Jan Svankmajer
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Jan Svankmajer

Keith Leslie Johnson

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Jan Svankmajer

Keith Leslie Johnson

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Jan Svankmajer enjoys a curious sort of anti-reputation: he is famous for being obscure. Unapologetically surrealist, Svankmajer draws on the traditions and techniques of stop-motion animation, collage, montage, puppetry, and clay to craft bizarre filmscapes. If these creative choices are off-putting to some, they have nonetheless won the Czech filmmaker recognition as a visionary animator. Keith Leslie Johnson explores Svankmajer's work as a cinema that spawns new and weird life forms "hybrids of machine, animal, and non-organic materials like stone and dust. Johnson's ambitious approach unlocks access to the director's world, a place governed by a single, uncanny order of being where all things are at once animated and inert. For Svankmajer, everything is at stake in every aspect of life, whether that life takes the form of an object, creature, or human. Sexuality, social bonds, religious longings "all get recapitulated on the stage of inanimate things. In Johnson's view, Svankmajer stands as the proponent of a biopolitical, ethical, and ecological outlook that implores us to reprogram our relationship with the vital matter all around us, including ourselves and our bodies.

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Animist Cinema

By the time Jan ҆vankmajer became generally known to English-speaking audiences, he was already some two decades into his career. Dimensions of Dialogue (MoŇĺnosti dialogu, 1982) had become a darling of the festival and museum circuit, winning prizes at Annecy and Berlin for best short. It was his seventeenth film‚ÄĒthe third since his liberation from what effectively amounted to a state-imposed ban from filmmaking (1973‚Äď1979). By virtue of that circumstance, its reception must have been especially gratifying. Alice (Nńõco z Alenky, 1988) would go on to win best feature at the 1989 Annecy festival, more than confirming the promise of the earlier short films and (roughly six months before the Velvet Revolution) amounting to a kind of charter for the absolute sovereignty of imagination. His second feature film, Faust (Lekce Faust, 1994), occasioned glowing reviews and profiles in the Western press, replete with comparisons to the great geniuses of world cinema (though, curiously, not to fellow puppet-filmmakers like Wladyslaw Starewicz and JiŇô√≠ Trnka). It is to his everlasting credit that when it was offered, ҆vankmajer rejected any Faustian pact with celebrity, having long before learned the ‚Äúlesson‚ÄĚ (lekce) that moral compromise of one‚Äôs art is already a form of perdition.1 Neither communism nor commercialism would have a claim on his soul.
҆vankmajer‚Äôs reputation, therefore, is an odd sort: he is famous for being obscure; but his obscurity is paradoxically underwritten by, on the one hand, international acclaim and, on the other hand, political censorship. Some of that obscurity may in its course be attributed to his ideological adherence to Surrealism; some may be attributed to his aesthetic adherence to stop-motion animation; and yet more may be attributed to his methodological adherence to puppetry, which, in spite of long tradition in Eastern Europe, is still misunderstood in what was once quaintly called ‚Äúthe West.‚ÄĚ In a way, then, what is surprising is not his obscurity, but his ever widening popularity. He seems only too well qualified for oblivion. Instead, there is an increasingly urgent appreciation of his work, in terms of both its aesthetic and philosophical merit, urgent and global appreciation. He is the subject of articles, reviews, and essays in nearly every European language and several Asian ones as well. His collages, sculptures, and film props have been exhibited in museums throughout the world. But at the same time there is something disarmingly provincial about his career‚ÄĒprovincial in the best possible sense: as opposed to some of his contemporaries in the Czechoslovak New Wave, who submitted to political intimidation or simply fled to the West, ҆vankmajer refused the non-choice of complacency or exile.2 Neither toeing the party line nor aspiring to an arch cosmopolitanism, he insisted, quite simply, on the legitimacy of his own vision and its affinity to Czech culture.
In retrospect, his apprenticeship in the Prague arts scene of the 1950s and ‚Äô60s was as much moral as technical. After studies at the School of Applied Arts and the Prague Academy of Performing Arts, he worked with various theater and performance groups, including Semafor and Laterna Magika‚ÄĒcooperative environments combining the v√∂lkisch and avant-garde, the ‚Äúlow‚ÄĚ and the ‚Äúhigh,‚ÄĚ in equal measure. Their ethos also emphasized art as multimedia expression, combining scenography, architecture, painting, music, sculpture, film, acting, dance, puppetry, and so on with no particular hierarchy. Czechoslovak culture, meanwhile, was a master class in topsy-turvydom. The Sl√°nsk√Ĺ show trial and Prague Spring would bookend this formative period for ҆vankmajer.3 In other words, one could never quite know whether a given performance would land one in the catbird seat or the prisoner‚Äôs dock. Under such a tutelage, the stakes of art (and the spiritual role of the artist) were only too palpable; on the other hand, such a tutelage couldn‚Äôt help but engender a certain amount of cynicism, if not paranoia, and in ҆vankmajer‚Äôs case it seemed to result in a healthy suspicion of all sides. As he once quipped, ‚ÄúRepression is not the invention of totalitarianism. It is the price humanity pays for civilization.‚ÄĚ4 Reflecting later on the political tumult of the previous forty years, he noted in conversation with fellow filmmaker Terry Gilliam that ‚Äúunlike most artists, [he] never thought the change of regime in Czechoslovakia would effect a big change in the arts.‚ÄĚ5 Choosing one or another ideology was a mug‚Äôs game, because ‚Äúboth the totalitarian and commercial systems stem from the same civilization‚ÄĚ; the arts, he concluded, ‚Äúmust be targeted at the roots of that civilization rather than at the systems it supports.‚ÄĚ6
In this sentiment ҆vankmajer echoed Andr√© Breton‚Äôs rallying cry for ‚Äúsystematic action aiming at the transformation of the world and implying the necessity of concretely attacking its real bases.‚ÄĚ7 Such an attack, for Breton and ҆vankmajer both, must involve a confrontation not only with structures of power but also, and more perilously, with structures of desire. While every political subject under totalitarianism is, from a certain perspective, ‚ÄúSurrealist by formation,‚ÄĚ not all acknowledge their dual citizenship, as ҆vankmajer did by joining the Prague Surrealist Group in 1970. Here, the galvanizing influence of the group‚Äôs leader, Vratislav Effenberger‚ÄĒa ‚Äúgreat poet from an accursed heritage‚ÄĚ‚ÄĒcannot be overstated.8 Effenberger‚Äôs uncompromising attitude would affirm and intensify ҆vankmajer‚Äôs own autocratic, nonconformist approach, particularly during the years of enforced silence, when frustration and despair would seem only natural. Instead, with the assistance of Effenberger and other members of the group, he proceeded to create what Pavle Levi calls (apropos of ҆vankmajer‚Äôs cousins in the Yugoslav avant-garde) ‚Äúcinema by other means‚ÄĚ: tactile experiments, scenarios, readymades, collages, and sculptures in which his filmic obsessions are enacted.9 Like Marcel Duchamp before him, who sought to expand the possibilities of film beyond those of a bloodless, merely ‚Äúretinal art,‚ÄĚ Ň†vankmajer draws upon the inherently vibrant, lifelike, and pre-animate qualities of things to produce an experience that is properly synaesthetic.
Duchamp‚Äôs Anemic Cinema (1926) gestures toward such an experience, relying on the jarring and humorous superimposition of semantic and sensory effects. It features a series of spinning discs (or ‚ÄúRotoreliefs,‚ÄĚ as Duchamp styled them) on which palindromic and punning sentences spiral in and out, producing a 3D effect. The ‚Äúretinal‚ÄĚ aspect of the film (the way it appeals to and fools the eye) is conjoined to its aural one (the way it appeals to and fools the ear) through arbitrary rhymes and homophones, revealing the uncanny dimension of language not as sense alone but sound as well. In its playful confounding of language as meaning and music, Anemic Cinema declares its allegiance to what Robert B. Ray describes as a ‚Äúbreak with alphabetic culture.‚ÄĚ10 To look immediately past the sign to the signifier is to court peril or risk getting stuck on a roundabout of nonsense. As a consequence of this slight derangement, the viewer is permitted to experience the film in a different way, where the images polymorphously play across various affective registers, activating sensations willy-nilly. Because it lacks narrative; because it pivots on the ambiguity of language as sound, symbol, and meaning; and because it calls attention to itself as an optical illusion, the film allows one‚Äôs sensory attention to alight on any and all of its elements in no particular order and for no particular duration. There is nothing to ‚Äúfollow‚ÄĚ apart from one‚Äôs whim. As with his ‚Äúbachelor machines,‚ÄĚ the point of Duchamp‚Äôs Rotoreliefs is ‚Äúto keep desire circulating without end.‚ÄĚ11
The point of this book is, in a sense, to present ҆vankmajer‚Äôs cinema as the culmination of this project: cinema as no longer anemic, but animist, spawning new and weird life forms, bachelor machines that are vibrant in their tactility. This animist perspective is keyed to recent trends in philosophy and critical theory, from the ‚Äúvital materialism‚ÄĚ of Jane Bennett and Deleuzian ‚Äúassemblages‚ÄĚ of Manuel DeLanda to the ‚Äúspeculative realism‚ÄĚ of Reza Negarestani, ‚Äúex-anthropism‚ÄĚ of Tom Cohen, and ‚Äúdark ecology‚ÄĚ of Timothy Morton. Taken together, these ideas offer a powerful tool kit or hermeneutic for thinking about cinema generally and ҆vankmajer‚Äôs cinema in particular. More than any other recent filmmaker, ҆vankmajer provides access to a ‚Äúflat ontology‚ÄĚ‚ÄĒa vision of the world with a single, uncanny order of being, where all things are at once animated and inert, puppet-like. The categories of such a world are fluid, its distinctions only ever provisional: objects are capable of complex sympathies, and human life is often an absurd choreography of objects. The upshot of this vision is that for ҆vankmajer everything is at stake in every aspect of ‚Äúlife,‚ÄĚ be it object, creature, or human being: our sexuality, our political and social bonds, our religious longings‚ÄĒin short, the whole fabric of affective existence is recapitulated on the stage of inanimate things. The screen of animist cinema therefore is not an abstract ‚Äúfield‚ÄĚ in which human actors disport themselves against a backdrop of neutral, unresponsive objects‚ÄĒmere props‚ÄĒbut more akin to an alchemist‚Äôs lab, where the proper incantation and ritual unlocks the potential for life hidden in all things.
At the same time, however, it is important not to confuse ҆vankmajer‚Äôs (and indeed, Surrealism‚Äôs) interest in alchemy and the occult sciences with a shallow, New Age charlatanism. ҆vankmajer‚Äôs late wife, Eva, once even went so far as to denounce the Dalai Lama, writing in an open letter, ‚ÄúSo you‚Äôre proposing that we all put our legs behind our necks for a lark, in order to radiate an innocent, even simple-minded joy? You phony!‚ÄĚ12 Her letter alludes to Antonin Artaud‚Äôs 1925 letter to the Dalai Lama, which (as opposed to its corresponding missive to the pope, brimming with inventive blasphemies) was solicitous and fawning.13 Eva ҆vankmajerov√°‚Äôs letter more than indicates that, as far as the Prague Surrealist Group is concerned, the jig is up, that ‚Äúholiness‚ÄĚ of any sort is an intolerable mendacity. Artaud said much the same in his own ‚ÄúSecond Letter to the Dalai Lama‚ÄĚ (1946), a bald retraction of the earlier one, wherein he lumps the venerable monk together with all the other hucksters and burgermeisters of the spirit. Militantly skeptical of all forms of spiritual quackery (the precise mirror image of totalitarianism‚Äôs own stock of cheap tricks), ҆vankmajer draws on the language and imagery of the occult so as to liberate the mind, less from rationality itself as from a certain narrow conception of it, decoupled from intuition and the creative imagination. The occult provides ‚Äútechnologies‚ÄĚ for accessing these (e.g., tarot, magic squares, alternative alphabets, symbol systems, etc.), thereby leaping over the palings of stale, orthodox thought.
This book examines ҆vankmajer‚Äôs animist cinema as it emerges in five conceptual ‚Äúhabitats‚ÄĚ: that of the object, that of the animal, that of the creature (located between object and animal), that of the polis, and that of the ecosphere as a whole. The first leg of our itinerary, ‚ÄúHumiliation, or Object Life,‚ÄĚ considers the puppet film in terms of the history of its theorizations and in terms of an essential humiliation or mortification of human primacy. Humiliation in this sense registers less as a personal affront than as a formal requirement to initiation. Puppetry‚Äôs downscaling of human life is both literal and metaphorical, as the Belgian playwright Michel de Ghelderode noted; for him the puppet theater was a ‚Äúcave‚ÄĚ or symbolic grotto into which one had ‚Äúto stoop‚ÄĚ down to enter.14 Focusing primarily on ҆vankmajer‚Äôs early films, from The Last Trick (Posledn√≠ trik pana Schwarcewalldea a pana Edgara, 1964) to The Fall of the House of Usher (Z√°nik domu UsherŇĮ, 1980), I will consider some of the various ways he encourages the viewer ‚Äúto stoop‚ÄĚ down and confront the puppet or animated object. Whether through sequences of exhaustive repetition or tragedies enacted by props without actors, ҆vankmajer compels us to think about cinema as not (or not solely) a human medium of expression. When the human element is voided, or at least hops into the backseat, a remarkable new possibility arises for film, no less than the objects it captures, to assert a kind of formal autonomy.
The second leg, ‚ÄúWunderkammer, or Creaturely Life,‚ÄĚ considers what kinds of life emerge within the expanded framework of animism and how life becomes uncannily reorganized along other principles, unofficial, playful taxonomies. Looking not only to shorts like Historia naturae (Historia naturae‚ÄĒsuita, 1967) and Picnic with Weissmann (Picknick mit Weissmann, 1968) but also to features like Alice and Little Otik (Otes√°nek, 2000), I will examine the fluidity of organic categories in ҆vankmajer‚Äôs films, wherein human beings do not figure as the zenith of creation. In other words, what was for his modernist predecessors a scene of abjection becomes for ҆vankmajer the site of creative potential. Like the modernists, he sees through the sham of ‚Äúcivilization‚ÄĚ but chooses spontaneity rather than disillusionment. One way to counter the abasement of human life is to promote the dignity of worms! If the old values are swept aside, then the way is clear for a new kind of authority, whose model is neither the bishop nor the prince nor the technician, but the amateur, the collector. For such a figure the world is charged with energy, its organizing principles and values rearranged by quicksilver mood or whim; the world of the collector is neither the great stepladder of the Platonists nor the clockwork of the positivists, but ...

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APA 6 Citation
Johnson, K. L. (2017). Jan  Svankmajer ([edition unavailable]). University of Illinois Press. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/2382816/jan-svankmajer-pdf (Original work published 2017)
Chicago Citation
Johnson, Keith Leslie. (2017) 2017. Jan  Svankmajer. [Edition unavailable]. University of Illinois Press. https://www.perlego.com/book/2382816/jan-svankmajer-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Johnson, K. L. (2017) Jan  Svankmajer. [edition unavailable]. University of Illinois Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/2382816/jan-svankmajer-pdf (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Johnson, Keith Leslie. Jan  Svankmajer. [edition unavailable]. University of Illinois Press, 2017. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.