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.

A Quiet Week in the House: becoming a voyeur to view, record and pass on news of desperate attempts to be free

Jan Svankmajer, “A Quiet Week in the House / Tichy tyden v dome” (1969)

A strange little film even by my standards of strangeness, this combines live action with stop-motion animation that also features cross-fades which give the film a rough and crude look that befits the plot and its setting. An unknown man on the run takes refuge in a deserted and decaying house in the Czech countryside. Each day for six days he drills a hole in the wall and peeks through it to observe the activity in the house. After observing the activity, he scribbles off that day on a wall diary. On cue over six days, objects come alive: nails unwrap themselves from candy wrappers and arrange themselves like erect steel phalluses; a slug-like tongue minces itself into long screws; a mechanical toy chicken frees itself from its leash only to be buried under falling piles of mud; a feathered chair attempts to fly to freedom but smashes itself onto the ground; a jacket sucks up water from a vase of flowers and ends up urinating on the ground; and a pair of dentures binds pigs’ feet with wire. All of these scenes suggest hope that is dashed by an unfortunate accident.

On the seventh day the man plugs up the holes he has drilled with dynamite, wires it to a remote control and a timer, takes his equipment outside the house and is about to run away when he remembers he has forgotten one last thing. While the clock is counting down, he rushes back inside the house …

The sepia-toned look of most of the film when the man is active gives it a fresh and rough-hewn appearance; only the animated parts have some colour. These sections are also completely quiet so as to give the suggestion that they might be projections of the man’s imagination as he peers voyeuristically through the holes. He is rewarded with rare treasure indeed: small everyday objects yearn for freedom and to determine their own identities but end up being thwarted by their ambitions and their nature or by something beyond their control. A psychosexual message is hinted at when the man plugs up the holes with phallic dynamite, intending to blow everything up.

As with most Svankmajer films, “A Quiet Week in the House” can be creepy and puzzling, and the animations and the man’s actions at the end of the film can be interpreted in very different ways. The man may be a spy and the secret activities in the house, not the house itself, may be the target of his bombing attack. We ought to feel lucky then that we have seen what goes on in the house and are able to remember and pass on the knowledge to others. Having been made a year after the Prague Spring, this little film could be about as politically subversive and biting in its comment on then-current events in Czechoslovakia as the authorities allowed.

 

Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea: exuberant science fiction time-travel comedy with a subversive message about lost opportunities and possibilities

Jindrich Polak, “Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea / Zitra vstanu a oparim se cajem” (1977)

One of a number of comic science fiction films made in the old Czechoslovkia in the 1960s – 70s, this film by the maker of “Ikarie XB-1” (a famous but more serious sci-fi film of a space migration) revolves around time travel and a set of identical twins, and what happens when you mix the two together and throw away a time-synchronisation equivalent of a GPS system. Sight gags and sci-fi slapstick make for a light-hearted film about a topic and themes that in the West would either call for a more po-faced, serious drama treatment or just wouldn’t be done at all. Though the plot becomes more bizarre as the film progresses, the pace is not so fast that viewers, even Western viewers with no knowledge of Czech – I saw this film without English sub-titles – can follow the shenanigans of central character Jan (Petr Koska) as he goes back and forth in time to thwart a dastardly plot to give Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany a hydrogen bomb from the future.

Kostka plays identical twins Jan and Karel: Karel is a spaceship pilot who’s also a womaniser and a drunk, Jan is his more sober and straight-laced brother. Karel gets a call to take some tourists on a trip to the past but before he can go to the port, he chokes on breakfast and dies. Jan has enough time to get his brother off to the morgue and into his uniform to impersonate him. Once aboard the ship, three of the tourists – they’re actually ageing Nazi crooks in disguise – hijack the craft and take it back to Berlin in 1941. There they greet Adolf Hitler and present him with the case containing the bomb – but it turns out they picked up the wrong case and it’s full of clothes. The crooks and Jan are bundled off to jail and must figure out a way of escape.

After escaping, the men go back to the present and their paths diverge: they go back to the period just before Karel dies and Jan then sets about changing the path of time so as to prevent Karel’s death and sabotage the crooks’ plan. This involves making another trip back to Nazi Germany but no-one has any proper sense of time so the second trip also slightly overshoots and the time-travellers arrive just before they arrived the first time. Don’t worry, it does sound very confusing – you just need to watch the movie to be able to sort out which Jan is which and how successfully Jan1 manages Jan2 and Jan3 and is able (or not able) to preserve family continuity!

Though made over 30 years ago, the film doesn’t look at all aged: the light is clear and the lines are sharp, men’s suits at least don’t look dated and even interiors and furniture look contemporary. The pace is brisk but the plot is straightforward if increasingly convoluted towards the end. The music soundtrack is a major highlight: light, a little humorous and sprightly with space ambient effects and much use of synthesiser-generated melodies that sound at once a little alien yet familiar and reassuring.

If I’d seen the film with English sub-titles, I’d have been able to appreciate more of its humour and jokes; there are many witty sight gags including creative uses of dishwashing liquid in dissolving dishes (and more besides!), the car with the back hood that flips up of its own accord at inconvenient times and the green spray that neutralises and zombifies people, all of which are important in advancing the plot and resolving it. The back-and-forth time-travel and its non-synchronisation (everyone comes and goes at times that are just ahead of when you think they should arrive or depart) are a running joke that might have a deeper meaning: what if certain important historical events could have been cut off or avoided had someone done something earlier rather than later? There is a subversive message in all the time-travelling that goes on: Jan foils an evil plot thanks to his being in the right spot five minutes (or 50 minutes at least) before the right time and ingeniously manages to cover up Karel’s untimely death as well. Now, if only he had gone back in time to try to stop the Soviets from marching into Prague in the 1940s or 1968 or whenever …

As science fiction movies go, the plot and characters, and especially Kostka’s clever timing as Jan who must be in several places at once, are prominent. There are no special effects at all: all the science fiction is in the plot and in one of the film’s running gags (the dishwashing liquid gag). “Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up …” is the kind of comedy I’d like to see more of and which has been sorely lacking in Western cinema (and still is) – fun, witty, exuberant and inventive with the possibilities offered by a science fiction standard – and with a bonus of a cutting comment on society about lost opportunities and the possibility of change.

The Fall of the House of Usher / The Pit, the Pendulum and Hope (dir. Jan Svankmajer): two film shorts of fear, terror and oppression

Jan Svankmajer, “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1981), “The Pit, the Pendulum and Hope” (1983)

Both these live action / stop-motion animation films by Jan Svankmajer are quite faithful adaptations of the famous Edgar Allan Poe short stories of psychological fear and terror. In both stories, told from a first-person viewpoint, the terror exists in the minds of the main characters who attribute to their tormentors greater malevolence than these might deserve. The use of black-and-white film in both shorts focusses viewer attention on shadows and the textures of objects and structures around the protagonists, and conveys an atmosphere of decay and retrogression that may be man-made. The live-action film emphasises close-ups of objects and fragments of large structures such as underground tunnels; fear or alienation seems to fill up the available space behind the screen like invisible swirling smoke.

In “The Fall …”, a narrator visits his friend Roderick Usher’s home and both entomb Usher’s comatose sister Madeleine in the Usher family vault in the basement of the mansion. No actors are seen: the action occurs entirely with any figures and stop-motion animation is used to move Madeleine’s coffin as though it were being pushed by invisible hands. Fantasy imagery of clay and soil moving and forming themselves into rows of frills and ridges, or of mound-like cakes is a major highlight of the film as is also the climax in which chairs fling themselves out of windows (a reference to the famous defenestrations that have occurred in Prague throughout its history since 1419 when the first known major one occurred) and sink into a muddy quicksand moat, and other furniture flee a disintegrating building as the coffin bursts open. The unseen narrator speaks throughout the film in a measured, sober voice but the fact that viewers never see him means that the voice sounds very alienated from the events of the film. Unfortunately the version of the film I saw lacked English-language subtitles but in spite of having no actors and all the furniture and soil having to move themselves about, the film carries a strong sense of physical and psychological isolation and the associated strange and deranged mentality that leads Usher to kill his sister but which also maintains the sister’s life and desire for revenge. There is something of an incestuous relationship implied for Roderick and Madeleine: the two may have had the hots for each other in the past, and if both are mad, that in itself might suggest their parents were also close relatives and had unwittingly passed on a defective gene or two.

“The Pit …” is more conventional in its story-telling approach: a silent, trapped prisoner is condemned to death by being cut in two by an overhanging pendulum suspended from a portrait of a leering God skull on the ceiing above; the pendulum sweeps ever lower to the prisoner, to cut him in two eventually. The man, noticing rats about, grabs meat from bowls with bound hands and smears them over his body’s bonds. The rats grab the food and take the pendulum’s sharp ends, the man is soon able to escape the ropes. Next, moving walls of metal demon puppets that thrust knives and belch fire through eye and mouth apertures menace the prisoner and force him to fall into a pit. He manages to escape and at this point the Poe story ends and another short story “A Torture of Hope” by Auguste Villiers de l’Isle Adam takes over: the man runs through labyrinths of tunnels, panting and panicking as he spies the prison wardens in their hooded cloaks walking from one tunnel to another. He finds a way out of prison but is met by an unpleasant surprise.

Those not familiar with Svankmajer’s way of telling a story might find “The Pit …” easier to follow though no less frightening and filled with dread; if anything, it is highly claustrophobic, panicky and paranoid. The fear is of a dread theocratic regime as suggested by the appearance of the sinister hooded monks who run the prison. The prisoner’s bid for freedom and the fate that awaits him suggest that no matter how far and how long you run, the system will always find you and imprison you again.

The suggestion that machinery and simple household objects, even small items like nails, and natural objects and phenomena like soil and stormy weather might have a life of their own is played for sinister and terrifying effect. There are messages about how people can be manipulated by others through suggestion and religious belief into torturing others or being forced to undergo torture. Svankmajer creates a unique world in which natural or man-made objects can be made supernatural and humans quickly become slaves of their technology and the systems that help produce this technology.

 

Fantastic Planet: absorbing animated science fiction film with messages and ideas that are still important

René Laloux, “Fantastic Planet” / “La Planète Sauvage” (1973)

A very absorbing animated science fiction film that superficially looks as if it might have been created for children with a plot that starts out with a human-like baby being adopted by a blue-skinned alien child ten times bigger than the baby in a world that looks like a mix of psychedelic rock album art of the 1970’s and Monty-Python collage-style animation and dark jokes with double entendres. Though as the film progresses, it becomes very clear indeed that several scenes in the film, some of the suggestive animation itself and the plot’s preoccupations are aimed at an older audience, one that, at the time of the film’s release, might have been described as politically and socially liberal and eco-conscious, even counter-cultural or underground. A joint Czech-French production, “Fantastic Planet” lives up to its name in its visual style and creativity if not its story-line or characterisation. Made in 1973, it doesn’t look too dated though the animation is hardly sophisticated by current standards and many scenes are just drawn and coloured-in sketches with the odd moving character going across them.

The plot traces the rise of the human-like Oms from a primitive foraging way of life dominated by ignorance, superstition and near-despotic rule by a few to a progressive society in which the Oms are literate, have mastered science and technological principles sufficiently enough to build and operate spaceships, and can challenge the giant blue-skinned aliens called Draags who regard them as simple and unintelligent. The way in which this turnaround in the Oms’ fortunes occurs is due to one Om called Terr who was adopted as a pet by a young Draag called Tiva. Tiva treats Terr as a plaything and lets him sit with her at lessons which she absorbs through meditation with the help of head-phones but viewers’ overall impression will be that Terr is a household slave / domestic pet completely at the capricious mercy of his mistress. Terr tries to escape often but his collar responds to Tiva’s magnetic bracelet. One day Terr runs away with Tiva’s head-phones and is helped by a wild Om who breaks his collar. The wild Om takes him to her people who eventually adopt him as their own. Terr uses Tiva’s head-phones, which turn out to be a vast repository of Draag knowledge, to educate his new family and in spite of opposition from some of the senior tribal members, the Oms give up those traditions that hampered their progress and kept them inferior to the Draags and embark on a tortuous path that frees them from slavery and repression. They create a new home and force the Draags to respect them so that the two species can co-exist in peace.

The journey towards enlightenment isn’t easy and many Oms are slaughtered along the way when the Draags try to cull their numbers and resort to more desperate and deadly methods, finally deciding to exterminate the little beings. There may be a political allegory here: the Oms might serve as a metaphor for Third World peoples striving for independence and the freedom to determine their own future while the Draags represent those First World elites who prefer the majority of humans to live in corporatised slavery and poverty. Or when we consider the film’s historical and cultural context, the Oms could represent the oppressed Czechs and Slovaks and the Draags their Soviet Russian masters.  There’s also a lesson here about how we humans treat our own pets: Terr is indulged a lot by Tiva but she also forces him to fight other domesticated Oms in battles that are parallels to cock-fighting bouts. The film does an excellent job of demonstrating the complex relationship that exists between the Draags and the Oms: the Draags regard the tame Oms as cute as long as they are obedient, the wild Oms are seen as vermin for breeding too fast and multiplying too quickly.

The Draags possess a sophisticated technology and culture that revolve around constant meditation; the film reveals this meditation to be necessary for their continued survival and propagation of their species, and it also powers their technology. A scene in which Tiva’s father participates in a group meditation session and the participant’s bodies change colour becomes very surreal; viewers will feel their minds simply cleaned out several times by this scene that breaks all the laws of physics and conservative morality. Don’t worry, there are more scenes in the film that will clean that scene out of people’s minds! Landscapes filled with exotic plants and animals prove to be very menacing to the Oms: a flying anteater licks up Oms with its penis-shaped tongue and Terr and a friend are nearly stomped on by a five-eyed / four-legged insectoid dragging a cumbersome ovipositor. Another critter with a nose that sprouts feelers spends its time in a cage grabbing and shaking little piggy flies with the antlered proboscis. Most mind-fucking of all is a contoured landscape of tubular worms that arch their backs during periods of rain. Perhaps there are too many unnecessary sexual jokes in the fauna and flora of the Draags’ world: the whole place is teeming with eroticism. It’s as if the animators deliberately set out to bait the conservative political establishment of their day, which in Czechoslovakia would have been the Communists and in France would have included most of the major political parties along the entire political spectrum and the Roman Catholic Church as well, by creating a universe in which everything is a sexual metaphor of some kind. In those days people believed sexual repression went hand-in-hand together with political repression and political freedom would lead to sexual freedom or vice versa. Little did folks at the time realise that sexual freedom mightn’t necessarily lead to political and social freedom, and could encourage the further oppression of women by objectifying and sexualising their bodies and clothes.

Due to the overarching themes, the plot’s complexity and the film’s short running time, character development is weak: viewers get no sense of Terr changing and maturing in personality as he adapts from his sheltered life with Tiva to life with the wild Oms, learning responsibility, independence and leadership along the way. The unnamed wild female Om who rescues him remains a minor character and the romance that develops between her and Terr is unconvincing. Neither the Draags nor the Oms come across as more than one-dimensional archetypes for class struggle and revolt against colonisation: the Draags appear over-refined and have a love-hate relationship with procreation. The Oms struggle against ignorance and superstition in their society and the process itself says something about the role of religion and the enforcement of ignorance in keeping a slave class oppressed.

Unfortunately even after the collapse of Communism across Europe, the ideas and messages of “Fantastic Planet” are still needed in our societies; many former Communist states in eastern Europe are falling under fascist government and economic inequalities are creating new social divisions and discrimination. The film is worth several viewings if only to acclimatise to the distinctive animation style and get over the sexualised look of the exotic wildlife and landscapes. The music is a mix of seventies prog(ressive) guitar rock pop with a lot of wet-sounding wah-wah pedal effects and some jazz.

 

 

 

Ikarie XB-1: an early 1960’s space travel movie that boldly went where no space travel movie went before

Jindrích Polák, “Ikarie XB-1” (1963)

A compelling early 1960’s science fiction gem from the old Czechoslovakia is this lavish effort by Polák that details the day-to-day lives of a crew flying a craft at close to the speed of light to Alpha Centauri in the year 2163. A planet has been detected in that star system that holds the promise of supporting Earth-borne life and this is the goal that consumes the crew’s attention and the movie’s running time. For a supposed pro-Soviet propaganda piece this movie has a small amount of capitalist bashing. There’s not much of a definite plot: after the film’s first thirty minutes which consist of introducing various members of the 40-strong crew as they go about their work, the story settles into three set pieces. In the first piece the crew of Ikarie XB-1 discover a derelict spacecraft and despatch two men to investigate; the men report that the abandoned ship is from Earth in 1987. The men discover there are still active nuclear weapons on the ship and try to escape. In the second set piece the Ikarie XB-1 passes near a dark star whose radiation affects the crew badly and causes a kind of sleeping sickness; this piece leads into the third set piece in which a crew member Michael (Otto Lackovic), who had ventured outside the Ikarie XB-1 to fix something while the ship was passing the dark star, becomes deranged from too much dark-star radiation exposure and becomes a threat to the ship’s mission and the crew’s lives as he starts damaging some of the robots and the ship’s technology.

The interior sets of Ikarie XB-1 are the film’s main highlight: the design of the control and flight rooms where crew members sit and pilot the ship is very “modern” for the period with plenty of artistic flair, light and space even in the corridors as well as the main function areas. A canteen, a gym and a swimming pool area Costumes are deliberately utilitarian apart from a ballroom dancing scene where the women wear 1960’s fashions and the men wear uniforms meant to be futuristic tuxedos. Admirably women as well as men have responsibility for piloting the ship, controlling interior air flows, temperatures and pressures, and monitoring people’s health and well-being though when it comes to making final decisions that could spell the difference between life and death, the older men still have the upper hand over everyone else, male and female alike. The crew’s response to Michael’s depression and rampage is sane though their capture of him isn’t necessarily recommended: the people in charge try to keep track of his location and where he is moving to, and send one – yes, one! – unarmed man out to fetch him and take him to the sick bay! Perhaps the brave man knows some form of self-defence like the Vulcan neck nerve pinch that isn’t mentioned in the film.

As if to provide a wry kind of balance, the exterior sets that show the ship flying through space are very cartoony and amateurish in a film that otherwise presents interstellar travel intelligently and treats its audience as educated and cultured. Viewers may wonder why animation wasn’t used instead to show the ship – perhaps the film’s budget didn’t allow for it. The budget did allow for a music soundtrack that includes some unusual and electronically produced sounds and tunes by famed Czech composer Zdenék Liška and this together with various sound effects that simulate noises from outside the ship as well as inside is another major highlight which contributes mightily to the overall serious and sometimes melancholy mood.

The main dangers faced by the crew suggest a questioning or inquiry into the nature of human interaction in and with space: how humans can create a new and isolated society and how they can co-exist in that society especially during emergency situations when they can only rely on themselves for help. Before the major set pieces take place, the film focusses on a love triangle that fizzles out when the two Romeos discover their lady love already has a husband, and on a couple who discover they’re expecting a baby. As everyone knows, when a film features a pregnancy the baby has to appear and “Ikarie XB-1” obliges with a bonny cutey near the end. Happily the movie never falls into sentimentality or soap-opera territory: everyone on board behaves sanely and properly, even during the party scene where couples dance sedately and people sniff little sticks of fragrance that remind them of Earth. The ship’s science officer is allowed eccentric foibles like bringing a useless robot Patrik on board and refusing to take his vitamin drinks which a woman engineer constantly urges on him. Another crew member brings his piano on board. Given the kind of mini-society the film-makers seemed to have in mind when developing the script, viewers shouldn’t be surprised if other crew members brought along enough musical instruments that they could constitute a full orchestra capable of playing all the major 19th and 20th century symphonies and concertos. The implication is that thanks to the triumph and spread of Communist socialism, all humans have become peaceful and reasonable. Of course this means strong characterisation is not the film’s strong point. Even the encounter with the dark star and its insidious radioactive effects isn’t enough to reduce everyone to a state of “capitalistic” greed and self-indulgence leading to competition, violence and murder. The film might have been more interesting and have a richer sub-text if the dark star had affected the crew in that way: the phenomenon would come to represent the crew’s collective unconsciousness – what Freudian psychoanalysis calls the id – that they haven’t come to terms with and which they must do to survive; but then “Ikarie XB-1” wouldn’t have been approved by the Czechoslovak government censors.

Communist propagandistic bluster in the movie appears in the scene in which the two cosmonauts explore the derelict ship and even there the film suggests that it was the dead capitalist crew’s inability to co-operate and settle disputes amicably that indirectly led to its demise. (And having military generals pilot the derelict craft wasn’t such a good idea either.) The society of “Ikarie XB-1” is proof enough of Communism’s success; whenever problems are encountered, whether from outside or inside, its inhabitants try to deal with them intelligently and resourcefully.

As is, the movie isn’t exciting drama for the general public but it’s a bold attempt to portray a futuristic society that deliberately isolates itself from the rest of humanity and Earth in order to fulfill a grand ambition to reach out to the stars and connect with other sentient life. It’s an interesting paradox, that to contact other intelligences, some of us need to separate ourselves (forever perhaps) from the rest of humankind. “Ikarie XB-1” attempts in a limited way to explore some of the ramifications that might arise when a society willingly detaches itself from all other people to pursue a narrow agenda. The full-length feature format is a restricted medium for studying the problems such a society and its individuals might have so it’s no wonder that when American producer and script-writer Gene Roddenberry had a similar idea about a group of pioneers travelling in space and dealing with emergencies, crises, setbacks and humdrum life generally – the Internet is awash with speculation that he was inspired by “Ikarie XB-1” – he chose the format of a TV series to flesh out his vision. Thus was “Star Trek” born.