Through the Glass Darkly
It’s much better to simplify, always, rather than elaborate. Movies shouldn’t be limited to spectacle; they do the simple things so much better. They should try to present real life in the simplest way possible, and be as unpretentious as possible.
“How am I to get in?” asked Alice again, in a louder tone. “ARE you to get in at all?” said the Footman. “That’s the first question, you know.”
It was, no doubt: only Alice did not like to be told so. “It’s really dreadful,” she muttered to herself, “the way all the creatures argue. It’s enough to drive one crazy!”
—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
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 under his arm. 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), and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
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—that so many directors and producers ducked through in hopes of distracting their audiences from shortcomings on stage or screen. “I like great simplicity in all my work,” Miller explains in Wheeler Dixon liner notes for Home Vision Entertainment’s DVD release of Alice in Wonderland, “I don’t like lots of florid detail.”
Such thinking runs contrary to today’s digital spectacles, from The Matrix (which bit hard on Lewis Carroll’s rhyme for all three of its heady installments), to Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. But Alice in Wonderland allows for what Miller calls an “interior sensibility,” an intelligence at once familiar and alienating, capable of raising as many questions as an intricate bullet-time shot.
This 1966 BBC version of Lewis Carroll’s most infamous of altered states is stuffed to the limit with Hitchcockian wide-angle, deep-focus cinematography—courtesy of the brilliant Dick Bush, who worked with Miller, the strange Ken Russell, and the not-so-strange Blake Edwards—and compositions as disorienting as the animated environment of Disney’s Alice. Still, its formal experimentation is subdued. Miller puts frames together like a painter, then freezes them in time so viewers might contemplate their various meanings.
He also uses mirrors to signal schizophrenia of identity and interpretation; just as Orson Welles used a mirror to signal Othello’s psychic fragmentation, Miller places Alice (young Anne-Marie Millak, who hits the glamour-shot jackpot here) in 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; the nanny is nearly incomprehensible for her few minutes of screen time, during which the film, just beginning, slows to a dead crawl.
It’s a bold risk, but it sets the tone for the rest of the film. In Miller’s lit-crit interpretation, Carroll’s circuitous and mathematical speech games take precedence over presentation, sometimes leading to viewer frustration. In fact, those unfamiliar with the actual text of Alice in Wonderland might feel challenged by Miller’s measured pace and acute focus on Carroll’s dense twists of phrase. Here the Caucus Party metamorphoses from Carroll’s animals gathered at a pool of tears to Victorian aristocrats in a stateroom. Whereas Carroll’s Mouse uses the snoozy history of William the Conqueror to dry (get it?) the sopping wet animals, Miller’s version of the character embodies the sheer tedium of the adult world. He sits with 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 deliciously by John Bird) assists Alice’s efforts to get through one of her many doors, by offering to do “nothing at all.” The Footman expounds at length on what that means, while Alice yawns with ceaseless boredom. It’s a grandly metafictional moment, one of Miller’s greatest triumphs.
Ironically, perhaps, Miller makes clear the adult world’s ennui with his 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 take off some heads. It is a journey to self-realization and maturation for a young girl surrounded by Victorian adults distracted by matters of “consequence” that mean, as Footman says, “nothing at all.” As Miller explains in his commentary, “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?’”
Trapped by time, engaged in meaningless caucuses until they’re utterly spent, fussing over their children’s appearances, and conducting ludicrous proceedings (such as the Royal Court), the adults here are really just interested in beheading each other. This destructive pursuit doesn’t jibe with the supposed air of solemnity and self-importance that inflates everything they do.
Alice observes 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 is made even stranger by Ravi Shankar’s trance-inducing sitar soundtrack. The film represents this trip as a sort of psychosis, which Miller calls a Kafkaesque “illogicality of dreaming,” magnifying its alienated human component and so laying the groundwork (directly or indirectly, it’s up to you) for David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), Jeunet and Caro’s Delicatessen (1991) and City of Lost Children (1997), and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995).
Skewering expectations—this Alice is not for the kiddies, my friends—and putting the “reality” back into “surreality,” Miller’s fractured tale will sit as well with Matrix-inspired philosophers as it will with old-school Shakespeareans. Enjoy but be forewarned: leave a trail to find your way back. Once you get lost in Miller’s dense labyrinth of language and composition, you may never make it home, wherever that may be.