Take four seconds of film. Make that four seconds of two clay arms in a small room, one with eyeballs embedded in two fingertips, examining each other in fright under a low-hanging lamp. Jan Svankmajer explores the territory where actual people are visually discarded for the paranoid lives of objects. But in Darkness/Light/Darkness, possibly his finest short film, four seconds of two frenetic, and utterly alive arms will bring out our most human impulses. We’re forced to laugh, because we don’t know where this absurdity is headed and besides, those bulging eyeballs look goofy. But we’re also kept on our toes, because the film is so evidently many chopped up pieces crashing together. Svankmajer won’t let us forget it.
Stop-Motion animation allows the filmmaker to break film down to its tiny grains. Its grains are frames that jerk past our vision and are gone; but jerking the film along is only the most inherent purpose of stop-motion. It allows the filmmaker to work freely with his physical subjects. In this sense there has never been a freer, or broader filmmaker than Svankmajer. Midway through these four seconds, the eyeless arm lunges at the other arm, which backs against the wall. The appeal of this content is that we will never fathom, in our waking existence, dislocated arms locked in confrontation. But the aesthetic appeal is that we have never seen such outrageous, obvious technical fakery. That stop motion never convinces us of being real motion makes it cinema incarnate. Cinema never really moved. If we see it breaking down in its tracks—object by object, jerk by jerk—then we can see it for the glorious, disturbing lie that it is. This gives stop motion the freedom to write off any real-life logic necessary for a real life feature. This form might be called surrealist, because it is. But it also makes stop motion the most legitimately cinematic animation technique available.
Yet Svankmajer does more than expose the lies of moving images. He goes beyond writing off logic. For within the surrealism of two arms inspecting one another and scurrying around on the floor comes the most logical storyline leading to the most logical possible conclusion. Svankmajer is the only logical surrealist; watch closely in the center of the shot. Behind a tiny, darkened window, a pair of ears flaps outside…