Svankmajer Jabberwocky

This particular Jabberwocky is a short animation created by Prague based surrealist master Jan Švankmajer.

Žvahlav aneb šatičky slaměného Huberta, to give it its Czech title – and don’t ask me about the ins and outs of that translation – is deeply strange stuff and sometimes more than a little disturbing.

Here’s just a flavour of what what happens:

A pram wheels itself in circles around a room that In a room that looks like the world of 1871, when Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical poem The Jabberwocky was read by Alice in Through the Looking-Glass. More strangeness soon follows. A disembodied sailor’s suit comes out from a wardrobe and dances and then the room begins to sprout branches. These bloom and apples grows from them. The apples fall and burst open on the floor. They are shown to be full of little slithering maggots. Some large dolls boil some smaller dolls and then eat them. Cannibalism? You could say.

If you’re looking for an analysis of Jabberwocky, though, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Just enjoy and make of it what you will is my advice.

Back in the second half of the 1980s when I was doing a foundation course in art and design, it didn’t take long before I’d hear the name Jan Švankmajer being bandied around in revered tones.

Soon I discovered what the fuss was all about after seeing some of his work on Channel 4, when that station’s remit included providing ‘innovation and experiment in form and content’ rather than concentrating on bake-offs and locations, locations, locations.

Hugh Cornwell of The Stranglers was also becoming a fan around this time. In 1987, the singer attended Bristol’s Animation Festival. On its final day, he watched the British premiere of Švankmajer’s new feature length film Alice (Něco z Alenky). Cornwell was immediately impressed and felt compelled to visit Prague to seek out the surrealist and attempt to persuade him to make a promo for his new solo single Another Kind of Love.

Hugh Cornwell - Another Kind Of Love

The Stranglers, incidentally, were already fans of surrealism, signalling their interest in the movement by appearing in a cameo in the 1978 BBC documentary The Journey, presented by George Melly who they would later collaborate with them.

‘The dadaists and surrealists were taking risks,’ he told Direction magazine, during his visit to Švankmajer’s studio. ‘They were the punks of their time.’

If this is the case, then it was especially true of surrealists in countries like Czechoslovakia, where their art was suppressed by Nazis and subsequently by the Communists. At one point in 1968, the year of the Prague Spring, Švankmajer even feared he might be deported to Siberia after signing the ‘Two Thousand Words Manifesto’ in support of liberalization in his country.

Hugh_Cornwell_-_Another_Kind_of_Love

Švankmajer’s video mixed live action sequences of a sharp-suited Cornwell performing the song together with stop-motion animation – including a likeness of Hugh obtained after making a plaster cast of his head.

This is not one of my very favourite Cornwell songs – but better than Old Codger, that aforementioned collaboration with George Melly that ended up as a Stranglers’ B-side, but I am fond of Švankmajer’s startling video that accompanied it. As far as I’m aware, this was his first and only foray into the world of the pop promo.

McEwan’s is the best buy, the best buy, the best buy in beer!

Everyone of a certain age in Scotland will remember this ditty from a corny but catchy ad constantly on TV in the days before I could legally drink alcohol.

I think I’ve only ever featured one TV advert on this site before and that was a more modern ad for McEwan’s Lager. Here’s a second. And it’s another commercial for McEwan’s. Memorable ads, yes, but sadly not a lager I would ever recommend to any drinker.

Depending on your viewpoint, this can be seen as either a homage to Švankmajer, or, a complete rip-off of a section of his short film Dimensions of Dialogue. Either way, I hope McEwan’s sent a few korunas his way so he could treat himself to a Staropramen or two. Now that is a lager.

And if you want to compare and contrast with Švankmajer’s short here you go:

Coming up soon, another slice of Czechoslovak surrealism, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.