Czech It Out

A miniretrospective highlights the innovative works that have flowed from one of the world's great filmmaking nations

Quick, what gonzo visionary is a prime inspiration for many American directors, including Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, and Julie Taymor? The answer is Jan Svankmajer, an obscure Czech puppet master and filmmaker whose latest feature, Otesánek, makes its Florida premiere (and second U.S. screening) at the Mercury Theatre on Saturday, January 27. The showing caps a two-day Czech Film Retrospective sponsored by Florida International University's Film Studies Program.

The prolific Svankmajer, whose career spans four decades, is virtually unknown in the United States despite his profound and rapidly growing influence on an entire generation of animation and live-action moviemakers. Svankmajer's darkly hilarious, surreal films feature puppets both tiny and gigantic, Claymation, stop-action, and live actors, both as human characters and dressed as puppets. His subject matter is primarily culled from fairy tales and traditional folklore of Central Europe. He's also drawn to great literary classics that reflect his dark, wry, hallucinatory tastes -- Edgar Allen Poe, Lewis Carroll, and the Faust legend, all of which he adapted for animated film and puppet theater productions. Filmgoers who loved Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Toy Story, or Alien Resurrection may find Svankmajer to their taste, as all those films borrow heavily from him.

Svankmajer's long career stretches back to the Fifties, when he began directing and designing elaborate original puppet shows. He gradually moved into film work, first with shorts (25 of them), before venturing into the feature world with Alice (1988), his take on Alice in Wonderland, the first of his movies to be released in the United States. Alice, which also is part of the upcoming retrospective, use one real actor in the title role, while the other characters are truly bizarre puppets. For example the white rabbit is an animal skin stuffed with sawdust, the caterpillar is a sock puppet, and other characters are mere objects animated by stop-action.

Each of Svankmajer's movies expands his technical and directorial range. Although his filmmaking might be described as having a forward trajectory, his overall career seems to explode in all directions. In addition to his film and theater work, Svankmajer is a major force in painting, ceramics, collage, sculpture, and tactile art.

Otesánek, which had its world premiere this past October at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., follows his penchant for dark, visually dazzling renditions of folk and fairy tales. Otesánek is about a childless couple who unearth a tree stump shaped like a child. Overcome by familial longing, the two take the stump home, where it comes to life. At first they are overjoyed to discover their foundling has human habits and appetites. But their bliss turns to terror when those appetites spiral out of control.

The Czech Film Retrospective promises a strong menu. The first films will screen at FIU on Friday, January 26. The bill includes Jiri Weiss's The Coward (1966) at noon. Weiss's tale of cowardice and courage concerns a Slovakian schoolteacher and his wife, who find a wounded Russian parachutist in their yard just as enemy Germans occupy their village during World War II. Svankmajer's Alice screens at 3:00 p.m., followed at 6:00 p.m. by Kolya, which won an Oscar and a Golden Globe in 1996. This popular comedy tells of a perennial bachelor who suddenly finds himself with a pint-size five-year-old roommate. The day wraps up with a concert featuring Czech singer Sisa Sklovska on her first U.S. tour.

On Saturday, January 27, the venue shifts to the Wolfsonian-FIU Museum in Miami Beach for two more Oscar winners. The Shop on Main Street(1965) screens at noon, followed by Milos Forman's The Loves of a Blonde (1965) at 2:30 p.m. At 6:00 p.m. Otesánek screens at the Mercury Theatre, closing the event.

Long the breeding ground for innovative, ideological cinema, the Czech film industry is enjoying renewed vigor as the European Union brings new investment capital. The capital city of Prague also is a prime location for Hollywood filmmakers. Relatively untouched by World War II and subsequent socialist rebuilding, Prague retains an old world look that is increasingly on view in period epics.

The Czech Film Retrospective is produced by FIU English professor and film studies head Barbara Weitz, who credits the Florida Grand Opera with the idea for the project. "They are presenting a Czech festival of their own and suggested a film retrospective to complement their program," she says. "We were very fortunate to get Otesánek to close our program. This will not only be the Florida premiere but the first screening in the entire South." With the exception of the 35mm print of Otesánek, all the offerings will be screened in video, owing to the lack of 16mm prints. For more information about the event, call 305-348-3294. Those interested in learning more about Svankmajer can investigate www.illumin.co.uk/svank, a Website that his acolytes have established.

 
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