Svankmajer’s cats

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Down to the Cellar.

“Black cats are our unconscious,” says Jan Svankmajer in an interview with Sarah Metcalf for Phosphor, the journal of the Leeds Surrealist Group. I’ve spent the past few weeks working my way through Svankmajer’s cinematic oeuvre where black cats were very much in evidence, although for a director who describes himself as a “militant Surrealist” there are fewer than you might imagine.

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Jabberwocky.

The first feline appearance is in Jabberwocky (1973), a difficult film for animal-lovers when almost all the cat’s appearances seem to have involved throwing the unwilling animal into a wall of building blocks. Each “leap” that the cat makes through the wall interrupts the progress of an animated line being drawn through a maze; when the line finally escapes the maze, childhood is over. Our final view of the cat is of it struggling to escape the confines of a small cage: the unconscious tamed by adulthood.

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Down to the Cellar.

The black cat in Down to the Cellar is not only the most prominent feline in all of Svankmajer’s films, it’s also carries the most symbolic weight in a drama replete with Freudian anxiety. The cat guards the entrance to the subterranean dark where its growth in size corresponds to the mounting fears of a small girl sent by a parent to collect potatoes.

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Faust.

The cat seen at the beginning of Faust (1994) appears very briefly but nothing is accidental in Svankmajer’s cinema. Two separate shots show the cat in the window watching Faust on his way to meet Mephistopheles. As with Down to the Cellar, the cat oversees the threshold to another world, in this case the doorway to a labyrinthine building filled with malevolent puppets and the temptations they offer. The cat may also be the traditional symbol of ill fortune. Faust at this point in the story still has the option to turn back but he goes on to meet his fate. (I think there may also be another cat later in the film but I was too lazy to go searching for it. Sorry.)

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Little Otik.

The cat that appears in the early scenes of Little Otik (2000) is a child substitute for a childless couple, its status reinforced by the scene of Bozena holding the animal like a baby. The arrival of the monstrous Otik usurps the cat’s position as the family favourite. Consequences ensue.

Svankmajer’s later features are catless. Insects (2018) is more concerned with arthropods and their human equivalents, while Surviving Life (2010) spends so much time inside the unconscious of its protagonist it doesn’t require a symbol. Lunacy (2005), on the other hand, is a combination of a story by Edgar Allan Poe—The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether—and the philosophical views of the Marquis de Sade. Svankmajer had already adapted two of Poe’s stories prior to this but The Black Cat wasn’t among them. Given the cruelties in Poe’s story and many of Svankmajer’s films, Lunacy in particular, this may be just as well.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Jan Svankmajer: The Animator of Prague
Lynch dogs
Jan Svankmajer, Director
Don Juan, a film by Jan Svankmajer
The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope
Two sides of Liska

Scarabus, a film by Gérald Frydman

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Another tip from Philip Strick’s Science Fiction Movies (1976) (previously) that’s also another short animated film I hadn’t seen before. Gérald Frydman is a Belgian director, and Scarabus (1971) was his debut film. As with a number of the selections in Strick’s book, Scarabus tends more towards Surrealism than science fiction, although this always depends how broadly you define SF: identical men in black clothes populate a crumbling urban environment where much of the architecture is inside out and upside down, and unidentified yellow blobs clutter the place. Airships drift overhead while the men interact with each other, sometimes in a violent manner. The meaning may be elusive but it’s all very well done, and the film was later chosen to accompany the French theatrical screenings of Alain Resnais’s Providence. That’s what I call a good night out.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
Labirynt by Jan Lenica

Jiri Barta: Labyrinth of Darkness

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A new purchase. It’s excessive and wasteful to order DVDs from South Korea but when this is the only available option you have no choice. Jiri Barta: Labyrinth of Darkness is a Korean clone of a deleted disc that was originally released in the US by Kino, and which I’d managed to miss when it was still easy to find. The collection gathers all of the Czech animator’s short films from 1978–89 plus his 53-minute masterwork, The Pied Piper (1986), a film whose Expressionist puppets and decor steal the familiar folk tale away from picture-book cuteness and return it to its darker roots. The subtitle “Labyrinth of Darkness” suggests that all the films tend towards horror which isn’t really the case, although anyone disturbed by animated shop mannequins may be unnerved by Club of the Discarded (1989). Barta’s films can be dark but they’re also wry or quirky: The Design (1981) is a wordless fable about the imposition of social uniformity by contemporary architecture, while The Extinct World of Gloves (1982) cleverly uses anthropomorphism to pastiche a range of cinematic genres. Barta is still active today but most of his recent films have been advertising commissions and a child-friendly feature, Toys in the Attic, the marketplace being resistant to animation that’s too strange or personal. I still hope we might one day see his feature-length film of The Golem but there’s been no news about this since a preview was released in 2002:

“Everyone is expecting a fairytale about that legend. Our interpretation is a little bit different, because we start from another point of view, which is Gustav Meyrink’s Golem…It is much more interesting, but I think that this is the reason why we have not moved forward, why the whole project has stopped, why some producers have disappeared, appeared and disappeared again.” (via)

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The unavailability of the Kino disc of Barta’s films is part of a worrying trend for those of us who like to own physical copies of scarce films. Many DVDs released ten or more years ago are now deleted and—in the case of my precious Piotr Kamler collection—impossible to find, while the films they contain are of such minority interest there’s little hope of seeing them on blu-ray any time soon. In the hierarchy of cinematic value, feature-length dramas always receive the most attention while documentaries, shorts, animations and experimental films are subject to the greatest neglect. Yes, “everything is now on YouTube” (except when it isn’t), but invariably compromised by low resolution, a lack of subtitles, or blighted by TV watermarks. And everything on YouTube is only there for as long as the uploader maintains their channel or until someone files a copyright complaint; previous posts here are filled with links to videos that are now deleted, so the Koreans are doing everyone a service by keeping Barta’s films in circulation. The same goes for the great René Laloux whose science-fiction features, Time Masters (1982) and Gandahar (1987), are currently available with English subs only from South Korea. The quality of this Jiri Barta disc leaves much to be desired but it’s still better than YouTube.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Jiri Barta’s Pied Piper
Gloves
More Golems
Barta’s Golem

The Heat of a Thousand Suns by Pierre Kast

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In an earlier post I mentioned how invaluable I’d found Philip Strick’s Science Fiction Movies, a large-format study published in 1976. Like Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies (1973), the book was intended as a cheap introduction to a popular genre but Strick wasn’t content to limit himself to familiar titles, offering instead a remarkably eclectic list of films, many of which are barely science fictional at all: Last Year at Marienbad, The Saragossa Manuscript, The Hour of the Wolf, Teorema, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and so on. For my teenage self, and no doubt many other readers, this was my first encounter with these and other titles, and it was Strick’s descriptions that kept me on the lookout for them for many years (over 20 in the case of Saragossa). Strick’s equanimity treated cinema as a global medium, not one where Hollywood dominates the marketplace and all the conversation. Other films under discussion were definitely SF but unviewable to those of us who without access to an arts cinema, and little hope of ever seeing them on TV, European obscurities such as La Jetée, Fantastic Planet, Je t’aime, je t’aime and The End of August at the Hotel Ozone. Despite the book’s age, and the relative ease with which anyone can now see films such as these, a few scarcities remain, one of which I watched for the first time last week.

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The Heat of a Thousand Suns/La Brûlure de Mille Soleils (1965) is a 25-minute animated film written and directed by Pierre Kast that Strick not only describes but further tantalises the reader with a pair of stills, which may account for its title having lodged in my memory all this time. Strick discusses the film between two other animations that are now very familiar: The Green Planet, an early work by Piotr Kamler, and Les Jeux des Anges by Walerian Borowczyk. (If all this sounds like wilful obscurantism on Strick’s part, on the previous page he discusses a pair of classic Hollywood features, This Island Earth and Forbidden Planet.) Kamler’s film is a humorous one, while Borowczyk’s is strange and disturbing; Kast’s film is pitched somewhere between the two:

A young man in the far future becomes bored with the solar system he knows too well and goes for an unrepeatable trip to the stars, in the company of his robots and his cat. On a remote planet he encounters a tranquil civilization where something has only to be wished for, and it happens; he meets a girl, they fall in love, and their romance is frustrated by his complete inability to recognize the different standards of her society where sexual groups of eight comprise a family. Put together from paintings by a Spanish surrealist artist, Eduardo Luiz, whose suffused landscapes and delicate tapering figures provide the perfect balance to the gentle melancholy of the hero’s monologue, the film has the same touch of scorn at its centre as was evident in Kast’s other science-fiction works, Amour de Poche (1957) and Les Soleils de l’Ile de Pâques (1971), although its twinkling conclusion is more in keeping with his romantic comedy Vacances Portugaises (1961). It’s one of the most effective screen versions so far of science fiction’s crusade not so much for a better world as for better people on it.

Strick also mentions a detail about the production that I’d forgotten, namely the editing being the work of La Jetée director, Chris Marker. The latter’s credit makes the inclusion of a space-faring cat both funny and fitting although the animal is unconcerned by interstellar travel, and spends most of its time asleep. Another notable name is electronic composer Bernard Parmegiani who provided the score for this and other films by Kast; he also scored several shorts by Piotr Kamler and Borowczyk’s Jeux des Anges.

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Now that I’ve finally seen Kast’s film I wouldn’t say it was worth the wait but it was definitely worth watching. The animation is very minimal, with most of the shots being still images that the camera wanders over. The SF scenario is very conventional, as are the trappings: a pointed rocket, bleeping robots, aliens that look and behave like Earth people even if they do have eight sexes. The film distinguishes itself much more with its design, the Giacometti-like figures, and the interior of the spacecraft which pre-empts Barbarella with its lavish chambers filled with period decor and artwork. Despite Strick’s praise, Kast’s conventionality seems a missed opportunity when animation can do so much more than ape live-action cinema. Piotr Kamler’s films, in particular Labyrinth (1969) and Chronopolis (1983), offer science-fiction scenarios that are remote from our own lives and preoccupations; so too with Borowczyk’s Jeux des Anges, a film whose industrial nightmare is closer to David Lynch than Barbarella. Kast does have a late surprise, however, although this may only mean anything to those familiar with Chris Marker’s photography.

The Heat of a Thousand Suns is on YouTube but with no subtitles for its French narration. The copy I watched was from this page which includes a subtitle file. I suspect this may be a DVD rip, and therefore immoral, but the same probably applies to the YouTube version as well. The choice is yours.

Previously on { feuilleton }
A Pictorial History of Horror Movies by Denis Gifford
Saragossa Manuscript posters
Marienbad hauntings
Chronopolis by Piotr Kamler
Les Jeux des Anges by Walerian Borowczyk

The Marvellous

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The marvellous is always beautiful. Anything marvellous is beautiful. In fact only the marvellous is beautiful.

George Melly (above) quoting André Breton’s declaration from the first Surrealist Manifesto, 1924

Two posts in one week—quelle surprise. This is partly because I’m trying to get WordPress to post updates to Twitter, something that hasn’t been possible for many years without going through the long-winded process of signing up as a Twitter developer. Anything that limits my involvement with Twitter’s burning café feels like a positive thing at the moment, so thoughts that I previously cast into the flames may find their expression here instead.

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The two screengrabs are from recent re-viewings. George Melly’s short guide to Surrealism for the BBC’s Arena, and Jan Svankmajer’s equally short BBC profile have both been featured here in the past, but my recent purchase of a box of blu-rays from Svankmajer’s shop has prompted a journey back into the Surrealist praxis via whatever books and videos I have to hand. It’s been interesting looking again at René Passeron’s Encyclopedia of Surrealism (1975), a book which for many years was more interesting for the 24-page section devoted to the precursors of Surrealism, all the artist-eccentrics, architects, illustrators, Mannerists, and (especially) the Symbolists whose works I spent most of the 1980s pursuing. Today there are more threads to be followed in the Surrealist section of Passeron’s study so I’m looking forward to seeing where they lead. As for The Marvellous, the Svankmajer discs are this with and without the capital “M”. I recommend them.

Update: And the post didn’t announce itself at Twitter which isn’t so surprising; I’ll keep working at this behind the scenes. Social media is the anti-Marvellous.