[Editor’s note: These notes on Manly Games emerged from an assignment given to students of B. Ruby Rich’s “EyeCandy” class at the University of California Santa Cruz.]
Czech animator and puppeteer Jan Svankmajer has a gift for the grotesque, particularly as it reveals the nature of humans. In a 14-minute short about a blissfully unaware, self-indulging soccer fan, Svankmajer displays the wide gulf between spectator and spectacle, and enjoys a keen joke in bridging the gap.
At approximately ten minutes into Manly Games, a 1988 claymation, live action, and collage short, we hear the clinking of bottles within an apartment as a man watches a soccer game. But another game is taking place that he’s oddly unaware of: The soccer players break the fourth wall, kicking their ball into bathroom sink of his home. While onscreen, fans of yore burst onto a field surrounded by game-day smoke, the man continues consuming beer with his eyes fixed forward. Unbeknownst to him, the soccer players scurry into his house and continue murdering each other with household items as they shuffle around the soccer ball maniacally to a festive polka football anthem. As the athletes die, they are casually placed in coffins colored and patterned to match their uniforms. Of course, the dedicated spectator doesn’t take his eyes off of the television, and even works to adjust his picture quality as the events are unfolding right behind him. When he sits back down in his seat, he smashes a soccer player’s face, unknowingly, and quite comedically, adding to the death toll.
Curiously, we see that all of the players have the same face as the spectator. Are they a projection of his onto the screen? Their placement within color-matched coffins seals their fate and suggests the unaware fan’s sentiment toward them: These are soccer players and they will die soccer players. In this case, they will die soccer players in his own home and the sound of nailing in their coffins will irritate him as he tries to finish his drink and close out the game. When he rises at game’s end, he encounters the mess left on his seat, a soccer player’s flattened face, one eye open, eerily, comically, blinking its way back to life. He had a chance to end the violence, but couldn’t take his eyes off the screen. Instead, the games begin anew as he exits the apartment, ball in hand.