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GOCRITIC! Animest 2023

GoCritic! Feature: The Corruption of Rationality - Marta Pajek's Retrospective at Animest


- The acclaimed Polish animator enjoyed a retrospective at Animest and held a masterclass. Is interpretation always necessary and can it harm the perception of a work of art?

GoCritic! Feature: The Corruption of Rationality - Marta Pajek's Retrospective at Animest
Impossible Figures and Other Stories Part II

In aesthetic forms, interpretation can often be counterproductive to the process of understanding. An idea epitomised by the hand-drawn work of acclaimed Polish animator Marta Pajek, whose films don’t conform to conventional perceptual pathways expected of a cinema viewer trained — even brainwashed — in the ways of neatly fashioned linearity and logical reasoning. Frustration from all sides filled the room at the Q&A session for her retrospective screening at the 18th edition of the Animest Bucharest International Animation Film Festival, where audiences asked question after question about the meaning of one symbol or another, or craved the confirmation of their interpretation. With Pajek gently refusing to confirm a single one, the entire encounter begs the question: Why must we always try to interpret?

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Her student film screened at the festival, After Apples (2004), shows signs of what was to mature in her later work. Combining the themes of sleep, the metaphysical, and moving beyond the rational in the film’s short runtime, Pajek places the characters, environment, and audience into a state of hyper-anxiety. With naturalism disposed of entirely, the animated space is gripped with a feeling of otherworldly possession as objects rattle to the tune of industrial noises. The film immediately defies the immediate habit of interpretation upon viewing, yet is not so completely inaccessible that any understanding of the piece at all would be a stretch of the imagination.

Pajek’s unique style can, in fact, be explained — and by the filmmaker herself. As elaborated during her masterclass at Animest, Pajek’s Part II of the Impossible Figures and Other Stories triptych draws from a dream she had about a woman “carrying an egg”, where her “palm is still slippery; the egg is fragile” (pictured on top). She describes it dryly, careful not to betray too much. But the real curiosity is a viewer’s immediate jump to find semiotic meaning in the egg, something by which she refused to abide: “It was too much to me all limited to this concept of fertility, which I thought was interesting, but I didn’t feel that it was enough for me.”

In the oneiric Part II, the woman wanders through a house where the walls are lined with trippy tessellations, which Pajek mentioned draw from Japanese patterns. The patterns twist and transform — she says they act as a Greek choir — faces first turn into distorted naked bodies, then into hybrid formations that simultaneously resemble arteries or organs and vines or flowers. The rooms themselves constantly change perspective, the woman desperately trying not to drop or break the egg she is carrying. The filmmaker explained how she drew inspiration from an aquatint print by Francisco Goya titled The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, where a sleeping man is surrounded by various indistinct winged creatures. In his caption for the print, Goya notes "imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders”. Like in Pajek’s works, reason alone does not generate brilliance — similarly, reason alone is not the saviour of contemporary civilisation, as goes the Western narrative.

Impossible Figures and Other Stories Part III

The constant transmogrification amidst Part II’s setting is echoed in another one of her films, Sleepincord (2011), as well as Part III of Impossible Figures, in which a man and a woman sitting on chairs morph between, within, and in and out of each other. They grope each other as they contort in gruesome yet awesome ways, their bodies violated by bristly thistles and creeping vines that emerge from plants situated around them. Here, Pajek’s animations can be read as defiantly refusing the human versus nature Enlightenment dualism so deeply integrated into the root of rationality, where oneness of being is replaced by man’s mastery of nature for his own gain.

Part I is the most conventionally cogent of the three, the only one with spoken words and the more archetypically identifiable setting: a dystopic, lifeless city reeling from the aftermath of an explosion. In a voice-over, an old woman reflects on the state of the world, accompanied by architectural markers from a bygone past, with Pajek including meticulously referenced buildings from different eras, drawn to match the black-and-white line-drawn style. Later in the film, a woman sits holding a man in the ruins of a store, positioned together as if she were a bored, post-apocalyptic La Pietà clutching the ruins of humanity. In this urban wasteland, this image is a delightful perversion of the pristine iconography of the Enlightenment and High Renaissance. Blasphemy never felt so good.

Impossible Figures and Other Stories Part I

Even the order in which the trilogy was released, too, renounces conventions of linearity: Part II was the first to be released (2016), then Part III (2018), and finally, Part I (2021). The tripartite work takes inspiration from what are known as the impossible figures or impossible objects, the epitome of works that defy reason, the most well-known perhaps being the Penrose triangle or the early works of M.C. Escher. Drawn on paper, the figures appear to conform to rules of perspective, but they cannot physically be built in three dimensions. Thus falters the human mind, concocting a conundrum of epic proportions: what we take as true on paper cannot be real, what appears to be real on paper cannot be true. The eye instinctively interprets, trying to find meaning, just like we may see faces in inanimate objects.

Leaving a film without some sort of logical explanation tends to deeply unsettle modern viewers, but rationalising can even impair the viewing experience. It seems that this piece of writing too, is to be taken with a grain of salt, if it is thus to abide by its own imperative of refusing to rationalise. To analyse is to interpret, and, as such, is it possible for one to analyse while keeping in mind this objective of refusal? Perhaps it is to go beyond intellectualisation and into the emotional realm, presenting instead a phenomenological musing on Pajek’s work and its effects on the viewer’s corporeal experience without examining the film’s content directly. Or perhaps it is to instead be more experimental in form, presenting an erosion of the analytical feature structure entirely. Regardless, Pajek so beautifully points to our complacency in the cinematic experience and brutally disrupts it.

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