The Films of Czech Surrealist Legend Jan Svankmajer Are Totally Nuts in All the Right Ways
Švankmajer's most recent feature, Surviving Life
Courtesy of The Cinefamily
If surrealism -- or, more specifically the freakish, fucked up and fantastic kind -- is your thing, then your September is about to get a whole lot better thanks to Cinefamily.
This month, they're hosting a full retrospective featuring the works of Jan Švankmajer, a Czech filmmaker, born in 1934, who's known for his stop-motion animations and for influencing the likes of Terry Gilliam and the Brothers Quay.
"The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer," which began last week and continues tonight, is a big deal for a few reasons. One, it's the first Švankmajer retrospective to come to Los Angeles, ever. Two, domestic prints for a majority of Švankmajer's features don't exist, so all of the 35 mm prints (real and gorgeous for all you filmophiles) were flown in directly from the Czech Republic, with the help of Irena Kovarova of The Czech Center New York.
Third, the guy is totally nuts, in all the right ways; so if you're unfamiliar with this underrated genius you can either watch some of his work, OR you can rely on a bunch of creative and evocative diction to try to conjure up the madness for you.
A scene from Alice
Courtesy of The Cinefamily
"Svankmajer's world is completely his own," says Alexander McDonald, the head programmer and director of Animation Breakdown, Cinefamily's animation residency. "It subverts a very specific, post iron-curtain European reality into a decaying dreamscape that feels intensely visceral."
Indeed, Švankmajer's work has an obvious fixation on (among other things) the carnal connotations of raw meat, on the peculiar sonic quality of decay (the sound design in Alice for example features an unsettling profusion of creaky bones and the slurpiness of rotting flesh), and on the hyperbole and the mundaneness of all living things. If Švankmajer were to pick his favorite organ system, it'd likely be the gastrointestinal one -- he's a obsessed with food and eating.
"Around Cinefamily we use Švankmajer as a reference a lot," McDonald says. "There's a cracked paint, peeling wallpaper, shattered cement European aesthetic that a lot of his work, particularly the shorts, embodies. I've always thought his work took some delightful comfort in discomfort."
So what kind of moviegoer will Švankmajer appeal to the most?
"Anyone who prides themselves on having a taste for peculiar and strange cinema owes it to themselves to try to catch as many of these films as possible. I've always thought that folks who were diehard into Tim Burton picked the wrong weirdo to worship -- there's a hell of a lot more genuine strangeness and substance to Švankmajer's nightmareverse," says McDonald.
The Cinefamily's month-long retrospective continues tonight with Conspirators of Pleasure.
Next: Five videos to break you into Švankmajer's style
Check out these five videos for a Švankmajer 101 course:
1. Cinefamily's brilliant trailer for the retrospective
The video speaks for itself. If you're hungry for more, watch the rest of these videos. Then maybe check out some films on the big screen.
The three-part "Food" series of shorts is incisive, at once cruel and hilarious. It starts with "Breakfast," whose political subtext becomes clear at the film's end, and escalates in absurdity with "Lunch" and "Dinner."
3. "Darkness, Light, Darkness"
Probably the most playful film about claustrophobia and dismemberment you'll ever see.
Švankmajer reinterpreted Lewis Carroll in his first feature film, 1988's Alice. In this clip, Alice is stuck in a too-small house and tries to fend off the White Rabbit.
Švankmajer's style is still evident, but it doesn't distract from the dialogue's heavy treatment of moral and even metaphysical questions.
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