Svankmajer, Surrealism, and the Sex Pistols: John Cusack

svank1.jpg I don't remember when I first experienced the work of Czech artist and animator Jan Švankmajer. Maybe late-night arts programming on cable TV, or an obscure indie film fest. His trippy shorts are dark gems. What I love about being alive right now is that all of this stuff is so freely available, just floating around in the ether like recallable memories. You can just stumble right through his entire body of work online, with so little effort. It's so much easier to find good weird these days.

Take his 1988 live-action/stop-motion animation retelling of Lewis Carrol's Alice, for instance. At the time of its release, the New York Times said his version "unearths the fears that animate dreams and nightmares." There's the crying scene: Alice's desperate clawing, her tears filling up the room, the mouse-man parting her long blonde hair to construct a little camp and a cooking fire right there on her scalp, a hearth on which to heat up his dinner.

svank3.jpg Then there's Meat Love, in which vein-sloppy steak slabs court each other and get it on, only to be flour-dipped and pan-fried by a Hand of God before climax.

They call Svankmajer a surrealist, but his visions make as much sense to me as escalators or velcro. It's hyperreality, and after all, it exists because he made it, so there it is —just like styrofoam and Fresca.

Absurdism is the logical extension of the truth— or of current trends. Surrealism is true becouse it unearthers the subconscious, the stuff of fever dreams and fractured memory. It exists if one has the guts or madness to bring it to be... ( combine Surrealism and Absurdism and mix it with Dada, you get the Sex Pistols).

svank2.jpg These bits of surrealism ask questions: are the things we consume really creatures that have behavioral patterns, thoughts, and feelings? What is form? Things, like people, shapeshift and evolve. Everything is in a constant state of transformation—atoms are in perpetual motion. Švankmajer's films are a few steps forward or backward or inner or outer away from what is, and toward what may be, a world that exists just out of reach and out of sight.

Sight, and the displacement of normal, are at the heart of one of my other favorites from him: Tma / Svetlo / Tma (Darkness / Light / Darkness). All that desperate groping around, with unidentifiable bits of disembodied flesh. Senses, perception, people-parts, all interchangeable and chaotic. There's always some horrible, viscous, unidentifiable meat thing running around in his films. The man clearly struggles with the carnivorous nature of things.

He's Grade-A weird and trippy.

(RIP, Malcolm McClaren)

ALICE (Neco z Alenky, 1988)





  1. This brings to mind the animated raw hamburger sequence set to Van Halen in Better Off Dead. An homage perhaps. (You can wash your hands on your own time…)

    1. I always thought that scene was more reminiscent of the Brothers Quay than Svankmajer…

      When I went to Prague 10 years ago, one of the first things on my to-see list was Svankmajer’s gallery. It was a tiny place, near Prague castle if memory serves, down this quiet cobblestone street. The gallery itself was a bit of a disappointment, but finding it was one of my most memorable experiences, up there with seeing Gavin Bryars perform “The Sinking of the Titanic” at midnight. Prague is a magical city, and after visiting, it was easy to see how such “weird and trippy” imaginations like Kafka’s and Svankmajer’s sprang from its mix of ancient and modern environs. But I digress.

      Conspirators of Pleasure and Little Otik are also fantastic. My favorite Svankmajer short is Food.

  2. You can stumble
    right through his body
    with so little effort.

    Things we consume shapeshift and evolve;
    everything is atoms forward or backward
    inner or outer, away from what is.

    There’s always some horrible, viscous
    unidentifiable meat – man clearly struggles
    with the carnivorous nature of things.

    It’s much easier
    to find good weird
    these days.

  3. I’ve been head over heels for Svankmejer since my first semester at art school. This is the true power of stop motion.
    Anyone into his works should also check out The Brothers Quay. They have heavy Svankmejer influences (and share his love of animating meats). “Street of Crocodiles” is simply amazing.

  4. I’m always trying to introduce people to Svankmajer, even thought about getting a tattoo that read TMA SVETLO TMA, but I can’t really do that until I know how to pronounce it. How do I find out how to pronounce it?

    1. ‘tma’ is pronounced how it looks and ‘svetlo’ is pronounced like ‘svyetlo.’ it has stress on the first syllable.

  5. I own VHS Scenes from the Surreal but have never seen Faust or Alice. Damn you John X. Cusack, damn you and your whole lovable family!

  6. I agree that his work is less surreal, and more hyperreal (or simply experimental narrative, with a touch of absurd- but the logic is still there. Surrealism and Dada sought to push beyond logic into the primal subconscious sources of our perceptions, motives and behaviour). For instance, the meat piece is quite linear: We’re made of meat, and meat is made of us. Still, effective and strangely touching- love his stuff.

    Think I’ll have a steak tonight.

  7. cusack and boing boing make for a match made on earth. you’ll leave just like the rest of the guest bloggers .

  8. i found him through the brothers quay as well, and i found them through videos they did for… someone… trent reznor? his name is alive? arrgh, can’t recall. anyway, the work by both svankmajer and the quay bros is just nightmarish and fantastic. highly, highly recommended!

    1. Brothers Quay did a couple of videos for His Name Is Alive and one for 16 Horsepower. They did not do the Tool videos, though whoever did was (way too) obviously influenced by them.

  9. Tma/Svetlo/Tma is the Sixth Day of Genesis with the added goodness of God’s bitter sense of humor.

  10. This can’t be the real John Cusack, everything is spelled properly! Complete sentences? I don’t buy it!

    Either that or his Twitter feed is written by The Incredible Hulk. CUSACK SMASH!!

  11. Perhaps John got “into” stop motion during the filming of a classic 80’s Movie “Better Off Dead”. I think there was some stop motion in that movie, something to do with hamburgers (foggy memory, perhaps incorrect). Kewl stuff John…by the way, “I want my two dollars” (cue “Everybody Wants Some” by Van Halen).

  12. I’m feeling this.

    Over the years, I’ve seen as much Svankmajer as I could get my hands on from Blockbuster and Netflix. I’ve got Lunacy in my Netflix queue. I think I’ll bump it to the top.

    The Brothers Quay, however, did not hit the same sweet spot for me as Svankmajer. Brothers Quay is like an experiment in visual artistry. It’s fun to look at, but Svankmajer’s work connects. For me anyway. It’s rooted in human mundanity and just seems more relevant. It’s like Clone Wars vs. Dog Day Afternoon. You look at Clone Wars and think “Gee, I bet that cost a lot of money” and “Hmm, there’s a lot of stuff happening now.” But Dog Day Afternoon seems more hectic despite it’s lack of visual cruft. Svankmajer is really rooted in provincial villagey type stuff like roosters, blowsy farm wives, wood, and raw meat. It’s Chagall, but without the pretty.

    My favorite Svankmajer is Faust and I like it better than even Murnau’s version. Little Otik is like Eraserhead meets Little Shop of Horrors. Who among us does not have time in their lives to watch a film about a killer tree stump baby?

    There is a metric fuck-ton of amazing stuff coming out of that region right now. Romanian, German, Serbian in particular.

    Do a post on Kusturica and Jarmusch, John. I know you have something to say. Have you been invited to Drvengrad? Jarmusch has a street named after him there.

  13. Yep – to see the thread from Jan, to Brothers Quay, to Adam Jones has been a joy. To say that Tool ripped off Brothers Quay is disingeneous… it took SO much work to produce thier videos, it was all just a question of influence. Being sheltered in the ‘burbs, I saw Tool first, out of these three, and then backtracked to the original Czech roots of this all.

    Thanks John for highlighting these videos – truly amazing stuff, tho I’m still to this day bothered by the Little Otik scene where he’s nursing… well, actually I’m still a little bothered by the whole movie… *oh joy*

  14. A tiny juvenile secretive part of me was irked when weird and cult went global. I sort of miss the bad dubs of japanese laserdiscs or poor PAL VHS transfers. It was a great way to experience early Svankmajer. That said, my vhs player gave up the ghost years ago so give me globalized weirdness on readily available DVD anyday.

    Meanwhile, I always felt svankmajer should get more credit for the camera work in his films. Even the live action segments of films like Conspirators of Pleasure feel like he’s filming for animation. Long shots, slow pans, a lot of close-ups. I’m certain its on purpose and it lends a very odd, almost voyeuristic feel to the material.

  15. we watched a lot of svankmajer when i was in media class (over 10 years ago!). his work had a profound effect on me. although i never had the patience to do stop motion or cell animation i did homage many avant garde film pioneers in my videos. my senior film featured a character portrayed by my wife buried halfway in the ground covered in mud and wearing gloves and a crown made of twigs and branches.

    i haven’t seen ‘little otik’ in many years. i should check to see if my dvd of it still works. my favorite short of his is ‘the flat’.

  16. “Then there’s Meat Love, in which vein-sloppy steak slabs court each other and get it on, only to be flour-dipped and pan-fried by a Hand of God before climax.”

    At first glance, that looks like a Western misinterpretation of Tantra.

    I usually wound up seeing things like this at 3:00AM on cable or online and doubting whether or not I’ve actually seen them. It just makes them better.

  17. On the one hand, yah, the internet brings all the classic weirdness from the ’80s that much closer. But on the other hand, with the technology available now, who’s making weirdness? Weirdness doesn’t need an audience now; it just needs a few youtube subscribers. I mean, how many Chris Cunninghams will there be? More, hopefully.

    Please, Mr. Cusack, list a few modern masters. Start a DVD distribution company or something. Maybe Hulu for weirdness. Please. :-)

  18. While we’re on the topic of under-appreciated animators:

    Alexander Alexieff comes to mind. Sorry ’bout the poor quality of the vid I have linked to.

    Seems he also worked with my fellow Canuck Norman Mclaren:

    But I’m personally still stuck on the Walt Disney animated shorts from say 1931 thru 1942. Still brilliant, IMO.
    You know where those can be found, don’t you?

  19. Good shout out Nevermore

    Starewicz begat Svankmajer begat Quays begat Burton begat PEZ (hope I did not insult PEZ)

    all hyper-real OK

    but Sex Pistols surreal? Elaborate….anybody?

    1. I’ll take a stab at it, however I claim no authority.

      Perhaps the Sex Pistols weren’t strictly speaking capital-“S”-surreal, however I believe they are a part of the lineage of the same ideas.

      Post WWI, young Parisians sickened by the cheapening of life at the hand of monarchies’ political bickering, new weapons designed to kill more people more efficiently, and the ennui and sudden death of trench warfare decide that life is essentially pointless and absurd. They create art that points out and draws attention to this absurdity. They call their art “Dada” from a random word in the dictionary. Marcell Duchamp renames himself R. Mutt and displays a urinal entitled “Fountain,” because fuck you, that’s why.

      Surrealists, on the heels of the Dadaists, apply the new theories of psychoanalysis to absurd material for maximum mind-fuckage. The real bridge to British punk would be when these Gallic ideas bubbled up again in the 1960s with the Situationists. We don’t hear a lot about them here stateside, but basically a bunch of French kids used propaganda to convey ideas of the pointlessness of existence outside the galleries and into “real life,” the ideas lived as life rather than made into an art object. From what I understand, they shut down the country for a couple days.

      A decade later, in London, a bunch of dead-end kids are unemployed with no prospects because of the still-rigid class system, put in place by an obsolete yet still powerful monarchy. Teenage art-making has shifted from visual art to sonic rock-n-roll. With the ongoing threat of nuclear war between two distant countries and no life prospects, the kids live the life of the absurd. They dye their hair unnatural colors and wear their pajamas in public. Former art student John Lydon calls himself Johnny Rotten and creates “God Save The Queen,” while his steeped-in-theatre manager M. McLaren has the Sex Pistols (a surreal name if ever there was one) perform it in a boat alongside the Queen’s 50th Jubilee flotilla, because fuck you, that’s why.

      /wall of text.

      Mr. Cusack, you’re going back to training rebels in El Salvador unless i get that Tapeheads blog post!

  20. “The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia” is a great short film of his that basically re-tells the history of Czechoslovakia during Communism. The absurdism present here is characteristic of a lot of Czech artists and writers who lived through Communism. Check out the sculptor David Cerny and the writer Bohumil Hrabal for equally great Czech social commentary!

  21. Never seen any of his stuff before, tho’ so so so many of friends tell me that I must.

    BTW, John Cusack, did we go to middle school together? I made a film with a new guy at my school also named John Cusack, a “spoof” of the mustachioed villain/heroine on train tracks silent film thing. Horrible, horrible, horrible film. Then this John Cusack moved. And a couple of years later I saw a guy that looked a lot like him in a movie, with even the same name of John Cusack, don’t you know. Then I forgot all about it for decades.

    But sometimes I’ve remembered. And wondered. Not too hard, but…

  22. Excellent, i know someone mentioned it earlier.. but little otik (otesenak) is great. Alice is actually up on netflix at the moment.

  23. Thanks for posting this, John. I remember seeing Jan and his work in Cairo over 10 years ago. Trippy shit, indeed.

  24. I am so glad that BoingBoing is featuring Svankmajer. His work should be viewed by more people. My Mother found Neco z Alenky (Alice) for me in a blockbuster when I was 11 years old. I popped it into the VCR and fell deeply in love. Since then, I have watched as much Svankmajer as I can get my hands out, and my inner world has been greatly shaped by his art. Svankmajer’s films make me feel like a child: not in the stereotypical innocent and carefree sense, but in the way that his films cause me to regain that sense of curiousness and wonder: and the sense that what seems strange is actually perfectly ordinary, though no less beautiful for its “mundanity”. I seem to feel more deeply when watching Svankmajer films, I notice more. I want to devour Svankmajer’s art, and be devoured by it: I simply can not get enough of it!

  25. John,

    I’ve really been a huge fan of yours since Tapeheads.

    If I may, you seem like the type of fella who’d be able to make “Geek Love” a really A++ theatrical piece.

    I appreciate that this is not *exactly* the place for a well-articulated response. But I’d sure as shit salute a flag if you’d run it up the pole!

    Many thanks for much fun,

    Greg Long

  26. Good pick Cooz! Me loves me some Svankmajer!!! Not to give Netflix a free plug, but I’m instant-queuing this one up right now and going nighty-night with it. Gotta love living in the digital age. Sweet dreams.

  27. I first saw Svankmajer’s Down To The Cellar, Alice and the shorts on pirated VHS back in the late 80s, and have loved his stuff ever since. I met him once, at a Czech Surrealist exhibition opening in Swansea in 1997. The mayor was doing his speech, during which a baby burst into tears and cried; Jan turned, and applauded the baby.

  28. @noah django
    OK, but you are skipping an entire group that really made the outre’ of the Pistols possible, to the extent that I would venture that the Pistols were for the most part a marketing tool for their Henry Higgins (if you will) Malcolm McLaren (RIP).

    That movement/group being Throbbing Gristle some years earlier, who maybe were the footpath coming off the bridge of Dada that led to the freeway on-ramp that is the Pistols. Comparing the two I would say you were hard pressed to continue to define the Pistols as surreal but more a derivation on a theme. I mean, come on, that Flotilla seemed like such a publicity stunt, albeit an extremely entertaining one. Unless you are defining surrealism is a more commercial artistic endeavor which I’m down with.

    But, YES., totally agree with you about the Situationist movement, does not not get its due respect. Damn you Camus!

  29. Like others before me, I see Little Otik as his penultimate creation. A little more developed storyline, a little more production value (better lighting and camera work), a helpful dose of creepy, just the right amount of violence and his trademark/unusual style. Perfect!

  30. Being a bone collector and fan of the morbid and odd, I’m quite fascinated by Jan Å vankmajer’s Alice. I’ve got some pretty good screen grabs of it here:

    Pretty sure I saw Tma / Svetlo / Tma (and perhaps other shorts of his) at animation film fests as a child… when I was entirely to young to see those things yet! I’m so glad my parents took me and helped twist my thoughts in the right direction.

  31. “NO ROOM! NO ROOM!”

    That guy messed me up. The first time I saw Alice my friends and I were sober and didn’t know what to make of it. Something about Czech animation is far out. the Czech based Tom & Jerry cartoons are completely insane. Hyper violent enough to give itchy & scratchy pause.

  32. Jan Svankmajer taught The brothers Quay animation. He is also a gifted printmaker and has a lovely surrealist gallery in Prague by the castle.

  33. Bruno Schulz’s “Street of Crocodiles” is his most famously work and is well worth reading.

  34. I love Svankmajer’s vision. “Faust” has been one of my faves since it came out. It’s the perfect balance of creepiness and delight.

    An obscure genius in the world of stop motion animation is Christiane Cegavske. Do yourself a favor and seek out “Blood Tea & Red String”. It’s brilliant.

  35. It’s not Å vankmajer, but I’ve just (re)discovered Jodorowsky’s El Topo after seeing it as a teenager, fifteen years ago on late night television.

    All I could remember was a king (?) with some white sticks and that it was a “Western”. Thanks to the wonderful technology of today I managed to find it after a few hours of searching.

    It’s just as surreal as I remembered.

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