Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Storyteller Spotlight: Jan Švankmajer

Apologies for the unannounced and unexpected hiatus; end-of-semester stress plus post-graduation disorder and disarray equals extra insomnia. Add to that my continued work with IGM and life’s usual curveballs, and you have one very confusticated me, and I confess for quite a while there that even as I kept on plotting posts I never got around to writing, I considered throwing in the towel.

But if, dear reader, you are in fact not just a figment of my imagination, fear not -- I’m baaack. And I bring with me a souvenir from the land of the madder than mad.

I’ve been in a Wonderland mood lately (it happens from time to time), and during one of my many trips down the rabbit-hole that is internet research, I came across a man whose works boggled my mind almost as much as the pronunciation of his last name.

Jan Švankmajer is a Czech surrealist who has directed, written and animated a fair few films, and is known for his unique animations and style. His filmography includes several literary adaptations, not the least of which being a couple of Edgar Allan Poe stories -- but after watching his 1988 film, Alice, and then his 1971 short, Jabberwocky, I've been too traumatized to look up the rest of his stuff.

Švankmajer's vision of Wonderland isn't exactly a pretty sight. I sought out Alice (original title: Něco z Alenky, "Something from Alice") expecting a darker version of Carrol's world, but ignorant of how seriously insane it was truly going to be. Of course, it's supposed to be mad -- but through Švankmajer's lens, it becomes a dangerously disturbing place that threatens to haunt the dreams of any poor soul foolish enough to step through the looking glass. If that sounds a bit dramatic, consider this: the white rabbit is played, thanks to the creepiest stop-motion animation ever, by a (REAL) stuffed rabbit who bleeds sawdust all over the place throughout the film. And whatever you do, don't ask me about the skeletons. I might cry.

When I first watched the film, I couldn't wait for it to be over -- especially once I realized the rabbit really was a dead rabbit, and I'm pretty sure the skeletons are real too -- but in retrospect, I have reasons to appreciate both the artist and the experience (even if I never, ever want to repeat it for as long as I live). I can't help but take issue with casting dead animals' remains in a movie, but the methods behind Švankmajer's madness intrigue me.

He has stated in interviews that his problem with previous adaptations was the tendency they all exhibited of interpreting the Alice books as fairytales, stories with strange but nonetheless linear plots and, more importantly, morals. He argues that Alice's adventures are dreams and, thus, are fundamentally different from fairytales, in that they wander and jump around at the whim of the subconscious, and are totally devoid of any moral agenda. In Alice (as in many of his works), nearly everything is crafted from everyday objects and materials, mirroring the way dreams rearrange familiar images into foreign, sometimes even incomprehensible visions.

Jabberwocky, in some ways, took this even further. Švankmajer short, experimental film reminded me in thirteen bewildering minutes of why the man behind the camera scares me -- and why I don't usually watch experimental films. Call me low-brow, but when I walk away feeling vaguely nauseous and wondering WTF I just subjected my eyeballs to, I start to wonder if maybe I shouldn't have just watched a Disney movie instead.

I can't tell you what Jabberwocky was about, because I honestly have no clue. What I can tell you is that it involved spanking someone's naked bum (that's the very first thing you see in the film, actually), a startling black cat that seems to have a grudge against mazes, macabre porcelain dolls, and a wardrobe that doesn't lead to Narnia (probably), but can go wherever the heck it wants, thanks to its magical ability to walk, or glide, or something. While Alice at least gives the impression of some sort of followable narrative, Jabberwocky is a collage of indecipherable imagery and insanity. Though thankfully devoid of taxidermy (as far as I recall, anyway), it is nevertheless just as disturbing as its feature film follow-up, and a thousand times more disjointed and perplexing.

In spite of my qualms, I still wanted to share Švankmajer's work with you all, especially my fellow Wonderland fans. At the end of the day, I do admire Švankmajer's daring originality, and I respect him as a master of dream-world conjurations -- even if his penchant for dead things does give me nightmares.

Seen Alice and/or Jabberwocky? Have questions or comments about Švankmajer's works? Comment away! If you'd like to see the films for yourself, they can be a bit difficult to find -- at least in the US -- but a grinning cat once told me it's possible to find them on the internet, if you know the right places to look...