Go Ask Auteur: ‘Alex in Wonderland’

It was only Paul Mazursky’s second movie and already he made his 8 1/2. This is a subgenre named after Federico Fellini’s movie about the creative crisis of an artist; other examples include Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night, John Cassavetes’ Love Streams, Robert Altman’s The Player, Orson Welles’ unfinished The Other Side of the Wind, and a proto-example in Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels.

Mazursky is self-conscious about it and expects his audience to be as cinematically hip as himself. Not only does his hotshot young director Alex (played by Donald Sutherland resembling a California Jesus) discuss Fellini’s film in so many words, he meets Fellini himself and enacts a Fellini fantasy with clowns and nuns. He also meets French New Wave icon Jeanne Moreau, who drops by to sing a couple of songs.

Alex’s problem is that he idolizes European auterist cinema but he’s stuck in Hollywood, where a crass culture-vulture of a producer (played by Mazursky) wants to be relevant and revolutionary while making 50 million dollars. Hollywood was exactly at the moment when, as some have said, the inmates started taking over the asylum from the old studio system and Mazursky himself was part of a “New Hollywood”.

Today, all this free-form self-referentialism would be the clichéd and precious ramblings of a film-school kid with nothing to say. In 1970 it was fresh for one form of film culture to comment on another. More importantly, the context is an ambitious attempt to take an snapshot of the crisis of intellectual artists in “America today”–littered with references to racism, Vietnam, politics, and sex. What stills works best aren’t the digressions into fantasy but the semi-improvised quiet moments with Alex’s wife (Ellen Burstyn), their kids (including a Mazursky daughter), and Alex’s Jewish mother (Viola Spolin, less caricatured than Shelley Winters in Next Stop, Greenwich Village). Admirably, Mazursky and Sutherland didn’t avoid making Alex a bit of a putz.

This made-on-demand disc from Warner Archives includes a commentary by Mazursky, full of friendly anecdotes. He states that he and co-writer/producer Larry Tucker (with whom he worked on the TV series The Monkees, the script of I Love You, Alice B. Toklas and his feature debut, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice) broke up their partnership amiably during this movie after Tucker attended a marathon gestalt therapy session. He also can’t believe the quality of the print (shot by Laszlo Kovacs) and the new clarity of what he recalls as a muddy soundtrack. He recorded the commentary this year at age 81, shortly after seeing Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (which he mentions), and he dedicates it to his late daughter Meg, who appears in the movie at age 12.

RATING 6 / 10