Tuesday, July 1, 2008

alice, by jan svankmajer

Those of you who try to keep your eye on subcultures (or who have ever been inside a Hot Topic) may have noticed that there's a faction within the Goth subculture that embraces cute shit. There's something about the space where cute shit meets morbidity that creates a very fertile delta, that a lot of creators have been mining for over two decades now: think of Jhonen Vazquez's Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, or Roman Dirge's Lenore, or anything by Junko Mizuno. The King of Goth Cute, however—the only purveyor of the aesthetic to burst through to the mainstream—is Tim Burton, with his two animated films Corpse Bride (2005) and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) serving as canonical examples of the form. (The animation pedant in me has to mention that the actual director of Christmas is not Burton at all but rather animator Henry Selick, but Burton's involvement with the film is so thorough that he's generally considered to be the auteur at work there.)

In any case. This week Film Club looked at Jan Svankmajer's Alice, an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland created with a mix of live action and stop-motion animation. Certainly it is possible to do a fairly straight-up animated adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, something without any real taint of darkness, in a vein we might call "Straight Cute." (Disney's already done the definitive Straight Cute version, with their cel-animation Alice, back in 1951.) It is also, however, a story that seems ripe for a Goth Cute adaptation: girls are cute, but a lost girl is Goth Cute. Nor is it difficult to imagine Goth Cute stop-motion versions of any of the book's characters: whimsical, yet slightly creepy, the kind of thing that could be converted into a cool vinyl toy.

Svankmajer's adaptation is interested in the dark side of the story, no doubt. But don't go into this thinking that it's going to be cute. Svankmajer's version is from 1988, when Goth Cute, as a movement, basically doesn't exist. (Burton's Beetlejuice had just come out, Edward Scissorhands and Nightmare Before Christmas are still years away, and Jhonen Vasquez is 14 years old.) And Svankmajer is from Czechoslovokia, a country not exactly renowned for its cute export. (It's no Japan, let's put it that way.) Svankmajer's characters are creepy, but not exactly Cute creepy... here's his White Rabbit, for instance:

...which I'm fairly sure is just an actual dead rabbit with some kind of armature taxidermied inside it. Svankmajer highlights this with a pretty dramatic departure from Carroll's book, namely: the Rabbit makes its first appearance uprooting himself from a specimen case.

If you look closely at the second screencap there you'll see the nails in his paws, which he has to literally pull out with his teeth:

So... yeah. That's not the only time Svankmajer uses some kind of taxidermied thing to stand in for a character...

(The animation pedant in me again has to speak up and point out that the use of dead things are actually part of the tradition when it comes to stop-motion, dating all the way back to pioneer Ladislas Starevich, who is animating dead beetles way back in 1908. Check out the elaborate and strange narrative The Cameraman's Revenge (1912), available for viewing at UBUWeb.)

Even Alice herself isn't really "cute," as such. She's actually got a fairly severe, determined-looking face:

...which is a good match for the fairly severe, determined-looking doll that she turns into when she eats the transfiguring tarts (again, not particularly cute).

And I don't even really know what to say about this:

So, as far as Alice adaptations or hypothetical Alice adaptations go, this one is reasonably grim and disturbing. The production design helps with this: everything is dark, and nearly everything is filthy:

And there are times when the film evokes nothing as strongly as sequences in American horror films: these screenshots seem less to be taking place in Wonderland and more like they're taking place in Freddy Kruger's lair or a squalid set from one of the Saw films:

None of this is said to disparage Alice, which is actually completely compelling on its own terms. However, I will say that I'm looking forward to our next foray into animated literary adaptation, which promises to be a little more, er, light, although perhaps no less odd: we're going to do Will Vinton's The Adventures of Mark Twain, in which a Claymation Twain and some of his characters foray off in a spaceship to visit Halley's Comet.

1 comment:

Michael Peterson said...

They're supposedly working on a film adaptation of American McGee's "Alice," which should suitably draw in the Goth crowd that was enraptured by the original video game source material.