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Collected Shorts of Jan Svankmajer
Savant remembers being shown a Jiri Trinka short subject called The Hand back in Junior High School - an English teacher showed it to us to spur creative writing ideas, when it obviously had been given to the school system for use as anti-Communist propaganda (along with a chilling illustrated poem called The Hangman). The Hand used obvious symbolism to show an artist being restrained, boxed in, imprisoned and finally killed by a repressive government. It was a good expression of rebellion by a brave Czech artist with a lot to lose.
Trinka was part of the same artistic movement as another Czechoslovakian film artist, Jan Svankmajer, whose animated films are even creepier. A political taint hangs over Svankmajer's work even when they aren't addressing the relationship between man and the state, but his abstract pictures conjure up dark worlds of associations and ideas that go beyond anything easily classified and pigeonholed.
Animators will be delighted to see what Svankmajer did with simple pixillation tricks combined with standard animation, strange miniatures and found objects. Highly stylized action creeps into many of his films as well. It's all in the design & lighting, although some shorts are given a frantic feeling of chaos via expert editing. If ever a 'dark vision' permeated an author's work, you'll find it here.
KimStim and Kino Video present this 2-disc collection of some of Svankmajer's best short subjects. To call them consistently challenging doesn't do them justice; it's a masterful body of work that stretches from the 60s to the post-Communist 90s.
A Game With Stones 9 min 1965; Punch and Judy 10 min 1966; Et Cetera 7 min 1966; Picnic with Weissmann 13 min 1969; The Flat 13 min 1968; A Quiet Week in the House 19 min 1969; The Fall of the House of Usher 5 min 1980. The insert mentions a film called Coffin Factory, which is actually and alternate title for Punch and Judy.
Dimensions of Dialogue 12 min 1982; Down to the Cellar 15 min 1983; The Pendulum, the Pit and the Hope 16 min 1983; Meat Love 1 min 1988; Flora 20 sec 1989; The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia 15 min 1990; Food 17 min 1992.
The films have some variety - they're in B&W and color and the style of animation stretches from simple manipulation of clay to the bizarre utilization of household vegetables. What they have in common is a unique disturbing quality. Some shorts, like The Flat use pixillated live actors, while others replace people with puppets of varying styles. Down to the Cellar's haunted little girl, discovering various subterranean terrors below her house, looks like an inspiration for Tim Burton.
Even the shorts that might seem basic, aren't. A Game With Stones soon develops from animating rocks on a tabletop to much more complicated patterns. The intricate musical 'soundscapes' on these pictures add to their disturbing atmosphere.
Svankmajer is clearly an enthusiastic Edgar Allan Poe fan. A morbid flavor runs through many of these shorts and two full-on Poe interpretations. The Usher adaptation is kind of a free-form background to the story, which mostly just creeps around the dark house while we listen to the text. But the Pit is a harrowing version faithful to the tone and events in the original story itself. Svankmajer has his pendulum blade appear from a skull painted on the ceiling of the torture pit, a nice visual touch.
The overtly political films are downright creepy. Meat Love has two slices of beef conduct a very brief affair with a violent end. It's funny and perverse at the same time. Dimensions of Dialogue (pictured on the box cover) is a nightmarishly complex visual statement showing 'interactions' between people bizarrely constructed from food and desktop objects. One or both are rearranged or pulverized with each 'conversation,' and reform in a new configuration. Like many of the films, it's menacing in an indefinable way. Another more directly menacing film shows clay men being manufactured on an assembly line, immediately hanged, and returned to the clay bucket for reprocessing.
The most elaborate political picture obviously couldn't be made until the fall of the Soviet Union. The Death of Stalin in Bohemia breaks up a fast montage of historical stills and collage material with gruesome repetitions of 'surgery' on a bust of Stalin. Splitting the statue in two, a surgeon pushes through entrails to reveal a new dictator inside. Even when repainted with the Czech flag, the extinct Stalin persists in spirit.
Kino and KimStim's DVD of The Collected Shorts of Jan Svankmajer is a 2-disc set, with the fourteen short subjects handsomely transferred. The box designs are rather plain and the dull green of the packaging is not all that eye-pleasing. This isn't the kind of disc that will attract casual viewers in a DVD store.
Disc One comes with brief but interesting galleries of Svankmajer drawings, puppets and ceramics; a Zeitgeist trailer for Little Otik, a Svankmajer feature that looks as if it were born of parentage fear; an illustrated poem and a couple of text bios.
Disc Two's galleries are of 'collages, cabinetry (fanciful, creepy exhibits for a secret museum), and an image lexicon of more grotesque drawings. Another illustrated poem prededes a 26-minute, slow-starting BBC docu on Svankmajer's aggressive, violent and disturbing work, using many audio recordings from the director. He stresses his background in magic and puppet theater and his delight in using film to break down reality, a disturbing act in itself. He also considers all of his films to be politically committed, and realizes that the time-specific images in many of them will become meaningless in fifty years.
The docu helps distill the basic surrealist in Svankmajer. He deals with re-ordering familiar objects in disturbing patterns, finding horror and truth along the way. Dimensions of Dialogue, for instance, starts with destructive - looking invasions between people. When two animated clay people blend into one another, it first seems like another horror image - until it begins to express the desire for lovers to stop being individual creatures and meld together.
The docu also relates Svankmajer to an old artistic movement called 'mannerism' and shows old paintings that create face-collages of fruit and vegetables, a familiar theme in the shorts seen here.
Viewers need to be warned that the BBC docu shows the slaughering and dressing of a pig as part of the production background of The Death of Stalin in Bohemia.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Collected Shorts of Jan Svankmajer rates:
Supplements: Animator of Prague BBC Docu; Svankmajer artwork, poems; filmograpy & biography, essay
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 6, 2005