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The Collected Shorts Of Jan Svankmajer (DVD)

It's not entirely accurate to dub Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer an "animator," because his surreal, collage-like shorts and features combine live-action with a variety of puppetry styles and special effects. But it's also not fair to animators to pull Svankmajer out of their critical ghetto, as though his reputation as a visionary cinematic craftsman would be sullied if people dwelled on the thought of him manipulating clay models and paper cutouts. In actuality, the two DVD volumes that comprise The Collected Shorts Of Jan Svankmajer fit as comfortably alongside the work of Tex Avery and Nick Park as they do with Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage. Svankmajer provides a necessary bridge between the introverted, symbol-intensive world of the avant-garde and the kinetic playtime of kiddie cartoons. In films like 1965's "A Game With Stones" and 1966's "Et Cetera," comments on the folly of human endeavor compete with the diverting sight of figure drawings chasing their tails and big rocks spinning around each other like swimmers in a Busby Berkeley musical. Svankmajer later subverts the appeal of seeing inanimate objects come to life in the 1982 masterpiece "Dimensions Of Dialogue," in which a series of faces in profile–some composed of vegetables, some of office supplies, some of clay–come into contact and either consume each other, disfigure each other, or otherwise fail to meet each other's needs. What starts as sort of cute becomes shocking, and ultimately chilling. The recurring themes of Svankmajer's work change over the course of the 14 shorts presented on these DVDs, which also include still shots of his paintings and dioramas, as well as a half-hour BBC documentary that includes footage of shorts not collected here. His '60s films are more puckishly grim, and show a preoccupation with tools and clothing rising up against their masters–most hilariously in the 1968 slapstick nightmare "The Flat," which presents what must be the least homey apartment in Prague. In the '80s, Svankmajer delved more into history, literature, and folklore, serving up creepy cautionary tales like 1983's "Down To The Cellar," which follows a little girl past a series of psychological traps, in what serves as a tune-up for his 1988 feature-length take on Alice In Wonderland. As for the meaning of these finely textured head-trips, it's possible to read them as sly comments on life behind the Iron Curtain, given the allusions to invisible forces conspiring against the individual. But surrealism isn't meant to be interpreted literally, only to spark subconscious connections in the audience. What's more important about The Collected Shorts Of Jan Svankmajer is their cultural meaning, in the way they redefine animation as a kind of living sculpture.


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