Everybody vested to a certain degree in the pastime of cinema has their favourite actors and directors; the fascinating part of which is discovering who influenced them. This is doubly true when one discovers the people who influenced such a staunch surrealist and outsider like Terry Gilliam, a fellow influence that can also be found in Jan Svankmajer, Wes Anderson and Tim Burton’s filmographies. Second Run’s release of a Jester’s Tale is one such film. Directed by visionary Czech director Karel Zeman and co-written by Pavel Juracek (Ikarie XB-1 and Daisies), A Jester’s Tale sees a ploughman press-ganged into service during the 30 year’s war.
As a piece of narrative, The Jester’s Tale is a garden variety adventure war film with the same basic beats and structure. Naturally for a film that has gone on to influence some of the most respected names of the day, there is more to it than its simple narrative. Karel Zeman has composed what has since been dubbed a ‘pseudo-historical film’. Humor plays a large role with the film being narrated by a Jester who “knows all history”, thus there is both an obvious sense of humour permeating throughout and a much darker, satirical heartbeat. The surface comedy is never deeper than pratfalls and slapstick but on the flipside Zeman and Juracek composed an anti-war satire which impressively manages to be cutting while never taking itself too seriously. As graceful and whimsical as this may be, it is still far from worthy of any aggrandized status.
As one could ascertain from the common thread found in those aforementioned names who found influence, it’s the incorporation of both live action and animation that sees Karel Zeman and his film become such an endearing ingredient of the Czech New Wave. Animation which falls into two firmly opposing camps, the lesser used of the two is the prop and scale work. While only animation in the literal sense of ‘animating the inanimate’, the sets have been prepared in such a way that they bend, fall and twist with the whims of the director. A prime example of how this works is late on when one of the core characters believes (in his drunken state) that his hiccups are causing the castle to crumble around him, its a bizarre but constantly gratifying presentation of such an old-world style of cinema comedy.
The second methodology is an issue of scale, in that is uses both traditional live action film and pop-up art later popularized by Gilliam’s fantasy work. Battle scenes, Gods and anything used to dictate scale is achieved with this style of anarchic and simple animation. It’s easy to see why this has been dubbed pseudo history as both the director and co-writer are having such chaotic fun at its expense, while only just managing to keep itself within the loose confines of a historical film. This style is sometimes as small as an avatar for the god of war blowing down battlements and people in the heat of battle to outright battle sequences making glorious fun out of the leaders and power players’ found at the side-lines. While far from the gallery of grotesques this style would later be used for, Zeman effectively blurs the lines between live action and animation – an achievement that has barely been recreated in the 60 years since A Jester’s Tale’s release.
As bland a story as this can be, the joy is all in the execution; with its wry sense of humour and a nonconformist ethic founded in inventive experimentation. The Czech new wave quite often a hyper-political movement and it was necessitated by the insecurities of the time but it’s in films like this and the co-writers impossibly hyper Daisies that this movement of intellectuals and alchemists found their undeniably singular voice. Editing, form, time and place are all tools in this wonderfully eccentric icon, outside of any new wave or movements its films like this that breathe life into tired genre and their conventions. To word it another way – The Jester’s Tale is insane, another fantastically entertaining oddity from the adventurous heads at Second Run.
A JESTER’S TALE IS OUT NOW ON SECOND RUN DVD