Thursday, November 13, 2008

Leonardo's Diary/Et Cetera

Leonardo's Diary is a dazzling formal experiment from Czech animator Jan Svankmajer, in which he uses the sketchbook drawings of Leonardo as a starting point for a series of fluid animations in which the penciled images leap into motion. It's a test of mastery for Svankmajer, who uses the grace and detail of Leonardo's perfectly rendered faces and architectural constructs as a base for some remarkable animations: a fierce fight between soldiers on horseback, a woman demurely turning away from the camera and shielding her eyes, a man's eye turning around in its socket to reveal its insides and lead the way inside the body. The film is based on the fluidity between various states of being. Leonardo's figure drawings, with their advanced understanding of anatomy and sensitivity to the movement of muscles, lead naturally into the drawings of the internal workings of the body, muscle and then bone peeled back to reveal the pulsating organs within. Outside leads to inside and then back again. Likewise, the figures are morphed into buildings, the contours of a woman's face gradually transformed into the rigid lines of architecture, and elsewhere the human form is broken up into mathematical abstractions, a woman's hair curling out into a series of circles and geometric figures arrayed around her face.

This fluidity of concepts and states of being is extended by Svankmajer into the structure of the film, which alternates these pencil animations with found black and white footage of various ordinary people and events. There is a hint of political subtext here, in the form of images that seem to be taken from protests of some kind: youths throwing rocks and yelling, mounted police scattering and attacking crowds of protesters. Most of the images, though, correspond to Leonardo's art in more humorous ways. Svankmajer frequently selects absurd and ridiculous fragments of footage to comment on Leonardo's seeming exaggerations. The point seems to be that Leonardo's grotesque, caricatured people and wild ideas aren't necessarily so wild after all. Just as his fanciful sketches of flying machines predicted modern-day bomber planes, his craggy-faced people have tangible foundations in ordinary people.

Leonardo's Diary is a fascinating experiment in motion, a study in how drawings can suggest and capture the movement of the human form. Leonardo's drawings already contain the elements of motion, the tensed muscles and expressive facial features that seem to have been captured in the middle of a movement. Svankmajer's animation only restores these drawings to their natural life, extending the sweep or an arm or the deep scowl of a heavily lined face into a moving body completing the motion that Leonardo arrested by drawing it. The film is therefore a mediation between multiple states of reality, from the static image trapped on the page to the animated form restored to motion to the actual images of reality and life itself. This is a continuum flowing from reality to art and from art to reality. The art comments on and reflects the reality, in a dialogue between Svankmajer, Leonardo, and the world at large.

Jan Svankmajer's Et Cetera is divided into three equal parts that are structurally based around the concept of repetition. Each segment quickly falls into a pattern in which animated figures go through a rote series of movements that only lead into an endless circularity. In the first section, "Wings," a segmented cut-out figure executes a series of jumps between two chairs, starting by himself with a small jump and then using progressively larger sets of wings to make ever longer jumps. Eventually, he cycles through three sets of wings and arrives back at the beginning of the series, with nothing to do but start over. At this point, the section ends, and brisk, abrupt editing shows a condensed version of the same events, repeated ad infinitum, before returning to the repetition of the title. The second section is another exercise in cycles, entitled "Whip." Here, two painted figures, one vaguely humanoid and the other reptilian, engage in a dance of domination and obedience, the superior lifeform whipping the inferior one in order to elicit a series of baroque tricks. The reptile creature stands on its head, does flips, and stands up, but with each iteration the second figure becomes more humanoid while the first figure becomes more reptilian. By the end of the series, the two have switched places, and the series then starts from the beginning, this time with the second figure whipping the first, while the morphing takes place in the opposite direction. After these two cycles, the figures are back in their beginning states, and the whole thing starts again, at which point Svankmajer cuts it off. The third sequence is the simplest, in which a humanoid cut-out figure, similar to the one in the first segment, alternates between drawing two houses with a pencil. The first house he draws from the outside, then becomes frustrated and erases it when he realizes that he cannot get in. The second house he draws from the inside, tracing its walls around him, but immediately feels claustrophobic and hemmed-in, banging on the insides of the house before erasing it as well. This two-part sequence repeats several times, faster and faster with each iteration, with the figure frustrated and dissatisfied with either state he finds himself in.

The allegory in these three vignettes is obvious but elegant in its simplicity. The film is Svankmajer's direct commentary on the futility of most human action and invention. The film's structure of circularity rejects the idea that the sequences depicted are finite, linear narratives, instead stressing the cyclical nature of history and human progress, the way different eras and different societies keep repeating the same dramas and the same essential stories, only varying on the surface. The progress towards better and better technology — the wings that allow the man in the first story to fly further and further — will eventually reach an impasse, at which point all that can be asked is the inevitable question, "what next?" For Svankmajer, human progress has its limits, just as the human condition will always be one of perpetual dissatisfaction with whatever is available, and just as the alternation between oppressor and oppressed will continue throughout all history. There is little hope: as soon as the oppressed creature becomes human and gets ahold of the whip, it immediately begins whipping its former master, starting the whole cycle all over again. The film is bleak and pointed in its demonstration of just how limited and constrained life is.

This is a simple moral, and Svankmajer presents it with stripped-down, minimalist aesthetics. The design of his animated figures here recalls the stylized outlines of children's books, perhaps purposefully. This is a fairy tale for adults, one that seeks to impart a message to its audience through the use of repetition and diagrammatic images. The animation is minimal but adequate to its task, and Svankmajer saves most of his formal ingenuity for the flurries of typography that are montaged between sequences, the title of the film flying across the screen in rapid bursts to drive home the essential idea that each of these stories could keep going forever, and that the cut-off point is necessarily arbitrary.


Joel Bocko said...

Svankmajer doesn't realy click with me, for some reason. I think (no, actually, I'm pretty sure) it's the repetition thing. That drives me nuts, and did even when I was a little kid and was supposed to love that sort of thing in picture books. I just never did. I've always preferred the Quays, though them themselves obviously loved Svankmajer and tipped their hats to him several times.

I'm on an animation kick lately though (I just did a piece on Tex Avery & have some upcoming on WWII cartoon propaganda) so maybe I should give Svankmajer another chance...

Ed Howard said...

I'm only just starting on Svankmajer myself, but I wouldn't say the repetition is always a primary feature of his films. Leonardo's Diary has a bit, but mostly it's very fluid and has an interesting structure. I love the Quays, but I don't think they have anything quite as stunning as that film or the jaw-dropping Dimensions of Dialogue.

Of course, when it comes to animation in general it's hard to beat Avery and the classic Warner stuff. I need to write about Looney Tunes more here.