Monday, 18 January 2010

Alice (1988), Jan Svankmajer

(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


  1. Oh, didn't expect a negative review here. I was to watch a bunch of Svankmajer's films once, but, somehow, that project got canceled. I really liked American McGee's distortion of Alice in his game. From your wonderful review, ti seems like I just might end up liking this one too.


  2. I've never heard of American McGee nor the game. I'll have to investigate.

    Of Svankmajer's films I liked his short 'Darkness, Light, Darkness' the best - a razor-sharp allegory of life under Communist rule.

  3. Really enjoyed reading this piece. I actually didn't finish this film because I found its rhythms too frustrating - meant to return to it, but never got the chance. Now I'm looking forward to revisiting it in the near future. Svankmajer's fascinating even if he is obnoxious at times.

    But you summed up what I felt the film missed, at least on first (partial) view: "They lack agency of their own." This is something I never feel with the Quays where the figurines move with a poetic, dreamlike intensity that seems to rise organically from their very being. As for Lewis Carroll, I don't think of those books as creepy so much as forthrightly, almost cheerfully irrational. I like 'em.

  4. Thanks MovieMan.

    I think I felt the same about its "frustrating" rhythms. You're right too about Carroll's books being "cheerfully irrational"

    Thank you also for the Quays brothers recommendation. I thought they were live action directors because I'd only heard of them in connection with 'Institute Benjamenta' (which I haven't seen).

    I looked around and of what I could find I particularly liked 'The Comb', which I may yet write about.

  5. I saw this one quite awhile ago, and, despite it being different than the Disney etc.......well, except for WC Fields playing the egg in the 1933 version, that's what I remember most out of all of them.

    And the Brothers Quay = magnificent!


  6. I haven't seen that version Coffee Messiah.

    I fear Tim Burton's Alice will be another of his gothic styled fancy dress parties. Svankmajer's had potential that wasn't fulfilled.

  7. I don't have much affection for the original books either, but for completely different reasons ( I found the first half of the first book charming in the way it consistently challenged Aice's perception of the world, but felt it got just plain idiotic after the entrance of the Red Queen. And the second book was very light, with none of the zany brilliance of the first half of the first.

    Anyway, I really enjoyed this movie, even though I too was thinking about how Alie didn't care.
    I don't think it's about any emotional growth; to be sure, I can't say what it's about, but I felt that Alice's unresponsiveness was central to the idea.

    I've been reading H. P. Lovecraft, and what is remarkable that I don't find the objects of fear in his stories very scary at all. The extent to which I'm scared is the extent to which the narrator's voice (invariably first person) affects me. The objects of fear... intrigue me. It's as if the stories are about the irrational fear of the unknown and -- more importantly -- the worldview that is a part of, the same sort of thing that gives rise to racism and other forms of segregation (there's a moral dilemma involved in my grandstanding like this; my conclusion that it's about xenophobia is based on the assumption that I'm not, but I won't get into that).
    Anyway, similarly, Carroll's Alice overreacts.
    To some extent, I think it's about that.

    But it's also about plain sensationalism. Look, I made Alice in Wonderland creepy! I like it because I feel it works. I watched the whole movie with the sound turned up to just the point where it started hurting my ears a little bit. I was in a daze for a couple of hours after the movie.
    Somehow, I also enjoyed it because -- again -- of its portrayal of a worldview, one that can reduce something as inherently silly as Wonderland into this mechanistic nightmare.

    I also watched Light, Darkness, Light. How is it about communism? "Once you get yourself together, you don't have the space you need"?
    If that, how is it specifically about communism?

  8. Well, it's about how you afforded a small space in which you can only, whilst retaining freedom or legroom, be part of a person. If you are full-grown you are cramped.

    Oppressive regimes break you down and beat you down, suffocating your life.

    True, it could be about any oppressive regime. I think it is fair to say it is specifically about Communism because, as a Czech, he was living under Communist rule.

    Generally I don't see political allegory in things that I am told are, but this jumped out at me.

  9. I think that Alice works best when she is challenged to be grown-up or mature. When it gets silly, as you say, then she isn't challenged. She is already more mature than the silliness around her.

    I haven't read any H.P.Lovecraft, but the bits I've heard about, designs I've seen, have never impressed me.