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Twisted Roots 

Little Otik’s comedy of terrors; plus, Hart’s War

Wednesday, Feb 13 2002
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In Czech animator Jan Svankmajer’s magnificently twisted black comedy Little Otik, an infertile couple learns — after the husband pulls a tree stump from his back yard, carves it into the shape of a baby boy and presents it to his wife — to beware of what it wished for. This will be the husband’s first and last creative act, for when the distraught woman takes the piece of wood quite literally to her bosom and cares for it as if it were a real infant, her appalled spouse tries to bully her back to her senses. In a Svankmajer film, where rationality is the last refuge of the unimaginative, this is a grievous error.

 

At first, the stump sits there in its highchair — mute, stiff and ludicrously funny in its lacy bonnet as the wife introduces a nippled bottle into the gaping hole that serves for a mouth, and cuts the “nails” of the twiggy branches that pass for hands and feet. Then, animated by the tenderness of a woman whose unfulfilled desire for motherhood has warped into delusion, “Otik” starts crying piteously for more food. And more, and more, until his beleaguered parents are lugging bags of food — pork and steak by the ton, for milk will no longer suffice — up and down the stairs of their shabby Communist-era apartment building as they try to conceal their child’s true nature from well-meaning neighbors and nosy agents of the state.

By now Svankmajer, who in films like Alice and Conspirators of Pleasure has made a habit of suspending his audiences in radical uncertainty about who’s the perpetrator and who’s the victim, has tipped our nervous laughter over into terror, and without doing much more than make the little fellow flap his twiggy arms and wail. Little Otik leans more toward live action than any of Svankmajer’s other work to date. Still, as with any good surrealist, it’s the inversion of what’s real and what’s not that interests him. The inanimate is brought to life, and what’s alive is threatened with extinction: The actors function more and more as objects. As the mother grows steadily paler and more evanescent, little Otik doesn’t trot out the special effects, doesn’t ooze or bleed or puke green stuff — he simply eats and eats, and once the groceries fail to satisfy his boundless appetite, he turns to ingesting pets and people. When a stout social worker who shows up at the behest of the local police is found reduced to a mass of gristle and bone, one senses the glee of a director who has had to put up with more than his fair share of government apparatchiki elbowing their way into his life.

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Horror has always been a preferred form among dissident artists working under conditions of repression. (Svankmajer makes a practice of refusing awards from the Czech government, which in 1972 grounded him from filmmaking for seven years because he made unauthorized changes to one of his movies.) But it’s not only the political sphere that reeks in Svankmajer’s work. The director has said that for him making films is an act of therapeutic exorcism — one fears for the sanity of the therapist who, had Svankmajer not found his outlet in artistic expression, would have had to listen to his nightmares, which are primarily domestic. Little Otik is suffused with the terror of the ordinary: the pathology of food, for example, and its uses in the power play between parents and children. And as every child whose parents’ idea of affectionate play is pretending to eat them will tell you, it’s not just infants who are voracious.

For Svankmajer, creativity inevitably contains a kernel of cruelty. Like his first feature, Alice — as malevolent an appreciation of Lewis Carroll’s brooding anxieties as you’re likely to find outside the book itself — Little Otik is based on a popular children’s tale. In common with all children’s tales worth their salt, it invokes the dualism of human nature in all its malignancy and goodness. Kids accept this instinctively even when we try, in the name of protecting their supposed innocence, to persuade them that the world is sugar and spice and ever-after endings. In the movie, a precocious little girl who lives next door to the secretive couple catches on long before her elders do, not just because she’s reading along from the story she’s found on her bookshelf, but because she has exquisite radar for bullshit.

Not that Svankmajer is sentimental about children. Little Alzbetka has blond pigtails and a cute round butt that has a dirty old neighbor slavering from the stairwell, but she also has the piggy, investigative eyes of a Hitler youth, and her idea of doll-nurture is a good spanking. Still, it’s she who divines Otik’s likely fate, and when his desperate father binds him in a sack and abandons him to starve in the cellar, she devotes herself to keeping the “boy” alive, monitoring what — and whom — he eats, and making sure that he washes his hands. Svankmajer’s comedy of terrors is sustained throughout, but his, finally, is a tragically deterministic vision, and a bitterly punishing one for those who presume to toy with nature. If Little Otik is a treatise on the fear of parenthood, it is also a plea on behalf of the helpless infants. The most frightening — and the most touching — thing about Otik is not his monstrousness but his plaintive, little-boy-lost whimper. Like his parents, Otik is a classic Freudian hysteric whose terror of being engulfed is in precise proportion to his fear of being abandoned. And like any good psychoanalyst, Svankmajer gives him no quarter.





Hart’s War is a thriller with a brave desire to open up the notion of American honor to the kind of intense scrutiny it rarely receives. For this reason the movie, directed by Gregory Hoblit (Primal Fear), has the virtue of coming across a good deal less smug and self-congratulatory — unless you count the performance of Bruce Willis, who appears to have abandoned all pretense of acting in favor of a demented smirk — than the average big-budget war movie. In the dying days of World War II, Tommy Hart (Colin Farrell), a young Army lieutenant, finds himself in a German POW camp run by what appears to be the usual granite-faced Nazi camp commandant (played by Romanian actor Marcel Iures). Having offended his own new commanding officer, Colonel McNamara (Willis), Hart is assigned an impossible task. A law student in civilian life and the cosseted son of a U.S. senator, Hart must defend a black POW (Terrence Howard) accused of murdering a white rank-and-file soldier who, with enthusiastic support from his fellow grunts, had tormented him with epithets that would flush the cheeks of the most committed contemporary Klansman. To Hart’s astonishment, Camp Commandant Visser, a former Yalie who’s been quick to point out parallels between American racism and the Nazis’ love of the Übermensch, offers to help the case for the defense in any way he can. As the young lieutenant prepares his brief, he uncovers a plot that will force him and those around him to make some difficult choices about patriotism, private morality and self-interest.

On the face of it, Hart’s War, which is based on a novel by John Katzenbach — whose father, Nicholas, was first a POW in World War II and later a U.S. attorney general under Lyndon Johnson — is no more than a decent thriller trying to overcome a rather preposterous premise. Given the openly rabid racism that prevailed in and out of the U.S. military in the 1940s — and is fully acknowledged in the movie — an on-the-spot lynching may have been a more likely outcome of this scenario than a trial. Yet even as the film finally unravels in an orgy of improbable self-sacrifice all round, one is won over by its abdication of America-first arrogance, its generous appreciation for human fallibility, and a spirit of self-criticism that’s all too rare now that we’re so busy demonizing the Other.

LITTLE OTIK | Written and directed by JAN SVANKMAJER Produced by JAROMIR KALLISTA | Released by Zeitgeist Films | At the Nuart

HART’S WAR | Directed by GREGORY HOBLIT | Written by BILLY RAY and TERRY GEORGE | Based on a novel by John Katzenbach | Produced by DAVID LADD, DAVID FOSTER, ARNOLD RIFKIN and HOBLIT | Released by Metro Goldwyn Mayer | Citywide

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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