Tactility and Film, interview with Jan Švankmajer

Tactility and Film

Jan Švankmajer’s interview, with Tereza Stehlíková 2011

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1. What methods do you consciously employ in order to make your films more tactile? I have in mind both in pre-production [choice of location, experiments], production, and post-production [particular methods of editing etc]?

Until my first experiments with tactile objects I was unaware about what an important role touch played, even in my early films. What I have in mind in particular is the use of large detail, depicting textures of objects photographed. The film “J.S. Bach Fantasia G-Minor” is built entirely on this unconscious tactility. My tactile experimentation began, amongst other things, partly as a reaction to being banned from film-making (1973 – 1980) and was directed towards an imagination that stood at the opposite pole to the audio-visuality of film. Despite this fact, once the ban was lifted, I utilized my experience from these experiments in the film The Fall of the House of Usher already. In particular, this concerned the sequence of impressing gestures into a lump of clay, which interprets Poe’s Enchanted Castle poem through tactile language. Here I applied my experiments with gestic sculpture, but have also given it a kinetic dimension with the help of a trick camera. In the film Pit, Pendulum and Hope I worked with pathology of touch, with torture (?). In Conspirators of Pleasure I utilized my experimentation with New Eroticism. In Dimensions of Dialogue, in the story Passionate Dialogue, once again I work with gestures imprinted in plasticine.

2.     When making Conspirators of Pleasure, which is very directly based on your tactile experiments, did you in any way brief your crew to make them more sensitized to touch? Were the actors in any way involved in tactile experiments prior to the filming? Did you experiment on yourself?

Since Conspirators of Pleasure was basically about an application of experimentation with tactile props which was concluded (New Eroticism), I did not perform any new experiments with the actors. I only made the results and conclusions of this experimentation known to them. It’s important to note that in Conspirators New Eroticism is used together with arias from Italian romantic opera, a dialogue which introduces an ironic dimension.

3.     While I understand that you are not so directly involved with tactile experiments any more, would you say that your work carries traces of their effect on your most recent work, say in Lunacies, or How to Survive Life?

I am still involved in tactile creativity, although perhaps not with such an intensity as I was in the 1970s and 1980s.  In this regard I still mainly create tactile and gestic poems. I have already mentioned the films in which I utilized experiences from my tactile experiments, but even in the latest films, where the tactile experience isn’t notably visible, it is present in a latent form. I am convinced that these films would look very different were it not for the previous tactile experiences.

4.     What is your view on the apparent contradiction between film as an audio-visual medium, and your desire to capture the material presence of objects in your work? Do you see it as a frustration, challenge? How do you counteract that tendency?

It is true to say that the film viewer does not experience tactile sensations directly on his or her body, as is the case in communication with a tactile object or a gestic poem. However I rely on the conjunction of “touch-vision” senses, learned from the practical tasks of everyday life and also on the effects of reflexive psychosis, which to a certain extent governs even the psychology of us, normal people. Basically, I believe that sight is capable, to a greater or smaller extent depending on individuals, to transfer tactile sensations in a mediated way. Of course a certain sense of frustration will probably always remain.

5.     What is your view of the digital medium? Do you feel there is any relevance in regard to celluloid being more tangible, or is this irrelevant?

Here lies the central point of my reservations about computer animation. Virtual reality has no tactile dimension. It is an „untouched reality“. It is therefore not charged by strenuous human emotions. It is a stillborn child.

thank you to Jan Švankmajer.

Prague, November 2011


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