Hollywood is no place for nonsense. That’s presumably why Alice Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Disney’s 2010 movie Alice in Wonderland, features organizing principles absent from Lewis Carroll’s books: Alice’s search for a “chronometer” — a time travel device that’s also a pacemaker for Father Time (Sacha Baron Cohen, with mutton chops, German accent, and mustache) — paired with a search for the missing family of the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp, eyes painted yellow like a gecko).
For the story to make sense, director James Bobin needed a proper quest with proper villains attached; most of all, he needed a linear story that unfolds in time. But time is almost totally meaningless in Carroll’s Wonderland. On the contrary, a timeless, dreamy indolence prevails. In Carroll’s books, there isn’t any story in the conservative Hollywood sense, and there’s certainly no systematic antagonist to satisfy a Hollywood film editor.
The only villain in Carroll’s Wonderland is overzealous conscience, and the means available to combat it are wholly stylistic, a unique brand of literary anarchy that owes much to the repressive Victorian era: Carroll was born in the teeth of the Evangelical religious revival that defined it. As Josef Altholz writes, “The most important thing to remember about religion in Victorian England is that there was an awful lot of it.” Threatened by the advance of science and secularism in the 18th century, clergymen of the 19th fought to defend the old moral order by clamping down firmly on new ideas. Lewis Carroll’s father was a reverend and archdeacon in this reactionary Evangelical movement, which also conscripted Carroll himself. Biographer Derek Hudson writes that “it is beyond dispute that Lewis Carroll modeled his outward character largely on his authoritarian father.” Carroll was ordained a clergyman like his father and his colleagues in mathematics at Oxford. But this proper “outward character” had a rebellious counterpart in an inner character that authored puckish, nonsensical books.
Verbal humor was from childhood Carroll’s favored means of breaking rules. When he was 13, he wrote a satirical poem called “Rules and Regulations” and another called “My Fairy.” His “fairy” was an inner voice of conscience whose basic message was You mustn’t…do anything. This was the beginning of Carroll’s career undermining authority figures by impersonating their voices, a strategy that would culminate in hilarious creations like the King and Queen of Hearts, the Duchess, and the Mock Turtle. Their lunacy derives not so much from disregard for rules as from rigid observation of rules that don’t make any sense. The system of Wonderland runs on madness and everybody living there abides by it. Thus the Cheshire Cat judiciously assures Alice that she needn’t bother avoiding mad people in Wonderland. “Oh, you can’t help that,” he says, “we’re all mad here.”
Consider how the Duchess, depicted by 19th-century illustrator John Tenniel as a man in a squared Elizabethan headdress, nurses her baby in a kitchen full of pepper. “I speak severely to my boy, I beat him when he sneezes,” she sings. And then this:
‘Here! You may nurse it a bit, if you like!’ the Duchess said to Alice, flinging the baby at her as she spoke. ‘I must go and get ready to play croquet with the Queen,’ and she hurried out of the room. The cook threw a frying-pan after her as she went, but it just missed her.
It’s telling that the insane Duchess’s favorite word, as Carroll later observes, is “moral.” It is her devotion to a crooked dogma that makes her seem unhinged: an infant is not allowed to sneeze; a game of croquet outweighs the baby’s needs. Invitations to the Queen’s officious game of croquet, meanwhile, arrive in large wax-sealed letters, whence footmen read them aloud. To make all this ceremony even more preposterous, the game is ultimately played with flamingoes and hedgehogs instead of mallets and balls. The courtiers’ fastidious efforts at croquet quickly bring about nothing but chaos as the animate balls, mallets, and wickets wander off. The game is mad, not the players.
Sigmund Freud said that good jokes free us from the prohibitions of reserved, polite society, and Carroll sets us all free: authority figures so corrupt and ridiculous can’t enforce their prohibitions. The Queen of Hearts, Carroll says, has “only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small” — and that is to cry, “Off with his head!” She and the King, who eventually serves as the most maddening trial judge in all literature, are a perfect picture of the excess and irrationality of a neurotic conscience. Alice accordingly rejects their corrupt judgments; when the Queen hysterically demands Alice’s head, Alice silences her with this assessment of her moral code: “Nonsense!”
The Cheshire Cat is one of the few characters who seems in on the joke of Wonderland. So is the Gryphon, who doesn’t fear “that savage Queen.” In fact, he says, she’s “fun.” “It’s all her fancy, that,” says the Gryphon in his candid patois. “They never executes nobody, you know.” The Gryphon pronounces a similar verdict on his companion, the sorrowful Mock Turtle, whose name derives from a Victorian dish called “mock turtle soup.” “It’s all his fancy, that,” says the Gryphon. “He hasn’t got no sorrow, you know.” In Wonderland, sorrow is just another preposterous rule. Carroll illustrates this point when Alice asks the source of the Mock Turtle’s woe and receives this sniffling and incomplete explanation: “Once, I was a real Turtle.” His sorrow derives, it seems, from an affectation, a “mock sorrow” to which he feels unaccountably obliged. But the reader recognizes instantly the absurdity of this obligation. We have as little to fear from mock sorrow as we do from the Queen’s mock executions.
Throughout the books, it’s Alice who is the principal skeptic of Wonderland’s regulations and the spurious sorrow, guilt, and fear they entrain. By appointing a child the cynosure of wisdom in his books, Carroll broke with the standard approach to children’s literature in Victorian times. Victorian children’s literature treated children as eminently corruptible and sought to provide them with stern moral instruction. Carroll used Alice like a mini-Friedrich Nietzsche to do the opposite — to critique the bad morals of adults — and as a sort of straight man in a comic routine. She points out absurdity so that the reader can not only appreciate its latent social commentary, but enjoy it, revel in it, laugh at it. Nonsense is a relief to the child from the bullying strictures of reality, but it’s perhaps an even bigger relief to adults, who suffer even more of reality’s insults and constraints, and who have lost the childhood method of defying reality through nonsense.
Lewis Carroll, however, seemed to have recovered the pleasurable nonsense available to children by retaining in himself the ability to be a child. As is well-known, Carroll composed the earliest version of the Alice stories to entertain a real little girl, 10-year-old Alice Liddell, daughter of a lexicographer of ancient Greek at Oxford. His unorthodox friendships with Alice and other little girls have led some scholars to call him a pedophile; the intensity of Carroll’s interest in the Liddell girls may indeed have precipitated the break with the Liddell family that eventually ensued. Regardless of the ultimate propriety of these relationships, Carroll’s urge and ability to see the world through the eyes of a child is inseparable from his artistic vision. Among the many rules that Wonderland warps to the breaking point is that which divides big and small, adult and child. When Alice literally grows and shrinks in Wonderland, she seems to illustrate Carroll’s wish, and his corresponding ability, to toggle between child and adult by an act of mental flexion or extension. Age, like time, does not exist in Wonderland.
Carroll’s personal interest in the world of childhood, his professional interest in symbolic logic, and his rebellion against over-finicky rules all came together in nonsense verse like “Jabberwocky,” which famously begins, “Twas brillig and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.” Seth Lerer writes, “[T]he idea of nonsense as a force of the imagination, of nonsense as a challenge to the logic of adulthood and the laws of civil life — this was a new idea in Victorian England. The masters of that nonsense were, of course, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.” Carroll’s nonsense has indeed been influential and long-lived; it gave English the portmanteau word “chortle” and inspired The Beatles’s famous song “I Am the Walrus.” John Lennon told the BBC that his 1967 nonsense song refers to “The Walrus and the Carpenter” from Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. A century after Carroll made war on the Victorians, Lennon channeled his nonsensical idol to continue the very same culture war, to relieve us of our mock sorrows.
It is this joyous relief and freedom that resounds throughout Wonderland. Adults continue to return to Lewis Carroll in order to retrieve what Freud called “the lost laughter of childhood.” Unlike J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, or A.A. Milne, author of Winnie-the-Pooh, Lewis Carroll grants no asylum to wistful acknowledgements that childhood must come to an end. The lost laughter of childhood needn’t be lost forever, he seems to say. Whether Hollywood, with all its starched conventions and obligations to the Almighty Dollar, can ever retrieve the lost laughter as well as Carroll did is an open question. The Alice movie currently in theaters now doesn’t really aim to. It peddles instead a familiar spectacle, manipulating the audience’s attention, which suited my kids just fine. This grown-up, though, finds more sense in Carroll’s nonsense. Maybe that’s why Carroll’s books are still in print. Nothing funnier has ever been written.
Writers often make cameo appearances in films based on their stories. Occasionally, they play themselves in movies. Some playwrights, by nature of their proximity to actors and the theater, are almost better known for acting than for their writing (Wallace Shawn and Sam Shepard, for example).
There are writers, however, who act in films that have nothing to do with their own writing. Who are some of these authors, and how do they fare on the big screen?
1. Calvin Trillin – Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
In his debut performance as Uncle Milton in Nora Ephron’s romantic comedy, Calvin Trillin can be called subtle. The author of Tepper Isn’t Going Out and About Alice is doing one of the things he does best: eating dinner. He is also relatively avuncular, if your uncles are, like mine, the sort who basically ignore you. (You can catch most of his performance here starting at 1:05.)
Trillin followed up his Sleepless in Seattle performance with a role in another Nora Ephron film, Michael (1996). As the sheriff who throws the eponymous archangel and his entourage in jail, Trillin has a few lines, but he appears acutely conscious of the camera — and determined to turn away from it. How like a writer.
2. George Plimpton – Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
The late editor of the Paris Review auditioned for the role of himself in Paper Lion (1968), based on his book of the same name, but the part went to Alan Alda. However, Plimpton brought his transatlantic honk to many movies. He made his film debut as a Bedouin running across the desert in David Lean’s epic and went on to make 18 more big-screen appearances. He donned a cowboy hat in Howard Hawks’ Rio Lobo (1970) and partied with club kids in Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco (1998). He logged bit roles in The Detective (1968), L.A. Story (1991), and Good Will Hunting (1997), among others.
3. Jerzy Kosinski – Reds (1981)
George Plimpton appeared as an editor in Reds (1981), which also featured writer Jerzy Kosinski as Grigory Zinoviev, the Russian revolutionary-turned-bureaucrat. Kosinski’s portrayal of Zinoviev is cold, furious, and authentic. Before filming began, Kosinski also convinced director Warren Beatty that the latter was having a panic attack. Beatty says, “I found that for some reason my feet were sweating profusely…Kosinski was hiding under the table pouring hot tea into my shoes very gradually.”
Plimpton and Kosinski also had cameos in A Fool and His Money (1986). Plimpton played God. Kosinski was a beggar. Literary Brat-Packer Tama Janowitz made a brief appearance as a talk-show host. By all reports, the film is terrible. Pre-Speed Sandra Bullock had a small role. She is featured prominently in the re-cut trailer.
4. Maya Angelou – Poetic Justice (1993)
Poetic Justice was directed and written by John Singleton but Maya Angelou supplied the poetry recited by Justice, played by Janet Jackson. Angelou also had a small role as June, one of three sisters whom Justice encounters at a family reunion. Angelou also played a woman named May and read her poem “In and Out of Time” in Madea’s Family Reunion (2006). The writer is comfortable on camera, impressive and sonorous. Really, though, Maya Angelou plays Maya Angelou, even when she’s ostensibly a character named after a month.
5. Martin Amis – A High Wind in Jamaica (1965)
A very blond, 13-year-old Amis appeared in the film based on Richard Hughes’ 1929 novel. The story has been described as The Lord of the Flies meets Peter Pan. British children who are being sent to England for schooling find their ship commandeered by pirates. The pirates prove juvenile, while the children find their blood lust awakened by the plundering and pillaging. Amis describes the making of the movie in his memoir, Experience. Puberty hit the future writer during filming, forcing filmmakers to overdub Amis’ voice with that of a young girl’s.
6. Salman Rushdie – Then She Found Me (2007)
In the film based on Elinor Lipman’s book of the same name, the author of The Satanic Verses and Midnight’s Children plays physician to a pregnant Helen Hunt. The film is filled with off-puttingly familiar mugs: Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Colin Firth. Most distracting of all may be Rushdie’s. He tries his best, but let’s face it: SALMAN RUSHDIE, fatwa survivor, ex-husband of Padma Lakshmi, plays an obstetrician who is not using enough gel while operating an ultrasound machine. Disbelief has not been suspended if the audience* starts yelling, “Use more gel, Rushdie! Use more gel!”
*Okay, I was watching it alone in my living room. Still.
8. Norman Mailer – Cremaster 2 (1999)
Mailer acted, directed, and wrote many films (including Maidstone , in which Mailer’s character’s fight with his brother, played by Rip Torn, turns into a real-life brawl). But Mailer also received good notices for his role in Ragtime (1981), based on the book by E.L. Doctorow, in which he portrayed architect Stanford White, and as Harry Houdini in artist Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 2 (1999). Barney’s avant-garde film was loosely based on the story of Gary Gilmore, who claimed to be the illegitimate grandson of Houdini, and was convicted of killing two Utah gas station attendants. Gilmore was also the subject of Mailer’s 1980 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Executioner’s Song.
9. Gore Vidal – Gattaca (1997)
In 1971, Norman Mailer headbutted Gore Vidal in the greenroom of the Dick Cavett show (the on-camera portion of the spat can be found here). Clearly, the two writers shared a sense of theatricality which might explain their attraction to the cinema. Vidal enjoyed turns in Tim Robbins’ political satire Bob Roberts (1992) and the comedy Igby Goes Down (2002), among others. Vidal also had a supporting role as the sinister head of a space agency in the dystopian thriller, Gattaca, which also starred novelist Ethan Hawke.
10. Anita Loos – Camille (1926)
This 33-minute silent film loosely based on Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias, probably shouldn’t qualify for this list — it’s essentially a home movie of a drunken party — but the cast is completely insane. Paul Robeson! Clarence Darrow! Charlie Chaplin! Loos, writer of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes fame, played the title role. Essayist H.L. Mencken, and novelists Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and W. Somerset Maugham made appearances. Publisher Alfred Knopf also had a cameo.
N+1 editor Keith Gessen had a minor role in Andrew Bujalski’s mumblecore Mutual Appreciation (2005). Beat writer William S. Burroughs appeared in Drugstore Cowboy (1989). Essayist and This American Life contributor David Rakoff acted in Capote (2005) and Strangers With Candy (2005). And finally, novelist and professional egoist Ayn Rand, an uncredited extra in Cecil B. Demille’s The King of Kings (1927), probably spent her life wondering why she wasn’t the star.
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