Dimensions in Dialogue: three types of communication satirise society and politics

Jan Svankmajer, “Dimensions in Dialogue / Moznosti Dialogu” (1982)

Hilarious three-part stop-motion animated film that investigates communication breakdown in its various forms, “Dimensions in Dialogue” is a famous Svankmajer classic. In two sections of the film, claymation is used; in a third, the figures are composites of objects made up in a cross-sectional style reminiscent of 16th-century Italian artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s paintings of famous figures of his day portrayed in fruit and vegetable forms.

In “Exhaustive Discussion”, three heads made of food, tools and arty items (which may represent different areas of human endeavour: agriculture, industry and culture) mash one another in a rock-scissors-paper game continuously until all three heads end up looking exactly the same. This section suggests that when people of different backgrounds and opinions butt heads in a forum – it might be politics, for example – they end up expressing the same opinions: hilarious on one level, sinister on another.

In “Passionate Discourse”, a clay man and woman fall in love and dissolve into each other sexually but later argue over a ball of clay and tear each other into a boiling lump of pulp. At a personal level this part comments on male-female relations and on the consequences of falling in love: the couple ends up with a baby which complicates their relationship. The baby at first is rejected by its parents, then it manipulates one parent against the other and both adults fall into mutual back-stabbing. On a wider level, the section comments on groups, insitutions or political parties joining in coalition, creating something they can’t handle and which they want to disown, and then falling out when the monster they have created  – a revolution perhaps – refuses to go away.

“Factual Conversation” sees two elderly clay heads facing off against each other and each offering the other an object on his tongue with the other in turn offering an object that complements the first: toothbrush complements toothpaste, shoe complements shoelace, bread complements a knife with butter, pencil complements sharpener. Needless to say, the heads get cross and get their objects mixed up: knife smears butter all over shoe and pencil sharpener hoes straight into the toothpaste. Each time a round of offering objects is completed, the two heads become bloated and their features start to melt away. By the time the heads complete the last round of offers in which knife duels with knife, two shoelaces are tied in knots, bread mashes bread into crumbs and pencil sharpeners all but destroy each other, there are just two exhausted mounds of clay just about ready to explode. It seems that even when conversationalists have similar or complementary interests and stories to tell, they can still end up arguing and fighting each other viciously.

Quick edits, fast and choppy close-ups and frenzied, jerky animation in “Exhaustive Discussion” bring urgency and a strong sense of conflict into all three animated sections. The music soundtrack is droll but never intrusive.

The film may be a satire on society in Czechslovakia in the early 1980s: a country disillusioned with and weary of Communism but unable to put into effect a better society as various factions talk over one another and end up fighting even though they more or less agree on the kind of society they need and may have good ideas in common. By fighting, they reduce themselves to the lowest common denominator of conformity and none can step outside its narrow point of view or the paradigm in which they are fighting, in order to find an alternative path to agreement and co-operation.

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