Sunday, April 03, 2005

'Cause Baby It's Yew: Little Otik

Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer proposes a unique solution for infertile couples too poor to adopt. Wooden it be lovely if you could simply dig up a tree stump, give it a nice bath, dress it in frilly baby clothes and faithfully read it the story of Pinocchio each night?

That's what's at the root of Little Otik, Svankmajer's 2000 entry into the arena of surrealist cinema. Childless couple Karel (Jan Hartl) and Bozena Horak (Veronika Zilkova) undertake some creative pruning and shearing when Bozena decides to "raise" a human-shaped log that Karel presents to her as a joke. Karel soon regrets his gift-giving when Bozena wills the inanimate object to life.

Adapted from a Czech fairy tale (Otesanek), this admittedly twisted tale soon branches out into the realm of the botanically bizarre when it becomes evident that Otik is anything but a vegetarian. Developing a taste for meat, Otik proves his bite is worse than his bark when he eats the family cat and a postman.

Dark humor takes seed and foreshadowing falls like timber when ill-fated social worker Bulankova (Jitka Smutna), seeking permission to view Otik, assures "I won't eat him." And the vines of deceit and delusion really become Oedipally entangled when Karel returns home one afternoon to discover Bozena suckling the sociopathic sapling.

Karel confines the bestial baby to the basement in an attempt to starve it to death, but young neighbor girl Alzbetka (Kristina Adamcova) intervenes, secretly feeding Otik. Alzbetka believes that Otik is the real-life manifestation of a character in her favorite fairy tale book and that it is her duty to care for the tempestuous tree. After all, technically, how can a man-eating plant be classified as a cannibal if it isn't eating its spinach? But eventually, after Alzbetka tells some pretty hollow fibs to protect Otik, she learns the meaning behind funk-master musician Bootsy Collins' warning "If you fake the funk, your nose will grow."

Combining stop-motion animation and live action, Otik seems a direct descendant of Audrey, Jr., the flesh-eating venus flytrap from The Little Shop of Horrors. Or perhaps, in darker fashion, Otik is a distant cousin of the monstrously mutated fetus of director David Lynch's 1977 Horror/Fantasy Eraserhead. In Lynch's lurid tale, the baby in question figuaritvely consumes the lives of its depressed parents, whereas Otik literally does so. One could even draw insidious parallels between wacked out mommy Bozena and the Log Lady of Twin Peaks.

In case yew didn't know, Yew trees are extremely poisonous. Many cattle have died from chewing them. So don't try eating little Otik. And pre-Christian Druids considered Yew trees to be sacred and often built their temples near them. They definitely would have rooted for Alzbetka.

I think that I shall never see, a baby as lovely as a tree? Great yews from little acorns grew? Okay, so this film may not be The Velveteen Rabbit, but there is still something perversely pleasurable in seeing dead wood assume humanoid life because of a mother's love. And don't forget all those jokes about "morning wood"! Then again, this flick may just leave you stumped.

("It's a boy! I think I'll name him Ed...Ed Wood")