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Alchemist of the Surreal, written, directed, and animated by Jan Svankmajer, 100 min.

Note: This version of Alchemist of the Surreal has 7 shorts, spanning almost all of Svankmajer's career.

Svankmajer is still alive and busy with his animation, which is nice to know when you realize that this particular collection covers almost his entire work over a 20 year span (under difficult circumstances before the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia). I have yet to see any of his recent feature films, like Alice or Faust, and I'm curious to see what he would do in a full length running time. For me, the attraction of Alchemist of the Surreal is in the widely varied approaches, the virtuosity that Svankmajer displays in almost every kind of animation, puppetry, and live film. In terms of this review, it's easiest to simply talk about each short on its own. And note that I am reviewing the version of Alchemist of the Surreal that has "Ossuary" and "The Pit, the Pendulum, and Hope" in the place of "Jabberwocky" (which I am keen to see).

This collection begins with "Dimensions of Dialogue." Two-dimensional heads, made of common household items, approach one another, then consume one another. In the intervening clash of digestion, the items wear one another down, and each time a head is reconstituted, the items that compose it have become finer and finer. Then Svankmajer makes the switch to three-dimensional sculptures, woman and man, that are made out of smooth clay. These seem to speak to each other across a table, then mold together in lustful embrace. When the male and female reconstitute themselves, the small piece of clay left over causes an argument which ends in disaster for both sculptures. This short is concluded with two clay heads extruding items out of their mouths -- one pushes out a toothbrush, the other toothpaste; one pushes out a pencil, the other a pencil sharpener; and so on. The items become mismatched, and as the pencil sharpener cuts down the toothbrush (and on down the line), the two heads begin to lose definition and end up as undifferentiated muddles. The stop motion animation in the whole of "Dimensions of Dialogue" is impressive, often startling. The amount of work that must have gone into this one short piece of film is also mind-boggling -- Svankmajer painstakingly creates a compelling commentary about the breakdown of communication with some clay and a camera.

"Et Cetera" is much shorter, and here Svankmajer works in a different style. Animated figures, hand drawn, cavort on the page. A human cracks a whip at a dog doing tricks -- the human gradually becomes doglike and the dog gradually becomes humanlike, and then process reverses. A man tries to draw a house, but cannot get inside of it (or outside of it when he tries the reverse) once he has drawn it. While less visually impressive than "Dimensions of Dialogue," "Et Cetera" has its own profound theme of cycles, the eternal return, and the artistic nature.

In "Punch and Judy," Svankmajer moves to a completely different style once again. Instead of a stereotypical Punch and Judy puppet show, however, Svankmajer's puppets try to kill each other, pound nails into each other's coffins, attack with giant mallets, and act with general malevolence. The imagery here is disturbing, especially in the use of perspective and the layered construction of the inside of the house and the coffin (old newspapers line the inside of both). "Punch and Judy" provokes a few laughs but also some meditation about aggression with regards to children's stories. Not for children.

As far as I have been able to ascertain, "Mr. Edward's First Trick" is the first short of Svankmajer's career. It also utilizes a completely different set of tools than the previous shorts in Alchemist of the Surreal. Two human actors, with large masks for heads, dare each other to do progressively more risky tricks. One trick involves juggling a number of limbs, and also smaller heads that pop out of the main head. Svankmajer uses perspective cleverly here, as well as black backgrounds, to disguise the workings of these tricks. Not my favourite short in the collection.

"Leonardo's Diary" is an exercise in rhythm and repetition. Svankmajer uses stock footage of sports events (and a few other rather bizarre happenings that were difficult to identify!) and intersperses it with some 2-D animation similar to what he used in "Et Cetera." All of this animated material uses illustrations from the diaries of Leonardo da Vinci, then mutates them, reverses them, sets them to life or to interaction with other bits of Leonardo's doodling. The changes in the visuals are structured to the rhythm of the music, which builds up to a cumulative effect almost subconsciously. At various points, the paper containing Leonardo's diary is scrunched up into a ball and then smoothed out, which I found quite interesting, especially as the ball of paper burst into flames near the end of the short.

"The Ossuary" is a deeply disturbing juxtaposition of a opera aria and some video shot inside of an ossuary made of the bones of Black Plague victims. To watch "The Ossuary" is to make the starkest journey possible to confront mortality, the despair of the Middle Ages, and the twisted mind that constructed the ossuary itself. Svankmajer uses some fast editing to take each image -- a chandelier made of arm bones, a heap of skulls -- and pound it into the viewer's memory forever. Not for the viewer with easily offended sensitivities.

"The Pit, the Pendulum and Hope" is, if anything, even more intense than "The Ossuary." The first two parts of this short are apparently based on stories by Edgar Allen Poe, and I must warn prospective viewers that Svankmajer creates a sense of terror that outdoes anything churned out in Hollywood by orders of magnitude. A man with an unseen face is tied to a post in the bowels of a dungeon. In front of him a giant razor-sharp pendulum slowly moves its way towards him, and Svankmajer cranks up the tension through the dull clanking noises of the pendulum's machinery. The setting also increases the horrific aspect -- rats run freely over everything, and the pendulum hangs down like a giant phallus from a skeleton painted on the ceiling. The man smears some food on his bindings, which the rats then proceed to chew through. He escapes in the nick of time, only to be trapped in a dark tunnel by a fiery steel demon, with red-hot swords flicking out of it, pushing towards a bottomless pit. Again, Svankmajer builds up horror in the viewer with the inexorable nature of this demon and its repetitive motions and noises. The man managed to stop the mechanical contraption in its tracks, and now we have moved into the third and most gut-clenching part of this short. The man has hope and hope motivates us to sit on the edge of our seats. He moves slowly, stealthily through the dungeon, glimpsing looming shadows and others like himself in rooms of torture. He makes it to the glorious outside air only to find that... I won't reveal the ending but Svankmajer gives us an absolutely terrifying statistic about the Inquisition, which we have just experienced in the smallest part. Is this kind of emotionally-draining film-making a lost art? Or is Svankmajer one of a kind, an inimitable genius?

Alchemist of the Surreal is a must-see for any fans of animation, or of the fantastic on-screen. I have added a few warnings about the more intense shorts in this collection, but partly as a way of piquing curiosity. And I will never regret watching this collection, despite how critical it has made me of much lesser efforts that fill the same field of endeavour.


Last modified: November 27, 1998

Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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