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Film

The Best Movies You've Never Seen: 25 years of 'Food', Jan Švankmajer's gastronomic nightmare

@Russellisation

It’s likely that you’ve spotted snapshots from Jan Švankmajer’s iconic short film, Food, in fleeting Facebook videos showing the strangest corners of European cinema or as part of obscure memes that snapshot his most surreal shots. Though, whilst a certain amount of pleasure can come from enjoying the sheer absurdity of the Czech animator’s work, there is so much more glee to be gained from his filmmaking. 

Gaining a reputation in Czech filmmaking circles over several decades in the late 20th century, Švankmajer carved out his own idiosyncratic niche, mastering the stop-motion technique to formulate his own nightmarish style. Working from the surreal musings of the subconscious dreamworld, the films of Švankmajer include exaggerated sound effects, grotesque claymation and peculiar expressions of movement, showing characters shuffle across the floor like figurines rather than walk.  

Across several short films that helped to hone his craft, Švankmajer formed a distinct style that helped to inspire the Monty Python member and animator Terry Gilliam, with the influence of the Czech animator clearly evident in such films as 1971s And Now for Something Completely Different. 

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Though the director considered his first feature film Alice, a disturbing reimagining of Alice in Wonderland, to be his most triumphant project, adapting what he thought to be “the most important and amazing books produced by this civilisation,” it was his 1992 short film that he would be most remembered for. 

Depicting breakfast, lunch and dinner as three horrific surreal skits that each burrow into the shadows of the human subconscious, Švankmajer created a short film that was as abundantly creative as it was contextually valuable, containing a political statement beneath all those layers of clay and practical effects. 

Playing with the concept of food like a child explores the boundaries of their towering meal, Švankmajer constructs lusciously enjoyable set pieces that fiddle with the inventive intricacies of gastronomy. Though each one thrives in its own right, it is the absurdity of the ‘breakfast’ sequence that carries the most weight, showing two men engaging in a bleak meal where one of them plays the vending machine and dumbwaiter. 

Using the human face as the interface of a rudimentary mechanical contraption, Švankmajer accentuates the movements of the characters and makes everything in the room drab setting pliable, as they pull cutlery from each others’ ears and use tongues as slots for loose change. Eventually, through the rusted pulley system of the dumbwaiter, a dusty corner of bread and fleshy sausage is revealed on a paper plate, the unsightly result of an endless queue of apathetic workers who demand nothing more. 

Though indeed the surreal language of the subconscious, the Czech director was also careful to imbue his visions with a political foundation, with many of his films speaking to a surreal sociological truth. Presenting the experience of dining as a critique on social and class relations in contemporary Czechoslovakia, with workers being reduced to mechanical fodder in a society that is blinds from having anything but their simple needs. 

Working on both a political and surrealist front, Jan Švankmajer is an animator, puppeteer and harsh satirist, using food in his 1992 film as an excuse to frolic in liberal artistry and slyly criticise the functioning of his contemporary nation. Far from food porn, there is a strange titillating joy in watching Švankmajer’s work, reminding audiences of the fierce, humorous and passionate romances of humanity’s relationship with gastronomic masticating.

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