Friday, March 05, 2010


"Art isn't easy / every minor detail is a major decision / have to keep things in scale / have to hold to your vision."—Stephen Sondheim

"Vision" is one of those double-edged properties—much like a looking glass—that, at first, promises pleasure for reflecting back something new to the spectator, but which—as is often the case in our fickle and vain consumerist society—eventually offers reflections all too familiar and, thus, undesirable and (dare I say?) unattractive. It's way too easy to demand that Vincent Van Gogh paint us another "Starry Night" rather than face the reflection of our unbridled consumerist desire. In other words, it's far too easy to blame an artist for our dissatisfied appetites. And when it comes to cogent criticism, the effort required to distinguish one from the other is a plummet down the rabbit hole indeed.

Ironically enough, criticism based on consumerist dissatisfaction is just this side of criticism based on a nostalgic adherence to source materials—in this case Lewis Carroll's beloved Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Alice's Adventures Through the Looking Glass—and one might even consider these two poles of criticism to bear the polarized countenance of Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum. So far, what I'm hearing in response to Tim Burton's inflection of the Alice story is the sibling tussle between those two perspectives; elbows to the ribs and all. Perhaps much of this tussle could have been avoided had Burton elected to entitle his project Alice in Underland?—which, as far as I'm concerned, would have worked much better, been more exact, and dissolved many an expectation, evening the playing field.

While Twitch teammate Jim Tudor acknowledges that Tim Burton is "one of the pre-eminent visual stylists in the world of filmmaking", he's quick to side with commercial interests to complain that Burton "has generally had nothing new to say since his earliest, most triumphant works" and that Burton's Alice is a "shockingly conventional tale—a Campbellian hero's journey." As a student of Joseph Campbell's who has watched his influence ebb and flow over the decades, it no longer surprises me when the monomyth is reduced to the "conventional" instead of being recognized appropriately as the source font of cultural inflection for millennia. Such unbridled ennui suffered by so many young critics—wanting something perpetually new from our beleaguered visionaries—seems to forget what Alice learned in Wonderland: "The hurrier I go, the behinder I get." That's a sage warning. In the race for new style, new product, new vision, do we forget to encourage the few visionaries we have? Mileage varies, of course, even when moving way too fast. And hip dismissal such as College Humor's caricature of "Tim Burton's Secret Formula" (via our friends at /Film)—undeniably truthful as far as the truth of caricature warrants and eliciting the expected guffaw—does little in my estimation other than to momentarily supplant genuine vision with kneejerk insight. Granted, kneejerk insight satisfies low attention spans than—here's the word again—deep reflection requires.

As a good friend once told me, "The silent mirror forfeits" and, therefore, in any narrative involving a looking glass, one hopes that the mirror will speak back and that self-reflection will engage how one imagines their identity and how they keep that imagined identity in scale. For me this has long been the presiding lesson of the Lewis Carroll stories: imagination and scale. And—contrary to all the complaints that Burton has drifted too far from the original material—I find he has in fact reinvigorated Carroll's most salient themes, especially through his visual design.

Keeping an imagined identity in scale is the selfsame challenge that presents itself when such beloved literary works as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are adapted—i.e., imagined—for the big screen. It is, afterall, a difficult transition from a little book to a big screen. Industrial compromise requires nibbling first on this and sipping next on that to even make it through the door. In my humble opinion, Tim Burton has imagined a wondrous world playful with scale and expressed it in such a way that it applies to the awkward process by which a young person discovers a confidence that fits (give and take some shrinkage) for them. His Alice in Wonderland is as much a "just-so" story as it is one about "muchness." For those who criticize that he has lost his touch, for crying out loud, go find another visionary and enjoy them for one or two films before your critical ennui sets in and—while you're at it—why not question why your ennui keeps rearing its weary head? For all his obvious failings of repetition (one could also see them as creative reiterations), Burton's works of art remain some of my most anticipated, and the Hollywood landscape would be rendered far more anemic should he be discouraged from expressing his vision because fans want him to make another Nightmare Before Christmas.

Since the silent 1903 filmic adaptation of Alice in Wonderland—currently available for viewing courtesy of BFI—adherence to John Tenniel's illustrations has been a near given and the rule by which adaptations have been evaluated. The popular imaginary has a dear affection for these visualizations, which—again—concern scale, not the least being physical growth. Should Alice be a little blonde-haired girl in a blue dress or can she be—as Burton sees her—a young woman in a blue dress? Reams have been written—and it is widely well-known—that Alice Liddell, Carroll's inspiration, actually had dark hair and a short fringe so from the get-go there has been a wrestling within the popular imaginary of not only how this girl should look like but who she really is. That, after all, is the informing question posed by our hookah-smoking caterpillar. And in Burton's version, the Dormouse's doubt darkens Alice's presence in Underland.

So setting aside all we want from Tim Burton, I'd like to take a look at what he's given us. Tim Burton's achievement in his vision of Alice in Wonderland is to situate self-inquiry against social expectation. His is one of those important tales that warn against the false marriage and that promise a young woman that she can become herself all on her own and without the hindrance of the male. Jim Tudor is quick to reduce this to "a typically anachronistic female movie heroine", which begs a gendered argument against all those typically anachronistic male movie heroes that fanboys never seem to question. I concur more with guest Twitch contributor Mike Sizemore's quite fair observation: "It's also refreshing to see a female lead have so much fun in an adventure while reminding Alice's target audience that doing six impossible things before breakfast is something to be held onto no matter how old you are."

More pertinently, I would argue that like most fairy tales, the Carroll books are not really children's literature and have always been darkly psychological books intended for adults and—as psychology is, in my estimation, organic and evolutionary, anchored in the body—it only stands to follow that the psychological strength of a story will adapt to the zeitgeist of the time. Now some people don't like this. They prefer that a story stay anchored in a certain time and will, let's say, complain that Burton has sexualized a children's story—and that's all very fine and good for unapologetic nostalgists—but, it doesn't strike me that this is what Burton wanted when he re-imagined the story of Alice and—true to his own vision—he has retold the story for our time, for better or worse (and, in this case, admittedly both). The fact that there is an ongoing adjustment throughout the film—a constant struggle to find the right size—speaks I think to the indeterminacy and insecurity of any given time, especially our own.

There are dangers of conflation in the script; but, these dangers have been around since the story first began to be imagined. Some of those conflations have inspired irritation for generations—most notably, the conflation of the Queen of Hearts with the Red Queen—but, such conflations become scriptural strategies that deal not only with the compression of narrative time but narrative image. Conflation and compression, incidentally, are merely different ways of being different sizes. If there is any conflation I object to in Burton's reconfiguration of the Alice tale, it's the worrisome blend of Alice with an armored Joan of Arc. I somewhat understand why Burton stretched this battle for independence towards an image of chivalric militancy against a dragon, even as I concur with Roger Ebert that audiences today require filmmakers to end otherwise involving narratives with "routine and boring action." Ebert asks: "Why does Alice in Wonderland have to end with an action sequence? Characters not rich enough? Story run out? Little minds, jazzed by sugar from the candy counter, might get too worked up without it? Or is it that executives, not trusting their artists and timid in the face of real stories, demand an action climax as insurance? Insurance of what? That the story will have a beginning and a middle but nothing so tedious as an ending?" In my estimation, that's cogent criticism. Fanboys, question your appetite for action and how it hinders vision.

For all these grumpy critics who don't like what Tim Burton has imagined with this story, perhaps they need to nibble on—or sip from—something that will shrink their large heads to a proper scale of imagination? Failures of imagination have more to do with being unable or unwilling to suspend disbelief: the most time-honored of spectatorial requirements. Merely buying a ticket doesn't do it. It isn't that a director is responsible for making a spectator suspend disbelief; that has to be allowed from the spectator himself. And if you're going to be hugging a book too hard or holding on to a desired visualization too intensely, you might not see the mordant and hallucinatory wonder laid out before you, which deserves due respect.

Finally, in terms of characterizations, Mia Wasikowska bears the pale countenance of a young girl turning into a young woman, perhaps forced to by the social demands being placed on her. Her paleness becomes a visual accent to the disturbed colors of Underland. Along with his concern that Alice desperately needs a Wonderland nap, Jim Tudor writes intriguingly about his concern that such pallor merely guises Burton's penchant for cinematic alter-egos. However, truth is, this is a visual element present since Tenniel's illustrations, which even Ebert admits were alarming. "Why," he wondered as a young boy, "did Alice have such deep, dark eye sockets?" Shall we levy a complaint against Lewis Carrol for writing such obvious pallid alter-egos as well? Or is it time to wonder what Alice's exhausted countenance suggests?

Johnny Depp—with customary flair—has become the Mad Hatter and invested a tone of self-doubt that complicates his portrayal with the anguish of someone who is aware of—but has no control over—encroaching madness. Once again I concur with Mike Sizemore: "Traumatized and suffering from split personalities, it's a nice touch that in his few coherent moments he seems aware that he's gone insane allowing Depp to briefly add a little humanity to the character." Contrary to Twitch teammate James Marsh's harsh assessment, this is the first time I've ever felt anything for the character of the Mad Hatter other than bemusement and that's totally due to Depp's pitch-perfect performance. Further, I like that Depp is not immediately recognizable under his costuming and makeup effects. He looks more like Elijah Wood than himself. I will concede, however, that the dance is silly and distracting, but then so is our zeitgeist.

Helena Bonham Carter's grotesque Red Queen hazards a one-note performance; but, then, this suits the character's megalomania. I didn't expect much range from such a petty tyrant. As Knave, Crispin Glover comes across cruel and irreal. The weakest performance, by far—and here I wholeheartedly disagree with James Marsh—was Anne Hathaway as the White Queen. Glenda, she ain't, though she flits around like she's supposed to be. Wrong story, Anne! The other actors, who are primarily voice actors—Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall and Christopher Lee—all do admirable jobs disguising their British celebrities in enlivened portrayals.

I do hold valid Jim Tudor's complaint regarding the eleventh hour shift to 3D; but, again, see this as a consequence of consumer appetites. Studios are struggling to keep moviegoers coming to the theaters and 3D remains an effective lure. I actually intend—in sheer deference to Kurt Halfyard—to watch Alice in Wonderland again, in 2D, more because I find that 3D glasses mute color and I want to see Burton's palette in full array.

In conclusion, I would say, "Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!" In other words, beware critics, and see the film for yourself. It may not be your cup of tea, but at least you can say a chair was found for you at the tea party.

Cross-published on


Paul Martin said...

I agree with much of this, Michael. For me, Mia Wasikowska is the best thing about the film and is close to perfect - both her performance and her looks. Anne Hathaway is irritating with her 'queenly' hands in the air. She looks good but her role is empty, vacant.

From the pre-release marketing, I cringed at both Depp's and Bonham Carter's roles but was pleasantly surprised to find their performances understated compared to their appearance, especially Depp. But their appearance is distracting and, while one might be able to justify or rationalise it as "well, that's Tim Burton's interpretation", it still detracted. Contrast that with, for example, the more conventional interpretations such as the Cheshire Cat and the White Rabbit. Now these characters are both CGI, still with Burton's touch but without the almost 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' stylisation of his Mad Hatter and Red Queen. I suppose what I'm saying is that these two characters were over-cooked visually.

I enjoyed Burton's Alice in Wonderland, but I don't think it's Burton's finest film. Whether we're talking Edward Scissorhands or Sleepy Hollow or any of his films, I think they work best when we get down to the personal. That's the strength of Alice in Wonderland - the personal interactions between Alice and those she interacts with. Where the film is at its weakest is when it goes into Epic-mode, à la Lord of the Rings, and we lose sight of the personal. I'm referring to the same parts of the film as Ebert, but that's my interpretation.

ideaman said...

Thank you Michael for a very thoughtful and insightful review. I think I will bother to see this now despite seven dollar popcorn.

Did you review the new Sherlock Holmes? I felt it was not such a good redo.

Michael Guillen said...

Paul, as ever, thanks for taking the time to stop by to comment. How are things down under?

Surprisingly, I didn't so much object to the "overcooked visuals" of Depp and Carter. The latter's oversized head played well into my focus on scale and I liked that her retinue either all had something big to their personage or were pretending to have something big. For me this was a funny riff on conformity to authority. But especially with someone whose work is as stylized as Burton's, I completely understand that he is not everyone's cup of tea.

I agree this is not Burton's best; but, much better than the Willy Wonka remake, which I found horrid. I think my affection for the source material helped me be more willing to suspend disbelief.

Ideaman, thanks as well for stopping by. I didn't see the new Sherlock Holmes. I'm actually having trouble with big budget studio product lately. They're just not grabbing me as they once did and--because I'm accredited press and expected to write about everything I catch at a press screening, whether I liked it or not--I'm tending to not go to the press screenings so I don't have to write about something I don't like, which I find to be a waste of time.

Jeff from Miami Limo said...

This movie looks like it's going to be great!

angelneptunestar said...

My review of Alice in Wonderland is above. I thought Anne Hathaway was just brilliant. She is a queen in denial, cloaking her terror of insanity with everything sweet and sugary, but her histrionic behaviour shows that she is fighting off her fear of the madness of the Red Queen. The White Queen symbolises neurosis. In fact, the theme for me, of the movie, is insanity, in all its forms.

Sinécdoque said...

Talking about "our fickle and vain consumerist society", Burton's Alice in Wonderland seems to be the perfect example when an artist/director with a decent filmography meets the monetary goals of big studios: a visual product is born. For months, through massive and overwhelming advertising by Disney, it was clearly understood that many people's expectations weren't reached once the “product” came out. According to his own words, Burton said he was never interested in taking such story to the big screen due to obvious narrative limitations from the originals. So the tergiversation of the tales and its characters was somehow necessary, taken beyond its limits to become something else. And it's not about being "purists" regarding Carroll's original works but knowing –without the idealization of Burton that fanboys got us used to- that this was more of a Disney project put in the hands of a “controversial” director. Sadly, there was no initiative this time…and it shows. Švankmajer’s version from 1988 was way better without the fx masquerade.

I still consider Ed Wood as his masterpiece and continue to think Burton goes better outside remakes. Apparently, a talented artist that doesn’t like taking risks anymore. Alice in Wonderland isn’t his best movie, and we should be thankful for that.