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Jan Svankmajer - The Complete Short Films [DVD]
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Drawing on a tradition of Surrealism based in the capital of magic and alchemy, Prague, Jan Svankmajer uses a range of techniques, combining live action, puppet theatre, stop-motion and drawn animation, claymation, cut-outs, re-edited archive footage and montage. This collection spans almost 30 years, from 'The Last Trick' (1964) to 'Food' (1992). All the classics are included - 'Punch and Judy', 'The Flat', 'Jabberwocky', 'Dimensions of Dialogue', 'Down to the Cellar' and both versions of 'The Ossuary', alongside many British video premieres.
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Some of these shorts are similar, in essence, to Peter Gabriel's Slegdehammer video; Svankmajer infuses a wide range of objects with a spirit that transcends them from the ordinary objects they are into incredible phantasms of mysterious intrigue. Others, incorporate the the painstaking process employed by Nick Park for his Wallace and Gromit escapades. His award winning short, Dimensions Of Dialogue, was placed in Terry Gilliam's top ten animations of all time. As well as Gilliam, Svankmajer has played a key role in influencing a host of filmmakers including the dark and twisted worlds created by Tim Burton in Vincent and Corpse Bride. If you enjoyed any of these animation styles there's a strong possibility you'll enjoy Svankmajer's work.
Some of the earliest shorts do have a minute crackling sound and show signs of staircasing artifacts but the rest of the prints display no signs of ware and have been superbly transferred; mainly in 4:3 fullscreen but a few have been anamorphically enhanced. Included is optional english subtitles for the dialogue that are easy to read and, more importantly, unobtrusive.
Svankmajer's plethora of dreamlike excursions embodies Plato's scholarly definition of rhetoric: "the art of enchanting the soul", and provides the perfect platform for an intense night of adulterating the mind with this reagent; if thats your ticket, of course! This collection is, metaphorically speaking, a visual analogy to a haunting drum that some viewers won't be able to hear; but, if this is your rhythm, the dark and often disturbing images will be a dancer.
"The world is divided into two unequal camps: those who have never heard of Jan Svankmajer...and those who happen upon his work and know that they have come face to face with genius."
A more truthful statement is found nowhere else. Though Svankmajer's work is known only to a few it is wonderfully refreshing that the BFI took the time (and probably money) to make his entire body of short films available to the public. Spread over 2 discs and running from 1964-1992, these 26 films are the finest examples of Surrealist animation you can get. This is truly bizarre stuff and most likely will not appeal to those used to, say, Pixar/Disney. The total lack of computer imagery means that the films have a very tactile, palpable feel -- you can actually SEE the fingermarks in the clay.
The films themselves are, of course, highly imaginative and each one evokes very different emotions, whether it be the madcap routines of The Last Trick or the brutally creative deaths in Virile Games. Nearly all of them illustrate the Surrealist principal of the inanimate object come to life in the everyday world: here chunks of meat get up and dance, there a sailor-suit floats around a nursery, heads made of mundane objects devour each other in homage to Arcimboldo. Despite the ever-present forces of the Communists in Czechoslovakia (as explained in one of the documentaries on the third disc) it is incredible to think how Svankmajer and his team of animators were still able to create this little odities. The films are also rife with references to literature favoured by the Surrealists, such as Poe and Walpole, and artists such as the aforementioned Arcimboldo.
The third disc contains 2 lengthy documentaries, the most notable being The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer which features animated segments by the Brothers Quay. The presence of the trailer of Svankmajer's latest feature-length film, Lunacy, made me realise how his other feature-lengths such as Alice and Faust are not readily available in this country (those that are are difficult to come by); here's to hoping that the BFI decide to give those a release too. Still, this collection is extremely welcomed by this Svankmajer fan.
Good work BFI!
However, any one interested in surrealism or animation will fall over backwards at this DVD package. Although I was a fan of Jan Svankmajer, I had no idea how prolific his work has been. From animation to puppetry, shadow figures and film montage, he covers it all. Although not all are as tight as each other, the collection is fulfilling and exciting. Given how reclusive he is, the extra interviews and 'making of' are also very impressive. It has been well put together and I find it difficult to fault it (although a connection to other earlier influences wouldn't have gone a miss).
Great films on a great DVD package. Easily worth the 5 stars.
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