Gilbey on Film: Jan Svankmajer's Pop-eyed Genius

Celebrating the re-release of Alice, the director's 1988 masterpiece.

The release last month on DVD and Blu-ray of Jan Svankmajer's 1988 film Alice provided the perfect cure for the hangover of disappointment left by Tim Burton's listless adaptation of the same Lewis Carroll text. Where Burton whipped up Wonderland out of E-numbers and CGI fairy-dust, adding a depthless 3D gloss after the fact, Svankmajer traps us in a dank, claustrophobic world of greys and beiges and graveyard moss-greens that is about as far from a conventional sense of wonder as could be imagined. I remember when I saw it soon after its release, I had the same thought that accompanied my first viewing of Eraserhead: How did this director break into my nightmares? "Close your eyes, otherwise you won't see anything," says Alice (Kristýna Kohoutová), fittingly, at the outset.

Dread accompanies the arrival of each new, pop-eyed, tooth-gnashing creature, laced with our heightened excitement about what sort of gnarled state each of Carroll's characters will be in once they have emerged from the distorting filter of Svankmajer's mind. The March Hare is a mangy, mustard-yellow plush toy; the Mad Hatter is a wooden puppet with a deep-grooved face. After a double decapitation, they scramble around on the floor, each seizing the other's head and attaching it to his own neck before returning calmly to the tea table. Is that the March Hare with the Mad Hatter's head, you find yourself wondering after a time, or the Mad Hatter with the March Hare's body? (The film has that effect on you.) The Caterpillar becomes a sock puppet which improvises a face from a pair of glass eyeballs and a set of false teeth; when the time comes to sleep, it sews a lattice of cotton over its own eyes.

Although Alice occasionally morphs into non-human form -- replaced by a dead-eyed doll or encased inside an Alice-like shell which renders her terrifyingly cadaverous -- she remains the only live human figure in a landscape peopled by the living dead, or the inanimate sprung to life: stop-motion animal skulls and skeletons, stuffed beasts that disgorge their sawdust innards, a bed borne aloft with restlessly beating wings, medical specimens. Hiding behind your fingers provides little respite, as the sound design is just as gruesome, all squeaks, creaks and scratches, flapping, crunching and squelching.

There is a strong streak of cibophobia (fear of food) running through the film, which takes the transformative power of consumption expressed by Carroll and amplifies it into full-blown horror perfectly in keeping with a child's orally fixated experience. Alice handles bread rolls from which long, rusty nails protrude suddenly; tacks render inedible a jar of marmalade, even springing to life inside the gooey jelly; tiny birds' skulls hatch out of rows of eggs, scuttling off in their yolky membrane. Amidst the furore over the refusal of a certificate to the latest Human Centipede film, it's easy to forget that the most enduringly frightening movies often come with U or PG certificates. No wonder Alice introduces this rendering of her own story as "a film made for children -- perhaps." It's enough to engender eating disorders in a generation.

If the film has any value beyond its immediate artistic and imaginative merit, it must be as a lesson in the benefits of liberating yourself from your source material. Using a text as a launchpad rather than a blueprint can often result in a piece of work that is truer in spirit to the original than a more obviously faithful adaptation. Just as J G Ballard once said that he considered Crash to be a more autobiographical novel than the traditionally autobiographical Empire of the Sun, so Svankmajer's Alice gets closer to the troubled core of Carroll than any number of more straitlaced or cosmetically faithful adaptations. It takes flight.

The talk that Svankmajer is giving at the Barbican on Thursday is, predictably, sold out, but there are screenings this week of two of his other features -- Little Otik and last year's Surviving Life (Theory and Practice). Here is an interview I did with him (and his late wife Eva) at the time of the former film's release.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Why I finally got my first tattoo

For years, I was worried I'd regret it. But there's something to be said for giving up on being pristine.

Last Tuesday, I scarred myself for life. Aside from the pain of multiple steel needles scoring indelible ink into the lowest layer of my skin, it didn’t even hurt. I got my first tattoo. From this day forward, there will be a new way for loved ones to identify my body at the morgue, along with the diamond-shaped birthmark on my leg and my impressive dental records.

It’s a picture of a drum, sketched in thin, black lines and dots, above the elbow on the back of my left arm. It cost £90 and is meant to represent my love of music, or something like that, but more immediately it represents a decade or so of indecision. I’ve always admired tattoos, or pretty much any extravagant mode of self-expression – shaved or dyed hair; ear, nipple or septum piercings; fancy hats – just not on me. I didn’t get a swallow behind my ear when I was a teenage punk and I didn’t get a line of Whitman’s poetry on my bicep when I was a hopelessly lofty literature student, so why the hell am I doing it now?

You may have noticed already but tattoos are currently in vogue. Not only are they in Vogue, they’re in Esquire, Elle and, for all I know, Good Housekeeping, too. They’re on your postman, your doctor, your departing Prime Minister’s wife (Sam Cam has a dolphin on her ankle) and the arms and legs of the thousands of barmen and baristas who make London such a vibrant place to sit about and waste your time.

According to the data firm Experian, the number of high-street tattoo parlours in the UK increased by 173 per cent in a decade. It’s a service with no digital counterpart: you can’t download a tattoo from the internet, after all. A recent YouGov survey claimed that one in five Brits has a tattoo (seen or unseen) somewhere on his or her body, a figure that rises to one in three among 18-to-44-year-olds. Half of that group had been inked by the age of 21 but the number waiting until later in life is growing.

One of those who waited was my dad, Gary, a frustrated hippie who has spent the past 45 years confined within the largely vibe-free factories of northern England (vibe-free, perhaps, but far from tattoo-free: Blackpool has the most tattoo parlours per capita in the country).

It has long been observed that most children rebel against their parents but in 2016 I am convinced more than ever that this narrative is utterly defunct. Two years ago, on a rare visit to the unneighbourly and costly south, Gary burst through the door of my London flat with a grin on his face.

“Guess what?” he said. He responded to my silence by lifting up his shirt, revealing a large tree or “Gaia”, that he had drawn himself, tattooed across his back. “And do you know what the best part is?” he said, waving what appeared to be a tube of nappy rash cream. “I need your help to reach it.”

For a long time, I cited a “There is nothing I like enough to have it branded on me for ever” get-out clause when asked about tattoos. This excuse is closely related to “I always change my mind” and “I just don’t think it would look good on me”. I found it difficult to shake the cynic’s assumption that people only come to accept their mistakes – 86 per cent of those surveyed by YouGov in 2015 said they did not regret their tattoos – because they have no choice.

Writing in the Telegraph last year, the gallerist Alex Proud warned of sagging skin, clichéd designs, hurt career prospects and even mental breakdowns among the inked. Most upsetting of all, he accused us of groupthink. “[Tattoos are] the ‘snowflake’ individuality of hipster culture,” he wrote. “Yes, you’re different, just like everyone else.”

In some ways he’s right, but his rightness misses the point. It is hardly original to point out that being told, “You’ll regret it when you’re older,” is precisely what lends smoking, doing drugs or dicking around at school a vaguely dangerous allure. But there is something particular about tattoos. In terms of behavioural psychology, they help you develop a “personal myth”. They reflect “a need for stability, predictability [and] permanence”, especially among young people, according to Jeff Murray, who teaches sociology and consumer behaviour at the University of Arkansas.

Where once we might have drawn our identity from religious affiliation, family ties, geographical and professional allegiances, today we inhabit a world of undefined spirituality, loose family structures, unreliable employment and temporary accommodation. Alex Proud is wrong to see body modification as an attempt to express an innate individuality; rather, it is an attempt to pin one down. We need new rituals and a trip to the tattoo parlour, like the one I made, might just fit the bill.

Kathryn Schulz, the Pulitzer Prizewinner who wrote an entire book about making mistakes, Being Wrong, says that we should learn to embrace regret – something she began to think about after getting a compass tattooed on her shoulder and having “a massive emotional meltdown”. “The point isn’t to live without any regrets,” she says. “The point is to not hate ourselves for having them.”

Frankly, I wouldn’t want to be the sort of dim perfectionist who is afraid of being anything less than pristine. I used to be a bit like that and it felt like the opposite of living. Fortunately, at least for the near future, I don’t need to worry. I like my tattoo. I think it looks good. That it will be with me wherever I go – on holiday, to job interviews, at parties or funerals – feels reassuring somehow. It is a sort of time capsule, a conversation between my past and future selves. And what could be more optimistic than that?

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain