PRINT May 2010


Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland

Tim Burton, Alice in Wonderland, 2010, still from a color video converted to 3-D, 108 minutes. The Cheshire Cat (voice by Stephen Fry).

WHEN THE CHESHIRE CAT’S disembodied head comes unmoored from the picture plane and, like a ball in oil, begins to roll in our RealD glasses, it asks through its floating grin whether Alice is really the Alice. We are actually watching two movies when we watch 3-D, thanks to a “circularly polarizing” technology that involves splitting the projected light into two series of rapidly alternating images—a right-eye image that circles clockwise, like the cat’s head, and a left-eye image that circles counterclockwise; 3-D glasses with oppositely circularly polarized lenses ensure that each eye can see only one image. Plunked onto the picture’s CGI ground is Mia Wasikowska, the live-action actress playing an Alice who’s once again losing track of both her direction and her identity, this time in the visual woods of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which has been loosely adapted from Lewis Carroll’s books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. No longer a child, in this version Alice returns to the site of her original adventures as a nineteen-year-old who has fallen back down the rabbit hole on the very day of her wedding engagement. And Wonderland, it turns out, is actually called Underland—on her first visit, as a seven-year-old, she had misheard the word. Meanwhile, during her twelve-year absence, Underland has been festering in a sort of depression and is now ruled by the tyrannical Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). Burton’s Alice is a gothic, young-adult revisitation of Carroll’s books via a complex amalgam of the latest digital filmmaking technologies. And Alice’s job now is to keep her head and unseat this terrorist queen.

Given Alice in Wonderland’s conceit of a teen’s return to a lost and buried childhood, a sound track featuring Avril Lavigne’s song “Alice” makes total sense, helping to rescript the children’s storybook as an angsty, emo-inflected self-help message. (In the end, Alice will regain control of her destiny, emerging from Underland to refuse a marriage proposal and launch herself as an independent businesswoman instead.) Carroll’s popular Alice books were the products of an age that was hugely invested in the idea of childhood, inventing complex, perverse topologies to navigate the enforced cultural split between childhood and adulthood on which Victorian England was based. Burton’s Underland (like the fictive universes of Edward Scissorhands [1990] and his other films), on the contrary, reflects a contemporary world of never-ending adolescence, where adults and animals are teens, too. His Alice could easily be a character in Harry Potter, and Alice screenwriter Linda Woolverton seems to take many devices from the latter (and from the fantasy-adventure genre in general), basing her narrative on a good-versus-evil conflict, chases and battles with mean monsters, etc., while tying Alice’s progress to the mastery of visual chaos (and of sword fighting) so that she can finally return victorious to her proper garden-party reality. So whereas Carroll’s seven-year-old encounters the enchanting nonsense of adult institutional codes (discourse, lessons, logic, rules, etiquette) distorted in a looking glass, Burton’s protagonist confronts something more like a fully saturated and operative media-space (which the film itself extends and inhabits) as a site of self-discovery and self-mastery. The new Alice is neither child nor adult; she is a jeune fille who struggles to integrate herself within a highly engineered image program (in order to be free!).

“Off with her head!” screams the Red Queen, whose own head has been filmed separately with an ultrahigh-resolution camera so that when magnified to several times its original size and pasted back onto her now slightly reduced body it looks seamless, its pixels no larger than the others. So the queen’s head is both off and on. Carroll’s books include jokes about heads, too: Alice is told that she can travel Wonderland by mail, since she has a head and so do postage stamps. In the film, digitally enhanced heads are frequently “stitched” onto live-action bodies and vice versa: Crispin Glover’s live-action head is glued to a body stretched to nearly seven feet tall, and the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) sports a head rigged with inhumanly large green eyes. These hybrid visuals are one of the ways by which Burton translates Alice’s disorienting movements through the twisted topologies of Carroll’s books. They are also the latest instance of the director’s ongoing pursuit of a designer image in which humans and cartoons trade places or finally lose their distinction. With 3-D (Burton shot the film in 2-D and later transferred it to 3-D), heads are allowed to float and roll not only free of bodies but (as if) freed from the screen. Yet if the movie screen has become a sort of looking glass through which Burton’s characters can pass in occasional sequences, dancing disembodied in the space between our polarized eyeballs and our brains, why do we remain so disenchanted throughout the experience? One reason is that the stretched-out space of IMAX 3D is not at all infinite: It feels as though the screen space has extra depth now, but we only seem to gain about twenty or thirty immersive feet on either side of the usual rectangle. It’s like an oversize, animated pop-up book. Also, the depth of field in most shots seems somehow squashed, and all the CGI-generated and baroquely ornamented forests and waterfalls seem a little dim and soft in focus behind the bodies that occupy the frame’s center. (What work best in 3-D are flat, graphic logos—for instance, the IMAX logo itself.)

Tim Burton, Alice in Wonderland, 2010, still from a color video converted to 3-D, 108 minutes. From left: The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), Alice (Mia Wasikowska), and the White Queen (Anne Hathaway).

A recent formula in cinema has been the casting of relatively inexpensive, nonmarquee actors whose performances become the bases for multimillion-dollar “digital puppets”: Andy Serkis played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001–2003), Zoe Saldana was the female lead in Avatar (2009), and so on. At this point, movie extras can be almost entirely done away with, especially in blurry battle scenes where detail isn’t so noticeable. Virtual actors are being painstakingly concocted on computer screens, and technology now allows both the reanimation of dead talent (whose images can be licensed through a company called GreenLight) and the cloning of younger versions of “agèd, agèd” actors (a spry Jeff Bridges will return in the upcoming Tron: Legacy) through the scanning of earlier films’ frames and their subsequent reprocessing via digital-animation programs. In other words, the boundary between animation and live performance is quickly dissolving, and we are already hearing terms like “virtual performance” and “virtual camera,” already watching seamless hybrids at work in films like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button [2008]. With the plotting of live-action facial performances onto head-shaped digital grids, the insertion of motion-captured gestures into virtual camera movements and CGI environments (Avatar), or the building of these from the raw, dead material of digital scans, the “shoot” is no longer what (or when) it used to be. Most of what normally happens on set is in these cases generated later by programmers and animators on banks of hard drives that cost more than the actors. The industry term “uncanny valley” describes the disturbing effect of an animation that looks all too human but nevertheless lacks life—like a mobile corpse. Once we master lighting effects and the subtlety of skin movement, however, the valley can be successfully crossed, some say.

But none of this wizardry can translate the systematic distortions of sense or the flat-out joys of Lewis Carroll’s books (which are already so screenlike). Depp’s performance, it should be noted, remains somehow faithful to Carroll’s inventiveness: It is all on the surface and is generative of surfaces. Interpreting the hatter’s madness as the spread of mercury poisoning, he plays mental deterioration out on the skin, communicating sudden mood shifts as a rapid shuffling of masks, via makeup, costume, and abrupt changes of accent in his speech. Mostly working against green screens, Depp manages to tap Carrollian speed: His solution is to become a screen himself. But the surface speeds on which the literary adventure depends are otherwise lost in the film.

Tim Burton, Alice in Wonderland, 2010. Trailer.

While “revolutionary” film technology allows the hypermanagement and control of every square millimeter of screen space, we may miss the holes and gaps (in space and in meaning) movies once had. Cutting is not so easy in 3-D: The images have to be melded and synthesized, and rapid or hard edits (as with sudden shifts in depth of field) disturb the viewer’s experience of immersion. So we are losing the differences and intervals between images, too, and movies forget to breathe or think as they once did. It’s now a matter of compositing multiple layers (live and animated), performances, and shoots to produce a single, seamless sequence, and this requires many slow months of work by roomfuls of technicians. There is no end to shooting: Once the performances have been “captured,” they can be endlessly reshot after the fact, with virtual cameras. Virtual cameras have no lenses; they are programs used to re-angle and recompose raw performances on the computer, and these can also be layered onto CGI bodies or backgrounds and inserted into pans, zooms, or tracking shots that are all digitally constructed in what was once called postproduction. But there is no more postproduction, because there is no longer a defined time and space of production. And if there is no established set, then neither is there an off-set (and therefore no exit from work, or “performance”). As movies attempt to move offscreen, too, seeming to colonize and fill this “other,” unrepresentable space that films once produced in an erotic and dynamic relation to the on-screen image (the space of performance), we wonder what happens to seduction. It seems impossible to imagine an erotics of full immersion and full-time programming.

Carroll was a “logician with a taste for children,” an upstanding representative of the institutional order (as a lecturer in mathematics at Oxford) in relation to which his experimental nonsense was elaborated. His perversion involved luring proper little girls into the comedy of meaning, enchanting them with double and contradictory interpretations of both words and social codes, with anarchic games of cultural decoding and recoding. Burton submits his Alice to the pure power of the code, and every displacement has been programmed. When Alice grows and shrinks, he shows her slipping into and out of her variously scaled dresses, a sort of programmed, 3-D (PG) striptease. How much stranger and more perverse were the light-sensitive photographic plates that Carroll himself produced, posing his child subjects stock-still (as if dreaming) against the backgrounds of their Victorian homes and gardens. Burton moves his teen Alice through the film like a JPEG within a design program, submitting her to various manipulations and mobilizations. What we get on-screen is a young woman successfully coming to grips with the use of her own self-image, learning from the program how to finally (endlessly) put herself to work.

John Kelsey is a contributing editor of Artforum.