Friday, December 30, 2011

Alice in Wonderland (1966) Jonathan Miller

I  watched the 1966 Jonathan Miller Alice in Wonderland this week.

Fascinating version. Miller did a "Wednesday Play" biopic on Charles Dodgson the previous year (included on the disc) in which hinted that the characters in the book (such as the dormouse) were not actually furry animals, but caricatures of other academics at Christ Church that Alice would have met and find funny. I've read The Annotated Alice, so I know most of the math jokes and so forth, but I didn't know the source of the characters. Miller didn't have much money but nevertheless persuaded half the greatest actors in Britain to be in the production - Sir John Gielgud, Sir Michael Redgrave, Peter Sellers, Leo McKern - and Peter Cook, channeling the Goon Show, as the Mad Hatter, along with Wilfrid Brambell (Steptoe) as a very camp White Rabbit. And Malcolm Muggeridge.

Miller aimed the production at adults - which led to the tabloids of the day assuming it was pr0n of some sort (it isn't) and portrayed Alice as a self-contained older girl, stiff and formal in the Victorian way, but with a biting superiority whenever she gets chance to snap at one of the little animals she meets after going through the tiny door.  None of the animals is in costume and some of the 'plot' is missing, so you have to know the book. Luckily I learned the book by heart when I was little and annoyingly completed all the poems she forgot to finish and carped about the missing bits - for instance, early in the book Giant Alice cries tears of frustration, which gives rise to a lake that almost drowns all the other characters. In this movie, you see her face glistening with tears and then a cut to her being the same size as the little animals and encouraging them to dry off.  They also cut Bill the Lizard's hilarious early part, but she still snatches his pencil from him when he's in the jury box, leaving him to write on his slate with his finger, so that's all right then. Some of the humor is missing, but a couple of times the actors add in funny (and quite Carrollian) lines of their own. The social satire is entirely elided, and even Alice's last line in Wonderland, "You're nothing but a pack of cards!" is cut, which means that the point of the story never quite makes it onto film.

The overall feel of the movie is psychedelic. However, it was made in 1966, which means that the Summer of Love was not yet here, Surrealistic Pillow (and White Rabbit) had not been released, and although Haight-Ashbury was winching its way into into our as-yet-unexpanded consciousness, I don't think Jonathan Miller ever spent much time there. This means that what resembles 'psychedelia' must have been in the air before everybody tuned in, turned on and dropped out with Leary in 1967. The transitions between the scenes that make this seem so very, very LSD-related must have been based on dream-logic, as in the book, not on Are-You-Experienced experiences on the part of Miller. [1] I've seen a couple of reviews that say this movie is dated, because of its sixties feel, but my belief is the sixties began to resemble the movie, rather than the movie drew on the sixties for its own look-and-feel. [2]

Alice - who is a child, and therefore should be seen and not heard - narrates most of the movie in her head. When she does speak, it's to put down one of the animals with a vicious remark. The Mad Hatter's Tea party is a venom-filled conversation between an angry Alice and (no slouch at insults himself) Peter Cook as the Mad Hatter, with occasional interjections of whimsy by the deeply drunk Dormouse.  The conversation between the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle is between two brilliant, non-animal-headed actors; old men reminiscing about their schooldays on a deserted very British pebble beach. It's a Last of the Summer Wine for mythical animals. The final court scene, where the Knave of Hearts is tried for stealing the tarts is a surreal tour de force, with Peter Sellers and Wilfred Brambell hamming it up, nothing being quite the right size (Alice being between one and two miles high at the time), and some of the theater boxes that line the walls of the courthouse appearing to be hotel rooms, with people shaving and washing up in them as they observe the scene. 

The DVD also includes a 1903 silent version of Alice, and a very interesting commentary track that has the feature, or possibly bug, that Jonathan Miller rabbits about whatever he wants to, so the explanations of each scene are given while other scenes are on screen...and at one point Miller says, 'And this is after Alice has got rid of her flamingo', when Alice wasn't carrying a flamingo previously. Miller seems to be able to see the animals in the scene even when his actual cinematography didn't include them. 

[1] Yes, I know the caterpillar in the book is sitting on a mushroom and smoking a hookah.
[2] I don't want to put anyone off seeing the movie by saying this, but if you look at the difference between Disney's Alice (1951) and Disney's It's a Small World After All (1964) you can see the quality of sixties-i-ness appears in the latter ride. Without having any singing dolls in it, this Alice has that atmosphere. A less obnoxious sixties-i-ness reference may be The Prisoner (1967) but that was after this version of Alice so I can't count it...

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