Monday, 18 January 2010
(Part of Animation Month)
I've never really liked Alice in Wonderland. I think I thought it all a bit silly and not at all wonderful. We're meant to be seduced by its creepy otherness but, even as a child, Lewis Carroll's fantasy world never seemed more than just a bit odd. Now Jan Svankmajer's Alice, now that's odd.
The caterpillar is a sock with false teeth and big bulbous glass eyes and the white rabbit snacks on sawdust (after all, you are what you eat). This world is different and populated with creatures and spaces and possessed implements dirty and strange. There's a hint of menace in the filthy walls, the crawling slabs of meat, the general carnival grotesquerie.
The only problem, and it is a big problem, is that Alice doesn't seem menaced. She doesn't look sufficiently gob-smacked or scared by what she sees. She always has a measure of control. She herself frames her adventures within a story. "Now you will see a film," she begins. She voices each of the characters herself. Time and again we see her lips in close up mouthing "said the white rabbit" or some such. Her struggles are a narration first and a true participation second. What is Wonderland without her?
She goes down the rabbit hole (here it's a particularly capacious drawer) more willingly still than in the book, even magicking herself into a pre-rabbit hole waiting room where the stuffed rabbit makes his appearance smashing his way out of a display case.
The King and Queen of hearts are flat cards, the Mad Hatter a puppet (a puppet of a puppet, of course) and the March Hare a wind-up toy. They lack agency of their own. Whatever the sly metaphorical and philosophical points one could make about Svankmajer's artistic choices the simple fact remains that the tea party has the stilted energy of a museum piece.
Alice has too much life for this Wonderland. This realm is not a crucible for the growth of a pubertal girl into full maturity in the way the bath-house was in Spirited Away. Sometimes she is too big or too small physically (to show that she is in-between, neither girl nor woman) but do we ever see her as too big or too small emotionally? There are intimations of a subterranean fear - the horrible plaster chrysalis she breaks out of, or the skeletons that speak of death or the death of something - but, all in all, she takes things in her stride. She is creator, storyteller and, more than need be, heroine as bystander.
The figures of menace and wonder quickly become ludicrous. They are neither terrifying nor magical. Svankmajer pulls a multitude of jerky and unconvincing mechanical tricks out of the box. It is a tantrum of manic inventiveness that only sporadically amounts to a story that you can get your (false) teeth into.
I'm afraid I still don't like Alice in Wonderland