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Director: Keith Griffiths, Quay Brothers
Airing Date: 1984
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer © Quay Brothers‘The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer’ is a documentary about the Czech master of surrealism.

It was made by the Quay Brothers with the sole purpose of being able to watch Švankmajer’s films themselves. Advertised to the BBC as a documentary on French and Czech surrealism, the film is rather highbrow, featuring artists and art historians, whose remarks are sometimes very difficult to grasp, indeed.

Unfortunately, the master himself refused to be interviewed and he is not shown at all. Luckily, Švankmajer’s strong images speak for themselves, and the documentary undoubtedly helped to raise interest in Švankmajer’s films in the West.

The documentary shows excerpts from Švankmajer’s films ‘Dimensions of a Dialogue‘ (which de facto is shown in its entirety), ‘The Last Trick‘, ‘The Flat’, ‘Et Cetera‘, ‘Jabberwocky‘, ‘Historia Naturae, Suita‘, ‘The Ossuary‘, ‘Games with Stones‘, ‘Punch and Judy’, ‘Don Juan‘ and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher‘.

However, ‘The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer’ is also interesting for animation buffs, even for the one who have seen all Jan Švankmajer’s films, for its original interludes, which are animated by the Quay brothers. These interludes have a truly Švankmajer-like atmosphere, highlighted by the reuse of music from Švankmajer’s films. They feature a Švankmajer-like teacher, made of household objects, and his apprentice, a doll, whose head is emptied in order to let him experience the world anew.

These interludes are no less than wonderful and form an animation short in itself, which is both a great homage to the Czech master and a showcase of the Quay brothers’ own art. In fact, the Quay Brothers compiled the interludes and these are available and widely known under the same name as the complete documentary, which is, in fact, eclipsed by the animated short version.

Watch the animated interludes from ‘The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer’ is available on the DVD ‘Jan Svankmajer – The Complete Short Films’

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Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: 1970
Rating: ★★★
Review:

The Ossuary © Jan Svankmajer‘The Ossuary’ is a commissioned documentary film about a Czech chapel in Sedlec, which is decorated with thousands of bones and skulls of victims of the 1318 plague and of the Hussite wars of 1421.

Two versions of this film exists: one with a soundtrack of a rather mundane guide guiding a group of children, in which she repeatedly warns not to touch the bones on a penalty of fifty crowns. Her tour is mixed with the uncanny sound of a rattling bicycle. For unclear reasons this soundtrack was considered subversive and forbidden by the Czechoslowakian regime. Therefore a second version was made using a jazz soundtrack.

In both versions the soundtrack conflicts with the morbid images, which are composed in a rhythmical way that even appeals when watched silently. The film contains no animation, but is full of Švankmajer’s idiosyncratic cinematography.

Watch ‘The Ossuary’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Ossuary’ is available on the DVD ‘Jan Svankmajer – The Complete Short Films’

Director: Peter Lord & David Sproxton
Release Date: 1978
Rating: ★★
Review:

Confessions of a Foyer Girl © Aardman‘Confessions of a Foyer Girl’ is the second film in Aardman’s revolutionary ‘Animated Conversations’ series.

Like its predecessor, ‘Down & Out‘, the film uses recorded dialogue. This time we hear two foyer girls chatting in a cinema. The dialogue is hard to understand and the lip-synch is not as good as in ‘Down & out’. Moreover, the animation is associated with seemingly unrelated stock live action footage, which leads to a film, which is both experimental and vague. The result never quite works and the result must be called a failure.

‘Confessions of a Foyer Girl’ is available on the DVD ‘Aardman Classics’

Director: Peter Lord & David Sproxton
Release Date: 1978
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Down & Out © Aardman‘Down & out’ is the first film in Aardman’s ‘animated conversations’ series and the British studio’s first masterpiece.

The very idea of using dialogue from real life is revolutionary enough, but to use it for clay animation with lip-synch is a masterstroke. Moreover, the animation of the plasticine figures is startling: it lacks the exaggerations of normal animation, but uses small gestures and real movements, like scratching one’s nose or belly, instead. The animation continues realistically even when not supported by the soundtrack. The result is uncannily realistic, making the drama of an old, confused man asking for food and shelter, but being turned down at an Salvation army office, extra tragic.

With this film Aardman single-handedly invented the ‘animated documentary’, a genre which would lead to fantastic films like ‘Ryan’ and ‘Waltz with Bashir’ in the 2000s.

‘Down & Out’ is available on the DVD ‘Aardman Classics’

Director: Winsor McCay
Release Date: July 1918
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Still from 'The Sinking of the Lusitania' featuring people abandoning the capsizing steamerMcCay’s fourth venture into animation is even more curious than the preceding three (‘Little Nemo‘, ‘How A Mosquito Operates‘ and ‘Gertie the Dinosaur‘). It’s an almost real time report of the sinking of the passenger steamer The Lusitania by a German submarine in 1915.

The actions are explained by title cards, and the action is rather slow, but the highly realistic animation scenes contain very believable images of water, smoke, a torpedo moving through water, and people trying to get off the ship. This startling realism is hampered by the clear propagandistic message against Germany, ending with the bold sentence “And they tell us not to hate the Hun!“.

Despite its slow action, ‘The Sinking of the Lusitania’ is an astonishing film, which may be both the first animated propaganda film and the first animated documentary. It’s totally unique in its drama, and, despite its propaganda, an all time masterpiece of animation.

Watch ‘The Sinking of the Lusitania’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Winsor McCay’s fourth film
To Winsor McCay’s third film: Gertie The Dinosaur
To Winsor McCay’s fifth, unfinished film: The Centaurs

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