Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Day 32: Little Otik: Man vs. Nature 3

Little Otik is, for the majority of its running time, a wonderful film, fantastically conceived and executed with some really fun stop-motion effects to boot.  This strongest section of the film has a psychological intensity that builds horrifically, but just when it feels like the movie’s reached its boiling point, the movie shifts gears and the tension is lost, never to be recovered.  The end result is a piece that feels like two very good, but separate movies shoved together to the detriment of both.

The really compelling part of the film follows a childless couple, desperate to conceive a baby but both biologically unable to do so.  When staying at a house in the woods, the husband unearths a tree stump that he crafts into a vaguely humanoid shape.  He presents it to his wife and she, in her desperation, believes the piece of wood is a new baby for her.  She diapers it, puts a pacifier into its knothole mouth, bathes it, and admonishes her husband when he fails to treat it with the same affection.  When she begins telling the neighbors that she’s going to have a baby, the husband blusters and fumes but, ultimately acquiesces to his wife’s lie (the more to protect her feelings).  Eventually, the piece of wood comes alive (enter the stop-motion sequences), acting rather like a real child would, crying and demanding to be fed.  When they are unable to satiate their child, Little Otik’s appetite, things take a turn toward of the people-dying variety.

This is potentially laughable stuff, but it’s pitched perfectly, existing in a filmic world of reproductive dread somewhere between Eraserhead and the “caring for a zombie baby” scenes from Dead Alive (with a touch of Basket Case thrown in for good measure).  Both the husband and the wife are off-put by Otik’s existence, and both seem to recognize that it’s unreal.  The difference between the two is that the wife jumps into the fantasy whereas the husband resists.  This part of the film feels much like a fairy tale about the horrors of unnatural reproduction made literal and set in modern time.  

So it’s a bit off-putting when the movie’s perspective switches from the parents to that of the little girl who lives in a nearby apartment.  Not only has the movie invested a fair amount of tragic pathos in the relationship between the husband and wife that is frustratingly set aside for long stretches after this switch, when the movie does get around to resolving their story, the shift in narrative focus drains the power from the resolution, changing the tone of the parents’ story from excruciatingly bleak to just interesting.  Further, the movie tips its hand far too soon when the girl discovers a fairy tale that mirrors the plot we’ve seen and telegraphs the ending of the film.  Once this happens, the movie changes from depicting a delightfully nasty fairy tale to talking about this delightfully nasty fairy tale and what it has to say is unsurprising and pedestrian.

It should be noted, though, that the sequences involving the little girl are rife with inventiveness and a sure-footed depiction of the way powerless children find power through myth.  She’s frightened of the ever growing Little Otik at first, but after she reads a story about him, she knows how to handle him, befriends him, and endeavors to take care of him as her own.  Mirroring this is the threat of an older pedophile that lives in the building, a threat she’s able to disarm and, eventually, eliminate as her understanding and acceptance of Little Otik grows.

I wish that the movie was an hour and forty minutes, rather than two hours and five minutes.  There’s a classic film about the horrors of reproduction buried inside.  The first half of the film is scary, funny, and immensely absorbing.  The second half is endearing as well, but the two parts don’t work well together.  Both halves utilize sickening camera shots that emphasize the disgusting and consumptive nature of food (the way food is shot in this movie grosses me out more than anything Argento or Fulci have ever thrown at me) , but there’s very little else tying them together, thematically.  Still, there’s plenty to like in this movie and it’s, ultimately, a lot of fun.  I’d especially recommend it to anyone who’s considering having a baby.  The movie effectively demonstrates that, no matter how monstrous your child may be, any amount of justification will be employed to protect it.  After all, that postman was pretty old… and the social worker, well, she was just a mean person who got what was coming to her.



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Sam Kahn said...

I've been wanting to see this movie for a while. Seems like it's worth checking out.

David Wester said...

Kaaaaahn: Yeah, it's definitely worth a view. My girlfriend didn't feel the shift was as rough on the movie as I did... so, you know, let me know if you do see it, what you think.

Tony R said...

I've never heard of that movie before. When did it come out? I'm assuming it's already out of theaters and in the video stores (if it was made in like 1983, I'll feel retarded).

Sounds pretty cool - I like to see movies that have different plots every now and then.

Swedish Girl said...

I almost got to see Little Otik when I was working as a slave for Edinburgh Film Festival. We got to see the industry screenings (normally at seven in the morning) for free, and I dragged along a friend who was more of a lager-and-Shawshrank Redemtion kinda bloke, but ended up having to leave him to watch it on his own because of work.

He came out all dazed and didn’t speak to me for days. Whenever he saw me he muttered: “Six in the morning… pile o’ shite… bloody tree log…”

So that’s his review and now it’s on the net.

Real Movies said...

You all are a bunch of pretentious artsy fartsy dorks acting like you know something.


Swedish Girl said...

Is that you, Shawshrank redemption bloke?

Please, don't be mad anymore. I had no idea the film was about a tree log.

bluefox_923 said...

Basket Case is the best movie ever created by humans.

M. Gants v4.0 said...

I just watched this movie last night. Wow was it weird. I liked it. I really liked the bizzarre image of a gurgling tree-trunk monster (with teeth!!) wearing a baby bonnet. I want to check out more of Jan Svankmajer's work now.