103. BLOOD TEA AND RED STRING (2006)

“The doll character had been working its way into my drawings since 1990.  A lot of these things evolved from drawings.  The drawing is coming from the subconscious, really, so you don’t really know why, or say ‘why am I drawing it’?”–Christiane Cegavske on the DVD commentary to Blood Tea and Red String

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Christiane Cegavske

FEATURING: With one minor exception, all characters are silent animated puppets

PLOT:  A group of aristocratic white mice commission rodentlike creatures with beaks (called the “Creatures Who Dwell Under the Oak”) to create a doll for them, but once the puppet is fashioned the Creatures refuse to give it up; instead, they revere it and sew an egg they find floating in a creek inside its torso.  The mice steal the doll and take it to their lair, so the Creatures set out on a journey to recover it.  Along the way they meet a frog sorcerer and a spider with a human face, and everything changes when the egg inside the doll hatches.

Still from Blood Tea and Red String (2006)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film took 13 years to make, with Cegavske animating perhaps 10 seconds a day.  Many of the models and effects used show up in the director’s 1992 short Blood and Sunflowers.
  • Cegavske intends for Blood Tea and Red String to be part of a trilogy, and in 2011 she announced the second part of the project, titled Seed in the Sand.  She estimates this installment will take five years to complete.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Blood Tea is bizarre throughout, and many will be attracted to the psychedelic splashiness of the sequence where the Oak Dwellers eat hallucinogenic berries and see morphing pink and green leaf patterns overlaid on the courtyard garden.  For my money, though, things are at the weirdest when we climb inside the dark mouse hole and watch the well-dressed vermin pour bloody tea onto the lips of the lifeless doll while their skull-headed pet raven looks on.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A dialogue-free stop-motion animated fable done in the style of Jan


Original trailer for Blood Tea and Red String

Svankmajer, but with a darkly feminine spin, Blood Tea and Red String gently folds surrealism into its fairy tale structure to create a weirdly compelling world.  It’s an inverted Alice, told from the perspective of mutant rodents, depraved white mice, and mystical frogs.

COMMENTS:  Artist Christiane Cegavske had been living with the haunting creatures of Blood Tea and Red String in her head for years before bringing them to life.  Her first visions of white mice were far more terrifying than the subtly unsettling red-eyed rodents who eventually made it to the screen.  In their first appearance in a Cegavske painting, the vermin torture a nude, bound woman in a rose garden: two of the creatures threaten her breasts with massive scissors, while a third kneels between her spread legs, sewing her up with red string.

Cegavske’s view of the creatures had softened by the time she conceived the story for Blood Tea, and their menace subsided into a background aura.  In her DVD commentary the artist consistently speaks of these creatures, along with other denizens of her subconscious world like the Oak Dwellers (sort of a mutant hybrid of shrews and crows), as if they were real beings with an independent existence; she has learned some things about them, she tells us, but does not pretend to have all the answers.  She confesses that she does not know the name of the Spider, or where the mice get the hemoglobin to brew their favorite beverage, or where the Frog finds the hearts he uses in his magic rituals.  Her understanding of the creatures evolved over time, and with greater familiarity it seems she no longer sees them as terrifying, as did the young girl who painted the first image of torturer mice.  By the time of Blood Tea the characters had become ambiguous, mysterious fairy tale creatures with inscrutable habits and customs, unfit to be judged by human standards.

I’m not implying Cegavske is a crazy woman who literally sees visions of twisted creatures and catalogs their behavior like some schizophrenic crypto-anthropologist.  It’s just that she honors these characters’ subconscious origins; she conceives of each entity in a dream and slowly cultivates a relationship with it, letting it divulge to her what it will over a period of many years.  Her approach to characterization is patiently Surrealist.  When she finally unleashed the results of her studies of these beings and their curious customs on the world, they simultaneously appear fully fleshed-out, breathing creatures, yet they remain full of secrets.

The affluent mice have somehow discovered a vintage Victorian portrait of a human woman with blood-red cheeks and lips, and they want the Oak Dwellers (obviously this world’s premier artisans) to create a simulacrum for them. The Oak Dwellers do so, but fall in love with their own creation, sew up an egg they find floating in a stream inside it, and mount it on their tree like a crucified savior (or a scarecrow).  The mice, arriving in the night in their turtle-drawn carriage, steal the doll and take it back to a mouse hole full of ticking clocks, where they get drunk on blood and play a game where they deal out hands of blank cards.  Meanwhile, the Oak Dwellers put on cloaks and set out on a journey to recover their creation.  They encounter carnivorous plants, but are saved by an amphibian wizard who feeds the hungry pods hearts in place of their prey.  And so it goes.  The story has the outline of a fairy tale or an epic fantasy quest that makes it easy enough to follow, but the details are gnarled, amazing and strange.  It’s a near-perfect blend of surrealism and story, with no language to nail it down to a single meaning (the Dweller’s squawks and the mice’s squeaks convey only the most basic of emotions, like anger or alarm).

The world Cegavske fashions recalls the earliest folk versions of fairy tales—before they were refashioned by Victorian moralists to teach children useful behavioral lessons—stories set in lands populated by inscrutable magical creatures with obscure motivations.  The meanings of these tales, which accrued and mutated over generations, are often unclear and often amoral; the point of the stories, invented to amuse, is to evoke wonder.  But meanings do suggest themselves, seeping through the fabric of the tale.  Though Blood Tea and Red String is decidedly and deliberately undidactic, motifs of female reproduction poke through the story.  The title itself subtly evokes a feminine hygiene product, and an obvious image of menstruation occurs with a shot of blood leaking between the doll’s feet.  Eggs are an important symbol, and are even kept inside the doll (the only clearly female character in this otherwise sexless world).  There is a pregnancy and a birth (rendered grotesquely, Alien style).  Creatures are continually being wrapped up into womblike containers—the carnivorous plant pods which envelop the sleeping Oak Dwellers, the spider that tighly wraps its captured prey in a red string cocoon, a corpse sewn snugly into a leaf coffin.  There are fewer symbols of the male reproductive system, but they do appear, in the form of acorns.  This seed first appears nonchalantly affixed to the lead Dweller’s staff.  Later the crew gets drunk on Frog’s brew (sipped from nut cups) and see a vision of an acorn which splits open and turns into an egg.  Why this reproductive imagery is in the movie is unclear (perhaps it has to do with the project’s long gestation), but it does help unify the unconscious rhythms of the film, while distantly linking the story to ancient fertility myths.

Visually, Blood Tea owes much of its look to Czech Surrealist animator Jan Svankmajer, an influence whom Cegavske is eager to credit.  The white mice fashion their sartorial style on Alice‘s white rabbit, down to their white ruffled collars and scarlet frock coats.  Most of Cegavske’s models have that weathered, antique quality—like leftover wooden toys from a pre-plastic era—typical of the objects Svankmajer loves to animate.  Yet, while she takes cues from the Czech master, Cegavske does create a style of her own, by setting her action not in the real world but inside of carefully composed, pastoral dioramas that resemble children’s pop-up storybooks.  Svankmajer confines his creatures in claustrophobic interiors, but for the most part Cegavske lets hers roam in open fields and gardens—gardens where the sunflowers have faces.

Blood Tea‘s animation is necessarily herky-jerky, but the style works in favor of the mythical material by removing the action one step from reality while still remaining rooted in the physical world.  Like the movie’s story and visuals, Mark Growden’s score is off-key yet oddly melodic, mixing calliopes with recorders or lutes with a Jew’s harp to create tunes which sound medieval and otherworldly at the same time.

For a project that took an amazing thirteen years to complete, it’s remarkable that Blood Tea and Red String isn’t overly thought out—and I mean that as a compliment.  Half-rodent, half-crow creatures who live in oak trees and build dolls for blood-addicted mice don’t need extensive backstories.  It’s enough to know they tend sunflowers, sew eggs into puppets, and implicitly trust mystical frogs who carry endless supplies of hearts beneath their robes.  What seems like randomness to us to them is ritual.  We should feel honored and privileged to glimpse these noble and elegant creatures as they trek about their Faerie world on wispy business we’re too thick and pragmatic to fully comprehend.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a David Lynchean fever dream on Beatrix Potter terrain… Often grotesque, though never in the ‘Sick and Twisted’ juvenile gross-out mode, dreamlike feature is as lovingly crafted as it is unsettlingly sour-sweet, with Mark Growden’s avant-garde folk score in perfect synch.”–Dennis Harvey, Variety (festival screening)

“…the tale becomes both increasingly macabre and bizarrely poignant… if the tale’s moral is less than clear, its haunting images speak directly to some dark, preverbal corner of the heart.”–Maitland McDonagh, TV Guide

“In a word, crazy, but while Cegavske’s craft… is nothing if not painstaking, her story unravels dispassionately, and with zero sexual innuendo—an arbitrary string of strange happenings that starve for subtext.”–Ed Gonzalez, Slant (contemporaneous)

OFFICIAL SITE:

Blood Tea and Red String – There’s only a little bit of information on this page—plot synopsis, quotes from favorable reviews, and links to buy Blood Tea merchandise—but you may enjoy poking around the rest of christianecegavske.com

IMDB LINK: Blood Tea and Red String (2006)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Blood Tea & Red String Panel – Brief clip of Cegavske discussing the film and her influences at the Anime L.A. convention in 2007

Seed in the Sand by Christiane Cegavske – Kickstarter – Information on the second part of the intended trilogy that started with Blood Tea and Red String, including a plot synopsis and a peek at a set.  The project is already funded.

DVD INFO: The Cinema Epoch DVD (buy) contains a wealth of revealing background material, as befits a labor of love like Blood Tea and Red String.  Cegavske shares some of her “miniature paintings” (many of which appear in the film) and shows and discusses the sketches in which the characters from Blood Tea first revealed themselves to her in a segment called “character and story development.”  The brief, narrated survey of “production stills” gives us insight into the sets and provides us with a sense of scale.  Most important and interesting is the commentary, which takes the form of a conversation between the creator and actor/film critic Luke Y. Thompson.  In the commentary Cegavske seems shy, very much the distracted artist; she’s pained to give answers to certain questions, but she warms up enthusiastically when talking about her creations.  She has a refreshingly different personality than most directors: she comes off as a cool, weird chick with an eternal girlishness about her.

UPDATE 9/28:

In 2012 it appears that the Cinema Epoch contract ran out and the rights reverted to Cegavske, who rescued the film from out-of-print obscurity with a region 0 DV-R release (buy). Why don’t more artists do this? No word on whether any of the special features from the commercial DVD carried over. Blood Tea is also now available as an online purchase or rental (buy or rent online).

(This movie was nominated for review by NGboo, who called it “one of the most creative and imaginative fantasies. Surreal, enigmatic, bittersweet, cutely-morbid & bizarre stop-motion animation.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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