Monday, July 6, 2015

Walerian Borowczyk: Short Films

Between his early career as an artist and illustrator and his later work as a feature-length filmmaker, director Walerian Borowczyk made a series of imaginative short films — first in his home country of Poland and later in France — that helped transform animation into a more serious art form. He experimented with cut out paper, images clipped from magazines, illustrations, photographs, short bursts of live action, over-exposed film, and bits of news reels. Borowczyk’s deceptively simple use of already existing techniques is deeply surreal and introduced an obsession with ordinary objects that would continue in his feature films. The themes of these humorous and/or absurdist shorts include love, sex, domestic life, and the transformation of the mundane to the utterly strange and alien.

A note: While I generally use IMDB as my primary source, I also consulted Jan Strekowski’s article for Culture.PL for more about the short films, which offers some contradictory information and titles that don’t appear on IMDB. Any films that I could find online, I’ve linked to it in this essay, though be forewarned these seem to come and go pretty quickly on Youtube.

While the majority of Borowczyk’s shorts and commercials were made in France, his early films were Polish endeavors. Many of these are hard to find, such as Sierpień (1946, aka Mois d’août), Głowa (1949, aka The Head), Magik (1949, aka The Magician),Tłum (1950, aka The Crowd), and Jesień (1955, aka Autumn). Hopefully these will make their way onto Blu-ray as special features sometime soon, alongside his early short documentaries like French-Polish efforts Żywe fotografie (1955, aka Photographies vivantes) and Atelier de Fernand Leger (1955), about the French painter and filmmaker.

He soon teamed up with fellow Polish artist Jan Lenica for shorts and commercials like Dni Oświaty (1957, aka Education Days) and Strip-Tease (1957), a crude but amusing cut and paste clip. They further explored this technique with the whimsical, award-winning Był sobie raz (1957, aka Once Upon a Time), where a spider-like blob interacts with shapes and figures cut out from magazine and goes through a series of transformations. In Nagrodzone Uczucia (1957, aka Love Requited), they used a series of static illustrations and captions to convey a young man’s love for a woman. They followed this with Sztandar młodych (1958, aka Banner of Youth), which sets frantic music to a series of overexposed film clips, and Dom (1958, aka House), their most famous work together. This surreal 11-minute short uses cut out images of a house and miscellaneous objects, photographs, altered film clips, and the first shots of Ligia Branica, Borowczyk’s beautiful wife, who seduces a mannequin head before it decays.

Their last work together, and I believe Borowczyk’s final short film in Poland, was Szkoła (1958, School), which features animated photographs of a soldier performing a drill. It was made before his permanent relocation to Paris, where resulted in greater works like Les astronautes (1959, aka The Astronauts). He worked with artist, writer, and experimental filmmaker Chris Marker, though i’ve heard that Borowczyk did most of the work and Marker merely offered his name to help support the Polish newcomer. An astronaut and his owl travel to space in this fantastical, humorous blend of animation, photographs, and cut out techniques.

These first years in France were among some of Borowczyk’s most productive and he made a wide array of short films, including Terra incognita (1959), La foule (1959), Les Stroboscopes: Magasins du XIX siecle (1959), L’ecriture (1960), La Boite a musique (1961), Solitude (1961), Les bibliotheques (1961), and La fille sage (1962). Some of his lauded and award-winning works from this period include L'Encyclopedie de grand-maman en 13 volumes (1963, aka Grandmother’s Encyclopedia in 13 Volumes), where a series of Victorian cut-outs are animated. In the mesmerizing Renaissance (1963), animated live objects are destroyed and then put back together. This was followed by shorts like Holy Smoke (1963), an animated film about a cigar smoker, Gancia (1963), and Le musee (1964).

Perhaps Borowczyk’s greatest short film is the grim yet beautiful Les jeux des anges (1964, aka The Game of the Angels). This is a nightmarish, impressionistic look at life inside a concentration camp. I’ve read the images compared to the works of Francis Bacon and while this film doesn’t offer up anything quite so gory, it’s not a far stretch. Borowczyk captures the terrifying element of industry at work in the Holocaust, a subject taken up ten years later by Pasolini with Salo, though Borowczyk’s much vaguer factory of death is offset with melancholic winged beings and the suggestion of impending violence.

He followed this up with Le dictionnaire de Joachim (1965), similar to L'Encyclopedie de grand-maman en 13 volumes and Rosalie (1966), the latter of which foreshadowed Borowczyk’s later feature films. Based on a story by Guy de Maupassant, this live action short stars Ligia Branice as a woman who has killed her own child after being seduced — not unlike the protagonist of his later masterpiece, Story of Sin. Branice narrates the tragedy while crying, as Borowczyk inserts stills of different related objects, such as a bunch of rags and a shovel. Rosalie was obviously a turning point and marks the beginning of the end for his career as a director solely of shorts.  He also made Le petit poucet (1966), Dyptique (1967), and Gavotte (1967) before directing his first feature, the animated Théâtre de Monsieur & Madame Kabal (1967).

Even though his feature career took off, he still occasionally produced shorts, such as Le phonographe (1969), made in the same year as his first live action feature, Goto, l'île d’amour, and he also began making short documentaries: L' Amour monstre de tous les temps (1977, aka The Greatest Love of All Times), a surreal glimpse of painter Ljuba Popovic; Une collection particuliere (1973), a catalog of erotic drawings, photographs, and vintage toys; Escargot de Vénus (1975, aka Venus on the Half-Shell), about erotic painter Bona Tibertelli de Pisis; and Brief von Paris (1975, aka Letter from Paris).

In 1979, Borowczyk contributed to anthology film Collections privées (1979, aka Private Collections) along with French erotica director Just Jaeckin (The Story of O, Lady Chatterly’s Lover) and Japanese director, playwright, and poetic extraordinaire, Shuji Terayama (The Boxer, Fruits of Passion, Emperor Tomato Ketchup). In Jaeckin’s segment, "L'île aux sirènes,” a sailor becomes shipwrecked on an island and decides to stay, thanks to some attractive and friendly native women. Terayama’s middle segment, “Kusa-Meikyu,” is a far more surreal tale involving a nursery rhyme, dreams, lots of hopping people, and some rather ribald sexual fantasies. Borowczyk’s “L’armoire” is somewhat similar to his final film, Love Rites (1987), and follows a man who hires a prostitute and winds up strangely bonding with her. Though Borowczyk made more commercials and a few TV episodes, he did not release many shorts in the ‘80s, outside of Hyper-Auto-Erotic (1981), Hayaahi (1981), and the entertaining animated short Scherzo infernal (1984), about the dalliances of demons and demonesses in Hell. 

I can’t say that Borowczyk’s short films are recommended for the casual filmgoer more interested in live action, feature-length cinema, but if you like more experimental works, then this is for you. Anyone interested in Jan Svenkmajer, the Brothers Quary, or Monty Python is honor-bound to at least watch some of these fantastic little slices of genius. If you’re looking for a good collection of the shorts, pick up Arrow’s Camera Obscura box set or the individual release, Walerian Borowczyk: Short Films and Animation, which includes Les astronautes, Le concert de M. et Mme Kabal, L'Encyclopédie de grand’maman, Renaissance, Les Jeux des anges, Le Dictionnaire de Joachim, Rosalie, Gavotte, Diptyque, Le Phonographe, L'Amour "monstre" de tous les temps, Scherzo Infernal, and some of Borowczyk’s commercials. A Private Collection is an extra on the Immoral Tales release, Venus on the Half Shell is included with The Beast, and Jouet Jouyeux comes with The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne. I assume this means that any future Borowczyk releases from Arrow will include more of the missing shorts.

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