Animated Film in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union

 302. Friday, 4 January, 1:45–3:00 p.m., 206, Hynes

Program arranged by the Division on Slavic and East European Literatures and the Division on Film

I. "Between the Phenomenological and the Absurd: The Surreal Realism of Objects in the Films of Jan Svankmajer," William E. B. Verrone, Univ. of North Alabama

II. "Technotise: Serbian Anime, Transgressed Boundaries, and the Posthuman," William B. Covey, Slippery Rock Univ.

III. "(Re)Visionary Reflections: Khrzhanovsky's A Room and a Half and Nelk's Lotman's World," Sharon Lubkemann Allen, State Univ. of New York, Brockport

Presiding: Emily D. Johnson, Univ. of Oklahoma


“Between the Phenomenological and the Absurd: The Surreal Realism of Objects in the Films of Jan Svankmajer”
Dr. William Verrone
Assistant Professor of Film and English
University of North Alabama

Czechoslovakian filmmaker Jan Svankmajer’s unique aesthetic approach and imaginative vision make him one of the most respected and distinctive filmmakers working today.  His works are both highly inventive and ambitious in form and style, combining live-action, puppets and marionettes, collage, object-, drawn-, and clay- animation, and montage, which become elements in his admitted “alchemical” and surreal process of animating the inanimate.  He presents the inanimate world fully come to life: animated objects (rendered through stop-motion) enforce themselves into the lives of people, and they often intrude to a level of discomfort, dismay, or deliciously dark humor.  His films often present us with nightmarish realms of human experience, and they combine surrealist aesthetics within a realist context.  This oxymoron—“surreal realism”—is seemingly a misnomer, but the films demonstrate the clever use of surrealist ideas to create images that are at once startling yet entirely real in the context of the films.  I would like to discuss Svankmajer’s approach to the phenomenological through his use of stop-motion animation, rendering a world that is at once familiar yet foreign, absurd yet logical.  Many of Svankmajer’s short films, from The Flat (1968) to Dimensions of Dialogue (1982) to The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia (1990) are allegorical reflections of political and socio-cultural unrest in Czechoslovakia and Eastern Europe, but my discussion will focus more specifically on the theoretical and practical aspects of his style and form, which demonstrate an allegiance to the avant-garde, yet still encompass unique ways to analyze the world around us, which I am calling “surreal realism.”  Using theories of experimental film, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s ideas on Phenomenology, and close readings of the films, I will discuss Svankmajer’s stylistic and formal concerns—including rhythmic, precise, and rapid editing; the combination of various forms of animation with live action that produces surreal realism; hyper-real sounds; humor; and the fantastic—to show how his unyielding and unerring imagination brings life to dead objects (which can be anything from pieces of meat to socks to scissors to chairs), and how  this is alternately serious and playful, straightforward and symbolic.  There is total freedom in his films—anything is possible.  I plan to address several of his films, including Alice (1988), Conspirators of Pleasure (1996), and Little Otik (2000), to highlight the interplay of animated objects and reality.

"Technotise: Serbian Anime, Transgressed Boundaries and the Posthuman"
Dr. William B. Covey, Associate Professor of English
Department of English, Slippery Rock University

    Based upon his graphic novel of the same name, Alekse Gajica’s film Technotise: Edit I Ja (2010) is also Serbia’s first anime film.  The movie is set in Belgrade in 2074 and echoes other dystopic texts looking at possible future worlds.  Director Gajica is fascinated with new technologies.  His film uses numerous styles of animation including realistic drawings, two-dimensional, three-dimensional, and vector animation laid over matte paintings, traditional cels, or employing CGI effects.  By testing various animation methods, the film’s diverse scenes are always surprising.  Gajica is also experimenting with the concept of cinephilia.  In interviews, Gajica has expressed his love for Japanese anime and Technotise clearly references scenes, events and characters from Paprika (Kon, 2006), Neon Genesis Evangelion (Anno, 2005), Ghost in the Shell (Oshii, 1995), and Akira (Otomo 1988).  Knowledgeable viewers will also see nods to such non-anime cyberpunk films as Blade Runner (Scott, 1982) Run Lola Run (Tykwer, 1998), Pi (Aronofsky, 1998), The Matrix (Wachowski Brothers, 1999), and AI (Spielberg and Kubrick, 2001).  Such references reveal Gajica’s love for the genre and provide aware viewers a shortcut of sorts into his visual thinking.  Yet, this film is more than simply a fan boy’s postmodern pastiche of previously cool SF and anime movies.
Technotise:  Edit and I is also concerned with theories of posthuman identity and sexuality.  N. Katherine Hayles defines the posthuman as “when computation rather than possessive individualism” (2173) defines being.  The math formula that leads main character Edit, a failing psychology student, to a mechanical alter ego named Edi who grows inside her body and mind, raises questions that go back to Donna Haraway’s cyborg theories and longstanding existential questions of subjectivity and the Other.  While Edit has human relationships—including her father, stepmother, boyfriend, and a group of twenty-something friends—each relationship pales in comparison with how she relates to a mentally-ill mathematician named Abel, her mysterious companion Edi, who surfaces when she is exposed to the secret math formula that results in machines becoming self-aware, and even to herself. Echoing Mischa Peters’ claims for a posthuman “exit meat” (47) approach to sexuality, Technotise’s erotic sequences are most effective when featuring Edit alone or with her alter ego, Edi. Edit seems to exemplify a new, posthuman sexuality where bodies no longer need to make a distinction between flesh and blood and revised bodies mediated by technology.  Perhaps while pointing toward a new kind of solipsism, Technotise is also a utopian text aspiring to creative new ways of looking at posthuman consciousness and sexuality.  By illustrating both postmodern references to previous anime and cyberpunk texts, as well as, hitherto unexamined issues about desires, fear, and sexuality my paper highlights how new shifts in Eastern European filmmaking practices open new possibilities for unique discourses on identity and pleasure.

Dr. Sharon Lubkemann Allen
Associate Professor of Comparative Literature

In Полторы комнаты или сентиментальное путешествие на Родину (A Room and a Half, 2009) and Lotmani maailm (Lotman’s World, 2008), Khrzhanovsky and Nelk refract their own (re)visionary theories and practices of cinema as well as personal and cultural memory through their recollection, critical reflection on, citation and fictional (re)creation of Joseph Brodsky (1940-96) and Yuri Lotman (1922-93). These may be read as reflexive films, reflecting on their own making through their hybrid animated and acted, imaginary and documentary reflections on Brodsky’s and Lotman’s literal and literary lives, (re)visionary poetics and semiotics. The films take literal flight, crossing beyond the possibilities of the real, in order to document imaginary and historical realizations. Nelk’s Lotman shoots into space on a rocket, akin to that Brodsky describes in “The Condition We Call Exile”, a capsule of language.
In Brodsky’s essays, poets such as Mandelstam and Montale prefigure a peculiar poetics of flight, gravitating concomitantly towards past and future, towards freedom defined in terms of “civilization” and a peculiar “code of conscience” contingent on transhistorical transposition, translation, translingualism. Lotman’s life and theory is as marked by a privileging of thresholds, not only as spaces of creative rupture and collision, but also of expanded ethical consciousness. Both films foreground these writers’ alienation as grounds for response and responsibility, while animating peculiarly playful poetic sensibilities and personalities. They offering these writers through cinematic translation the sort of gain that Brodsky argues possible for his parents, re-membered translingually in his essay, “A Room and a Half,” given a new “margin of freedom” and read under a “new code of conscience.” Khrzhanovsky and Nelk use Brodsky and Lotman to recode cinema.
Whereas Nelk uses only actual film footage or still shots of Lotman, sometimes unadulterated and at others superimposed whole or part on insect bodies, animated backgrounds, etc., Khrzhanovsky literally re-casts and re-draws Brodsky within a more explicitly biographical, but also wholly artificed film. His documentary, acted, and animated, similarly human(e) and animal imagining or imaging of the poet is more refractive than Nelk’s poetic cinema, though similarly visually and verbally constructing a new cinematic poetics and reflection on his own cultural contexts. This paper explores how the reconstructed lives in these films cross the border into fiction, consistently foreground problematics of language and landscape, refract cultural and personal memory, prosaically re-cast poetry, position a poetics on the threshold between cultures and genres, and refract cinematic worlds through the reconfiguration of a writer and a writer’s world/room and a half.

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