by Carlos Valladares
Jean Cocteau said of Jiří Trnka, the Czech animator and puppeteer, that the very name conjures up childhood and poetry. Note the “and”—childhood and poetry, la poésie de l’enfance, which Trnka treats with the depth and respect those oft-belittled years merit. We are only too quick to gloss over our fanciful kid dreams, our stumbling attempts to use simple words to convey huge emotions which we spend our adult trying to refine and intellectualize and know, know, boringly know.
Trnka, by contrast, was a seer, a dweller. He dwelled in youth, dwelled in the crevices of language before social and linguistic codes are mastered (most of his films’ narratives lose you along the way, and that’s when you know they’re working). His magic is the magic of the slow burn, the way the worlds of imperial China or a rose-wrapped Greek forest unfurl before your childlike eyes with a responsible contempt for the straight-edged story-line. Trnka’s gift—the gift, also, of Lewis Carroll, Beatrix Potter, François Truffaut, Demy in Donkey Skin mode, the late Stephen Hillenburg, and other bards of childhood—was to give kids what they most needed for maturity, a truthful artifice wrapped in a lived-in melancholy and wistfulness, and to make jaded adults see as simply as their kids again.
This December, the folks at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive are bringing some of Mr. Trnka’s essential cartoons to the Bay Area. It represents the latest nationwide stop of The Puppet Master, the first complete Trnka retrospective ever mounted in North America. On display are a wide range of his great films for children —the puppet features THE EMPEROR’S NIGHTINGALE (1948) and A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (1959) and adults —THE GOOD SOLDIER ŠVEJK (1954) , whose source novel inspired Heller’s Catch-22; and, the cream of the crop, his dark puppet satires of the 1960s.
The main draw of these shorts is Trnka’s distinct style to familiar stories. Kids and adults alike will be fascinated by the way Trnka’s puppets look, walk, and plastically smile. He is not content with cloaking his characters’ actions in a Hawksian invisibility shield. When a stupidly grinning soldier falls down out of drunkenness in a train car, he does not merely stumble: He slithers, as if slicked in oil, and plops down in a soundless, bed-of-fog huff. Trnka is out to preserve the hard-edged magic of his beloved fairytales and Shakespeare before his kid viewers ossify into lesson-seeking schoolmarms, before their passion for play is snuffed-out, mocked and analyzed to death in the secondary school years and beyond. He used puppets to return adults back to the awesome reveries of childhood, when signs and words are beginning to be understood but not internalized expertly enough to fully manipulate. An enemy of the spoken word, “the disastrously explicit medium of language” (c.f., James Baldwin), his films float in ethereal silence and magisterial scores by his composer-collaborator Václav Trojan (a crying viol to stand in for the song of an free nightingale).
Starting in the 1960s, Trnka’s films become increasingly darker and foreboding, a reflection of both the revolution of instant gadgets and the restrictions placed upon him by the totalitarian [regime] ministers of culture. The potent subject matter of PASSION (1962), THE CYBERNETIC GRANDMA (1962), ARCHANGEL GABRIEL AND MISTRESS GOOSE (1964), and, greatest of all, THE HAND (1965), is the failure of modernity to bring people together in a funky harmony, the loss of the organic in a world beset by concrete ideology and disconnected technology. It is as if Trnka Land in the 1960s was plagued by amnesia; the point made at the end of THE EMPEROR’S NIGHTINGALE–-one should always prefer the natural to the synthetic, the original over the imitation—is completely forgotten. In the 1960s, the hollow and programmatic slowly win over.
THE CYBERNETIC GRANDMA shows what happens when a little girl is left to the Devices. Her grandmother sends her off into space to be babysat by the titular guardian, who proceeds to frighten the poor child with fussy Rube Goldberg-ization (the process of bathing takes eight robo-arms to hold her) and barked rules arbitrarily made up on the spot (“Looking out of the window is forbidden!”—because, of course, the powers-that-be don’t want you to acknowledge the outside world). In its most disturbing sequence, the robo-grandma straps her poor young charge down in a chair and forces her to watch, Clockwork Orange-style, a nightmarish “fairy-tale” in which three UPA eggs hack each other up with axes and feed each other’s pieces to a sentient bonfire. Tati, this ain’t (there is little optimism in Trnka’s dreary modernist vision), and the short is only a harbinger of Don Hertzfeldt in the sense of its absurdist vivacity (I don’t know what’s happening or where I’m going); otherwise, Trnka is by far the most jaded of these three tech-obsessed sad clowns.
He had good reason, as seen in his agreed-upon magnum opus THE HAND. It’s his most straightforward work; the title card translates “The Hand” into multiple languages, suggesting that Trnka was aware of the unusual clarity of this eerie 18-minute masterwork. Most take it to be a satiric overlook on totalitarianism and the restrictions imposed by the Czechoslovak Communist regime upon artists like Trnka, who would never hedge to the dogmatic demand for Socialist Realism. But that reading seriously limits what gives THE HAND a true universal edge. The mute artist-potter of “The Hand” struggles to rid himself of dogma and live by his own rules—an attempt which can only succeed upon his death. Even in death, the artist-potter is mocked by bigwig ideology (the hand), taken up for ideology’s own purposes; the little guy is given a pompous funeral to celebrate his accomplishments when, in fact, he was relentlessly mocked and persecuted while alive. Trnka worries about the invasion of the public into private artistic matters; how can one preserve the sanctity of the holy unseen when all one’s actions are projected towards the world, for strangers to judge? This worry becomes especially prescient in today’s Internet-drenched world, where one is constantly pressured to be a part of a network that seems less connected by idyllic wires and more by puppet strings fixing the self via a series of rigid, time-stamped shadows. THE HAND would turn out to be Trnka’s final film; he would die of a heart condition** at the age of only 57 on December 30, 1969.
Yet despite his warranted anger and world-weariness, Trnka still found room for warmth. The little girl in THE CYBERNETIC GRANDMA is rescued by her real grandma, a blessed human who, with a wag of her finger, simply turns off the robot interloper. In all Trnka, there is a celebration of the oddball, chucklesome sound, analogous to the delightful sounds mined from inanimate objects by Jacques Tati in France and Ritwik Ghatak in India. In Trnka, there is a gleeful disregard for a closed-off story or a morality lesson; even a hectoring, darn-dem-krazy-kidz work like PASSION (which is apparently anti-motorcycle) doesn’t hit you over the head at all, because Trnka’s devotion is ultimately towards the warm fuzzies brought about by his puppet’s squelches and waddles and phoenix-like resurrections.
Even in something ostensibly acidic as ARCHANGEL GABRIEL AND MISTRESS GOOSE, a bawdy anti-clerical satire based upon a story in Boccaccio’s “Decameron”, the love of the flawed human gesture dominates over anything the story, if you can follow it, says. What delights in ARCHANGEL is its hard physicality, its inability to be reduced to a single moral platitude about how to feel towards the lecherous “priest” or the devoted-to-Gabriel mistress. At points, the short feels like it skewers and respects both in equal measure. At other points, Trnka is trying to duplicate, for the cinema, the post-Renaissance attitude in painting towards Christian iconography. Basically, the artist takes a well-known play/parable/myth and distills it to a tableau of epic proportions (or, in Trnka’s case, several scenes of teeming weirdness). The art is still cognizant of the original source material, but it has been transfigured into a unique object of its own harmonious existence. What sticks in the mind in Trnka’s Archangel is the beautiful, heavenward gaze of the mistress—her elfin blue eyes cast towards an offscreen space which, though physically vacant, is filled with the spirit of her love.
ARCHANGEL, a series of tableaux weaving a morality tale without ever telling you the order of events or even what’s happening, makes us feel like we are children again. We are here to “learn,” but, being children, we are also still naïve about certain codes in the universe. Trnka’s magic for adults is his ability to eschew any finality about understanding the mysteries of life. He wants us to experience and marvel at the sublime radiations of his material puppet world.
Trnka gives the kids exquisite portraits of childhood fancy that always come dripping in death and a hard-earned pathos. In his finale to MIDSUMMER, he goes against the traditional scripting of the final Pyramus and Thisbe performance; in the original Shakespeare text and most subsequent adaptations, this tragedy laced with ironic misinterpretations is played as a farce; the actors are bad and they butcher the story. But in his version, Trnka restores the dignity of Nick Bottom and his mute troupe; there’s a fetishistic focus on details, the shadows of morbid love: the bloodstained garment Thisbe leaves behind, Thisbe’s offscreen stabbing (to which the Athenian royal court must look away in horror and sadness—even though it’s only a [photo] play).
Even as his aim is to produce children’s entertainment, Trnka does not shirk away from mortality, from reminding the kids that this world, too, shall pass. When the song of the feathers-and-blood nightingale restores the emperor’s health, there still hangs over this self-enclosed palace a caul of misery, a delay of the inevitable. The film’s live-action bookends, clumsy as they are, still reek of the potent death that has skipped the emperor’s palace. Two innocent children go off to play, bonding over a precious toy ball, he nursing a crush on her—both unaware that they are haltingly stumbling towards deaths both psychological and, in the end, physical. Until that day, however, Trnka allows all of his kids the power to dream. We keep rising again and again like the boy in PASSION, aware of the dangers in the world, yet obsessively marching on in the marvelous struggle for freedom and of life.
The Puppet Master: The Films of Jiří Trnka is currently on tour and may be seen at venues around North America. It plays throughout December, 2018 at the Berkeley Art Museum / Pacific Film Archive where animator Jan Pinkava will introduce selected programs; and at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
Jiri Trnka (Feb. 24, 1912-Dec. 30, 1969). Major films: Springman and the S.S. (1946), The Emperor’s Nightingale (1948), The Good Soldier Svejk (1955), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1959), Passion (1962), The Cybernetic Grandma (1962), Archangel Gabriel and Mistress Goose (1964), The Hand (1965).
Watch behind-the-scenes short films about Trnka at Eat My Shorts.
Carlos Valladares (b. 1996) is a freelance critic, scholar, curator, video essayist, and writer. In June 2018, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and with university distinction from Stanford University. In 2017, he curated and wrote the wall texts for an exhibition, “Abstraction and the Movies,” at the Anderson Collection, which paired movies with works of American modernist art from the Anderson’s permanent collection by Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, and others; KQED Arts listed it as a must-see Bay Area event. His video essays have shown at the Pesaro Film Festival, Sydney, Prague, Washington D.C., and San Francisco. Carlos has written for The San Francisco Chronicle, Film Comment, and The Stanford Daily and has worked as a research assistant on two upcoming books: “The American History of Black and White Race Relations in Film” (Routledge, 2019) and one on Joseph Cornell . He was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles and currently lives in New York City.
**Postscript by Phil Tippett, Stop Motion Animator
My wife, Jules worked in editorial on AMADEUS and we would socialize with director Milos Forman. Milos knew I did stop motion and was highly influenced by the master animator and he told me s story…