When Jan met Terry
Liese Spencer listens in as Terry Gilliam and Jan Svankmajer have an animated conversation about Surrealism, censorship and sensuality
Tuesday 11 February 1997
In fact, although often seen as verging on the esoteric, Svankmajer has always filled his films with practical jokes and a fiercely imaginative bad taste. His work has always been infused with a kind of black magic, a relish for the grotesque. Vomiting heads, cannibalistic dolls and bleeding marionettes have all featured in Svankmajer's shorts, bizarre journeys through the murky reaches of the subconscious, constructed from found objects, clay-models, conventional drawn animation and stop-frame special effects.
Originally trained in puppet theatre, Svankmajer began his film career at the time of the Czech New Wave, whose aggressive antagonism towards the totalitarian state he shared. Early experiments with the commedia dell'arte of marionettes gave way to Surrealist attacks on a repressive regime. In 1968 the censors clamped down on this dissenting voice and between 1973 and 1981 the director was "forced to rest from the cinema". Since he resumed film-making, he has been introducing more live action into feature-length movies such as Faust, but his Surrealist sensibilities remain undiminished - Conspirators of Pleasure is dedicated to Max Ernst.
Born six years after Svankmajer, on the other side of the world, Hollywood director Terry Gilliam is known these days for big-budget movies such as 12 Monkeys, but began his screen career animating the gaps between Monty Python sketches. Like Svankmajer, his work is obsessed with dark fairy-tales (both made films called Jabberwocky within four years of each other) and his visual imagination has, in the past, given rise to baroque spectacles such as Brazil and Baron Munchausen.
Here, the two film-makers discuss symbolism, censorship and the end of civilisation as we know it.
Terry Gilliam After the Russian invasion of 1968 you were banned from film-making for seven years?
Jan Svankmajer Yes. I planned the scenario for Conspirators in 1970, but the censors said sadomasochism had nothing to do with Socialism. They were wrong, of course, because all relationships are sadomasochistic, even if this isn't manifested in a sexual form.
TG It's interesting that you've made a film about sexual aberration at the same time that David Cronenberg's Crash is causing such a furore.
JS Yes, but Conspirators of Pleasure is very different. It's an erotic film without copulation. Or dialogue. It's the story of six people whose lives are shackled by sensual pleasure, shot in a style I call the "black grotesque". It's a mixture of realism and trick photography. Animation is used for fantasies seen through the eyes of the characters.
TG Faust was a quantum leap from your early work. Are you becoming more comfortable with live action? It certainly makes your work easier to interpret.
JS A full-length live-action film meant I could view my subject from more angles. My films deal with real stories but they're filled with symbols, so your imagination constantly metamorphoses reality. Familiar objects take on a different meaning. For some viewers this is liberating, because it opens up a long-forgotten childhood world; others find it disorientating and reject it.
TG It's a dangerous vocabulary. When inanimate objects start moving, the world becomes a very slippery, uncertain place. Your work is magical because it makes reality mysterious. So many Hollywood films are more like religion, because they reassure you, tell you there's a reality which makes sense.
JS That kind of American cinema seems very gross to me.
TG I agree. I was at a film festival in Prague recently and everybody was talking about the censorship of the old regime. It made me think about the economic censorship we live under in the West. If a film doesn't make money, you can't see it. It seems strange that these different systems can have the same result.
JS Unlike many artists, I never thought the change of regime in Czechoslovakia would effect a big change in the arts. Both the totalitarian and commercial systems stem from the same civilisation. Arts must be targeted at the roots of that civilisation rather than at the systems it supports.
TG Did animation give you more freedom in the previous regime?
JS It wasn't so sharply censored initially because it wasn't thought to be dangerous. There was this idea that nothing "really" happens. However, when the censors visited film clubs and saw the reaction to my films, they realised how eager audiences were to read metaphorically.
TG I don't think people understand symbolism in the West.
JS They're not forced to live in primitive repression. In a totalitarian system people are hungry for the slightest hint of truth, attuned to viewing imaginatively.
TG With the change of regime, do you think younger audiences understand symbolism, or is that language disappearing?
JS I understand that in Prague much of the audience was made up of young people. At one theatre it sold out, but was shown for only a week because there was an American film waiting to be shown.
TG People don't seem to understand that huge marketing budgets give American movies an unfair advantage. When I visited the Czech Republic recently people loved the fact these American movies were coming in. What was depressing was that young directors didn't want to make Czech films because they'd only be seen by 10 million people.
JS Young people look down on their forefathers as collaborators, but they're just collaborating with the Western system. The new generation of film students are snobs. They won't use a trick camera because it was made in the 1930s. They won't touch anything they think of as old and Russian, even in their first year! They want expensive equipment and belly- ache when they can't get it. This so-called professionalism is just laziness. TG The interesting thing I felt about 12 Monkeys was that it was made within the system, but dealt with what's outside it. Young people would see it and get into arguments afterwards about what it meant. They seemed excited and grateful to have a film they could do that with. In the 1980s, even college kids didn't want to think any more, they just wanted to concentrate on their careers. I think that conservatism is beginning to wane.
JS That's because the failure of this civilisation is obvious now, and they're beginning to realise they have to live in it for another 50 years.
TG But their view of the future is much blacker than adults'. I'm always accused of having a pessimistic view of the future, but I don't really. I think there may be a cataclysm, but humanity will always come back somehow. One of the scripts I'm working on at the moment is based on trying to make a pagan film, set in the time before Christianity, in a society which accepted magic. But I'm trying to make it as an adventure movie. I want to cast Bruce Willis or Brad Pitt to get regular people to see it, but then twist the way they perceive the world.
JS That's interesting because, many thousands of years before civilisation, animals and objects were partners in communication. We didn't need technology then to make objects live in the mind. Now this civilisation has come to an end we've had to bring back, or rather invent, that relationship. So I suppose, in that way too, animation is a modern form of magicn
`Conspirators of Pleasure' opens this Friday (St Valentine's Day) at the ICA, The Mall, London SW1 (0171-930 3647). It will be reviewed on our Film pages on Thursday
Your chance to win an original Jan Svankmajer etching and/or free annual membership of the ICA (plus a crate of Czech beer)
The first 10 readers to ring the ICA box-office today, quoting the codeword "Erotic" before booking a pair of tickets to Jan Svankmajer's Conspirators of Pleasure (opening this Friday), will each receive one free annual Impressionist membership of the ICA, plus a crate of Zmek Czech Pilsener.
Of those 10, the lucky one to have their name pulled out of the proverbial hat will also receive an original etching by the Czech Republic's most famous living Surrealist.
All other readers booking to see the film by phone (quoting the codeword "Erotic") or in person (carrying a copy of this coupon) will qualify for a 10 per cent discount on annual Impressionist membership of the ICA (paying pounds 22.50 instead of pounds 25).
Annual Impressionist membership of the ICA entitles you to pounds 10 worth of ICA vouchers, invitations to private views, and free entrance (with guest) to all ICA exhibitions and bar and club nights, plus ticket discounts and the monthly ICA Bulletin
ICA box-office: 0171-930 3647 (open 12 noon-8pm)
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