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Jan Svankmajer's

Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 5 months ago

Alices and Wonderlands


Research report by Sarah Harris, Team Alice


                 This report begins with a brief synopsis of Jan Svankmajer’s film “Alice” (1988, Czechoslovakia). A particular focus is placed on Svankmajer’s formal strategies in translating the original text, written by Lewis Carroll in 1865, to an animated film form. Harris situates the film within the corpus of Svankmajer's stop-animation and clay-mation work, highlighting some of the characteristics of his renown auteur-style. Furthermore, she elaborates on filmic techniques that Svankmajer utilizes in his adaptation of Carroll’s text, including the “match-on-action” and use of direct address. An important question that emerges pertains to the losses and gains of adaptations across media and the impacts of digital and filmic visualizations on the reader’s imagination.
Jan Svankmajer’s film adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) combines stop-motion animation and live action to portray a girl’s surrealist, dream-world (or nightmare…). The film begins with Alice sitting beside her older sister who is reading a non-illustrated book that Alice finds boring. As an adventurous, curious young woman who is frustrated with the dullness of everyday Victorian life, she must do something to break out of this jail of monotony. Her imagination seems to be a last hope, and Svankmajer first visualizes this imaginary space as barren and museum-like. Antiques, nails, dishes, dolls and glass jars filled with specimens abound. As Alice adjusts to this strange, imaginary room, she observes a stuffed rabbit escape from his glass cage and rush outdoors.  Much of the film is her search for the white rabbit, as she navigates her way through dressers, tunnels, an elevator shaft, various rooms, doors and rivers, encountering many creepy animals along the way, including skull-headed creatures, a sock-puppet caterpillar with dentures, and a stuffed lizard (Bill) with glass eyes. Svankmajer’s use of stop-animation, or manipulating an object frame by frame in order to convey a sense of movement when the frames are synchronically juxtaposed, allows for the incorporation of surrealist, unnatural events that live-action film techniques alone cannot achieve. Thus, it comes as no surprise that animated adaptations of Carroll’s text, like this one or Disney’s 1950s animated adaptation, have seen remarkably success. The plasticity of the animated form enables a believable representation of the anthropomorhic animals that are so integral to the original story. In lieu of more recent technological innovations, perhaps a digital film adaptation of Alice is forthcoming.
Svankmajer is known for an auteur-style that interrogates societal norms and expresses a disillusionment with bureaucracies and bourgeoisie hegemony.  Yet these macro-level interrogations are negotiated on the micro-level, as many of his clay-mation works focus on the individual and his or her human dilemmas and struggles, including desire, rage, love or greed.  Always present is Svankmajer’s interest in the restrictions and possibilities of organic and inorganic materials and their movements through space.  Hence, the viewer will frequently observe mixtures of raw meat and food with clay, wood and nails. Renowned for his incorporation of extreme close-ups, quick-cutting montage sequences, and a cacophonous yet sparse use of sounds, he plays with visual and aural textures to create humor and parody that translates globally.
A theme especially appropriate to this particular surrealist adaptation is Svankmajer’s use of familiar materials in unfamiliar ways. In Alice, animated sawdust represents the white rabbit’s blood. In another scene, a rat camps atop Alice’s head, collecting scraps of her hair for fire-wood. There are even three manifestations of the character “Alice” that are used interchangeably: a live-action version (the human actress), a doll (the small, post-shrunken Alice) and a masked version (the actress in a complete body encasement).  Notably, the live-action Alice rarely smiles; she coolly observes, explores, and even becomes violent in order to make sense of and survive in her nightmarish world. The actress’ lack of emotion creates a sense of continuity between the three Alice-versions, as the masked and doll versions are, due to the restrictions of their forms, less facially expressive.  Yet Alice’s somber gestures also hint at a lingering depression, and this combines with an embellished violence between Alice and the animals, creating a much darker Wonderland than Carroll might have originally intended.
At one point in the film, when a giant Alice is stuck in a house, she seems to embody it, in a sense, anthropomorphizing the structure, as her face occupies an open attic, her arms and legs protrude from the windows, and the roof’s yellow shingles closely resemble her blonde locks. Could Alice represent the disillusioned Victorian homemaker who is “tucked away” in the home? Or perhaps Wonderland is a twisted fantasy resulting from society’s fetishization of little-girls? Along Carroll’s vein of defamiliarizing the familiar, Svankmajer is questioning the “objective” world as a place of stability and order, pointing out ways that Victorian normativity is perhaps more disturbing than the normativity of Wonderland. In order to problematize societal rules, Carroll and Svankmajer introduce alternative, surrealist rule-systems. As theorized by literature scholars and Carroll critics (see below), a nonsensical world appears absurd and chaotic, but if carefully considered, maintains an internal logic. Thus, an important question to ask both of the original text and the adapted film is what rules are established and broken in these Wonderlands (and how. . .)?  Furthermore, how does authorship (Carroll, Svankmajer, Disney, etc..) and the type of medium (written text, film, radio, TV, digital “new” media) impact the representation of a nonsensical world?
When examining the structure of the narrative in Alice, we observe two stories occurring simultaneously.  The first story is Alice’s journey through her imagination. The film begins with Alice’s passive-aggressive tossing of rocks into a nearby stream. As her frustrated expression glazes over, her eyes fixate on something in the distance. An extreme close-up on her eyes cuts to an interjection of the second “story,” which is a kind of meta-narrative of the novel-to-film adaptation and the animated film form itself. To explain, the subsequent shot is of a girl’s lips facing towards the camera, stating directly to the film audience, “Alice thought to herself, now you will see a film made for children, perhaps. . . But I nearly forgot! You must close your eyes. Otherwise, you won’t see anything!” These statements, which mix reflexivity and direct-address, are periodically interrupted by title cards introducing the names of the film’s producers. In addressing us with the lips, Svankmajer breaks the “fourth wall,” which usually divides the audience from the filmic world. Moreover, he questions the demographics of the film’s target audience (is it for adults or for children?) and by juxtaposing the title cards with the lips, he explicitly imbeds the constructors of the film into the narration. These techniques cause us to oscillate between two narratives, greatly impacting our seamless engagement in Wonderland.
Similarly, in the original text, Carroll maintains a meta-narrative alongside that of Wonderland. He explicitly addresses the reader within sets of parentheses and implicitly conveys his own voice through the use of italics. While Svankmajer’s female actress plays the role of narrator and Alice, Carroll’s Alice remains in the narrative space of Wonderland, and he himself mediates between Alice and the readers, explaining and commenting on her thoughts and behaviors. For example, in the first chapter, while Alice is falling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland, Carroll addresses us within a set of parentheses: “(and she tried to curtsey as she spoke – fancy curtseying as you’re falling through the air! Do you think you could manage it!)” (Carroll, 7). Strikingly, Svankmajer reconfigures Carroll’s use of parenthetical direct address by continuing the mouth / direct-address technique throughout the film’s entirety. The mouth’s voice-over (dubbed into English) flows through the screen, jarring us out of the diegetic space. While our full immersion into Wonderland is made impossible, Svankmajer explains in first sequence that “this is a film made for children, perhaps…” Or perhaps, the film, like the novel which inspired it, is open for multifarious readings.
Also significant is Svankmajer’s self-reflexive use of materials, as he playfully revels in the constructed, theatrical qualities of Wonderland and his medium. For instance, in a scene where Alice struggles to fit her body through a small door which opens to a garden, she glimpses the white rabbit in the distance, rowing his boat along a two dimensional, cardboard stream. He rows so far backwards, in fact, that he breaks through stream and disappears behind it, revealing its artificiality. Comparing Carroll’s and Svankmajer’s techniques of reflexivity and meta-narrative is one possible avenue in analyzing the translatability and slippages which occur during adaptations across media.  My group and I are particularly interested in the representation of space and body movement through space, across various adaptations of Alice in Wonderland. Essentially, how is space imagined in Carroll’s text and how is or isn’t this imaginary adaptable to other mediums? What would it look like to map Carroll’s Wonderland and how would this compare to a map of Svankmajer’s or Disney’s adaptations of Wonderland? How does one begin to adapt the fluidity and malleability of space present in the original text? One tool that Svankmajer frequently uses to represent surreal spatial transitions is the “match-on-action,” or when the movement of an object within a frame carries over from one space to another. For instance, in an early scene, Alice’s feet move from a room-space to a grassy field; while the spaces are discontinuous, the motion of the feet remains fluid, connecting the two disjointed spaces.
“Matches on action” are one of many filmic techniques that we will be examining, yet all of the formal strategies we will measure impact or manipulate the size, shape, scale and movement of objects and spaces. Surely, in Svankmajer’s transformation of the written text to a film text, there are certain “slippages” that occur, yet measuring them seems to pose a theoretical problem, for how will we measure slippages in meaning when reader or viewer interpretation is a significant factor in the construction of meaning? Furthermore, an equally important question to consider was posed in our seminar discussions: how do filmic or digital visualizations of the written text impact the reader’s imagination? As we hold this conundrum in one hand, we are also exploring the generative possibilities of media visualizations in the other. Through further study of the ways in which Alice “succeeds” and “fails” to adapt Carroll’s work, the differentiation between visualization and imagination may become obscured or illuminated, and this unknown is what makes this kind of research an exciting, worthwhile endeavor.
Links / Further Sources:
Sarah's Annotated Bibliography (see authors noted for their analyses of the rules of Carroll's nonsense)

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