Feed Your Head with Jan Švankmajer’s Food
Life is ritual. You set alarms to wake up. You arrive at work, punch in, take breaks, punch out. Even your eating habits are ritualized. In the morning, you eat breakfast, cereal, eggs, breakfast foods. Noon rolls around? Well, that’s lunch time. There’s more leeway on what’s being eaten, sure, but noon is the time when, hungry or not, you start to kick around the idea of lunch. The evening is for dinner, a big meal, and if you’re the family-type, there’s even more ritual attached. You set the table, maybe you say a prayer, you talk about your other daily rituals, and then there’s dessert. Yum.
Ritual is control, and surrealist animator, Jan Švankmajer is fascinated by the concept. For Švankmajer, the human body, and its functions, eating, sleeping, making love, all point to the big question: who is in control? Are we able to transcend our grotesque impulses and shape ourselves, or are the rituals we insist upon a clever mask for chaos, a world where at any moment the body can be stretched, squashed, or distorted like a ball of clay?
Švankmajer’s 1992 claymation short, Food, uses the eating ritual to expose the fallacy of order, deconstructing not only politics in the post-revolution Czech State, but also more terrifying notions of self-identity and functionality. The movie, like our day, is separated into three sections, Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner, short examinations of control that become progressively more absurd as the illusion of order becomes greater. It’s interesting to note that Food’s genesis occurred before The Velvet Revolution of Czechoslovakia, while production and distribution of the short happened several years after Czech politics abandoned socialism. In this way, the narrative of the film can be seen as a commentary on the “evolution” from socialism to capitalism, governments which, according to Švankmajer, are simply two variations on the same obscene meal.
Food’s first segment, Breakfast, displays an unending loop of mechanized men, rigged-up as dumb waiters, each of whom receives his sustenance from the open stomach of the man who ate before him. The men here are entirely devoid of control, waiting robotically for their chance to feed off their brother man, lined up like workers ready to punch the clock. This is socialist politics, men who have given their identity to the State, but who are still responsible for the needs of their comrades, all living within the blinders of their ridged, daily functionality. Everyone works and everyone eats the same, regurgitated meal.
Lunch finds two men, one upper-class, one lower class, attempting to hail a waiter. This simple act of human connection proving impossible, the men begin to ravenously consume everything in sight, including their utensils, plates, clothing, and each other (the upper-class gentlemen, of course, emerging the victor). Here, the idealism of the revolution crumbles. The two men of different classes, free from the constrictive quagmire of the socialist régime, sit down to enjoy one another’s company. The waiter, symbolic of the impossibility of connection, whether by the gap left from the previous government, or through simple human stubbornness and indifference, ignores the two men until they devolve to their basest animal instincts, and give in to the compulsive “gimme-gimme” of unregulated, free-market economics. “You mean I can have my cake, and his cake, and eat them both? Sounds good to me!” The rich, through subterfuge and loopholes, take control of the market, as the upper-class gentleman vomits the silverware he only pretended to swallow, and uses it to devour the poor.
The shortest of Food’s segments, Dinner, takes place at the fanciest restaurant seen yet, the illusion of control at its most elevated, the self-consuming horrors of the free-market (and freedom in general) beautifully hidden behind an opulent farce. The men and women of Dinner, lost in a world defined by their output, grasp desperately for agency by eating their own limbs. The athlete cuts into his athletic leg, a woman garnishes her large breasts, and a man sets about consuming his penis. This focus on functionality, the idea that in a political society what someone does is who they are, and who they are is what they sell, brings Food to its thematic apex. Concepts of identity, whether grounded in ideology, or wealth, or functionality, are no more than a ruse (the man about to eat his penis, coyly hides the organ from the watchful eye of the camera, as if, somehow, this discretion can eliminate the truth of the act) and the hunger for self-control can only result in depletion. In Švankmajer’s world, stomachs open, faces distort, and limbs are replaced with wooden apparatuses that offer the appearance of humanity, all the while severing the flesh that built it. Where does this lead, and in an all-consuming society, which part will remain, the mouth or the stomach? What function is more essentially “human?” Does it matter? Doesn’t all food turn to shit?