Monday, September 24, 2012

Jan Švankmajer | Něco z Alenky (Alice)

drawers and doors
by Douglas Messerli
Jan Švankmajer (writer and director) Něco z Alenky (Alice) / 1988

The great Czech animator’s first full feature film, Alice, is not so much a retelling of Lewis Carroll’s beloved Alice in Wonderland as it is a kind of “riff” on Carroll’s work, or, to contextualize it more with the academic community, is a deconstruction of the original Alice. Indeed, the Czech title for the film means “Something from Alice,” suggesting that the work is a product of Alice’s creation as opposed to a hallucinatory tale which occurs to her. Throughout his film Švankmajer makes sure the viewer perceives that this is Alice’s tale, as he presents all the film’s dialogue (dubbed in the version I saw into English) through closeups of Alice’s lips as she speaks the words of The White Rabbit, The Mad Hatter, etc.

  The director’s vision loses something by not more fully playing up the bizarre narrative of the original, but gains a great deal through its theatrical reenactment of the basic elements of Carroll’s tale through stop-motion photography of dolls, puppets and other objects—even a slab of red meat—and his reversals of filmed scenes and quick transformations of the central character as she moves from a large human being to her doll-shaped imitation and even into another doll-encased self from which she eventually escapes but cutting away its outer wall, as if she were eating herself away from her own cocoon.

      This director’s Alice, far from being a genteel Victorian child of Carroll’s fantasies, is a rather bored, rock-throwing girl, determined even from the very first scenes to get into trouble. Švankmajer’s Alice (Kristýna Kohoutová), living in a derelict room filled with the detritus of not only her own childhood, but of  the mysterious family in which she lives, is surrounded by a world that, quite literally, is falling apart. A bit like Czechoslovakia itself under the Soviet rule, doors are in bad need of painting, walls veer up more like ancient images of decay, covered over with peeling wallpaper and layers of yellowing lace, than a world of Victorian protection.

      The moment the child’s taxidermically stuffed rabbit comes to life, escaping its glass case, Alice almost passively follows, determined, just like the always late rabbit, to escape her own role in the suffocating world in which she is also encased.

       Following the hare into a drawer of a decaying table, this animator’s Alice also finds herself descending into a kind of hole, a warehouse-like elevator, announcing each floor, as the child discovers herself among entire shelves of bottled up specimens—ancient animals, pharmacological substances, and jams (some of which of filled with nails and nettles). The magical underworld in which Alice finds herself is just as antiquated and outdated as the house in which she lives. Besides the issues of her shrinking and expanding size, Alice is faced time and again with obstacles of drawers and doors. As she attempts to open drawer after drawer, the handles come off in her hand, and she is forced to pry them open in various ways, through nimble manipulation of her fingers or using other devices. Some drawers contain only dangerous weapons, scissors, knives, etc.; other contains important keys or liquids which help her or hinder along her paths. Opening decaying door after door, with keys large and small, Alice is faced with numerous problems, including her inability to enter because of size or the fear of entering by shouts of “we’re full” and other threats.

      Locked away in a room where she almost drowns from her own tears, with a mouse staking territory upon her own head, she is freed only to become again locked away in a children’s playhouse like a giant caught in a Lilliputian world on the attack. At one point even socks become animated enemies, boring away holes in the very floor on which she stands. One of the socks, stealing an eye for itself and a pair of dentures, becomes Carroll’s famed Caterpillar. But the dance of his kindred brothers is more like a serpent kingdom which attempts to charm even her own stockings off her feet.

      Perhaps the most wonderful scene is Alice’s encounters with two marvelous puppet-toys, the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, as they move up and down the tea tables with the Mad Hatter calling out for clean cups while rewinding his friend up so that they might continue their meaningless conversations.

       The Red Queen, who demands their heads, is a playing card—quite literally, the Queen of a deck of cards and a card acting out her theater in front of various Victorian-like theater sets. This Alice has no idea what to say in the short trial which proceeds her own possible beheading.

       In short, Švankmajer’s world presents less of a fantastic pageant than a psychological playing out of the young girl’s own frustrated limitations, a girl caught in a glass case as surely as the White Rabbit had been in his. Upon “awakening,”  Alice discovers all of her beloved toys still surrounding her—except the Rabbit, whose case remains cracked open, the figure missing. So we cannot be certain whether she has merely had a horrible dream and suffered a “real” nightmare induced by her culture itself. If you see this film in a theater, leave the children at home. It’s hard to imagine them pondering the significant differences—and terrorizing consequences—of these two alternatives.

Los Angeles, September 23, 2012

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