10 May 2010

Go Ask Tim Burton

Elena Kalis

Adriana Peliano
Translation Daniela Carvalho

When the caterpillar asks Alice who she is, she does not know how to answer, after changing herself so many times in that very same day. When Alice sees her sister’s book, she can not understand “what is the use of a book without pictures or dialogues?”. With pictures, dialogues and all kinds of transformations a story can be created for Alice. A story that came from a Victorian England going through the 20th century until our present days.

Alice has already been the dream child, the perfect kid, who has been shown through Carroll’s pictures and in his inspirational drawings Pre-Raphaelite (1862). Tenniel’s classical illustrations (1865 / 72) had achieved its iconic representation and also had become a basic reference and a safe path to everyone.

Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll

John Tenniel

Alice woke up from a dream inside a dream and had become a dark nightmare in Rackham’s illustrations (1907). It has been lots of nightmares since that one, reaching the insanity of the serial killer Alice McGee (2000). Balthus (1933) and Nabokov’s mirrors (1955) showed us a latent sexuality from our heroine, in dialogues with ambiguities that can be noticed in those eye-contact moments between Carroll and Alice Liddell.

Arthur Rackham

Alice Mc Gee


Alice had oneiric fantasies with the Surrealists and skipped rope among Salvador Dali’s overflowing dreams (1969). Grace Slick in White Rabbit’s song (1967) played by Jefferson Airplane, sang a psychedelic trip of a girl and invited us to call Alice among pills and mushrooms just to feed our heads. I do not know another seven-year-old girl who has traveled throughout so many kinds of pictures, movies, songs, plays, new representations, developments and proliferations, in all her constant changing and her multiple dialogues with several kinds of arts.

Salvador Dali

I went to watch Tim Burton’s movie with all this background. I am not that kind of person who claims fidelity to the original work. Alice is transformation, multiplicity. And the movie began. Despite being extremely in love with Alice, I could not enjoy the movie. The movie, itself, is very boring. I like the actress that plays Alice, as in the same way, I think her independent and questioner attitude with a feminist aspect had a great potential. I also like that the movie presents a dark counterpoint related to the Disney classic one, bringing back the other part of illustrators. Such as Rackham, they tried another path, not only the childish enchantment, but also, the dark-nightmare one.

The scenery, the costume design and the art direction show us charming and poetry. The most fascinating part is when Alice fell into the hole and, all of a sudden, in a kind of unusual and inverted game, she stops on the ceiling upside-down, with an amazing development. Her arrival in wonderland is also magic and ludic. However, the movie put aside the “mood” and the “reflection” from the book, going directly into action and battle scenes. Of course, that explains the 3D effects, which could not be made by smart or long dialogues.

Nevertheless, the movie has nothing related to Alice, besides its characters and some free quotes from the book put in the movie in another context. As I said before, I am not the kind of person who claims fidelity to the original work. My favourite Alice is the one from Svankmajer (1988), she is crazy, weird, speechless, dark, a movie that we can only find logic and language games. It could have been a disfigurement, but it is not. And, it is not, because, it gets down into the character unconscious during all her passages / moments, with her fear, her growth anxiety and her sexuality. The discussion is not about the movie being faithful or not to the book, but it is about having an important contribution.

As an Alice illustrator who has been studying Alice with love and passion, I like all the versions that change the sweet and reductionist Alice from the books. In this way, another great contribution from the movies to the Alice’s imaginary is the Jonnathan Miller’s one (1966). His Alice is melancholic, grumpy, sad, a girl living a crisis, just like the Alice from the book. The experience from wonderland is essentially an uncomfortable experience in relation to herself and a non sense world. Of course, Alice is an invitation to dream and imagine, but with no doubt it is not a happy dream.

In Miller’s movie there are no fantasies, or childish characters, which would look like puppets from an amusement park. All his characters are human beings and it is a black and white movie, which is an opposite view from the colourful and joyful Alice from Disney. The human characters show exactly in which way Carroll’s characters reveal his cutting remarks to all the values and behaviours from his Society. They also represent, the “kind of person” that used to belong to that society. Therefore, as in Svankmajer’s movie, everything that goes far from the book has a special reason, it is just to open up our view from the book, which has the opposite meaning in Tim Burton’s, who has lost Alice, instead of daring her. Tim Burton’s Alice loses itself in fantasy film clichés. There is a little bit of Narnia here, a little bit of Lord of the Rings there, and the characters seem to be out of place, coming from other stories and not knowing why they are there. It brings stereotypical patterns from the journey of the hero. It has been said here in an inconsequent text that Alice has become a kind of Joan of Ark, but the movie is essentially Manichaean, Carroll’s Alice has no moral, which was one of its greatest innovations regarding children’s literature of the Victorian period. While Carroll was able subvert the rules and conventions of the strict and repressive Victorian society, Tim Burton returns to the moral lessons and the orderly confrontation between good and evil.

Owing to this, the characters are burlesque and linear. Alice is more adult, but loses the anguish and conflicts of the original Alice that make her so fascinating. Instead of seeing her entire adventure as part of her own dream as in Tim Burton’s film, Carroll’s Alice is actually afraid of being inside the dream of another person. Her identity is constantly questioned. In the film, her role as a heroine is much more linear and obvious. I believe that the conflict of Burton’s Alice is very revealing in this sense: is she the same Alice who is returning to Wonderland? Alice has in fact returned to Wonderland many times, always with a different face. Alice is truly mutant and metamorphic, but why do we continue to demand that she be “our” Alice or Lewis Carroll’s Alice? At the same time I ask myself: if Alice is always changing, does that mean that all changes are equally valid? Where is the limit between transforming and losing one’s identity?

Expectations only get in the way. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that if we expected too much, it was because too much was promised. The film could be a radical re-reading of the Victorian Alice, inserted in our world and also in search of a new sense. A multiple and plural Alice questioning all fixed identities. In creating another story, Tim Burton threw himself in a well, but instead of the his expected reinvention, he found Disney-like clichés and stereotypes. He didn’t dare to dare, and I even go so far as to say that if he read the book, he didn’t like Alice. Why else would he go out of his way of telling another story that still has many figures but very few dialogues, with everything Alice conquered and represents in out culture? It seems that Tim Burton got tired of Alice along the way and decided to talk about something else. Besides being mentally unchallenging, the film does not even provide a good time. Alice’s self-knowledge journey becomes, in the film, an alienation journey, and the nonsense becomes senseless. However, in the end I must thank Tim Burton and Disney for investing in the marketing of the film, which strengthened the presence of Alice in the contemporary, collective imagination as never seen before. It is not about what the film shows, but what it does not show. New creative and existential possibilities may arise from our insatisfaction. With the film, we had the chance to read the book once again, research images with different languages, produce new visions in different arts, share interests, find other Wonderland lovers, feel emotions, discover new items such as less-known versions of the book, and finally dive, each person in his or her manner, into this absorbing world that still challenges us for new adventures, since the caterpillar’s question will never be answered.

Elena Kalis

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“Always in search of curious objects, broken toys, bits of things and traces of stories, Adriana Peliano stitches together desires, monsters and fairy tales. Her collages and metamorphic assemblages are magical and multiple inventories, where logic is reinvented with new meanings and narratives, creating language games and dream labyrinths. Everything is transformed to tell new stories that dislocate our way of seeing, inviting the marvellous to visit our world.” “Sempre em busca de objetos curiosos, restos de brinquedos, cacos de mundos e rastros de estórias, Adriana Peliano costura desejos, monstros e contos de fadas. Suas colagens, metamofoses e assemblagens despertam inventários mágicos e múltiplos, onde a lógica do cotidiano é reinventada em novos sentidos e narrativas, criando jogos de linguagem e labirintos de sonhos. Tudo se transforma para contar novas estórias, abrindo portas para o maravilhoso.”