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Image Entertainment presents

The Collected Shorts of Jan Svankmajer: Volume 1 (1965-1980)

Director: Jan Svankmajer

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (some disturbing imagery, mild violence)
Release Date: 2003-06-10
Genre: experimental

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A+ A+C+C C+


DVD Review

For many decades now, Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer has fascinated the world with his surreal, dream-like, animated creations. While primarily known for his stop-motion animation, Svankmajer is accomplished in directing live actors as well as painting, sculpting, and static artwork. His work has been a beacon to countless filmmakers, an inspiration to artists everywhere, and unquestionably some of the most important art to emerge from the often oppressive confines of the formerly Communist Czechoslovakia. While many have seen his work, most are unaware of who he is, but are unquestionably aware of his influence on others. He gained mainstream reknown when he was briefly part of the MTV "Art Break" series that, at one time, was a groundbreaking method of introducing the public to unknown artists. Presented here on this disc from Image and KimStim are selected film shorts from Svankmajer's "early" work, spanning 1965 to 1980. It is not completist and does not feature every short made from that period, but it provides the bulk of his most important and influential material.

The disc contains the following:

A Game With Stones
A 9-minute short in which a surreal, mechanical contraption drops stones into a bucket, which then go into ritual movements and progressions. A perfect example of Svankmajer's expert ability to take something inorganic (rocks) and bring them to vibrant life, almost effortlessly.

Et Cetera
An ahead of its time experimental animation presenting the theme of gradual, upgraded progress. Amazingly complete despite the 7-minute running time.

Punch and Judy
One of Svankmajer's most famous shorts, in which a pair of hand-puppets battle each other for supremacy over a guinea pig. Easily one of his best and a clear example of his genius in frenetic, surreal editing.

The Flat
My personal favorite, a masterful, 13-minute live action short in which a man is harassed by a room filled with conventional items that respond to him in a very unconventional way. One of the definitive Svankmajer short films.

Picnic With Weissmann
A darkly comic piece in which a collection of every day, outdoor picnic items do their thing without the help of human beings. But maybe there's a reason why.

A Quiet Week in the House
Another one of Svankmajer's breathtaking masterpieces, this short sees a strange, voyeuristic man break into an old, dilapidated house where he proceeds, for one week, to spy on various rooms. Inside those rooms, strange things are happening.

The Fall of the House of Usher
A stylized and actor-less interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe's sinister, classic tale of dark fear. As a Poe fan (and someone who spent four months in a class solely devoted to his work), I think this is the finest visual interpretation of the story, and it has a lot to do with what isn't there, as opposed to what is (although Svankmajer gets that right as well).

Although these shorts are referred to as "the early years" of Svankmajer's work, without the dates on them you'd probably never guess when they were made. His amazing expertise at both animating and directing is absolutely stunning. There is some evidence of evolution in his technique and budget, but overall, he doesn't go from beginner to expert—he simply goes. While other surrealists have done wonderful things with film (Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol), Svankmajer seems to take every frame and turn it into artwork on its own. Any single snippet from The Flat could be matted and exhibited like a fine photograph. His roots in Eastern European culture are unquestionably clear, his work very much defined by his youth in that culture. His films are universal. Rarely is there any dialogue (only narration). His first feature film, Alice (a clever half live-action/half stop-motion take on the classic fable Alice in Wonderland) had very little dialogue, yet people can instantly recognize all of the hallmark portions of the original story.

In his world, it seems that words can be easily disposed. So much relies on saying things strongly without actually using vocals. While his shorts are entertaining just for their technical skill, they also comment on the modern world in very subtle ways. Svankmajer allows his audience to peer into a world that most people don't see every day.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: As one might expect, image quality varies from short to short. In general, the shorts suffer from the kind of damage you'd expect from older films, but the transfers are extremely nice and do nothing to worsen the defects. Some speckles and scratches are there, but overall, the video quality is quite impressive given the age of the shorts and the fact that the source prints were probably not stored in the best conditions. Black level is never quite stable, but then, given the purposefully unusual cinematography used in some of the shorts, it's hard to judge something like that anyway.

Image Transfer Grade: C+

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Most of the audio is 2-channel mono and is presented very well. Despite the age of the soundtracks, none of them really suffer from any considerable flaws, although the narration track in The Fall of the House of Usher is a bit distorted due to a very shallow low end that makes the sound effects a bit harsh. As the shorts are primarily music and sound effects, the track supports the material as well as can be imagined.

Audio Transfer Grade:

Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 7 cues and remote access
1 Other Trailer(s) featuring Little Otik
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Essay: Filmmaker as Alchemist
  2. Jan Svankmajer art gallery
Extras Review: Extras on the disc include a gallery of Jan Svankmajer's artwork (from paintings to cabinet installations), an essay about Svankmajer's career (inside the keepcase booklet), and a trailer for his latest film, Little Otik, the strange story of a childless couple adopting a tree trunk as a baby, which then grows into a menacing, all-consuming creature.

The disc's presentation is pretty basic, but functional and hardly disappointing. Each film is a separate chapter and can be either selected individually or played all together. It should be noted, however, that the chapter listing on the case is wrong. The shorts are, in fact, in chronological order on the disc.

Extras Grade: C+

Final Comments

Although Svankmajer has given birth to another generation of filmmakers (the work of the Brothers Quay bears his influence), he remains the creator of a distinct movement that approached animation from a whole different perspective. It is difficult to put into words exactly what he has done with the filmed medium; therefore it is to everyone's advantage to simply run out and buy this disc.

Dan Lopez 2003-07-24