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Lunacy: A Roundtable with Jan Svankmajer
By Jonathan Marlow
August 18, 2006 - 6:04 AM PDT

"I am not against further and other interpretations."

With Lunacy, Jan Svankmajer's characteristic feature-length stab into the foibles of humanity, opening at the Film Forum last Wednesday, then the Nuart today and Bay Area cinemas next week (and a variety of venues through September, into October and November), we at GreenCine were faced with a challenge. How do we spread the word about this unconventional, exceptional film to our regular readers? Despite a rather lengthy conversation in a now out-of-print book [Dark Alchemy] about the director, Svankmajer doesn't do interviews anymore and, with the unfortunate passing of wife and collaborator Eva Svankmajerova late last year, he is even less inclined to make public appearances.

Therein, for one among several reasons, I ventured out to Rotterdam last January in order to see his latest and greatest work (snapped up by the fine folks at Zeitgeist for a stateside release) and to hear him speak. Since you weren't likely there, I surreptitiously recorded the conversation, reproducing it here with only a handful of revisions for your reading pleasure. The discussion is lead by International Film Festival Rotterdam's erudite former director Simon Field (now Artistic Director at the Dubai International Film Festival) who, in his introductory remarks, covers the basic benchmarks of Jan's career in a concise manner that does not warrant substitution. We've opted to retain the format, minus the film clips that you'll find referenced below, to put you in the moment of conversation, some eight months ago...

Simon Field: It is a great pleasure to be invited back [to IFFR] for this occasion and it's a very great pleasure indeed to be able to introduce Jan Svankmajer to you again. It's a particular pleasure because Jan Svankmajer is not somebody who does many conversations of this sort. When I first met him many years ago, he was resolutely determined not to do interviews and we had to persuade him to do so because I was releasing one of his films in the UK [Faust, I believe]. I was very frightened of him at that time, but I have learned to be a little less frightened of him now!

It's very clear that many of you are on the same wavelength as Jan. He needs little introduction, but I think it's a good thing to remind ourselves of some things before we begin this conversation. First of all, as you all know, he has a very substantial body of work. He's been making short films since 1964. He was one of the founding members of Laterna Magika in Prague and, of course, he's been closely associated with puppets and puppetry throughout his life. Lunacy is his fifth feature, though you will probably recall that he made Alice in 1987; Faust in 1995, which we showed in Rotterdam; Conspirators of Pleasure, which was made in '96 and which was also shown in Rotterdam and distributed here; and then Otesanek [Little Otik], which was shown in 2001 here in company with the exhibition of the work by Jan and Eva Svankmajerova, his lifetime collaborator. It was a very special occasion for all of us because it enabled us to make clear that he is not just a filmmaker but a person who is making objects, paintings, sculpture, pottery, tactile objects, masturbatory machines and many other erotic objects.

I think it's also very appropriate to say at this point that his wife Eva Svankmajerova sadly passed away in November of last year. She worked very closely on all of the films and they worked almost as one on many of the projects. I think there are also two other key things that I'm reminding myself of. First, that of course he's been one of the crucial figures within the strong Surrealist movement in Prague [specifically, the Skupina ceských a slovenských surrealistu (Czech and Slovak Surrealist Group)]. Second, which I think is very relevant to Lunacy, is that he's worked under, shall we say, two regimes. He was making much of his animation prior to the Velvet Revolution in very difficult circumstances and working under the Communist regime. Now, of course, he's operating in what we call the "free market" and I think that is something that, when we think about it, sheds some light on Lunacy. What I would propose to do is ask a number of questions myself, start a discussion and then open it up for you to ask questions or make points. We'll also show one or two clips to remind ourselves of the work.

First, I'd like to ask Jan to say a little bit about something which, in the "mass market" world in which we exist at the moment, with the principles of cinema for the masses, so much is oriented towards pleasing the audience and giving the audience what it wants. I'd like to ask him to say a little bit about his statement in the clip that you just saw about not thinking about the audience. He says in the clip that he does not think about the audience and that [not thinking about the audience] is very important.

Svankmajer: Actually, you have already answered your own question. As you said, the "mass culture" really just wants to please the audience. So it's difficult, because it's really a question of market demand and it's something I've really nothing to do with. It's out of my area of interest.

Field: Could you say a little more about what you talked about in that clip - that the fundamental position of the artist is about self-expression and how this works in cinema?

Svankmajer: For me, my work is actually a sort of auto-therapy. This is how I use it. But it doesn't really work forever, it only works for sometime and then, when it's over, I again have to make a new film. Actually, the auto-therapy is the process of filmmaking. When I am making a film, it's my self-therapy but everything that comes after that is just killing me again. It's something like festivals, this life after death.

Field: Does that mean that the process of making the film is more important than the final film?

Svankmajer: Of course! Because surrealists are always saying that the process of making the art is much more important than the final product.

Field: Could you say how that alters the way you go about making films? Does it mean that your methods of making films are different from other people?

Svankmajer: I don't how other filmmakers do it. I can only talk for myself. For me, filmmaking is an open process until I start editing the film. I write the script only for the producer so that they can make a budget and then, after that, I'm not really interested in it. I don't come back to my own script anymore. What I do everyday before shooting is I make a daily problem for myself - which shots I want to make that day and, in the end, I am losing my own papers as well, where I take my notes, so then I start to make my own film just from there. So actually my film is, from the very beginning until the very end, improvisation, but I can afford it only because I have the whole film in my head. And, because a film is actually only made when you are editing the final version, I try to make a few versions of it. For example, with the shooting of my last film, Lunacy, the process was very special. Because we really had to save on materials, we were working without clapping [aka slating]. So, at a certain moment, the whole film was only in my head and nobody else knew what we were shooting. Also, I took over the editor's work because nobody knew how to put the shots after one another. I was the one to do that as well.

Field: And was that something that was particular to Lunacy as opposed to Conspirators of Pleasure or Faust or...

Svankmajer: With Conspirators of Pleasure, it was even more difficult because I didn't write a script that time. The producer had a very difficult with me. I had a plan to make it only as a 20-minute short film and, during the shooting, I suddenly realized that characters from these episodes deserved to become main characters, so I changed my mind and told my producer that I wanted to make a feature film out of it. That's why my producer had a few sleepless nights.

Field: I should mention that Jaromir Kallista has been working with Jan all through his film career and is a very special contribution to the fact that the films even exist. In all the feature films that you've made, there's been a mixture of live-action and animation. For instance, in Conspirators of Pleasure, animation is used throughout, but the animation in Lunacy becomes something that creates rhythm in the film - not so much chapter headings but little breaks that comment on the action.

Svankmajer: It's not my aim or goal or wish to be a director of animation and live-action film together. I am doing it because, when I am working on my themes, they ask themselves for this approach. That's why, in Conspirators of Pleasure, the theme asks for itself that the animation would go throughout the film, while in Lunacy it has a completely different function. In Lunacy, the animation, as you said correctly, gives a certain rhythm to the film, but this is the formal function. The animation is meant as a parallel story that is analogically connected with the main story and, in this way, it deepens the emotionality of the whole film. But I am not against further and other interpretations. You're free to...

Field: It's up to us to speculate on the idea of "meat" as a metaphor in the film?

Svankmajer: Not only "meat" but the whole film. That's the privilege of the imaginative film in that it gives us possibilities for various and many interpretations. Sometimes they can be very curious or specific, as we saw yesterday after the screening of the film because, if you were there, you would've heard someone make an analogy with the war in Iraq. While I was showing Otesanek in Israel, one lady came to me and said that this is actually a film about Israel. First, I was really taken by surprise, but she had quite a logical interpretation to it. She explained to me that Israel is in the same situation as the family in Otesanek - either to make berry cakes or to immigrate.

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"I am not against further and other interpretations."
"While there is no censorship of thought, there is censorship of money."

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Jonathan Marlow
In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.

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