The Long and the Short of It

The expansive Cinematexas short film festival

Jan Svankmajer's Darkness-Light-Darkness
Jan Svankmajer's "Darkness-Light-Darkness"

Jan Svankmajer

Milos Forman said it best when he famously described Czech filmmaker/ animator/national treasure Jan Svankmajer as "Luis Buñuel + Disney." It's a shame that so few among the mainstream recognize the man's name, and doubly so when you consider that most of them have probably seen more than a few examples of Svankmajer's direct artistic legacy. The Brothers Quay, for instance, have lifted the animator's dense, uneasily whimsical hellscapes for several of their films, which, oddly enough, were then appropriated by prog-metallists Tool for a deuce of their music videos. MTV viewers of a certain age will also recall The Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick's short "bumper" films for the network that ran in the mid-Eighties, which also owed an obvious debt to the Czech surrealist.

So the man with the unpronounceable surname has had a tremendous ripple effect on contemporary film culture, and now Cinematexas has acquired from the Prague Film Archive a set of seven little-seen gems, rare enough to elicit gasps from longtime Svankmajer fanatics (they're never simply fans). Best known among the shorts to be screened is 1982's "Dimensions of Dialogue," a stop-motion orgy of cutlery and comestibles and chaos. There's also "The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia," subtitled "A Work of Agitprop" and co-funded by the BBC in 1990, which upends the Czechs' semisomber Velvet Revolution in favor of outright comedy, bordering on Terry Gilliam's early Monty Python animations, with a pop-eyed Joey Stalin caroming about while the literal formation of the body politic races to the gallows.

All this overlooks one inescapable fact about Svankmajer, notably his unerring sense of playfulness and humor, this despite his country's oftentimes fractious history. His films are, above all, a pleasure to watch. They're fun, and funny, and ought to be far more famous than they are.

Cinematexas will present three consecutive -- and different -- programs of Jan Svankmeyer's short films on Sunday, Sept. 23, starting at 4pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown.

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