Jan Svankmajer
Leonardo's Diary
Medium: short film
Year: 1972
Writer/director: Jan Svankmajer
Original creator: Leonardo da Vinci
Keywords: animation
Country: Czechoslovakia, Italy
Language: Czech
Format: 14 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0068844/
Website category: Foreign language
Review date: 1 June 2013
A lesser work of Svankmajer's. It's fun, it has a point and I quite like it, but its message is a simple one that could have been communicated in thirty seconds. It continues too long, then simply stops. It's just Svankmajer just playing around and being frivolous, really.
It's admiring and celebrating Leonardo da Vinci. Uniquely for Svankmajer, most of the animation here is traditionally hand-drawn on paper. There's a brief snippet of stop-motion animation with a pencil drawing a picture of a hand drawing a picture. Apart from that, though, you'd call this almost conventional if it weren't for the fact that what he's animating is the drawings from Leonardo's notebooks. This is awesome. The style and level of detail of Leonardo's originals spans a wide range, some drawings being sketchy ochre-coloured line scribbles, others being mathematical and/or anatomical constructions and still more being fully rendered, shaded pen-paintings that must have been an absolute pig to animate.
A lot of what's cool about this short is simply what's cool about Leonardo. The cannonball-eating ogre made me laugh. The cannon is unexpected, even though everyone knows that Leonardo loved that kind of scientific speculation.
The other half of the short film is constant intercutting of this animation with found footage. Svankmajer didn't shoot it specially. They're just random shots he got from newsreels or something. There's a lot of destruction and things falling over. They're whimsical, sometimes even amusing. I laughed at the men falling sideways in the bus, while the fat woman jumping in a sack race is shown to comedy music. Svankmajer's showing the real-life implications of Leonardo's ideas, although at the same time he's also being randomly silly and you never feel as if you're being hit over the head. Meaning is something you've got to tease out for yourself from all the visual noise. It's not explicit and nothing's being shoved down your throat. Now that's a true surrealist.
He hadn't even planned it this way. This had originally been going to be just an exercise in hand-drawn animation, but then at the last minute during editing he added found footage. To quote Svankmajer: "The contemporary situation imposed itself... reality itself invaded the film."
In short, it's a laugh. Fun, but not his most memorable. I like it and it's very rewatchable, but it's not going anywhere and you could edit it into almost any order and it wouldn't make much difference. That's what made me feel it went on a bit too long, on first viewing, plus of course Svankmajer's so proud of animating that impossibly detailed and shaded horseman battle that he overuses it. Sometimes Svankmajer can be repetitive.
The most surreal thing about this film by a million gob-smacking miles is that the communist authorities took offence and Svankmajer wasn't allowed to make anything else for seven years. The only thing he'd do in the following decade would be Castle of Otranto.
I think it's the three shots of people throwing stones in a street protest with clouds of smoke behind them and then the police dragging someone away. I can't think of anything else. However I hardly noticed those bits on first viewing, they're gone almost immediately and in any case it's all to comedy music with a tuba going "parp parp" and the important bit of the film being silly Leonardo animation. I had to rewatch the film to come up with that hypothesis. Or else, just maybe, those collapsing buildings hadn't been supposed to fall down like that and so putting them in this film was politically sensitive? No, I don't believe that.
Jaw-dropping. To think that the government threw a hissy fit at this, but had no problem with the lacerating subtext in The Garden or A Quiet Week in the House. You could hardly get more literal-minded or paralytically stupid.
The film's fun. You'll like it more and more with every viewing, by the way. It's rambling and overlong, yes, but that's only a problem when you first watch it. After that, you're just relishing the strange connections of Svankmajer's and Leonardo's brains. And it's all to music.