Sunday, March 14, 2010

Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland

Mrs. Sgt. T and I are big Tim Burton fans. Emotional Tim Burton fans, the kind of people for whom Mr. Burton represents an unqualified endorsement of unfettered imagination, a stalwart support for anyone out standing in their left field: a weirdness that doesn't apologize for itself. Every so often I suspect I've misjudged him, though - or rather, to be properly self-conscious about it, I am reminded that this Tim Burton I love is probably primarily a creature of my own imagination, and only touches the real director at one or two points, like the contact of spheres (musical or not).

Alice made me think that.

We've been looking forward to this ever since we saw banners for it in the Boston Common Loew's a year ago. For the obvious reasons: turn the guy who made Corpse Bride loose in Wonderland? Even if he is working for the mouse, there's no way this can suck, right?

And as we were in the theater, watching it, I was satisfied. Visually, it's perfect - the script provides Mr. Burton with a pretext for presenting us a Wonderland that's not bright primary colors, but tattered and decaying, Victoriana not as its heroine lives it, but as her grandchildren would encounter it in junk shops. It's a whimsical vision, but not sugary; for every adorable childish fantasy (the frog who ate the tarts) it gives us a striking grotesque (Helena B.C.'s Queen). The Cheshire Cat is everything it should be; so are the White Rabbit and the March Hare, and pretty much every character. And the Hatter - let's just say that when Johnny Deep recites the first verse of "Jabberwocky" the movie achieves a kind of poetry that only Burton can seem to achieve these days, and only in unapologetically weird fantasy.

So, it delivered.

But the longer I thought about it the more disappointed I became in the film's take on Alice. There's one moment that crystallizes it for me. At the end, Alice (who this film has reimagined as a young woman on the cusp of either getting married or doing something else with her life) has a tender moment with the Hatter, who is in this film something of a Suiter (sic) as well. He asks her why she doesn't just stay in (w)Underland this time. She hesitates, but then gives just the answer you were afraid she'd give, which is that she has things in the real world that she needs to take care of blah blah blah.

I.e. she fetters her imagination, comes in out of the cold of left field, apologizes for her weirdness: the film posits this whole fantasy world as a simple function of adolescence, and worse, it instrumentalizes it, makes fantasy a mere tool for working through real-life issues, subordinating fantasy to "real life," containing it, neutering it.

It's the only thing she could do in the context of this script, of course - which reimagines the Alice story as a girl power thing, where a Disney princess is faced with a choice between a life of traditional subservient femininity and one of self-actualizing adventure. In such a context of course she has to make this choice, embrace real life, face her dilemmas and work through them. And don't, pray, get me wrong: I have no love for traditional subservient femininity and much love for girl power.

But it pains me to see Lewis Carroll's masterpiece of wilful nonsense (and I sat down and read the books last week, after seeing the film, so I could finally make my acquaintance with Wonderland as written - I can't believe I never read them before - true masterpieces) - that is, pure play as end in itself, not as didactic tool - reduced to, well, didacticism. I don't even have anything against didacticism - some of my favorite literature is didactic, and I think more literature is didactic than most people realize...

It's just that it's clear to me that the people responsible for this Alice had no clue as to what the original Alice meant - which is, precisely, a resistance to something as instrumentalizing as "meaning." Poetry may mean something, but poetry is not reducible to what it means: it's not an argument. And the same goes for nonsense. There may be symbolic elements to Alice - satiric, topical, even Freudian "meanings" to be found - but the whole is not reducible to them: it is not an allegory. But that's what Burton's film makes it.

Is it his fault? I'm fully prepared to believe that this conception of the story was locked into the project from the beginning, since it feels so contemporary Disney. I want to believe that Disney had decreed that this be a girl-power Alice, and that Burton was powerless to depart from that rubric, and that he accepted this devil's bargain because of the chance it gave him to play in this visual universe. Maybe, maybe not; I've been thinking through his other films, and it's not like this is the first time he's given a film an ending that furls its freak flag (Planet of the Apes comes to mind)...

So, Tim Burton: unabashed fellow of the odd, or secret abasher of it?

PS: I'm done with 3D.

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