With Feathers

With Feathers

In Lunacy, order and liberty wriggle with equal parts Poe and Sade. In Scoop, recycled sleuthing gags masquerade as timely satire.


It’s wrong to understand a film solely through its maker’s words, but since the very substance of Lunacy is error–psychological, physiological, metaphysical, pataphysical–I may as well screw up from the start by quoting Jan Svankmajer’s onscreen introduction. He stands before you in a conspicuously empty space, a white-haired, white-bearded man of mournful countenance, and speaks over a faint clatter. It sounds like sprockets passing through a cogwheel. Did the crew fail to muffle the camera’s noise? Or is somebody, somewhere, running an old 16-millimeter projector?

“What you are about to see,” Svankmajer says, apparently oblivious to the interference, “is a horror film, with all the degeneracy peculiar to that genre. It is not a work of art. Today, art is all but dead anyway.” That being the case, “our film may be regarded as an infantile tribute to the works of Edgar Allan Poe, from which it takes certain themes and images, and to the Marquis de Sade, to whom it owes its blasphemy and subversion.” As if distracted, Svankmajer looks down at his feet. A severed tongue is creeping energetically across the wooden floorboards, bunching itself like an inchworm. Svankmajer, unfazed, goes on. “In essence, our story concerns a philosophical debate over how best to run a lunatic asylum,” or something. Do you think I can write this all down? I know I’ve botched some of it, but the basic idea is this: While one side in the debate argues for complete freedom and the other advocates control and punishment, either way is better than the method of having both at once, as we do in “the madhouse we live in today.”

Having survived two-thirds of twentieth-century Czech history, Svankmajer is entitled to make such judgments. But he’s already gone, and in his place we see the hanging carcass of a pig–a very, very long pig–which splits open at the top with a zipping, slurping, ripping sound. Guts spill out in profusion, and as the camera pans down along the pink flesh the gash continues to open, as if sliced by vision itself, while more and more intestines tumble forward in a squiggly pile.

Our story begins:

No, to tell the story would be an even worse mistake than repeating Svankmajer’s explanation. Better to stick to details. Lunacy takes place simultaneously in today’s Central Europe–where there are cheap bluejeans, broken computers, exhaust-spewing passenger vans and light bulbs with a yellowish cast–and in a late-eighteenth-century France of horse-drawn carriages, powdered wigs, cocked hats and candlelight. The protagonist, a youngish fellow named Jean Berlot (Pavel Liska), travels about with a cloth bag slung over his shoulder and a broken-toothed comb in his pocket–a keepsake from his dead mother–with which he sometimes tugs at his dark and wiry hair. His eyes are slitlike and timid, his overbite pronounced, his cheeks grubbily stubbled, his stance apologetic. It takes just one direct glance from a pretty woman–such as lithe, red-headed Charlota (Anna Geislerová), first glimpsed at a country inn–for a fool like this to fall in love.

For the first half of Lunacy, though, Jean gets only a few more intermittent looks at Charlota. Mostly he’s ensnared by the Marquis (Jan Tríska), a square-jawed old dandy given to tonsils-baring outbursts of laughter and eloquent, vituperative monologues. He can be soothing and generous, too, or at least he can seem so, since a weak character such as Jean needs to be kept and controlled by kindness, sometimes, instead of loud intimidation and the waving of antique pistols. The “blasphemy and subversion” that Svankmajer mentions in his introduction? The Marquis shows Jean plenty of that, once he’s taken the stray home. The pranks include a black mass in which large portions of chocolate cake (or is it some other brown, gooey stuff?) substitute for the wafer, and the kiss of fellowship is replaced by a rite that involves Charlota’s bare buttocks.

There are sudden knocks in the night, in his dreams, that terrify Jean.

Without pausing to recount the premature burial, I will go on to say that the second half of Lunacy is a dramatization–some drama!–of Poe’s tale “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” Clucking chickens and cackling gowned patients swarm chaotically through the grandiose old building where Jean now finds himself voluntarily confined, in a lunatic asylum where “art therapy” entails the flinging of paint at a mute naked woman and Charlota shows up again as a nurse, or maybe a prisoner, or perhaps (if the Marquis is to be believed) a devious nymphomaniac who likes it kinky with the superintendent. The patients keep ripping open the pillows, so the air is always thick with feathers, as well as poultry.

So much for the live action. In between these scenes, as punctuation or commentary or a form of higher dramatization, are sequences of the stop-motion animation for which Svankmajer is most famous. Scored to a hurdy-gurdy waltz, these segments feature writhing lumps of meat, skittering brains, excitedly rolling eyeballs, extremely loose tongues, all living busy lives of their own. They slide through windows and down dank dungeon walls, copulate on surgical tables, shoot at targets, grow explosively within cages, invade bleached animal skulls, hatch from eggs, hurry up the sides of a grinder and spurt out again in wormlike strands to be pecked by chickens. The effect, as advertised, is horrific (especially when Svankmajer cuts to a sudden, emphatic close-up) but also funny and always appropriate, in a way you wouldn’t care to explain.

Perhaps history is a nightmare from which meat is trying to awake. Or meat is the nightmare from which history wants to awake. I know this much: When the Marquis stages a celebratory tableau vivant of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, populated by asylum inmates and starring a bare-bosomed Charlota, the lunatic crouching by her ankles can restrain himself only so long before he leaps to her right breast, mouthing it as avidly as if it were meat. Jean intervenes strongly; he insists that humans have souls, and women must be respected. But it’s not clear whether Charlota at this point regards Jean as a savior, a chump or a spoilsport.

I know this, too: After the Marquis’s riot of liberty comes the violence of order. There is regime change. We learn why severed tongues have been crawling on the floor, and we may remember that Svankmajer knows, from experience, about people who are kept silent for their own good.

I cannot call Lunacy a masterpiece. The category can mean nothing unless an artist aspires to it, and this film, by Svankmajer’s reckoning, isn’t art at all. So maybe I should quote Frank Zappa, a foreigner who has been admired in Prague, who once remarked that his recordings were not so much music as “a useful household product.” Fine. Lunacy will scour cant from your mental walls, unclog grimy sentiment from the drain of your heart, put the shine back on those scuffed eyes and ears, and leave your whole earthly domicile smelling as fresh as ground chuck.

Line up outside New York’s Film Forum–and then other theaters nationwide–starting August 9. Want more? Last year Kino on Video and KimStim released a DVD anthology of Svankmajer’s shorts, and they will release an equally mad disc of Jiri Barta’s animations come September.

Although television producers have adapted it twice, in 1972 and 1987, Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop may have found its cinematic moment only now, when a dim and credulous press has helped torch Iraq. Some version of Waugh’s hapless journalist William Boot ought to be on the screen today, blundering about Ishmaelia in pursuit of a war he doesn’t know how to cover. What we get under the name of Scoop, though, is merely a comedy about Anglo-American flirtation and amateur sleuthing, dashed off by Woody Allen with all the fire of your Uncle Harry searching his pockets for his keys.

Am I wrong to think the style is doddering? Maybe I’ve been taken in too well by Allen’s performance as Sid Waterman (a k a Splendini), a stage magician with a wardrobe patterned after old wallpaper and a repertory of tricks plucked straight off a dusty shelf. It is Allen’s conceit in Scoop that a London music-hall audience would indulge the fumferring Splendini, as we in the movie house are expected to smile in fond reminiscence at Allen’s shtick. We’ve seen it all before, including the gag where the magic actually works, and where the conspicuously lovely young woman falls in with the codger.

This time, the beautiful partner is Sondra (Scarlett Johansson), an American college student and would-be journalist, whose presence in London is no more plausible than Splendini’s. The miracle–strange, how many miracles occur in the films of the forthrightly irreligious Allen–takes place when Sondra mounts the stage as a volunteer for Splendini, so he can make her disappear. Instead of vanishing, though, she finds herself face to face with a materialization: the ghost of a recently deceased British reporter (Ian McShane) who has one last story to break and Sondra as his medium.

Sondra is momentarily shaken; but the disruptiveness of a supernatural outburst cannot compete with the reassurance, the coziness, of auteurist self-reference. She recovers quickly enough to enlist Splendini as her research partner. But why does she need him? And why would he go along with her, now that Woody Allen understands he can be no more than avuncular toward a 21-year-old? It’s only so we can get a London-based Manhattan Murder Mystery on top of Allen’s other recyclings: of the scene of memorial chatter in Broadway Danny Rose, the wonder-workings in Alice and Oedipus Wrecks and The Purple Rose of Cairo, the pastiches of Ingmar Bergman. Even Allen’s impersonation of an American vulgarian set loose among British gentry has a nostalgic air, for anyone who remembers the much sharper Jew-in-the-heartlands humor of Annie Hall.

Familiarity may offer pleasure of an undemanding kind. But I can detect only lassitude when Allen’s average punch line, delivered after a buildup of half a dozen stammers, is, “They’ll take us to the Tower of London and behead us!” From this zone of snoozy comfort, Scoop stirs only when dealing with Sondra’s ambition. To get her story, she will let a man take her to bed–for which act Allen shows her neither scorn nor condescension. This is the wide-awake moment in Scoop. But when it comes to conveying any sense of what might happen in that bed, the film nods off again into an old man’s fancy–despite Sondra’s falling in love with an aristocrat who is the perfect, and perfectly gorgeous, Hugh Jackman.

I’m glad that Allen had a nice London vacation with Scarlett Johansson. Very thoughtful of him to scrawl this picture postcard to us, about their time together. It doesn’t matter, I suppose, that he slapped over it the title of a film we could actually use right now. Timeliness is a primary criterion of journalism, not of art.

But even comic ghost stories need a pulse.

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