Saturday, January 8, 2011

Motion Studies: Svankmajer’s objects

(Faust/ 1994, Kino International)

Rural-brown, vegetable soup. A tractor chops up a field. The grass flies all around. Six female dancers with big perfect lips sip the soup with large spoons; the ecstasy of performance becoming the ecstasy of a good meal. The sound of choral music; a Vivaldi choral pieceDr. Faustus himself (Petr Cepek) appears on the field in a zoom out, singing his heart out. The set pieces of a theater surround him on two sides, but the theater he stood in a moment ago has transformed in to the same rural landscape the dancers inhabit, because he chose to sing after all. One shot of a dancer’s legs, sprawled on the ground. Another shot of the same, then another. The soup was a sedative; the dancers are asleep. The grass lies shorn. The tractor starts another round. Faust belts out his vocals with all his might. He doesn’t have a choice. He chose to play this game of theater and life. Cut. He stops singing. He’s back on stage.
(Faust/ 1994, Kino International)

These are a few of the objects—soup, lips, legs, chopped grass, a singing man in costume—that figure in to Jan Svankmajer’s craft. The film this time is Faust (Lecke Faust, 1994), the Czech objectifier’s second feature, and this scene looks like the way every other scene does; a bit of lavish surrealist fun that could have been a short (up until the late 80’s, Svankmajer made only shorts). Yet Faust nonetheless manages to be a linear, fairly faithful adaptation of the story of Dr. Faustus, making it all the more remarkable that Svankmajer found a way to have such a bit of close-up, fast-cutting, symbolic fun within its form. How does he do it? How does he film a  representation of the theater becoming life and let us take it lightly? And why does he chop it up in to so many close-ups?
The best answer: The symbolism is genuine, and the cutting is a way of taking it lightly. Like taking many shots of a complex liquor. Svankmajer’s objects may be closer than they appear.