I had never pondered the influence of Lewis Carroll’s stories, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871). This left me completely unprepared for Wonderland, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image’s latest Melbourne Winter Masterpieces exhibition. The enormous influence of young Alice and her strange world of bizarre anthropomorphic creatures on the large and small screen documented in this exhibition is a revelation.
Carroll was a pseudonym for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832–98), an English writer, mathematician, photographer, amateur inventor, and Anglican Deacon. Dodgson wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland on the basis of story he spun one day to the young daughter of a family friend. Populated by characters familiar to readers in middle-class Victorian England, the stern governess as the Red Queen being one example, the book, to use contemporary parlance, was a hit. Dodgson followed it up with the sequel, which includes the well-known poem ‘Jabberwocky’.
While the Alice of literature is familiar, her screen life has been far less explored. Her best-known screen depiction is the 1951 animated Disney movie, Alice In Wonderland, which is singlehandedly responsible for embedding in the public consciousness the dominant conception of Alice as a blonde girl wearing a blue dress and a black hair ribbon. Second is Tim Burton’s 2010 film of the same name, with Australian actress Mia Wasikowska in the lead role.
Given their influence, unsurprisingly, both films are allocated considerable space in Wonderland. The Disney effort is represented by a selection of original storyboard art and character sketches, detailing the meticulous work the animators did in bringing the story to life. There is also a display of international posters for the film, which underline the global reach of mid-century US popular culture. For the 2010 film, the exhibition’s curators have included props and an assortment of costumes, the latter showcasing the work of costume designer and frequent Burton collaborator, Colleen Atwood.
But these two films only scratch the surface of the Alice’s cinematic oeuvre. Publicity material for the exhibition lists more than forty films and over thirty television programs related to Alice and her world. There is Alice’s first screen adaption, the nine-minute 1903 silent film Wonderland, by English director, producer, and screenwriter Cecil Hepworth, a print of which is on loan from the British Film Institute. French director Lou Bunin’s 1949 live action/Claymation film, Alice in Wonderland, is represented, as is the more adult 1966 British Broadcasting Corporation television play of the same name. The darkest interpretation of the story included in the exhibition is surrealist Czech director Jan Ŝvankmajer’s film Alice (1988), in which the main character undergoes a creepy transformation from human to doll.
These and many other films are explored through images, costumes, props, and clips, more than 300 items sourced from across the world. Additional material, original line drawings and manuscripts, round out the exhibition. Together, the screen-related items function as a de facto history of the evolution of the technology of filmmaking. My only quibble is in the multiple overlaying of different sounds, which occasionally made listening to some of the film clips difficult.
In one of the many essays on the ACMI site accompanying the exhibition, Monash University academic Michelle J. Smith argues that Alice and her world offer ‘a blank surface onto which we can project and explore any dream, vision, or anxiety, with the simple sight of a playing card, pocket watch, or tea party. Alice is a key to the cultural imagination of the strangest and most beautiful visual worlds, however fantastic.’ Wonderland encourages multiple conclusions as to why Alice has proved such a prolific and durable screen presence. She can be an idealised view of childhood or its dark mirror, a parable about memory loss and altered states, and a cleverly subversive take on girlhood and femininity. This last interpretation, which probably has the most contemporary cultural resonance, is interrogated in one display, a wall of screens playing images and clips showcasing Alice’s myriad screen appearances – everything from the 1960s rock band Jefferson Airplane, to The Matrix films, K-pop, and Star Trek.
Alice’s cultural influence has been so ubiquitous we often don’t even notice it; a feature of this exhibition is that way it can unlock one’s own, often forgotten, interactions with the character. For me, this was a memory of a 1975 issue of the Marvel comic, Doctor Strange, in which the wizard character hallucinates about a giant caterpillar, smoking a hookah, sitting on a large mushroom.
The exhibition has some interactive touches. A ‘Lost Map Of Wonderland’ unlocks digital experiences spread among the displays. There is also a digital representation of the Mad Hatter’s tea party. But for this reviewer, these came a distant second place to the real wonderland, Alice’s incredible history in cinema.
Wonderland (Australian Centre for the Moving Image) runs until 7 October 2018.
ABR Arts is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation and the ABR Patrons.