Saturday, 30 April 2016

Alice (1988)

Director: Jan Švankmajer
Screenplay: Jan Švankmajer
Based on the original story by Lewis Carroll
Cast: Kristýna Kohoutová (as Alice)

Synopsis: Bored, Alice (Kohoutová) notices that the taxidermy rabbit in the room she is in starts to move in its glass case, putting on a jacket and hat, and then dashing off with his eye continually on the pocket watch he keeps in his sawdust filled chest. The journey that takes place, following him, leads Alice on a strange trip through corridors, rooms and various outdoor environments, encountering a sock puppet caterpillar, a tea party with a Mad Hatter and March Hare, a malicious and decapitation obsessed Queen of Hearts, and various objects not found in the normal world such as nails growing out of breads and drinking ink that shrinks a person.

As a card carrying, self proclaimed surrealist, it isn't a surprise that animator/director/puppeteer Jan Švankmajer eventually adapted Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) - a proto-surrealist work, Lewis Carroll's tale of a young girl named Alice is a series of absurd anecdotes, strange sights conjured in the mind, and limericks and verses where there is complete unpredictability in the world of Wonderland. Common objects are reinterpreted, puns are made and there's a logic of Wonderland's own that has entered common folklore. What's testament to Carroll's writing style is that when his work is toned down from the original text, a mainstream adaptation like the 1972 version with Peter Sellers as the March Hare is still incredibly strange to watch because of how Wonderland has to depicted in most adaptations. What's significant with Švankmajer's adaptation however - while very faithful to the text, down to little touches, barring some minor changes and pieces like the Mock Turtle segment being removed - is that it removes the tone of whimsy that is prevalent in the original story. The story's on the cusp of being mischievous, Alice quite a sarcastic if lovable and smart figure, a lot of whit in the extensive amount of dialogue and Alice's internal thoughts she has; Švankmajer strips most of the dialogue out and almost everything, including other characters' voices, is spoken by Alice herself in narration.   

The other factor is that Švankmajer is paradoxically a legitimate surrealist who yet depicts his worlds through a grounded reality using everyday objects and locations. He wanted to make what he felt was a far more accurate depiction of the story, not a fairy tale as others had but a dream, and this is both why this is one of the most faithful adaptations in existence and yet it is entirely his own take at the same time. He is the most tactile filmmaker ever to exist baring Stan Brakhage and a few others; even in his last film Surviving Life (Theory and Practice) (2010), with paper cut-outs, he sculpts his films with his own hands alongside other animators and technicians, using any object he could easily have acquired from a tool shed or an antique shop and bringing their own textures and history with them into his work to create lived in, unique environments.

As a result of this, the adaptation is not the fantastical Wonderland of most adaptations, that which is usually multicoloured and require elaborate costumes and painted sets. Instead Švankmajer's Wonderland is the cellars, corridors and gardens of everyday life, dust ridden cluttered, old wooden chairs and drawers given a new life as Alice enters Wonderland not through a rabbit hole but a study desk drawer lined with rulers and drawing utensils. Every figure Alice encounters has been built by objects remoulded by Švankmajer, many of which become far more grotesque as a result; the caterpillar is an actual sock with denture teeth and big glass eyes, the white rabbit spilling sawdust from his open chest cavity, and his friends who try to get an overgrown Alice out of his home a bizarre menagerie of constructions from animal bones and googly eyes. Ordinary objects in Švankmajer's world are inherently made new and alien even when they're un-tampered with physically - scissors in bulk collection in a drawer, the rabbit's home built from wooden blocks with a rabbit hutch interior of wire fencing, Švankmajer's obsession with eating and food depicted in elaborate detail  - creating a very tactile cinematic environment.


Technical Detail:
The animation - having spent two or so decades in his career making short films, including a take on the Carroll poem Jabberwocky (1971), before he decided to transition into making feature films - is exceptional from Švankmajer, but an important factor to his work is that not only are you sometimes asking how certain scenes were pulled off, amazed by the skill involved, but that anything obviously faked is part of the aesthetic choices. The obvious handcraft down to the animation's flaws is as much part of his films' worlds, such as the novel interpretation of Alice's constant growing and shrinking being depicted by her smaller self being a stop motion moved Victorian doll. The fragility of many of his creations, broken and remade, add to their life; that which evokes the possibilities of imagination when given only the long forgotten objects of an attic or an antique shop to work from.

Sound is also important to Švankmajer and easy to neglect with his films. The narration, thus making it easier for the English dub to exist and be added to the visuals, has an innately ghostly tone to it as well, particularly as repetition in dialogue alongside certain Wonderland behaviour is common. Sound effects in general are also as audio textual as the materials being sewn, chewed, broken or generally manipulated. Rather than the March Hare merely smearing "the best butter" on the cogs of a pocket watch, you hear the squelch of butter meeting clockwork in full detail. The awkward sounds of these stop motion creations as they come to life is neither ignored in the soundtrack, an entirely constructed world of each twitch or attempted movement of these beings is as important for an entirely constructed Wonderland; this as much as the intentionally weird moments such as a piglet going down a flight of stairs crying like a human baby are important to the film alongside its visual content.

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): High
Lewis Carroll's two Alice novels - Alice's Adventures In Wonderland and the neglected Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) - are canonical works of literary abstraction and absurdity, easy to understand and originally written by Carroll to amuse the real Alice Liddell, a young girl, but majestic in how strange they are, relishing bizarre verbal pins and digressions, arguments over insignificant details and incompetence in official figures alongside a heartfelt ode to childhood imagination. There are so many adaptations - from the silent era to Disney, Hollywood adaptations to seventies porn, an anime adaptation to a BBC adaptation where the creatures of Wonderland are depicted by actors without any costumes - that it's going to be a drastically sliding and varied scale of what each one will be like in terms of abstraction.

Jan Švankmajer's Alice is likely the most abstract adaptation and will be difficult to knock off the top of the list in this area. Not only is there faithfulness to the tone of the story, but the drastic change in terms of tone that counteracts this, that which is Švankmajer's own influence, adds to its odd mood perfectly and becomes, in being extremely different, a more faithful attitude to the material. In comparison to the Quay Brothers, who idolise him, Švankmajer does not share their dreamlike mood, entirely grounded in a reality even if it's strange to witness. In contrast to Walerian Borowczyk, who touched upon the same style of animation in his early career and kept the same fixation for objects and textures in his later live action films, they took on different ideological ideals even in how they used and sculpted objects even if they were both subversives; Borowczyk makes a biscuit box in the shape of a Bible in one film, Švankmajer would animate the biscuit box into a sentient creature or have it become a trap door to a whole manner of strange occupants, whilst Borowczyk was obsessed with performances from actors in contrast to Švankmajer turning his actors, including himself in cut-out form in the prologue of his last film, into objects as much as people to manipulate.

There is also a misanthropic vibe to Švankmajer's work, fitting a surrealist whose other literary adaptations have included Edgar Allen Poe and the Marquis de Sade, a more critical view of the world even next to someone like Borowczyk where anything can be twisted - like the jar of fruit jam which Alice discovers has drawing pins in it. With Alice, even though its suitable for children, it's intentionally jarring in look and tone to the innocent fantasy nature of most interpretations, where you can linger over screenshots and imagine every splinter in a chair leg or the loose threads of garments, the brittleness that undercuts the fantasy. His completely unhesitant attitude to depicting the original story's more black humoured material - the Queen of Heart's obsession with execution is made more grim because objects don't bleed when they're decapitated - adds a morbid humour even when not directly tackling obsessions like his like the repulsive, destructive nature of the act of eating.


Abstract Spectrum: Grotesque/Surreal/Weird
Abstract Traits: Object being brought to life; Stop Motion; Decapitation and Unexpected Violence; References to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (or Straight Up Adaptation of); Juxtapositions of Objects that are Strange Bedfellows; Verbal Puns; Taxidermy Animals; Animal Bones; Grotesque Depictions of Eating and Food;  

Personal Opinion:
As someone who only read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland only a few years ago, and instantly fell in love with it and its sequel story, my growing admiration of the story means that I've also developed an obsession with any other works which directly adapt it or reference it. Already a huge fan of Švankmajer's films before this, his take has grown to be even greater knowing its source material very well, to the point it is one of his best feature films if not the best work of his alongside a short like Dimensions of Dialogue (1982). It cannot be stressed enough how it manages to be Švankmajer's own creation yet the most faithful in terms of attitude to the material, only lacking the whimsy and replacing it with a world entire built from objects and textures that drags the viewer as much into Wonderland as Alice herself. 


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