Jabberwocky: meditation on growing up, conforming and assuming adult responsibilities

Jan Svankmajer, “Jabberwocky / Zvahlav aneb Saticky Slameneho Huberta” (1971)

Inspired by the Lewis Carroll poem of the same name, and which it dispenses with early on, this stop-motion animation short is a meditation on growing up, getting chewed through the sausage machine of school and assuming adult responsibilities while all the while trying to figure out a plan of escape that is consistently thwarted by greater forces in society. Although the stories told here look superficially like stories for children, there are suggestions of cruelty, meanness and misery that may puzzle or upset young children and which are really intended to be understood by adults.The music by Zdenek Liska is a beautiful and at times whimsical accompaniment to the film.

The film is only loosely based on the poem “Jabberwocky”: after the child’s voice finishes the recitation, the film shoots off on its own trajectory of the joy of early childhood celebrated by a dancing sailor suit which is suddenly trapped by sprouting tree canopies that drop fruit full of worms, followed by dolls emerging from their mother in the manner of maggots leaving behind a shell that was once their victim. The dolls are put through school, assembly-line style, and fall into a mincer which churns them out into flattened pieces. An iron comes and works the pieces over into miniature fashion mannequins. Exquisite china dolls sit at dinner: mum feeds the baby and wacks the older child while her companion chows down on a soup of amputated body parts.

The most memorable parts of the film include the scene of the somersaulting knife which unfortunately is forced into suicide, and repeating scenes of a line trying to trace a path through a maze before a black cat blunders into it from behind. Building blocks assemble to form Victorian illustrations. At last the line finds its path and scribbles all over a portrait of an elderly gent before flying through a nearby window to celebrate freedom.

Movement is quick and breezy and the entire atmosphere of “Jabberwocky” looks bright and energetic with jerky objects hardly ever still and many surprises and shocks in store: a doll gives birth to numerous tiny clones, the sailor suit mistreats a rocking-horse into bucking, the cat ends up stuck in a tiny cage. These shocks may be interpreted as examples of how cruel and nasty children can be to one another or as a general example of the unfairness of adult life or life generally. The film brims with busyness and viewers may be left behind trying to read too much story into the film.

While the stop-motion animation work is excellent, I did think that for its subject the film was a few minutes too long – the dancing knife scene could have been edited to be shorter and the scene with the sailor-suit harassing the rocking-horse could also have been truncated – and the origami scene was rather repetitive for what it was. Svankmajer has made better films than this though it’s not bad generally. I’d have preferred something a bit more whimsical, a bit sadder and with an ending of heroic failure.

The Exterminating Angel: satire on bourgeois hypocrisy and human inability to overcome oppression

Luis Buñuel, “The Exterminating Angel / El ángel exterminador” (1962)

So far everything I have seen of Luis Buñuel has been supremely first class and “The Exterminating Angel” is no exception. The film is a surrealist fantasy that lampoons the behaviour of the upper class and reveals it as a bunch of cowards, idiots and hypocrites. The plot is simple enough: a wealthy man, Nobilé, invites twenty or so of his pals and their wives to dinner after a night at the opera; after an excellent meal, coffee, conversation and some piano entertainment, the host and his guests discover they are unable to leave the dining-room. (In the meantime, all the servants have fled the mansion.) Over several weeks, the dinner-party guests grow hungry, thirsty and tired, and descend into exactly the barbarous behaviour they decry in working-class people.

The filming technique looks conventional but the dialogue is typically Buñuelian: exchanges are loaded with irony and sarcasm and poke fun at Roman Catholicism and what passes for Catholic morality, and at the guests’ own expectations about their place in society and how the world should revolve around them, their needs and wants. As the days pass, and one hapless man falls into a coma and dies, the guests display moral hollowness (no-one shows any compassion towards the dying guest and his companion), fight over water, make bargains with God, try to kill another guest in a bizarre superstitious ritual and fall into childish ways of solving the problem of leaving the dining-room. Intelligence, logic, any semblance of rationality are all left at the front door (literally, as it turns out) as the guests turn on one another. Viewers discover that all they have in common is their wealth and apart from that, the guests actually loathe one another. There is a suggestion that for some of them, the wealth was not obtained legitimately or was inherited at the expense of other, more hard-working people. (In a later complementary film, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”, Buñuel follows seven dinner companions in search of a decent meal together; two of these companions are shown to be a corrupt ambassador and his friend involved in a drug-trafficking scheme.)

The film’s structure is perfect and builds up quickly: disquieting omens about what will happen (the servants feel they must leave the mansion as soon as they can; one of the waiters trips while carrying the first course and spills the food all over the floor; the real evening’s entertainment that revolves around a bear and two sheep must be cancelled) occur quickly and efficiently for comic effect without elaboration; once the guests discover their predicament, the film settles into an easy-going pace in which Buñuel repeatedly shoots satirical barbs at the bourgeoisie through the guests’ foibles and prejudices. In the meantime, citizens and police outside the mansion worry about the fate of the people within but apart from that, life goes on as normal, illustrating the uselessness of the trapped upper class twats.

Significantly the bear proves harmless to the sheep though the hapless ovines end up being slaughtered by the guests. One doesn’t need to wonder too much at the sort of crass entertainment the bear and the sheep were supposed to provide before it was called off.

The film’s climax comes at the very end when, after freeing themselves in a hilarious ritual that they don’t understand, the guests attend church to thank God for saving them, only to discover that they can’t leave the church buildings! The climax is shown as a series of visual collages: the fade-out / fade-in of successive scenes shows the passage of time; other scenes send up political repression as mounted police chase away and shoot at crowds who are either trying to help the trapped congregation or celebrating their freedom; and eventually a flock of sheep is released into the church to be ripped apart and eaten (and their blood drunk) in a mock parody of Mass.

Repetition, reiterations, contradictions and unusual juxtapositions are major themes in the film which may help explain why about the halfway mark the film starts to drag with repeating ideas for some viewers. There is a surreal dream sequence in which voices, representing deeply felt concerns for some guests, speak off-screen while the guests sleep. The repetition suggests that people, even when given the chance, prefer to stick to convention, ritual and habit even when these threaten to destroy them or any chance they might have of achieving happiness. We know what the problem is, who’s oppressing and destroying us, how the oppression is occurring and what to do about our destroyers … so what’s stopping us from taking control of our destiny?

 

 

 

Rusalka: beautiful painterly film about faith, courage and self-sacrifice in fighting dark forces and vengeance

Alexander Petrov, “Rusalka” (1996)

Often referred to as “The Mermaid” in English, though mermaids and Russian rusalki are quite different creatures, this is a very beautiful and painterly animated short (Petrov painted the scenes in oil on glass) whose story could be based on a folk legend. A young country lad falls heavily in love with a female water spirit, known as a rusalka in Russian folklore; his aged grandfather who may be a monk tries to warn him against liaisons with such a being but, failing to make much impression on the youngster, tries to protect him with prayers to the Virgin Mary and Jesus, making the sign of the cross over him and making sure the boy does wear a cross when working outdoors. Of course, the old guy and the rusalka end up fighting fiercely for the boy’s soul and the ending is ferocious and tragic indeed.

The combination of painted scenes, objects and characters with stop-motion animation of a kind that appears to blend actions so that colours seem to bleed into one another gives “Rusalka” a very distinctive look that fits its watery, fishy theme well. Viewers are left in no doubt that the real protagonist and antagonist in the story are the old man and the spirit and both characters are complex: the old man may look the stereotyped wise fella who’s seen and done everything yet there are indications in the story that he feels his faith in God isn’t all it should be and it’s a real act of courage for him to take on the powerful rusalka in the storm scene. The rusalka plays the innocent young girl but a very brief scene demonstrates her true malevolent nature. The film hints that the rusalka and the old man met ages ago when the old man was young: he betrayed the rusalka when she was a young girl and she drowned herself in sorrow, becoming a vengeful water spirit as a result. The boy himself is an undeveloped, naive character and his portrayal is the weakest part of the plot: there’s little indication that he feels some remorse for what his Pops had to sacrifice to save his young life. Perhaps if the film had had some dialogue to portray the conflict developing between the boy and the old man, both men’s feelings toward and their relationships with the rusalka, and the larger conflict between faith in God and being attracted to the rusalka and what she represents, the plot might have been stronger, more complex and thoughtful.

Colours in the film tend strongly towards the deep blues and greens with a greyish tint to them, suggesting the power of the water world and the spirits dwelling within. Humans are dressed in drab brown which signifies that they are simple and humble country folk making a living from the land.

At the film’s end, there’s a sense that the old man and the rusalka have ended their life-long feud and the young man can forge ahead in life, having learned his lesson. “Rusalka” is a beautiful, dreamy film to watch and its delicate look combined with strong colours and a fluid, bleeding flow from one action to the next warrant at least two viewings.

 

Our Lady of the Sphere: experimental film’s welcome wears out quickly

Larry Jordan, “Our Lady of the Sphere” (1969)

An intriguing and colourful film, “Our Lady of the Sphere” is based on the Bardo Thodol, a Tibetan funerary book usually known in the West as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This book describes the experiences a soul may have in the interval between death and rebirth. (Death and rebirth are represented by outer space scenes in which a figure passes into or out of a pock-marked moon.) The film short is a collage of scenes usually dominated by one colour that appears as a blanket shade over the scene or in various shades throughout the scene. Objects float or slide over figures and backgrounds in the various settings; the animation resembles old Monty Python cartoons made up by Terry Gilliam or album cover sleeves for old Amon Duul II recordings like “Tanz der Lemminge”. (Amon Duul II was a famous German space rock band of the early 1970s; I have the band’s first three albums.) In several scenes mysterious astronaut figures with Christmas baubles for helmeted heads appear and it seems that these figures are guides to the soul making its way through the shadow world towards its new life.

Viewers not familiar with the Bardo Thodol – and most won’t be as most Westerners are not believers in Tibetan Buddhism – will find the film’s novelty value wearing off very quickly: there’s no apparent plot to speak of, there’s no narrative structure to be discerned, so the film presents as just a series of pretty unrelated collages with lots of floaty objects or somersaulting gymnast figures. The music soundtrack is based on “Largo for Glass Harmonica in C minor” by Johann Abraham Peter Schulz, interrupted at intervals by an annoying buzzing doorbell noise which usually heralds a transformation. The central part of the soundtrack is taken up by a famous circus / carnival / sideshow musical motif which everyone knows but whose name remains obscure. Probably the most interesting part of the film short is a scene near the end in which two astronauts, representing the soul and its guide, pass through a rapid series of backgrounds which change quickly, their colours shifting as well and drenching the astronauts in different hues, and arrive at a staircase that may lead back into the material plane of existence.

Worth a look just to hear the circus music and watch the performing gymnasts but the film’s experimental nature is not much consolation for those expecting a message or theme.

Asparagus: colourful surreal exploration of female sexuality

Suzan Pitt, “Asparagus” (1979)

A stunning and very colourful film short with a distinct animation style reminiscent of old cartoons from the 1930s, “Asparagus” is an exploration of female sexuality and wish fulfilment. An unidentified woman who is viewed mostly from behind lives alone in a house rich in flowers, small objects, cosy and lived-in furnishings and a doll’s house that in the manner of matryoshka dolls reveals more doll’s-houses within. The woman puts on a mask from one of the inner doll’s houses, goes to the cinema and observes claymation figures watching a barren revolving tube; she sneaks off behind the screen, opens a briefcase and releases a Pandora’s box of marvellous objects, familiar yet also alien and vaguely of a sexual nature, through the tube. The objects breach the fourth wall and stream over the heads of the astonished viewers who are also nearly overcome by the fragrances that waft out from the tube as well. Satisfied, the woman returns home, removing her mask to reveal a blank face.

The animation has a lush, rich, decadent style: very curvaceous and sexually suggestive in its vegetable and flower forms, harking back to the Art Deco artistic style of the 1930s and the Pop Art of the 1950s  perhaps. Colour is an important element though there isn’t much overt symbolism in the use of particular colours; I note only that the revolving vagina / cornucopia tube on the cinema screen is a cold cobblestone-blue colour which doesn’t change when the objects start floating out of it. Many scenes involve red curtains or screens being pulled across windows to reveal or to cover images of gardens and garden plants and a sexual message is implied here. The pace is always steady and calm: although surprise builds upon surprise, somehow we viewers ourselves expect the unexpected to happen, not the expected; the sexual imagery is also no surprise though it becomes more blatant as the film progresses. No obvious narrative is to be discerned here although on repeated viewings the film’s message becomes clearer and it is this message that anchors the film.

Unfortunately the volume was low even when I turned it up to 100% but the dream-like carnival music, composed by Richard Teitelbaum, is steady and even and doesn’t relate to the film in any way at all. It could have been removed and no-one would notice.

The eponymous asparagus fulfills quite a few varied functions including one that bananas might have been expected to fill and viewers may not view the humble monocot vegetable the same way after seeing “Asparagus”. Some viewers may be impatient with the film’s rather bland, steady and unemotional presentation and the apparent lack of plot or structure. It’s worth seeing a few times just to take in the layered animation and its details; there is a lot of detail to appreciate!

 

Les Jeux des Anges: blackly humorous indictment of concentration camps and police-state societies

Walerian Borowczyk, “Les Jeux des Anges” (1964)

So far the strangest film I have seen from Borowczyk, “Les Jeux …” at first doesn’t appear to have anything resembling a plot but on second viewing I realised the short is a minimalist satire of the concentration camp experience in WW2-era Poland and of Soviet-style collectivisation of agriculture in Poland’s post-war period. The first half of the film is a survey of a factory, its tools and machinery; the second half shows how human beings are processed by the machinery in the manner of a sausage-machine (I use the metaphor very euphemistically) into angels.

The original film’s colours emphasised red but in the version I saw on Youtube, the predominant colours were variations of dark blue and grey which made the film more sombre and depressing to look at but not so much so that I couldn’t appreciate Borowczyk’s blackly wicked humour which turns church-organ pipes into rifle butts and people’s heads into so many little metal balls to roll down little funnels while the camera’s focus switches from one funnel to the next and back in clockwork rhythms. A glamorous blow-up doll figure, possibly representing a warped mother / Virgin Mary figure, presides over the factory work.

A minimal approach is used to portray the factory and its interiors with an emphasis on repetition; there is no narration which forces the viewer to watch the film’s proceedings closely and judge for him/herself what the message is. Several shots are done “close-up” to various subjects and acquire a very abstract quality that Borowczyk uses to advance the film’s theme and “narrative”, and for comic, satirical effect as when he turns the pipes into weapons. The music soundtrack which features much church organ is droll, cheerful and unnerving; its association with the industrial processing of humans into angels speaks mountains about organised religion’s all-too-ready acquiescence to powerful political elites and its willingness to co-operate in the subjugation and oppression of populations.

The angels are sent out on the train tracks in a way that suggests their function is to collect more human materiel for angel-making and so the film concludes as it begins in a closed loop. A more devastating indictment of a police-state society and culture couldn’t be made in a film that blankly and silently presents its case in just under 10 minutes. Perhaps the true horror of such states is to be found in the film’s banal presentation of the factory and its inner workings: the matter-of-fact, almost casual yet relentless and repetitive mass-production processing of death.

Les Astronautes: droll and inventive animation collage film about an irrepressible scientist-hero

Walerian Borowczyk, Chris Marker, “Les Astronautes” (1959)

An entertaining little film short, “Les Astronautes” is a stop-motion animation collage of photographs copied, cut and pasted onto coloured or still-photograph backgrounds combined with some live action. An amateur scientist (Michel Boschet) builds his own space rocket in his garage and with his pet owl goes for a ride in the craft around his home city Paris, ogling at a scantily clad woman (Ligia Borowczyk) through a window and buzzing a big-shot businessman (Philippe Lifchitz) in his open sedan, before zooming into space and meeting a bigger space rocket which engages him in a dog-fight. The scientist saves a smaller red craft from the big space rocket but he is in for an unpleasant surprise when he tries to contact the pilot of the little ship.

At once rough and raw in appearance and apparent execution, yet witty and cutting in its plot, the film zings along with energy and creativity to spare. I’ll hazard that Borowczyk took care of the animation and Marker might have been responsible for the photography and the narrative technique used in which the particular sequencing of pictures alone suggests the story-line but does it really matter who did which? The whole film is inventive and brims with the film-makers’ eccentric creativity. The scientist grins foolishly at the young woman through a double periscope whose lens show his blinking eyes and his little rocket resembles a crude newspaper origami figure that flits about gaily over photographs of Paris and paintings of outer space and alien landscapes.

The whimiscal soundtrack is a major highlight and could stand on its own as a major piece of musique concrete: light little metalloid melodies jostle for attention with sparse spoken word monologues from the young woman and the pet owl, and various sound effects such as firing bullets where appropriate in the plot.

I wish the film had been longer and developed its story more, particularly near the end where the identity of the pilot of the red spaceship is never identified, nor is the reason for the red ship’s battle with the large space rocket explained. The film’s ending is dark and ambiguous, the owl turning out to be an avian psychopompos, and though the finale is as light-hearted and droll as the rest of the film, viewers can’t help but shed tears at all the other wannabe but ultimately failed scientist-heroes our man joins. This may say something about the irrepressible and curious nature of the human spirit, that despite its often vain attempts to go beyond dull conformist or even oppressive society, people will continue to strive to reach for the heavens – and some day, someone will succeed in breaking away.

 

The House: early foray into cut-out stop-motion animation could have done with a stronger vision and extra time

Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica, “The House / Dom” (1958)

Rather odd film in which a woman (Ligia Branice), seemingly trapped and bored in an apartment block while tapping away at a typewriter, daydreams about various moving objects, two men French-boxing and fencing, a man repeatedly entering a room and placing his hand on a hat-stand, and a live fur wig breaking pieces of still life on a table, “The House” is an early foray into cut-out stop-motion animation for the two Polish animator / directors Borowczyk and Lenica. As it is, the film is good if uneven: the first half of the film has more lively and eccentric animation while the second half concentrates on a series of photographic stills and only the last few moments feature any “real” animation when a mannequin’s head disintegrates.

Not much plot to speak of here though it’s possible that in “The House”, Borowczyk and Lenica were criticising an aspect or some aspects of totalitarian life in Poland: the sense of feeling trapped and apathetic in a structure you can never escape from; people performing repetitive actions in a society they don’t care about yet can’t get worked up enough over to get rid of it; and the absurdity of life where common sense is constantly being over-run by petty laws and bureaucrats. Branice’s character appears to live in a fantasy world: she kisses a mannequin and caresses it as though it can actually respond … and it does, just not in the way the woman expects. She returns to her boring typing job in the building.

There’s not very much of the cut-out stop-motion animation in the film. It must still have been a new thing for Borowczyk and Lenica to work out. The best of it is in Ligia’s first dream in which objects operate of their own volition. The fight sequence is not bad and is noted mainly for its repetition, the change in colours (the use of colour is rather crude and limited in its scope) and the musical soundtrack which suggests a UFO hovering overhead human cities while the alien pilot tries to find a parking spot. Depending on the action, the music is often very droll and even borders on the kitsch. In the second half of the film, Ligia starts thinking of distant relatives whose portraits appear in the still photographs and of how one male relation had to go to war and fight.

Cheekily, Borowczyk and Lenica deflate a tender and melancholy passage in the film for laughs: the woman kisses a mannequin, decorates it with flowers and stands back while the mannequin disintegrates. Perhaps this sequence is intended to reflect the cruelty of life, that it separates loved ones who may never see each other again.

I wish the plot had been more developed so that the woman’s motivations become clearer and we understand why she’s stuck in the building and day-dreams so much. Bits of the film can seem fussy and overdone in a way that suggests the two directors wanted to milk ideas for all that they’re worth. Even so, “The House” is an interesting film to follow to see how two animators were developing and perfecting their art.

 

The Labyrinth: absurd surrealist animated film portrays a bizarre totalitarian society

Jan Lenica, “The Labyrinth / Labirynt” (1963)

Superficially this looks like a Terry Gilliam / Monty Python animated cartoon and it is indeed very funny and quite surreal. A man with mechanical wings strapped to him visits a strange 19th-century European city whose streets and buildings are oddly empty. He has several weird adventures which culminate in his being captured by a mad scientist who early on has noted his presence and who probably rules the city. The scientist-ruler subjects the visitor to painful scientific examinations but he manages to escape and tries to leave the city. The ruler searches for him and sends out bat-winged scouts to find the visitor and bring him down.

The combination of stop-motion animation and collages of paper cut-out 19th-century figures and buildings gives the short a distinctive steam-punk look and provides opportunities for humorous sight gags. Insects with human heads and animated dinosaur skeletons don’t look at all out of place – we accept them as inventions of the mad scientist-ruler. Colour is an important feature and its use is very striking and beautiful. The musical soundtrack assumes a major role in enhancing the action and tension of the plot and of the 19th-century atmosphere as the film is completely silent.

There are passages where the action seems fussy and dragged out – the scientific examination of the visitor is probably overdone though the animation is fiendishly droll and the use of colour very original in parts – and the film could have been edited for a faster, tighter plot narrative.

Overall “The Labyrinth” presents a world at once absurd, bizarre and entertaining but which turns out to be nightmarish and deadly. The city is more Hotel-California than the visitor realises: you can visit and stay as long as you like but you can never leave. A parallel with the authoritarian state that existed in Poland in the early 1960s, and the absurdities associated with totalitarian rule that went on in that country, can be observed.

The Thomas Beale Cipher: good-looking collage / rotoscoped animation film let down by small scale of plot and concept

Andrew S Allen, “The Thomas Beale Cipher” (2010)

Unusual collage-type animated film that’s based on the legend about the three cypher-texts that supposedly reveal the location of a treasure chest of gold and silver worth millions of dollars, this is quite fiendish to watch and requires repeated viewings to understand and to find 14 supposed clues. Protagonist Professor White, a noted cryptographer on the run as a suspected Nazi spy, is on the trail of this chest and boards a train. Shadowy figures claiming to be FBI are hunting him and he must evade them. An ingenious sequence of overhead luggage improbably slamming into one another and then attacking the agents saves White’s hide and enables him to flee. That’s pretty much all there is to the plot.

The film has the look of an aged historical document and the animation technique used appears to be rotoscope with cut-outs of material and real human eyes to give the film a fresh, rough-hewn look. Bits of fabric like tweed or carpet cut out into shapes of people or objects recall textures of materials once used on clothes or objects and add particular historical flavour. Main and minor characters alike look real yet slightly eccentric and one train passenger looks downright steam-punk weird. A beautiful woman looking out the window may be a stereotypical film-noir mystery dame. Characters wear clothes of flat floral or herringbone pattern and Professor White’s glasses reproduce numbered code at various points in the short as his thoughts through his eyes lay out a hilarious plan of escape and deception.

The plot proceeds with the benefit of voice-over narration by White which allows the film to delve into a bit of flashback history about the treasure and Thomas Beale himself. The story is told with the use of first- and second-person points of view: White addresses the young woman (and the audience) and although the lady does nothing other than smoke and look out the window, she is in fact an active participant in White’s scheme.

Disappointingly the film ends with White rushing into the hills while senior agent Black glares at him from the departing train. One hopes a sequel might be made but the short is so self-contained that I doubt that possibility. There are several sight gags – one funny one being where White hides behind a newspaper whose back page is emblazoned with his portrait, in itself probably a familiar trick disguise from Hollywood films – and ingenious camera angles and points of view that take advantage of the train-carriage setting with the overhead luggage section.

For such a good-looking film, the plot is insubstantial and the whole work would benefit from an expansion into a 30-minute piece with a few more, less complicated clues as to the characters’ nature and motivations, and how White and Black are related to each other.

No I haven’t worked out what the clues are but interested readers can Google thomas + beale + cipher + Facebook to find the Facebook page where people discuss the clues and a solution by Czech computer student Miroslav Sustek has been posted.