Jan Švankmajer: Animated Self-Portrait


In an attempt to eradicate every last atom of spare time I might have available, I’ve started playing around with iMovie, which lets me edit little videos, some of which I intend to start posting here. Last year, I tried out podcasting, and I may go back to that someday, but for now I plan to experiment with converting some of my blog posts to video, with clips and voiceover etc. It’ll be a good exercise for me, and hopefully a fun way to get to grips with the software (I know I’m late to the table on this…) and the basics of video editing. I promise to keep them brief, starting with this little excerpt from David Ehrlich’s 1989 short film Animated Self-Portraits, for which he asked 27 animators to describe themselves and their work in a brief animated sequence. These precious few seconds are the contribution of one of my all-time favourite filmmakers, Jan Svankmajer (read more of my Svankmajer posts here), who seems to take the project remit quite literally by animated a series of photographic portraits of himself. His face suddenly erupts with a wriggling mass of modelling clay, until his eyes and tongue poke through. The self-portrait is therefore partial, stuck somewhere between direct representation (the photograph) and fantastic, malleable distortion (the clay); Svankmajer is expressed through, and obscured by, the materials with which he works. There are lots of tongues sticking out in Svankmajer films. It’s an uncouth, sly motif that he uses to mark his filmic turf, but it also echoes his interests in depictions of food, eating, and the raw meatiness of human bodies and their functions. The tongue is both interior and exterior, the tool of both taste and disgust, the sensuous and the grotesque, so it makes sense for him to use it as a pop-up mascot in so much of his work.

The Short Films of Jan Švankmajer


[This is a guest post by one of my undergraduate students, David Guerrini-Nazoa. The assignment was to produce a set of screening notes that might be of use to first time viewers of a set of films connected by one of the topics from the module. Feedback in the comments section below would be most welcome.]

Jan Švankmajer is a renowned Czech filmmaker, who has been continually cited as an immensely influential Eastern European animator. His influence can be said to have had an impact on the western cinema of animation as a whole, even though at the start of his career as a filmmaker his work was screened by the Czech communist government, and later nearly completely repressed from 1970s to the 1980s – in fact it was only after that period in which he expanded from his short films into full feature-length films. In terms of origins, his inspirations rise from his childhood experiences, Czech surrealism, communist censorship suffered and the folk tradition of Central Europe, especially notable for drawing on gothic influences. In fact, Švankmajer tells that his artistic interests began when he was given a puppet theatre for Christmas as a child; one especially can see an obvious link to this in his first short film, The Last Trick (1964).

Figure 1

Here two magicians, with heads made out of papier-mâché and clockwork machinery, take turns performing tricks on a bare wooden stage against a pitch-black backdrop. The film concludes on a rather violent note, as after a series of particularly aggressive handshakes the pair quite literally tears each other apart, till all that remains are two floating arms fiercely grasping each other (Fig.1).

This film shows some of the themes that would reoccur in his later work – violence, destruction, and a breakdown of communications, the style of film that can be noted to prelude his turn towards surrealism. However, while there is stop-motion animation in this film, it is hardly to the same extent as used in his later ones, with the majority of this in live-action with the tricks of magical movement done in koroko style utilising the black backdrop. The resulting film creates somewhat unsettling images, which are repulsive and fascinating at once, such as the one created by the fat black beetle crawling out of ears and on pictures of ladies combined with a series of visuals with added layers of depth and meaning. This is not simply some ‘trick’ film, but a combination of humour and the grotesque.

The degree of progression from this early film, and the influence of joining the Czech Surrealist Group and his marriage to Eva Švankmajerová, a surrealist painter, can be observed in some of his later work, such as Jabberwocky (1971). This film utilises a variety of found objects not made for the film, brought to life via a wide variety of stop-motion animation techniques. Starting with Lewis Carroll’s poem being read out by a child to the scene of a wardrobe moving through a forest, the film is set within the space of a child’s play area (Fig.2), within which, a series of what could be called ‘adventures’ or events occur using inanimate items brought, rather bizarrely to life, that result in the symbolic growing-up, or an escape from childhood.

Figure 2

The impact of surrealism makes it difficult to summarise this film, much is occurring amongst scenes of violence and destruction, in which toys are constantly created and destroyed or changed, with the last scenes having the picture of the father figure vandalised by a blob of ink escaping a maze and the room via the window. This, as described by Nottingham, can be seen as a commentary on the repression of the communist regime and the censorship imposed on freedom of expression (the blob of ink running away, having the last laugh by vandilising the picture).

Also quite present, and arguably present even in The Last Trick even if to a much lesser degree, is the subject of food. Švankmajer openly talks in interviews about his ‘obsession’ with the subject of food within his films stretching back from his childhood as a ‘non-eater’. In Jabberwocky, this can be quite plainly observed in the scene of ‘doll cannibalism’, where dolls at a table are seen to be cooking and eating smaller dolls, which has also been seen as a metaphor for Švankmajer view of the Czech socio-political during the communist government’s ‘normalisation’ period (Fig.3).

Figure 3

Thus, Jabberwocky is another sinister yet fascinating creation; unfortunately, in conjunction with The Ossuary, it was perceived by the Communist Czech government to have an undermining message and sparked the repression and censure of his film making. And it is the latter that would confine his work and reputation to Czechoslovakia till about the 1980s.

Today, Švankmajer is well known for his use of stop-motion animation particularly with clay, otherwise known as claymation. This is mainly due to the fact that when he did become more known to the Western cinema as a whole, one of the first widely distributed was Dimensions of Dialogue (1982).

Figure 4

This film is a trilogy of different types of discussions, presented through a media of claymation. ” Exhaustive discussion”, “Passionate Discourse” and ” Factual Conversation” (Fig.4)  are portrayed through absurdity of surrealism and the cultural background of heads styled similar to Arcimboldo’s (an Italian artist who worked in the courts of Prague during the 1500’s and admired by surrealist artists). It also hinges heavily on images of the mouth, eating and food. Also, violence and destruction are also at the fore in each of the discourses, whether it be figures consuming, tearing, or exhausting their partners in various forms. Due to his then recent liberation from political repression, this topic easily links back to a newfound freedom that enables Švankmajer to actually engage in discussion without state-enforced limitations.

While Švankmajer made many more films, not all animated or short, arguably one can capture the progression he made as an artist, noting the continuities and changes over the course of his career, via a selection of his short animated films. And even though the context in which he made his films has changed dramatically, mainly due to the collapse of communism, his films to this day continue to demonstrate the same gothic and macabre style, pioneering novel styles of stop-motion animation that are fascinating to watch.

Works Cited

Filmography:

©David Guerrini-Nazoa, 2010

Picture of the Week #49: “But What I Really Want to Do is Paint…”


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A while ago I posted some paintings by film directors. To cut a(n already not very) long story short, here are some more. See if you can guess who painted the the pictures in this post without looking at the captions. Match the pictures to the directors who created them: Alfred Hitchcock, Satyajit Ray, Jan Svankmajer, Peter Greenaway, Dennis Hopper, Jean Cocteau, Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, John Huston, Josef von Sternberg, Mike Figgis and Sergei Eisenstein. Some are more obvious than others.

These are selections taken from Karl French, Art by Film Directors (London: Mitchell Beazley, 2004)

Flora (Jan Švankmajer, 1989)


Svankmajer’s shortest film is one of his most disturbing. The most appropriate response might be a similarly concise and abrupt blog post, you may be relieved (and shocked) to know. From the opening shot, we are greeted with the site of decomposing vegetables. Cabbage leaves are eaten in circles, tomatoes turn themselves inside out. It is revealed that we are seeing a woman made of vegetables, like an Archimboldo painting, tied hand-and-foot to a bed frame. Pieces of her body are rotting at an accelerated rate. Police sirens can be heard outside amidst a cacophony of scraping, rustling, churning and traffic noise. Maggots begin to squirm, swarm and rave in her gut. In helpless horror, she turns to the bedside table. A single glass of water stands out of reach. It’s all over quickly, 16 shots in 32 seconds, more of a vignette than a story.

Most of Svankmajer’s other shorts build up a tight, repetitive structure that builds to a final statement (I refer to examples of these kinds of films in other posts, including The Last Trick, Jabberwocky and Punch and Judy). Flora instead leaves its central image excruciatingly suspended, unresolved. It is in impasse between nourishment and decay – the water Flora needs is inaccessible. We have to suspect she is threatened with death, but the sirens might hint at approaching salvation, if only the situation didn’t look so bleakly urgent.

What does is mean? Its elusive, inconclusive effects point towards a strong symbolism, but can we definitively decode it? Ah, the rhetorical questions. Of course we can’t. It’s a fleeting glimpse at an ongoing, perhaps perpetual stalemate, the body continually desirous of but denied what it needs. Beyond that agonising set-up, there’s space for you to parallel park whatever interpretation you want. But more than any other film-maker I can think of, Svankmajer gives prominence to the textures, the haptic eccentricities of the materials he’s using. He brings us uncomfortably close to things from which we would usually recoil. That they are turned into the raw materials of animation is an unsettling transgression of their preferred state of inert, disposable matter. In this case, the medium is food. Food has preoccupied Svankmajer at various points in his career, but in this, Meat LoveFood and the meat puppets of his feature-length Lunacy the stuff twitches into life, putrefies or enacts a servile existence. Food is the stuff of abjection – it enjoys a peculiar relationship with our bodies. We let it in, absorb what we need and turn the rest into excrement and privately expel it, concealing the messy business. It is both necessarily of us and also ickily separate. It can be delicious in its ripe and ready forms, but quickly becomes an embarrassment to our innards deserving of rejection. Here is a deeply personal horror rendered universal by a lack of specificity or restrictive form. Here is a permanent nightmare of sleepless terror, a vision of those moments where you wake up to a reminder of mortality, the most obvious fact in the world that we usually try to absorb and digest without upset. It’s about vegetables, it’s half a minute long, and all human death is here.

Jabberwocky (Jan Švankmajer, 1971)


[See more of my posts about the work of Jan Svankmajer here.]

I swear there’s no significance to the coincidental recurrence of dolls and smacked bottoms on Spectacular Attractions. After the butt-centric opening scenes of thwacked toys in Disney’s Pinocchio, and the spankings meted out to Karen Carpenter’s Barbie effigy in Todd Haynes’ Superstar, I return to the subject with a visit to Jan Svankmajer’s Jabberwocky. Regular readers might remember that I’m more enamoured of Svankmajer’s short films every time I watch them: they’re simply some of the most densely layered and rewarding chunks of cinema in existence. Repeat viewings repay their spectators’ attentions every time. This particular film might also serve as a corrective to all the hubbub around Alice in Wonderland at the moment, to which I have already added my furious tuppence-worth. But let’s get back to those bottoms:

The spanked arse that opens the film like the clapstick that marks the start of a kabuki performance is not the only similarity to Superstar. Both films use dolls and their mutilation to explore the degradation of the subject in the process of socialisation. That is, dolls in both cases are made into metaphors for the ways people’s bodies are not their own, but the blank objects onto which are carved the pressures and injunctions of families and society.

Like the stop-motion carriage that carries Nosferatu magically through the forest, a wardrobe glides towards the camera, opening its doors into a suddenly conjured playroom filled with toys and dolls (see a clip of this bit here).  The eyes of the stern patriarch in the photograph hanging on the wall seem to drive the room into active life under their disciplinary glare. It is over this opening sequence that Lewis Carroll’s poem, Jabberwocky, is read, a classic piece of nonsense verse originally worked into Alice Through the Looking Glass. Carroll may have intended it to be a parody of poetic pretension and epic. The first and last stanzas are the same, hinting at the circularity of the monster-slaying heroic plot, and it is filled with made-up words. Placed at the start of this film, it sounds like a spell that brings the toys to life, even as it suggests a rejection of propriety and authority through its association with Alice and the mocking of classical narrative.

As I’ve said before, Svankmajer’s films often have an incantatory structure. Their enchantment comes from the repetition of actions that leads to a conclusion marked by containment or escape. The Last Trick works through a series of competitive magic tricks leading to the final destruction of both magicians. Punch and Judy has similarly escalating violence, and ends on the guinea pig’s indifferent escape from the nihilistic circuit. Jabberwocky finishes when the trail of ink in a maze reaches the exit and squiggles out of the maze and scrawls defiant scribbles on the face of the father figure on the wall before following a squadron of paper aeroplanes out of the window.

Prior to this, though, a spell is cast over hordes of objects, and the maze’s dead ends are policed by a witchy black cat that leaps through a wall of bricks. It’s a startling sight every time it happens, and the repetition works like a chastisement of the viewer – each time the maze appears, we anticipate the cat’s irruption into the scene, flinching with the memory of previous shocks like a child learning to expect a punishment shock with every attempt at escape. Only at the film’s conclusion is the cat caged, and the unguarded maze can be fled.

Svankmajer’s dolls start out as the innocent embodiments of childhood, playthings invested with life by the animation process. Quickly, their innocence is polluted, and they are put to work in a series of actions that knock them into submissive shape. Birthed out of the inert body of a larger doll, they are installed in a house that spins them round and spits them out to be ground into food for more dolls. They are ironed flat, boiled and baked to sustain a cannibalistic circle of stunted life and grotesque death.

Boys suffer a less drastic fate, but are instead trained to be self-important, militaristic men of action. The development of boys is conveyed through a series of symbols such as the sailor suit, hobby horse and the massacres of toy soldiers. The boy is not given a body, as the girls are (though their bodies are also not really their own), but instead is represented only by his clothes – the coat-hanger that stands in for his head and shoulders gives him basic shape, but doesn’t disrupt the symbolism of a child made by dress codes and pre-determined roles.

In his Surrealist Manifesto of 1924, André Breton argued that the innocent imagination of the child is, over time, forced into the constraints of sanctioned rationalism, incapable of love or fanciful thought because of the “imperative practical necessity which demands his constant attention”. Childhood remains a happy ideal, a reminder of a prelapsarian imaginative state with which Breton hoped Surrealist activism could reconnect:

If he still retains a certain lucidity, all he can do is turn back toward his childhood which, however his guides and mentors may have botched it, still strikes him as somehow charming. There, the absence of any known restrictions allows him the perspective of several lives lived at once; this illusion becomes firmly rooted within him; now he is only interested in the fleeting, the extreme facility of everything. Children set off each day without a worry in the world. Everything is near at hand, the worst material conditions are fine. The woods are white or black, one will never sleep.

But it is true that we would not dare venture so far, it is not merely a question of distance. Threat is piled upon threat, one yields, abandons a portion of the terrain to be conquered. This imagination which knows no bounds is henceforth allowed to be exercised only in strict accordance with the laws of an arbitrary utility; it is incapable of assuming this inferior role for very long and, in the vicinity of the twentieth year, generally prefers to abandon man to his lustreless fate.

Jabberwocky is a compendium of symbols, isolated images that interconnect and build like puzzle pieces into a powerful vision. Svankmajer’s metaphors are not always esoteric or obscure – it’s not a great leap to see child’s toys as stand-ins for children themselves. But his films have a great legibility, and gather strength from the avalanche of reinforcements for its central idea that the education of children is a vicious inculcation of values that pacifies girls and makes warmongering imperialists out of boys. It instills automatic reflexes of obedience and mindless mimicry, and dolls, transformed into automata under the animator’s manipulations, are the perfect vessels for this manipulative thesis.

Bonus Features:

Michael Sporn has some images from a planned Disney version of Carroll’s poem that was to have been included in Alice in Wonderland.

Need a reminder of Carroll’s poem? Why not have it performed for you by the Muppets:

Punch and Judy (Jan Švankmajer, 1966)


Punch and Judy (Jan Švankmajer, 1966)

[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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

J.S. Bach – Fantasia in G Minor (Jan Švankmajer, 1965)


J.S. Bach Fantasia in G Minor (Jan Svankmajer, 1965)

Compiling some more fragments of my notes on Jan Švankmajer’s short films, I come to his second, a setting of Johann Sebastian Bach‘s Fantasia in G Minor (composed in 1708) to pictures.

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You might expect such a subversive artistic talent to display a chaos of form and content in his work, but time and time again, you’ll see that, even if the imagery is oblique and inscrutable, it is tightly structured, often with clearly defined beginning and ending – Švankmajer doesn’t confuse complexity or opacity of meaning with a lawlessness of form. This film begins with a beautifully lit sequence following an organist (although his identity is not initially apparent) to his seat before he begins playing.

J.S. Bach Fantasia in G Minor (Jan Svankmajer, 1965)

J.S. Bach Fantasia in G Minor (Jan Svankmajer, 1965)

This prelude is followed by a montage of shots of locks, barred windows, and holes appearing or receding in stone and brickwork (achieved through by stop-motion animation). It is a rapid compilation of pictures which don’t accrete a coherent sense of space so much as a visual formula for confinement and stasis; Svankmajer often likes his films to provide inventories or collections of themed and arranged ojbects (I’m sure I’ll get round to writing about his Historia Naturae, Suita (1965) and The Ossuary (1970) at some point in the near future – both of them archive a compendium of anatomies inside tight formal structures), and this one is no exception.

J.S. Bach Fantasia in G Minor (Jan Svankmajer, 1965)

J.S. Bach Fantasia in G Minor (Jan Svankmajer, 1965)

In the review of the BFI’s DVD boxset written for Film Quarterly, Adrian Martin suggested that Švankmajer’s films may be so densely packed, so traumatically loaded with visual information that they might be met with a new kind of engagement fostered by the DVD format, slowing them down to pore over the microscopic detail they offer. This is fascinating enough, and hopefully the frame grabs I’ve incorporated here are testament to the careful of arrangement of objects that rushes past the eye in one of his films, but there is also great power in the pile-up of pictures that barely allow time for consideration: your only chance is to spot the accumulation of connections and graphic matches rather than attempting to analyse the composition of each individual fragment.

J.S. Bach Fantasia in G Minor (Jan Svankmajer, 1965)

It might seem customary for this kind of film to “interpret” the music visually, to take the perceived themes of the piece and select correlative images that help to reinforce those themes. Instead, it seems that Svankmajer has empowered the music in the same way that his animation gives agency and a defamiliarised significance to everyday objects. As the organist’s hands first attack the keyboard, the next cut is to two holes bored into stone, as if the channelling of the air through the organ pipes, the marshalling of bass notes, is enough to blast through walls and crumble the fabric of even the most static of objects.

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The compendium of locks and other barriers to movement is shaken loose by the music – whip pans dynamise the otherwise still pictures, and eventually the film ends with a montage of doors and windows swinging open, and an ecstatic tracking shot through the space. An earlier, sublime lateral tracking shot (see the first and last images of this post) traces scratches across masonry that seem to undulate like soundwaves along the walls. It is the most definite connection in the film between image and soundtrack, a premonition of how the film will suggest that music can affect the feeling of a place, the sense of an environment. It may be a perverse juxtaposition of Baroque music and decaying architectural squalor, but it reinscribes the humble location with the sounds of grace and order.

J.S. Bach Fantasia in G Minor (Jan Svankmajer, 1965)

The Last Trick (Jan Švankmajer, 1964)


Jan Svankmajer's The Last Trick

Two magicians take the stage, seated side by side against an all-black backdrop. Each insists with a raised hat and a hand gesture that the other should perform first. Each wags a finger in refusal. The exchange has all the signs and mimes of polite cordiality, but the stiff movements suggest that these are insincere formalities. Finally, one of them, Mr Edgar, agrees to perform his first trick. Removing his hat, he reaches into it and pulls out a large fish.

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Raising a lid on his own skull, Mr Edgar tosses the fish inside and turns a crank in his ear, until the bare skeleton of the fish can be plucked out again, having been digested by the gears and cogs inside the magician’s cranium. He rubs his tummy to indicate a good meal has been had, though his face betrays no signals of enjoyment. In Svankmajer’s films, eating is a symbolic ritual whereby bodies process other symbols and exhaust them. Mr Edgar’s rival, Mr Schwarzwald, applauds the trick and steps up to perform his own. He strings up a tightrope between two chairs and takes a violin from out of his hollow head. Mr Edgar fills his ears with cotton wool to guard against the music. To the violin’s tune, an assemblage of objects leaps from Mr Schwarzwald’s hat and forms into a dancing horse.

Jan Svankmajer's The Last Trick

For his next trick, Mr Edgar pulls two violins out of his head and, sprouting extra arms, transforms himself into a one-man-band of drums, brass and woodwind.

Jan Svankmajer's The Last Trick

Mr Schwarzwald is keen to congratulate his fellow performer, but the handshake he delivers is ferocious in its finger-crushing force. He continues the theme of self-replication by juggling with multiples of his own head, and then it is Mr Edgar’s turn to administer an exhausting handshake to show his admiration for this magical feat.

Jan Svankmajer's The Last Trick

His third trick sees him training the chairs to dance, tumble and jump through a hoop. Once this is concluded, Mr Edgar evades Mr Schwarzwald’s handshake for as long as possible, but finally he is caught, and the gesture of congratulation is powerful enough to tear his arm from its torso. Mr Edgar responds by punching his rival’s head off. The fight continues with a flurry of dismembering violence until only the two arms remain, locked together in a grim handshake. Communication has broken down until the hands are revealed as the drivers of this interplay – the heads have been shown to be empty of brains and agency – they are mere recepticles for the apparatus of spectacle, while the hands are the indexes of meaning and attitude with their gestural language.

Jan Svankmajer's The Last Trick

As I embark upon a period of research into the work of Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer (as part of a larger project on puppetry and cinema), this short film is my starting point, and it reveals to me the challenges that lie ahead. Often we have to look carefully at films to come to terms with their idiosyncrasies, but Švankmajer’s work is particularly daunting in its concentration of allegory and allusion. I’m hoping that my research will be able to supplement my initial response to the film with a broader frame of critical, historical and political reference, but these are my first thoughts on The Last Trick, his first film as director. For eleven minutes, two magicians do battle, and their tricks require a montage of colliding images and a range of animation techniques: the two actors wear giant masks on their heads, probably papier-mâché, making them look like living, stringless marionettes, and Švankmajer manipulates them accordingly. He persistently blurs states of being by using these half-puppets that unsettle us by refusing to act as either one thing or another. The black backdrop allows a bunraku performance of sorts, with objects appearing to fly and float unaided through space; frame-by-frame animation moves the eyes of the masks; a shot of pixilation makes their bodies flit around the stage in a lightning fast chase. These are endlessly mutable bodies, but there is none of the joyous spectacle of Melies’ filmed tricks here – the artifice is always signposted, never seamlessly suggestive, and the stolid expressions on the masked faces convey no fun, only procedure and routine.

Jan Svankmajer's The Last Trick

Combative communication and variegated violence will recur in Dimensions of Dialogue and Virile Games amongst others (I’ll blog about these at a later date, I hope), piling up a snowballing rush of physical destruction. A number of the short films construct these repetitive, mechanical situations that continue until the mechanism breaks down, as if the film itself is wearing out its own structural circuit. While the puppethood of the characters in The Last Trick blocks the verisimilitude of the violence, it urges allegorical readings: puppets are what we use to stand in for or embody a particular theme, ideology or emotion when a human performer might pollute it with specifity and invidiuality. The “story” element of duelling magicians jealously escalating their competitive spectacles might be a premonitory tale of art spoiled by human partiality or commercial pressures (the winner will be he who compromises himself the most, sacrificing his body and soul for the audience’s delectation), or it might be a snapshot of how the most ferociously fought battles are internecine struggles rather than those between competing ideologies, a drama about the impossibility of compromise, of selfless dialogue. In any case, Švankmajer invests his objects with a powerful thingness: extreme close-ups serve not to reveal emotion or intent, as they might do with human actors, but the physical textures of the objects on display. I want to know why this is the case. What are the specific ways in which objects and specificially puppets, which are both performers and objects, function in Švankmajer’s films? I have a feeling that a detailed answer to this question might help me to model an analytical framework for puppetry more generally across many and varied film texts. Hopefully, I’ll be able to pool some of my notes and findings here as I go along.

Additional Observations:

  • svankmajerI should note that, for all my Švankmajeric needs, I’m working from the British Film Institute‘s fabulous DVD collection, Jan Švankmajer: The Complete Short Films. Hats off to the BFI: they’ve really raised their game in the past few years and fully embraced the potential of DVD. This 3-disc set compiles all of the director’s short films (the clue is in the title) and wraps them up with three hours of extra stuff, including “a bonus short, Johanes Doktor Faust (1958); the original 54-minute version of The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (1984) with a brand new introduction by the Quay Brothers; the French documentary Les Chimres des Svankmajer (2001); interviews with Jan and Eva Svankmajer and examples of their work in other media. There’s also a chance to see some Svankmajer special effects, created for commercial Czech features when he was banned from making his own films. The 54-page booklet includes an introduction to Svankmajer by Michael O’Pray; detailed film notes by Michael Brooke, Simon Field, Michael O’Pray, Julian Petley, A.L. Rees and Philip Strick; notes on the extras and much more.”
  • Although he’s not primarily concerned with a continuity style in this or most of his other films, note that Švankmajer uses the chandelier to lodge the film in a coherent space. It is there in many shots,  and although its exact position changes, it is either in the left or the right of the frame to indicate which magician is performing, formalising the adversarial divide between them, and finally in the middle in that shot of the final handshake: at this point it stresses the symmetrical detente of the reluctant, stalemated truce.
  • What are we to make of the beetle that crawls through the film, oblivious to the increasingly pugilistic contest until it is shown dead in the final shot? It can be seen on the magicians’ faces and inside their skulls like a nagging idea, but is apparently a casualty of the limb-tearing showdown. Insects are nature’s automata, machinic little things with rigid bodies and seemingly clockwork gait. But next to the hard-headed puppet conjurors on show in this film, the beetle is the most vivid, enlivened thing on display. Paul Wells calls it “the catalyst by which the interface between man and machine fails”, adding that it serves as “a narrational provocateur by which Svankmajer could reveal the rebellion in the construction of the contemporary body”. I don’t think I can say it any better than that.
  • More from Paul Wells, whose article “Body Consciousness in the Films of Jan Svankmajer” (which you can find in Jayne Pilling’s A Reader in Animation Studies) is a typically lucid summary of how the director uses animation to articulate his sociopolitical theses about the place of the body in constituting the human subject in society: “Svankmajer uses the ritual of performance to suggest a model of difference only to imply that humankind will always fall prey to its own inability to properly reconcile the repeated failings and flaws of its evolutionary sensibility. The two magicians in The Last Trick are metaphors for Svankmajer’s social vision as it is played out through the contradiction inherent in the body as it is simultaneously liberated though art but mechanised by socio-cultural practice. Svankmajer’s quasi-surrealist approach represents the magician as a mechanism which possesses the inherent possibility of failing.”