Dir. Jan Svankmajer
Film #13, of Saturday 13th October, for Halloween 31 For 31
With this Czech director Jan Svankmajer makes his third mark on the blog, making him an immediate candidate for a Hall of Fame or Mount Olympus of the Region Incognito site. Adapted from s Czech fairytale called Otesánek, this is an odd choice at first to include in a Halloween festival were it not for the fact that, as with a lot of fairytales themselves, its macabre take on childbirth and human attitudes is equal to the nasty interpretations horror stories make of reality. The husband of a childless couple digs up a tree root that vaguely looks like a child and presents it to his wife as a gift, only for her to start treating it as an actual child. The tree log, dubbed Otik, becomes a living being, but is constantly hungry to the point that it starts eating other living beings within the apartment the couple lives in.
This, on another viewing, is probably not recommended viewing for expecting or pregnant mothers and possible readers of this blog and in hindsight may have a different effect on female viewers than to male ones. Otik is transformed into a literal child – its movements at first created from pieces of wood of certain shapes connected together like building blocks to ‘animate’ him, later through puppetry and costumes made from wood – but also a manifestation of both chaos and the id to just consume anything without ever feeling full. Pot after pot of baby food, meat, maybe even a postman, Svankmakjer plays up the horrifying nature of childbirth and how parents have to look after babies. The daughter of a neighbouring family in the apartment Alžbětka, who studies textbooks on sexual dysfunction hidden under the covers of fairytale stories, is obsessed with the concept of childbirth and having a friend to play with, making her a main character throughout the film when the peculiar Otik catches her attention.
The film tackles serious adult issues in its blackly humoured tone, and as with Svankmajer’s other work as a proclaimed Surrealist creator, he does not hold back in terms of content, invoking implied cannibalism, matricide and patricide, and following on after the Tokyo Zombie (2005) review, an old man who ogles Alžbětka from afar and is called a ‘paedophile’ by her at one point. Unlike Tokyo Zombie, Svankmajer’s take on such a controversial subject, like the rest of his work, is barbed and forces you to think about it as it is depicted in such a confrontational way through the animator’s mind. The film is as much about the apparent ‘normality’ of the people living around Otik as it is the wooden child, Alžbětka’s mother constantly afraid of the outside world because of news stories on the television, and her father drinking constantly and sitting in front of said TV as biased ads for meat steaks say that their competition’s product is ‘full of worms’. The absurdity of human life, and the most sacred in childbirth and childrearing, is upfront as Otik’s hunger is more insatiable and he starts growing in size. That the original fairytale is told during the film, in beautiful two dimensional animation, and reveals what the ending will turn out to be signifies this; as with almost all adaptations of stories, it will stay the same but it’s how they go to it which is of more importance.
As is the case with Svankmajer, the animation and puppetry effects are a masterclass and a deep creative well of images and ideas. Using wood and tree matter extensively, his trademark of using textured material is emphasised in a character in Otik, who is a living, almost sweet, creation, but is also unbelievably alien and off-putting at the same time, constantly crying for food, and gesticulating and spasming with its branch limbs and ever changing mouth with teeth and a single eyeball within it to glace at its next meal. This film also puts one of Svankmajer’s most obsessed about topics, food and the act of eating, within the centre of a feature work. His cinema is a food – cinema of goulash, cinema of stew, cinema of soup, cinema of meat and vegetables – but while the food is lovingly rendered on screen in close ups, likely to cause the viewer (like myself) to hunger for Svankmajer’s interpretations of such dishes to be available in their kitchen, said close-ups also make their liquid-solid, sauce rich matter disgusting as well or too rich for the eyes and thoughts you have of them to handle let alone the stomach. It reminds me as I write of what Vincent Price’s character in The Fall of the House of Usher (1960) (Review Here) must have felt when he could only consume the most plain of substances. In such detail, and with soundtracks full of slurping, crunching and the sound of the human gullet and mouth chewing and ingesting food, it both reveals in the concept of eating but sees (and feels) how disquietingly strange such a primal concept (to nourish oneself) is. While I may have brought this up in another review of his work, Svankmajer’s history of dietary problems as a child, and the attempts to correct it by his parents and doctors, is a piece of autobiographical information that explains so much about this obsession. Otik consumes for the sake of food, not just as sustenance, but of the concept of consuming any other matter for whatever metaphorical reason, without desires of normal morality and codes of the people in the apartment block have, but just to fill its little wooden belly. Eating as an aggressive act, as in most of his films especially the 1992 short Food, but also admitting how meat, sauce, dumplings and creams are all as much surrealist materials to play with as Salvador Dalí put boiled beans in his paintings or was inspired to create his famous melting clock motifs from melting Camembert cheese. Bread shoes, lobster telephones, the Surrealists played with the motifs of food, but Svankmajer would also subvert the concept of eating itself as well amongst the other thought lines and interests in his work, existing in most of his short and feature work but directly part of Little Otik.
The availability of the film is problematic in the United Kingdom. Most of his cinematic output has been thankfully put on DVD on some point or another, this year especially thanks to New Wave Films, but if it can be located by you the reader, including non-British readers, in some way it is quite a good start into Svanmajer’s work, balancing his live action filmmaking with animation, with a story that is dark and adult but has a clear narrative through its fairytale origins that eases new viewers into it. It is certainly a film that suits the Halloween season more than some actual horror films, its gruesomeness at times undercut by prompts to question and learn from the gristly eating onscreen. Even if he believes in pure imagination as the most important tool of creating his work, Jan Svankmajer especially in his feature work always leaves critiques and distortions of conventional society throughout them, prodding one to question its validity against the animated creations of wood, bone, toys and even meat and preserved animal parts, that have been given as much life on-screen as the puppet-like actors.
[Note: My apology for the pop-up that appears in at the start of the trailer. Thankfully it does not disrupt the rest of it.]