Alex in Wonderland (1970)

Directed by Paul Mazursky

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In Alex in Wonderland a Hollywood director, Alex Morrison (Donald Sutherland) plays a thinly veiled Paul Mazursky, a bohemian artist who struggles in search of his next movie idea.  We will dissolve into Alex’s mind as he loses sense of himself, floating into and out of reality.  Alex will ‘meet’ Federico Fellini (whose 8 1/2 is an obvious and commented upon influence on this film), go on a romantic ride with Jeanne Moreau and hallucinate things like wars on the streets of Hollywood, suffocated masses of people on the LAX tarmacs and endless dancing nudists on the beach.  His fantasies often dissolve into some kind of counterculture-themed ‘Where’s Waldo.’

This film is proudly self-indulgent.  It’s a film about a director looking for his next idea and fretting that he has none.  He’s alternately egocentric and insecure, either all powerful or all questioning.

As Alex searches for his next idea he will try just about every method or “quick fix.”  His story is surely no different than any other mid-life crisis, and I find that all the more intriguing considering how he is to so many passersby the epitome of what it means to be successful.  He is confident, walking around with a rather ostentatious (though era appropriate) wardrobe, and he seems to silently encourage the adoration people throw at his feet.  He is, to them, a man who has it all figured out, and yet inside he’s mush but unabashedly so.

When Alex isn’t face to face with an adoring fan or an old classmate who wants a taste of glory, he’s bumping into his own heroes and gazing at them with the same awestruck expression.  This being a world pulled from his own psyche he gets to be both God and child.

And so because we are so deeply embedded in Alex’s mind, this whole thing is an exercise in self-analysis, not just for Alex but surely for Mazursky too.

Mazursky’s films have a heavy degree of self-analysis, characters who are searching and probing their own minds for the right way to exist. They are a bit neurotic, certainly self-indulgent, but they’re intent on figuring themselves out, though apparently not very good at it.  When they reach any kind of catharsis it feels less like a sincere conclusion on their place in the world and more like a hardening delusion that they’ll settle into.  Mazurksy’s films seem to be well aware of this, suggesting that maybe we can never figure out who we are in the moment, we just find peace and comfort in a delusion that passes for clarity.  It’s only in hindsight that we understand who we once were.

Alex in Wonderland works as some sort of character study, but even then it’s not so much about Alex as the bumbling world around him.  He’s lost in this chaos, of his environment, his marriage, his career and his own life.  Having even more recently watched a Terrence Malick film, Knight of Cups, I am compelled to compare the two.  They both follow struggling, jaded artists through abstract, symbolic narratives that resist plot.

For Malick, his characters’ plights have something to do with what it means to be human (though you can disagree with how effective his films are), but for Alex Morrison, his wandering has only to do with being an artist.  More specifically it has to do with being an artist whose work now has a direct financial effect on his and his family’s life.

Because of that, and the way Alex is framed, we are likely meant to find his character and his odyssey to be amusing.  There are several scenes in a bath or shower in which Alex calculates how much money they have, how much of it is liquid and how much might be ideal.  Then you have a loose subplot in which he and his wife, Beth (Ellen Burstyn) look for a new house.  He is stuck on the idea of falling into some kind of Hollywood trap, with a bigger house they can barely afford that doesn’t actually solve anything.  She is just concerned with finding a good home for their children.

Alex is stuck somewhere between fantasy and reality, and I suppose that’s why the film literally blends the two.  The title alludes to “Alice in Wonderland,” but the Wonderland here is still just Los Angeles.  He does not fall down a rabbit hole into a new environment but rather manifests the fantasy in his own mind so that it takes over the otherwise nondescript streets of Los Angeles like unwelcome party guests.  His “wonderland” is a nuisance to himself and the people around him, the heightened melodrama that seems to attach itself to certain types of artists who have made a career out of their whims, impulses and idiosyncrasies.

For Mazursky this feels like an artist’s block he just had to work through, a phase or moment he could only do away with after documenting it, giving it a certain amount of attention.  It might also be that he felt this struggle bonded him to the works and trials of those he admired, specifically Federico Fellini.  His 8 1/2 would similarly go onto inspire Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, another film about an artist reckoning with his own success and place in his own life.

It’s self-indulgent, neurotic but clearly somewhat universal, at least within the world of artists, artists who have found a way to turn their points of view into money.  Maybe that money corrupts part of the artistry, diminishes the satisfaction of creation.  Maybe not.  It might simply be that to have critics, audiences and money confirm your strange way of seeing the world, well then you just keep pushing further, seeing how far you can take your idiosyncrasies before people stop paying attention.

Up Next: Knight of Cups (2015), Joe (2013), The Wicker Man (1973)

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