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The Forgotten: Jan Lenica's "Labyrinth" (1963)

A flying man fights for survival in the urban jungle of Jan Lenica's animated short "Labyrinth".
David Cairns
Labyrinth, by Polish graphic designer and animator Jan Lenica, is one of numerous disparate works of its period which looks like a direct inspiration for Terry Gilliam's Monty Python cut-out animations. There was a lot of this sort of thing around at the time. And, as is clear from this short, the collage form of surrealism can be dated back to Max Ernst's prints: crazy, absurd, deadpan, delirious and disturbing.
The opening scene, which uses fuller animation to show a bowler-hatted Victorian gent flying through the clouds in a kind of winged harness, does seem like a clear precursor to Brazil's flying knight fantasy sequences. But what follows is more peculiar still.
While following our dapper aviator as he ditches the wings and goes for a stroll in a city constructed from tinted and smudgy old photos, we start to linger on stray images and bits of weird action from other inhabitants of the metropolis: at a window, an old man's face collapses in on itself in a looped gurn, the toothless maw ingesting the nose and central face like a sinkhole; an ambulatory dinosaur skeleton roams the boulevards; a walrus steals the gossamer wings from a flying human head, and attempts to fly, hurling itself suicidally from a rooftop.
What this resembles, to me, is a nature documentary. It's the only place one might see this structure: following a few figures about, shaping their random encounters into story, picking up stray details in which the environment is more significant, momentarily, than the constructed plot. (If you take a BBC nature documentary and turn the color down, then turn the sound down, and play some Janacek or something, it becomes a lot like a scary Eastern European art animation.)
The only difference is that Lenica hasn't gone out and filmed reality and then shaped it in the edit, he's created the whole thing, an image at a time, a frame at a time. This whole thing has been poured out from his head onto the celluloid, fearlessly exposing his phobias and anxieties while turning them into funny paper monsters. But the dreamstuff is arranged as an urban ecosystem of incomprehensible mating rituals, lurking predators and the eternal fight for survival.
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay. 


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