Saturday 10 December 2022


The Real Surreal

If you wanted a central image to separate this ’Alice’, by Surrealist Czech animator Jan Svankmajer, from more standard adaptations, take a central one – the White Rabbit himself. Rabbits can lend themselves to cuteness, they’re sometimes given to children as pets. But this is quite pointedly a stuffed rabbit, a taxidermy exhibit, with frequent references to its spilling sawdust innards and regular close-ups of its sharp chomping teeth.

It’s too easy to contrast him against the fluffy Disney version, so let’s instead use the gentleman in fur of Tenniel’s original illustration. This version isn’t something I’d be following down any holes, looking more like something more from an anxiety dream than Wonderland. (A word notably missing from Svankmajer’s title.) We might want to ask, where would such a critter come from?

If Svankmajer was a Surrealist, Lewis Carroll was often cited by that movement as a precursor. He was name-checked by Breton, the movement’s self-appointed Pope; made the subject of a 1931 essay by Louis Aragon; his Alice was twice painted by Max Ernst (if not terribly recognisably), and Carroll’s own drawings were even included in their 1936 New York exhibition. 

But were they finding a fellow traveller or press-ganging him into their service? To me the best take on ’Alice’ remains Mark Fisher’s. Beneath all the clean pinafores and innocence of youth lies an absurdist work, “the precursor of Kafka”. Which is precisely why it appeals to children...

“There is the feeling that Wonderland is Alice's world alone, yet she has no place in it. She is always late, in the way, misunderstanding what ought to be obvious… The adult world as seen by children is, precisely, a Nonsense world, incomprehensibly inconsistent, arbitrary and authoritarian, full of bizarre rituals.”

It’s vital, I think, to understand that at least the majority of the characters she encounters are stand-in adults. While the ever-analysed White Rabbit doesn’t really stand for any thing, not even Alice’s curiosity. The whole point of him is that he can’t be caught up with. Forever just out of reach, the elusive nature of answers.

And Absurdist isn’t the same thing as Surreal. A Surrealist Wonderland would be thrilling and transformative but also dangerous and destructive. While Carroll’s is ultimately confounding, sinister and incomprehensible. And this brings risk of appropriation. The same way the later hippie generation appropriated Alice into a reductive metaphor for drugs.

Wells famously stripped his film version of Kafka’s ’The Trial’ (1962) of any of the standard period detail. Similarly Svankmajer doesn’t de-Victorianise ’Alice’ so much as domesticate it down, strip it of any Technicolour Oz-like grandeur. For example, turning the famous fall down the rabbit hole into a descending lift. The majority of the film was shot in his own house.

Though there’s a bigger difference. The now-famous book Alice’s sister reads, as we all know, has no pictures or conversation in it. While the book Alice appears in is full to bursting with both. It’s stuffed with wordplay, while the film is (typically for Svankmajer) largely silent. But those visual symbols, occupy much the same place as words did for Carroll.

And much of Carroll’s approach is to treat nonsense consistently. If there is such a thing as Mock Turtle soup, it follows there must be a Mock Turtle to make it from. And the film follows similar lines. The White Rabbit is stuffed with sawdust, so when he eats he swallows more of the stuff.

A World Of Symbols

The film opens pretty much like the book - the summer’s day, the riverbank, the accompanying adult/older sister (it scarcely matters which), the book without pictures or illustration. The only addition is to show Alice diffidently tossing stones in the river, as if to alleviate her boredom. But then, when so many scenes from the book don’t make the screen, we get a Svankmajer invention - Alice effectively duplicating all this in her room. The toys and other items around her then become the cast list for the film. As Caryn James of the New York Times has said, it’s “a world of symbols come alive.”

Combined with which, throughout the film only Alice is played by an actor. Everyone and everything else is portrayed by puppetry or stop-motion. Plus, while the book is written in the third person, she narrates the film. As she also provides the dialogue, she’s both omnipotent narrator and lost intruder. And she makes little attempt to provide voices for others, they simply speak with her voice.

All of which is like child’s play, an attempt to make sense of the wilder world using toys as diminutive props. Alice spies on the bizarre happenings, but her face is stoic. Which upholds the central irony, that this world is made by Alice’s imagination yet she remains uncomprehending of it. Basic functions, such as opening drawers, work for other characters but not her. That deadpan scrutinising look, the “what can this be about”, is familiar to anyone who has ever dealt with children.

That emphasis on drawers, often using them as portals, may be because adults often try to keep children out of them, storing not-for-play objects in them. (One is shown containing scissors).

We’ve seen before two Surrealist devices as least as common as dreams, both of which come up here. One’s the single often-youthful explorer of a huge, multi-roomed house, as in the painting of Dorothea Tanning. The other’s the charged object. Which simply animates well.

Child animism is, at root, the presumption that all objects have their own life. And behind much of Svankmajer is an audaciously simple idea, that stop-motion animation is a perfect means to convey this. You can even take the object the child sees and bring it to life, or at least a kind of life. How easily an old sock and some false teeth can turn into a Caterpillar! What often seem the medium’s limitations, its jerky quality, its sense of animate unreality, suddenly transform into advantages.

‘Uncanny valley’ is used to describe the awkward interchange between cartoony symbols and realism, between a smiley face and a photo-realist portrait. And there’s something equally neither/nor at work here. It all seems to slip and slide, elude any categories we try to give it.

Much has been written about how CGI ‘smoothness’ is the special effect of neoliberalism, a spectacle which creates a disjunction between ‘realism’ and the real. In such an era, to see extemporising being foregrounded, pointedly showing false teeth attaching to a sock to make up a Caterpillar like giving away a magic trick, feels like being a thirsty person who’s fallen on water.

One of the more ambiguous cases for the child, and interestingly one we tend to push on them, is automata. Things that move, surely they must live. And both the Mad Hatter and March Hare are portrayed by automata. One has a wind-up key in his back, the other very visible strings. Their repetitive chatter and behaviour becomes like the stock dialogue of wind-up toys.

But unlike most adaptations this isn’t aimed at children. (Alice even makes a gag of this in her introduction.) Which raises the question, if this is all about child perspective, why tell us? When we mostly gave up on socks being sentient a while ago. The answer’s in something else Alice tells us in her introduction - “Close your eyes, otherwise you won’t see anything”.

Like many Surrealist phrases, this might seem an invitation to dream, dream dream your days away. But these dreams are not sweet. It’s more an injunction to close our eyes against the things we have decided we know, to shut out the consensus reality we have built. Svankmajer has said his practice was to keep hold of the way he saw the world when he was seven. (We already looked at his earlier short ‘The Flat’, which has a similar character-vs-objects duality yet with an adult protagonist.)

The Three Alices 

But at the same time as a look back to child psychology this a film about the changes brought by adolescence. Alice doesn’t just change size, she’s always awkwardly the wrong size for her world, too big or too small. (Though some of this occurs in the book I don’t think it was Carroll’s original intention.)

If we say many images are sexually suggestive, we don’t need to find too precise analogies. The soon-pierced clingfilm lid of the jam jar could represent a hymen, for example. But the drawing pin then found in the jam just conveys the general sense that sex is ‘dangerous’. After all, you suggest to get away from saying. (Needless to say, when the actor is a child this skirts dodgy territory. But overall it stays the right side of the line.)

Perhaps as one way of reconciling these themes, the size-shifting makes Alice seem almost three different characters – Regular Alice, Big Alice and Little Alice. This last one is (in another Svankmajer invention) represented by a doll and is most integrated into Wonderland, obeying the White Rabbit which Regular Alice chases. Unlike Little Alice, the existence of Regular Alice is forever contingent, yet in this strange world has nothing to pin that contingency on.

Big Alice is stuck in a room (see up top), but in a narrative flip then defends it against a siege by the White Rabbit and assorted creatures of Wonderland. It’s as if it’s become her body, which she safeguards against violation. When she’s attacked the imagery strongly suggests sexual assault, skull teeth tugging at her skirt.

”Say What You’re Supposed To Say” 

Carroll refers to his lead’s “good-natured anxiety”. And accounts of the film often refer to Alice’s passivity, how she wanders a world she finds no way to engage with. Yet this disregards Big Alice, and the final trial scene where Regular Alice effectively transforms into Big Alice. While other scenes see bigger changes, the changes made here seem most significant.

In the book it’s the Knave who’s placed on trial. But the focus is more on the absurd and chaotic nature of the proceedings. It’s a trial run by those with no notion of how a trial runs, and no intention of admitting it, so such details become ambiguous. Alice starts growing inadvertently, which gives her the gumption to challenge proceedings.

In the film it’s her who’s the accused, with the whole trial based around nailing her, the jury essentially a jeering mob. Literally given a script to read (an admission and plea for mercy) and told “say what you’re supposed to say” she refuses, and mocks the court by eating one of the tarts, the very thing she’s accused of. She adopts a cheeky grim, as familiar on a child’s face as the deadpan curiosity, yet the first time we see it. She shakes her head and in that motion briefly becomes the creatures of Wonderland, as if she’s come to realise where they’re from.

In this scene everything is brought to a head, which turns out to be her head. She overcomes Wonderland by realising, at the very same time it’s been a strange and foreign world, it has been part of her all along. Her very last line, about cutting the White Rabbit’s head off next time, suggests the old Alice who hopelessly followed him is gone, that her adventures have crowned her the Queen of her own imagination. That’s Surreal, that is.

Much of Svankmajer’s appeal is that he isn’t a modern film-maker who’s been influenced by Surrealism, he’s simply a Surrealist artist. And if he could make a film as fully Surrealist as this in the Eighties, surely someone could make one now. (Okay the accursed marketisation of film funding works against this. But that’s an external constraint, not a creative one. It’s not impossible for an artist today to think as a Surrealist, the way it would be with say a Constructivist.)

And Surrealist versions of Alice always work best when transforming the original explicitly. There’s a reason, after all, adaptations are called adaptations, not transpositions. If we wanted to get back to the book we could just read the book. The original Czech title was ’Something From Alice’, stating quite explicitly it was never intended as a straightforward adaptation from page to screen. 

But the last thing it does is take an innocent Victorian children's tale and messes with its skirts. It would be truer to say it takes a dark Absurdist drama and finds it a happy ending.

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