Sunday, January 22, 2017

Alex in Wonderland

Alex wanders around what is likely to be his future home, calculating how much he'll eventually pay in interest.  Wondering what is life will be like in thirty years, the length of the mortgage.  He'll be 66. Will he still be directing movies?  It is all so unknowable, especially for a guy who constantly questions everything. Philosophical inquiries are as natural for him as breathing.  He asks nearly every character in the film what three foods would they select if they were stuck on a desert island forever.

Alex (Donald Sutherland) has finished his first movie.  The buzz is favorable. Screenings go well.  Probably will be a hit.  He wonders if he's already peaked.  No where to go but down.  He's already worried about selling out.  Of course he wants to make meaningful, important, socially conscious films. Lots of scripts come his way.  He has a few ideas of his own.  But what will he decide to do next?

1970's ALEX IN WONDERLAND was the "next" film for director Paul Mazursky after his break out hit and  counter cultural benchmark BOB & TED & CAROL & ALICE.  It seems like a cop out to have your sophomore effort be about a guy in his shoes.  I'm not saying it's easy to concoct, no, but it's awfully precious.   The "woe is me" artist dirge often comes off embarrassingly.  While I can sympathize with the plight of an artist who struggles with the sort of career and legacy he'd like to leave, I also lose patience.

Sutherland does the morose bit quite well, enough so that I wanted to feed him enough hallucinogens to shut him up at times.  I felt sorry for his wife, Beth (Ellen Burstyn, in an underdeveloped role), who breaks down late in the film, unsure of how to have a relationship with such a self-absorbed boar.  With all these kvetches, I wonder if Mazursky in fact succeeded in his goals for this movie.   That does not make it fun to watch, necessarily.  Maybe a short film would've sufficiently made the point?

Of course, ALEX IN WONDERLAND is a big hat tip to Fellini's 8 1/2, which would certainly be time better spent.   In case you didn't catch that, Fellini has a cameo, playing himself, shown editing his telefilm THE CLOWNS.  Also, Alex tells his daughter about that famous movie in one of those types of explanation scenes that I find gratuitous.  Did Mazursky - who hilariously portrays a producer trying to interest Alex in commercial projects - not trust his audience?   He very effectively captures the zeitgeist of hippie culture throughout the film but even that just becomes exhaustingly self-conscious.  Alex's dreams/fantasies that meld ideas for a new movie and his troubled life range from cute (a musical number with Jeanne Moreau) to clever (a war on Hollywood Blvd.) to ridiculous (a group of buck naked natives dance on a beach).

There have been many self-examinations in cinema since ALEX IN WONDERLAND, including the eye opening ALL THAT JAZZ.  Whether you find them insightful into the creative mind and the eventual process of the creation of art or simply hipster posturing depends on your own sensibilities.  I really did like that last scene, though, as Alex surveys that house and perhaps sees a future that may be more enriching than anything he may commit to celluloid.

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