One of the most enduring lessons I ever learnt about life, art, aesthetics, was taught by the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, in his poem, “Mr. Cogito and the Imagination”
Mr. Cogito never trusted
tricks of the imagination
the piano at the top of the Alps
played false concerts for him
That phrase, “the piano at the top of the Alps” has never left me. It’s about substance over illusion, reality over surreality, integrity over fraudulence, confidence over pretence, grace over style.
It’s a phrase that returned to me this afternoon after watching Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland”. I liked the film. I thought it was well-written. I hesitate greatly before spending money on watching any Hollywood production, partly because I feel a multitude of more independent, truer creatives better deserve that money, and partly because Hollywood tells so very few original stories; most are staggeringly repetitive and derivative, and it’s only the hypnosis of glamour and power that leaves intact the reputations of names like Spielberg, Cameron; certainly not their later “creative” output. But I didn’t feel, today, the slight queasiness of the shell game victim, on leaving the cinema, that I felt with (e.g.) Avatar.
But despite an original enough script, “Alice” was more Burton than Carroll. Superficially new, yet after a while, somehow terribly familiar too. (I have nothing against him, truly, but am I really the only person out here bored to tears now by Jonny Depp? Successful Hollywood actors should be pensioned out by anti-trust law to provincial theatre. And Depp? The fey male baton must be passed on.)
“Alice” is not a bad film. But it fails in a few ways. It rehashes a tired Tim Burton aesthetic. It deals almost entirely in alpine ivory tinkling. And it fails to ask why a book that deals a great deal in alpine ivory tinkling has such lasting appeal, and to provide its own convincing reply. My guess – I shall have to re-read now, with this question in mind – is that the book works because little Alice never really buys the whole thing. And because she’s rather charming. And because Carroll’s book was truly original at the time (if perhaps a protest against mathematical alpine ivory tinkling). But Burton’s bigger Alice steps so deliberately around the rabbit hole of the feminine helplessness stereotype that she falls headlong into another – the New Female Hero.
The script machine grinds on.