Saturday, September 11, 2010

Jan Švankmajer

If anyone has taken an animation film survey class then they have no doubt seen the bizarre and imaginative creations of Czech surrealist filmmaker and artist Jan Švankmajer ("Yan Shvankmayer"). He was the original innovative animator of the 60's, experimenting with all sorts of mediums before others tried (i.e. fruit, meat, puppets, everyday objects, stuffed animals, furniture, real people) and in the process he inspired dozens of filmmakers from Terry Gilliam to The Brother's Quay.

Remember how all great animators have a twisted sense of humor? Well, this man has it in spades. You may feel disturbed by some of his imagery, but then again you may also find it hilarious. I don't want to say too much about his art because it speaks for itself... well, let's just say it speaks differently for each person that views it. Whatever your impressions are you have to admit this guy makes you think.

I want to start by sharing one of my favorites of his because it makes me laugh. It's a stop-motion short entitled, Meat Love:

He he. Shocking how he throws you back into reality at the end, isn't it? And the interplay between the two meaty lovers is just so cute and coquettish. It's amazing how he can make meat look so... animated.

The next 2 films are titled, Dimensions of Dialogue, parts 1 & 2:

The way Svankmajer communicates such complex themes through simple objects is pure genius. Terry Gilliam was so impressed that he named this film one of the ten best animated films of all time.

The next clip is from one of Svankmajer's full-length features, Alice, based off the familiar and often reproduced original story Alice and Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll. The clip begins with Alice watching the white rabbit, a frightening taxidermy creature come alive, who must eat sawdust to fill the tear in his ever-spewing chest cavity.

My favorite part is when Alice descends down the "rabbit hole", or elevator shaft. The noises are so ominous, almost life-like, and the objects she sees get "curiouser and curiouser". It's a great progression into the world of her imagination... or should we say her nightmares? *Note, the video quality is darker than normal.

Even though Alice is alone throughout her explorations in this "Wonderland", there's the feeling of an ever-omniscient presence watching over her... testing her. Sometimes it tricks her, as if possessing a sadistic jest; sometimes it saves her life by providing a way out just in the nick of time; but mostly is seems to reward her for her pluck and curiosity.

I think Svankmajer likes to make the audience feel uneasy by taking harmless household objects and giving them a malevolent spirit, e.g., stuffed animals/dolls with scissors; delicious jars of jam with tacks in them; rolls of bread with nails coming out of them; a drafting compass which cuts you; magic potions in ink well jars, and countless other benign objects that warn us of the hidden dangers lurking all around.

Whereas Burton's recent Alice in Wonderland adaptation is passable but bordering on blasé, Svankmajer's interpretation is so genuine and novel it's like a breath of fresh air, despite being 22 years old. All the classic characters are there, the Mad Hatter, the Hare, the Caterpillar, the Queen of Hearts, but they all take very uncharacteristic forms. I don't want to spoil too much, but let's just say the ending tops everything off perfectly... or should I say lops everything off perfectly?

This next clip is from Svankmajer's surrealist interpretation of the classic tale, Faust. In this scene Faust is trying to summon the devil to sell his soul that he might experience the pleasures of the world. First, however, he summons Lucifer's servant, Mephistopheles, who tries to sway him to think twice.

“Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.
Thinks thou that I, who saw the face of God
and tasted the eternal joys of heaven,
am not tormented with ten thousand hells
in being deprived of everlasting bliss?”

It's really quite poetic. I think this is one of my favorite interpretations of the tale. Later in the movie Svankmajer uses the symbolism of a stage to represent Lucifer's realm, and everyone as marionettes attached to strings, including Faust. Faust must sign his soul away with his own blood, and does so by stabbing his wooden wrist with a quill. There are so many dreamlike elements in this film that make it an exquisite work of art.

As you can see Svankmajer's films are quite dark, a few so much so (such as Lunacy, and Conspirators of Pleasure) that I'm not sure I could stomach them for two hours without feeling sick or getting severely depressed. However, the questions they raise and the issues they challenge are ones we should all reflect on at some point in our lives. Give it a go if you feel up to it.

One of his films is an interesting take on an old Czech fairy tale entitled, Little Otik, about a barren couple that yearns for a child so much they end up nurturing a strange Thing they find until it's too much to manage. This one I would like to see. Doesn't The Thing look adorable?

Svankmajer's unorthodox methods of subverting our emotional boundaries with disturbing imagery is one of the reasons his films were banned in the Soviet occupied Czech Republic during the 1970's. It was a typical fear reaction to what could not be controlled nor understood. Perhaps that's one of the reasons Svankmajer felt the need to go so far with his work.

In any case, we can be grateful for the opportunity we have nowadays to view his brilliant and thought-provoking films freely in the discomfort of our own homes. His vision and raw talent are rare gems that will shine throughout the ages of high-priced blockbusters.


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