Jan Svankmajer: the Complete Short Films (1964-1992)

So a couple of nights ago I spent an evening with Jan Svankmajer’s oeuvre… which I first discovered probably around 1995 or so (did I first read of him in Sight & Sound? Can’t remember) when SBS showed the Channel 4 documentary on him, The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (helpfully included on the BFI collection as an extra), and then I think they showed Alice afterwards or something. I’ve since seen Faust as well, but the short films have been unfamiliar territory, apart from Meat Love (saw at Mu-Meson Archives one night) and such excerpts of the shorts as appeared in the documentary (i.e. more or less all of Dimensions of Dialogue and bits of others; I always wanted to see his House of Usher after seeing the fragment of it in the doco). Beyond that I haven’t really made any actual effort to explore Svankmajer’s work; I only thought of him dimly as a sort of Czech surrealist and never exactly tried to hunt him down (I only even saw Faust cos I got sent a DVD of it by the local distributor). But I knew my library had the BFI collection of his short films, so when I found it in stock a couple of weeks ago I took it, and after watching the Paradjanov film the other night I decided that was the right time to finally watch the thing.

So, not really having much idea of what to expect (though delighted to discover that the business in the Cabinet doco with the giant spider—which, obviously, squicked me out on first viewing—was actually the work of the Brothers Quay and not in any of Svankmajer’s own films; I re-watched Cabinet before the films, so was pleased to discover I wouldn’t be encountering that fucking monster again), I must admit to having been somewhat taken aback by the aggression of these shorts, particularly the earlier ones. Not necessarily the violence of the subject matter, but of the technique, particularly the editing; some of it really is a kind of barrage of flash images that don’t even last a second. Almost all of the films involve some kind of stop-motion animation, and many also use some combination of animation and live action (e.g. Don Juan with its mix of marionettes in a theatre and life-size versions of them in real locations; did he reuse any of this footage in Faust or just the technique?); I think only one film involved traditional drawn animation, and equally I think only one film involved no animation at all. Not always easy to discern narrative per se, but structure is less hard; repetition is a big part of how these films work.

Obviously the films themselves amount to a pretty mixed bag in terms of their achievement, which is varied; I’d say the weakest is probably the music video for Hugh Cornwell, which is a mediocre song at best and the video just seems to be a retread of various Svankmajer motifs. Though I suppose better he recycle himself than someone else knock him off, and it’s a bit surprising that he’s apparently only ever made one music video. Conversely, House of Usher wound up being as good as I’d hoped, and I did enjoy most of them to some degree or other; a little unexpectedly, perhaps, my favourite wound up being Virile Games, a comedy about football violence in which a man placidly watches a game on TV where the players’ ball skills matter less than their ability to massacre the other team (most inventively by driving a train through one player’s head); unmoved by the carnage on screen, he seems equally unperturbed when it spills off the screen into the room where he’s watching TV and he doesn’t even realise when he inadvertently becomes a participant. It is SCREAMINGLY funny.

On the whole this was fascinating. If I ever see it for sale as opposed to just rental, I’ll pick it up for the collection…

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One thought on “Jan Svankmajer: the Complete Short Films (1964-1992)

  1. Joachim Boaz October 4, 2011 at 12:11 am

    Svankmajer is a great figure in cinema — but he lacks the precision (of idea and pure skill) of The Brothers Quay. Have you seen any of Svankmajer’s feature length films (often with animation) — for example, Faust. I think it’s my favorite of his.

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