Insect (Hmyz) – Jan Švankmajer, 2018

Once on a family holiday, we were walking around the side streets of a small Welsh town when we stumbled upon an old bric-a-brac shop that was closed for many years. Among the dusty collection of forlorn objects in the window display sat a vintage doll with braided hair, a straw hat, and a yellowed cotton dress. Her cheeks were webbed with tiny cracks and one of her eyes was missing. With her remaining eye, she gazed out across the universe like a martyr in a medieval painting. A huge dead spider lay curled up in her lap.

That image really troubled my childhood imagination, filled me with a terrible sense of nausea. It is the same feeling I got years later when I first saw Jan Švankmajer’s Jabberwocky, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. His use of musty found objects in his animation, including dolls like the one sitting in that shop window years ago, disturbs me to this day.

Strangely I consider this a good thing, and with this in mind, I thought I’d check out Švankmajer’s final film, Insects. The blurb states that it is based on the play Pictures from the Insects’ Life by Karel and Josef Čapek, although that is a little misleading. The film finds Švankmajer in a playful mood, seemingly determined to do everything apart from shoot a straightforward adaptation of the satirical work.

After a cold open where we see a middle-aged man dressed in bug wings and goggles hurrying along the street, Švankmajer appears before the camera himself to provide a foreword for his new feature. The brothers Čapek wrote the play in 1924 while Hitler was sitting in a pub scheming his terrible schemes and Lenin was building his first gulags. Meanwhile, the Czechs and Slovaks were enjoying their newly founded republic, and people found the Čapek’s play a bit too pessimistic for the times. It was sheer youthful misanthropy, he tells us, and only gained greater relevance as the momentous events of the 20th century unfolded. 

All very interesting, you might think, and this foreword certainly whetted my appetite for the adaptation that was to follow. However, that is when Švankmajer goes deliberately off-script, flunking his lines and warning us of the chaos to follow…

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Conspirators of Pleasure (Spiklenci Slasti) – Jan Švankmajer, 1996

When I first watched Jan Švankmajer’s Conspirators of Pleasure I didn’t even notice there was no dialogue. It so effectively overwhelms your senses, there isn’t much to be said anyway.

The film follows a group of individuals in Prague, each engrossed in a tedious process of creating the conditions for their erotic desire.

One man begins the process of creating an elaborate chicken costume. Another, engineers a machine with fake hands. A mailwoman uses her saliva to furtively mold bread balls in a stairwell. And that’s just the beginning.

Švankmajer knows that arousal (meaning in simple terms, heightened stimulation) comes from a combination of touch and imagination. When he was blacklisted as a filmmaker during Communist rule in Prague, he wrote a book about it, Touching and Imagining: An Introduction to Tactile Art.

Buy your copy of Conspirators of Pleasure from Amazon HERE

Švankmajer makes use of both touch and imagination to build context and storytelling around objects and characters without the support of dialogue.

In cinema we can technically only experience two senses, sound and sight. But Švankmajer uses extreme close-ups and heightened sound editing to bring a sense of tactility to objects…

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Dimensions of Dialogue (Možnosti dialogu) – Jan Švankmajer, 1983

Dimensions of Dialogue Eternal Conversation

Reader, I screwed up. It was deadline day for my latest review and I was up against it, having just moved into an old house in the countryside. The place doesn’t have a working kitchen, bathroom or heating system. As I type this, I’m pressed against an oil radiator wearing four layers of clothing and a blanket wrapped around me. In desperation, I reached for a movie to review on Netflix. Only when I got to the end did I realise that it was a Slovak film.

Perhaps the cold has got to my senses. While I don’t speak Czech, I have lived in the country long enough to tell the difference between the Czech language and Slovak. But not on this occasion…

Luckily my good friend and former writing partner sent me a short film some time ago which I’ve been meaning to watch. It is Dimensions of Dialogue by legendary surrealist filmmaker Jan Švankmajer. It is only 14 minutes long so you can watch it in your lunchbreak and it will give you far more food for thought than the 90 minutes of romantic comedy dross I sat through earlier…

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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…

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Adele Hasn’t Had Her Dinner Yet (Adéla ještě nevečeřela) – Oldřich Lipský, 1977

Adele Hasn't Had Her Dinner Yet 1977

Dora Charleston: Mr Diamond, you have a bullet hole in your back!

Sam Diamond: You should see the other guy.

– Maggie Smith & Peter Falk hamming it up in Murder by Death

The 1970s was a big decade for pastiches of classic detective fiction. Robert Altman brought a slovenly, anachronistic Philip Marlowe into a bohemian, weed-scented Los Angeles in The Long Goodbye; there was a whole raft of reimaginings of the Sherlock Holmes myth, including The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother; Neil Simon brought together a roster of thinly-disguised classic sleuths – Sam Spade, Miss Marple, Charlie Chan, Hercule Poirot and Nick and Nora Charles – in his silly spoof Murder by Death.

Even the Czechs got in on the act, with Oldřich Lipský’s Adele Hasn’t Had Her Dinner Yet (Adéla ještě nevečeřela) resurrecting a gumshoe from an earlier era that I wasn’t familiar with: Nick Carter.

Adele Blu Ray

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Carter is largely unremarkable save for the distinction of preceding Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes by a year or two, and Lipský, forever playful with western genre fiction, gleefully pits the half-forgotten detective with an antagonist straight out of Little Shop of Horrors. Along the way we also get the director’s goofy sight gags, fabulous steampunk-ish gadgets by Jan Švankmajer, and broad performances from a variety of Czech actors playing the shenanigans with a straight face…

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Alice (Něco z Alenky) – Jan Švankmajer, 1988

Alice 1

Once upon a time, I was so little that I could stand on the back of my nan’s sofa and survey the kingdom all around me. That summit seemed very high, and I was still small enough for her living room to be divided into several distinct regions. In the hazy distance opposite me (and it was hazy because my nan was a sixty-a-day woman) was the cliff edge of the mantlepiece. There lived regal ladies and gentlemen dressed in the fashions of the French court, and each of them bore the scars of terrible tumbles into the precipice below. My nan was not a fussy person, and each time one of them got knocked off and broken on the hearth, she would carelessly stick them back together with her trusty tube of Uhu. The figurines looked like Frankenstein creations, with arms, legs and heads reattached with bobbly contusions of sinister yellow glue.

Alice Blu Ray

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Away to the far left, through the chasm between a sagging armchair and my nan’s monolithic rented telly, was a little-visited glade beneath the large bay window, where a wooden table contained the remnants of a long-defunct record player. On the far right of the room was my nan’s armchair, where she smoked, watched TV, read Mills and Boon paperbacks and idled away the hours doing word search puzzles. Between her armchair and the mantlepiece was a dark cabinet where she kept her most prized ornaments, glassware and keepsakes. Then, far below me, was the plateau of her coffee table. I was so tiny that I could make a den of it by propping mail-order catalogues against the shelf underneath and crawling inside.

The interior of a house is as big or as small as a child’s imagination needs it to be. A coffee table can be a tiny piece of driftwood afloat in the sea, all that’s protecting them from circling sharks. Or it can be a vast battlefield for their toys to wage war against each other. A wardrobe can be a deep cave to hide in and a tall mountain to conquer…

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The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians (Tajemství hradu v Karpatech) – Oldřich Lipský, 1981

I love old dark house movies, to the point where whenever a discussion comes up with family or friends about the prospect of building a house, I can’t help railroading the conversation into talk of secret passages, secret doors (bookcase or fireplace, I’m not picky), and of course large paintings where I can remove the portrait’s eyes and peek into the room below.

Due to this, Oldřich Lipský’s silly-funny, endlessly inventive spoof Tajemství hradu v Karpatech was a source of absolute delight for me. It’s basically like a Czech version of Murder by Death, a star-studded mystery set in – yes, an old dark house – peppered with jokes so hoary and dumb that they go all the way around the dial to becoming hilarious again.

Mysterious Castle DVD

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What The Mysterious Castle has over Neil Simon’s groaner-fest and other pastiches of the genre is some genuinely inspired proto-steampunk design work by legendary surrealist filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, and a visual style all of its own…

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