Jan Svankmajer: A Game with Stones

A short post about a short film. Jan Svankmajer’s short films are a recurring pleasure because they take everyday items and toy with them in every way imaginable so that their unique qualities can be contemplated by every sense. Stop motion, because it requires nearly every move to be minutely considered, offers an artist the opportunity to assert everything as they see it because almost nothing they do not include will occur on camera. For the viewer, the uncanny effect of seeing matter animated in imperfect fashion allows us to understand the gap between what we see of the creature, contraption or substance and what we know and feel of it in reality. In this dislocation, we briefly glimpse what is always there.

Svankmajer described himself as a necrophiliac; less sensationally he was an objectophile. In Alice, our heroine travels downwards on an elevator, briefly glimpsing collections of objects between floors. Really, it could a showcase for Svankmajer’s own collections; a chance to air his obsessions (and perhaps justify their preponderance to his co-habitors; one imagines a Collyer Brothers-style mansion). Svankmajer’s films always remind us of the specificity of an object. In this film, stones line up, each unique but versions of the same form. He plays with permutations until we are thoroughly familiar with the details: black stones on white stones, black stones on white backgrounds and vice versa; different multiples stacked in different fashions, approaching the visual aspects in every way possible. Of course, while his works show us the specifics of each object, he also shows us that they are also entirely mutable into whatever they please, changed upon the slightest suggestion. His work is certainly surrealist and the stones here are quickly transformed into meat, faces, drops etc. Both by making them the materials with which he paints and in creating visual scenarios in which the objects are substituted for the expected material, Svankmajer allows the viewer to make the jump in their thoughts between each thing, turning them over in  comparison, as if laid out upon a table to be perused.

If Svankmajer’s skill is in helping us understand objects themselves, his other is in making objects out of the non-physical. In A Game with Stones, time itself is pointed at, stretched and played with. The majority of his films have a structure: either highly formally (Act I, Part I etc) or through the creation of a routine (meal times or hours on a clock). The beginning of this film has an excruciating ticking clock, playing with the title sequence anticipation that attends all cinematic beginnings. The clock speeds up and slows down and releases two heavy moments of time. It makes sense that a stop-motion animator would place the passing of time so centrally in their work – they are forced into even more minute decisions than the average filmmaker about how long each element is to remain on screen and have complete sway over time itself. A stone’s fall in a Svankmajer film is delayed, upsetting our casual relationship with physical laws.

The same applies to the sounds of the film. We see a close up of the comb and pins from a music box, now standing in for the clock mechanism while the stones dance. We see sounds visually in his films, but we also are forced to understand the sounds an object makes. Aural jokes abound – pops and squeaks are substituted in the absence of diegetic sound, just as in a cartoon.

If then Svankmajer’s skill is in drawing attention to all the essence of things (the rasp of one stone on another, the crack of stone’s falling onto tiles and the endless succession of seconds) the talent that allows this to function is his skill in never forcing us to heavily appreciate his attentions. Only when attempting to extract the essence, to analyse the effects, do we find how much craft has gone into what on first viewing seems so effortless. In this, the stop motion animator is a heightened version of every filmmaker.

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