Monday, June 11, 2012

Collections: Jan Svankmajer - The Ossuary and Other Tales

Featuring the short films:  The Last Trick, Johann Sebastian Bach, Historia Naturae, The Garden, Don Juan, The Ossuary, Castle of Otranto, Manly Games, and Darkness Light Darkness

As a survey of its titular artist’s work, Kino Films’ 2006 DVD Jan Svankmajer – The Ossuary and Other Tales leaves something to be desired.  How Kino selected the nine shorts that comprise the set is something of a mystery.  If the DVD was meant to collect Svankmajer’s earliest, hardest to find work, then why does it jump chronologically from 1970’s The Ossuary to 1977’s Castle of Otranto, while leaving out seminal early pieces like Jabberwocky (1971)?  And why does the collection feature Darkness Light Darkness (1989), one of the Czech animator’s most famous and readily accessible works?  Clearly The Ossuary and Other Tales is not designed to be a “best of” collection, since this wouldn’t explain the presence of such “for hardcore fans only” films as Johann Sebastian Bach (1965) and 1968’s The Garden (a live action short so dull that I’ve completely forgotten its contents less than a week after watching it).  The Ossuary and Other Tales doesn’t seem to have been designed with any particular viewer in mind.  Serious Svankmajer fans will complain about the absence of many important and/or obscure films, novices may be turned off by the relative crudity of some of the earlier pieces, and casual fans hoping to gain some perspective about Svankmajer’s growth as an auteur will be confounded by the seemingly random selection of shorts represented. 

In fairness, Svankmajer’s versatility, as well as the wildly inconsistent quality of his short films, makes the idea of a truly satisfying “representative” collection of his works unlikely.  His art seems to have grown in fits and starts. The dazzlingly edited and wittily structured Historia Naturae (1967) feels much more mature (and much more technically advanced) than the slapdash mixture of black-and-white mockumentary footage and collage animation of Castle of Otranto, even though the latter film was made a full decade later.  In other cases, Svankmajer’s growth as an artist is visually evident.  In the context of this DVD, Svankmajer’s first film, a grotesque puppet play called The Last Trick (1964) feels like a mere warm-up for the inventively choreographed Don Juan (1970), which feels far more cinematic despite using many of the same filmed puppetry techniques.  Though the famous Romantic tale of Don Juan is somewhat of an odd fit for Svankmajer’s brand of menacing surrealism, the director clearly had a lot of fun staging it, and a multi-story puppet fight in which the clashing of swords provides the percussion for the background score is a technical tour de force. 

Though Svankmajer is primarily known as an animator (in fact, I’ve already labeled him as such), that is a fairly narrow descriptor of the director’s bag of tricks.  Svankmajer is really more of a collage artist, incorporating stray bits of live-action footage, claymation, puppetry, stop-motion animation, primitive Melies-style visual effects, and just about anything else he can get his hands on.  The Czech’s unpredictable eclecticism puts him more in line with fellow Balkan director Dusan Makavejev than with traditional animators like Walt Disney or Hayao Miyazaki. 

The jarring information overload of Svankmajer’s visual style can be overwhelming in a good way, as in Historia Naturae, where the rapid-fire flipbook style look at different classes of animal represented in every visual format imaginable is frequently exhilarating, and musically and humorously contrasted with slow, recurring shots of a human slowly raising a spoonful of food to their mouth.  (The morbidly funny conclusion finds the human replaced by a skeleton, as man is reduced to the same consumable state as the other species represented throughout the rest of the film).  Occasionally that same style can feel oppressive.  While Manly Games (1988) is a striking and memorable parody of European soccer mania (and the accompanying violence of hooliganism), the series of shots of claymation soccer players getting their heads destroyed in the goriest ways imaginable eventually becomes tiresome, making the clever finale (in which a live action TV viewer’s flat is overrun with sentient paper cut-out athletes) feel more like a welcome relief rather than the brilliant punchline that it ought to be.

One of the most memorable and sophisticated films on this DVD actually features no animation whatsoever.  The Ossuary could actually be classified as a documentary, albeit a highly experimental and unconventional one.  Svankmajer’s dispassionate, appropriately grimy footage of a horrifying death chamber, where enormous piles of bones have been artfully arranged into sculptures, is contrasted with the disembodied voice of a tour guide who seems entirely too proud of the monetary value of this weird alternate universe museum.  The guide’s fetishistic worship of the bones, combined with her paranoid insistence that no one touch anything, lest they face a heavy fine, is like something out of Kafka, but Svankmajer’s unpredictable editing patterns assure that The Ossuary could not be mistaken for the work of any other artist.  Even though The Ossuary and Other Tales is not particularly well thought-out as a collection, it undeniably features a great deal of innovative and memorable works of art.

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