Sileni (2005, Jan Svankmajer)

“Ladies and gentleman, what you’re about to see is a horror film… it is not a work of art.” I’ll bet that line was much quoted in reviews when this came out, but I don’t feel like doing much research on this one. Because I wasn’t heavily invested in the question of whether it would be art – I find all of Svankmajer’s features to be fun (with some tedious stretches) entertainments with some signature shots (the dead-on close-ups) and stop-motion.

Ah, the stop-motion – if not for that, Svank would be Borowczyk with better subject matter. In this one it’s used to create disturbing little vignettes between live-action scenes, which will sometimes (nearly) overlap. It’s all meat. Meat in motion, set to grating, rickety carnival music.

The story itself isn’t bad. Svank’s got a decent lead actor in Pavel Liska, the Czech Keanu Reeves, and a good back-and-forth plot when Pavel is invited to stay with a Marquis, who alternately seems like a benevolent uncle and a total madman. In the end, as befitting its title and carnival music, everyone in the film is mad, and Pavel seems the sanest. He has wicked night terrors, but at least he’s self-conscious enough to be embarrassed about them and realize where they come from. Everybody else is either exercising their crazy whims openly or biding their time until they can do so. But I’m glad there was more to it than the whole “everyone is mad” premise, which was apparent from the title. It’s also about the treatment of madness – we see all kinds, none of them any good.

Pavel was visiting his mother in an asylum – was he staying there too? Anyway, he takes up with the Marquis, who self-treats his fear of being buried alive by faking death regularly and being buried alive (with the tools to escape). He also holds sacreligious orgies in the basement, and all of this makes Pavel nervous. The Marquis takes him to Dr. Murlloppe, who runs an asylum where the patients are allowed to do whatever they please (feathers fly, a nude woman is a paint-therapy canvas). Pavel doesn’t fit in, vows to save Murlloppe’s “daughter” (Marquis warns that she’s a lying hysteric nympho). He frees the “real” doctors, tarred and feathered and imprisoned in the cellar, and they take charge using their methods of cure-via-torture, holding Pavel as a patient.

DCairns:

For the first time Svankmajer makes real use of his actors as actors, not merely as self-operating meat puppets. In particular, Jan Triska as the Marquis (de Sade) brings a malevolence, a twinkle, and a vulnerable humanity to this film which hasn’t been seen in the Czech alchemist’s movies before. . . unlike the previous features which had used actors largely to occupy screen space where puppets would have been too expensive and time-consuming, Lunacy revels in the possibilities of unpredictable humanity let loose in an artist’s cinematic canvas.

Buy from Amazon:
Lunacy/Sileni DVD

Month of 121 Shorts: Animation

Allegretto (1943, Oskar Fischinger)
All colored diamonds and circles, so lovely. In close sync with the music, where in Motion Painting #1 the music seems an afterthought.
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Motion Painting No. 1 (1947, Oskar Fischinger)
Like it says, a motion painting – oil on glass, all small rectangles and big spirals. In The Mystery of Picasso the tension was in figuring how the painting would be finished, where he was heading, but in this the fun is in getting from one intermediate step to another. The process is the destination. There should be more of these!
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Franz Kafka (1992, Piotr Dumala)
Is the movie supposed to be making that sound of a cat in heat beneath the music, or is my laptop freaking out? Dark and scratchy and slow-moving, nothing actually happening. Oh wait, there’s some sex. Fulfills almost all of the Robyn Hitchcock holy keywords: sex, food and insects (what, no death?). I’m sure it’s very technically accomplished but I found it dreary and ponderous. The filmmaker made a plaster-scratch version of Crime and Punishment eight years later (or more likely he worked on it for all eight years).
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Tales from the Far Side (1994, Marv Newland)
Very inessential, slow-paced animated half-hour of Far Side cartoons. Really the most interesting bit is seeing Marv Newland’s name, 25 years after his seminal Bambi Meets Godzilla. Either he’s no longer a master of timing, or there was too much Gary Larson interference… or maybe you just can’t turn a single-panel comic strip into a 30-minute TV special. Doonesbury worked out, but that was talky and story-driven to begin with.
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Mr. Prokouk Shoots a Movie (1948, Karel Zeman)
Czech short, part of a whole series of Mr. Prokouk adventures.
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Prokouk is pointing at us, telling us to get off our asses and join the workforce!
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The Monkey’s Teeth (1960, Rene Laloux)
Intro is a three-minute doc of a group-therapy institution for depressed people, what follows is an animation of the film they wrote together. Sad man has a toothache, goes to a dentist who steals his teeth to sell to rich people (I wouldn’t think the teeth of the poor would be worth much, but maybe in France everyone practices excellent dental care). When the monkey wizard bicycles by, I figured the dentist would be put in his place and the stolen teeth returned, and that’s just what happens but first the sad man gets chased into a high school by some cops who get turned into children. Hmmm.
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Dimensions of Dialogue (1982, Jan Svankmajer)
It’s been too long since I’ve watched my Svankmajer shorts. This is an all-time fave. Faces made of identifiable objects consume each other, becoming smoother until they resemble human heads. Two clay humans make love, create an unwanted clay baby then destroy each other. And so on. Not one for brevity, J.S. takes everything to its conclusion and explores all permutations of his object manipulations – this is what makes his features seem so tedious, but his shorts seem so excellently complicated.
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Flora (1989, Jan Svankmajer)
A clay person tied to a bed and covered in rotting fruit and veg tries to reach a glass of water. Only a few seconds long, made for MTV (that’s czech for WTF).

Food (1992, Jan Svankmajer)
Oooh I love stop-motion using live actors. Guy enters a room facing a paralysed robot guy, reads instructions hanging on his neck (which are actually an MTV entry form: “Entrant must send a VHS or U-Matic, etc.”), manipulates the guy (puts money in his mouth, receives a sausage and mustard from chest, utensils from ears), then the robot guy leaves and the eater takes his place. Two guys sit at a restaurant, can’t get service so they eat their own clothes and the table. Finally, people are made gourmet meals of their own severed body parts. A classic, obviously.
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I Love To Singa (1936, Tex Avery)
“Enough is too much!” An old favorite. Owl Jolson is of course a parody of The Jazz Singer, which I’ve still never seen. Jazz and owls: a combination you don’t see often enough.
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Point Rationing of Foods (1943, Chuck Jones)
An extra tucked away on a Looney Tunes DVD, explaining the wartime canned food rationing system to the public through cheap quickie animation. Helpful to me, since I never bothered to learn how rationing worked before. Also tucked away is the Tashlin-penned The Bear That Wasn’t, probably not because of its unworthiness but because it was made at a different studio.

I Haven’t Got a Hat (1935, Friz Freling)
A variety show of children performers, with hijinks. Porky’s first appearance – the studio intended for a more generic troublemaker character (below, right) to take over, but the public demanded a shy stutterer instead. The title song is catchy, anyway.
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Roof Sex (2003, PES)
Stop-motion of chairs having sex. The cat is blamed.
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