Monday, June 2, 2008

The Ossuary/Dimensions of Dialogue

Jan Svankmajer's The Ossuary hinges upon an essential dialectic that is at work at every level of the film's construction. It's a dialectic between the past — represented by the amassed bones of mankind's countless dead — and the present, the living. Between the closed book of history, its story already written, and the in-the-moment nature of modern politics and socio-political action. And perhaps most importantly, on a cinematic level, between the image and the soundtrack. Svankmajer's film is set at the Sedlec Ossuary in Kutná Hora, a macabre masterpiece of design in which the entirety of the chapel's interior decorations, from altars to goblets to wall hangings to a tremendous chandelier, were constructed from human bones. It's a horrifying work of art, carved entirely in the remnants of the dead, meticulously arranged into an ossified testament to mortality.

Svankmajer's task for this film was simple enough, to craft a straightforward cultural documentary about the famous tourist site, its history and the jaw-dropping images that could be seen within its walls. The result, though, is anything but straightforward. From the very beginning, Svankmajer signals the importance of sound to his aesthetic, as the soundtrack introduces a series of metallic grinding noises from a bicycle chain. This kind of scraping, rattling, grating noise forms a central element in the film's soundtrack, as though to suggest the rattling of bones through an accumulation of similar noises. Even the ossuary's cranky old tour guide, who provides a crotchety commentary throughout a tour of the chapel interior, is characterized by a dry, brittle, croaking voice, complementing the scrape-and-rattle orneriness of Svankmajer's soundtrack.

Moreover, the tour guide provides the perfect outlet for Svankmajer's satirical outlook on this material, and he takes every opportunity to contrast her discursive commentary and hectoring with the cold reality of the images from the ossuary. The tour guide's monologue encompasses some of the history of the chapel, who was buried there, and its official status as a sanctified mass grave, but she is much more concerned with matters of money. Not only is she a shameless shill for the site's (apparently many) for-sale items, including replicas of family crests of prominent families buried there, but she also hands out stiff fines for even the least suggestion that someone has touched anything. The film ends with her enraged screaming at a seemingly befuddled young boy who she keeps accusing of touching the bones, furiously demanding money as penance. "Me?" he asks plaintively, a bit astonished. This woman, never seen throughout the film, only heard, is also inordinately concerned with the fact that the chapel's centerpiece and grandest construction, a massive chandelier of human bones, once fetched an offer of 100,000 American dollars for its sale. It is not enough for this woman, indicative of tour guides the world over, that this absurd, hideous, and fascinating art object simply exists, that it was made and toiled over and still hangs hundreds of years later. For her, this chandelier's grandest facet, its most memorable aspect, is the money it could be worth — or even better, the money that was declined in order to keep it, which suggests an even greater worth, possibly even incalculable.

This focus on monetary worth and petty economic bullying ironically makes this woman, living in the heart of Communist Czechoslovakia, an icon of capitalist excesses. It's apparent that one intent of Svankmajer's project in this film was the exposure and critique of a great Communist lie, namely that the elimination of capitalism was also the elimination of materialism. Rather, this woman's hectoring monologues make a marketplace not only of art, but of mortality itself, which becomes a mere spectacle to be consumed and perhaps commemorated with trinkets. Against this flippant outlook, Svankmajer chooses to simply juxtapose the horror, and the horrible beauty, of the ossuary, with its remarkable designs and assemblages. His images from within the church are arranged into rapidly edited montages that suggest an overall image of clean, purified death, an impression that Svankmajer counterbalances with an early shot of a snail slowly pulsing along the inside of a skull's eye socket. The ossuary is an attempt to tame death, to create art with death's leftovers, but although the church's construction possesses a strange beauty, its every facet serves to remind of death, to amplify death's awful power. The sight of so much death in one place, so artfully presented, is frankly terrifying and awe-inspiring. Svankmajer captures this fierce beauty in only a handful of long shots, in which the bone-lined walls of the chapel are almost overwhelming in their grandiose accumulations. The rest of the film takes on a much closer perspective, editing together brief shots of small portions of the overall design, focusing on individual details. The aura of mortality is no less horrifying for its specificity, though; in fact, the detailed examination of the multitude of individual bones that went into making each of the church's decorations only drives home the individuality of the people who once animated those bones.

In relation to this remarkable chapel, and the remarkable way that Svankmajer's abrasive montage amplifies its horror, the banal commercial blathering of the appointed tour guide are revealed as petty and inconsequential, attempts to wring every cent from a population herded like cattle until mortality overtakes them. In the context of Communist Czechoslovakia, this was a radical statement on the economic stranglehold of the state, a satirical commentary that did not escape the attention of the Czech censors, who promptly replaced Svankmajer's chosen soundtrack with a jazz song. In the original version, however, The Ossuary remains a remarkable film, a treatise on human mortality and the various attempts to control, escape, and even profit from it.

In Dimensions of Dialogue, Jan Svankmajer presents three different wordless, abstracted visions of human communication and interaction, and the various outcomes that can result from such encounters. This is a darkly funny, but ultimately pessimistic, film on the impossibility of true communication. The film is divided into three segments, each preceded by a title; the first segment presents a "factual dialogue." In this scenario, three abstract creatures, assembled from a variety of bits of matter, take turns devouring and disassembling each other within a circular food chain that results in an increasing level of homogeneity and de-individuation. The three creatures each represent a different aspect of human society and life: an "organic" creature composed of fruits and vegetables; a "mechanical" one assembled from tools and gears and bits of metal; and a "scientific" one with its body covered in books and tools of learning and scholarship. These three assemblages stand in for three layers of society, from humanity itself at its most basic, organic level, through to the mechanical and intellectual processes by which humankind interacts with each other and the world around them.

Needless to say, the process in this first dialogue by which these three aspects of humanity continuously devour and vomit each other back out again does not present an optimistic image of human relations. In this recursive food chain, organic matter is devoured and regurgitated by machinery, masticated to make it finer for digestion, and also dissected, pulled apart in an effort to understand it. This is a continual theme of this section, the way that attempts at understanding inevitably lead to the destruction of the thing under examination. This theme recurs in the way that the "scientific" representative devours and dissects the "mechanical" being, literally crushing the manufactured output of mankind flat between the pages of a book. Finally, the books themselves become fodder for the newly reconstituted organic matter, which tears them to shreds in an effort to elicit every shard of knowledge from within them. This process is repeated several times, and with each iteration the three creatures become less and less defined, more battered and worn as their constituent parts have been chewed up and spit out over and over again. As the segment progresses, it becomes clear that this process is a gradual evolution towards three increasingly similar beings, which begin to look more and more human as their parts are chopped up into smaller and smaller bits, their edges smoothed and their formerly heterogeneous surfaces mashed into a fine, fleshed-colored paste. By the end of the section, all three creatures are molded from clay into generic human forms. This self-devouring destruction and dissection is thus a process that leads to the creation of humanity as it is today, still trapped in the same circular path.

The second segment of the film is entitled "passionate dialogue," and it represents every bit as much of an ugly view of humanity's possibilities for true dialogue. If the first segment presented learning, creation, and nutrition as ultimately just three different forms of destruction, this segment adds love, sexuality, and procreation to the list. The film opens with two near-identical clay forms sitting across from one another across a table, the only difference between their otherwise streamlined bodies and identical bald heads the presence of breasts on one of them, delineating gender. This romantic couple joins together for a kiss, the clay of their individual bodies slowly melding together, melting against each other's identical clay flesh, until the individual forms are erased in a fluid, oddly sexualized flow of abstract forms and momentary glimpses of a head thrown back in passion, a knee crooked up at an angle, a hand caressing a back. As in the first segment, interaction leads to the loss of individuality, but at this point sexuality seems to be a much more hopeful melding, a chance to create something new and beautiful from the merger of two individual forms.

This optimistic interlude is fleeting at best, however, and when the sex is over the two clay forms separate into two again, with one crucial difference: a single lump of clay sitting on the table between them, seemingly leftover material from one or the other, or both combined, now permanently separate and lost. Sexuality, for Svankmajer, is a beautiful moment, after which both people involved lose a piece of themselves — combined in the creation of a child possibly? — which can never be re-integrated or regained. And if the lump of clay leftover represents the joint creation of a child, then Svankmajer certainly doesn't have an especially sunny view of parenthood, given the fact that the two former lovers increasingly turn against each other in the aftermath of their union, first using the lump of clay as a weapon against each other and then literally tearing each other apart with claws and fists. This is a stunning sequence, as Svankmajer's blank-faced creations execute a complete cycle from love and union to rage and brutality. At the end of the film, the two bodies are once more melded into one undistinguished mass of clay, but the connotation this time is not union but mutual destruction.

In the final segment of the film, "exhausting dialogue," Svankmajer takes his concept of human incompatibility and the absurdity of attempts at communication to its not-so-logical extreme. This is the film's apotheosis, in which a pair of disembodied heads (with realistic eyes bulging out of their clay heads in bug-eyed stares) face each other across a table. The two heads take turns sticking out their tongues at each other, each one presenting the other with an object to use. At first, the two present each other with mutually compatible objects, so that their interaction is almost as harmonious at first as the sexual union that opened the second section. When one presents a pencil, the other offers a sharpener; when one emits a slice of bread, the other butters it with a knife; when one has a shoe, the other has the lace to wind through its holes and tie in a neat knot. As long as the duo are able to match their objects' functions in this way, the interaction between them goes smoothly and results in a mutually beneficial outcome. But the rest of the film serves the purpose of demonstrating just how rare and unlikely such peaceful coexistence really is.

Once the two heads have run through the possibilities of combining their respective objects in the intended ways, they begin a series of less fortuitous encounters, in which the pencil sharpener shreds the bread to bits, the knife spreads butter on the shoe, and the toothpaste tube sprays wildly as the shoelace wraps itself around the tube and ties itself into a bow. This surreal disjunction between intended function and context results in increasingly absurd and undesirable results, underscoring the extent to which the first set of positive outcomes were essentially random happenings with relatively low probabilities in contrast to the sheer number of incompatible combinations available. As a metaphor for human relations, it's a visually striking and perhaps frighteningly apt one.

In fact, the entirety of Dimensions of Dialogue is as visually sumptuous as it is thematically bracing. Each segment offers a very different visual experience along with its unique perspective on human relations, from the cluttered automatons of the first segment, continually breaking up into chaotic digestive processes, to the eerily streamlined clay forms of the second and third segments. It's also a startlingly funny film at times, especially in the absurdist extremes of the final section, even as the hope it holds out for human compatibility is alarmingly small.

1 comment:

Filmbo said...

I think I figured out the bug!