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.

Trumbo still
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What the modern-day relaxation of border controls between TV and cinema means for actors

It’s ironic that a man who got his breakthrough in a TV series with cinematic ambitions should now be the star of a movie, Trumbo, which resembles television at its most unadventurous.

Speak to many film professionals today and you will hear the same cry: Give me a series! It’s not only the security of a long-term contract. There is also the attractiveness of high-calibre writing and the relative liberty of working for an AMC or an HBO, a Netflix or an Amazon, compared to a movie studio.

Directors such as Todd Haynes (who made Mildred Pierce for HBO during a seven-year hiatus from cinema that ended last year with Carol) and Steven Soderbergh (who has defected permanently to television and is currently in negotiations for a possible third round of his Cinemax series The Knick starring Clive Owen) both speak of the creative freedoms afforded them in the TV world.

Soderbergh is currently lining up a new HBO show, Mosaic, which will star Sharon Stone and Garrett Hedlund. It’s been described as an interactive, “choose your own adventure” experience that allows viewers to follow different narrative paths, presumably in the manner of the once-popular children’s books: “You find a sword. If you pick it up and slay the dragon, turn to page 48. If you, like, can’t be bothered or whatever, turn to page 65.”

The boundary between TV and film performers was once rigidly patrolled, with television the training ground for cinema; once an actor moved up to the major league, there would be ignominy in returning to the practice yard. It’s a truism to say this is no longer the case.

The traffic of familiar faces flows freely back and forth without snobbery or preconceptions. And though there are still actors who can be TV A-listers while remaining unknown in the film world – Sarah Lancashire (Happy Valley) and Suranne Jones (Scott & Bailey), both former residents of Coronation Street, spring to mind – it is more common now for a performer’s star value to be bankable across the TV/cinema divide.

A case in point is Bryan Cranston, who was a reliable and recognisable TV actor for many years, often in a comic capacity (Seinfeld, Malcolm in the Middle), before he became an outright star for playing an accidental crystal-meth kingpin in Breaking Bad. In Cranston’s case, his TV success must have helped push Trumbo into production, a new film in which he plays the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Gun Crazy, Roman Holiday, The Brave One), who continued writing under other names after being blacklisted for being a Communist.

Like some of the other movies that have addressed the same dark period in Hollywood’s history (Guilty By Suspicion, One of the Hollywood Ten), Trumbo is all conscience and no panache. Cranston doesn’t discredit himself in the lead – he is studied, level-headed and workmanlike, and he has one wordless and especially powerful scene, when he is humiliated during a body search before being admitted to his prison cell.

But it’s ironic that a man who got his breakthrough in a TV series with cinematic ambitions should now be the star of a movie that resembles television at its most unadventurous. Sure, he got a Best Actor Oscar nomination. But that figures. Hollywood adores him (rightly so) but it also loves atoning for its sins in drearily respectable dramas like Trumbo.

My favourite example of the richness that can come from the modern-day relaxation of border controls between TV and cinema is the case of Alec Baldwin. Here is an actor whose career has been at various points promising, fascinating and mysteriously self-sabotaging. But Tina Fey’s fiendishly inspired NBC sitcom 30 Rock has been his salvation. Having only caught occasional episodes of it over the years, I am currently picking my way through every minute of it and marvelling at the interplay between Baldwin’s real-life persona and career and that of his character, Jack Donaghy.

When this sort of thing is done badly, it can capsize a scene and even an entire movie – the new superhero comedy Deadpool, which features Ryan Reynolds in character cracking jokes about Ryan Reynolds, is a particularly grisly example. But 30 Rock gets the balance right in a way that creates a dazzling comic frisson.

There are numerous references to Baldwin’s filmography but the boldest overlap yet occurs in the 100th episode when Donaghy launches into a warning against the dangers of movie stars appearing on television. What it amounts to is a précis of Baldwin’s own career:

“Do TV and no one will ever take you seriously again. It doesn’t matter how big a movie star you are, even if you had the kind of career where you walked away from a blockbuster franchise or worked with Meryl Streep or Anthony Hopkins, made important movies about things like civil rights or Pearl Harbour, stole films with supporting roles and then turned around and blew them away on Broadway. None of that will matter once you do television. You could win every award in sight. Be the biggest thing on the small screen [but] you want to hit rock bottom again? Go on network television.”

The joke, of course, is that 30 Rock didn’t sink him – it saved him. Bryan Cranston is a fine actor whose career won’t be waylaid by a few dull choices. But it would be encouraging to see the goodwill he built up from Breaking Bad (or from being great in poor movies such as Argo) being parlayed into movies that took chances or played with the form in some way, as shows like 30 Rock and Breaking Bad have been able to do.

Dalton Trumbo was a firecracker of a writer; it’s a shame that the movie that now bears his name lacks any of the sizzle he brought to the screen.

Trumbo is on 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.