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Mónica von Reust,
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"Who am I?" asks a shabbily dressed, scruffy-haired incarnation of Lewis Carroll's immemorial little girl lost. Of course, the answer's come in various forms ever since such cinematic endeavors as Cecil Hepworth's "Alice in Wonderland," made in 1903 (at 12 minutes, the longest British film of the day; Cecil, you'll remember, two years later made the world's first "dog star" with his monumentally successful "Rescued by Rover," which was shown so many times that the celluloid literally deteriorated, forcing the filmmakers to completely "re-produce" it two more times; his "Alice in Wonderland," unfortunately, did not boast such a success, and thus all we have today is something that looks as though it tumbled down the rabbit hole one too many times). But enough of this sluice at the bottom of the March Hare's treacle well, eh?
Made for the BBC's The Wednesday Play television series, Jonathan Miller's take on the subject matter is, as is traditionally the case, a unique one. With a budget approximating nothing more than his usual "taped stage plays" for which he previously gained great renown (think preter-PBS), Miller decided to illustrate what Alice would have gone through had all of her nonsensical dreams been steeped in the quotidian reality of her ordinary life. There are no talking birds, no storytelling mock turtles, no dormice living in teacups. In fact, short of a crude cut-out superimposition of a very ordinary looking "Cheshire cat" flying in the sky (a la the Teletubbies' eerily omniscient baby in the sun), there's really no special effects or anything that would evince this one of being the least bit chimerical
that is, unless you know the story of Alice in Wonderland already. Ostensibly, what Miller is doing here is showing us the curious, towheaded girl's "adventures" set in a world where people merely sound like birds and look like supine caterpillars sitting loftily back in their Victorian chairs and wondering aloud, "Who are you?" Imagine Wizard of Oz, but without all the costumes, flying monkeys, and mercurial trees pulling at the heroine's hair.
Suddenly, we along with Alice find ourselves in a land where we were already (that is, of course, if we were a haughty 11-year-old girl wandering lackadaisically through our castellated house in the late 19th century). What we see is the "reality" of the dreamworld of Alice's waking life.
And this is exactly what Miller captures in this version of the epic "children's" tale for stoners and mathematicians. In fact, the only real sense of "dreamland" we can extract from Miller's vision is a kind of proto-Gilliam realm of canted camera angles and unsettling juxtapositions of close-up faces in deep-focus environments (think Brazil or particularly Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, which clearly owes both its visual and aural style to Mr. Miller). Truthfully, after watching this late 60's stark, black-and-white opus (if ever so disjointed and flawed), one would have to assume that Terry Gilliam took much of his artistic sensibility from what is definitely far more than a simple made-for-TV broadcast.
With a quadrille of British mainstaysPeter Cook as the Mad Hatter, Sir John Gielgud as the Mock Turtle, Alan Bennett as the Mouse, an uncredited Eric Idle, and the King of Hearts himself, Peter SellersJonathan Miller, with lilting, ethereal score by Ravi Shankar, does what no other director has done to date with this timeless urtext: he shows us what would have happened had Alice stayed awake during her infamous tour through dreamland.
PS: If this one doesn't do it for you, try out Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer's nightmarish Alice (1988), which must be the most haunting adaptation of Alice's adventures yet put on celluloid.
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