Voyage into the surreal
It's entirely fitting that Kino, the DVD home of those pioneering animators the Quay Brothers, has just become the distributor for KimStim's collection The Collected Shorts of Jan Svankmajer. Without the work of this Czech filmmaker, after all, the Brothers' films would look quite different - if they existed at all. The two-disc set shows the wide variety of techniques Svankmajer has used - from claymation to puppet work and films that use live actors as animated props - and ranges from unmoored Surrealism to political allegories such as The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia. This is must-see viewing for any fan of the avant-garde.
Speaking of which, Kino is gearing up for the August release of Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and 30s, which is likely the most in-depth collection of its kind. Drawing from the collection of cinephile Raymond Rohauer, it includes films by visual artists Marcel Duchamp and Fernand Léger, photographer Paul Strand, and mavericks Sergei Eisenstein and Orson Welles - and that's before you get to less famous treasures such as Jean Painlevé's Le Vampire. Like other collections of silent-era material from Kino, this one is thoughtfully put together and features the best image possible.
Kino's disc may make another recent release obsolete. The Anthology of Surreal Cinema Vol. 1 is composed entirely of films on Avant-Garde and one that has popped up as a bonus feature on a Criterion disc. Anthology's producers probably aren't too upset, though - a small company called Risqué Cinema, their bread and butter comes from titles unlikely to be duplicated by Kino any time soon: Forbidden Archives of the Police Brigade and Forbidden Movies from the Brothels of Paris are collections of porn from the '20s and '30s. Don't rent them expecting some quaint look-at-my-petticoat tease, though; the films are surprisingly hardcore.
Somewhere inbetween surrealism, the art world, and naughty pictures lies the work of Henry Darger, the subject of In the Realms of the Unreal (Wellspring). This documentary from last year tells the fascinating tale of a man who worked most of his life as a janitor, was thought to be borderline insane, lived by himself, and left behind one of history's strangest bodies of art work, the existence of which was unknown even to his neighbors. Jessica Yu uses some iffy techniques to tell Darger's story, but it's about time a filmmaker took an interest.
Luis Buñuel is conspicuously absent on the anthologies mentioned above (his shorts are already available), but fans will delight in The Phantom of Liberty, the 1974 feature just released by the Criterion Collection. Every bit as anti-establishment as his first films, Phantom is a series of vignettes, the most famous of which depicts a dinner party where the roles of toilet and dining table are reversed.
Given his fondness for scatological humor, surely Buñuel would have loved the cartoons of John Kricfalusi. The Ren & Stimpy Show: Seasons Three and a Half-ish (Paramount) chronicles the period during which Kricfalusi's influence began to fade - he had sold the rights to his show to Nickelodeon, and they fired him after clashing over "inappropriate" gags. Some of Kricfalusi's scripts were used, while new writers and animators were brought in to keep the series afloat. Here he has the last say, offering commentary on 11 episodes.
John K. gave R&S another shot last year for Spike TV, but it seemed the show's time had passed. Similarly, a missed-the-boat feeling clings to JibJab: The Early Years (Razor and Tie). You may know the JibJab team from This Land, the Bush v. Kerry parody that circled the internet last fall. Boy, howdy, was that cartoon funnier in October. Sadly, most of the shorts on this disc fall into that category - topical humor that isn't quite funny enough to last once its relevance has faded. Sometimes the difference between an avant-garde classic and a depression-inducing scrap of culture is just a couple of months. •
By John DeFore