Philosophical Aesthetics > Assessment: Jan Švankmajer
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Assessment: Jan Švankmajer
Jan Švankmajer is a Czech filmmaker and artist who had worked over a number of different media platforms, though he is namely known for his stop motion/Claymation animated pieces and surreal feature films.
He has inspired many artists, gained recognition and won awards; such as the Golden Berlin Bear and the International Fantasy Film Award, with his distinctive stop-motion technique and his surreal, nightmarish, although at times humorous, style of work.
Of his numerous pieces, including better known animations and feature films, I chose to work with his animated short entitled “Darkness, Light, Darkness” and his short Claymation/stop motion film “Jídlo” or “Food”, which combines the three different shorts for the three different meals together back-to-back.
My reasoning for choosing these two of his pieces is that I found them both to be intriguing, with an implicated darker undertone away from the slight splash of humour that was thrown into them.
“Expression” and “Marxist” are the two theories that I will use to evaluate these two pieces, as I feel I could find a lot to say of them based on these theories, especially the Aesthetic experience of them.
“Darkness, Light, Darkness” features a small room with two doors, where various body parts enter and are put themselves together to form a man (or boy, perhaps) who outgrows the room he occupies. My initial thinking would be that it represents a womb of some form and development of a child, or simply a visual theory of someone intent on building themselves up but constraining themselves and their world as they do so.
We start with a room, and entering the room is a clay hand, rolling in are two eye balls which the hand moulds into two of its fingers, then another hand appears from the second door and together, with some clay, they mould a head and place the eyes into the sockets. One by one they piece together a man, who grows and grows until he’s squashed into the room. It pans around the body before some clay turns out the lights.
This was created in a more playful manner, added a little humour when the genitals are introduced.
‘“Darkness-Light-Darkness” has been seen by many critics and viewers as a very strong allegory of suffocating life in Eastern Europe which is true, but I also see it as an allegory of a struggle every talented and deeply feeling artist goes through in the search for beauty and meaning regardless the political system or the country they live. From the darkness of non-existence to the light of knowledge to the unbearable darkness of being – that’s the road Svankmajer takes us and as usual, his vision is not a cheerful or optimistic one.’
This then goes against the Marxist theory, as the clay person is in complete control of their being. They’re playing god and his creation. Although you could then suggest that the room itself suppresses the being, so although he built himself up the room still kept him from going any further, it kept him from proceeding any further than the walls would allow him to. Boundaries have been set for him before he was even in any human-like state, with no windows to even allow him to see beyond his limitations.
“Food” is a short stop motion/Claymation film that is made up of three separate parts for the three different meals.
“Breakfast” features a man entering a room that has only a coat stand, lots of empty plates and left-over food over the floor and in a bin, a table and one free seat, as someone is already sitting in the other wearing a set of instructions around his neck. Following the instructions the robot-like person will open up their chest where a small lift brings the buyer food. After eating the food, the buyer then becomes robot-like too, and freezes up while the other regains some life; put the set of instructions around the buyer’s neck and walks out of the room through the other door. Someone else then walks through the other door and the process is repeated.
“Lunch” presents two men, one poorer and the other seemly better-off, sat at the same dinner table in a restaurant who are continuingly ignored by the waiter. This drives the richer man to begin to eat his lunch, but without any food. Starting with a small bouquet of flowers that were sitting on the table, the poorer man copies him and eats the single flower he collected and ate the vase. With each ignored attempt to bring over the waiter, the richer man continues to eat various items of his clothing, to which the poorer man copies. It ends with them both sitting on the floor, naked and having just eaten their table and chairs. With nothing left to eat, the richer man tricks the poor man into eating his knife and fork before closing in on him.
And finally “Dinner” is a fairly shorter sequence than the previous two. It follows a man sat at a restaurant table that is covered in condiments, sauces and other side-dishes. He picks up various different sauces and seasonings and piles them all onto whatever is on his plate, which later is revealed to be his hand after hammering in a fork in his new wooden hand. We then switch to a different table where an athlete or perhaps footballer, as suggested from the sportswear and number-tag, eats his leg, a woman squeezes two lemons over her breasts before starting to eat them and at the final table, a sluggish looking man tries to eat his genitals, before noticing the camera and covering them to shoo away the cameraman.
The “Food” series altogether is focused on different the human relationship with food. Jan Svankmajer does portray food, and the general idea of eating in a rather grotesque manner, using some unconventional shots and methods of eating to make it seem almost a strange thing to do, or something to be done for the sake of doing it and not for any aspect of pleasure. He pays a lot of attention to this idea of food in any of his pieces that involve eating, almost obsessed with it. This fixation is noticeable and Jan, himself, acknowledges this having said in an interview:
‘You are right to notice that food is indeed one of my recurring themes. It is something of an obsession. I believe that obsessions are not to be repressed; they may often be all that we have. My obsession with food goes back to when I was a child because I was a non-eater and was sent to various feeding camps where they tried to fatten me up. It’s funny, but when I showed Faust to my surrealist group one of them exclaimed ‘for crying out loud, food again!’ and I replied ‘where?’ as I had not even realised that food was so evident in the film. Little Otik is obviously in many ways about what is the absolute eater. It is important to notice that Otik does not just eat everything, he absolutely devours it and therefore it is a symbol about how our civilization feels the need to devour everything: ethnic groups, cultures. This film is about food, but it is more about devouring.’
In this short interview he mentions that as a child he was a “non-eater” and had been sent to various feeding camps in an attempt to put weight on, this would appear to have created his disinterest in the idea of food. He didn’t want to eat, but his parents, the workers at these camps; society in general said he had to. He would have understood that he had to, but that didn’t change his want to. He perhaps doesn’t see it as something to derive pleasure from, but as purely necessity. This reflects in his work where food is used, the people themselves never look like they’re actually enjoying the food but they just keep shovelling it in. Shovelling it in, indeed, or better put in Jan’s own words “devouring”. The food in most causes never looks delicious; it always looks grey and repulsive. Expressing visually how he sees food.
The whole “Food” series is basically centred on this in different ways. You eat because it’s there, you eat what’s there because there isn’t a choice and you eat away at yourself.
In Marxist thinking all three of these shorts suggest a strict order in place for each of them.
In “Breakfast” One is controlled by another, and then they are controlled by someone different. Everyone’s being controlled by someone else, and it’s all in turn. One moment you’re playing the man in charge to one person but being nothing more than a robot to another.
“Lunch” displays both the rich and the poor in one setting. Both within their own freedom to do as they like and yet the poorer man copies everything the richer one does. He looks upon him as some kind of guidance, and follows everything he does himself. Perhaps because he sees him as a higher person and if it was okay for him to eat his plate then he could too. Or maybe, he had to also. The richer man was eventually expecting the poorer man to copy him bite for bite, thus tricking him in the end with this.
He had the free-will do not copy the rich man, but he still allowed himself to be influenced by him.
The richer man didn’t end up any worse for eating his chair and all his clothes, because even by matching him action by action, bite for bite, the richer man still had his upper hand over the poorer man, who had been suggested as being then eaten.
The Claymation that’s used over the live models transforms these real people into highly exaggerated expressions and facial movements, that don’t look out of place but certainly strange as we witness these normal, real faces being stretched and squashed into completely unrealistic shapes and forms, or real body parts being replaced with clay versions (Such as the tongues on “Breakfast”)
We then end with “Dinner”, the shorter of the three shorts. In this we witness four different, seemly, rich people eating certain parts of their bodies, which have been placed on plates and presented to look more food-like. They’re eating away at themselves, but in this high-end setting it’s been normalized. Or is it that we’re looking upon this from a poorer perspective, a poorer person’s sense of normal? They’re rich, they can afford to eat their left hand or their left foot, we couldn’t.
The whole sequence is that of complete freedom and the self-consuming horrors of it, all masked with the fancy façade.
The men and the woman are defined by their output, the idea that in a political society what someone does is who they are, and who they are is what they sell. What they do is who they are, is what they sell, and is what puts food on their table.
The athlete eats his leg, as football (I assume) is what he does; a footballer is what he is. He eats the riches gained from his legs.
The women, is perhaps a model or in a profession similar, where appearance is key. Her large breasts are what made her, is something to do with who she is and what she does.
The first man is perhaps a writer, where his main hand is where he gains his riches.
The final, seemly poorer man who ate his genitals seemed out of place. His tablecloth is stained, his ashtray seems full, and instead of a glass of champagne he has a pint of lager. He doesn’t seem to have any clothes on either, and he dines on his penis that sits in a tray. He covers his meal and shoos away the cameraman, suggesting that maybe this discretion can eliminate the truth of the act.
They’re concepts of identity based on wealth and being; their eating the riches gained from their key features or functions.
The hunger for self-control can only result in depletion.
‘In Švankmajer’s world, stomachs open, faces distort, and limbs are replaced with wooden apparatuses that offer the appearance of humanity, all the while severing the flesh that built it. Where does this lead, and in an all-consuming society, which part will remain, the mouth or the stomach? What function is more essentially “human?” Does it matter? Doesn’t all food turn to shit?’
‘Švankmajer’s 1992 claymation short, Food, uses the eating ritual to expose the fallacy of order, deconstructing not only politics in the post-revolution Czech State, but also more terrifying notions of self-identity and functionality. The movie, like our day, is separated into three sections, Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner, short examinations of control that become progressively more absurd as the illusion of order becomes greater.’
According to this review of the short film, the shorts are progressing in its absurdness and more control is lost between “Breakfast” towards “Dinner”. Starting at Breakfast, where the people are made into dumb-waiters that can be controlled by following a simple set of instructions, and the buyer is in complete control of the transaction until the end of their meal where they become robotic themselves, and the other regains life. We then move onto Lunch, where they start with self-control and order, and eventually lose them over the course of the sequence, ending with a presumed cannibalism. The final short “Dinner” is completely self-mutilated and cannibalism, dressing the whole act up in a fancy, high-end restaurant making it seem normal. We also appeared to start from a poorer setting, to a mixture of rich and poor then finally ending in a richer setting.
References / source material:
– “Jan Svankmajer” on Wikipedia.
– YouTube “Darkness, light, darkness” & “Food”