Dimensions of Dialogue (1982)
Czech animator Jan Svankmajer is renowned for his challenging, surreal and absurd stop-motion films. Some of Svankmajer’s films are based on novels by western authors, like Lewis Carroll and Edgar Allen Poe, and many are original stories of his own creation. Either way, a film by Jan Svankmajer is always unique, inexplicable and unforgettable. Early in his career, Svankmajer married surrealist artist and writer Eva Švankmajerová and collaborated with her on his best known feature-length films, Alice (1988) and Faust (1994). Jan Svankmajer’s distinctively twisted approach to animation pitches between absurdist comedy and images of inner horror, creating a visual experience which is simultaneously mesmerizing and repellent.
Svankmajer’s Dimensions of Dialogue (1982) won both an Honorable Mention and Best Short Film at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1983 and the film was also awarded the Grand Prix at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in Paris. Just over 11-minutes in length, Dimensions of Dialogue is sectioned into three parts and (despite the slightly misleading title) Svankmajer establishes complex dynamics without the use of spoken dialogue. The film’s first section uses stop-motion object animation to create two-dimensional heads out of contrasting three-dimensional objects. At the beginning one head is constructed from kitchen utensils and the other is made from fruits and veggies in a juxtaposition of organic and fabricated materials. The heads then engage in destructive routine of repeatedly devouring each other and regurgitating new heads from their broken down and chewed up materials. The film’s second dialogue depicts an unsettling sexual encounter between a man and woman formed from clay. Svankmajer’s opus of troubling imagery hits its crescendo when the faces of the clay lovers fuse together as they kiss and soon their bodies become grotesquely intertwined with one another. In 2001, Svankmajer’s Dimensions of Dialogue was included on a list of The 10 Best Animated Films of All Time compiled by director Terry Gilliam for The Guardian newspaper. Gilliam observes, “Jan Svankmajer’s stop-motion work uses familiar, unremarkable objects in a way which is deeply disturbing. The first film of his that I saw was Alice, and I was extremely unsettled by the image of an animated rabbit which had real fur and real eyes. His films always leave me with mixed feelings, but they all have moments that really get to me; moments that evoke the nightmarish spectre of seeing commonplace things coming unexpectedly to life.”
In 1990, Jan Svankmajer was once again recognized with the Berlin International Film Festival’s Golden Bear Award for Best Short Film. This time it was for another brilliant and troubling stop-motion project featuring the unconventional use of severed tongues; Darkness, Light, Darkness (1989). In the film, a set of clay hands fumble about with fluttering earlobes and rolling eyeballs in a haphazard attempt to reassemble its missing body. As its title suggests, Darkness, Light, Darkness contrasts bleak imagery with some extremely well-crafted moments of levity – most at the expense of the male form. As he did in Dimensions of Dialogue, Svankmajer piles on the shock value by animating with gory perishables from the butcher shop like brains and tongues. In my opinion both films are totally worth your time, but the three in vignettes in Dimensions of Dialogue feel a bit scattershot compared to the fully observed single concept in Darkness, Light, Darkness. Now 79 years of age, Svankmajer continues to direct new films and his latest feature-length project, Insects, is expected to be released in 2015.