Food (Jídlo) – Jan Švankmajer, 1992

Svankmajer's Jidlo (Food)

Introducing Jan Švankmajer (Alice) to anyone always nets you a reputation for being a weirdo. From the word go, Food’s style is absurd and choppy, often very naturalistic, and more than a little risqué. But I think it’s well worth anyone’s time – so please indulge this weirdo as I talk about Švankmajer’s 1992 film Food and why it’s a lesser-known gem of Czech cinema.

Food contains three shorts films – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – that are thematically connected. They all contain some sort of food consumption (surprisingly) but there is often a twist that turns the simple daily rituals to downright bizarre affairs. In sixteen minutes, Food shows people who turn into machines, hungry diners devouring their clothes, and various kinds of gourmands digging into their own body-parts. So yeah, there’s a lot going on…

Švankmajer’s style will likely be the first thing you’ll notice. Food uses a mixture of claymation and pixilation. Both are stop-motion animation techniques, the first using clay figurines and the second with live-action actors. This is where the choppiness comes from. Even a basic action like walking is replaced by actors standing on both feet as they slide through space. Stop-motion is a perfect choice for Food as many of the effects that Švankmajer uses would be difficult to execute convincingly even with modern CGI technology. But through the use of claymation and pixilation he’s able to make the suspension of disbelief wider so that when a man inserts an L-shaped chair part into his comically stretched-out mouth, I didn’t even flinch.

Another way Food manages to feel like a breath of fresh air today is the complete absence of dialogue, although it’s by no means a silent movie. The soundscape is rich in tongue clicking, hinge-creaking, and water splashing, but without any dialogue or narration, the whole short is carried by its cinematic language alone.
 
Although it’s silent, it definitely speaks volumes. Švankmajer had the idea for Food in the 1970s but he was sure that many of the themes would be perceived as criticism of the Communist regime. And though I’m too young to see that regime as anything but history, I can definitely understand where he was coming from. 
 
Take for example the first short, Breakfast, which opens with a man entering a room where another guy sits motionless at a table with a card around his neck. The room has peeling paint and a single industrial lightbulb in a cage. The newcomer reads the card around the motionless man’s neck and begins operating him like a machine. He holds his nose until he chokes and opens his mouth so he can insert money, kicks his chin to get a tissue, and other such things. When he’s finished eating, he also begins making mechanical noises and becomes motionless. The other man comes alive, stretches himself and leaves.
 
Svankmajer's Food - Breakfast

There’s a lot to unpack thematically, such as people using others to their own ends just like a vending machine, and how that’s a mutual process. People often used one another during the Communist era for their own gain, either by informing the authorities about their neighbour’s anti-Communist misdeeds or just by using their power to get what they wanted from others.

None of this is restricted to communism, however. People still use one another as machines, and the use of a gastronomic setting is perfect. Just read some posts by people who work in Starbucks and you’ll see what diners are capable of – and power will always be abused by those who have it. These three short parables are showing us who we are and how we behave through absurd imagery. And while I don’t like the mirror it gives me, I can’t deny it’s kind of accurate.

Food hasn’t lost much of its relevance. While it certainly leans heavily into the dilapidated post-communist aesthetic, it carries ideas and themes which couldn’t be more relevant today. If you’re debating whether or not you should see it, it’s on YouTube and it only lasts sixteen minutes. So honestly, not watching it is pure laziness. Just be careful, this film is definitely not safe for work!

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You can watch the full version of Food (Jídlo) on YouTube here.

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