Saturday, April 16, 2011

"Why don't they make the good ol' movies anymore?" Paul Mazursky's Alex in Wonderland (1970)

Paul Mazursky was riding high in 1969. The actor turned filmmaker had just scored a huge hit with his first feature, the moving satirical masterpiece Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and everyone in the film community was waiting to see what Mazursky would do next. MGM was so eager to release Mazursky’s follow-up feature that they gave him carte blanche for his new project, even though they hadn’t even seen a script yet. Like many out of the gate cinematic success stories though, Paul Mazursky was struggling with just what his sophomore effort should be.

Inspired by the young turks of the late sixties counter-culture movement who were rapidly making the Old Hollywood system their bitch, and fuelled by his his love for Fellini and the French New Wave, Mazursky and his writing partner Larry Tucker hit upon the idea to create their own 8 1/2, a big-budget studio backed piece of anarchy that would be both autobiographical as well as a tip of the hat to the crumbling of ‘classic’ Hollywood.

Sparked by an astonishing performance by Donald Sutherland, as the young director Alex who who is struggling to follow-up his first feature, Alex in Wonderland is the kind of audacious and nervy studio-backed picture that could have only happened between Easy Rider and Jaws. Mazursky’s second feature is a chaotic and funny powerhouse of a film focused on an artist in serious crisis, a man who is having a nervous and spiritual breakdown.

The greatness of Alex in Wonderland can perhaps be summed up in one scene from the film. Sutherland’s Alex is wandering, quite lost, on a warm summer day in Hollywood when he stumbles in one of those shops that specialize in glossy photos of the stars. With his mind on everything except what is in front of him, Alex is punched back into reality when he spots Jeanne Moreau standing across from him. An awkward conversation between Alex and the legendary French Icon soon turns into a full-blown musical number, with the two walking arm and arm while Moreau serenades the fractured filmmaker. The scene mirrors Alex's inability to tell reality from fantasy, and demonstrates Mazursky's own success behind the camera at clouding the difference for his audience as well.

While Alex in Wonderland is remembered for moments like the one above, with special note going to a recreation of a Vietnam war battle on the streets of Hollywood, it is really the sharply written characters pontificating on the state of being at the tail-end of the counter-culture movement that makes it so haunting. It's a strangely topical work that, like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, stands as anything but dated. Alex in Wonderland is a timeless film focusing on the loss of identity and how that loss can translate into great work for an artist.

As Alex, Donald Sutherland is absolutely mesmerizing and is the perfect actor to portray the frustrations of a man both in the moment and totally out of it. There are few American actors who can come close to Sutherland at the top of his game and Alex in Wonderland stands as one of his best works. Sutherland isn’t the only world-class actor on hand for Alex in Wonderland, as powerhouse Ellen Burstyn is featured as his wife. The film would give Burstyn one of her early great parts and within a year she would have her first well-deserved Academy Award nomination for The Last Picture Show (1971). The supporting cast is made up of everyone from members of Mazursky’s own family, to Federico Fellini, to Mazursky himself.

Shot beautifully by world-renowned cinematographer László Kovács, whose work in this period was just as important as the many young filmmakers who brought him on board for their trailblazing films, the anarchic Alex in Wonderland also benefits greatly from the wonderfully old-fashioned score from Tom O’Horgan. It is in fact the film’s music that helps consistently remind viewers that this wild and freewheeling production is being backed by a supposedly supportive studio that was banking on it to help save them from financial ruin, even though they would pull the plug on it at the first sign that it wasn’t going to be another Easy Rider.

Alex in Wonderland hit theaters just before Christmas of 1970 and it was gone soon after. Like other truly great and daring studio-backed works of the period like the The Last Movie to Zabriskie Point, audiences never truly had an opportunity to let the many pleasures of Alex in Wonderland sweep over them, because the powers that be (in the studio and critical world) wanted to put the monster back in the closet immediately after they unlocked the door. Save for a brief VHS release in the 90s, Paul Mazursky’s follow-up film to Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice has been very hard to see so Turner Classic Movies’ airings of it have been a real godsend for those of us who have only read about it.

Alex in Wonderland is a major movie from the richest period in American film history. Pretentious??? You bet...but some of the greatest art is overflowing with the kind of needed pretension on hand in Mazursky's film. Alex in Wonderland is a daring and provocative film deserving of a wider audience and a special edition Blu-ray and DVD release would be cause for celebration.

Bravo to Turner Classic Movies for running it completely uncut recently!


Erich Kuersten said...

Nice work, JR. I've had this sitting in my DV-R backlog for months, waiting for a reason to endure the inevitable self-reflexive Fellini-esque whimsy. You gave me that reason.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Erich! I'll be curious to hear what you think. I know a lot of folks are pretty dismissive of it but it really grabbed me. I hope you dig it and thanks again for commenting.