Monday, 12 September 2011

Alice (1988)

Dir. Jan Svankmajer
Czechoslovakia-Switzerland-West Germany-UK

Note: At least with the UK DVD release, the original language version of the film is available, so don’t be put off if the English dub shown in this clip is off-putting.

What Is It?
A pretty faithful adaptation of the Lewis Carroll story Alice in Wonderland viewed through the eyes of surrealist animator Jan Svankmajer, who made his feature film debut after a few decades of acclaimed shorts.

Alice is almost a continuation from Jabberwocky (1971), which combined another Lewis Carroll work of the same name with Svankmajer’s perception of childhood, existing in the same universe as each other. Immediately from the start of the film, it is less a children’s film and more of a surrealist fantasy art film, where Wonderland is interpreted through corridors of a home and its habitants are stop motion creations made from bone, fur, thread etc. It also separates itself from many children’s films in that its child protagonist is not an idolised version of a child, innocent and yet aware of their surroundings, doing what they can to be kind to others. The Alice in this is a more accurate portrait of a young child, very naive and learning about the fantasy environment very slowly, more slowly than the viewer. Also in one scene, at least for myself, where she is trapped in the White Rabbit’s house made of toy bricks, she shows a selfish spitefulness without any malice where she does not follow the requests of others for the sake of it, a rarity in child characters in mainstream cinema.

For those who have not encountered Svankmajer’s work – and you really should, as they are not just for animation fans, but for any film viewer - his work is distinctive in that the man-made aspect of his animation (and even the positioning of real people as actors) and their textures are upfront and as much part of the films as everything else in them. His stop-motion, and surrealistic flourishes, are usually created using everyday objects both man-made (paper, tools and utensils etc.) and natural objects that are manipulated by human beings (stones, taxidermy animals and bones); he has worked with paper animation and puppetry as well amongst other things, but the emphasis on the materials, and their textures and appearances, is still apparent. (Both these styles appear in Alice as well, and are completely inseparable from everything else). Every scene feels like it has by crafted by someone’s own hands, with the flaws of manipulating and moulding everything into place as much part of generating the atmosphere of his work, be it a short or feature film work.

In the context of other adaptations of Carroll’s story, Svankmajer’s style looks far more ‘creepy’ and ‘unsettling’ compared to something like Disney's, an aspect which is purposely emphasised by having such images as loaves of bread suddenly spurting nails from inside them or the White Rabbit continually losing sawdust from the gaping tear in his chest. However the style is able to go from this to charming and humorous as well, the later a definite part of many of the director’s other work even if its black humour. For its source material it is perfect, adding to the adult sense of whimsy which appears in the original story (which, as well as being a surreal fantasy, satirised attitudes of the British culture of that period, as seen when Alice is put on trial by the King and Queen of Hearts). As an interpretation of childhood, it is just as good, enforced by the use of old style toys that look Victorian at times in appearances. A universal nature in Jan Svankmajer’s work can be seen in the fact that these everyday items are ones that viewers probably possessed or know of greatly – owned by themselves or relatives, found in their attics, or even found on car boot sales and in antique stores – regardless of their country of origin. Svankmajer is also an imaginative filmmaker who, as a practicing Surrealist who works in other mediums as well as cinema, has a keen eye for inspired contrasts and juxtapositions. How fitting is it that the portals to Wonderland and between each part are desk’s drawers, part of a piece of furniture stories like this would be planned and written upon?

Sadly Svankmajer’s other feature work after Alice have been hard to find in the United Kingdom, but having seen Conspirators of Pleasure (1996) and Little Otik (2000) he has affectively taken all of his obsessions from his short work and combined them into longer form narratives that show the craft of a talented veteran filmmaker. Also worthy of praise, especially with Alice, is Welsh film producer Keith Griffiths who helped this film, and other Svankmajer works, to be made. I ask of you the reader to look at his IMDB page, which I will provide in this post, and look at his producer credits. Even though I have disliked or hated some of the films he has produced, Griffiths has contributed to cinema in general immensely, helping such filmmakers aside from Svankmajer like Chris Petit, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and the Quay Brothers (who are huge admirers of Svankmajer and made a short work in tribute to him) to make interesting and unique works. Having Alice and Conspirators of Pleasure in one’s producer credits is worth applauding, but Griffiths’ is even more incredible than this.

Alice is not my favourite Svankmajer feature (that would be Conspirators of Pleasure) let alone out of all of his filmography, but it is a great achievement, a fantastical and surreal work which matches its subject material like a hand to a glove. The film was finally released on UK DVD this year thanks to the British Film Institution, part of a sudden surge of interest in Alice in Wonderland in cinema that started in 2010. Hopefully his other feature films will be made available, but this by itself was worth the wait for me.

Keith Griffiths’ IMDB Page -