Sunday 15 October 2023

On demand: "Alice"

The most imaginative Lewis Carroll adaptation of the modern era, 1988's part-live action, part-stopmotion
Alice reframes its source as the reverie of a bored girl (Kristýna Kohoutová), abandoned by her elders to stuffy rooms filled with inanimate objects that - in the hands of revered Czech animator Jan Svankmajer - come to unexpected, funny, sometimes horrifying life. A taxidermied, demonic-seeming White Rabbit - who looks like a vengeful relic of the Ladislaw Starewicz era of animation - pulls up the nails securing his paws to the floor of a display case, makes efforts to repair the sawdust leaking from a gash in his chest, and clicks his buck teeth together in such a disconcerting way it might well freak out adult onlookers, never mind their offspring. Alice, for her part, transforms into a beady-eyed doll attacked by birds, and is left to her own devices as these chambers slowly flood with water, suggesting the river of the film's idyllic prologue has been rerouted indoors. What's especially eerie is that much of the action plays out in near-silence, with no score and only heightened sound effects to fill the void. It's possible boisterous kids, warming to the curiosity and resilience of their onscreen surrogate, might start to provide their own soundtrack of oohs, aahs and surprised or terrified gasps. That said, though announced on screen as "a film for children" and still possessed of a PG certificate, the matter of how suitable Alice is for matinee or teatime viewing remains largely open to debate.

It would certainly be a formative experience for the very young, albeit in much the same way falling off one's bike and grazing your hands and knees could be considered a formative experience. One especially discomfiting reading this version offers up is that Alice's adventures come to describe the ways history is repeated and trauma perpetuated. Towards the end, the abandoned child picks up a pair of scissors abandoned by the Queen of Hearts and demonstrates her intention to cut off the heads of those around her; this Alice learns cruelty on her travels, and she gains her own desire for revenge. (See where indifferent parenting leads you?) I think it is a work for children, but in the same way Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies are works for children: it needs handing over with reassuring context, and no small measure of caution. Svankmajer certainly translates the "adventures" part of Carroll's original title, but he proceeds by his own idiosyncratic logic, every tangent (woodworm socks, pincushion porcupines, the absolute derangement-by-editing of the Mad Hatter's tea party) slotting precisely into place, a spellbinding discovery behind each and every locked door. Along the way, he attains the confounding, dizzying pleasures that come from merging a tour of a museum of antiquities with a visit to a contemporary art gallery; it remains a very great crime against the cinema that many more folks have seen those Tim Burton atrocities than have fallen down this particular rabbit hole.

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