High Anxiety

Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer puts the fear of art onscreen

Erasing the boundary between fairy-tale fantasy and waking life, Czech artist Jan Svankmajer is defiantly old-school--a militant surrealist. Painstaking in execution, his films are overdoses of the imagination, appearing equally at home in the cinema, the museum, and the alchemist's workshop. In setting, these eroticized parables are unmistakably of another world, taking place in drab apartment complexes that fairly reek of the repression of socialist realism. Svankmajer was born in 1934, the same year as the formation of the Czech Surrealist Group, whose artistic mission became more pointed under Stalinism. Within this political context, the creation of subversive art is necessarily fraught with anxiety; Svankmajer's gift is for putting that anxiety on the screen one nightmarish frame at a time.

Riddled with found objects that the director brings magically to life, Svankmajer's films question the impulse that's too often satisfied without reflection: the impulse to create. Like most members of the twisted guild of stop-motion animation, he has a background in shorts, having made 25 of them since 1964. His features, which take years to complete, are bizarre even in their pacing: Something of a chore to endure, they still seem to finish prematurely. Waking from a Svankmajer dream, after all, returns the viewer to a banal world where opening closet doors doesn't lead to new levels of perception--only to a pile of inert stuffed animals and randomly strewn bric-a-brac. Perhaps Svankmajer's other major gift is for exposing real life as a profound disappointment.

Svankmajer's early, icky features--1987's Alice and 1994's Faust (both of which are included in Oak Street Cinema's current Svankmajer retrospective)--almost surely have a greater resemblance to the director's own memories than to the source material proper. As Svankmajer has noted, his project is "carrying on an active dialogue with [his] own childhood." Serials of traumatic action, both Alice and Faust have been highly influential on the work of filmmakers such as the Brothers Quay (who expressed their debt in "The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer") and Guy Maddin (who has pungently effused on Alice's "churning quagmire of sexual congress").

In Alice, his second Lewis Carroll adaptation (he also directed a very Freudian version of Jabberwocky), Svankmajer punctuates the compulsive fiddling of a sawdust-seeping White Rabbit with repeated close-ups of a salivating preteen blonde's cherry-red lips. With the journey into Wonderland taking the form of the director's deep furrowing into a collective unconscious, the film (screening February 6 and 7) is a nightmare in the protosexual mind of its titular heroine--and an acid trip for the rest of us. Lewis Carroll was notorious for his pedophilia; Svankmajer's weakness was for hallucinogens. "You must close your eyes," says Alice. "Otherwise you cannot see anything."

No child in his right mind would read Faust, and so the union of Svankmajer, Goethe, and Gounod (whose opera Faust is just as much the film's source as Marlowe's play) has more to do with the nightmares of adults. Here Svankmajer takes up puppetry (a medium oft used for East Bloc subversion), animating the slapstick story with massive marionettes, including the churlish figure of Punch. (One magical scene features a set of brooms coming to life.) Svankmajer has deemed Faust "one of the key myths of this civilization": Indeed, in his drawn-out film (screening February 13 and 14), the world is on a string, and culture itself hangs in the balance. Of all Svankmajer's films, Faust is the one that best exemplifies Milos Forman's famous characterization of the director as "Buñuel + Disney."

In Faust, the director's Devil takes Faust's image, implying that the choice between conformity and rebellion belongs to everyone. In Conspirators of Pleasure (February 20 and 21), the accomplices are equally numerous. First there are the half-dozen loosely connected crackpot fetishists who sublimate their perverse longings into finely detailed plans of personal pleasuring. (The inventive hair-covered "masturbatory machines," created by Svankmajer and his wife Eva out of household objects, are now bona fide museum pieces.) Then there's the film's credited "special consultants": Masoch, Alphonse, Sade, Freud, Buñuel, Ernst, and Czech sexologist Bohuslav Brouk. (Svankmajer might as well have added the one who invented the Internet.)

The Wall has fallen, but the environment of Conspirators of Pleasure is pure Cold War: In a Stalinist society where spying on one's neighbors is a way of life, everything is silent, driven behind closed doors. (Though it was made in the mid-Nineties, the film was conceived in 1970.) There's no dialogue in the film, although the hyper-real creaks and farts of creation do provide it with a manner of speech that's beyond words. More than anything, Conspirators is a synthetic experience: Over the course of noisome preparation, sticky fluids ooze out of holes (a tube of glue, a nail-polish bottle); the ritual supersedes the orgasm. Befitting a film that sees masturbation as a kind of religion, Svankmajer finds humor in desperation: In one scene a store owner's fantasies about a TV anchorwoman are interrupted by a feature on the pope.

In his latest film, the disturbing Little Otik (screening Wednesday), Svankmajer again draws inspiration from folktale (by legendary Czech fabulist K.L. Erban). Yet, for the first time, his anti-civilizational nihilism follows something like a three-act structure. Svankmajer thrusts us into a world that seems like our own, daring us to buy into the consequences of distended normalcy. Karel, boring on all accounts except for his impotence, digs up a root and whittles something vaguely human. His barren wife Bozena names it Otik and treats it like her child, but has the good sense to hide it from her neighbors. (Only the girl next door, when not warding off a lecherous octogenarian, is curious.) Like Erban's Otesánek, the wooden stump comes to life, with an appetite for consumption--and no one seems all that shocked. Karel, ever the Svankmajer hero, is merely frustrated.

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