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By Film Threat Staff | June 11, 2001

The American Cinematheque in association with the Czech Center, New York, presents THE BIZARRE, THE DROLL & THE OCCULT: THE MAGICAL WORLD OF JAN SVANKMAJER (June 15-17, 2001). Invoking the surreal poetry of Lewis Carroll, the sinister horror of Edgar Allan Poe, and the claustrophobic paranoia of Franz Kafka, the films of Czech animator and director Jan Svankmajer are bizarrely beautiful: a witty blending of the perverse, the macabre, and the child-like. A crafty alchemist, Svankmajer has pursued many styles: live action, clay modeling, puppets, traditional animation, stop-frame special effects and object collages, breathing life into vegetables, toys, rocks, and trees. An influence on filmmakers from Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam to the Brothers Quay (who made the short “The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer” in his honor), Svankmajer has never been completely comfortable with the label of animator: “For me, story comes before technique. I use animation only when I need it to bring alive certain objects through metamorphosis.” Highlights of the series include: a sneak preview of Svankmajer’s latest creation, LITTLE OTIK (OTESÁNEK), a blend of live action with stop-motion and traditional animation, in a gothic story about a childless couple who bring a wooden golem to life (OTIK will be released by Zeitgeist Films in 2002), plus rare opportunities to see Svankmajer’s exquisite shorts (on the big screen), which are not readily available on videotape in the US. All screening are at the newly renovated Lloyd E. Rigler Theatre at the historic 1922 Grauman’s Hollywood Egyptian (6712 Hollywood Boulevard between Highland and Las Palmas) in Hollywood. Born in 1934 in Prague, the son of a window-dresser father and a dress-maker mother, Svankmajer received a toy puppet theatre as a Christmas gift in 1942 – the beginning of a lifelong obsession with marionettes and puppetry. After working with the Theatre of Masks and the renowned Laterna Magika Theatre, Svankmajer directed his first short film, “The Last Trick” in 1964, followed by a series of increasingly surreal, wickedly ironic shorts – including “The Flat”, “Jabberwocky” and others — which resulted in him being banned from filmmaking by the Czech authorities for 7 years. Svankmajer directed his first feature length film, ALICE, in 1988.
Friday June 15, 2001 ^ The Friday, June 15th program begins at 7:00 PM with a sneak preview of LITTLE OTIK (OTESÁNEK), 2001, Zeitgeist, 125 min. Svankmajer’s latest is a disturbing domestic fairy tale about a childless couple, Bozena (Veronika Zilkova) and Karel (Jan Hartl), who literally go against nature to have a baby. After repeated failures to conceive a child, Karel sculpts a tree stump into a baby-like form, and his wife’s maternal desire brings it to life. The tiny wooden golem, named “Little Otik”, has an insatiable appetite, and devours anything in its path. Blending live action with stop-motion and traditional animation, OTESÁNEK brings to mind Svankmajer’s classic short “Down To the Cellar,” with its eerie mixture of everyday details and dark, fairy-tale motifs (The Blonde Girl With Braids, The Dark Cellar, The Old Lady). Zeitgeist Films will be releasing OTESÁNEK theatrically in early 2002.
Following at 9:30 PM are SVANKMAJER SHORTS – PROGRAM 1. Svankmajer’s short films are among his most brilliant and unsettling creations, combining surreal juxtapositions of human and clay figures, kitchen utensils, fruit, marionettes and more, to create a Kafkaesque world of blind alleys, locked rooms and childhood terrors. (Films are not necessarily listed in the order they will screened) Including: “The Last Trick”, 1964, 12 min. Svankmajer’s first film – influenced by his work with the puppet theatre — depicts an absurd battle between two magicians that leads to an orgy of mutual mutilation. “Punch And Judy”, 1966, 10 min. Infernal machines, 19th century photographs, newspaper collage, holes and screws. “Historia Naturae”, 1967, 10 min., reveals Svankmajer’s fascination with the Bohemian Emperor Rudolf II – to whom the film is dedicated – and his vast collections of esoteric animals and objects. “The Flat”, 1969, 12 min. A man finds himself trapped inside a one-room apartment with sponge-like walls, a malevolent bowl of soup, and a chair with a mind of its own, in one of Svankmajer’s most astounding shorts. “Jabberwocky”, 1971, 14 min. Svankmajer’s first adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s world, described by the director as “a Freudian record of the development of a child through all its stages: through homosexuality and Sado-Masochism to rebellion against the father.” “Leonardo’s Diary”, 1972, 10 min. Da Vinci meets Surrealism in this wonderful interaction of live footage, drawn animation and the Renaissance artist’s fantastical sketches. The film that got Svankmajer banned from making movies for 7 years. Plus, “J.S. Bach: Fantasy In G Minor”, 1965, 8 min., and “Et Cetera”, 1966, 8 min.
Saturday June 16, 2001 ^ The Saturday, June 16th program begins at 5:00 PM with JAN SVANKMAJER SHORTS – PROGRAM 2. (Films are not necessarily listed in the order they will screened) Including: “Dimensions Of Dialogue,” 1982, 12 min. Arguably Svankmajer’s greatest film, and one of the most startling animated shorts ever made. Here, he explores the various forms of dialogue through Archimbaldo-like heads that cannibalize and devour each other in a savage game. Heads clank and rattle, clay figures kiss and melt. “Down To The Cellar,” 1983, Slovak Film Institute, 16 min. Another small masterpiece. A little girl (Monika Belo-Cabanova) is sent to the cellar to fetch potatoes – she discovers a subterranean world of catacombs, black cats and sinister spuds. “The Pit, Pendulum And Hope,” 1983. Terrifying adaptation of Poe in which a subjective camera places the audience in the position of the torture victim. “Virile Games,” 1988, 17 min. While a soccer fan slurps beer in front of the television set, a Python-esque animated duel between the two teams results in multiple mutilations, exploding heads and worse. Amazing. “The Death Of Stalinism,” 1990, 11 min. A short history since WWII – making use of documentary footage, cut up montage, clay and model animation. “Food,” 1992, Zeitgeist Films, 17 min. A hilariously Freudian satire on eating habits, based on a script written 20 years earlier. Plus, “Darkness, Light, Darkness,” 1989, First Run Features, 8 min. Following at 7:30 PM is a Svankmajer Double-Feature starting with ALICE, 1987, First Run, 84 min. Svankmajer’s first feature uses Lewis Carroll’s famous story as a framework for a nightmarish journey into a world of childhood terrors, populated with stuffed rabbits, sock worms, Victorian dollhouses and more. Kristyna Kohoutova stars as the impassive, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Alice who navigates a rabbit’s-warren of constantly mutating toys, clothes and furry creatures. “Carroll was a precursor of the Surrealists, so mentally, we’re on the same side of the river” – Svankmajer. Next on the same bill is CONSPIRATORS OF PLEASURE, 1996, Zeitgeist, 75 min. Conceived by Svankmajer in the 1960’s (but blocked by outraged Czech authorities), CONSPIRATORS follows six seemingly-normal residents of Prague as they engage in ornate sexual fantasies: stuffing their ears and nostrils with bread balls, conducting bizarre ceremonies with roosters and carp, constructing giant paper-mache heads out of porno mags. With music by the Brothers Quay. “CONSPIRATORS evinces an unexpected grasp of human perversity…the human characters’ mystic, obsessive rites are every bit as involved and alchemical as Svankmajer’s wizardly brand of animation” – Dennis Lim, Village Voice.
Sunday June 17, 2001 ^ The Sunday, June 17th program begins at 5:00 PM with FAUST, 1994, Zeitgeist, 75 min. Svankmajer re-imagines the legend of Dr. Faustus as a diabolical play-within a puppet play-within real life, interlocking like a series of secret dungeons. A man (Petr Cepek) is handed a map which leads him to an underground dressing room – innocently donning the make-up and costume of an actor playing Faust, he finds himself thrust into a spectacular series of real-life and animated tableaux, filled with larger-than-life puppets, flaming devils and ancient, alchemical rituals. “FAUST is a dilemma everyone knows: either he can expand his knowledge, even though he knows he’ll be punished; or he can fail to revolt and spend his life in the institutionalized happiness promised by society.” – Svankmajer. Plus, the Bros. Quay’s short film, “The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer”, 1984, Zeitgeist, 14 min and the short documentary “The Animator of Prague,” 1990, First Run, 27 min. Dir. James Marsh.
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