Through the looking glass darkly
Like many of the outstanding artists working throughout the ’60s and ’70s in film, television and theater, Jonathan Miller was no one-trick pony. And, like many of his friends in Monty Python, he didn’t aim for a career in entertainment at all; in fact, he walked out of the hallowed halls of Cambridge University in 1959 with a degree in medicine. But by the time the Reagan-Thatcher ’80s rolled around, Miller had engraved his name as firmly in British artistic tradition as his pals in Python, The Beatles, Beyond the Fringe (which featured Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and Alan Bennett), the Royal Shakespeare Company, and onward.
What made Miller’s work so compelling was its fertile imagination and sometimes strict disavowal of the traditional back doors — special effects, elaborate set designs, excessive costumes, and the like — that so many directors and producers ducked through in hopes of distracting their audiences from the various shortcomings on the stage or within the frame. “I like great simplicity in all my work,” Miller explains in film scholar Wheeler Dixon’s liner notes for the arresting DVD release of Alice in Wonderland, “I don’t like lots of florid detail.” While some — especially today in the digital spectacles of The Matrix (which bit hard on Lewis Carroll’s rhyme for all three of its heady installments), Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings — feel that such avoidance will doom representations of primal narratives like Alice in Wonderland and others to irrelevance, others hold that this method allows for what Miller calls an “interior sensibility,” an intelligence at once familiar and alienating that is capable of raising just as many questions as an intricate bullet-time shot.
This classic 1966 BBC version of Lewis Carroll’s most infamous of altered states illustrates that thesis with aplomb. Stuffed to the limit with Hitchcockian wide-angle, deep-focus cinematography — courtesy of the brilliant Dick Bush, who worked at length with Miller, the strange Ken Russell, and the not-so-strange Blake Edwards — and clever physical placements that prove just as disorienting as the animated environment that entrenched Disney’s version of Carroll’s narrative in popular culture, this Alice in Wonderland is nevertheless a hushed, subdued experiment in space and composition.
Miller loves putting frames together like a painter, freezing all of them in time and giving the viewer enough material to contemplate their various meanings. And, like Orson Welles (no stranger to Shakespeare himself) before him, Miller also enjoys throwing a mirror or two into Alice in Wonderland‘s structured shots to signal the schizophrenia of identity and interpretation. Just as Welles used a mirror to signal Othello’s psychic fragmentation and so-called physical abomination in his film adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, Miller continually places Alice (young Anne-Marie Millak, who hits the glamour-shot jackpot here) in Lewis Carroll’s looking glass in search of her name and narrative purpose. When the film begins, she’s standing apathetically in front of one while her muttering nanny fusses over her appearance; in classic Miller fashion, the nanny is nearly incomprehensible for her few minutes of screen time, in which the film, just beginning, slows to a dead crawl.
It’s a bold risk for what some might expect to be the usual visual spectacle, but it sets the tone for the rest of the film; in Miller’s litcrit interpretation, Carroll’s mathematical games of garbled, circuitous, and vertiginous speech take precedence over presentation, sometimes to the point of viewer frustration. In fact, those unfamiliar with the actual text of Alice in Wonderland might feel challenged by Miller’s measured pace and inordinate focus on Carroll’s dense twists of phrase. The Caucus Party, in Miller’s brave hands, metamorphoses from Carroll’s gathering of animals on the banks of a pool of tears to a stateroom filled with bored-stiff Victorian aristocrats stuck in a bureaucratic routine from which they know they cannot escape. Whereas Carroll’s Mouse used the snoozy history of William the Conqueror to dry (get it?) the pool’s sopping wet animals, Miller’s version of the character is used to illustrate just how boring the world of adults can become for a young imagination. He sits there, a courtesy grin stuck to his face, rambling on while the rest of the cast mumbles, “Yes, yes, yes,” over and over again, numbed completely to the tale.
Similarly, in one of the film’s most hilarious moments, Frog Footman (played with delicious humor by John Bird) offers to help Alice get through one of her many doors by doing, in his words, “nothing at all.” To accentuate this point, Miller has Bird expound at length on just what that means — which is, of course, nothing — while Alice and perhaps the audience, if they’re not laughing their asses off, yawn with ceaseless boredom. It’s a metafictional moment worthy of Miller and Carroll’s (and Monty Python’s, come to think of it) greatest triumphs; as Shakespeare explained, what else is theater but just that “sound and fury signifying nothing,” even more hilarious when it self-consciously rationalizes that nothingness to a befuddled kid who just wants to walk through a door into an alienating, ennui-filled adulthood.
And, in the end, it is that last point that Miller seizes upon with this very adult reading of Lewis Carroll’s classic. In his assured hands, Alice in Wonderland is not merely a fantastical tale of caterpillars, mice, and bloodthirsty queens looking to off some heads, but rather a journey of self-realization and maturation for a young British girl locked in a Victorian nightmare filled with, to paraphrase de Saint-Exupery’s similarly structured The Little Prince, adults executing matters of “consequence” that mean, like Footman says, nothing at all in the scheme of things. As Miller explains it, “Once you take the animal heads off, you begin to see what it’s all about. A small child, surrounded by hurrying, worried people, thinking ‘Is that what being grown up is like?'” The fact that they make no sense, are trapped — like the Mad Hatter, played with sparkling annoyance by Peter Cook — by time, dance about in meaningless caucuses until they’re utterly spent, fuss over keeping their children prim and proper right before they go outdoors and play, and conduct ludicrous proceedings — such as in the King and Queen’s court — when what they really want to do is behead each other, doesn’t jibe with the supposed air of solemnity, importance, and meaning that inflates everything they do.
As Alice says to the Footman in Carroll’s version, “the way creatures argue” — that is, converse, debate, quarrel and communicate — “is enough to drive one crazy.” Miller’s excellent rendering of Alice’s long, strange trip into the world of adults, made even stranger by Ravi Shankar’s trance-inducing sitar soundtracking, takes that psychosis — what Miller called that Kafkaesque “illogicality of dreaming” — and magnifies its estranged human component, laying the groundwork (directly or indirectly, it’s up to you) for David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Eraserhead, Jeunet and Caro’s Delicatessen and City of Lost Children, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, and onward.
Skewering conventional expectation — this Alice is not for the kiddies, my friends — and putting the reality back into surreality, Miller’s turn at this fractured tale will sit as well with Matrix philosophers as it will with old-school Shakespeareans remembering the fond “Swinging Sixties” and its decidedly inventive takes on traditional narrative. Enjoy at your caution, but make sure to leave a trail to find your way back. Once you get lost in Miller’s dense labyrinth of film language and composition, you may never make it home, wherever that may be.