Collected Shorts of Jan Svankmajer: Volume One
Director: Jan Svankmajer
Year: 2003
TRT: 1:26

Here lies a fantastic collection of short films by one freaky Czechoslovakian filmmaker named Jan Svankmajer. This first volume concentrates on his early work, roughly 1965 to 1969 (though the last is from 1980, the break is attributed to the fact that between 1972 and 1979, Svankmajer was apparently banned from filmmaking by the Czech authorities). Experimenting isn't exactly the right word for what Svankmajer does with the technique of stop-motion animation, because he pulls of some great stuff here. As surreal and twisted as a moving Dali picture at times, the following are brief descriptions of the seven short films included on this DVD.

A Game with Stones: 1965 : 9 min : Simple setup involving stones and a clock. Interaction becomes more and more complex, starting with a simple interplay of black and white stones to the music box tune. Time passes and the play becomes much more intricate to where things really aren't black and white at all. That's where the bottom falls, and anti-chaos ensues. Excellent introduction to Svankmajer's work; not always strictly stop-motion, works in surreal loops of real-time action and stills to complete the story.

Punch and Judy: 1966 : 10 min : Quick-cut stills and real-time puppet pageantry reveal most of the story of that wicked handpuppet known as Punch. Illustrates yet another reason why one should never own a guinea pig. They're only trouble, you know. And quite stinky if left to their own. Definitely not something worth coveting.

Et Cetera: 1966 : 7 min : Collection of miscellaneous animations, all stop-motion, and experimentation with different techniques/mediums. Sorry Gilliam, these take it to the next level.

Picnic with Weissmann: 1969 : 13 min : Might make a bit more sense if you could understand the German woman singing on the record, but who the hell am I kidding? Pretty much the only way balls should ever be inflated.

The Flat: 1968 : 13 min : Mirror madness, a chair with a mind of its own, tantalizing food to be enjoyed strictly by sight. Amusing physical comedy is abundant in this surreal trap, possibly planting a seed into the young Sam Raimi's head that would see fruition in films of an Evil Dead variety? A surprising number of visual gags are on display here, all pretty well done.

A Quiet Week in the House: 1969 : 19 min : Very cool multiple-exposure/strobing effect comes into play with the stop-motion "observations" made. The scenarios watched become progressively darker as time passes, though I guess the first one is just as surreal as the first. There's one with wire that is particularly reminiscent of the band Tool's earlier videos, yet supersedes them by what, almost 30 years? Don't matter to me none, though, it's great to see a possible source of inspiration as well and what it can inspire.

The Fall of the House of Usher: 1980 : 15 min : Adaptation of Poe's story, frustratingly so. Quickly-narrated gibberish turns into quickly-passing subtitles, making it a bit hard to keep up with the story versus the great visuals. Even with the daunting looks of some rakish clay, nothing is more terrifying than some suicidal chairs, I tell you.

Whoever said quick-cut editing wasn't mastered until the era of rock-music videos and big-budget blockbusters has obviously never seen a film by Svankmajer, where indeed, every frame counts. For as odd as the subject matter and main "characters" may be, it still comes down to universal storytelling unburdened by language. Well, okay, some if not most if not all of these are still pretty fuckin' bizarre, but he is a registered member of the surrealist movement, after all (even if it is the Czech chapter, I won't hold it against 'im).

Great Scene: Each of the films really have some great shining moments to them. Great optical trick with the mirror in "The Flat."

DVD Notes: Great disc put out by KimStim (?!? must be French), includes a wide variety of goodies to further whet your appetite on the works of Svankmajer. A nice number of alternate selected artworks is on display in the form of drawings, puppets and ceramics; a brief bio, filmography, and a poem are also listed. I think that last would be better off left elsewhere, but it's nice to know this is one truly well-rounded freak.