Friday, February 06, 2004

Alchemist of the Surreal (Part 1) 

I've been watching the first of two videos of Jan Svankmajer shorts today, and I'd forgotten just how amazing they are. Apart from Otesànek in 2000 (which I absolutely love, and which I was fortunate enough to see at the Edinburgh Film Festival) I've never found his feature length films quite as good as these - though I would still recommend them to anyone - mostly because they drag a little by comparison (though I'll admit that I'm by no means a film critic, and have a typical caffeine addict's attention span).

Themes are often repeated across the pieces, so that Down To The Cellar echoes The Flat to some extent, with the latter obviously referencing Kafka, as the protagonists find themselves in situations where they are trapped, or attempting to carry out some task, while malevolent forces work against them - solid things become liquid, walls attack and baskets fall empty away. It was particularly great to see Down To The Cellar again, as the opening idea here - a girl goes down the stairs and captures the attention of the old pervert who's coming up - is used later as a recurring scene in Otesànek, though to much greater effect, thanks to the extra characterisation which the longer film allows, but more importantly to the wonderful young actress playing the part.

Virile Games, where two football teams attempt to assault each other ever more violently, seems to echo in turn The Last Trick, where rival magicians try ever harder to impress one another and their audience, again in quite a violent manner. All his films are completely surreal, mixing clay, puppets and bits of random junk with live actors, and sometimes dispensing with live actors altogether across pieces which are for the most part silent. The best of this selection (for me) is Dimensions of Dialogue, which is split into three parts, in each of which two heads, or two figures, are facing one another and close to one another, but are in some manner failing to communicate. Part 1, "Exhaustive Discussion" is the most obvious example of his use of 'bits of junk', as two heads form and re-form, one eating the other each time and causing the other to decompose, until both the heads are composed of nothing but clay. Part 2, "Passionate Discourse" sees the breakdown of communication in a relationship, as two clay lovers become one (in a way which is surprisingly erotic, given they are just clay), and then gradually part until they are sat at a distance, silent, with a piece of clay which has come from one or the other - or both - of them between them on the table. Each of them bats it to the other, disowning it, until both lose their temper and, quite literally, tear one another apart. The final part, "Factual Conversation", sees two heads which at first help one another out - one offers bread, the other butter, or one offers a boot and the other laces - but then gradually offer one another the wrong items at the wrong time, not gauging each other's actions quite right, until it builds to the stage where each is destroying the other, pencil sharpeners whittling away at toothpaste tubes and pencils splintering into one another. This all kind of reminds me of Lost in Translation, and the reaction to it (here and here, for example) where the terms of discussion are the same but no one seems to understand anyone else's use of them. Of course, there are obviously much more political parallels too, but I don't need to point those out...

As a little side note - despite not being up to date, this site (which its owner seems to have disowned on his own links) is one of the most complete Svankmajer sites I've found, and very much worth taking a look at.

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