Alice (film, 1988)Jan SvankmajerIn the Boston Review, celebrated fantasy author John Crowley (Little, Big) reviews the photography/art of Rosamond Purcell (I blogged about Purcell’s photography for National Geographic and her 2006 book, Bookworm, last fall). Crowley says:
Rosamond Purcell’s photographs—all still lifes—are of things, and they are usually things we recognize, whether we have encountered them before or not; but our recognition is undermined because we don’t know how they got that way. We are asked to examine her recording with the same wonder, salted with revulsion, that she has brought to her examination of the object.
I love Purcell, so Crowley was preaching to an enthusiastic choir. But in his last paragraph he introduced me to another artist I can’t believe I’ve never heard of: surrealist filmmaker Jan Svankmajer.
I recently re-saw (why is there no visual equivalent of the word “reread”?) the 1988 film Alice, by Jan Svankmajer, the great Czech stop-motion animator. His version of Alice in Wonderland is so full of connections to the work and spirit of Purcell as to seem nearly a collaboration. Svankmajer’s Alice, a dark fearless girl, becomes a chipped antique doll when she drinks the inky potion that makes her small; the White Rabbit is a decaying stuffed specimen who tears himself from the box he is kept in, pulling out the nail that pins his foot, and thereafter leaks stuffing loathsomely. Alice falls through a world of things bottled in dark fluid that may be animal parts but also include buttons, keys, and other things; she makes her way through piles of soiled junk, drinks from stained, cracked porcelain.
Crowley’s quite right – this is like Purcell’s stuff come alive. I was hooked as soon as the frantic, glass-eyed White Rabbit pulled his pocketwatch out of his own sawdust viscera! The first six minutes are pure wonder cabinet. In the end, says Crowley,
Things transmute, as she observes or takes hold of them, from animate to inanimate and back (a scene of ancient socks that become wriggly snakes or caterpillars who bore sawdusty holes in a wooden floor, then crawl in and out of them). In all of this Alice is unafraid; more, she is curious (“curiouser and curiouser”) and attracted to the things offered, even the bugs that pour from opened cans and the rotted fabrics and papers—avid for strangeness, selective and judgmental, but willing, always, to go farther.
Curiouser and curiouser. In such avid, fearless pursuit of wonder, the child, scientist, historian, artist and author are all the same, aren’t they? Go get ‘em, Alice!PS. I go thirty years without ever hearing of Svankmajer, but it turns out Table of Malcontents posted about him (with a link to the sock-caterpillar scene) just two weeks ago! How did I miss that? It seems I was destined to discover him anyway. Curiouser and curiouser. . .Update: dude, what the heck? Shortly after I posted this, the Guardian released a review of Svankmajer! He’s everywhere!More: Brigid Cherry on Alice: “Dark Wonders and the Gothic Sensibility” (2002)