Tuesday, 16 March 2010
Alice and Burton: a late late review
The collision between Alice in Wonderland and Tim Burton was bound to occur eventually. Not too many casualties involved, I suppose, just the most important one. But let's start from the very beginning, which is generally believed to be a very good place to start.
In the beginning there was the book that began with a story and Alice feeling drowsy. Her book had neither pictures nor conversation. That's the first short paragraph. The White Rabbit appears in the second. In the third it has disappeared down the rabbit-hole and by the fourth she has followed it. Tis brief, my lord.
Once in, the madness begins: growing larger and smaller and larger again, entering domains of manners, voices, parodies of social types, all according to what we think of - via the second book - as looking-glass logic. The various grotesque elements of childhood and social life reappear as legend, nonsense, and potential terror, but Alice remains solidly commonsensical in the face of everything. She recognizes that the ludicrous is - if only just - under her control. She can manage. Wonderland is preposterous, threatening, pathetic, melancholy, fiercely intrusive, obeying no narrative schoolmistress, but insisting on being episodic and dreamlike. The only point of having got in to Wonderland is to experience its various corners, then get out.
Tim Burton's films are visually replete. Colour, mood, detail are all painterly. He is in most respects a painter and costumier. He springs out of the side of Brueghel, Bosch, Richard Dadd and Roberto Matta via Grimm and Hawthorne. But it is not so much the story that interests him as the visual possibility. Quite often it is the visual possibility of Johnny Depp whose range more or less defines Burton's. I am not always sure I like Burton as a painter - there is something deeply sticky in his imagination. The repleteness crowds in on me and clings to every exposed inch of skin. But it's fun for a while.
The problem is that Burton wants to produce a moral out of Alice that Carroll hasn't provided; Burton's moral impulse (do the right thing, American style) is entirely antithetical and, in fact, hostile to the spirit of Carroll (get on and cope with it, British style). There are no distinct provinces of good and evil in Carroll. The Red Queen is no worse than The White Queen. In Burton the Red Queen is bad chiefly because she offers the wrong model of female consciousness: the White Queen (who looks, disturbingly, like La Cicciolina) is good because she knowingly parodies a better model of female consciousness. But the best consciousness of all is Alice's, and she is pure twenty-first century, all-American girl.
The film Alice's project is to develop her consciousness as a young independent woman, which she does, with a vengeance. She takes on traditionally male roles that males fail to fulfil, or may be wrong in fulfilling, and has - dear beamish boy! - to slay the Jabberwock. No problem, squire. In the end she goes on to conquer China as a full trading partner for an elderly man who is soon going to cough it.
Odd, in the circumstances, that the most solid characters are male (father and intended father-in-law) and the most deluded, female, but then that's the world Alice is up against as Burton sees it. It is theology made simple. The bad men are easy to spot. The good males are dead daddy and a nice rich man who gives Alice a top job because, well, she's got balls. This is, perhaps, an aspect of the story that has crept in rather than been plumbed in, but I can't be sure. Is Alice living in a patriarchy or a matriarchy? A whole line of enquiry due here. And what exactly is the deal between The Mad Hatter and Alice? The Mad Hatter might be a Damaged Man, kinda cute and vulnerable. The moral fable goes foggy on me at this point. Maybe it is that the male role is to go mad, to give a woman what she wants, and then to die .
I have nothing against the bigger, in fact dominant, moral project of the film. The empowered female is fine by me, but I do have a great deal against muddle, saccharine sentimentality, and a poor version of education (make that any education) using genius to deliver its lessons. And Carroll is genius.
So, while, incident by incident, the film is lovely and replete and sumptuously visualised heart of Burtoniana; as a story it is as dull, and dull-witted, as a temperance tract delivered very slowly and all too clearly by a rather insistent, if confused, Victorian governess who bears a faint, but entirely misleading resemblance to Johnny Depp.