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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How Dame Vera Lynn was told to “posh her accent up”

Radio 2’s 100th-birthday tribute reveals how Lynn was forced to change her voice.

“I remember seeing her near an elephant, and this elephant rolled over a bit and she had to get out of the way . . .” Vic Knibb, the vice-chairman of the veterans’ group the Burma Star Association, was one of the thousands of British soldiers serving in the Far East during the Second World War who came across Vera Lynn in the jungle, singing from the back of a Jeep, accompanied by an out-of-tune piano.

Speaking in Radio 2’s celebration of the singer’s 100th birthday, Vera Lynn: the Sweetheart of the United Kingdom (Sunday 19 March, 8pm), Knibb and others recalled what it meant to them that Lynn travelled so far to perform for the so-called Forgotten Army in Burma. Unlike other entertainers, who stayed in Europe or visited only military hospitals in the UK, she deliberately went where few others did – where she felt she was needed by “the boys”.

The programme, which featured a rare interview with Lynn herself, was dominated by clips of her recordings from the Thirties and Forties. We heard frequent extracts from “The White Cliffs of Dover”, “We’ll Meet Again” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. The contrast between these two voices, separated by more than six decades, was the most arresting thing this otherwise pedestrian documentary had to offer. The now gravelly-voiced centenarian sang, in her youth, with a smooth, effortless-sounding tone and crystal-clear diction. But how did the cockney daughter of a plumber from East Ham end up singing with received pronunciation?

The answer, as ever in Britain, is class. Lynn had no formal musical training, and as she had been performing in working men’s clubs from the age of seven, she was considered closer to a musical-hall crooner than a “proper” singer. But with her small vocal range and flawless self-taught technique, she chose her own songs to suit her voice. The BBC, for which she made her hugely popular radio show Sincerely Yours, requested that she take elocution lessons to “posh her accent up” and even at one point took her show off air for 18 months. “Every­body’s Sweetheart” wasn’t immune from snobbishness, it seems. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution