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Id stuff: Jan Švankmajer, Conspirators of Pleasure

Film Special
By PETER KEOUGH  |  December 3, 2012



Id meets kid in Czech animator Jan Švankmajer's playfully deranged visions. The Harvard Film Archive's partial retrospective of his films, both shorts and features, demonstrates the development of his stop-action techniques, his kitchen-sink surrealism, and his obsessions. He's like Luis Buñuel and Jacques Tati by way of Gumby.

The shorts are succinct and brilliant, but the features disconcert. Alice (1988; December 9 @ 5 pm) brings Lewis Carroll down to earth, or at least into the bedroom of the title urchin. The mostly live-action Alice narrates the text and voices all the characters as she pursues a vivified, taxidermied white rabbit and encounters animated creatures made up of the animal skeletons and other gimcracks that litter her bedroom. Alice handles the weirdness with equanimity, since she's in charge, despite the playfully phallic and macabre imagery.

In Conspirators of Pleasure (1996; December 8 @ 9 pm), the adults take over. Shot mostly in live action, it investigates the secrets of a handful of people whose baroque fantasies turn out to be unexpectedly connected. They build exhaustingly complicated fetishes out of feathers, porn magazines, fishes, nails, rolling pins, and machinery. In short, they are engaged in the same process as Švankmajer, and their completed creations, like his, spring to life through the magic of animation. Here, though, the magic seems more from desperation than wonder. Adults no longer have the same capacity for pleasure and dreams as do children.

Švankmajer returns to that sensibility in Little Otik (2000; December 9 @ 7 pm). Like Conspirators, it begins with live action, as the childless Bozena adopts a tree root unearthed by her husband, Karel. They name the thing Otik, but then Bozena takes her delusion to extremes, cooing at the stump, bathing it, changing its diapers, and pushing it about the neighborhood in a pram. When she starts nursing it, Otik springs to life, becoming a squalling stump with an obscene orifice that serves as both its mouth and eye. The more Otik eats, the bigger and more voracious he grows, until first the family cat, then the postman, and others disappear. But before the film settles into a fusion of Little Shop of Horrors and Pinocchio, Alzbetka, the girl next door, asserts control, and Otik seems not so much an icon of adult terror and despair as a talisman of childhood vindication.

>> PKEOUGH@PHX.COM

JAN ŠVANKMAJER, CONSPIRATOR OF PLEASURE :: December 8-9 at the Harvard Film Archive.

WANT MORE MOVIE NEWS?: Read Peter Keough's film blog at thePhoenix.com/outsidetheframe.

  Topics: Features , Movies, film, Jan Svankmajer,  More more >
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