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Alice in Wonderland: Adrenaline- Junkie, Justice-Freak

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The exhibition Wonderland now on at Melbourne’s ACMI begins with Lewis Carroll’s 1865 book Alice in Wonderland and follows Alice’s journey through her many cinematic appearances from 1930’s silent Alice in Wonderland to the recent Tim Burton blockbusters. The exhibition looks at the importance of Lewis Carroll’s creation, and how technological innovations and filmmakers’ unique voices have added intriguing new layers to the Wonderland characters, while never losing the appeal and endurance of the original creations.

The book Wonderland (Thames and Hudson) by Emma McRae (one of the curators of the Wonderland exhibition) and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (an editor at Senses of Cinema and the author of five books on cult cinema) has been published to coincide with the world premiere of the exhibition. It follows Alice’s journey from 1865 to now, with images throughout, and includes a series of essays by respected contributors on various aspects of the influence of Alice both on the page and on the screen.

In the essay “Adrenaline- Junkie, Justice-Freak” reproduced below, the playwright Joanna Murray-Smith looks at the influence of Alice on childhood.


I had my own white rabbits at home, but none had pocket watches. When I was seven year’s old — the same age as Alice – I used to pack a small rectangular case with two silver locks and head through our wild bush garden, up our steep lane and out to the main road. In a fit of pique with my mother, I headed north towards the highway. Although I hoped she would find me and beg my forgiveness, I was a curious child who could see peep-holes through my domestic universe. My interior life, no doubt nurtured by the great lonely plains of suburbia, could get the jump on time.

I never reached the highway that might have taken me to those places fantastic and wild and foreign but I could close my eyes and travel there. How wasteful, it seemed to me that this mystifying array of possibilities presented itself in adulthood with a Catch 22 – adults who could do anything rarely did. Youth was not wasted on the young – age was wasted on the old. The permission to step into wonderland seemed to capsize the appetite for it. It was children who could most enjoy what they were denied – the chaotic globe.  Generations of young women sat inside their domestic worlds populated by the population of birth’s happenstance, tedious siblings, killjoy parents, forbidden to talk to strangers. Alice had to go to wonderland for us.

Childhood is much more knowing that adulthood gives it credit for.

I felt almost at-one with Alice. With brown ringlets and pinafore-free, I did not resemble her. But smart and equipped with a capricious personality, she was, like me, a child intent on making her mark. I recognised myself in the bossiness of her opinions, in her proclivity for showing off. Alice was bored not just with her restrained, curated child’s life but with herself. When Alice ran across the field, chasing the rabbit down the rabbit-hole, I guessed she had already worn out her audience at home, her charisma thwarted by familiarity.

Thrilling to opportunity, Alice saw the opportunity to find a new audience down that rabbit hole. By stretching her horizon line, Alice, that 19thcentury adrenalin junkie, was on a mission to expand herself. I felt that same ambition a little over a hundred years later at home in what she perceptively misnamed “The Antipathies”, a perfect reflection of a condescending British attitude to the colonies.

Childhood is much more knowing that adulthood gives it credit for. Even inside it, I knew that childhood bought you certain privileges, including that of making poor judgements. No one expected children to make good decisions and it was possible to live up to those low expectations and leap into things that were risky without being blamed. No one trusted you knew any better, even though you did. Alice could run riot and blame it all on her age.

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Wonderland at ACMI. Photo by Phoebe Powell

How brilliant that seemed to me and how expressive of childhood’s rarely articulated freedom: to be innocent. To not be expected to know better is something adults long for, because they had it once and time took it away. And at another level, children of my generation escaped the judgment that prompted fear and rigour in the children of the 1950s and before. As the Seventies child of left-wing intellectuals, my peers and I were victims of an educational ideology that considered spelling and grammar less important than the imagination. Set in semi-rural suburbia, my school was surrounded by fields where we could spend lunchtimes catching grasshoppers in thickets of spindly yellow grass or making up plays before going to class where teachers who wanted to be air hostesses avoided explaining adverbs. There was a new energy in the air that felt exhilaratingly threatening. My older brother was getting school suspensions for attending the Vietnam moratorium, parents got strung out on diet pills, and women were reading The Female Eunuch, all to a David Bowie soundtrack.

We had all fallen up into another kind of wonderland.

Alice was not a provocateur but a justice-freak. Knowing the truth carried an obligation to declare it.

Little wonder that precocious and privileged, caught between the conventions of family life and the ferment of social change, I identified with Alice.

Alice’s intellectual confidence allows her to stick to her guns. What was the point of knowing better than other people but being too modest to say so? She was not, after all, a provocateur but a justice-freak. Knowing the truth carried an obligation to declare it.

When the King tells the Cheshire cat not to be impertinent, Alice does not hesitate to reprimand the King. ‘A cat may look at a king,’ said Alice. ‘I’ve read that in some book, but I don’t remember where.’  She knows she knows — and not standing your ground would be unthinkable, even with royalty.

Like me, Alice was both intellectually contemptuous of rules but inherently respectful of them. For all my avowed rebelliousness, I could never dislodge a desire to please. My imperious grandmother, a couture-clad, pearl-swathed autodidact, was as terrifying and haughty as any Duchess, as regal as any Queen. Under her gaze, I felt a terrified obligation to fulfil her requirements for social niceties and emulate her snobbery. Rules-abiding but too headstrong to be properly good-mannered, I recognised in Alice a similar contradiction and a conflicted longing to be both proper and interesting.

Of course, being interesting meant capitulating to risk. I spent my childhood deliberating over whether or not I would have entered the cupboard in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I knew I would never set foot on the Yellow Brick Road as I found the entire set up intensely sinister.  And while I identified much more closely with Alice than those other characters in other tales, I remained unconvinced that I would have drunk a potion instructing: “DRINK ME”.

I felt the compulsion of all these protagonists’ pull towards the unknown, an attraction I would not submit to because I couldn’t budge a sure sense of belonging to the known world, a world I loved, even if I could see that it was bound by certain tedious principles of probability.

I knew that Alice was at the mercy of a writer, that it was the writer she should fear more than her co-characters.

It is Alice’s courage in which I had to invest, knowing that she was more qualified than me to take the risk. I wanted to fall into stories just as the almost-fearless Alice fell into the rabbit hole. I wanted to be capsized. I was happy for the children in stories to fall for me, to lie in my bed beside my father reading to me aloud and through the black and white print, watch their kaleidoscopic tumble.

My desire to enter stories, and the talent my parents had for reading aloud, allowed me (like most children) to mentally file away the knowledge they were fiction. When protagonists were threatened, I could retrieve the knowledge of their artifice to reassure myself no actual child would die in the making of this story. I knew that Alice was at the mercy of a writer, that it was the writer she should fear more than her co-characters since he could cut off her head much quicker than a Queen of Hearts. What allowed me to endure the tension of her drinking unknown liquids, her fluctuating size, the deep, fast holes through which she sped and her encounters with disagreeable and unpredictable creatures – tension I felt in my body — was an instinctive trust that while an author might imperil his heroine, he was unlikely to actually end her.

As with so many heroic children’s stories, death is a permanent phantasm throughout Alice. Carroll understands that children are intimate with the concept of mortality which is an ever-present character in the stories that beguile them. Children are raised in the shadow of death — especially those of us with mothers who were knee-jerk catastrophisers. In love with stories that exploit our morbid curiosity, death lies around every actual corner and every narrative turn.

At five, I asked my father if he died in the war – some sense that while cataclysmic, it was not final, misled by the way characters who die in stories resurrect when you re-read them.  Death hovers in every narrative, always ready to step in and up the ante. But unlike in life itself, storybook death amplifies a child’s confusion over finality. I am reminded of this when Alice begins to shrink:

“First, however she waited for a few minutes to see if she was going to shrink any further: she felt a little nervous about this; ‘for it might end, you know,’ said Alice to herself, ‘in my going out altogether, like a candle. I wonder what I should be like then?’.”

I spent most of my childhood wondering who I was and what death meant, as I suspect many children do.  Childhood is so replete with unanswerable questions: Would we be us if one parent were different? Is our life fixed or can we steer it? Which version of us is the real one? Are we real?

“Who in the world am I?”asks Alice.

Later, to the mystified caterpillar, she admits: “ I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir… because I’m not myself, you see.”

“’I don’t see,’ said the caterpillar.

‘I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,’ Alice replied very politely, for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.’”

It was Alice who let me and many young women know that one’s identity was never a fixed thing.

Alice understands that her own importance shifts from context to context, that life is a discombobulating journey between self-importance and humility. That uncertainty trailed me well into my twenties but it was Alice who let me and many young women know that one’s identity was never a fixed thing. The best response was to emulate her sanguine acceptance.

When half-deaf mathematician Charles Dodgson snapped a portrait of the six year old Alice Liddell in ragamuffin’s clothes in an Oxford garden during the summer of 1858, he prophesied the personalities of young women a century later. For women whose path was paved by the feminism of the 1970s, Alice was a soothsayer, the blue-print of who we were destined to become. Educated, confident, visionary, able to accommodate social conventions whilst imagining a world beyond them, Alice was a prototype for a generation of women unafraid to realise a more stimulated version of themselves in a more stimulating world. Alice’s adventures capture the particular transition from the known to the unknown, from a recognisable society to a new, emerging one. Youth allows Alice to believe in it before experience turns hope to cynicism, before the rules of reality shrink the largesse of idealism.

As Alice turns and tumbles through this wonderland, the dangers are temporary hurdles, transitory impediments to a new order. As her journey comes to a close, she has been threatened, frustrated and provoked, but mostly she is invigorated by her mental and physical dexterity, by her endurance and independence.

As children, we don’t think we will ever outgrow our momentary passion–  it is all or nothing. But Alice knows – and warns us.

The end of Alice in Wonderland struck me as impossibly sad. Alice, sitting with closed eyes, knows that to open them will be to admit “dull reality”. She acknowledges that she will, in time, be a grown woman who would keep “the simple and loving heart of her childhood” but whose chief pleasure will be to find joy in other little children, in having become the teller of the stories, rather than the audience. What a resentful recognition it is to know that the naivete of childhood, and its attendant mysteries, must evaporate for oneself, while others who come after you inherit it. If one had the choice, who would ever forsake the delight of believing stories for the power of creating them?

Carroll suggests that Alice has already moved on. We are left with a sense of children’s passions being as tumbled and volatile as this story… passions flare and then subside as new ones come along. Alice and we, her companions, have been immersed in this world of fantasy but time will reduce its magnificence to a book, an object we can carry in our hands.

As children, we don’t think we will ever outgrow our momentary passion– can’t conceive of it – it is all or nothing. But Alice knows – and warns us – that we will find piecemeal fragments of that passion in a dusty corner years later, effortlessly forgotten. All of that: the Duchess and caterpillars, the Mock Turtle and playing cards, all diminished by our emotional evolution, by our imagination’s trajectory into the new unknown.

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Wonderland at ACMI. Photo by Phoebe Powell

This emotional capriciousness is not something you can blame Alice for – it is part of the fickleness of being young. We live enough in the moment to ignore how change is time’s companion. I was always distressed by letting go of something because I no longer cared quite enough about it. I kept a self-punishing nostalgia for those things, casting occasional greetings towards a bear I no longer believed to be conscious, because I longed to go backwards or owed something to the child I used to be and her beliefs.

“Curiouser and curiouser” is Alice’s famous observation and no phrase is more eloquent in describing the writer’s raison d’etre. Curiousity is the fuel that drives both the child and the creator and for a creative child, it is a quotidian companion.

The boredom that envelops Alice at the commencement of Wonderland is the incentive for the adventure that follows. It is symbolised by the book her sister is reading beside her on the banks of the river. “And what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversation?’

For a future playwright, whose narratives come to life only with the oxygen of images and dialogue, nothing might be truer.

The book WONDERLAND is available now via the ACMI Shop instore and online (RRP $65 AUD, $55 AUD with a ticket to the exhibition). From May 1, the book will be available from all good booksellers and from publishers Thames and Hudson. The world premiere exhibition is now on exclusively at Melbourne’s ACMI until Sunday October 7, 2018.

[box]Main image: actor Angourie Rice at the preview of ACMI’s Wonderland exhibition. Photo by Phoebe Powell[/box]


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