Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Profile: Jan Svankmajer

The passion and talent for animation came to light during Svankmajer's childhood after having received a puppet theater as a gift. He then continued on to create his own puppets in order to give life to his work, but this didn't satisfy him as Svankmajer went on to create stop-motion animation out of ordinary, seemingly non-unique objects found in the home. This strange and avant-gard style and technique of animation at the time created his renowned image in the industry.

In his films, Svankmajer rarely seems to tell a full story, but rather instead to depict the eerie act of humans interacting with man-made objects; an experimentation of concept, if you will. However, some of the story-driven narrative is still there, hidden beneath the layers of surrealism and the uncanny. His works are mentioned by Chris Buckle in his article about the animator:

"Svankmajer takes mundane reality and sculpts something uncanny: pebbles dance in formation in A Game with Stones (1965); steaks embrace in Meat Love (1989); diagrams step free from the page in Historia Naturae, Suita (1967). His stop-motion clay work makes corporeal forms fluid and erratic – see the grotesque assembly of Darkness, Light, Darkness (1990), or the melting busts in Dimensions of Dialogue (1983). His Food trilogy (1993)" (Buckle, 2012)

A common experiment depicted in his animations is how one's view of a situation can change as a sequence progresses, particularly in one of his shorts called 'The Dimensions of Dialogue', particularly a scene depicting two clay humans, a man and a woman, as they fall in love, but later they begin to ravenously tear each other apart, which completely reverses the viewer's feelings towards the initial scene.

Svankmajer uses this technique to utmost efficiency to meddle and experiment with the psychological workings of the human mind, manipulating it with his trademark Freudian imagery.

Jan Svankmajer's Alice still photos
Fig 1: The Rabbit
Viewers of his work may also notice Svankmajer's constant fascination with the simple and seemingly harmless act of eating. He turns the visually uninteresting performance of eating on-screen into something wondrous or intriguing or into something downright nightmarish, particularly in his feature-length film, "Alice" (1988), which features the trademark treats of the size-altering cookies, but also something unique to the film's style, a sawdust-eating stuffed rabbit.

The rabbit itself, to start off with, is real only to simply add to the nightmarish atmosphere of the dream world the film is set in. The rabbit constantly needs to replenish his supply of sawdust due to a sharp nail which rips open a hole in its chest, causing the sawdust stuffing to pour out with every move it makes. The prolonged camera focus when the rabbit eats sawdust from a bowl near the beginning of the film is testament to the use of food as part of his narrative in his stories. The use of routine, repetitive and drawn-out sequences is also used fervently to create a sense of unease.

"The movie is unabashedly indulgent in many of Svankmajer’s recurring themes (visible in nearly all of his short
and feature films), such as his obsession with routine and his dismissive observations of the process of eating. The act of eating always seems to be a fruitless exercise in self-preservation (since the food ends up exiting us anyway), and the food itself is usually fraught with hidden dangers (nails, bugs, and magic that makes Alice change in size)" (Heilman, 2002)

The repetetive scenes in the film are based on the irrationality and nonsensical logic that the dream-land centers around. The continual repeating of a sequence of moves in a scene like this is pur way of seeing it through Alice's eyes as she attempts to form a logical conclusion to these strange actions.

The battle against the uncanny is something which Svanmajer wages on a constant basis throughout his films, particularly with the stuffed rabbit character and his unnervingly true to life clay faces in constant use in his various shorts. Once again, this can be identified with his wish to affect the audience's feelings, whether they be utterly repulsed by or whether or not they feel empathy to what they see.

However, this sometimes does not apply to his use of inanimate objects to portray familiar figures or otherworldly characters. In 'Alice', he makes use of this technique, taking advantage of the dream-world to cause these strange, objectified characters to come and go as they see fit, deciding whether or not they wish to impact the story or not. Nevertheless, Svankmajer has had a significant impact upon the animation industry and will continue to be a noteworthy animation for many years.


Figure 1. The Rabbit. [Online image]. At:  http://www.examiner.com/indie-film-in-greenville-ms/jan-svankmajer-s-alice-still-photos-picture?slide=28336856  
 (Accessed on: 10/04/12)


Heilman, Jeremy. (2002) Alice (Jan Svankmajer) 1988 
http://www.moviemartyr.com/1988/alice.htm  (Accessed on: 10/04/12)

Buckle, Chris. (2012) GFF 2012: 85A Presents Jan Svankmajer
 Jan Svankmajer.: 
http://www.theskinny.co.uk/film/features/301264-gff_2012_85a_presents_jan_svankmajer  (Accessed on: 10/04/12)

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