Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Alice (Jan Švankmajer, 1988) Blu-Ray Review

Lewis Carroll's text gets a surreally grotesque makeover in Švankmajer's classic Alice (1988)

There have been so many adaptations of Lewis Carroll's classic 1865 novel Alice's Adventures In Wonderland that it's now hard knowing where to start. Disney have attempted it twice, with their latest re-imagination of the text being helmed by Tim Burton (2010), who grossly misused the platform to showcase his brand of deformed gardens and retrofitted 3D tomfoolery. But the definitive screen Alice belongs not in adaptation but interpretation; from the language of Surrealism and dream-weaving. Czech auteur Jan Švankmajer is a leader of experimental cinema (Buñuel also casts his eccentric shadow over this tale, especially in the sock-puppet caterpillar scene) and as such Carroll's story finds its own cinematic identity. In fact, Alice has more in common with that other Czech masterwork about female identity in a land of perilous fantasy; Jaromil Jires' Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders (1970). Švankmajer's tale is vitally not about sexuality though; more growing pains and the exasperating complexity of adolescence, both physical and psychological. Think of the way Alice keeps resizing for example; shrinking and sprouting like a youthful flower, confused in her own skin. That's why the classic Bible verse, Corinthians 13 (For now we see through a glass, darkly), hangs somewhat visibly over the story, no doubt directly influencing the title of Carroll's 1971 sequel, Through The Looking Glass.

Švankmajer has stated that children are "better understood by paedophiliacs than by paedogogues" and that he's interested not in psychoanalytical categorization but rather a direct "dialogue" with his own childhood; "all its particular obsessions and anxieties." Certainly, despite its advanced artistry, Alice feels like the work of a man who has not left childhood behind, but rather retained, or perhaps even found its true spirit in later life. He has carefully selected ideas and characters from Carroll's text (noticeably absent is The Mock Turtle and Cheshire Cat) and formed his own narrative; like rearranging the intended image of a jigsaw to make an abstract artwork devised but not wholly recreated from the existing pieces, designed to interlock in a much more specific fashion. Without compromising the artwork of Sir John Tenniel (who is frequently a reference point) Švankmajer has crafted something completely unique; something which is magical yet spiked with an uncompromisingly nightmarish visual code - check out the pots of jam laced with pins, for example, or the lip-smacking croissant which deliriously protrudes nails upon Alice's touch. The "alarmingly magnified" (Claire Kitson) sound design helps too, and along with the photography lends the story a purely visceral quality which simply can't be achieved by novelization.

The tone is established during the first trip around Alice's room. Creepy porcelain dolls and discarded teddies populate the dulled chamber; messy and cluttered, it also exhibits a white rabbit. He is not alive, skipping around a hutch in search of leftover carrot. Rather he seems to have been purchased from a taxidermist; motionless and cold, he is an eerie presence. The sequence where he comes back to life is strange to say the least. He rises from his pinned position (removing the nails from his paws with comically enlarged front teeth) and recovers a rather polished waistcoat from a secret hideaway in the glass case. He runs into the middle of a ploughing field to find, obscurely, an aged wooden desk, of the variety which you would find in a classroom. He hops inside and disappears. Alice chases him into the otherworld and throughout its corridors and chambers; most notably in the first shrinking scene where the room becomes flooded and a rat attempts to cook its broth upon her head. It's a bizarre moment, as is the brief scene of slithering red meat and the shelves of assorted skulls on an elevator descent, but they all create an unforgettable universe and confirm Švankmajer as a boldly individual talent.

My favorite scene is the house siege where Alice, innocently under the guise of a doll named Mary Ann, enters the White Rabbit's building-block establishment to recover a pair of scissors. Inside she grows back to normal size and, fearing for her safety, barricades the door. The Rabbit attempts to force his way in, eventually calling upon a nightmarish skeletal army, even including a winged bed, to drive her out. It's an exciting and freakish set-piece, and one of many which takes Carroll's story to bold new horizons. Whether our protagonist be floating down a beautiful stream or battling her own socks (no, I'm not kidding) Alice is always a film of wondrously grotesque imagery and compelling ideas; especially when the final scenes take on a scholarly mould, with the Queen's court operating like a classroom. Here Alice finds the ability to question and challenge authority, not wishing to condemn herself by a pre-written text. This is one of the only times that actress Kristýna Kohoutová engages in dialogue (her lips are focused on during narration) and she proves to be a very capable actress. But really it's her silence which proves effective; the language that kids speak with their eyes... not just a window to the soul, but also the imagination. Švankmajer's masterpiece has that in spades.

The Disc/Extras
This may be the best Blu-Ray transfer I've seen to date; the colour is dreamily absorbing and the detail of the environments, courtesy of art directors Jirí Bláha and Eva Svankmajerová, is astonishing - the early shots of Alice's room capture so much life, and the perilous wonderland she enters has specimen pots, peeling wallpaper, cabbage patches and sawdust-strewn floors which feel so authentic that you just want to reach out and touch them. The animation is brilliantly complemented by this transfer, as is the lighting, so you owe yourself a purchase even on a visual level. The BFI have done full justice to this now uncut classic, and truly set the restoration benchmark. The extras are hugely impressive too, as per usual led by an accompanying booklet, this time a 32-page collection of essays, reviews, profiles and an interview; all contextually fascinating and always flagging up new images to look for within the film. But best of all are a series of shorts, reviewed individually below...

Alice In Wonderland (Cecil M. Hepworth, Percy Stow, 1903)
British producer/director Cecil Hepworth was one of the leading pioneers of the early film age and Alice In Wonderland (pictured above) - although severely dated and in bad condition - showcases many of his ambitions and talents. Scenes of in-camera innovation are marred by period restrictions; for example, the appearance of the Cheshire Cat in a floating bubble impresses, but the fact that contained inside said bubble is an obviously bored household kitty lends the film an unintentional humour. The same goes for Hepworth himself who looks decidedly silly dressed as a giant frog in the opening scene. But those were the restrictions of the time and we shouldn't criticize the film too heavily in this regard. For Alice In Wonderland is also an essential cinematic document; originally running at 12 minutes, it was the longest film yet devised in Britain. The film is ambitious in its set/costume design too, with dozens of extras outfitted in playing card costumes filling the screen for the finale and the exteriors - especially the location of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party - complement Carroll's text perfectly. Most impressive of all are the techniques employed for Alice's famous resizing; as she shrinks and sprouts the camera remains focused and the (effective) special effects appear seamless. A flawed piece of work, but bold and indispensable nonetheless.

Elise And The Brown Bunny (London Press Exchange, 1921)
Carroll's classic fantasy proved an effective selling tool for Cadbury's in the 1920's, but this short film showcases yet another dodgy giant bunny (the one here is especially creepy when leading a little girl into the woods) and the advertising can feel a little heavy-handed, especially in the lingering last shot of a chocolate box. But this 8-minute commercial is actually more effective at selling Cadbury's as an advanced and accommodating working environment, highlighting the fact that they were a major employer of women. It's obviously dated, although cutely so, and provides another interesting document.

Alice In Label Land (Richard Taylor, 1974)
Essentially a government short about the correct labeling of food products, this odd little informational film is by turns surreal, comic and condescending; although period context is vital. Carroll's tale provides the perfect framework for this COI (Central Office of Information) film and the animation is actually pretty good - especially in the sequence of Alice falling down the rabbit hole and facing supermarket shelves of endless wonders. The film is obviously educational and therefore Alice spends much of the second half telling us where to look for labels on packaging and how much information the buyer should be properly provided with, but it's all done in a rather fun and colourful way, providing a cheerfully odd time capsule complete with a very 70's riff on the accompanying soundtrack.

Stille Nacht II: Are We Still Married? (Quay Brothers, 1992) / Stille Nacht IV: Can't Go Wrong Without You (Quay Brothers, 1993)
These two music videos were produced for the American band His Name Is Alive; a dreamy, almost shoegazing experimental rock project hailing from Michigan. These are by far my favorite extras on the disc. Sure, I'm a fan of the band and 'Can't Go Wrong Without You' is one of my favorite songs but these short films stand up on their own terms. Beautiful, haunted and visually striking, they're endlessly re-watchable visionary nightmares, the latter in particular having a rhythmic peculiarity that's hard to shake; at one point directly referencing Murnau's Nosferatu (1922). They've been sharpened up for the Blu-Ray transfer too, so three minutes really isn't long enough to get lost in their worlds. If only the Quay Brothers had directed an entire album...

This review is also part of the Cinema Strange series...

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