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Animation, East European Cinema

Surviving Life – Theory and Practice (Czech Republic/Slovakia/Japan 2010)

Two of the supporting cast in 'Surviving Life'

What better way to escape the madness of consumer Christmas than watching a Jan Svankmajer film? This is the potential treat for lucky filmgoers in a handful of UK cities over the next few weeks. See this distributor website for a list of cinemas showing the film. I’m usually a fan of Verve Pictures but they don’t seem to have done a great deal to promote their acquisition, despite Svankmajer’s status amongst fans of animation and surrealism.

First shown at Venice in 2010, this is only the second feature-length film from the director since Little Otik in 2000. I can’t claim extensive knowledge of his work but I’ve seen some of his earlier short films and Sílení from 2005 (a live action horror/melodrama drawing on both Edgar Allen Poe and the Marquis de Sade) and therefore I had some idea of what to expect. The film begins with a prologue delivered to camera by the director himself in which he explains that his team were going to make a ‘real film’ but they had such a small budget that they decided to use only a studio set and photographic cut-outs of the actors which could then be animated. This is quite a witty opening but I was baffled as to why Svankmajer’s presentation was overlayed by an actor reading out an English translation (with the Czech original mixed down but still audible). I hate this practice and fortunately the film itself was subtitled.

The film overall is a mix of live action and stop-frame cut-out animation. The central character is Evzen, a middle-aged man, married for 25 years but without children and working in a boring office job. Evzen dreams – but not enough. He wants to have more dreams and to understand them. Inevitably he is sent to a psychoanalyst who attempts to explore his unconscious. These are some of the funniest scenes in the film with framed photographic portraits of Freud and Jung looking down from the psycho-analyst’s walls an reacting to what is happening. I won’t spoil the narrative by outlining what is in the dreams but if you know any Freudian or Jungian theories about dreams you’ll probably guess the kinds of characters, symbols and stories that emerge.

Václav Helsus is Evzen, the dreamer who spends much of his time in his pyjamas

The pleasures of the film for fans are likely to be in the exploration of the technique and the use of colour in particular (lots of vivid reds). It isn’t such a startling form of animation as that in the earlier stop motion shorts, though there are glimpses of the earlier style, especially in the eating scenes and the glee with which squidgy watermelons explode etc. For British fans there will be reminders of similar techniques used (by Terry Gilliam) in sketches in Monty Python and, more disturbingly, The Goodies (disturbing for the more cerebral perhaps because The Goodies was supposed to be ‘light entertainment’). This familiarity with the technique perhaps made the film less frightening and terrifying for me (compared to the earlier films). I’m happy to sit back and enjoy this kind of surrealism as comedy (Svankmayer calls it a ‘psycho-analytic comedy’) but I like to try to find some form of satitirical edge in the film. My knowledge of Czech culture is limited but this film fitted in with what I know – it felt ‘East European’ whatever that might mean. As well as the obvious discourse about sexuality and alienation for the middle-aged trapped in boring lives there are nostalgic references to food and music as well as metaphors about consumerism and the dangers of capitalist monetary policies – so something we can all relate to!

My Christmas message is to suggest that you choose Svankmayer over David Fincher or Tom Cruise. It’ll be more fun and better for you. Here’s the Czech trailer (no English subs but the techniques speak for themselves):

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