Jan SvankmajerLewis Carroll
Medium: short film
Year: 1971
Writer/director: Jan Svankmajer
Original creator: Lewis Carroll
Keywords: animation
Country: Czechoslovakia
Language: Czech, English
Format: 14 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0067259/
Website category: Foreign language
Review date: 7 June 2013
Is this Svankmajer's most impenetrable work? I haven't finished watching them all yet, but I bet the answer's going to be "yes".
I'd been looking forward to this for ages. I love Lewis Carroll's original poem and Svankmajer has a famous track record with Carroll, specifically in Alice. What I got though was visual gibberish with Jabberwocky being read over the top of it in English, which eventually resolved itself into an exploration of childhood and play. That's my interpretation, anyway. We were halfway through before I felt able to perceive any meaning at all.
(a) We begin with a hand smacking a bare bottom, which might be a child's. This is part of the opening credits. It's never referred to again. (b) After that, a wardrobe goes for a walk outside. (Possibly a Narnia reference? Mildly tempting, but I can't pretend that I'm even convincing myself with that hypothesis.) (c) A girl is reading Jabberwocky in English in a voice-over. (d) The wardrobe is suddenly in a bedroom, or else perhaps a Victorian playroom. (e) Fruit grows, rots and turns to maggots. (f) The poem ends and we get music instead as the playroom plays. (g) There's a maze-hating cat. (h) A doll is ripped apart by small dolls that climb out of her, jump into a mincing machine and end up in a cannibalistic ogre version of a dolls tea party. (i) That cat smashes the maze again. (j) The main character is a child's sailor suit on a coathanger, not dissimilar to the ones that were so popular in Japan that they're still the template for school uniforms. (k) Tin solders meet a knife.
You can see why I was baffled. Carroll fans will be even more so, since none of the visuals here have any apparent relationship to anything Carroll wrote. I was wondering if that old dude in the black-and-white photo might have been Carroll in his old age, but I have no basis for that guess.
Nevertheless there's clearly a narrative progression, if you stick with it. It's the play of playthings. Toys in the nursery are having fun, even if what they're doing might be violent or horrific. Note the schoolbook origami, in which a used exercise book gets ripped up and turned into paper planes and other frivolous shapes. Who will win: the forces of authority or the forces of playfulness? The old man's photo sticks out his tongue at us, then spits out women. There's an ongoing war between an ink blob in a maze and a black cat that keeps stopping it from escaping. Much of this is ambiguous and it would be possible to read the same element in contradictory ways, but I think the theme is clear.
Then, in the end, the playroom breaks. The ink blob escapes, vandalises the old man's photo and flees. The child's sailor suit disappears, to be replaced in the wardrobe by a black suit for an adult man. Nothing is moving. Playtime is finished. Has childhood been replaced by adulthood, or is this an escape from captivity?
Much depends, I think, on what one reads into the photo. Does he represent authority, or is he an elderly Lewis Carroll?
I'm reminded of that quote from 1 Corinthians 13:11 that I've always found chilling. "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things." Is that the narrative of this film? If so, does Svankmajer think that's good or bad?
None of that's clear, I think. I really like this film and it provides a lot to mull on, but it's actively fighting against straightforward interpretation. Is it nonsense, in homage to Jabberwocky? I don't know. Am I looking for patterns that aren't there, over-intellectualising in a way that would make Svankmajer wet himself laughing? That's possibly my most likely theory yet. Watch it, by all means. Just don't expect an easy ride and for goodness' sake, don't expect Lewis Carroll.