Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Game With Stones/Punch and Judy/Historia Naturae (Suita)

A Game With Stones is essentially a very early trial run for Jan Svankmajer's later pessimist masterpiece Dimensions of Dialogue, rehearsing the themes of human evolution and self-destruction that would be so eloquently and powerfully stated in the later film. This earlier stab at similar material is, unsurprisingly, rougher and broader, though it has the same relentless, rhythmic drive as so many of Svankmajer's animations. Also like many of the director's other films, the structure is rigidly divided into distinct sections, each one representing a progression from the last, a variation on the kinds of "games" that can be played with the titular stones. The film utilizes a very simple set-up: every few hours, a spigot regulated by a clock (whose ticking provides a metronome-like soundtrack to the film) drips out a few stones into a bucket dangling below the clock. Once in the bucket, the stones enact a series of ritualized, dance-like movements, increasing in complexity with each iteration, before the bucket turns over, dropping the stones on the ground. As a metaphor for human existence, it's blunt and obvious, not to mention disarmingly negative: the rocks, inanimate stand-ins for the world's inhabitants, end their brief moments of play and experimentation by getting tossed into the discard heap without ceremony.

The first group of rocks, a black stone and a white stone, enact only the simplest of permutations, subdividing into smaller pebbles and arranging themselves into neat rows of alternating colors, or else dividing the screen in half vertically between black columns and white columns. Each time the spigot dispenses more stones, there is more diversity of colors and textures, as well as more variety in the kinds of movements and patterns that the stones engage in. There is something increasingly sensuous, even sexual, about the subsequent patterns, with stones rubbing against one another, sometimes seeming to birth torrents of smaller rounded stones from the frictive collisions of the larger rocks. Soon, the rocks form into humanoid shapes, complete with exaggerated external genitals and breasts, while Svankmajer simultaneously delves inside the body, creating patterns of skeletal systems and internal organs that seem to be pulsing, breathing like lungs taking in air. Having achieved this humanoid form, the rocks then begin pushing towards destruction. In the next segment, an obvious precursor to the mutually devouring automatons of Dimensions of Dialogue, the rocks are crushed into thin silt, filling the screen like the accumulated rock layers that make up the fossil record below the Earth's surface. This already suggests the destruction, the passing of humanity into history, and Svankmajer drives the metaphor home by creating human faces from out of the rock dust, faces that alternate between tenderly kissing and violently absorbing one another.

The final sequence brings this progression to its logical conclusion. Here, the playful games and interactions of the stones become truly violent and destructive, with fierce collisions resulting in cracked and shattered stones. Svankmajer's editing, brutally fast throughout the film, reaches its apogee here, with brisk, visceral cutting that accentuates the violence of this final game. The end result, the destruction of the bucket that holds the stones and thus the disruption of the cycle, is apparently Svankmajer's vision of apocalypse, an apocalypse for which the world's inhabitants must take full responsibility. Of course, despite this bleak symbolic message, Svankmajer's animations retain a certain whimsical appeal, a playfulness and sense of visual excitement that is never quite submerged by the director's thematic darkness.

The inappropriately named Punch and Judy — it's actually a duel between famed hand puppet Punch and the lesser-known Joey — is one of Jan Svankmajer's absurdist puppet animations. It's a darkly hilarious piece of mimed theater in which the two protagonists repeatedly beat on each other with wooden mallets after a failed transaction involving the attempted barter of a guinea pig. Svankmajer creates a bizarre tension by having the puppets argue over a live animal, which sits calmly and stoically on the film's stage, munching at a tub of grains while the puppets engage in their manic battles all around the blank-eyed guinea pig. This generates friction between the artificial constructs and organic elements in the film, with the latter also including the hands of the puppet master, which are seen slipping into Punch and Joey's limp forms at the beginning of the film. By framing the film explicitly as theater, with a proscenium arch and stage, Svankmajer sets up expectations for a stately, mannered piece that maintains its distance from the action.

Instead, the first shot after the stage's curtain is abruptly pulled up is an extreme closeup of the guinea pig's face, so close that its beady eyes and buck teeth are blurred and its long brush-like hairs seem to be rubbing against the camera's lens. It's Svankmajer's deliberate — and hilarious — way of disrupting the theatrical presentation of the film, and he proceeds to further break things down with the frenetic pace of his editing. The extended fight between Punch and Joey is hysterical, seemingly chaotic and yet actually controlled by a very tight structure. Svankmajer even Mickey Mouses the score, synchronizing the duo's mallet hits with orchestral blasts and drum kicks, giving a syncopated quality to the film's rhythms, the beatings providing the rhythmic propulsion for the breakneck pace of the editing. Throughout it all, as the puppet duo commit increasingly horrible acts on one another's bodies, taking turns "dying" and being shoved into a coffin, the guinea pig sits there stoically chewing, oblivious to everything that's happening around it. There's an interplay between several layers of reality here: the puppets in their collaged theatrical world, the guinea pig wandering independently through this world, the unseen puppet master controlling the puppets from beneath the surface, and of course Svankmajer himself, overseeing it all. Most of all, though, Punch and Judy is simply a wildly entertaining farce, a demented piece of puppet slapstick.

Like Punch and Judy before it, Jan Svankmajer's Historia Naturae (Suita) relies upon the intersections and relationships between multiple layers of reality and representation. The film is another of Svankmajer's structuralist pieces, in which the structure of the film and its rigid division into segments informs the symbolic content underlying the director's always dazzling animations. He also continues to mine his obsessions with evolution and categorization, dividing the film according to the classifications of lifeforms. Within each segment, Svankmajer cuts rapidly between a variety of different forms representing fauna of increasing evolutionary complexity: crustaceans, insects, reptiles, birds, lower mammals, simians, and finally of course humans. For each of these lifeforms, Svankmajer assembles a dense montage that consists of live specimens, fossilized or taxidermied remains, skeletal forms, and drawings of various kinds, both scientific and artistic. The result is an animated summation of biological diversity that also incorporates the diversity of means of representation, ranging from the sketchiest of drawings to the corpse of the creature in question, to the actual living beast itself. All of this material is stitched together into a complex pastiche, bringing to life the drawings and skeletons and taxidermic remains to roam around on equal footing with the living, breathing animals they represent.

Svankmajer also separates each section from the next one with a recurring image, a closeup of a mouth, eating and chewing a piece of steak. This repeated divider serves as a reminder of the food chain, but lest the audience start feeling too superior about their place in the pecking order, Svankmajer ends the film by changing things up a bit: instead of a human mouth he animates a skull chewing a piece of food, finally placing humans on the same level with the rest of the lifeforms in the film, as susceptible to death and decay as any other being. This is bleak stuff, but even if the repetitive structure sometimes gets a little tiresome here (as it does not in Svankmajer's best structuralist animations), there's still plenty of eye candy to keep things interesting throughout.


Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

Fantastic to see someone other than Anthony Lane tackling Svanmajer, one of my favorite filmmakers (not to mention animators). The choices here are excellent examples of his tactile fixation --> psychological illustration approach to short film, although "Punch and Judy" is anomalously puppeted rather than stop-motion filmed (it's still great fun, though, and very witty, and I admire your take on the toying with cinematic "presentation" in a guignol context).

I went back and viewed some of your older Svanky posts...my personal favorite is "Et Cetera," which uses rudimentary, schoolbook diagrams to illustrate the cyclical futility of human progress (as you note). Some of the cut-out work there oddly reminds me of Lotte Reigner, although she seemed more liberated by the simplicity of storybook figures, whereas Svankmajer fashions them as an analogy for human limitations.

Have you seen "Little Otik," by any chance? Would be curious for your take...

Ed Howard said...

Thanks Jon, I've only begun diving into the big BFI set of Svankmajer's short films, but they've all been fascinating so far. I love how he communicates his ideas almost entirely through structural features. I'll have lots more Svankmajer posts here as I continue to explore his work.

I saw Little Otik back when it first came out. In fact, it was my first exposure to Svankmajer's work; at the time I really didn't know much about him at all. I remember finding it incredibly creepy and effective, a really disturbing vision of motherly feeling to rival Cronenberg's The Brood. But it's been too long for me to say much specific about it. Maybe I'll revisit it after I've seen more of the shorts.

Anonymous said...

I looooooooooove Svankmajer. Shorts, features, whatever. Almost all of it is provoking and close to top notch. Dimensions of Dialogue, I think, is undoubtedly the best short, but it's fun to see how he plays with different materials and incorporates them so densely into his narratives. Perhaps thats why nothing will ever top CONSPIRATORS OF PLEASURE, but thats just me.

Great post. Hopefully some of those unfamiliar with Svankmajer will get inspired to seek some of this out!