Life and Everything But the Kitchen Sink

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As last films go, Jan Svankmajer’s SURVIVING LIFE (THEORY AND PRACTICE) is both vibrant and energetic and full of creative juice, and deeply melancholy on a number of levels. It’s sad because the filmmaker has announced it as his last work, and because he’s made it without his creative partner, wife Eva Svankmajerova, who designed for his films and was in every way seemingly his perfect other half.

The film is something of a departure for Svankmajer, deploying a cut-out animation technique (achieved using computers) stolen from Terry Gilliam who stole it from Walerian Borowczyk. The alchemist of Prague even introduces the film in person (as a cut-out) like Gilliam did in TIDELAND. Svankmajer takes the opportunity to explain all the film’s stylistic choices as being solutions to budgetary limitations (using cut-outs saves on petrol and catering), and even explaining the introduction itself as a fix for the film’s short running time (however, it’s not THAT short). A glum apologia that slowly gets funnier the more despondent it becomes.

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The biggest surprise about the film, whose imagery (flopping tongues, bodily functions, bizarre juxtapositions and violations of scale, human-animal hybrids, dream-reality crossovers) and sound design (slurping and slapping and flopping) are absolutely consistent with the rest of the auteur’s oeuvre, is that it tells an old-fashioned Freudian investigation story, like MARNIE, in which nearly everything fits together like a well-oiled plot mechanism out of Hitchcock. The difference which lifts it well out of banality is that the dream analysis and breaking through the barrier of traumatic amnesia is achieved in a narrative in which the distinction between reality and dream is continuously blurred and muddied. The protagonist Evzen (or Eugene — it’s a film about heredity, or eugenics) has his dreams analysed by a shrink, upon whose wall hang duelling portraits of Freud and Jung, but some of what she analyses was stuff we assumed to be reality, and some of her consultations seem to be happening in dreams.  And both Evzen’s waking life and his sleep adventures are prone to disruption by the same surreal manifestations — chicken-headed women, a dog-headed man, giant hands and eggs and apples and falling melons…

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The Oedipal angle is well to the fore as Evzen pursues the woman of his dreams, who seems to be both his anima (female self) and his mother, and at one point bears the name of Eva, at another Evzenie. The whole thing ends with life, catharsis, death, the closing of a loop which may swallow itself like an ouroborous or blossom out into new possibilities depending on your reading.

4 Responses to “Life and Everything But the Kitchen Sink”

  1. I liked Surviving Life when I saw it a year ago, but haven’t thought much about it since. I suspect it will not be one of the Svankmajers I perennially rewatch, like Alice and Little Otik. Did Gilliam steal directly from Borowczyk, I’ve long wondered, or was it from another intermediary such as Stan Vanderbeek?

  2. A distinct possibility! Gilliam’s sound effects shift his work into a more accessible, narrative frame. I would imagine he saw both Les Astronauts and some Vanderbeek, although one can’t overestimate the importance of speed and economy in Gilliam’s technique, both of which had a lot to do with how it ended up looking. His book Animations of Mortality gives a good insight into this — and may even have inspired Svank’s confessional tone in his intro here.

    I generally like JS’s shorts much more than his features, and Down to the Cellar is one of the greatest films anyone’s ever made. This one has a more compelling story than most of the features, and the combination of live-action and cut-outs is even more striking in some ways than the live-action/stop-motion of his previous work. But the very neatness of the Freudian conception maybe works against it being as evocative.

  3. Randy Cook Says:

    TG certainly owes a debt to British animator Bob Godfrey. He repaid it, in part, here:

  4. Yes! And Godfrey was hanging out with live-action filmmakers like Lester and Fuest, as Gilliam did with the other Pythons — he even did odd spots of acting.

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