Short Film Saturday: Jan Švankmajer

Yet again I’d prefer to introduce you to an animator through one quick example of his style rather than a barrage. Should you enjoy it there are many examples of his works on Youtube and elsewhere on the web.

Below you will find some biographical information on Švankmajer, which accompanies the YouTube video:

Švankmajer (born 4 September 1934 in Prague) is a Czech surrealist artist. His work spans several media. He is known for his surreal animations and features, which have greatly influenced other artists such as Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, The Brothers Quay and many others.

Švankmajer has gained a reputation over several decades for his distinctive use of stop-motion technique, and his ability to make surreal, nightmarish and yet somehow funny pictures. He is still making films in Prague at the time of writing.

Švankmajer’s trademarks include very exaggerated sounds, often creating a very strange effect in all eating scenes. He often uses very sped-up sequences when people walk and interact. His movies often involve inanimate objects coming alive and being brought to life through stop-motion. Food is a favourite subject and medium. Stop-motion features in most of his work, though his feature films also include live action to varying degrees.

A lot of his movies, like the short film Down to the Cellar, are made from a child’s perspective, while at the same time often having a truly disturbing and even aggressive nature. In 1972 the communist authorities banned him from making films, and many of his later films were banned. He was almost unknown in the West until the early 1980s.

Today he is one of the most celebrated animators in the world. His best known works are probably the feature films Alice (1988), Faust (1994), Conspirators of Pleasure (1996), Little Otik (2000) and Lunacy (2005), a surreal comic horror based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe and the Marquis de Sade. Also famous (and much imitated) is the short Dimensions of Dialogue (1982), which shows Arcimboldo-like heads gradually reducing each other to bland copies (“exhaustive discussion”); a clay man and woman who dissolve into one another sexually, then quarrel and reduce themselves to a frenzied, boiling pulp (“passionate discourse”); and two elderly clay heads who extrude various objects on their tongues (toothbrush and toothpaste; shoe and shoelaces, etc.) and use them in every possible combination, sane or otherwise (“factual conversation”). His films have been called “as emotionally haunting as Kafka’s stories[1].”

He was married to Eva Švankmajerová, an internationally known surrealist painter, ceramicist and writer until her death in October of 2005. She collaborated on several of his movies including Faust, Otesánek and Alice. They had two children, Veronika and Václav

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Weird Wednesday #1- Jan Svankmajer

Once again, I am aware of what day it actually is for this week anyway I will likely be late with these themes as I get my footing with them: as things progress I may stagger them.

Here we go.

Weird Wednesday

Weird Wednesday is one of the blankest canvases I am likely to give myself as a cinematic theme. After all the word weird despite its connotation merely means outside the norm and many things can fall into that category.

Yesterday, I chose to watch most of the films on the collection of Jan Svankmajer short films called The Ossuary and Other Tales.

I have been familiar with Svankmajer for quite some time but haven’t seen him in a long time. Milos Forman astutely asserts that “Disney + Buñuel= Svankmajer.” He is an artist that seamlessly goes from puppetry to stop-motion to conventional animation to live action and every way in between.

The Films

The Last Trick

This first tale, if it is the first one you watch in your version of the collection. Is likely to be your litmus test as to whether or not you like Svankmajer. There is a seamless and effortless surrealism to his narratives that provokes thought and seeks to make no explanation. While deceptively simple there are many conclusions that can be drawn from watching this dialogue-free short.

Historia Naturae

Despite how ponderous some of his films may be and how odd they are I’ve always felt a certain kinship with Svankmajer and this proves I’m not crazy. Below you will see both his film where skeletons and illustrations of animals are made to do different dances through the edit. And below that a project I did in an editing class in college which I made with no prior knowledge to Svankmajer’s film. There is a certain similarity. Mine is set to a samba which is a dance he does not include but his waltz is fabulous.

Johann Sebastian Bach

One of his pieces that cuts to the music. Very well done.

Don Juan

A shocking and horrific version of the tale told with puppets.

The Garden

A brilliant and fascinating surrealist live-action film about a man who has unusual gardening practices to say the least.

The Castle of Otranto

A wondrous mockumentary that splices live-action in with an animated story. The live action purports to report on the events that inspired Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, the animation tells the story within the book in painstaking detail.

The Ossuary

A kaleiodoscopic tour of the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic.

I will finish these films today. These films are available to stream on Netflix to stream.