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Sunday, April 29, 2012
Jan Švankmajer | A Game with Stones / Punch and Judy / Et Cetera / Picnic with Weissmann / A Quiet Week in the House
five shorts by jan švankmajerby Douglas Messerli
Jan Švankmajer (director) Spiel mit Steinen (A Game with Stones) / 1965
Jan Švankmajer (director) Rakvičkárna (Punch and Judy) / 1966
Jan Švankmajer (director) Et Cetera / 1966
Jan Švankmajer (director) Picknick mit Weissmann (Picnic with Weissmann) / 1968Jan Švankmajer (director) Tichý týden v domé (A Quiet Week in the House) / 1969
Prague-born filmmaker Jan
vankmajer, who describes himself as a
Surrealist, has been a major influence on animators as varied as Terry Gilliam,
the Brothers Quay, and Tim Burton. Although in more recent years, Švankmajer
has made primarily full-length feature films, his earliest works, and some of
his most innovative work, was done is shorts, five of which I write about
One of the very best of Švankamjer's early films in Punch and Judy which combines puppetry with automatons filled with mechanical gears and a live hamster. The effect is quite surreal as the camera shifts from the robotized motions of the automaton to the repetitive strokings of the hamster and on to the jackhammer attacks of hammers upon the Punch and Judy figures. Combining these with small sets, houses whose inside walls are covered with intriguing collages, and the very decaying and peeling paint of the puppets, the director evokes an eerie sense of the inevitable death of both characters (they bury one another several times) as, finally, they slip from the puppeteers hands at the end of this moving cinema. By combining these stylized figures with a real, living, breathing animal, Švankmajer creates an even deeper sense of the divisions between life and death, play and reality, and violence and love. It is a beautiful short film, worth viewing again and again.
In both of these parts, animal and man become interchangeable or, at least, interconnected. As in Game with Stones nature overtakes the human even as the human attempts to use nature for his own purposes.
If in the earlier Švankmajer films inanimate objects and nature seemed only slightly threatening, here they become deadly, having overtaken their human counterpart, now freed to celebrate, they take the afternoon in the sun that Weissmann, so it appears, had planned for himself.
Following in that vein, A Quiet Week in the House (also called The Flat) concerns a young man literally directed by arrows to a room where he is tortured by all sorts of inanimate objects, including a typewriter, various dishes of food, and other household standards. All his attempts at human activity, in short, are foiled as he endeavors to create, eat, and, finally, sleep—the bed itself dissolving into the down of its pillows and coverlet and shavings of wood. Even an attempt to peer through a window ends up with a seemingly divine punch in the face.
An older man appears with a chicken and hatchet, clearly expecting the young man to decapitate the fowl.. When the young man refuses, he hands him the hatchet which the young man uses to break down what appears to be a door. Behind it is only a wall where numerous others, obviously trapped in the same situation as our young hero, have created a graffiti of names and dates. Bending down with a provided pencil, the young man adds his name to the others that came before him.
Los Angeles, March 28, 2012