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Shock Corridor Cinema Presents The Films of Jan Svankmajer (Animation & Stop Motion From The Czech Republic)

Tue. July 13th 2004 9:00 pm
Shock Corridor Cinema Presents
2516 Douglas St. at Bay St.

Czech animator Jan Svankmajer, whose name is almost always mentioned in the same breath as the Brothers Quay, is a filmmaker with a deeply philosophical, psychological bent whose mode de employ is the infinite variety of the grotesque. Svankmajer started working with stop-animation shorts in the 1960s but has turned increasingly to features that mingle live action with startling animation effects. If you appreciate Joel-Peter Whitkin's stills, you will love Svankmajer's films. His animated objects include people, tubers, taxidermilogical failures and beyond. Svankmajer takes a thousand separate, shocking little pieces and combines them into a sublimely shocking whole. The end product is always bafflingly surreal and so over the top as to be beatific. His filmography is made up mostly of shorts, and he currently has contributed four feature length films to his ovuer. His reputation was made with the masterful Alice (1987), based on the Lewis Carroll classic; Faust (1994); and the fetish classic, screened in tonites program, Conspirators of Pleasure (1996).

Despite its tortured history, Eastern Europe, and particularly The Czech Republic, has managed to produce an almost uninterrupted flow of the world�s great animation over the past few decades. This is due to consistent state support for the format, a long folkloric tradition, and individual artists like Jan Svankmajer who manage to get state funding for projects that would induce seizures in knock-kneed American grant committees.

*please note the program has been slightly modified since posters for this event have gone up. What you read below is the actual program for the evening.

ET CETERA (1966; 7 min.)
Fabulous example of Svankmajer's early animation work. A short film that represents a cynical expression of social progress in three parts. Et Cetera is couched in a disdain for technology and political ideologies that would plague the filmmaker in his native home of Czechoslovakia . Despite its bleak thematic concerns, the images have a child like quality to them, illustrating Svankmajer's animation in its most primitive form.

Winner of countless awards, including the prestigious 1993 Golden Bear from the Berlin Film Festival, Moznosti Dialogu translates more appropriately as Possibilities of Dialogue - possibilities which, according to the evidence offered here, seem limited indeed. As the director himself has put it, the figures in the first dialogue "act out, in condensed form, the process which we are witnessing at this particular stage of civilisation: the passage from differentiation to uniformity". Taken as a whole, the three 'dialogues' bear witness to mankind's intolerance of otherness, the inhabitual, the non-conformist and the unexpected. Only in the opening section of the second dialogue is there any real communication, as the two bodies sensuously intermingle in an ecstasy of one-ness. But this proves all too short-lived, as their passion quite literally produces an excess that can't be contained, comes between them, and causes them to destroy each other in the film's most graphic and disturbing images of communicative breakdown. This incompatibility is visualized through Svankmajer's lucid stop motion photography, augmented by some of the finest claymation this film geek has ever witnessed. As always, Svankmajer's craftsmanship is nothing short of remarkable: the various devourings in the first dialogue are grotesque in the extreme, endowing even the most mundane objects with a curious and creepy life of their own, and the ferocious collision of objects in the final episode are executed with a genuinely surreal eye for the nightmarishly absurd, the visually incompatible, and the conceptually shocking.

Made in 1990, after the so-called "Velvet Revolution", Svankmajer's film is subtitled a "work of agitprop", and as the filmmaker admits, it has all the disadvantages of that form. It plays with images culled from the post-war period in Czechoslovakia, beginning with the initial power struggle when the Soviet-supported Gottwald was installed and set about instituting the Stalinist system. In the 1950s, he purged the Party, sending many of his closest friends to the gallows after public show trials, footage of which Svankmajer includes.

The film's main critique is on Stalin and his system understood largely as one of signs and images. In the BBC television program which accompanied this film, Svankmajer gave his view that "the battle against Stalinism is yet to come" and will "take place in people's minds". The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia is perceived by him as a "kind of catharsis". The rich density of the early Mannerist films, and the Gothic surrealism of his middle period, have been replaced recently by more socially aware typologies all to be found here. A single remark by Svankmajer in the BBC program - to the effect that totalitarianism "appeals to the lower instincts" - reverberates through this film without being fully acknowledged. It is an insight which lies at the heart of surrealism itself, and raises the question of the relationship of those instincts to certain forms of twentieth-century artistic practice as well as to malignant political ideologies.

Forget magic realism; this is magic surrealism, of the highest order. Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer owes a debt, which he pays in the closing credits of Conspirators of Pleasure, to Bunuel and Max Ernst, but also to Freud, Sade, and Sacher-Masoch. This brilliantly inspired story of the daily life of six fetishists in Prague resonates with what Andre Breton called "convulsive beauty" � specifically, the transformation of a dreary, dead culture into a wonderland of bizarre personal rituals, accentuated by mannequins, mechanical sex devices, fish, feathers, and fur. Fans of Belgian filmmakers Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatesen, The City of Lost Children), the odd social actors of Errol Morris' documentaries and to a lesser extent, the darker works of David Cronenberg will find much to admire here. Svankmajer's vision is similarly comic and despairing, using its pathetic robots, dolls, animals, and animal parts in a devastating social critique.

Conspirators of Pleasure is a cohesive series of vignettes about obsessive-compulsive fetishists whose paths cross, sparking a series of respective erotic destinies that are fulfilled via a spiraling puzzle like path. The movie explores the layers of fetishism, turning the everyday object or occurrence into a meaning laden ritual. Daily life is compelled by a collection of huge fetish projects: the porno stand engineer who is obsessed with the televisual image to the point where he constructs a television that can simulate physical interaction with the medium; the mail carrier, who maniacally turns loaves of bread into compact little balls; her husband who hears symphonies in pursuit of junk; he later constructs tools that de Sade would have cried over; and a pair of neighbors who obsess over each other's murders. The exquisite detail with which the nameless protagonist constructs speaks to ritual, sexuality and desire in the culture of the everyday.

While the director keeps his human characters mostly expressionless � except when they're in the throes of their fetish � his dolls and mannequins have a kind of naked anguish that puts the film in a category all its own. In this post-postmodern Grand Guignol, the mail worker who furtively sucks hundreds of small bread-balls into her nose, then blows them back out with a sigh, is just icing on a crazy cake.