contexts for its celluloid scraps and more determined to mold a cosmic thesis out of clunky, earthbound material.
Part of what makes the more poetic examples of Seitz and Lee’s work so novel in contrast is how the limitations of the video essay effectively flatten the sharp personal outcroppings that hazardously litter written criticism. It’s not that the video essay is an impersonal form of expression, but that appropriating the images of others—and leaving them essentially untouched, if divorced from their context—is perhaps the most reverential mode of film commentary available: It’s the only way to dissect films while simultaneously allowing their progenitors to speak. Where a girl and a gun falters, however, is in its apparent efforts to lower the volume of those directorial and authorial voices to the point of inaudibility; the goal of the film is to make a recondite statement about life (this becomes ungracefully obvious whenever Deustch throws in a line from Sappho or Hesiod to offer some mythic snap) rather than to conduct an incisive, if open-ended, study of cinema.
The nagging irony is that cinema, naturally, is life, and that statements about either are hardly mutually exclusive. Deutsch brushes up against this realization in the moments where he simply seems to be patiently observing rather than salivating over the universal potential (a few Conrad Wiene scenes are included in their near entirety as a testament to his Teutonic genius) and in the film’s most eloquent juxtapositions, such as a lengthy set piece that crosscuts the poorly recorded autopsy of a lovely woman with an early porno showing a much less lovely girl fornicating in virtually the same prostrate position. But rather than tackling the piquant formal issues in this comparison (is most subpar silent nudity this deadeningly clinical?), Deutsch steamrolls ahead toward his elusive conclusions regarding sexual violence, which are eventually, and rather gawkily, swallowed up by fierily tinted war stock footage and the seminal pistol-at-the-camera scene from The Great Train Robbery (any narrative that opens with a “Genesis” needs an Armageddon of some kind at the finale).
The film’s many rewarding clips, if taken piecemeal, are an impressive inspiration to seek out little-known turn-of-the-century directors, but in many ways Deutsch’s alignment of tumid, phallic botany with hulking weightlifters and innocent housewives says it all: Despite the plethora of multi-colored archival pearls on display, a girl and a gun is a bloated hybrid of graduate-level cinema studies and rudimentary psychology.