An obsession with food and eating – and with corresponding ideas of appetite, taste, consumption and ingestion/digestion – pervades so persistently and with such acute attention to detail in Jan Švankmajer’s filmmaking oeuvre that it comes to resemble a kind of absurdist, surreal, highly tactile (but not always appetising or palatable) cinematic cookbook. Indeed, Michael Nottingham envisions Švankmajer as a “chef” who creates “cinematic recipes.” (1) As a noteworthy precedent in “classical” Surrealism (2) for Švankmajer’s culinary experiments, Salvador Dalí’s opulent cookbook, Les Diners de Gala, cultivates a Surrealist “gastro-aesthetics” (3) – this descriptor would serve aptly as a précisfor Švankmajer’s style. (4)From the circular food chain which is constructed in Moznosti dialogu (Dimensions of Dialogue, 1983) and the deranged, uncanny dining decorum displayed in Jídlo (Food, 1992), to the anthropomorphised slices of meat which romance each other in Meat Love (1989) and convulsively frolic between scenes in Sílení (Lunacy, 2005), the centralisation of food, ingestion, orality and the digestive process is vital to Švankmajer’s construction of a highly visceral, material aesthetic, offering up what Cathryn Vasseleu describes as “a unique vision of the communicative powers of touch.” (5) This preoccupation finds its next logical conclusion– and especially extreme articulation – in Otesánek (Little Otik, 2000), where everything and everyone seems to be constantly on the verge of becoming food/meat.
Švankmajer, who traces his recurring onscreen exploration of the gastronomic and the gustatory to being a “non-eating” child who was sent to “feeding camps” to be “fattened up” (6) – a description which draws to mind the cannibalistic witch in Hansel and Gretel – seems to tap into this frenzied, compulsive approach to feeding in Little Otik. As echoed by one of the film’s English titles, Greedy Guts, a term attributed to the always voracious child whose “eyes are bigger than their stomach,” Little Otik is concerned with unchecked, unruly, insatiable and monstrous appetites. The premise of Švankmajer’s film – an infertile couple who adopt a tree stump and are forced to take the consequences of his bottomless hunger – is grounded in the danger of that which is desperately coveted; of the potentially horrific, all-consuming consequences of wish-fulfilment, and the auto-cannibalistic nature of obsessive desire. To this effect, much has been made in both Little Otik‘s advertising material and reviews of the “Be careful what you wish for” warning which is so frequently inscribed in the fairy-tale narrative, from whose tradition Little Otik itself (and much of Švankmajer’s other work) of course draws.
Based on the Czech folktale Otesánek by Karel Jaromír Erben, and drawing considerably from David Lynch’s The Grandmother (1970) and Eraserhead (1977), (7) Little Otik frames these superabundant desires and appetites through a surfeit of ritualised meals and acts of ingestion in which babies themselves become both relentless consumers and objects of consumption. This perpetual confusion or interchange between the consumer and the consumed, and between a series of otherwise oppositional or divergent states between subject and object, interior and exterior, food and the eater, food and waste, food and the body itself, animated and inert matter, infants and monsters, and even ingestion and pregnancy engenders a constant blurring of boundaries. This ambivalence is accentuated further by Švankmajer’s infusion of the film with a darkly satirical, grotesque kind of gallows humour which frequently melds the horrific with the hilarious.
For Švankmajer, Otik is an ur-consumer, the “absolute eater” who represents late capitalist, “civilized” society’s need to devour – to cannibalise –everything. (8) The film, Švankmajer notes, “is about food, but it is more about devouring.” (9) Here, appetite begets appetite: Božena and Karel Horák (Veronika Žilková and Jan Hartl), whose experience is one of extreme buyer’s remorse, are led to the fantasy of Otik out of their desperate longing for children, and are effectively devoured by him. What begins as a joke becomes a delusion, and then escalates into a hallucinatory, violent nightmare. As Švankmajer puts it in his writing about his experience with LSD as a voluntary medical subject for a Czech military study in the 1970s, the Horáks “succumb to their desire to have a child as they might have succumbed to a drug.” (10) Otik is therefore “not a child in the real sense of the word, but the materialisation of desire” and their “rebellion against nature.” (11) Desire here always seems to be defined by excess and insurmountable need – hunger so immense that its satiation can only be followed by some kind of dire indigestion or sickness – and is often edged with perverse dimensions. The “unnatural” appetite of the elderly paedophile Mr. Žlábek (Zdeněk Kozák) is imbued with burlesque visual puns achieved with touches of animation. As he leers at a perturbed Alžbětka (Kristina Adamcová), we are shown the fly of his trousers coming unbuttoned from which a groping hand emerges (rather fittingly, he is later fed to Otik by Alžbětka). (12)
This critical connection between hunger/desire/ingestion and capitalist modes of commodification/consumption, points in part to Little Otik‘s position in the later, post-Communist phase of Švankmajer’s oeuvre. In the earlier years of Švankmajer’s filmmaking career, he was censored by Communist Party authorities, and blacklisted from making films from 1972 to 1979. (13) However, Švankmajer’s post-Communist work maintains a scathingly satirical vision of contemporary civilization and bourgeois institutions, a stance which is significantly informed by his commitment to Surrealism and its central belief in what Bruno Solarik calls a “subversive power in the imagination.” (14) For Švankmajer, who describes himself as a “militant Surrealist” (15) and has, alongside his late wife, Eva Švankmajerova, participated in the Czech and Slovak Surrealist group since 1970, (16) the theme of consumption is interlinked with a broader project of political/ideological critique and disruption, and with many of the ideals, aims and principles of Surrealism: the upturning of hierarchy and order; de-familiarisation of utilitarian, conventional realities; derangement of classical, canonical and “proper” understandings of form, beauty and taste; alchemical transformation; and exploration of perverse desire. (17)
As Anikó Imre observes, Little Otik‘s “preoccupation with food, consumption, cannibalism and the grotesque body (and its mixing of styles, techniques and genres) points to the postcommunist ‘crisis’ that has befallen Eastern European national cultures,” (18) transporting the humanoid tree stump of Erben’s folktale into a “dilapidated urban tenement.” (19) Švankmajer himself describes a similar, rather dystopian kind of crisis:
I believe that the consumer society is the final stage in civilization. The society can continue for another hundred years or so but I completely believe that this utilitarian, devouring way of life signals that civilization is ending… Terrorism is nothing more than a consequence of the absolute inequality that we have in this cycle of civilization. Black humour is important and must remain one of the essences of the civilization. I mean the Americans are currently dropping bombs on Afghanistan and then immediately afterwards they are dropping food parcels. (20)
Nearly everyone in Little Otik is always eating, and there is a palpably convulsive and compulsive charge to this behaviour. Most of these characters seem to be obsessed with both food/eating and babies/pregnancy (objects/states which are themselves confused here). A baby is shown inside a watermelon, and an early sequence depicts babies being caught in nets and wrapped in newspaper like fresh fish at a market (it is unclear whether these are for the purposes of consumption, adoption, or something more bizarre still). In imitation of pregnancy (echoing Božena’s faked gestation period), Alžbětka hides a basketball under her shirt. The cabbage patch, a folkloric site of origin for babies (an infantile vision of baby-making which notably disavows sexual and biological activity), comes to be another – and final – source of food for Otik. One description of pregnancy envisions babies “cooking in incubators”; later, Alžbětka’s mother (Jaroslava Kretschmerová) tells Karel, who is pretending to excitedly await Božena’s pseudo-labour, “What you need now is something warm in your stomach.”
The majority of scenes occur in domestic spaces, especially the kitchen, and in locations like the butcher and grocer. Scene changes are often introduced with disarming close-ups of food and ingestion: meat pies and slices of bread being shoveled hungrily into open mouths. Food on the table comes alive, and takes on a kind of obscene, convulsive life of its own. The film is laced with a series of facetiously hypnotic television commercials which also involve animated food (including Švankmajer’s beloved slices of meat), suggesting that in this neverending cycle of consumerism, consumption, digestion and expulsion, there is always something new to be gobbled up.
As with much of Švankmajer’s other work, Little Otik is rife with extreme close-ups of food and eating: the screen is awash with finely detailed, visceral images of gorging, bingeing and mastication, gnashing of teeth, writhing of tongues, and frothing of saliva. Food often seems more revolting and unpalatable than even the grisly bodily debris left over from Otik’s murderous feedings: an extreme close-up of potato peelings resembles some kind of dermatological disease; a unsettlingly intimate, abstracted shot of sloppy, chunky soup could just as easily be vomit or excrement; when vomit itself is shown, it is displayed in the same style as these other images of food.
The image of the open, devouring mouth acts, for Švankmajer, as a kind of threshold or portal (a theme which is constantly revisited in his work through an emphasis on doorways, cramped enclosures, and underground, dark or claustrophobic spaces (21)), and its connection to the infant as cannibalistic consumer is established from the film’s outset. In the montage over which Little Otik‘s opening credits appear, Švankmajer rapidly cross-cuts an assortment of infantile (and also maternal) imagery to the sound of a baby’s high-pitched giggling, squealing and shrieking, and the Overture to Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischutz. The film’s title appears over an unexpectedly monstrous, violent image: an extreme close-up of a baby’s crinkled, contorted face, its mouth agape in what might be a cry, scream, or a movement to devour. While this montage might have initially resembled an Anne Geddes calendar, it quickly becomes clear – even before we see Otik’s sucking, gorging cannibal’s mouth, an obscene toothed black hole – that the infant is here a sinister figure of ambivalence, anxiety and even malevolence. Moreover, with these fragmented, disjointed images of baby body parts which could just as easily be so many pieces of meat in a butcher’s display, this opening sequence presents a strange parallel to the montages of culinary imagery which precede each meal-themed chapter of Food.
With its more traditionally constructed narrative and “normal” dialogue, Švankmajer considers Little Otik as the most conventional of his films. (22) However, what is striking about Little Otik is its configuration as a hybrid, “mutant” text, as itself a kind of alchemical stew mixing together a heterogeneous combination of ingredients. Generically, it intermingles components of the fairy-tale, comedy and horror, and fuses together a diverse range of forms and techniques including live action, montage, and stop-motion animation. (23) This melding, cobbling or layering together of forms, storytelling devices, mediums and styles – including the hybrid, uncanny form/body of Otik himself – invokes the effect of collage, a form which finds especially pronounced expression in Surrealist art. (24) Collage combines heterogeneous verbal, visual and tactile elements, and emphasises transformativity, multiplicity, fragmentation and mutatability. This hybrid form medium also has suggestively cannibalistic dimensions – this stew-like assortment of superimposed and stitched together elements is constructed through a kind of gobbling process, through a hungry incorporation and amalgamation.
In a diary kept during the pre-production phase of Little Otik, Švankmajer writes of a feeling of sensory excess, describing himself as “a victim of tactilism” with too many erogenous zones for one body. (25) Here, he envisions his own body as a mutant, hybrid site, shot through with a fantastical, delirious tactility and sensuality: “I am a hand with six fingers with webs in between. Instead of fingernails I have petite, sharp, sweet-toothed little tongues with which I lick the world.” (26) This hallucinatory, visceral description of a polymorphous body partaking of the universe in a strikingly gustatory (and also quite cannibalistic) manner offers up a highly apt and evocative image with which to conceptualise not just the configuration of bodies and food in Little Otik, but for Švankmajer’s approach to the cinema and experience themselves.
1. Michael Nottingham, “Downing the Folk-Festive: Menacing Meals in the Films of Jan Švankmajer”, EnterText: An Ineractive Interdisciplinary E-Journal for Cultural and Historical Studies and Creative Work, vol. 4, no. 1, Winter 2004, p. 149.
2. Švankmajer might prefer the term “historical Surrealism” here. For art historians, he argues, “Surrealism has long been dead, which is why they are only interested in historical Surrealism and ignore the present movement.” Contemporary Surrealism is thus not “in any danger of ‘recognition'”. See Peter Hames, “Bringing up baby: Jan Švankmajer interviewed about Otesánek (Little Otík, 2000)”, Kinoeye, vol. 2, no. 1, 7 January 2002:http://www.kinoeye.org/02/01/hames01.php
3. SeeBarbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Playing to the Senses: Food as a Performative Medium”, Performance Research, vol. 4, no. 1 (edition On Cooking), Spring 1999, pp. 1-30.
4. At times surprisingly practical, Dalí’s tome (which he supposedly wrote with a “secret” chef in collaboration with some of the top French restaurants at the time) moves between “‘sado-masochistic pleasure’, ‘acute sybaritism’, Rabelaisian scatology religious ecstasy, and anaesthetic asceticism” and includes – with very Švankmajer-esque imagery – a deliberation on the correct use of meat jewellery (“atteletes”) and multiple meat still lifes. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, p. 8.
5. Cathryn Vasseleu, “The Švankmajer Touch”, Animation Studies Online Journal,special issue: Animated Dialogues (2007), July 19 2009:http://journal.animationstudies.org/cathryn-vasseleu-the-Švankmajer-touch/
6. Jason Wood, “A Quick Chat with Jan Švankmajer and Eva Švankmajerova”, Kamera:http://www.kamera.co.uk/interviews/svankmayer_Švankmajerova.html
7. There are also shades of the Log Lady from Twin Peaks (1990-1991) here. As with Eraserhead, Little Otik can also be located in a tradition of “maternal,” “reproductive” or “fertility” horror, including films such as Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968)and David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979).
10. Jan Švankmajer, “Out of My Head”, The Guardian, 19 October 2001: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2001/oct/19/artsfeatures
11. Peter Hames, “Bringing up baby: Jan Švankmajer interviewed about Otesánek (Little Otík, 2000)”, Kinoeye, vol. 2, no. 1, 7 January 2002:http://www.kinoeye.org/02/01/hames01.php
12. Švankmajer relishes these kinds of facetious visual puns. In another exercise in surreal wish-fulfillment, Alžbětka’s father (Pavel Nový) says that he is so hungry he could eat nails, and nails promptly materialise in his soup.
14. Bruno Solarik, “The Walking Abyss: Perspectives on Contemporary Czech and Slovak Surrealism”, Papers of Surrealism, no. 3, Spring 2005: http://www.surrealismcentre.ac.uk/papersofsurrealism/journal3/
15. See Peter Hames, Dark Alchemy: The Films of Jan Švankmajer, Flicks books, Trowbridge, 1995, pp. 96-113.
16. Kristoffer Noheden, “The imagination of touch: surrealist tactility in the films of Jan Švankmajer”, Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, vol. 5, 2013: http://www.aestheticsandculture.net/index.php/jac/article/view/21111/29896
17. Absurdist experiments with food and ingestion have long richly figured in Surrealist expression and its modes of subversion. Alongside Dalí’s aforementioned cookbook, especially noteworthy is the role of the dinner party in many of Luis Buñuel’s films (a civilizing ritual of distinction which Buñuel collapses and upturns), as with The Exterminating Angel (1962), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), Viridiana (1961), and The Phantom of Liberty (1974). Also of particular resonance with Švankmajer’s style are the collages of the Czech Surrealist Jindřich Štyrský, in which meat and offal prominently figure.
18. Anikó Imre, Identity Games: Globalization and the Transformation of Media Cultures in the New Europe, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, 2009, p. 201.
19. Imre, p. 201.
21. For example, the distorted, disorienting entryways in Něco z Alenky (Alice, 1988); the cellar in Do pivnice (Down to the Cellar, 1983); the closet in Spiklenci slasti(Conspirators of Pleasure, 1996). Cellar and closet spaces also figure in Little Otik.
22. Hames, 2002. With a running time over two and a half hours, Little Otik is also his longest film.
23. Alžbětka’s reading of Otesánek uses two-dimensional animation and is illustrated through Eva Švankmajerova’s paintings, and the creature Otik is depicted through three-dimensional animation. There is also a sense of temporal heterogeneity: the narrative straddles both the present and the past, with events occurring in both the late twentieth century (the post-Communist Czech Republic) and within the much older context of Erben’s story.
24. This is a medium that Švankmajer himself has also explored outside of his filmmaking career (his work spans a range of different artistic mediums, many of which he integrates into his filmic texts), and a style which is also visible in his other films, as with Alice, Conspirators of Pleasure, Food and Dimensions of Dialogue, for example.
25. Jan Švankmajer, “An alchemist’s nightmares: Extracts from Jan Švankmajer’s diary”, Kinoeye, vol. 2, no. 1, Jan 7 2002: http://www.kinoeye.org/02/01/Švankmajer01.php
26. Švankmajer, 2002.