Monday, April 21, 2014

Down to the Cellar / Do pivnice (1983)

Down to the Cellar is a short film from Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer that I’ve grown fond of. I remember feeling a little underwhelmed when I first watched it, but it stayed with me, for some reason, and now it’s one of my favorite short films (I wonder if there’s a name for that kind of art). It was the same with Svankmajer’s Alice (Neco Z Alenky), a creepy vision of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland complete with Svankmajer’s disturbing but fascinating characteristics. For me, the last quarter of Alice became a battle to stay awake. I thought Alice just wasn’t the film for me, but that couldn’t have been more untrue. Alice ended up planting itself in my mind before slowly taking its hold on me, and, as if a bug had just bit me, I spontaneously ordered off for the DVD and, on a whim, read for the first time Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. As those of you that follow my At the Mansion of Madness fan page on Facebook might have noticed, I have endeavored to watch as many AIW movies as I can slowly but surely come across. This is all primarily thanks to Jan Svankmajer’s vision of AIW. Not bad for a movie that I struggled to stay awake during on first viewing.

Down to the Cellar feels a lot like a precursor to Svankmajer’s Alice, for superficial reasons, and is most certainly recommended to fans of that movie. It features a little girl’s (Monika Belo-Cabanová) apprehensive journey into a deep, dark cellar to load her basket with potatoes from a crate in a certain room 37. This would’ve been a simple task, had the story been set in reality, but in Svankmajer’s world it’s an odd adventure into an underground nightmare where whatever tricks descending a stairway into an old, dark, spooky cellar plays on the imagination manifest and take form.

The entire story is told in a dialogue-free fashion, not counting the cat meows or the usual exaggerated oral sounds, which are a nuance of Svankmajer’s that seem related to his frequent obsession with focusing on food. The little girl’s responses to the situations and characters she meets are translated mainly through facial expressions and silent gestures, most notably her head shaking, denoting her fearful apprehension to the beckoning gestures and offerings of the old man (Aleksandr Letko) and old woman (Ol’ga Vronská), who, despite possessing a weird unease, don’t seem to pose any kind of definite threat, but a feeling of mistrust still pervades.

A nice avant-garde approach to exploring imagined fears, paranoia, anxieties, and mistrust, Down to the Cellar could be thought of as a possible Cold War allegory. I think the use of coal (the woman using coal as a primary ingredient to bake cakes and the old man using coal to blanket himself in bed) in this film was saying something about coal pollution and its health concerns, as coal was a primary source of heating as well as a power source for industrial plants in communist Eastern Europe during the Cold War, and the result was a toxic pollution that even contaminated the tap water and was a major health hazard.

Of course, being a Svankmajer film, there’s puppetry and stop motion animation (although less than usual in this case) to make this dark journey a fun and perplexing one. It won’t blow any one’s socks off, but it does somehow lay dormant in the memory for a while before being fondly recalled and revisited.

A reviewer (Timothy Damon) on the IMDB very aptly described the little girl’s task in this movie as being Sisyphean. My abnormally lengthy time in college, for both undergrad and grad school, has felt very Sisyphean, and although it is finally coming to a close this semester, I had many times felt like the little girl at the end of Down to the Cellar, descending the dark stairs once again, having to do it all over again.

© At the Mansion of Madness

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