[E]verything begins with a horrible combat. It’s the combat of depths: things explode or make us explode, boxes are too small for their contents… monsters grab at us…. Bodies intermingle with one another, everything intermingles in a sort of cannibalism that reunites nutrient and excrement. Even words are eaten. It’s the domain of the action and passion of bodies: things and words are scattered in every direction and sense, or on the contrary are welded together into nondecomposable blocks. At this depth, everything is horrible, everything is nonsense.
– Gilles Deleuze, “Lewis Carroll” (1)
“It seems very pretty”, she said when she had finished it, “but it’s rather hard to understand…. Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate…”
– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There
The opening frames of Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer’s Zvahlav aneb Saticky Slameného Huberta (Jabberwocky, 1971) feature a close-up of the smooth, firm surface of a young child’s buttocks, which is repeatedly spanked by a large adult hand. Three rhythmical smacks, in Švankmajer’s jerky stop-motion, are accompanied by three echoing cracks, like someone knocking at the door of a large, empty hall. The beatings that open the film also open, visually and aurally, onto a mysterious and unsettling interior space – the always-terrifying question of what lies behind the closed door, or what happens deep in the psyche when the hand strikes the flesh – as well as setting the tempo of the eerie, lyrical female vocalise that sounds hauntingly through this surrealistic tale of childhood fascination and terror.
The film is based on Lewis Carroll’s famous “nonsense poem” of the same name, which Alice reads in the sequel to her first adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass (1871). Alice has to read the poem itself via a looking-glass, as it first appears inverted on the page. Carroll’s apparently whimsical oeuvre – often taken as “mere” superficial nonsense, or “literature for children” – has been a profound influence on Švankmajer’s Surrealist art. Both are concerned with exploring the dark, irrational depths behind appearances, excavating those nonsensical and paradoxical relations of sense and meaning that underlie our everyday perceptions and apparently ordered thought, and bringing them up to a shimmering, contradictory, animated surface. Švankmajer’s film reels constitute a kind of mirror, held up to a nature that suddenly appears both unreal, and more-than-real (surréel).
Gilles Deleuze was similarly inspired by the Surrealist tradition, and specifically the Carrollian brand of nonsense, in his radical rethinking of meaning (sens) and its directions (sens) and operations, The Logic of Sense (1969) (2). His description of Carroll’s method could just as well serve as a sketch of Švankmajer’s filmic technique – as Patricia MacCormack has noted, the latter plays just the same kind of games with surface appearances as did Carroll and the Surrealists, “cutting up reality and thus innocently revealing [that] reality is already an organisation of cut-up pieces” (3). Švankmajer’s animation operates visually at the level of the surface, but – because it plays with, explodes and violently rearranges that surface without regard for a “naturalistic” relation between exterior and interior, between feeling (sensation) and logic (sense) – resonates with the horrors of depth. Its strange, unstable plane of appearance and its techniques of expression continually refer the viewer (or their “mind’s eye”) to what is not present, what has just disappeared, what lies underneath or locked away in the cupboard.
It is no surprise that children and artists both love to explore wardrobes, to (re)open the doors to these chambers of memory, these musty, fur-lined worlds smelling of mothballs and the deep, awe-ful otherness of the past. In Jabberwocky, it is from beyond the doors of a large Victorian-era wardrobe that many of the film’s phantasms emerge. First, though, it winds its own way through a forest at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, and into the period nursery that serves as the film’s main setting. The early, bucolic ramblings of this piece of furniture recall the poem’s narrative of a kind of coming-of-age hunting trip, with a young man setting off into the forest with the warnings of his father. This “boy’s own” story of adventure, violence and eventual victory and congratulation – the son’s beheading of the monster elicits the father’s joyous, or “frabjuous”, affection, and an open-armed welcome home – is read, in Švankmajer’s adaptation, in the perfect diction of an upper-class English schoolgirl, highlighting a gendered schism present in Carroll’s original. Who, or what, is this poem about? In whose voice should it be understood as being spoken? We read it, and hear it, through Alice’s perspective, a mirror image of a poem within a book within a book that demands a visual rearrangement and an uncertain decoding from the start and throughout.
Fellow countryman Miloš Forman was surely being cute when he reputedly proposed the formula “Disney + Buñuel = Švankmajer”; the maths doesn’t quite add up. The latter’s animation shares about as much with Disney, certainly in its contemporary offerings, as Buñuel shares with a 1970s soap opera – some formal or technical similarity on the surface, with a fundamentally different structure and ethics at work underneath. Indeed Švankmajer’s militant seriousness on the question of childhood says much about the thought motivating the construction of Jabberwocky some 30 years earlier:
Disney is among the greatest makers of “art for children”. I have always held that no special art for children simply exists, and what passes for it embodies either the birch (discipline) or lucre (profit). “Art for children” is dangerous in that it shares either in the taming of the child’s soul or the bringing up of consumers of mass culture. (4)
The world of Jabberwocky is one peopled by the objects of a mass culture that has passed by – a world in which the inanimate playthings of this mass production come to a kind of undead life. Crucially, their animation is not, in Švankmajer’s hands, performed for the idle entertainment of children; on the contrary, what these toys do might give some parents pause (and might be intended to do just that).
Dolls explode or crawl from within one another, in a malignant autogenesis that leaves gaping wounds and trails of stuffing; or fling each other to grisly, repetitive doom in meat grinders, only to emerge whole, but miniaturised (like Alice herself) before finally being ironed flat, into paper cut-outs of themselves, two-dimensional silhouettes onto which a variety of different outfits are pasted and removed in quick succession, like a kid’s magnet set from some period costume museum gift shop. A literal army of figurines and a whole civilisation of building blocks emerge from the arms of a disembodied playsuit, building up and tumbling down over and over on the surface of a school desk, to the strains of a military marching band. Porcelain and plastic body parts are boiled and devoured whole by other puppets. If this is the world of mass culture, it is one in which underlying violence, driving militarism and indiscriminate cruelty bubble to the surface, revealed as foundational elements reinscribed by the fervent circulation of the apparently “innocent” objects, ideas and practices of entertainment and education – the disciplining of young bodies.
One of the fascinating but unsettling effects of stop-motion is that the viewer is directly confronted with the disjointed, staccato construction of what normally appears fluid and natural on the filmic surface (although this appearance is itself an illusion, no matter how high the frame rate). The technique also constantly brings the viewer’s attention to the enormous labour required to set up, shoot and incrementally change each frame – one imagines Švankmajer panting in and out of the forest through which the wardrobe makes its meandering way, hauling it (and himself) around for hours to capture little more than 10 seconds of film. The filmmaker – their aesthetic choices but also their physical body – are thus inscribed in the film in a particular way, each frame the testimony to their interference with the previous frame, themself a constant shadowy presence haunting the edge of the screen.
Indeed, in Švankmajer’s art the illusion of fluidity is rarely the desired effect; objects can also appear and disappear in the blink of an eye, flashing up like the smile of the Cheshire Cat and becoming invisible just as quickly. The snicker-snack of jump-cut animation perfectly captures, at the level of the surface, the violence in the depths of the imagination and of memory, including those of children: things, words, persons are there, and then simply not there, and then there again, and then gone – but after all this, how can we really say “gone”, in any meaningful or permanent sense? And where have they gone?
“One, two! One, two! And through and through / The vorpal blade went snicker-snack.”
Rhythmically accompanying the poem’s famous war cry, which describes the repetitive plunging action of the blade into the Jabberwock’s flesh, Švankmajer makes a baby (doll?) flash up and disappear repeatedly from a porcelain potty, before being devoured by a Japanese folding screen that lurches across the floor of the nursery and surrounds it, waddling out of shot again to reveal the potty lying smashed on the floor, and the baby nowhere to be seen. In the next sequence, however, the pieces of the potty are rejoined, good as new, while a young girl chases another doll around the room – the sword that finally decapitates Carroll’s fantastical monster are her outstretched arms, reaching desperately for a little version of herself that she never manages to grasp, stumbling blindly through a maze in search of a meaning and an identity that she can never succeed in bringing to stillness or stability.
It is the gaps between images, the spaces opened in the sudden appearances and disappearances of these “cut-up pieces” of reality, which in Švankmajer’s work seem to open onto whole other worlds; whole other ways, that is, of seeing, understanding and (re)constructing worlds. The images that flash on and off Svankmajer’s screen are, as Deleuze suggests of Carroll, “scattered in every direction [sens]”, and yet the suddenness of their appearances and scatterings, as well as the self-conscious materiality of the technique, also mean that they seem to hang around in the psychic background, ready to make another appearance at any moment, in previously unimagined concatenations of bodies, words and movements. This is what makes the surface, for Deleuze, the perfect plane on which to explore the essence of depth:
[s]urface nonsense is like the “Radiance” of pure events, entities that never finish either happening or withdrawing. Pure events without mixture shine above the mixed bodies, above their embroiled actions and passions. They let an incorporeal rise to the surface like a mist over the earth, a pure “expressed” from the depths: not the sword, but the flash of the sword, a flash without a sword like the smile without a cat (5),
or, in Švankmajer’s Jabberwocky, the playsuit and hat without a child, as it unhangs itself from the wardrobe and dances a disembodied solo – simultaneously comic and disturbing – across the suddenly empty nursery floor and walls. Free of the normal laws of matter and gravity, the playsuit takes to the walls, through (or from) which spring the branches of the “tulgy wood”, encroaching on the scene of childhood safety, snaring the material and sending it flying to complete its dance mid-air. The branches promptly swamp the innocent nursery, flower and bear fruit – the unmistakable symbol of the apple, which then drops to the floor and decomposes, worms and all, rapidly before our eyes: innocence, knowledge, sin, death; nutrient and excrement, whole alimentary and psychic processes played out in a matter of flashings, nonsensical seconds.
Carroll’s achievement, for Deleuze, was “to have allowed nothing to pass through sense, but to have played out everything in nonsense”. Like Carroll, Svankmajer understands that “the diversity of nonsenses is enough to give an account of the entire universe, its terrors as well as its glories: depth, surface, and volume or rolled surface” (6). Pulled in multiple directions at once, appearing and disappearing from a shimmering, animated surface in a manner that gives a ghostly but tangible presence to their sudden absences, the images of Svankmajer’s Jabberwocky are finely welded together to construct an unsettling exploration of the space and time between hand and buttock, between innocence and guilt, between the events of a deep past and the present, superficial forgetting to which we are all fated: a present in which the portrait of the old man in the nursery of our own childhood may flash up again at any moment, seemingly unbidden, and with a different logic, direction or meaning each time.
1. Gilles Deleuze, “Lewis Carroll”, Essays Critical and Clinical, trans. D. W. Smith and M. A. Greco, Verso, London, 1998, pp. 21-22 (translation modified by the author). Originally published in 1993.
2. Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, trans. M. Lester with C. Stivale, Athlone Press, London, 1990. Originally published in 1969.
3. Patricia MacCormack, Cinesexuality, Ashgate, Aldershot, p. 30.
4. Jan Švankmajer, “Bringing up Baby’ (interview with Peter Hames), Kinoeye, vol. 2, no. 1, 7 January 2002, http://www.kinoeye.org/02/01/hames01.php.
5. Deleuze, “Lewis Carroll”, p. 22.
6. Deleuze, “Lewis Carroll”, p. 22.
Zvahlav aneb Saticky Slameného Huberta/Jabberwocky (1971 Czechoslovakia 14 mins)
Prod Co: Krátký Film Praha Prod: Jiří Vaněk, Erna Kmínková, Marta Šichová Dir: Jan Švankmajer Scr: Jan Švankmajer, based on the poem “Jabberwocky” from the novel Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll Ed: Helena Lebdušková Anim: Vlasta Pospišlová Mus: Zdeněk Liška