By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “Lunacy,” Zeitgeist Films, 2006]
It could be said that movies get closest to being fabulous art not when they are at their most self-consciously “artsy,” but when they reflect an obsessive visionary’s perspective and personality as purely and expressively as a painting or a poem. If this is so, then Jan Svankmajer’s films belong on the highest shelf, because it’s quite possible that no moviemaker’s oeuvre is as uncompromised and as hermetically sealed as his. When you watch, you’re uneasily shaking hands with the man’s unexamined, fecund imaginative power source, with no intermediaries present. Famously a die-hard Surrealist who still “belongs” to recalcitrant Surrealist federation in the Czech Republic, Svankmajer has been exploring the anxiety of everyday objects for over 40 years, and in a vast variety of forms (including poetry, sculpture, painting, ceramics, collages and cabineted creations fashioned largely from taxidermied animals). Of course he is predominantly a stop-motion animator, inheriting the Czech puppet tradition and forcing it down the gullet of his own noxious id. His filmography is basically one long smash-up of subconscious fears, cultural recyclings, socio-sexual commentary, food used in ways it shouldn’t be, things that shouldn’t be food but are, and a crystalline faith in the desire of objects.
His new feature, “Lunacy”, is quintessential Svankmajer not quite the textual acrobatics of “Alice” (1988) or “Faust” (1994), but, as the title suggests, closer to the Freudian craziness of his many shorts and “Conspirators of Pleasure” (1996). The “story” is an almost abstracted play on nightmare logic our hero Jean (Pavel Liska) has reoccurring dreams about being mugged in his sleep by asylum attendants, a situation that proves sympathetic to a cackling maniac called, simply, the Marquis (Jan Triska), who has more than a whiff of Sade about him, and who dresses 18th-century style and lives in a castle performing outrageous black masses. Needless to say, Jean’s singular nightmare returns again and again, the Marquis’s sanity is hardly to be trusted, and a climactic visit to a Charenton-style nuthouse leads us to question if there’s any significant difference between the patients and the staff.
Throughout, Svankmajer interpolates his narrative with parallel visions of rogue flesh on the animated march literally, perambulating cow tongues (a motif he first explored in 1969’s “A Quiet Week in the House”), eyeballs, moist calves’ brains, self-slicing steaks and bleached bones, all roaming over the film’s interior landscapes like escaped lab mice. (In one appalling sequence, chickens pecking at self-grinding beef lay eggs that hatch more meat, which jump into the grinder…) Svankmajer’s political thrust here is too wacky to parse the Reign of Terror is explicitly evoked, but who exactly the aristocrats, the revolutionaries and the madmen are is impossible to figure. Perhaps this is how Sade saw it from behind his asylum walls: an anarchic exchange of one organizational derangement for another. Who knows it’s Svankmajer’s little universe to command. We’re just tourists.
A far more reasonable take on insanity, Martin Donovan’s “Apartment Zero” (1988) made one of biggest indie splashes of the late ’80s, co-opting primal Hitchcockian ingredients and going for broke. Set, evocatively, in Buenos Aires, the movie tracks the unsettled but budding friendship-cum-codependency between two immigrant roommates a boisterous, hedonistic, semi-educated American (Hart Bochner) and a socially inept, nervous British movie geek (Colin Firth). A serial killer is meanwhile terrorizing the city, and suspicions fly just as social virtues are exchanged and each man begins to leech off the other. Naturally, an imbalance is reached, personalities imperfectly swap (kinda), and blood spills. The actors have a revving ball, while their characters introduce a pre-Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon moviehead parlor game, which my wife and I long ago dubbed the “Apartment Zero” Game. Simply, one person names three actors from a film, the other must name the film. Firth’s neurotic dweeb beats out Bochner’s rangy hotshot every time, but the game quickly established an extra-cinematic life all its own.
“Lunacy” (Zeitgeist) and “Apartment Zero” (Anchor Bay) will be available on DVD on February 20.