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A Whole Lotta Czech Stop-Motion Shorts (1964- 1988)

Yes, that is indeed a crest made of skulls
Yes, that is indeed a crest made of skulls

Genre: Experimental Fantasy (Czeck Republic)

Starring: Marionettes and clay men of all sorts 

Directed By: Jan Svankmajer (Little OtikFaust)

Overview: The scores of short films in this review can be found in The Collected Works Of Jan Svankmajer Volume 1 and 2 as well as Jan Svankmajer: The Ossuary and Other Tales. All quoted short descriptions are as they appeared on my online DVD rental service, Zip.ca.

I've always been a great fan of short film, and when a director's early works is put in one convenient little package, I don't hesitate to grab it. Still it's easy when one doesn't know such a thing exists, since this is one obscure art-house surrealist, indeed. Luckily, a recent search on my Canadian version of Netflix called Zip.ca popped up some titles that I hadn't seen, and wouldn't you know it, all three disks each had different content. So here I come now kiddies to enlighten you on the nature of Jan's short works:
 



The Last Trick (1964) - 12 mins - A wonderful tale where two men on a stage attempt to outdo one another in a battle of parlour tricks. What makes this unique is that both men have large wooden heads, and the tricks they come up with are truly surreal entertainment, such as one man's trick of opening up his face and pulling out a violin for a musical number. 
 
Don Juan (1970) - 31 mins - The story is that of Don Juan, scoundrel and womanizer, who gets caught up in a murderous plot with the aid of his jester. If you've seen Svankmajer's Faust, you will certainly see the similarities in the style, one that combines marionettes with live action in the most interesting way. The actors wear wooden heads and arms complete with posts and strings attached to them, however they are frequently in outdoor scenes where we can clearly see that no one is guiding the strings.  Don Juan tosses in just enough visual madness to make it a twisted visual experience.

 

The Garden (1968) - 19 mins - There is no stop motion in The Garden, however the grounds of the home itself is surrounded by a very animated fence - people, all holding hands. An interesting piece of avant-garde.
 
Though not what I would define as 'typical Svankmajer', his more visually poetic works include, Flora (1989) - 20 seconds "A dark ecological tragedy."; The Fall of the House of Usher (1980) - 15 mins. "A Gothic fantasia based on the classic Edgar Allan Poe tale of horror.";  Historia Naturae (1967) - 9 minutes, a food chain montage; Johann Sebastian Bach (1965) - 10 mins and Et Cetera (1966) - 7 mins, described as "a rich and brilliant mediation on the futility of progress."  
 
The Ossuary (1970) - 10 mins - one of my favorite of Jan's works films, it is truly nothing special in terms of special effects or storytelling. It's really nothing more than a montage of the world's biggest ossuary in Czechoslovakia, but the bones and the way they're laid out are spectacular. The editing style makes the film just a little off kilter, while the sound work of a tour guide talking about the exhibit adds just enough context to the sights before us. Very impressive.
 
The Otrants Castle (1977) - 17 mins  - This short film is an interview with a historian who was delving into the historical background of an Italian novel. Svankmajer, using stop-motion animation of paper cut-outs of people on a page recounts the novel's story of love and vengeance. This tale is interjected with the historian's research of having found the actual castle and surroundings where the story takes place. An amusing tale with a great ending.
 
Darkness Light Darkness (1989) - 8 mins - An amazing stop-motion absurdity, this is a tale of a body coming together in a room, beginning with a crawling hand, followed by two eyes that roll up to the hand. As the film progresses more and more body parts join in.
 
Choo Choo! *GMURPH* Another point!
Choo Choo! *GMURPH* Another point!
Manly Games (1988) - 12 mins - another short favorite, this surreal sports game is one similar to soccer, however teams score by killing their opponents in a wide variety of methods all while one spectator watches the game on his TV, drinking beer and eating sugar cookies.
 
A Game With Stones (1965) - 9 mins. "Earth's genesis, development and destruction presented in the form of a bizarre "mechanical game".
This short film features a cuckoo clock chiming away moments like 'let there be light', and the birth of man, as represented by an animated dance of rocks.

 
 
Punch and Judy (1966) - 10 mins. "Two hand puppets quarrel over a real-life guinea pig in an exchange that soon escalates into a blood-thirsty feud."
This is certainly a lot of fun. Classic Punchinello puppets are frequently seen petting the furry animal, which makes it totally cute, right up until they start getting a hate on each other, complete with hammers, nails and coffins.

The Flat (1968) - 13 mins. "A Kafkaesque black comedy in which a man is held prisoner in an apartment where everyday objects turn against him."
The kind of film where you know everything in the room will turn on the character suffering the inanimate object's punishment. 
Picnic With Weissmann (1969) - 13 mins. "A picnic upon the debris of consumer civilization."
I will be the first to admit that the climax was entirely not worth the set up of this film. Extreme close ups and stop motion of common items like clothing, records and shovels, give us the familiarity of Svankmajer's work nonetheless.
 
A Quiet Week In the House (1969) - 19 mins. "Seven nights of ritualized voyeurism by a solitary terrorist in an abandoned house." 
This short is a series of rooms with a different kind of wackiness ensuing beyond the building's doors.
 

Dimensions of Dialogue (1982) - 12 mins. "A dizzy, passionate kaleidoscope of debris and bones of contentions that make any dialogue and understanding impossible."

Fantastic labour-intensive work. This is actually three films. The first shows a man made of kitchen utensils meeting a man made of food. The kitchen man eats the food man and regurgitates his mashed remains, reforming him. The kitchen man is then met by a man made of office supplies, and is eaten, regurgitated and reformed, only to be met and eaten my by the man made of food.  Then we have two clay heads as they helping one another in acts of teamwork, though it quickly degrades into a mess of errors. . The final film has animated clay people who go through different emotions with one another very quickly. Svankmajer sculpts them into wonderful imagery. Dimensions of Dialogue is definitely one of my favorite of this man's shorts.
 
Down To the Cellar  (1983) - 15 mins. "A young girl encounters a series of disturbing obstacles while on an errand to fetch potatoes from the cellar. "

Svankmajer uses his recurring theme of 'the fantastical among the common' in this simple adventure down to the potato cellar. A little girl finds denizens amidst the basement, including one man who covers himself with coal to sleep and a woman who uses a special recipe to make what seems to be coal muffins.

 

The Pit, The Pendulum and Hope (1983) - 16 mins. "A terrifying live-action take on Poe's classic tale of torture and repression."
This is a claustrophobic black and white film about a man in a torture chamber left to his devices among all sorts of mechanical traps, including of course, a swinging pendulum axe. The cinematography is often so extremely up close that we feel as bound as the victim suffering the tortures.
 
Meat Love (1988) - 1 min. "A tale of sudden passion and tragedy between two steaks."
Who knew beef could Rumba so well?
Who knew beef could Rumba so well?
 
My favorite Svankmajer short. Two steaks are cut off a slab of meat, and begin a rapid romance, wooing and dancing across the counter.
 
The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia (1990) - 15 mins. "Svankmajer's first film after the fall of Communism, provides a short history of Czechoslovakia since World War II and recounting of the absurd horrors of Stalinism."
This artistic historical timeline of leaders since Stalin tosses in a healthy dose of surreal social commentary. For example, Stalin's statue head is prepared for an operation. Doctors carve open his face and root through guts to find another bust inside. A doctor slaps it in the back of the head and it begins to cry (Would that be Georgy Malenkov perchance?).
 
Food (1992) - 17 mins. "A surrealistic breakfast, lunch and dinner."
Actually three separate stories, Breakfast shows a man entering a room to use the man sitting in front of him as a vending machine for a meal. Lunch shows us how far our guest go to make do with what they have when their waiter ignores them, and dinner focuses on a somewhat corpulent man adding all kinds of sauces to his dish. What he's actually eating is the climactic surprise. A lovely display of a day's diet of Experimental cinema.

What I found most surprising about this collection is that Jan, though consistent in his mood, often changes styles dramatically. From black and white live action Edgar Allan Poe thrillers to funny hand puppets beating themselves up over a hamster, to exclusively sculpted stop-motion that includes comments on abortion, Svankmajer's range is impressive. Add the flair of some Eastern European decay that he frequently tosses in and the atmosphere gets a nice infusion of uniqueness.

Another tale in Dimensions of Dialogue
Another tale in Dimensions of Dialogue

Performance: 8 Cinematography: 9 Script: 8 Plot: 8 Mood: 9

Overall Rating: 84% (Czech It Out!)
Aftertaste:

If you asked me to define what Jan Svankmajer's 'standard works' are when it comes to his short films, I'd look towards the ones that were mostly about stop motion strangeness, which also happen to be my favorites: Darkness Light Darkness, Manly Games, FoodDimensions of Dialogue and most of all, Meat Love. These have surreal themes that aren't too obscure and either personifications of the everyday or stop motion animation of meticulously sculpted clay. They're wonders to behold, and although there's a short or two that might be a little long, it's nice to observe an artist's body of works!

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