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.
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