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

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.

Abeceda

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This week I’ve started working my way through the filmography of Jan Svankmajer, having finally acquired a blu-ray set of his feature films. I’ve also been reading interviews and rewatching some of the documentaries about the man and his work, which in turn prompted me to look up some of his associates and precursors among the Czech Surrealists. Prague was unusual in being a centre for the early development of Surrealism at a time when the movement (for want of a better term) was centred on Paris. André Breton encouraged this, and cultural exchanges took place, with Breton and Paul Éluard visiting Prague, while Vlatislav Netzval and his colleagues journeyed to Paris. The outbreak of war severed the connection but this also had the inadvertent effect of perpetuating the Czech brand of Surrealism by cutting off Prague from the rest of the European avant garde. While Breton and co were forced to flee to the United States and Mexico, the Czech Surrealists went underground, hiding their illicit explorations first from the occupying Nazis, then from the disapproving Communist authorities. It’s always important to bear this in mind when considering Svankmajer’s films and artwork; his Surrealism is a serious motivation with a long history in Czech and Slovak art.

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Vlatislav Netzval is best known today for being the author of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1935), the source novel for the cult film by Jaromil Jires. Abeceda (1926) is a much shorter work, a Modernist abecedary created by Netzval (who wrote a short verse describing each letter) with Milca Mayerová (who choreographed a series of letterform poses) and Karel Teige (who designed the book and took the photographs). I’ve not seen a complete translation of the verses but I love the page design which is like something the Bauhaus might have produced for the Modernist Children of the Future. The form being used here had a name—Poetism—a Czech variation on similar movements elsewhere such as Constructivism and Futurism but with an intention to create works accessible to all, hence the abecedary. I can imagine Milca Mayerová’s poses being animated by Svankmajer’s staccato edits although his design preferences have always been more florid and baroque. A Surrealist he may be but he also favours Jean Midolle’s Alphabet Lapidaire Monstre.

(As before, the Czech names here should include their proper accents but the coding on this blog throws up errors when it encounters certain letters. My apologies to Czech readers.)

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The poster art of Josef Vyletal

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The Hero is Afraid (1965).

Film posters by Czech artist Josef Vyletal (1940-1989) have appeared here in the past, but after watching Juraj Herz’s gloomily Gothic Beauty and the Beast (1978) at the weekend—a film for which Vyletal not only created a poster but also provided the title sequence and paintings seen within the film—I thought the artist deserved a post of his own.

Josef Vyletal was a prolific poster artist and designer—the Terry Posters website states that he created 115 designs for the cinema—who also worked as a book illustrator. Between commercial assignments he produced paintings in a macabre Surrealist style that filtered into his commercial work, the Herz titles included. The absence of barriers between private obsessions and commercial imperatives is what makes the film posters created by Czech and Polish artists so attractive, as well as so surprising to Anglophone viewers. There’s no sense of these works being produced by committee, of a gaggle of marketing executives fretting over details behind the scenes. Some of Vyletal’s interpretations are so extreme and uncompromising by Hollywood standards it’s impossible to imagine even an adventurous chain like Alamo Drafthouse commissioning them, never mind a risk-averse studio. One of the designs I singled out for an earlier post is an ideal example, a poster for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds which dispenses with any visual reference to the film in favour of a liberal borrowing of the bird-headed figures from Max Ernst’s The Robing of the Bride. It’s a commonplace when discussing the films of Jan Svankmajer to situate the director in the history of Czech Surrealism which remained a clandestine movement during the Communist years. But Vyletal’s paintings demonstrate a confidence that the average Czech filmgoer could accept Surrealist imagery when being tempted by the latest fare from Hollywood.

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The Naked Eye (1966).

Given my own tastes for Surrealist imagery many of the examples shown here tend in this direction. Vyletal was a versatile artist who utilised a number of different styles, including collage and a bold graphic style of black shapes on coloured backgrounds. In addition to borrowing from Ernst he also borrowed (or swiped) figures from Aubrey Beardsley on at least two occasions (see below). Most of the examples here are collages augmented by or combined with paint, collage being a quicker solution when faced with deadlines. Terry Posters has many more examples.

(Note: the name Vyletal should include an accent but the coding on this blog throws up errors when it encounters unusual accents. My apologies to Czech readers.)

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The Black Tulip (1967).

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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968).

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The Trygon Factor (1968).

Continue reading “The poster art of Josef Vyletal”

Weekend links 493

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Art by Rand Holmes for Gay Comix No. 1, September 1980.

• In the universe next door, Los Angeles in November, 2019 looks like the drawings in the Blade Runner Sketchbook (1982). The book has been out of print for many years but available online for a while, although seldom in a downloadable form. A recent upload at the Internet Archive remedies this. In addition to the familiar Syd Mead designs for flying cars and street furniture there are some Moebius-like doodles by Ridley Scott, and Mead’s design for Tyrell’s cryogenic crypt, a detail that would have formed part of an unfilmed sub-plot.

• RIP Howard Cruse, comic artist and pioneering editor of the first few issues of Gay Comix in the 1980s. Cruse produced work outside the gay sphere (I first encountered his strips in Heavy Metal) but the stories that he and other artists created for Gay Comix (later Gay Comics) were some of the first by lesbians and gay men chronicling their own lives, as opposed to porn fantasies or the more recent trend of bolting a token sexuality to a superhero. John Seven talked to Cruse about his career in 2007.

• “On the eve of the First World War Stefan George had started recruiting his own twink army…” Well, if you really must have an army… Strange Flowers presents part one of a guide to the city of Vienna.

In Wild Air, 2016–2018: all 72 of Heath Killen’s requests for a list of six interesting things from artists, writers, scientists, ecologists, musicians, historians and others. My answers are at number 55.

• “Satan is a friend of mine”: Sander Bink on a forgotten occult novel, Goetia (1893) by Frits Lapidoth.

• Picturing a voice: Rob Mullender-Ross on Margaret Watts-Hughes and the Eidophone.

• “They broke the rules”: Killian Fox on the film posters of the French New Wave.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Jan Svankmajer Day.

Ogi No Mato (1976) by Ensemble Nipponia | Rêve (1979) by Vangelis | Blade Runner Esper “Retirement” Edition, Part III (1982)