Saturday, 1 December 2007

Jan Svankmajer

Our son is at Westminster University studying film production. He is a very talented scriptwriter and has just emailed us to say that he has come to the conclusion that his scripts are best realised through mixed-form animation. To many British readers of this blog the image of animation is of a medium for children. Not to the Czechs. Those of you who have read my earlier post about the roots of my love of Czecho will recall that it started with my job at the Puppet Centre Trust and an enduring friendship with someone I first knew as the creator of a puppet tv series. My friend brought with her in 1968 an understanding and love of the puppet artform. My son was a baby when the friendship first began to flower and so spent a significant and influential time in his childhood exploring her Blackheath flat with its collection of puppets and other Czech stimuli. I remember clearly sitting with her as she entertained him by animating a fox stole. His favourite book was a translation of a Czech collection of fairytales and his favourite character was the winter sprite (of whom I promise to speak in some later post). The book had very Czech illustrations with their combination of colour, humour and dark undertone. It is still to be found on his bedroom bookshelf and like his scripts can only have its width of imagination realised in animated form.

About three/four years ago we went as a family to stay with my friend at her flat in Prague. Near the Castle was a large gallery with an exhibition by the artist and filmmaker Jan Svankmajer. Here was and is an animator whose work could never be taken as being for children – not unless you want your child to wake up in the middle of the night screaming and telling you that there are snapping sheep's skulls with false eyes under the bed. The galleries displaying Svankmajer's two-dimensional work were impressive, but it was the last gallery that particularly delighted our son – it was full of sets and characters from Svankmajer's films, most strikingly from his take on Lewis Carol's Alice. I cannot adequately describe Svankmajer's animation to you: it is surreal, clever, at times slow and repetitive and at other times blackly humourous - it is very Czech. You will find clips of it on Youtube and there is a dedicated website on One other thing of note happened on that holiday, our son made a point of getting up early enough to have lively debates with my friend about their respective views on films and scriptwriting before coming to breakfast with us. For a teenager to get up early on holiday is indeed remarkable and an indication that he was serious about pursuing a career in film. My friend has a lot to answer for (all of it good).

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