By Brian Lafferty
January 11, 2012 (San Diego) – After I watched Alex in Wonderland, available from the Warner Archive Collection, I remembered an interview I saw that featured independent director Henry Jaglom. At one point he said Steven Spielberg and George Lucas ruined the movies for him because after the massive box office successes of Jaws and Star Wars, it became about events, distraction, mass entertainment, and mechanization.
There was a period in American cinema before Jaws and Star Wars when a surge of new, young filmmakers emerged. Social values were changing, audiences were getting younger, and studios struggled to attract moviegoers who preferred to watch television in their homes for free instead of paying for a movie ticket. These studios put their trust in these filmmakers and gave them carte blanche to make any movie they wanted with minimal interference.
The result was a slew of not just great movies, but personal ones. These are the types of movies that a filmmaker doesn’t make for the money, nor for audiences, but for himself. Movies as diverse as Martin Scorsese’s gritty Mean Streets and John Boorman’s surreal Zardoz were born from this period.
Alex in Wonderland is a very personal film. It’s a film made out of love for movies, not for mass audiences or money. But is it too personal? There’s a dividing line between a film that is meaningful to the audience and meaningful only to the director. Half the time it felt like the latter was true.
The titular Alex is a hippie director (Donald Sutherland) who just made his first movie. Test screenings and previews indicate it’s going to be box office gold. Studios and producers bombard him with directing offers. So what’s keeping him from making his next feature? Himself. He can’t decide what his next project will be and spends the rest of the film aimlessly trying to find one.
The film consists of nothing more than Alex contemplating offer after offer and coming up with idea after idea. His search for his next project takes him as away as Mexico and Italy. At one point he’s so desperate he goes on an acid trip to gather a great idea, but LSD doesn’t inspire much.
It’s similar to how some comedies consist of only a one-joke premise, endlessly repeated; the difference here is that that instead of a joke it’s a simple plot point. I have no qualms about one-joke comedies or one-premise films as long as the filmmakers can consistently and creatively sustain said jokes or premises.
The idea itself in Alex in Wonderland becomes rote about three-quarters into the film, but the fascination with the journeys (both physical and mental) it takes Alex, the interesting people he meets, and the strain it puts on his family remains.
Sutherland doesn’t employ a stereotypical hippie persona in his performance. A lot of the time he’s more of a family man than a fanatical man. What’s key is his interactions with some notable filmmakers and actors. In one scene Alex meets his directing idol, Federico Fellini (appearing as himself). Sutherland makes it awkward; he becomes so star-struck that he can only think of telling Fellini, who is busy and struggling to be polite, how much he loves his films and dishes nothing but fanboy complements.
Shot with mostly golden and brown colors, Laszlo Kovacs’ cinematography benefits greatly from the remastering job done by the Warner Archive Collection. The transfer is very pristine while retaining the film’s rugged 1970 flavor.
Alex in Wonderland feels autobiographical. I read somewhere that the idea for this film came from Paul Mazursky’s similar bout of indecision following the release of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. I found it fascinating but fascination can only go so far. If you want to see a great Paul Mazursky movie that’s personal, but is a deeper emotional investment, I suggest watching Harry and Tonto instead.
Alex in Wonderland is available only via manufacture-on-demand from the Warner Archive Collection. You can order it here.
A Warner Home Video release. Director: Paul Mazursky. Screenplay: Paul Mazursky & Larry Tucker. Original Music: Tom O’Horgan. Cinematography: Laszlo Kovacs. Cast: Donald Sutherland, Ellen Burstyn, Meg Mazursky, Glenna Sargent, Federico Fellini, and Jeanne Moreau. 110 minutes. Rated R.