[For more of my Jan Švankmajer entries, see here.]
Probably the most densely allusive, frenetically charged film ever made about puppets hitting each other, Jan Švankmajer’s Punch and Judy is pretty extraordinary. At their best his short films are as tightly structured as incantations, delivering a sequence of actions and a barrage of images that somehow add up to a perfectly arranged whole. That’s not to say that it’s easy or even possible to draw conclusions about what it means, what the conjuration of that incantation might be, and the lack of easy explanation for all of its imagery is unsettling. If I give a recap of the plot, it might all seem very simple. After a prologue in which a band of automaton monkeys introduce the opening titles before the curtain rises on the stage within the film. Mr Punch is caring for his guinea pig. His neighbour Joey (another stock character from the Punch and Judy stories – note that, despite the title, Judy, along with all the other characters, is nowhere to be seen) envies the guinea pig and tries to buy it. Mr Punch refuses every cash offer, and they settle the dispute with violence, each taking turns to stuff the other into a coffin. It all ends with both characters dead and boxed, while the guinea pig strolls away through a hole in the scenery.
Like The Last Trick, which is also built around a terminal battle between two puppets, this seems to have more allegorical substance than its setting and subject might immediately suggest. This is partly because puppets invite allegorical interpretations. Puppets are not individuals, especially when they depict stock characters, so they become marked by accreted meanings from their acquired historical uses – while a certain actor will carry around a set of intertextual baggage from role to role, acquired not just from the kinds of parts they play onscreen, but from what we know about the private life and public profile, a puppet has no personal history to inflect the meanings its conveys during its performance. Put simply, perhaps obviously, watching puppets is not like watching substituted humans – they bring with them a complex representational history, and by being simultaneously inert objects and animated creatures, they unsettle the usually dichotomous line between life and death. OK, maybe that’s not so simple. How’s this instead: puppets are creepy because they pretend to be alive when they’re not (though I suspect that children don’t make these subconscious connections when they’re watching Sooty and Sweep). As a result, watching a puppet show raises questions of human nature and identity that extend beyond whatever story they are acting out. Svankmajer told Peter Hames in an interview:
Puppets are firmly anchored in my mental morphology and so I keep going back to them in my work as if to create something which signifies certainty for me in relation to the world around me. I create my golems to protect me from the pogroms of reality. Secondly, I studied at the puppetry faculty at the Prague School of Dramatic Arts; thirdly, Bohemia still retains a strong tradition of puppetry from the time of the National Revival when travelling puppet theatres were the only theatres performing in Czech. And fourthly, I believe that puppets best symbolise the character of man in a contemporary, manipulated world. All these aspects create the nucleus of my obsession with puppet theatre.
Wouldn’t it be great if all artists could give such richly informative answers to simple questions like “why do you like puppets”? In one go, Svankmajer points to the personal, ethnic and symbolic significances which puppets hold for him. I’m most interested in the contention that puppets embody “the character of man”, since I think it suffuses not just the films involving traditional puppets (marionettes, glove puppets etc.), but also most of the films that involve stop-motion techniques to portray malevolent animated environments or living objects. All of these can be seen to contribute to a coherent world-view in which the human subject is pray to symbolically loaded devices given life and agency like the mechanisms of state power or consumer society (I think the metaphors are that flexible). I’ll try to elaborate on this as I work through a few more of the short films.
So, although the back-and-forth slapstick fight over property seems like a simple scenario, the tone that Svankmajer creates is unsettling, and hints that more is at stake, and that these are universal social principles being played out. The action is too deliberately ritualised to be taken as a replay of popular children’s entertainment, and the montage images point to symbols beyond the central duel. When I started looking at Svankmajer’s films, I thought I might count the shots in some of them to calculate an Average Shot Length. This has proven to be impossible, or at least, more onerous than I can manage: I wouldn’t usually count the individual frames of an animated sequence as separate shots, since they depict singular actions and are not designed to be considered in isolation, but often the lines between shots are blurred, or they flicker by so quickly that they seem to create new animations, rhythmic flurries of movement who make less sense as individuated shots than they do as flows of connected pictures.
The prologue, which announces the theatricality of the tale by detailing the accoutrements of the performance with a cacophony of musical noise and close-ups of painted scenery and mechanical monkeys, moving paintings and cherubs; the camera matches the pictures with a quasi-automatic clockwork motion. It’s almost as if the theatre is running itself, but we do get to see the puppeteer’s hands picking up the puppets. This will be mirrored at the end when the puppets die and the hands retreat back out of the frame and under the stage again.
As Punch and Joey argue over the sale of the guinea pig, they go through a series of gestures - a handshake, a shake of the head, pointing at the money. as with The Last Trick, these are not the warm indices of human interaction, but instead, in the hands of puppets, mechanically codified, barely sincere signs of greeting, debate, and disagreement which will extend to gestures of violence presently. When Joey tries to stiff Punch out of the money for the pet, Punch beats him with a hammer then casually stuffs him into a coffin and lights candles: ritualised signifiers of death rather than heartfelt memorialisations. Attempting to steal Joey’s money back, he returns to find the coffin empty. The base of the coffin is imprinted with an anatomical diagram of a skeleton, but the image does not guarantee that an assurance of the occupant’s death. Joey will pounce, and hammer Punch to death in the coffin, and the resurrection will be repeated.
Although the prologue promised this would be a theatrical presentation of a puppet show, Svankmajer doesn’t shoot the film like a theatrical tableau. Instead, he gives his characters close-ups, eyeline matches and two-shots, all cut together in a dynamic montage that implies the agency and subjectivity of these wooden numbskulls. The final battle kills them both, punching holes in the stage and violating the mouths of the painted backdrops. This oral violence will manifest itself in many other Svankmajer films, especially those dealing with food, consumption and sex. Punch is nailed through the mouth, and the mouth of one of the pictures on the wall of Joey’s house tells Punch that Joey is not in fact dead; we also see close-ups of the guinea pig’s mouth, and the mechanical mouths of the monkeys in the prologue. And yet the two puppets are robbed of speech. There is no swazzle-voiced, smart-alec dialogue for Punch: they communicate only through gesticulation and blows to the head.
All the while, the guinea pig munches its feed impassively. It is played, except in the final shot, where it escapes through one of the pierced mouths in the back drop (taking advantage of the wanton recklessness of Punch and Joey) by a real live rodent, and as Michael O’Pray noted in his review from Monthly Film Bulletin (1988, thankfully reproduced in the DVD booklet):
There is a textural contrast here between the surfaces of artificial objects and the animal presence but, more importantly for Svankmajer, animals express a supreme indifference to the fate of humankind and thus they act as silent reminders of a wider scenario, one that stresses the destructiveness of Svankmajer’s puppets.
Of course, the guinea pig takes on gigantic proportions next to a couple of glove puppets, and makes their struggle all the more petty and self-absorbed. Hopefully, I can come back to some of these themes in discussing more of these shorts periodically. In particular, the textural nature of Svankmajer’s films is striking, focusing on the scratched, aged and tactile surfaces of objects, heightening the sense of their thingness; no attempt is being made to smooth the edges and suggest the total vivification of his animated characters: they must remain palpably solid and lifeless, even as they seem, uncannily, to move and act before out eyes.
I strongly recommend buying or renting the BFI’s Svankmajer collection on DVD, but if you really have to see it right now or remind yourself of it, you can watch a lo-res version here: