The Magic Art of Jan Svankmajer

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Three years ago I binged on all the Jan Svankmajer feature films after buying the box of blu-rays released by the director’s Athanor company. Once I’d worked my way through that lot, and rewatched the BFI collection of Svankmajer’s short films, I went through all the documentaries I’ve managed to accumulate, including this two-part BBC study which I taped when it was first broadcast in 1992. It’s likely that Svankmajer’s approach to film and to Surrealism no longer requires the kind of introduction that seemed necessary in the 1990s, but for those who do need such a thing this is a good place to start.

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Ben Fox’s documentary was made to coincide with an exhibition of Svankmajer’s films and artworks being shown at an animation festival in Cardiff. The two installments examine a different aspect of Svankmajer’s cinematic works: “Memories of Mysterious Beings” concerns the films that deal with childhood dreams and fears, while “The Naming of Demons” concentrates on his use of Surrealism as a tool for satire or social critique. In between lengthy extracts from the films the camera prowls around some of the director’s artworks while an actor reads statements Svankmajer has made about his interests and intentions. This last feature isn’t something I enjoy very much, not when the actor’s nasal delivery is so different from Svankmajer’s own voice. It’s a common ploy in documentaries, having someone impersonate an interviewee to avoid using subtitles, but it’s one I find distracting when done like this.

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Eva liked statues.

At this point I would have directed your attention once again to Jan Svankmajer, Director, a documentary about Czech cinema which featured the man himself talking at length about his activities in the 1960s, but this has now been removed from YouTube. In its place, however, there’s a more recent upload, Les Chimères des Svankmajer, an 80-minute documentary for French TV by Bertrand Schmitt and Michel Leclerc which is included among the extras on the BFI’s collection of Svankmajer’s short films. The only trouble here is that the YT copy has no subtitles, you’ll need to be a French speaker to understand the voice-overs which run throughout. This is one of the best of all the Svankmajer documentaries since it shows the range of activities conducted by Svankmajer and his late wife, Eva Svankmajerová, as artists and foremost members of the Prague Surrealist Group; film-making, as Svankmajer has often stressed in interviews, was only one outlet for his creativity. (It was also one he was forbidden to practice for several years when the Communist authorities took exception to his work.) In addition to seeing the Svankmajers preparing an exhibition of their creations, Schmidt and Leclerc show us something of their home outside Prague, an artwork in itself that combines the sculpture park and Wunderkammer. Eva Svankmajerová was the creator of many of those sculptures, a celebrated artist in her own right whose contribution to her husband’s films has often been overlooked.

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

Weekend links 657

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• Cover art for a new album by John Foxx which will be released on CD in March. This catches my attention for being based on Walter Benjamin’s compendious collection of esoterica, with the music being solo piano pieces. If the latter are anything like the albums Foxx recorded 20 years ago with Harold Budd then this is all very promising. Is the cover design by Jonathan Barnbrook? The typography and formal treatment of the photo suggest as much.

• “The new game was not providing access to everything but finding out how many expensively licensed properties you could cull from your service before people started to question how much they were paying a month.” Sam Thielman on the sudden unavailability of hundreds of classic Warner Brothers cartoons. Regarding his comment about the unplayability of Internet Archive videos: you download them and put them on a USB drive.

Frost Flowers on the Windows (1899) is a book that documents “the extraordinary power of windowpane frost to take ‘ice photographs’, images capable of expressing the ‘vital qualities’ of life forms close to the glass,” according to its author, Albert Alberg.

• New music: ev THe norTH, “a sound journey through the winter of the far north” by Lorenz Weber. (The encoding of the album title won’t display properly on this page.)

• RIP Yukihiro Takahashi, singer, songwriter and drummer with the fabulous Yellow Magic Orchestra. The space-disco video for YMO’s Rydeen never gets old.

• “I want an indescribable feeling”: composer Kali Malone on her search for the sublime.

• Old music: Roundtrip by Don Cherry & Jean Schwarz, a live performance in Paris, 1977.

• At Spoon & Tamago: Glass artist Genki Sudo crafts tentacle earbuds.

• At Unquiet Things: The Incandescent Otherworlds of Gervasio Gallardo.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Acid Westerns Day.

Arcade (1987) by Chris & Cosey | The White Arcades (1988) by Harold Budd | Arcade (2018) by Philip Jeck

A Little Phantasy on a Nineteenth-Century Painting

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The painting in question is the same one used as the source for the pictures in the previous post, The Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin, which is here transformed in a very short animated film by Norman McLaren. Watching this again I thought it might have been created with the pinscreen (previously) since the NFB posting doesn’t offer any information about the technique used. The close shots, however, reveal the kinds of texture and smudges common to pastel drawing. McLaren followed this a few years later with a pastel animation in colour which he titled A Phantasy.

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This isn’t the only cinematic rendering of Böcklin’s painting—Toteninsel.net lists a few more—but it may be the only one that ends by withdrawing the sea that surrounds the island. This spoils the setting a little but it adds a finishing touch. That’s the trouble with animating paintings, you’re always compelled to account for the passage of time in a scene that exists in a timeless space.

Previously on { feuilleton }
L’île des Morts
More Isles of the Dead
Isles of the Dead
A Picture to Dream Over: The Isle of the Dead
The Isle of the Dead in detail
Arnold Böcklin and The Isle of the Dead

L’île des Morts

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In Philippe’s studio there was always against a wall this large canvas sketched in the 80s on the theme of the Isle of the Dead. During a work session on the print, I asked him if he intended to finish it one day. He answered me: “NO”, then “we will finish it together.”

Thus François Avril writing about his collaboration with Philippe Druillet on yet another version of The Isle of the Dead, the endlessly malleable Symbolist emblem created in the 1880s by Arnold Böcklin. Druillet had already drawn an impressive version of the cemetery island for Gail, one of the later Lone Sloane stories, in 1976. These new versions are from an exhibition of prints staged last year at Galerie Barbier in Paris.

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Copies of the prints are still for sale, as is a pricey (€ 100) signed and limited exhibition catalogue. More tempting, although even more expensive, is a forthcoming catalogue from another Druillet exhibition, Les 6 Voyages de Philippe Druillet which explored the artist’s “oeuvre colossale”.

All of this reminds me that when I was writing about René Laloux’s films for the previous post I was thinking once again that it was a shame Laloux never produced anything based on Druillet’s art. There is an animated series, Bleu, L’enfant de la Terre, which Druillet designed for French TV in the 1980s, but this was aimed at children so there’s none of the cosmic doom that dominates Druillet’s early books. My ideal today would be a Lone Sloane feature animated by one of those Japanese studios with a fanatic attention to detail. I can dream, can’t I?

Previously on { feuilleton }
More Isles of the Dead
Isles of the Dead
Du Tac au Tac: Druillet, Hogarth and Buscema
Sorcerer: Druillet and Friedkin
Ô Sidarta: a film about Philippe Druillet
Lovecraft: Démons et Merveilles
Philippe Druillet album covers
A Picture to Dream Over: The Isle of the Dead
The Isle of the Dead in detail
Druillet’s vampires
Druillet meets Hodgson
Arnold Böcklin and The Isle of the Dead

Strange Adventures: a film list

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This is science fiction.

Presenting the list I mentioned earlier in which I highlight a number of worthwhile science-fiction films (also some TV productions) that aren’t the usual Hollywood fare. I’ve spent the past few years watching many of these while searching for more. This isn’t a definitive collection, and it isn’t filled with favourites; I’ve deliberately omitted a number of popular films that would count as such. It’s more a map of my generic tastes, and an answer to a question that isn’t always spoken aloud in discussions I’ve had about SF films but which remains implicit: “Okay, if you dislike all this stuff then what do you like?” I tend to like marginal things, hybrids, edge cases, the tangential, the unusual and the experimental. And for the past two decades I’ve increasingly come to value anything that isn’t a Hollywood product. There are two Hollywood productions on this list but neither of them were very successful. Not everything here has been overlooked or neglected but many of the entries have, either because they made a poor showing at the box office or because they have the effrontery to be filmed in languages other than English. Not everything is in the first rank, either, but they’re all worth seeing if you can find them.

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Liquid Sky.

The starting point is around 1960 because prior to this date any marginal or unusual examples of SF cinema are harder to find. A genre has to be somewhat set in its ways before radically different artistic approaches emerge, and pre-1960 there wasn’t much testing of the SF boundaries in the film world. Science-fiction cinema has also tended to lag behind the written word, so even though the literature was growing more sophisticated during the 1950s, films from the same period are mostly filled with monsters, spaceships and mad scientists. By the 1960s enough written science fiction was playing with (or ignoring) genre stereotypes for a “New Wave” to be identified. Some of the films detailed here might be regarded as cinematic equivalents of SF’s New Wave but I’ll leave it to others to argue the finer points of definition. A few of the choices are a result of directors going in unexpected directions, with several selections being one-off genre excursions by people better known for other things. I’ve omitted many films and/or directors that receive persistent attention, so there’s no David Cronenberg, Nicolas Roeg, Andrei Tarkovsky or John Carpenter; and no Mad Max 2, Akira, Ghost in the Shell or The Prisoner. A couple of edge cases are so slight I couldn’t really justify their inclusion so you’ll have to look elsewhere for appraisals of The Unknown Man of Shandigor (a spy satire with Alphaville influences) and Trouble in Mind (more of a neo-noir fantasy). 2010 is the cut-off point. I’ve never been someone who watches all the latest things so it often takes me years to catch up with recent releases.

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Avalon.

I can imagine there might be questions about the availability of some of these films. All I can say is search around. I’ve managed to accumulate half the things on this list on either DVD or blu-ray so they’re not all impossible to find. I did consider posting links but the whole issue of region coding complicates matters. Most of the short films circulate on YouTube, as do a number of the features although these don’t always include subtitles. Have I missed something good? (Don’t say Zardoz….) The comments are open.



Invention for Destruction (Czechoslovakia, 1958)

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An evil millionaire named Artigas plans to use a super-explosive device to conquer the world from his headquarters inside an enormous volcano.

(Previously.) It seems fitting to start with a film that adapts a novel by one of the founders of the genre, Jules Verne. Karel Zeman’s third feature extended his technical effects to combine live-action with animation, creating a film in which the engraved illustrations of Verne’s novels are brought to life. With music by Zdenek Liska.


La Jetée (France, 1962)

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The story of a man forced to explore his memories in the wake of World War III’s devastation, told through still images.

Chris Marker’s haunting short is one of the great time-travel stories, a 25-minute film that JG Ballard often listed as a favourite. Memory was a recurrent theme in Marker’s work, and memories here provide a physical route into the past, with the predicament of the unnamed protagonist concentrated on a single memory from his childhood. Marker’s interests ranged widely but he haunts the margins of science-fiction cinema in France, assisting Walerian Borowczyk with an early animation, Les Astronauts (1959), as well as the Pierre Kast entry below.


Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution (France, 1965)

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A secret agent is sent to the distant space city of Alphaville where he must find a missing person and free the city from its tyrannical ruler.

Another Ballard favourite, and not a neglected film by any means but the first in our collection of one-off SF excursions by directors better-known for other things. Alphaville is also important for being the first film to present itself as science fiction without any of the obvious or expected trappings of the genre. Paris in 1965 is Alphaville because Godard says it is. In part this is the director doing his usual thing of self-consciously adopting a genre; this is “science fiction” in the same way that Breathless is “crime”. But the conceptual leap was an important one for cinema, a step that freed film-makers from the need to build expensive sets and dress their cast in silver jump-suits. With Raoul Coutard’s high-contrast photography, Paul Misraki’s noirish score, Eddie Constantine’s bull-in-a-china-shop performance (he makes Ralph Meeker in Kiss Me Deadly seem soft-hearted), and the incomparable Anna Karina.


The Heat of a Thousand Suns (France, 1965)

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(Previously) A one-off animated short by Pierre Kast with assistance from Chris Marker, drawings by Eduardo Luiz, and an electronic score by Bernard Parmegiani. A young man with his own spaceship solves the problem of faster-than-light travel then heads into the cosmos with his pet cat.


Fahrenheit 451 (UK, 1966)

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In an oppressive future, a fireman whose duty is to destroy all books begins to question his task.

Francois Truffaut’s first colour feature has always seemed a little dull despite its incendiary subject matter and the Hitchcockian urgency of Bernard Herrmann’s score. It might have been improved with an actor other than Oskar Werner in the central role but there’s still a lot I like about this one: the music, the shots of the SAFEGE monorail, Nicolas Roeg’s striking photography, and Julie Christie in a double role. There’s also some amusement for Brits in seeing a Frenchman presenting ticky-tacky English suburbia as a soulless dystopia. With spoken titles, flat-screen TVs in every home (it’ll never happen…), and Genet novels condemned to the flames.


Je t’aime, Je t’aime (France, 1968)

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After attempting suicide, Claude is recruited for a time travel experiment, but, when the machine goes haywire, he may be trapped hurtling through his memories.

(Previously.) Much as I like toying with the idea that Last Year in Marienbad is science fiction there really isn’t anything in it that easily justifies the claim. Director Alain Resnais said that this one wasn’t SF either but it does at least feature a time machine. Resnais had collaborated with Chris Marker in the 1950s, and the pair remained friends, so it’s tempting to see this as a riff on La Jetée. (There’s even an echo of Marker’s film in the title…) Both films use a doomed romance as a focus for their examination of memory and time, and both feature choral scores, the music for this one being composed by Krzysztof Penderecki.


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