Monday, August 27, 2012

Alice (Svankmajer. 1988)

"Now you will see a film... made for children... perhaps..."


I know I shouldn’t admit this, but there have been some movies on the "1001" list that have left me speechless. Like with any other physical reaction to something, there are multiple levels at which a film can leave someone speechless. Consider a movie like Avatar, for example, that inspired so much in terms of human imagination that the audience never even had time to formulate words. They were, as they say, rendered speechless. Then we have a movie like No Countryfor Old Men which inspired a dumbfounded look of confusion, fulfillment and closure that combined to drop a figurative anvil on my ability to speak.  Those are two movies that undoubtedly impressed millions of people, so a speechless audience in this case is a great thing. Is it always a great thing? Because Alice left me without words. I cannot accurately describe its weirdness, nor can I clear-consciously write that I hated it. Because I didn’t. At least I don’t think I did. Like I said, I was speechless….

Jan Švankmajer is the writer and director of the aforementioned Alice. I recently looked up a picture of him on Wikipedia and I must say I expected him to look creepier than he does. I have made the observation that you can tell what kind of a movie a director will make by his/her physical appearance. I mean, look at George Lucas, Luis Buñuel or even Quentin Tarantino. These men LOOK like their art. Švankmajer looks like a normal guy. His art, based on my significantly tiny sample size, is anything but normal. 

Alice was Švankmajer first venture into feature length movies and he could not have made a more immediate statement. His screenplay is a free adaptation of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” that was meant to underline the real narrative in Carroll’s story. He did not like that other interpretations acted as if Alice’s story was a fairy tale with a moral to teach kids. He argued that Carroll was simply documenting a dream with no other motives. Or at least that is how I have had it explained to me. I should point out that when I was a child I read the “Alice” stories with great interest. I love surrealism and nonsensical narratives. Because of this, I was ready to love this movie. But there is something about it that makes it unlovable. That something may be difficult to pinpoint, but I personally attribute it to the animation. 

Do not get the wrong idea – I am not criticizing the animation in any way. It is pretty obvious that Švankmajer’s stop-motion-puppets and animated characters are the things that make Alice memorable. On top of documenting the darker imagery inherent with Švankmajer’s apparent style, the film also thrusts an audience into a slimy seeming half-animated world that is uncomfortable, random and inhabited by sock puppets and cartoons. The movement of these characters is smooth and vivid and the film itself is visually captivating. Sometimes, with examples being live pieces of raw meat and abundant cockroaches all over the floor, the movie toes the line of being disgusting. Even some of the central characters, like the caterpillar and the white rabbit, are scarringly unpleasant for the eyes. Everything is uneasy – except the animation style. It is a conflicting visual style that may be bolder and more original than it is entertaining. 

And maybe that is why Alice left me speechless. Very little actually happens in the film, but there certainly is a lot of action. I didn’t learn anything, but I didn’t hate watching it. I cannot hold down any concrete feelings about it because there isn’t anything concrete about it. The ideas and execution were all unseen in movies before and after Švankmajer made them reality. I would say he is a master filmmaker, but his work isn’t very much fun. He certainly is not a conventional director. I would never expect to see him make a blockbuster. I bet he likes it that way…

I will begrudgingly admit that, in this case, my letter grade does not hold much bearing. I watched the whole movie, uninterrupted and without distractions. I just, have no idea how to feel about it. Alice is impressive to look at, but impossible to pigeonhole. It belongs in a museum with other movies of its kind. Maybe it and Heaven and Earth Magic should get together for drinks…

Alice: B

1 comment:

  1. Alice (1988), directed by Jan Svankmajer.
    This psychoanalytically inclined visually uncompromising detail-study of repetitive structures of fantasy features metaphors of size highly relevant in our consumerist Western society, while engaging the Victorian esthetics of mechanical precision and conservation of sensual experiences. Objects appear in a metonymical relationship to the body consciousness as excisions from the unifying reflection, thus overtaking the entire field of awareness. Fragmentation of consciousness is depicted through the object-subject analogies such as: porcelain doll- curios girl-child, voracious rodent- favorite stuffed toy, locked drawer- the unconscious, key that opens the locks-sexual awakening, cakes decorated with peeled almonds-earthly pleasures transforming the self-perception of the girl. The refined directorial vision with precise points of reference and grotesque staging of automatons and mechanical toys inhabiting and escaping child’s fantasy of an abstract order ruling the life outside her enclosed existence, lend the uncanny beauty to this highly imaginative adaptation of the Lewis Carroll’s 1865 classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.