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December 2 – December 4

Freedom Outside Reason – The Animated Cinema of Jan Lenica

Well into their careers yet still young, Jan Lenica (1928 – 2001) and Walerian Borowczyk (1923 – 2006) started making films in 1957. Barely liberated from the constraints of socialist realism, Polish art passionately embraced modernism. Abstract painting dominated art galleries. Given the mood of the day, Lenica and Borowczyk’s films provided a welcome sight: experimental and modern, they were in tune with the spirit of their time.

Once Upon a Time… and House, which were respectively the first and third film produced by the duo, proved to be characteristically “modern” on many levels, both formally and content-wise. They did away with the fairytale-like formula that dominated animated films in Poland (and around the globe) at the time. Lenica and Borowczyk’s projects were virtually plotless, and as such they were close to abstraction, gravitating toward the new techniques of cutout and collage. Their debut piece, Once Upon a Time… made direct allusions to what was particularly en vogue in the culture of the era, i.e., abstract art and jazz music. That these references were misleading, and that the artists’ actual knack was for vintage photographs and prints, discarded objects, and naïve art (which inspired their second film, Love Requited, based on Jerzy Plaskociński’s paintings), was of little importance, because modernism was in fact associated with freedom of expression, and Lenica and Borowczyk’s films did seem free, be it in form or content.

From the outset, Lenica and Borowczyk made no secret of the fact that their true focus rested with cinematic pioneers Georges Méliès and the early French avant-garde. “It is our goal to return to visual cinema, conceptualized in contemporaneous terms, enriched by sound and color,” said the two repeatedly. “We refuse to confine ourselves to one genre, but prefer instead to draw from anything that stimulates the imagination, stirs emotions, entertains, and pleases the eye.”

The success of House, which was awarded the Grand Prix at the International Experimental Film Competition in Brussels in 1958, elevated Lenica and Borowczyk to the level of artists whose films were much anticipated by critics. And while they did not fail to live up to those expectations, their internationally acclaimed careers developed along separate lines. Borowczyk followed in the footsteps of early trick film, cinema of metamorphoses, and objects moving without the participation of humans before he reinvented himself as an author of erotic cinema. Lenica remained faithful to his roots in Feuillade’s “Fantomas” films and Chaplin’s burlesque, continuing—with slight exceptions—to work in the grain of what he referred to as a single, lifelong film, albeit cut into smaller chunks.

Lenica’s lifelong film primarily shows that the world is not what it seems to be, making no provisions for romantics and nonconformists. And yet, it also encourages the viewer to continue to bang his head against that brick wall, because a bump on one’s forehead is less compromising than losing one’s face. Last but not least, Lenica reminds his audience that since fads come and go, as do dictatorships and politicians, you should remain true to yourself. The director always stuck to this last principle: he would not yield to novelties and refused to change his style, persistently revisiting the same issues.

In Lenica’s subsequent incarnations of the hero of this neverending story, everyone can find something related to their dreams, fantasies, and experience. In his debut picture, Once Upon a Time…, the main character is but an ink spot that wanders about without a specific purpose and engages in duels with a predatory bird. Lenica’s protagonist returns in Labyrinth, this time as a full-fledged “man in a bowler hat,” equipped with Icarus’ wings and battling ravenous birds in the film’s finale. He appears from the sky as Fantorro the Superman, and dissolves into thin air on the horse Pegasus as New Janko the Musician. In Monsieur Tête and Rhinoceros, he is a clerk who represses his own defiance, only to abandon everything and embark on a long pursuit of the sense of existence in Adam 2. He does his best to help others, but is deceived by appearances: twice, he rescues beautiful women in trouble, unaware that one of them ended up in the clutches of a monster by her own will (Labyrinth), while the other was in fact not a victim but an aggressor (Fantorro, le dernier justicier). It is for these reasons that his nonconformist protest in Monsieur Tête and Rhinoceros is bound to fail. He suffers defeats, because the world he inhabits provides no safe havens for romantics (or any eccentrics in general) of the sort we see in New Janko the Musician. Such individuals are treated with adequate modes of “persuasion,” such as the head-formatting press in Adam 2 or the thought-trapping cage in Labyrinth. Once set in motion, the repressive apparatus acts with mechanical ruthlessness. One anonymous torturer, such as the capital letter A, may be supplanted by another, a no less vicious letter B (A).

Much like a fabulously colorful fish, the visual beauty of Lenica’s gloomy world seems tempting on the outside, luring the unsuspecting victim into a trap. Suggestively erotic flowers (Adam 2) and lusciously curvaceous women (Labyrinth) bait men (males with avian bodies) into a trap; a mysterious cube encourages us to enter it but turns out to be a maze with no exit (Adam 2). Landscape is entirely inhabited by such freakish, camouflaged creatures that beguile us and lie in ambush for one another.

The literary inspirations here are quite evident: Kafka (whose name can be seen on a signboard in Labyrinth), Schulz, Gombrowicz, Themerson, Mrożek, Mandiargues and Ionesco (the latter two contributed narrations to Lenica’s films), Jarry—so we are talking here about the surrealist grotesque and the theater of the absurd. Far more complex is the visual genealogy of Lenica’s imagery, as he drew on numerous seemingly contradictory styles while managing not to abandon his own expression. This is precisely where his greatness manifests itself to the fullest. One could point to at least four sources of inspiration that impacted Lenica’s oeuvre: nineteenth-century graphics, cinematic (pre)history, art nouveau and naïve art.

Lenica’s art is consistently of the highest quality. His and Borowczyk’s innovations involved the elevation of the visual as a cornerstone of animated film. Traditionally, the visual had been subordinate to the film’s literary layer and functioned as mere illustration or—as was the case with Eggeling’s and Fischinger’s avant-garde films, or with Norman McLaren’s work—acted as a vehicle for expressing movement, rhythm and visual tensions. Such experiments, as a matter of fact, had been reduced to asterisks in the course of cinematic evolution. On the other hand, Lenica and Borowczyk implanted animated film with the idiom of poster metaphors and graphic shortcuts, which they consistently used in their cartoons. An exemplary case can be found in Monsieur Tête, where the protagonist eventually tames his rebellious tendencies and becomes a model citizen, to the extent that he is awarded with medals, but at the same time his face loses its features, much as in Lenica’s 1958 drawing. “Finally, my head looks just like any other,” he concludes. In Rhinoceros, two bearded intellectuals talk at a café. One of them keeps throwing out names that assume ornate shapes above the table: Dostoyevsky, Sartre, Joyce… his companion responds with short “pffs” that result in the disintegration of the other's elaborate, wordy construction. A is a single, masterfully plain graphic sign: a human being subjected to the terror of the alphabet, a symbol of an individual embroiled in the apparatus of power.

Landscape and Ubu Roi (of which two versions exist, although one may consider them as two separate pieces, given that the latter version—Ubu et la Grande Gidouille—is expanded and includes material from two of Jarry’s subsequent works) come off as Lenica’s most controversial and mature pictures due to their demanding nature. With Landscape, the difficulty stems from its enigmatic, enciphered message, while in the case of Ubu Roi the problem lies in its theatrically static form. Ubu Roi ranks among some of the best, most intense adaptations of Jarry’s text. At the same time, it allowed Lenica to fully unfold his personal catastrophism, one combined with humor and irony, and to question grandiose politics, sweeping utopias and bombastic language.

Landscape metaphorically pictures a piece of Central and Eastern European history. In the film, a certain cruel civilization is superseded by another, scarcely better, that is frantically committed to erecting monuments. Sound familiar? This intriguing film, which Lenica developed during his residency at Harvard, remains one of his most obscure works.

The issue of totalitarianism resurfaced in Lenica’s final film, The Island of R.O., which the artist created following a lengthy hiatus. The project has a long history. Its original idea had given rise to Labyrinth, whose protagonist was a cosmic castaway in a post-Stalinist world. The character returns after forty years, embodied by the well-known animator Piotr Dumała—The Island of R.O. is a live action and trick film.

Unfortunately, The Island of R.O. turned out to be the artistic testament of this distinguished, innovative filmmaker, who died in 2001 before he had a chance to see the final cut of his opus magnum, and the film was completed by his collaborators. – Marcin Gizycki

Art and film historian, critic and filmmaker, Marcin Gizycki is a professor at the Polish-Japanese Academy of Information Technology in Warsaw, Poland; the Artistic Director of the International Animated Film Festival in Poznan; and a Senior Lecturer at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. Former Editor in Chief of Animafilm magazine (1979-81), he is also the author of several books, over 350 articles, and has made a number of documentary, experimental and animated films.

This retrospective is co-presented by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, with assistance from the National Film Archive, Poland.

Digital videos courtesy the National Film Archive – Audiovisual Institute, Film Studio KADR, Studio Minatur Filmowych, Polish Television, Argos Film and Schamoni Film und Medien. Film prints from the HFA collection. Film stills courtesy the National Film Archive – Audiovisual Institute. Film descriptions by Brittany Gravely, unless otherwise noted.

Special thanks: Grzegorz Skorupski, Marta Jazowska, Tomasz Dobrowolski—Adam Mickiewicz Institute; and Marcin Gizycki.

       

 


Special Reception at 6pm
Introduction by Grzegorz Skorupski

Saturday December 2 at 7pm

A

Directed by Jan Lenica
West Germany/France 1965, 35mm, color,
10 min

Lenica’s elegant chamber piece is all the more terrifying for its resemblance to a children’s book, albeit one in which the usually charming, anamorphic letters become oppressive entities. Trying to exert its will over a lonely, “very quiet” man in his apartment, the alphabet’s relentless leader could very well be government, social systems or language itself.

 

Striptease

Directed by Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica
Poland 1957, digital video, b/w, 3 min

Created for the Polish newsreel service, this little joke comes courtesy two simple, torn-paper figures.

 

House (Dom)

Directed by Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica
Poland 1958, digital video, color, 12 min

An apartment building forms somewhat of a container for Borowczyk and Lenica’s non sequitur collaged visions, which unfold like a dream—like the visual triggers of a provocative psychological test or like the free-associative state under which the film was apparently made. Electronic sounds float over cut-out Victorian illustrations, which themselves seem to stimulate further tableaux—including a stop-motion still life wherein a wig consumes all of the artfully staged objects. Switching between “live” action and animation as if switching between planes of reality, Borowczyk and Lenica’s final collaboration culminates in a brief romantic union of man and woman, animate and inanimate, before its inevitable dissolution.

 

Love Requited
(Nagrodzone uczucie)

Directed by Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica
Poland 1958, digital video, color, 10 min

Told through intertitles and a series of bucolic—and sometimes eccentric—oil paintings by Jan Plaskocinski, Borowcyzk and Lenica merrily agitate a love story.

 

The Flower Woman
(La femme-fleur)

Directed by Jan Lenica
France 1965, 16mm, color, 11 min

Even in the mixed-up files of Jan Lenica, his slightly tormented ode to art nouveau—and by extension women—is a unique creation. Resembling an educational film with the voiceover to match, it quickly starts showing signs of mordant Lenician lyricism. While reverently elucidating this movement’s beatification and conflation of the floral and the feminine, the film’s history lessons are tainted by a deadpan elixir of irony, eroticism and dark humor—particularly appropriate to the work of its central stars, Gustav Klimt and Aubrey Beardsley.

 

Labyrinth (Labirynt)

Directed by Jan Lenica
Poland 1961, digital video, color, 15 min

One of Lenica’s most famous films is an apocalyptic dreamscape constructed from a disconcerting menagerie of Victorian illustration cut-outs in the spirit of Max Ernst. An Icarus-like figure flies into an unusual ghost town, where floating heads, ambulatory dinosaur skeletons, giant bugs and other mutations make vaguely ominous appearances. The visitor’s attempts to participate in Lenica’s sci-fi fairytale through traditional means—such as slaying the dragon and saving the damsel—do not go as planned, and he is instead subjected to much less heroic trials and “processing.” Despite its playful appearance, Lenica’s carnivalesque world is one of irreverent deception and illusion at the mercy of a greater, darker force.

 

Rhinoceros (Die Nashörner)

Directed by Jan Lenica
West Germany 1963, digital video, color, 10 min

With a graphic look resembling Lenica’s film posters, his adaptation of Eugène Ionesco’s play seems as if it were originally written with the filmmaker in mind: an Everyman is confounded by absurd events and others’ bizarre reactions to them; in this case, it is the gradual transformation of people into rhinoceroses. Lenica morphs the story into an absurdist Invasion of the Body Snatchers via Franz Kafka—with the stages of this odd plague devolving from vacant conformity to propagandistic posturing. Seemingly incapable of complying with this mass movement, the main character manages to save the film from a completely catastrophic Lenician outcome.

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Introduction by Grzegorz Skorupski
Sunday December 3 at 7pm

Moving Pictures: The Art of Jan Lenica

Directed by Richard P. Rogers
US 1975, 16mm, color, 20 min

While Jan Lenica was a visiting artist at Harvard’s Film Study Center, the filmmaker and professor Richard Rogers wanted to make a portrait of the master graphic designer and animator in action. Rogers structures his film much like his subject might, in funny fits and starts, with slightly ominous, minimalist shots interrupted by artfully composed, off-kilter perspectives and an underlying mystery and irreverent humor. When a solemn Lenica admits to having “no working method” and trusting visual information over language, Rogers responds with a close examination of Lenica calmly engaged at the animation stand and, later, an experimental cut-up audio track of Lenica’s terse aphorisms. After witnessing Lenica drawing, painting and shooting segments of his film Landscape in his Carpenter Center studio, Rogers brings them to life so the audience can immediately witness the magical results of Lenica’s understated undertaking.

 

Landscape

Directed by Jan Lenica
US 1975, 16mm, color, 8 min

With vestiges of creatures from the films that came before, Lenica’s expressionistic, enigmatic Landscape seems propelled by somber, more melancholic energies. At a young age, Lenica narrowly escaped concentration camp internment and witnessed gruesome horrors of war. Though oppressive regimes, senseless catastrophe and deep disillusion haunt all of his films, the dreamy ache of Landscape seems to signify a more personal catharsis unfolding. Though softer-edged and hand-drawn, his fossil-like forms are riddled with wounds, scars, disease and dismemberment that slice beyond the physical plane to the psychic. Garby Leon’s otherworldly soundtrack resonates the beauty and the pain of existing in a world layered with allusion and code, yet denying complete comprehension. “Landscape seduces the viewer by being only partly textual,” notes writer Steve Weiner. “That is, there are half-formed metaphors and blatant symbols that invite a reading but deny answers.”

 

The Island of Jan Lenica
(Wyspa Jana Lenicy)

Directed by Marcin Gizycki
Poland 1998, video, color, 29 min. Polish with English subtitles

In 1998, Jan Lenica started shooting his new film in Poland titled Wyspa R.O. (The Island of R.O.), the first film produced by this distinguished artist in his native country since 1962. This significant event was used as a springboard for a documentary film summarizing over fifty years of Lenica's creative life. Lenica talks about the ups and downs of his career as a cartoonist, poster designer and filmmaker, visits an exhibition of his father's paintings and the Museum of Caricature, for which he has designed a poster. He is also shown directing The Island of R.O.—the film he describes as his reckoning with two totalitarian systems that have influenced his entire life. – Marcin Gizycki

 

The Island of R.O. (Wyspa R.O.)

Directed by Jan Lenica. With Piotr Dumala, Jerzy Nowak, Malgorzata Lipmann
Poland 2001, digital video, color, 31 min

Lenica desaturates his final work—which is primarily live action enhanced by various forms of animation and video compositing—and adds select, intense highlights to create a consummately Lenician netherworld with a narrative that appears both more linear and more mystical than in his earlier films. A distant relative of Labyrinth’s lost soul, a man from space crashes into a seemingly abandoned industrial wasteland riddled with signs of a former totalitarian state: monuments, photographs, records and, apparently, enough humans to play out the oppressive dynamic of the past. Through the magic of animation, the man constructs a friend and, through the incantation of dreams, finds a lover. While love, ingenuity and imagination prove indispensable for inspiration and survival, Lenica allows the hero’s ultimate fate to reside in the perspective of each individual viewer.

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Monday December 4 at 7pm

Once Upon a Time…
(Byl sobie raz)

Directed by Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica
Poland 1957, digital video, color, 9 min

The first film from Borowczyk and Lenica is a burst of freedom from any aesthetic or content restrictions. With children’s drawings as the background, their abstract, cut-out characters free-associate in a decidely absurd, adult manner—ultimately revolutionizing animation in Poland and beyond.

 

 

New Janko the Musician
(Nowy Janko Muzykant)

Directed by Jan Lenica
Poland 1960, digital video, color, 10 min

In addition to contemporary anachronisms and surreal disjunctions, Lenica removes the tragedy from Henryk Sienkiewicz’ tale of a musically gifted peasant and inserts some social justice in the form of cosmic intervention.

 

 

 

Fantorro, the Last Arbiter (Fantorro, le dernier justicier)

Directed by Jan Lenica. With Stan Hayward
France 1971, digital video, color, 11 min

Lenica’s comic book figure Fantorro—the name a combination of the sadistic Fantômas and the heroic Zorro—is an out-of-shape, very ordinary looking caped crusader whose escapades turn many a storytime trope upside-down and inside-out. As if flipping through a series of slender comic books, Lenica brings four vignettes to life with collage animation and animated photos. The cynical cycles move from Fantorro aiding and abetting a “damsel in distress;” a villain counterfeiting money using pages of Marx’s Das Kapital; a struggling, suicidal scientist whose latest experiment enlarges his ear to an enormous size; and a grand, fantastic finale combining satiric takes on many of Lenica’s ongoing obsessions: wealth, spectacle, conformity, technology, control, freedom and, of course, happy endings.

 

Labyrinth (Labirynt)

Directed by Jan Lenica
Poland 1961, digital video, color, 15 min

One of Lenica’s most famous films is an apocalyptic dreamscape constructed from a disconcerting menagerie of Victorian illustration cut-outs in the spirit of Max Ernst. An Icarus-like figure flies into an unusual ghost town, where floating heads, ambulatory dinosaur skeletons, giant bugs and other mutations make vaguely ominous appearances. The visitor’s attempts to participate in Lenica’s sci-fi fairytale through traditional means—such as slaying the dragon and saving the damsel—do not go as planned, and he is instead subjected to much less heroic trials and “processing.” Despite its playful appearance, Lenica’s carnivalesque world is one of irreverent deception and illusion at the mercy of a greater, darker force.

 

Landscape

Directed by Jan Lenica
US 1975, 16mm, color, 8 min

With vestiges of creatures from the films that came before, Lenica’s expressionistic, enigmatic Landscape seems propelled by somber, more melancholic energies. At a young age, Lenica narrowly escaped concentration camp internment and witnessed gruesome horrors of war. Though oppressive regimes, senseless catastrophe and deep disillusion haunt all of his films, the dreamy ache of Landscape seems to signify a more personal catharsis unfolding. Though softer-edged and hand-drawn, his fossil-like forms are riddled with wounds, scars, disease and dismemberment that slice beyond the physical plane to the psychic. Garby Leon’s otherworldly soundtrack resonates the beauty and the pain of existing in a world layered with allusion and code, yet denying complete comprehension. “Landscape seduces the viewer by being only partly textual,” notes writer Steve Weiner. “That is, there are half-formed metaphors and blatant symbols that invite a reading but deny answers.”

 

Monsieur Tête

Directed by Jan Lenica and Henri Gruel
France 1959, 16mm, color, 13 min

“Aided by Eugène Ionesco,” this film is laced with Lenica’s usual charming pessimism and disruptive surrealism. His animated expressionist drawings alternate with more intricate collage cut-outs to tell the story of a Lenician Everyman bitten by “the serpent of revolt” yet caught up in the mindless, absurd bureaucracy and utilitarian machinery of modern life. The mindlessness literally catches up with him, and he loses his head, which “thinks too much” anyway and only seems to get him into trouble. Whether or not his exchanging individuality for conformity is a good idea, it is hard not to read a bit of self-referentialism into the much-acclaimed artist depicting the character’s facial features disappearing with each honor he receives.

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