“CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER,” said Alice, although I can’t remember exactly where. Was it after she’d fallen down the rabbit hole or when she crossed to the other side of the mirror? No matter: Alice in Wonderland (2010)—James Fotopoulos’s adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by way of Henry Saville Clark and Walter Slaughter’s 1886 musical Alice in Wonderland: A Dream Play for Children—is an extremely curious object in its own right, and its premiere New York screening is a must-see. If you doze through a few of its ninety-nine minutes, your dreams will be the better for it.
A prolific Chicago-based underground filmmaker, Fotopoulos created a stir with his stupendously creepy feature Migrating Forms. It screened in 2000 in the New York Underground Film Festival, which subsequently renamed itself by borrowing the film’s title. The concept of “migrating forms” has remained a constant in Fotopoulos’s work: In Alice, it applies to the fragments of John Tenniel’s illustrations for Carroll’s Alice books and the bits of Carroll’s prose and poetry that migrate to Fotopoulos’s movie, along with excerpts from the score of Clark and Slaughter’s opera. One might view the slow dissolves between the hundreds of drawings that Fotopoulos created for the film as another layer of migration; so too is the mix of the nineteenth-century score with droning metal–art music that sounds as if it’s erupting from the bottom of a swamp.
Alice is a multimedia opera presented in the form of a single-screen movie. In terms of avant-garde genres, it could be classified, to borrow a term from P. Adams Sitney, as a trance film. At the center of the proceedings is a medium close-up of a very beautiful young woman who appears in two guises. In Part I (subtitled “Alice in Wonderland”) her dark hair curls about her face and is held in place by a white housemaid’s bonnet. In Part II (subtitled “Through the Looking Glass”) her hair is blonde, long, and straight, swept away from her forehead in the manner of Tenniel’s Alice. Although her face almost never changes its expression, it seems very much alive, thanks to the talent of the actress and Fotopoulos’s filmmaking. One fully believes that the drawings (most of them charcoal-shaded outlines on a coral ground), which cross-fade seemingly in front of her face and behind her head, are projected from her psyche. As in many of Fotopoulos’s movies, the narrative is couched as a stream of consciousness. The drawings—most of them of body parts, strange animals, whiskers without a cat, a long-eared rabbit head cut off at the neck, a terrifying featureless face, and other less legible organic forms—evaporate before they can be fully grasped, as do the single words and phrases that pop onto the screen in varying sizes of white typeface, punctuated before they can accumulate into a complete sentence by the word “pause,” always placed, as if it were a stage direction, in parenthesis.
And, occasionally, we see a long shot of Alice I and Alice II superimposed on the close-ups of their respective faces. At one point Alice I slow-dances alone, and the undulation of her torso is among the most erotic images in cinema. Alice II is pregnant, which certainly would have taken Carroll aback. I wish Fotopoulos hadn’t tried so hard in the last ten minutes to reach a conclusion with texts that are foursquare on the meaning, unlike anything that came before. I had hoped that the last text on-screen would be “pause.” Instead, in the movie’s only bow to convention, it’s “The End.”
Alice in Wonderland screens Saturday, May 7, at 7 PM at the Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn, New York.