Czech animator Jan Švankmajer is known for his dark, disturbing, and unique films. Live action, stop-frame animation, and puppetry are all used to develop surreal stories and odd and disturbing characters. Sometimes, he draws his inspiration from mythology and fairy tales; other times he interprets the dark side in the stories of Lewis Carroll, Poe, Goëthe, Franz Kafka, and the Marquis de Sade. Švankmajer has been creating for about 50 years, and his influences are seen in the works of David Lynch, Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, and other filmmakers.
From January 19 to February 4, the Northwest Film Center is featuring a series on the films of Jan Švankmajer. This retrospective is credited to and organized by Irena Kovarova with support from the Czech Center New York.
Opening this series is "Alice" (1988), screening Saturday, Jan. 19 at 7:30 pm and Sunday, Jan. 20 at 5 pm. This is not the sweet Disney version of Lewis Carroll's story. This "Alice" holds true to the subliminal and bizarre aspects of the story, a girl willing to go into dark places, sample anything offered to her, and interact with weird and scary creatures. Check out the trailer for a look at this creepy and odd interpretation.
"Faust" (1994) screens Tuesday, Jan. 22 at 7 pm and Sunday, Jan. 27 at 5 pm. The legend of Faust has been portrayed in novels, poetry, operas, and films. The idea of having pleasure and expanding knowledge now in exchange for pain and loss later resonates throughout cultures and times. In this interpretation, Švankmajer creates a play within a puppet play within real life. Dr. Faust, caught up in this world, has a horrifying journey through real and animated places which are filled with bizarre and sometimes disturbingly funny creatures. The trailer at the end of this article (below) hints at the strangeness.
"Conspirators of Pleasure" (1996) is showing Saturday, Jan. 26 at 5 pm, and Sunday, Jan. 27 at 7 pm. There is no dialogue in this film, just music and expressions of pleasure and pain as different characters explore fetishes. Taking place in a world where people are constantly spied on (Svankmajer's world under the Communist regime in the former Czechoslovakia), the film shows the extent the characters go to so they can receive a moment of pleasure (sexual, and otherwise) without, they assume, any invasion of their privacy or public shaming. The lack of dialogue, with just the use of sounds and music, creates in the spectator a sense of being a fellow conspirator in the lives of the so-called "normal" people with their strange and perverse rituals.
Švankmajer has produced more than two dozen shorts and on Tuesday, Jan. 29 at 7 pm and Friday, Feb. 1 at 9 pm a number of them that he created from 1968 through 1992 whill be shown in a 75 minute presentation.
"Little Otik" (2001) only screens one time, Friday, Feb. 1 at 7 pm. This film immediately brings to mind "Eraserhead" and is based on a well-known Czech folktale about a couple longing for a child. One day the husband pulls on a tree stump and out comes a baby-like creature, so he refines it by cutting away at some of the roots and creating a baby. The baby comes to life and gradually wreaks havoc. A sense of this mad surreal "child" is conveyed in the trailer.
"Lunacy" (2005) takes place in an asylum of old, the dark horrifying ones where people were chained to walls or placed in cages. In this film, screening Saturday Feb. 2 at 2pm and Sunday, Feb. 3 at 7pm, the staff is locked up and the inmates, yes, "run the asylum." This is a world of terror where the line between the doctor and the patient is blurred. Meat becomes alive and slinks along the floor, chickens run amok, and patients declare, "Long live liberty." Here is the trailer for a film which can be seen as combining the darkness of Poe and the Marquis de Sade with an absurdist sensibility.
"Surviving Life" (2010) is Švankmajer’s most recent film and has some surprisingly warm aspects amidst its strangeness. If you could choose to live the life of your dreams, would you? Eugene prefers the woman who appears in his dreams rather than his wife and wants to extend his dream life. So he goes to a psychoanalyst for help and even portraits of Freud and Jung speak to him as he tries the impossible, actually living his dream. The trailer gives us a glimpse at Eugene's struggle. This film screens Sunday, Feb. 3 at 4:30 pm and Monday, Feb. 4 at 7 pm, the concluding night of this series.
All screenings are at the Whitsell Auditorium, entrance to which is at the north side of the Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Avenue in downtown Portland. Tickets range from $6 to $9 and can be purchased on the website of the Northwest Film Center or at the Whitsell one half hour prior to screening times.