Interposing characters, dialogue, and symbols from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland into a contemporary political scenario – the Chicago 7 trial – Kerry Feltham’s experimental film Chicago 70 provides an arguably unique example of literary appropriation in cinema. Not merely borrowing elements of a source text and transplanting them into a parallel filmic scenario, Feltham’s film embeds Carroll’s text within a larger diegesis, creating a novel cinematic arena in which borrowed textual elements can gestate within and synthesize with a “host” text.
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Part One: Does Alice Have a Political Future?
In the popular imagination, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) are more than literary caprices: they represent the triumph of rebellious imagination over staid convention, the victory of private reverie over Victorian propriety. Not merely eccentric satires of “unreasonable” English Reason, the Alice works have become cultural touchstones for every new generation tempted by the curiosities of childhood and confounded by the paradoxes of adulthood. But the works’ extreme popularity has diluted their meanings, especially as countless adaptations merely illustrate Alice’s odysseys, without variation, insight, or critique.1 Excessive and careless cultural allusions have familiarized Carroll’s bizarreries. The phrases “down the rabbit hole” and “through the looking glass” are now catch-all expressions, cavalierly used to signify anything alien, perverse, or incomprehensible. Carroll’s dreamworld never aspires to inscrutability, however; like Freudian dreaming, it portends a gateway to inquiry, discovery, and self-reflection.
Confronted with Wonderland’s inverted discourse and perverted characters, Alice quickly discovers that her budding Victorian education is ill-equipped to deal with obstinate irrationality. Yet the chaos of Wonderland doesn’t arise from nothing. As the product of Victorian imaginations – those of Carroll and his heroine – the dreamworld only reflects the culture of its creators. The stubbornness and rigidity of Wonderland’s residents are symptoms of Victorian virtues. The child-abusing Duchess (“Speak roughly to your little boy/And beat him when he sneezes . . .”) is nothing less than an extroverted caricature of the violently repressed emotions endemic to the Victorian family.2 The draconian threats voiced by the Queen of Hearts mirror a waking world in which English royalty precipitated imperialist violence across the globe – the Second Opium War and the 1857 Indian Rebellion occurred shortly before Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland. As it satirizes the reckless violence wrought by Victorianism’s patterns of domestic repression and royalist aggression, Carroll’s dreamworld becomes more “realistic” – or at least less symbolically coded – than Freud’s. In psychoanalysis, one decodes symbols to unearth repressed wishes or traumas, but Alice’s visions do not neurotically recode her own anxieties. On the contrary, her dreamworld grotesquely exposes the illogic of an external world more unfathomable than her own budding psyche.
Alice’s dreams have the characteristics but not the tone of nightmares. Throughout her adventures, Alice is calmly fascinated – not traumatized – by the grotesqueries she encounters, as if her groping naiveté inoculates her from fear. Alice’s overweening curiosity places her alongside any number of fairytale protagonists – Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel – who are brave to a fault. The thorny forests of fairytales are typically alien, foreboding places that admonish children of horrific dangers (lupine rape for Red Riding Hood, consumption and liquidation for Hansel and Gretel, and so on). Carroll’s Wonderland is terrifying too, and amidst the whimsy Alice faces threats of real violence (from the Queen of Hearts, for instance). Unlike traditional fairytales, however, Carroll does not position adventuresome children against authoritarian parents. Here parental figures are absent, and the “adults” Alice encounters in Wonderland are either immature solipsists or authorities who wield arbitrary and illegible power. Because Wonderland is amoral and capricious, Alice’s curiosity is never threatened with moral punishments, as is the venturesomeness of Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks, or other heroines determined to transgress uncharted borders.
The adult world absent in Alice’s waking life (re)appears in Wonderland but in perverted, incomprehensible forms. As a young girl without a critical consciousness, Alice takes Wonderland literally, imposing her fledgling notions of “adult” reason on a world that, like much of Victorian culture, is characterized by rationalizations. As Carroll scholar Donald Rackin says, “Alice’s assumptions are typically no more than her elders’ operating premises, which she maintains with a doctrinaire passion that is almost a caricature of immature credulity.”3 Alice is enthralled to the pretentions of adulthood and longs to grasp “big” words. On her trip down the rabbit hole, she uses “antipathies” instead of “antipodes” (to refer to New Zealand and Australia) and wonders about her present longitudes and latitudes – not because she knows what the words mean but only because they’re “nice grand words to say.”4 She believes that language can make her understand and be understood, but Wonderland’s so-called adults, in their various animalistic and anthropomorphic (dis)guises, only use language to distort, equivocate, and fabulize.
Filled with solipsistic characters unable to engage in dialectical relationships, Wonderland constitutes a static, ahistorical universe. Its inhabitants’ overtures to mathematics, time-keeping, and familial and political relationships are empty parodies of discourse that seem to exist only in the present tense, never alluding to historical contexts or potential futures. Wonderland’s uncommunicative, “present-tense” inhabitants can never mature, and neither can Alice – until she finally rebels against the dreamworld’s illogic. Adult readers will likely focus on moments when Alice exhibits incipient signs of maturation, no longer accepts Wonderland’s irrationality at face value, and starts to see herself not as a passive vessel but as an active historical agent. In Alice’s fourth chapter, “The Rabbit Sends in a Little Bill,” Alice finds herself growing far too quickly after quaffing a potion, and, not coincidentally, begins wondering about her own identity and future. Self-consciously, she compares herself to a fairytale character (“There ought to be a book written about me. . .”) and, as she magically grows, asks herself, “Shall I never get any older than I am now?”5 In Alice’s climactic chapter, “Alice’s Evidence,” Alice finally grows “to her full size” – intellectually as well as physically – and defiantly shouts “Stuff and nonsense!” when the Queen of Hearts barks, “Sentence first – verdict afterwards.”6 In this belated moment of rebellion, Alice discovers her own voice, declaring her tormentors “nothing but a pack of cards” rather than bowing to their unearned authority.7
Like all children, Alice would eventually grow up – not speedily through a magical potion but gradually through inexorable life experience. Most psychoanalytic accounts of Alice focus on her present state, about the age of the real Alice Liddell when Carroll first invented the tales. Within a psychoanalytic framework, Alice is a confused prepubescent girl, ignorant of politics, misapplying her limited understanding of logic to an uncanny, unjust world. But if Alice is truly a “relatable” character who can be psychologized, could we reimagine her at later stages of psychosocial development? If her relevance spans centuries, could we see her not as a sheltered Victorian girl destined for domesticity but as a potential young adult armed with a budding sociopolitical consciousness? And if this “matured” Alice were thrust into the late 20th century, would she see that her dreams reflect a violent, chaotic adult world only pretending to rationality?
Though such questions might seem odd, they actually complete the psychoanalytic critiques to which Alice has sometimes been subjected.8 If Carroll’s relentless images of transformation and growth suggest Alice’s own oncoming maturation, we’re obliged to ask how, exactly, Alice might continue to grow after waking from her reverie. Would she, ten years later, strap on a constricting corset and bow to the paterfamlias? Or would her dreams enlighten and liberate her? When she rebels against oppressive courtly proceedings in “Alice’s Evidence,” has she also learned how to emancipate herself in reality? As the waking Alice grows into an adolescent, would she advocate universal suffrage? Would she openly read Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women?
By no accident does Alice’s political revolt in “Alice’s Evidence” climax her dream state and catalyze an awakening we’re tempted to read metaphorically. Carroll’s Alice duology didn’t enjoy a cultural revival in the late 1960s simply because its psychedelic aspects dovetailed with hippie culture. Countercultural youth movements eager to claim literary touchstones for their politics saw in Alice a heroine poised for emancipation and in Wonderland a reflection of the warlike “adult” society they abhorred. The rampant egoism and reckless violence of Wonderland’s adults are hardly quaint; in reality, such qualities were found in the authoritarian leaders then waging war in Southeast Asia. Carroll’s satire also was accessible to nearly every audience, whether educated or not. Youth cultures didn’t have to grasp the particular Victorian targets of Carroll’s ridicule to understand Alice as a revolt against all manner of repressive conservatism. Hippie-era cinema abounded with psychedelic Alice adaptations and pastiches: Jonathan Miller’s Alice in Wonderland (1966), Jean-Christophe Averty’s Alice au Pays des Merveilles (1970),9 Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Eden and After (1970), Pavel Jurácek’s Case for a Rookie Hangman (1970),10 and, a few years later, Wim Wenders’ Alice in the Cities (1974) and Louis Malle’s Black Moon (1975). In most of these films, however, political critique is indirect, abstracted, or simply absent. Like Grace Slick’s “White Rabbit,” most Alice-inspired films are content to indulge hallucinatory imageries without subjecting Carroll to tendentious or polemicized readings.
An exception is Kerry Feltham’s Chicago 70 (1970), a mostly forgotten work of agitprop first mounted on stage by the Toronto Workshop. Alternately known as The Great Chicago Conspiracy Circus, the film interpolates elements of Alice in Wonderland – namely the chapters “Who Stole the Tarts?” and “Alice’s Evidence” – into a reenactment of the infamous “Chicago 7” trial. As it transplants a Victorian text into a cinematic piece of agitprop, the film’s transmediality, which is obvious enough, becomes less significant than its transmodality, if we see Carroll’s literary caprice and the film’s agitprop as distinct modes or genres of expression. Though it “adapts” elements of a literary classic, Chicago 70 is obviously not a standard adaptation. Likewise, the term “appropriation” falls short of capturing the film’s subversiveness, even if (in a reductive sense) the film does literally borrow Carrollian elements. More accurately, Chicago 70 manipulates Alice in Wonderland, much as plastic artists manipulate “found objects” and graft them into new wholes. By reenacting the Chicago 7 trial with characters, dialogue, and even costumes appropriated from Alice, Chicago 70 proposes a comedy both intrinsic and interstitial: humor arises from the absurdity inherent in the actual trial and through the anachronistic juxtapositions that arise as Carroll’s characters intrude on contemporary American politics. Extracting from Alice ecumenical themes that transcend its Victorian origins, the film rebuffs the Hollywoodized sanctimony of Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) and any number of Chicago 7-inspired films that emphasize individual personalities at the expense of political or philosophical concerns.
As it dismantles Alice for its own ends, Chicago 70 engages Brechtian practices of defamiliarization, making us acutely aware of riven texts “as texts,” not as foundations for naturalistic or even coherent performances. While it places Carroll’s “Alice” in something of a cinematic time-warp, planting her in the late 20th century, the film is distinct from standard adaptations that modernize a literary chestnut but nevertheless adhere to what Bakhtin described as chronotopic narrative, in which “[s]patial and temporal indicators . . . are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole.”11 In a chronotopic scheme, characters think and behave according to their culture’s practical, generic, and eventually ideological conceptions of time and space, which for Bakhtin are constituted equally and indivisibly. In most adaptations, chronotopic norms tend to hold true even when directors modernize their sources or transpose them to alternate times, cultures, and geographies. Ken Hughes’ Joe Macbeth (1955), for example, might update Shakespeare to the crude, tough-talking world of modern gangsterism, but its characters still operate according to “reasonable” modes of spatiotemporal perception within their narrative universe. By contrast, Chicago 70 places Alice not within an organic, “concrete whole” but within a diegetically (and logically) unstable arena where the space-time of Wonderland absurdly collides with that of 20th-century American politics.
The present analysis provides a rare example of what we can call “contrapuntal” appropriation: rather than trying to approximate, reimagine, or reconfigure Carroll within the norms of narrative cinema, Chicago 70 has Carroll’s world enter into a dialectical confrontation with a second narrative, that of the Chicago 7 trial. Furthermore, this confrontation transpires within an experimental structure that plays by chaotic – and even random – spatiotemporal rules. If adaptations and appropriations represent a “contradictory impulse toward dependence and liberation,” as Julie Sanders says, Chicago 70 clearly lies at the radical end of liberation.12 Employing Carroll’s characters and language as a kind of interruptive commentary on the Chicago 7 trial, the film puts Carroll’s text to critical use, instead of employing Carroll as a narrativistic anchor. Insofar as the interruptions of Wonderland eventually overtake the trial proceedings, Chicago 70 provides a most unusual example of an appropriated text colonizing a primary text – a reversal of the typically exploitative practices of appropriation.
Though it updates elements of Alice to the revolutionary era of Bobby Seale and Allen Ginsberg, Chicago 70’s overall design should not be confused with the anachronistic practices of regietheater, in which directors contemporize a repertoire chestnut for the sake of fashionable “relevance” (or sheer perversity). In the operatic world especially, regietheater, as advanced by directors as diverse as Weiland Wagner, Patrice Chéreau, and Peter Sellars, has acquired a reputation for arbitrary sensationalism, and critics have accused such directors of gratuitously visiting a kind of hermeneutic violence on their sources. Yet Chicago 70 is quite the opposite of a trendy revision. Consider, for instance, Chéreau’s oft-criticized antifascist updating of Wagner’s Ring cycle (at the 1976 Bayreuth Centenary), in which the Aryan demigods became the nationalistic overseers of 19th-century industrial capitalism. Here, Wagner’s historically reactionary, humorless work is resuscitated through techniques drawn (more or less) from the repertoire of comedy – anachronism, juxtaposition, incongruity, and so forth. But Chéreau only appropriates comic techniques to place Wagner within a deadly serious irony; never are we meant to see Wagner himself as comic. Chicago 70, by contrast, is an authentic burlesque. Rather than forcibly imposing modernity onto Carroll, the film extrapolates from Alice undated themes comically applicable to 1960s American politics. To the degree that contemporary America still persists under pseudo-Victorian moralities, Chicago 70 reveals the present as terribly dated and Carroll as persistently relevant.
Part Two: The Chicago 7 Trial as a Modern Alice in Wonderland
The Chicago 7 trial was premade for symbolic treatment, pitting no less than Allen Ginsberg and Black Panther Bobby Seale against Julius Hoffman, a judge who embodied every prejudice and preconception of the ancien regime. Carroll might seem an unlikely source of inspiration for experimental filmmakers13 seeking to satirize the Chicago 7 trial, but we should recall that Carroll’s nonsense spoofed the politics of his time. According to Shane Leslie, the Caterpillar caricatures a pedantic Oxford don (like Benjamin Jowett), the King and Queen of Hearts symbolize the “Erastian principle” that places state above church, the Cheshire Cat is a “likely skit on Cardinal Wiseman,” and so forth.14 As Noel Malcolm suggests, Carroll’s satire can be traced to an erudite literary practice of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, when poets would parody official pronouncements and pompous edicts with pretentious, “fustian” displays of wit.15 Not mere whimsicality, this sort of fustian language intended to satirize the era’s “new” scholastic and legalistic argot, bathed in Latinate bombast. In the legal parodies of 17th-century poets such as Thomas Coryate and John Taylor, one finds antecedents for the “contradiction between form and content” that mark Alice’s “Who Stole the Tarts?” episode, where legal proceedings are filled with the sort of “perversely inconsequential” contents found in Coryate and Taylor’s nonsense verse.16 Though one finds little fustian puffery in the Alice works – puffery would be over the heads of Carroll’s young readers – the mockery of highfalutin authority remains.
Much as Alice copes with mock-officialdom and a repressive legal system in the chapters “Who Stole the Tarts?” and “Alice’s Evidence,” the Chicago 7 contended with Julius Hoffman, a reactionary judge reminiscent of the Queen of Hearts. The Queen’s motto “Sentence first – verdict afterwards” captures the attitudes of Hoffman, who clearly desired a prearranged judgment. Many of his proclamations echo nothing more (nor less) than the Cheshire Cat’s serpentine logic and Humpty Dumpty’s egoistic bombast (in Through the Looking-Glass). For the antiwar generation of the 1960s, Carroll’s satires of “adult” sophistry were especially relevant. During official press briefings on the Vietnam War, twisted, equivocating rhetoric was the order of the day. In what Saigon-based journalist Richard Pyle dubbed “The Five O’Clock Follies,” American generals fabricated daily lies about American “progress” in Vietnam – lies few actually believed. When generals responded to journalists’ questions with evasions and circumlocutions, journalists found themselves in Alice-like positions, knowing authorities were spewing nonsense but having to kowtow to them nonetheless.
Before examining Chicago 70, we should briefly recall the chaotic protests surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which precipitated the Chicago 7 trial. Heavily armed National Guardsmen, deployed under Mayor Daley’s orders, outnumbered the antiwar protestors who had surrounded the convention hall. Gravitating toward antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy, the counterculture opposed Hubert Humphrey and a Democratic Party establishment enthralled to the military-industrial complex. Spearheading the convention protestors was the Youth International Party (Yippies), led by provocateurs Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, who released their own mock-candidate, “Pigasus” the Pig, into Chicago’s Civic Center Plaza. Courting notoriety, or at least publicity, Hoffman and Rubin threatened to spike the local water supply with LSD and dispatch agents to seduce the spouses of convention delegates. Along with antiwar activists Rennie Davis, Tom Hayden, John Froines, David Dellinger, Lee Weiner, and Bobby Seale (later tried separately), Hoffman and Rubin eventually were indicted for crossing state lines to incite riots – an offense charged, ironically, under the antiriot provisions of the 1968 Civil Rights Act.
Chicago 70 begins with a caption: “A partial record of the trial of the Chicago Seven. . . . Every word, laugh and stumble is taken from the trial transcript.” Before the trial proceeds, the characters are introduced in the form of their alter egos – personages from Alice in Wonderland, sitting in the jury box. Trial reenactments are regularly interrupted by sequences in which actors reappear as their Wonderland counterparts, repeating snatches from Carroll as ironic commentary on the absurd legal proceedings. No longer a questing girl, “Alice” is here represented as a young woman – played by an adult actress, Diane Grant – whose squeaky, childlike voice suggests that she’s more than ready to grow up. At first, “Alice” appears as a juror. Framed in rare close-ups not afforded to other characters, she watches from a distance but becomes more active – both physically and politically – as the trial progresses, interrupting testimonies with antiwar skits and irreverent vaudeville songs. When lawyers begin discussing police brutality at the Democratic Convention, Alice adopts the persona of a teacher and addresses her fellow jurors as though they were her students. She asks, “Now class, what did we learn in the army?” The other jurors, mocking the thuggish tactics of the National Guardsmen, simply scream “Kill!” Interjected jokes eventually will be put aside, however, when Alice and reality dialectically collide in the film’s final scenes. While historical personages from the trial occasionally slip into their alternate “Wonderland” roles, Alice herself makes a contrary journey, beginning as a fictional character (stationed in the jury box) and eventually “maturing” into real-life activist Linda Morse, a pacifist-turned-revolutionary who testified at the trial. (This cross-character transformation is embodied by Grant, who plays both Alice and Linda Morse.) At the film’s end, Alice grows from the passive spectator of a farcical trial into a politically conscious adult who, through that very consciousness, carries Carroll’s fantastic rebellion into Vietnam-era America.17
Rather than presenting the trial chronologically, the film employs a sketch-like structure, (re)presenting both familiar and unfamiliar episodes through extended long shots on a theatrical set. Judge Hoffman is raised unusually high on a mirrored bench – a “looking glass,” if you will – that opaquely reflects the trial’s participants. The action begins with Bobby Seale excoriating Judge Hoffman: “I called you a racist, a fascist, and a pig, and that’s what I consider you as.” Before Hoffman can respond, the film, inaugurating the fractured structure that will follow, cuts to the alternate “Alice” reality, in which defendants reappear as the Mad Hatter and March Hare, while Judge Hoffman becomes (of course) the King of Hearts, flanked by the Queen.
Through a combination of judicial ineptitude and courtroom provocation, the trial’s discourse falls into comic devices common in Carroll’s world, such as inversion, juxtaposition, and the reversal of expected orders and hierarchies (as occurs when dithering Judge Hoffman is schooled by the young defendants). Although it sometimes pays homage to the trial’s more notorious events (e.g., the gagging of Bobby Seale), the film generally avoids reenacting emotional or tendentious episodes, instead spotlighting moments that slip into the type of anti-discourse Humpty Dumpty practices in Through the Looking-Glass. Aided by actual trial transcripts, personages argue endlessly about the meanings of linguistic signs and referents. Evincing Humpty Dumpty’s vanity, Judge Hoffman insists on the rightness of his perceptions and constructs, much as the egoistic egg claims that a word “means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”18 In one telling sequence, the judge upbraids a defense witness for smoking a pipe in the courtroom when he was merely holding the pipe. In the ensuing dialogue, defense attorney William Kunstler and the prosecutor are also dragged into the fray:
Judge Hoffman: You just sit there and answer the questions. Every witness will be protected . . . you are amply able to protect yourself, but I will still give you the protection of the United States District Court, which we accord every witness. . . .
Witness: Thank you very much.
Judge Hoffman: . . . even when they come in smoking pipes!
Witness: I was not smoking a pipe!
Kunstler: That is not true your honor, he was not smoking a pipe!
Judge Hoffman: He had a pipe in his mouth!
Kunstler: That goes to the heart of what we are doing, your Honor. . . . You just told the jury, “Even when he came in smoking a pipe,” when he was not smoking a pipe. Your Honor knows he wasn’t smoking a pipe.
Judge Hoffman: Don’t tell me what I know!
Kunstler: He showed you the pipe, he had the pipe in his mouth. . . .
Judge Hoffman: He didn’t even put it away.
Kunstler: This is a lesson for the jury, your Honor, because when you say “Smoking a pipe,” you are mistaken and the jury knows you are mistaken.
Prosecution Lawyer: The jury knows very well what you mean by “smoking a pipe”! He had a pipe in his mouth in a federal district court.
Kunstler: There is a vast difference between smoking a pipe and . . .
As the debate plods on, one cannot help but recall Alice’s encounter with Humpty Dumpty, who complains that Alice called her an “egg,” only for Alice to point out that she said he “looked like an egg.”19 A relic of more conservative times, Judge Hoffman sometimes falls himself into Alice-like positions, for he is as estranged from hippie-Yippie argot as Alice is from Wonderland doublespeak. When Judge Hoffman claims to not know what a “Yippie” is even after three months of hearings, the film suddenly cuts to a longhaired bohemian who proclaims: “A Yippie is a hippie who’s been busted, is a paid assassin, has permanent chromosome damage, has no problems, has no underwear, has no money [and] is almost always full of shit!” In such moments, the power structure implicit in Carroll’s text becomes slippery and unstable. Rather than defendants cowing before authority, as Alice usually does in Wonderland, they boldly act as ironic teachers, as does the film’s “Alice” character when sitting in the jury box. These moments of shifting power prepare the film’s final scenes, in which the Alice character, empowered by the acts of rebellion she witnesses in court, matures into the aforementioned Linda Morse.
Though the filmmakers mostly use actual transcripts, they do selectively edit them to intensify satirical effects. On rare occasions, the film draws on additional texts, including an excerpt from an open letter Jerry Rubin wrote from jail in 1969. In the letter, he explains his dehumanization at the hands of jackbooted police. The original letter reads:
Last time I was in Cook County jail, during the Democratic convention, a guard put a rubber hose on his finger and stuck it up our rectums – looking for what? That medieval practice has apparently been dropped. The stripping and searching is [still] part of the process of dehumanization. Justice . . . Justice!20
In the film, the Jerry Rubin character speaks these lines from the witness stand, but the second and third sentences are cut, such that Rubin’s account humorously reads, “Last time I was in Cook County jail, during the Democratic Convention, a guard put a rubber hose on his finger and stuck it up our rectums, looking for what. . . . Justice?”
Elsewhere, the dialogue needs little editorial intervention, as the actual court proceedings, riddled with non sequiturs and leaps of logic, already echo Carroll’s absurdity. Perhaps most absurd was a famous incident the film recreates at length: Allen Ginsberg’s Sanskrit chanting on the witness stand. Judge Hoffman, nonplussed and bizarrely offended, apparently loses track of his thoughts as he insists that only English be spoken in court. During the exchange, Judge Hoffman becomes defensive, insisting that he is not laughing at Ginsberg’s chanting but is rather mystified by it. The ensuing circular dialogue among Hoffman, Ginsberg, and a trial lawyer seems almost ripped from the pages of Alice in Wonderland:
Judge Hoffman: I don’t understand it, I don’t understand it because it was. . . . The language of the United States District Court is English!”
Allen Ginsberg: I will be glad to explain it. . . .
Judge Hoffman: I didn’t laugh, I didn’t laugh. . . . I wish I could tell you how I feel. . . . I didn’t even smile. All I can tell you is I didn’t understand it because whatever language the witness used –
Allen Ginsberg: Sanskrit, sir.
Judge Hoffman: What is it?
Allen Ginsberg: Sanskrit, sir.
Judge Hoffman: (slowly) San . . . skrit? Well, that’s one I don’t know. That’s the reason I didn’t understand it.
Lawyer: There was a popular song put out by the Beatles with those words. . . .
Judge Hoffman: I’m not interested in the Beatles . . .
Allen Ginsberg: Let me go on with my explanation. . . .
Judge Hoffman: Will you remain quiet while I’m talking to the lawyer?
Allen Ginsberg: I’d be very happy to give an explanation.
Judge Hoffman: I never laugh at witnesses, sir. I protect witnesses who come to this court, and they are entitled to the protection of this court. But I must tell you, sir, as I’m sure you know, the language of the American courts is English – the English language – unless we have an interpreter here, for the remainder of this witness’s testimony . . .
Lawyer: Your honor . . .
Judge Hoffman: (agitated): I don’t understand Sanskrit! I venture to say that members of the jury don’t. We may have some members of the jury who do understand Sanskrit, I don’t know. But I wouldn’t have known it even was Sanskrit until he told me!
The theme of improbable or impossible translation – ubiquitous throughout Alice’s time in Wonderland – recurs when the trial turns to one of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin’s most famous stunts: the attempt to “exorcise” the “satanic” Pentagon by encircling it with chanting hippies. The stunt’s absurdity notwithstanding, the judge reminds Abbie Hoffman that it is illegal to measure the Pentagon (to determine how many hippies should encircle it). Realizing how ridiculous it is to even describe the stunt, the judge continues, “Those are your words, not mine.” An indignant Abbie Hoffman replies, “None of these are my words. . . . I’m trying to use your words. I don’t speak this language. . . . I’m trying the best I can to speak your language.” These lines, taken from trial transcripts, could have been spoken by Alice herself.
As Judge Hoffman blunders through the trial, he undermines his own authority, implicitly setting the stage for the film’s “Alice” character to mature, speak with her own voice, and seize the political power Hoffman has surrendered. Before actress Diane Grant can enact this transformation, however, the film brings the action down to earth with a solemn, cruel moment: the gagging of Bobby Seale. The gagging, oddly enough, recalls the “suppression” of the misbehaving guinea pigs in “Who Stole the Tarts?” – the animals are stuffed into a bag and sat on. Seale’s silencing is presented surreally, as the film’s soundtrack devolves into an audio collage of chaotic trial testimony. Soon, dissonant electronic music overtakes the collage. As the dissonance grows, two bailiffs approach Seale from behind, bend him backwards, and stuff his neckerchief inside his mouth. Though Seale is materially silenced, the film provides him a ghostly, extradiegetic voice on the soundtrack, as if it were his soul that suddenly screams, “This motherfucker’s tight, and it’s stopping my blood!”
After the Seale incident, Chicago 70 continues its turn toward sobriety. Diane Grant, the actress posing as “Alice” in the jury box, now casts off her Alice persona. As she takes the witness stand, Grant (and thus Alice) becomes the twenty-six-year-old Linda Morse, a middle-class Quaker who became an agitationist revolutionary and protested at the People’s Park in Berkeley. Recall that troops were deployed in May 1969 at the behest of then-governor Ronald Reagan (and his chief of staff, Edwin Meese) to suppress a cluster of antiwar activists around the University of California’s Berkeley campus. On “Bloody Thursday” – as May 15, 1969, would thereafter be known – police opened fire, killing one man, James Rector, and wounding scores of unarmed protestors. In subsequent weeks, National Guardsmen would surround Berkeley on Reagan’s orders, leading to the famous, oft-parodied moment in which hippies inserted flowers into the barrels of the guardsmen’s rifles.
After Morse takes the stand to explain the antiwar protests, the prosecutor inquires about her recent militant training. “You practiced shooting an M-1 yourself? You also practiced karate?” he asks. “Yes,” she responds, before initiating a lengthy monologue:
After [witnessing police fire on protestors], I changed from being a pacifist. I realized a nonviolent revolution was impossible. I desperately wish it was possible. The People’s Park in Berkeley: The policemen shot at us when people were unarmed – [the protestors] were fighting, if you wish, with rocks. The policemen used double-loaded buckshot and rifles and pistols against unarmed demonstrators – that is “fighting,” okay? The people are fighting for a totally different society – people in the Black communities, in the Puerto Rican communities, in the Mexican communities, and in the white communities.
Following this monologue, actress Grant momentarily reverts to her Alice persona, and in a childlike voice she screams at Judge Hoffman what Alice shouts at the head-chopping Queen: “Who cares for you? You’re nothing but a pack of cards!”
We’d asked earlier if we could imagine Alice, that “eternal” character, not as a naïve Victorian girl but as a maturing young woman, released from the ahistorical stasis of Wonderland and of literature itself. Here, Alice grows beyond her literary origins into an anti-imperialist revolutionary born of the hippie imagination. The film provides the most radicalized incarnation of Alice imaginable, answering in no uncertain terms what might (or should) become of an adventuresome girl who, when pushed to the limit, discovers her latent rebellious voice. To achieve its thesis, Chicago 70 admittedly privileges Alice in Wonderland over its less “revolutionary” sequel. Yet even in Through the Looking-Glass, Alice ultimately realizes that executive authority should be deposed, not revered. When Alice is finally “Queened” in Chapter IX of Looking-Glass, she realizes that the White and Red Queens are even more unhinged than the rest of Wonderland. She then starts to grow uncontrollably – that is, she outgrows the two Queens’ royal irrationality, thus reiterating the rejection of callous authority more clearly voiced in the prequel.
Part Three: Is Reality Madly Sane or Sanely Mad?
Some might argue that Chicago 70 hermeneutically savages Carroll’s original conception, just as many claimed that Chéreau’s regietheater Ring perverted Wagner. Others might suggest the filmmakers have taken too far what we’d previously called “transmodality,” grafting modern agitprop onto Carroll’s far subtler literary machinery. Yet the underlying theme of rebellion has always been vital in Alice. For Donald Rackin, rebellion is a theme more central than the apolitical concerns that often preoccupy Alice analyses – chess, semantic and inferential logic, the biographical eccentricities of Charles Dodgson, and so on. In Alice’s final declaration that the King and Queen and all the court are nothing but a pack of cards – a sentiment Alice earlier had expressed only to herself – Rackin sees a courageous rebuke of Wonderland’s illogic. Alice’s courtroom rebellion, as Rackin says, constitutes a “rejection of mad sanity in favor of the sane madness of ordinary existence.”21
As we evaluate the meaning of Alice’s dreamworld rebellion, we can revisit our original question: What does Alice really learn in Wonderland? Does she truly learn to rebel against capricious authority, or does she, on waking, merely appreciate the “sane madness” of Victorian mores? If the latter, Alice seems little more than Dorothy spirited home from Oz, cherishing a banal reality previously taken for granted. If her rebellious spirit is dispelled by waking life, her dream odyssey becomes unprofitable, to say the least. Contemporary readers – whether 1960s hippies or 21st-century post-postmodernists – should hope that Alice actualizes her rebellion, questioning the very real monstrousness of her repressive, antifeminist society. The antiwar movement, which more or less fetishized an insubordinate Alice, couldn’t imagine its heroine acquiescing to the “sane madness” of Victorian repression. Thus Chicago 70 accelerates Alice’s evolution, far more radically than any of Wonderland’s elixirs. The film effectively feeds Alice a cinematic growth potion, one that forces her to supersede her Victorian origins.
The desire to “push” Alice beyond her own literary history sidesteps the nostalgic coda of Alice in Wonderland, in which Alice, reflecting on her dream, pledges to “keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood” and regale other children “with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long-ago.”22 Carroll’s coda tightly seals Wonderland’s meanings within a literary framework. The story will be told and retold across generations, but it will remain a backwards-looking fable – stuck in “long-ago” – that cannot transform future lives. The bittersweet tone that concludes Alice is part and parcel of Rackin’s conventional “sane madness,” as Alice’s memories of Wonderland capitulate to and recuperate the demands of Victorian sentimentalism.
Without some radically imaginative intervention in the manner of Chicago 70, Rackin’s everyday “sane madness” seems implacable. Yet the notion of sane madness could be understood another way, not as a state of things as static as Wonderland but as a self-conscious, goal-directed performance of madness. Indeed, the counterculture understood that its performative anarchies had overarchingly sane goals. Consider this excerpt from Abbie Hoffman’s 1969 satirical polemic, “TWA Never Gets You There on Time”:
We will dye the Potomac red, burn the cherry trees, panhandle diplomats and try to kidnap LBJ while wrestling him to the ground and pulling his pants off. . . . Schoolchildren will rip out their desks and throw ink at stunned instructors, office secretaries will disrobe and run into the streets, newsboys will rip up their newspapers and sit on the curbstones masturbating, storekeepers will throw open their doors making everything free, accountants will all collapse in one mighty heart attack, soldiers will throw down their guns. . . .23
Underneath the comic provocation lies a foundation of “sane” humanitarianism. Politicians should be denuded, at least ideologically; schoolchildren should have revolted against conservative public education circa 1969; the propagandistic, enervating “news” of newspapers could well be replaced by utilitarian pleasure-seeking; and soldiers should forsake their arms and become pacifists. The counterculture’s notion of anarchic cum utopian performance art was hardly a novel idea – its origins can be traced back to the Cynic Diogenes. During the height of the Yippie movement, in fact, academics frequently likened counterculture provocateurs to Diogenes, so similar were their respective oppositions “to the state and to social convention.”24 Diogenes rejected the oikos, the hierarchical structure of the Greek household, much as hippies rejected the bourgeois moralism of the nuclear family. In his lost, possibly apocryphal Republic – an answer to Plato’s own utopia – Diogenes allegedly “proposed not only sexual communism but the raising of children in common; not only the rejection of private property but the use of dice for currency; not only withdrawal from politics but the abolition of war.”25 For Diogenes, the Greek ideal of eudaimonia, which encompassed all Greek thought, meant something more than generic “happiness.” In radical Cynicism, eudaimonia more specifically identified “a state of psychic contentment” or a stressless “inner quality”26 that anticipated the hippie movement’s asceticism and psychedelia.
In harkening back to Diogenes, it may seem that we’ve digressed from Alice in Wonderland and Chicago 70. But recall the primary failing of Wonderland’s residents: self-centeredness and self-absorption. Beginning at a point of extreme egocentricity, the main characters – the Caterpillar, the King and Queen, the Duchess, and so forth – are incapable of forming the semblance of a real community. When Alice encounters these characters individually, incomprehension ensues; when Alice encounters them in group settings, such as the tea party or the trial, the characters’ eccentric solipsism devolves into anxious sadism. Every utopian philosopher, from Diogenes to Abbie Hoffman, has identified stubborn egotism as humanity’s original sin. From egotism spring not only miscommunication and alienation but the self-righteousness of imperialism, whether that of Victorian England or 1960s America. But with personal growth, the ego can be tempered. As Alice grows beyond her enchantment with authority, the pseudo-authoritarian characters of Wonderland properly shrink into literary conceits. Alice is thus poised to become reenchanted with reality and with a future that – at least in our imaginations – can transcend the precious sentiments of Victorian childhood.
Conclusion: The Dialectical Potential of Alice’s Time-Slip
Our analysis has focused mainly on Chicago 70’s thematic and symbolic content. We can now connect that analysis to the film’s “synthetical” form, if we see the trial reenactments as a kind of thesis, the Alice interpolations as an antithesis, and Alice’s transformation into Linda Morse as a final synthesis. The stylized, theatrical means through which Alice finally transforms remind us that Chicago 70 was itself adapted from a single-set stage play (of which no filmed record seems to exist). While the film often crosscuts between the commentary of the Alice characters and the trial proceedings, Alice’s transformation into Linda Morse is not rendered through montage or specifically cinematic techniques. Actress Diane Grant simply “reappears” as Morse, bearing new mannerisms and speaking with an older voice, as she would in a stage production. Director Feltham, retaining the minimalist procedures of the theater, thus distinguishes Chicago 70 not only from literalistic Alice adaptations but from Alice-inspired films steeped in the cinematic avant-garde. Some might see in Chicago 70 similarities to Godard’s Weekend (1967), whose characters, following “the path of Lewis Carroll” (as an intertitle reads), become lost in an anarchic system of allusions and encounter literary personages thrust into Godard’s didactic-Brechtian scenario.27 Yet Chicago 70 is not a patchwork of allusions (like Weekend), nor does it indulge the eclecticism of a bricolage. Rather than merely borrowing elements from an appropriated text, Chicago 70 allows a time-slipping Alice to incubate within and then seize control of a larger diegesis; through this process, the film proposes Alice as an incipiently trans-historical, trans-subjective being. Reembodied as the historically conscious, empathetic activist Linda Morse, “Alice” finally takes center stage as the trial proceedings reach a climax. Alice thus escapes what we had called the eternal “present tense” of Wonderland, actualizing the growth to which Carroll only symbolically alludes.
By embedding Carroll’s text rather than conventionally adapting it, Chicago 70 opens up a realm with dialectical and synthetical potentials unavailable in adaptations that merely transpose characters to analogous universes. In the film, Carrollian elements not only exist side by side with the trial reenactments but eventually encroach on those reenactments, enacting a novel dialectic that occurs not through montage but through the collision of two parallel sets of characters operating within a unified diegetic space. Obviously, this dialectical potential is absent in standard film adaptations, in which transposed characters arrive more or less intact. While revisionist adaptations often present literary characters in historically, culturally, or even ideologically transformed spaces, such characters typically inhabit parallel worlds rather than trans-subjective ones. Consider nearly any adaptation of Hamlet: no matter how he is modernized, recontextualized, or renationalized, Hamlet remains Hamlet, suffering the same existential turmoil and the same tragic end. Though directors might frame Hamlet’s tragedy through differently emphatic lenses, he remains essentially static, never having the (admittedly unusual) opportunity to gestate into a new subject. This characterological stasis tends to hold true even in the farthest-flung adaptations, such as the aforementioned Joe Macbeth.28 Though it replaces the Bard’s blank verse with illiterate 1950s gangster lingo, Joe Macbeth preserves Macbeth’s motivations, psychology, and overall dramaturgical trajectory. Despite the film’s modern trappings, Macbeth’s hubris remains, much as viewers expect it to. So deeply ingrained are our expectations of stasis (or “faithfulness”) that we require a radical gesture – such as the embedded and synthetical subjectivity of Chicago 70 – to break the mold.
An undeniably bizarre experiment, Chicago 70 obviously cannot serve as a model for mainstream filmmakers to emulate – its value lies in its eccentricity. By appreciating Chicago 70’s innovative dialectical procedures, however, we can more clearly see how even revisionist adaptations fall into conventions of stasis and redundancy, merely transplanting finite, untransformed characters into uncanny frameworks. Though filmmakers are unlikely to borrow (or adapt) the “incubatory” notions of Chicago 70, the film does prompt us to imagine how other adaptative scenographies, with other spatiotemporally innovative frameworks, might allow familiar heroes to become (re)subjectivized in ways unimagined by a source work’s author. Such newly imagined subjectivities (and their ramifications) lie beyond this single essay, but we can conclude by emphasizing the ultimate import of Alice’s metamorphosis. Reembodied as Linda Morse, the modernized Alice speaks not only politically but critically. As the evolving Alice critiques both the trial proceedings and American political society at large, the film unusually (perhaps controversially) comes to privilege the critical voice over the text itself. Turning a literary text into a critical voice is no small matter. Arguing for the special import of the critic, Northrop Frye says, “Criticism can talk, and all the arts are dumb.”29 Frye does not mean to be cryptic: he simply means that artworks, including Alice in Wonderland, are preserved in the amber of history. Their utterances, frozen within finite texts, belong to an objectivized past. The work of criticism, contrarily, is always unfinished. Belonging to the active moment, criticism proposes a future while acting in the present. While filmmakers may reframe and refashion their adaptations in any number of ways, conventional adaptations will likely remain “dumb” insofar as their characters remain trapped within borrowed, unreconstructed trajectories. Chicago 70, by contrast, allows an appropriated character to grow within a film and beyond it, emancipating her from literary stasis and emboldening her to confront the sane madness of history.30
Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. E-book, University of Texas Press, 1981, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/heb.09354.
Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Barnes and Noble Classics, 2004.
Chicago 70. Directed and produced by Kerry Feltham. USA/Canada, 1970, film.
Dawson, Doyne. Cities of the Gods: Communist Utopias in Greek Thought. Oxford University Press, 1992.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton University Press, 1957.
Leslie, Shane. “Lewis Carroll and the Oxford Movement.” Aspects of Alice, ed. Robert Phillips. Vintage Books, 1977, 211-219.
Malcolm, Noel. The Origins of English Nonsense. Harper Collins, 1997.
Rackin, Donald. “Alice’s Journey to the End of Night.” Aspects of Alice, ed. Robert Phillips. Vanguard Press, 1977, 391-418.
Raskin, Jonah. For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman. University of California Press, 1996, 120.
Rubin, Jerry. “Rubin Writes from Chicago Jail.” Los Angeles Free Press, Volume 6, issue 274, October 17-23, 1969. Web. https://www.jstor.org/stable/community.28039850. Accessed Jul. 16, 2023.
Sanders, Julie. Adaptation and Appropriation. Routledge, 2006.
The Trial of the Chicago 7. Directed and written by Aaron Sorkin. Glendale, California: Dreamworks Pictures, 2020, film.
- For instance, literalistic versions such as Norman McLeod’s Alice in Wonderland (1933), William Sterling’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1973), and the 1951 Disney film merely illustrate an already familiar narrative. [↩]
- Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2004, 71. [↩]
- Rackin, Donald. “Alice’s Journey to the End of Night,” 1966. Aspects of Alice, ed. Robert Phillips. New York: Vanguard Press, 1977, 394. [↩]
- Carroll, ibid., 15. [↩]
- Carroll, ibid., 45. [↩]
- Carroll, ibid., 140. [↩]
- Carroll, ibid., 140. [↩]
- See, for example, essays in the subsections “Freudian Interpretations” and “Jungian and Mythic” in Aspects of Alice, ed. Phillips, pp. 279-344, 377-418. [↩]
- Alice au Pays des Merveilles (1970) sticks closely to Carroll’s text but superimposes characters over rear-projected, often animated backgrounds to reflect unstable states of the unconscious. Averty’s rear projections at first imply that characters’ egos are layered over an unconscious fantasy rather than embedded within it. As the film progresses, Averty’s “dualistic” technique suggests that the layers can shift: falling further into Wonderland, Alice becomes increasingly ensconced within the rear-projected otherworld. However, the overall effect is more impressionistic than severely analytical; indeed, at one point, Averty positions Alice against a landscape patterned after Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. [↩]
- Though mainly inspired by Book III of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Juráček’s Case for a Rookie Hangman begins with the hero’s runaway car tumbling into a ditch (rather than a rabbit hole), at which point he discovers not the March Hare but a dead rabbit dressed in a tiny waist-coat from which dangles a pocket-watch. [↩]
- Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. E-book, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981, 84, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/heb.09354. [↩]
- Sanders, Julie. Adaptation and Appropriation. New York: Routledge, 2006, 6. [↩]
- The film was a collaborative project between director-producer Feltham and the ensemble cast. Some sources erroneously identify horror auteur Herschell Gordon Lewis (Blood Feast) as the screenwriter, but onscreen credits identify no screenwriter at all. [↩]
- Leslie, Shane. “Lewis Carroll and the Oxford Movement,” 1933. Aspects of Alice, ed. Robert Phillips. New York: Vintage Books, 1977, 214. [↩]
- Malcolm, Noel. The Origins of English Nonsense. New York: Harper Collins, 1997, 35. [↩]
- Malcolm, ibid., 11. [↩]
- Notably, Sorkin’s much-hyped The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) sidesteps Linda Morse’s testimony altogether. [↩]
- Carroll, ibid., 219. [↩]
- Carroll, ibid., 214. [↩]
- Rubin, Jerry. “Rubin Writes from Chicago jail.” Los Angeles Free Press, Volume 6, issue 274, October 17-23, 1969. https://www.jstor.org/stable/community.28039850. Accessed Jul. 16, 2023. [↩]
- Rackin, ibid., 414. [↩]
- Carroll, ibid., 144. [↩]
- Raskin, Jonah. For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996, 120. [↩]
- Dawson, Doyne. Cities of the Gods: Communist Utopias in Greek Thought. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992, 111. [↩]
- Dawson, ibid., 113. [↩]
- Dawson, ibid., 120. [↩]
- Chicago 70, in turn, perhaps influenced Godard’s Vladimir and Rosa (1971), which restages the Chicago 7 trial with symbolic political personages (e.g., Heinrich Himmler replaces Judge Hoffman, etc.). [↩]
- Granted, certain adaptations deliberately betray their sources, but these are exceptions that prove the rule. Consider the original ending of Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet (1936), which saw the young lovers live happily ever after. After the Bolshoi Ballet balked at the idea, Prokofiev rewrote the ending we know today; the original version was premiered only in 2008. [↩]
- Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957, 4. [↩]
- An alternate version of this essay previously appeared in Alice in Wonderland in Film and Popular Culture, ed. Antonio Sanna, Palgrave Macmillan, 2021. [↩]