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The Confrontation of the Real With the Fantastic, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

Within the Czech republic and Czechoslovakia before it, the genre of stop motion animation film has found a continuous contentual resource in the mythology and fairy tales of the region. Insofar as these inspirations are decisively central to the works of directors such as Jan Švankmajer, Jiri Trnka, and Jiri Barta, this begs the question as to the reason behind this close affinity: what is the logic of the synthesis of stop motion animation film with myth, fairy tale and legend that manifests itself in the Czech artistic context? Prima facie, the answer to this question seems lucid, as it lies in animation’s other-worldly quality, one which concomitantly suits the equally other-worldly character of fairy tales, myth and legend. To the extent that animation is a fantastical genre according to its distancing from a reliance on the quotidian and the presuppositions of a “realistic” perspective, mythology and its variants provide a content that fits seamlessly with this particular form. Such a combination above all thusly opposes tenets of realism, as the mundane world around us is transformed into something radically different. In this regard, the relationship between myth and stop motion animation seems self-evident. Yet the inquiry into the link between mythology and stop motion animation film in the work of these Czech artists must also obviously consider the Czech artistic context, so as to understand why this relationship has manifested itself in such a strong manner within the latter. Hence, whereas the shared fantastical nature of myth and stop motion animation contribute to a unified form and content, at the same time the historical situation of these directors must also be considered so as to further understand the logic behind this connection. That the aforementioned directors lived the majority of their lives under a communist regime influenced by the Soviet Union and its particular totalitarian ideology suggests that the combination of myth and stop motion animation in the Czech context represented an attempt to show an alternative reality to the one promoted by the state apparatus. In this regard, the return to native Czech sources, such as legends, myths, and fairy tales, become a means with which to stress a certain Czech opposition to this ideology. Images from the national imaginary and its historical collection of folk tales would serve as a means of resistance and critique of the Soviet doctrine. Stop motion animation would be a means with which to tap into this unconsciousness imagination, according to the surreal and fantastical nature of both, thus opening new possibilities for reality itself. Thus, when examining the connection between mythology and Czech stop motion animation film two primary points may be made: firstly, this connection exhibits an overall harmony between form and content, which fit together seamlessly according to the fantastical nature of both, and secondly, this connection exhibits an opposition to a particular imposed definition of what is real, i.e., the Soviet ideology. An examination of the specific works of Švankmajer, Trnka, and Barta support this thesis, insofar as these works exhibit both aspects of the logic behind the connection between stop motion animation and mythology.

The considerations of the genre of stop motion animation film and its utilization of mythology, legends, and fairy tales as a source for content can be summarized as a particular opposition to any form of realism. This connection is therefore entirely intuitive in its logic. The fantastical symmetry between stop motion animation and mythology is evinced, as Harryhausen notes, in their dual evocation of an entirely different realm: “stop-motion applies the perfect breath of life for them, offering a look of pure fantasy because their movements are beyond anything we know.” (Winkler, 461) Hence, the opposition to realism that is found in the connection between animation and mythological legend is further heightened by the employment of stop motion animation. That is to say, a purely animated film could be said at first glance to embody an even more radical form of opposition to realism, insofar as such a genre is not bound to the particular forms which stop motion animation considers crucial, namely, the movement of a body through space and time. In this sense, it would seem that stop motion animation is more fundamentally limited in terms of its fantastical potential than standard animation. Yet, as Harryhausen suggests, because stop motion animation basically possesses a greater conformity to realism, the genre can oppose the latter in an even more radical manner, to the extent that a minimal grain of reality is retained in the various bodies, forms and their context, only to thereafter be twisted and mutated so as to provide the image of a fantasy in an even more vivid form: By manipulating reality one clearly creates fantasy. In essence, the strong connection between mythology and stop animation follows from the fact that the latter is not entirely anti-realist in its form. Rather precisely because it does retain a certain realism in its form, it possesses the foundation to creatively engender an even more striking break from realism.  A fully abstract portrayal of a body is closer to a body than a distorted and fantastical movement of something that resembles a body, insofar as for the abstraction to be understood as abstraction it must be directly linked to the body in terms of a symbolism, whereas the stop motion animation interpretation of the body is its fantastical and mythological appropriation. Mythology, much like stop motion animation, retains a certain degree of reality  (for example, the anthropomorphic form of gods, the significance of animals), which entails the necessity to make minor adjustments to reality (a man resembles a god, an animal speaks), so as to create an even more radical contrast to reality. Such an approach to the opposition to realism is clearly evinced in the works of Švankmajer, Trnka, and Barta, who synthesize mythology and stop motion animation in order to provide a totally alternative reality.

Such an account is explicit in the work of Švankmajer, and his acknowledged debt to surrealism. (Uhde, 60) Yet Švankmajer’s distinct employment of surrealistic concepts is arguably made possible by his reliance on the mythical as content for his work. Švankmajer adheres to the notion that a twisting of reality can produce a far more radically fantastic effect, an effect inherent to both stop motion animation and mythology. Hence, his Faust synthesizes a legendary tale with the utilization of a combination of real-time acting and stop animation. This combination arguably further deepens the twist in reality that is the opposition to reality, since real anthropomorphic forms are confronted with fantastical representations of bodies. The narrative of the tale itself conforms to this same thematic, as the scientist Faust – a figure of realism, inasmuch as the scientist, the man of reason, opposes the fantastical, seeking to eradicate it with logic – directly encounters this same fantasy that is his intellectual bane. Švankmajer effectively stages a confrontation between the real and the fantastical in Faust, which in turn makes the fantastical even more fantastical according to its distortion of the real. The narrative of Faust thus perfectly compliments this appropriation of the fundamental tenets of how stop motion animation may oppose realism so as to engender the fantastic. As Švankmajer himself states, “this civilization is based on rationality, totalitarianism, that is, and anything that is outside of this particular point or reference of reality, is difficult to comprehend and is therefore pushed away.” (Švankmajer & Jackson) Švankmajer’s work, in this regard, is an attempt to re-introduce fantasy into reality and thereby change reality itself. The mythical’s opposition to reality provides a natural content for this movement, whereas stop motion animation provides its natural form. Myth and fantasy supplement stop motion animation’s challenging of what is included within reality, whereas stop-motion supplements myth and fantasy’s natural distortion of the real, opening, in Švankmajer’s terms, alternative horizons of reality that demonstrate the anti-totalitarian essence of reality in this very act of opening.

A work such as Barta’s unfinished Golem can be viewed as a continuation of this thematic, insofar as it incorporates a synthesis of real time and stop motion animation that once again recapitulates the tension of the fantastic and the real. Much like Švankmajer’s Faust, Barta’s selection of the ancient Jewish Golem myth repeats the encounter between the rational and the irrational. Reality as portrayed in the real actor playing the central figure of the Rabbi is confronted by an inhuman fantastical element that disorients and challenges perceptions. Clear delineations between the two realms are antagonized by Barta’s vertiginous usage of montage that alternates shifts in perspectives, to the extent that Barta’s particular account of fantasy and reality could be said to take the form of sanity’s devolvement into insanity.  For Barta, mythology is that which opposes the presupposed constant framework of everyday life, showing that such stability is in fact a contingency, and may be altered at any time. As Ivana Košuličova notes “the absence of understandable dialogue” is a “distinct feature of Barta’s cinematic style”, which suggests that narrative itself is not restricted to common forms of communication. Whereas stop motion animation communicates the possibilities of other bodies and forms following its minimal difference from the real and mythology communicates a different fantastical narrative from empirical history, Golem’s break from distinct language opens a space beyond the quotidian. In Barta’s work, all these motifs work together so as to create this opening, and thus their importance on contentual and formal levels lie in their ability to actualize this aim.

Trnka’s approach, for example, in Old Czech Legends, is arguably more conservative in its opposition to realism, because of its fidelity to the recounting of these myths, and the lack of an explosive form of surrealism as in Švankmajer and Barta. Yet Trnka, at the same time, can be said to open an even more fantastical version of the real through his particular dedication to myth and the usage of stop-motion animation to recount these tales. Trnka holds to the resemblances between fantasy and reality, the resemblances between stop-motion animation and real life (although not mixing it with the latter) to present fantasy in an immanent manner that makes fantasy itself real. Trnka twists the real to its breaking point in his work, as, for example, in the Bitva s Lučany (Battle with the Luczans) scene in Old Czech Legends. The simple close-up of the prince’s face opposing the Luczans at the beginning of the battle cuts to a close-up of an eagle, thus creating a fantastical and almost transcendental effect. It is the minimal difference between the real and fantasy that Trnka commits to, showing how the minimalism of this difference can produce an even greater fantastical effect. For Trnka, mythology is not only that which is opposed to reality, but an entire transformation of reality itself, as confrontationalism is shifted to the register of radical metamorphosis. Stop motion animation bears this same metamorphic capability, as the quotidian forms surrounding us become mutated into fantastical creatures. This is almost a pagan vision, as all forms and contents have the potential to become something that they are not, resembling a certain infusion of, to use the terms of Eliade, the sacred into the profane. As Hames notes, Trnka has been called a “peasant-poet (who) brought to cinema a deep love for nature and a lyric faith in a people’s traditions and their eternal spirit.” (195) Trnka’s synthesis of stop motion animation and mythological legend oppose realism by showing a deeper, eternal reality. What is required to show this deeper reality, however, is to show a different realm, a different narrative and discourse, yet one that also minimally resembles the everyday, so as to show both the truth and infinite possibility of the latter. In Trnka, mythology and stop-motion animation work together seamlessly insofar as they both become tools in the operation of changing our perceptions of reality.

Concomitantly, such a transformation and the staging of the real and the fantastic through the unity of stop motion animation and mythology does only not speak to the two genres natural affinity, but also, since this unity is a decisive characteristic of Czech films, it clearly speaks to something within the Czech culture of the 20th century that realizes the relevance of this unity. Historical factors, such as Czechoslovakia’s occupation under the ideology of the Soviet Union, and thus the essential limitation of Czech (and Slovak) autonomy, demonstrate that Soviet ideology represented Czech reality at the time. By emphasizing the fantastical in its opposition to the real, one at the same time critiques the particular reality of Czech existence within the Eastern Bloc. From this same perspective, Czech independence is therefore not a fantasy that is unattainable, but by showing how fantasy can intrude upon reality, one shows the contingency of such ideology and creates an essentially emancipatory narrative. Simply put, using the synthesis of mythology and stop motion animation fantasy can become more real than the real itself. Hence, Barta’s Kryšar (1985), a film made during the waning days of Soviet ideology employs “animation to depict the horror of human society”, (Košuličova) demonstrating the contrast between reality and fantasy in the context of social and ideological criticism. Based upon a medieval fairy tale of the same name, the film depicts the story of the city Hamelin’s rat infestation and subseuent hiring the Pied Piper to eliminate the rodents with his tune. The film’s striking visual design pays homage to German expressionist films of the 1920’s, with intriguing sets and puppets that were sculpted from wood and other inert materials. The humanoid characters are all wooden puppets, intentionally designed to resemble machines, reflecting the mechanical and monotonous lives the humans live. At exteme odds with the humans, the rats are actually live, trained rats, literally representing the world of the rats onscreen as ”alive… very dynamic, very emotional, very dramatic” (Ballard). Conceptually, in Barta’s universe, the mechanical and monotonous human characters are at extreme odds with the rats, whose life beneath the city is an entire physical dimension apart from the humans. Puppets and and real-time animal actors are thus thrown together in an antagonistic manner, implying that Barta maintains that the relation of fantasy and realism is one that is constituted by a fundamental tension. This tension is similar to that of Golem, such that reality and fantasy imbue an element of hostility when mixed together. In the sphere of social criticism, in this division between the puppet and the animal Barta evokes a division in reality itself, as different forms the latter exist in tension. The ideological setting in which Kryšar was made informs this division, as existence itself becomes the struggle between different versions of what is to be considered real. Much like Švakmajer, ideology works in Barta by excluding other types of reality – the battle between these different worlds shows that ideology is always struggling to maintain its own necessity. In the historical context of the Eastern Bloc, this is a clear reference to the dominant Soviet ideology’s attempt to remain relevant by essentially denying the vicissitudes and contingecies of reality, in an effort to create a monolithic version of what life should be. Barta deconstructs this monolithic approach through a portrayal of the strife of the real, that is, a strife over what is real that takes the form of the opposition between fantasy and reality.

Barta presents a monstrous society, as the mythological and stop motion animation elements combine together to expose the grotesqueness of the real historical situation, in which the film was made.

At the same time, fantasy becomes a tool of social critique by re-configuring reality. Thus, in Švankmajer’s Little Otik, while the aim is explicitly anti-totalitarian, it realizes this goal by showing how alternative realities are possible. The intrusion of the fantastic into the mundane is ultimately rejected by the latter, as in the final climactic scene of the death of Little Otik in his fantastical form of the tree. In the film, the real is that which kills the fantastical, but not because the latter is an illusion, but rather, as Švankmajer underscores (cf. above citation), because it cannot permit the possibilities of alternative views of reality. Švankmajer uses mythology and stop motion animation as a commitment to the openness of reality, and its contingency. Nothing is essential, and in this sense, his work is post-modern, precisely because it critiques the possibilities of essentialism and foundationalism. One could thus say that for Švankmajer, much like the post-modern tradition, there is no “grand meta-narrative” that is an ultimate essence behind reality and its explanation. Soviet ideology and totalitarian ideology in general are examples of such a form of grand meta-narrative, since they attempt to encapsulate the entirety of existence from a transcendent position. Much like Otik, who is a tree that grows from the earth, Švankmajer takes an immanent approach to disrupt the meta-narrative view, showing that mythological culture and its fantastic forms always can emerge so as to disrupt the clearly defined order that tries to present itself as ultimate truth. In Little Otik, the fantastical world must be destroyed because it always threatens to show the illusory nature of the ultimate truth that the dominant discourse proclaims and tries to perpetuate. Yet the fantastical, in its very existence, exposes the ideological mechanism of this discourse, as the latter cannot account for the irregularities that are myths, that are puppet forms, that are transformations of bodies, etc., In his creation Švankmajer opposes reality, since the declaration of what is reality and what is not is in itself a fundamentally totalitarian gesture.

Trnka simultaneously evokes the multiplicity of reality, and thus the de-stabilization of what is real. Yet Trnka does this through an appeal to mythology as synthesized with stop motion animation that evokes a greater cultural idea, in terms of a national imaginary. Jaroslav Boček writes that in Trnka’s art, there is a commitment to the “defense of one’s country and one’s heritage.” (M. Liehm & A.J: Liehm, 108) Mythology and old Czech legends are particularly germane in this regard, insofar as they evoke a summoning of the national imaginary, so as to oppose the limited notion of a reality that the Czech public viewed as entirely restrictive. The synthesis of mythology and stop motion animation contorts this same political reality, freeing up the possibility for alternatives, while defending and re-iterating the importance of a national consciousness. To the extent that this national consciousness is fantastical, i.e., the stuff of dreams and legends, their portrayal through stop motion animation further heightens this fantastical quality. This is not to separate the fantastic from reality, but rather to show that different forms of reality are in fact possible.

In the work of Švankmajer’s, Trnka and Barta, reality and fantasy are confronted on two fundamental levels, since the content of mythology and the form of stop motion animation challenge these boundaries from their respective positions. Hence, their partnership in the films of these artists is, in this sense, radically natural. While slight differences exist in aim and intent and the conception of fantasy and reality, all these artists are tied together by a commitment to this particular fusion of mythological content and stop motion animation form to interrogate such boundaries between fantasy and reality.

This approach is simultaneously the distinct product of a time. It emerges as a response to an ideological situation, and hence as an essential form of critique. Although, once again, Švankmajer, Trnka and Barta manifest this critique in different manners, there is a clear objection at stake in all their works to the presentation of a particular reality as the only reality. At the same time, such a critique may be understood as the evocation of the fantastical in terms of that which is a potentially inherent to reality itself, as reality is not that which is merely around us in quotidian forms, but rather reality itself is a pure potentiality, that can be created and transformed in radical new ways. In different manners, the films of Švankmajer, Trnka and Barta commit to this idea, as the usage of stop-motion animation in combination with mythology becomes a manner in which to open new vistas of reality, as what is possible and what is real become radically unlimited.

Works Cited

Ballard, Phil. “Jiri Barta Interviewed about The Golem.” Kinoeye. Vol. 3, Issue 9 15 Sept 2003. Retrieved at: http://www.kinoeye.org/03/09/ballard09.php

Hames, Peter. Czech and Slovak Cinema: Theme and Tradition. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.

Košuličova, Ivana. “The Morality of Horror: Jiri Barta’s Kryšar (The Pied Piper, 1985).” Kinoeye. Vol. 2, Issue 1, 7 Jan, 2002. Retrieved at: http://www.kinoeye.org/02/01/kosulicova01_no2.php

Liehm, Mira and Liehm, Antonin J. The Most Important Art: Eastern European Film After 1945. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1977.

Švankmajer, Jan (interviewee) and Jackson, Wendy (interviewer). The Surrealist Conspirator: An Interview with Jan Švankmajer. Animation World

Magazine, Issue 2.3, June 1997. Retrieved at: http://www.awn.com/mag/issue2.3/issue2.3pages/2.3jacksonsvankmajer.html

Uhde, Jan. “Jan Švankmajer: Genius Loci as a Source of Surrealist Inspiration.” In The Unsilvered Screen: Surrealism on Film. (eds. G. Harper & R. Stone) London: Wallflower, 2007. pp. 60-71.

Winkler, Martin M. “Greek Myth on the Screen.” In The Cambridge Companion  to Greek Mythology. (ed. R. Woodard) Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007. pp. 453-479.

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