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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 14, 2010

Every Day Is Special

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Alice, 3D, and Yike Bike

It would have been hard for my expectations to be lower when I went to see Alice in Wonderland. The last time I tried to watch a movie by the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp team it was the ghastly remake of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

My expectations were only half-met. With the same contempt for the original material that Spielberg showed with Hook, his tedious remake of Peter Pan, they couldn't just tell the story as written. Instead, both movies are "identical sequels."

That is, they assume that the audience knows the original story, and this movie is now "later" -- though pretty much the same things happen as in the original. We meet all the same people, have most of the same adventures, but the new plot is "improved" and made more "relevant."

You know, the way male dogs take every opportunity to make each fire hydrant more "relevant."

This requires that the film spend time creating the "frame" story -- the explanation about what has happened since the original events, and how the new dilemmas are resolved.

Hook did this so badly that it destroyed the whole movie (that plus the gross overacting, the pandering to decades-old "trends" to try to be "current," and the moral vacuousness of the storytellers who could not allow the hero to win his war).

If anything, the frame story of the Tim Burton Alice is even less coherent. It seems Alice is now of marriageable age (completely destroying the innocence of the main character, though perhaps by making her really stupid they thought they could achieve the same thing).

A lofty-but-geeky noble proposes to her -- in front of an audience of hundreds. In the real world, no one would ever be so stupid -- you don't hold a public "proposal" unless the answer has already been agreed on. In this case, everyone has kept it a secret from Alice herself, even her own mother -- though what purpose is served no one explains.

Naturally, she declines to answer, runs away, and falls down a rabbit hole, whereupon the story resumes as in the original, except that everybody is looking for Alice as a figure of prophecy, and expects her to fight the Jabberwock in order to redeem the kingdom from the Red Queen.

Finally she comes to believe that she really did visit Wonderland (now called Underland) in her childhood ("Oh Then it wasn't a dream"), and eventually embraces her role.

Why do idiotic directors and screenwriters think that classic stories need to be updated and "improved"? They assume that they are every bit as talented and insightful as the original creator, and they are humiliatingly wrong. No one involved with this version of Alice can hold a candle to Lewis Carroll, just as no one with half the intelligence, creativity, wisdom, and writing skill of James Barrie was involved with the making of Hook.

The writing of the Tim Burton Alice was especially vacuous when they dealt with Alice's father, who is simultaneously missing (presumed dead?) and regarded by some, at least, as a great genius. Never is his absence explained at all; but at the end, Alice comes up with the brilliant idea of using Hong Kong as a springboard to trading with China

Apparently the filmmakers are so ignorant that it didn't occur to them that the Hong Kong colony existed for no other purpose. Her great idea was already the entire business of Hong Kong colony

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

And yet.

Unlike Hook, Alice does prove itself to be inventive in the main storyline, so that once you get out of the thickheaded portrayal of Victorian England, so ignorant of history, you get a pretty entertaining adventure story using the motifs of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

Unlike Depp's sickeningly malicious Willie Wonka, his Mad Hatter is quite engaging and noble in a quirky way (i.e., the stock Depp character), though he is regularly upstaged by the March Hare whenever they are onscreen together. In fact, the animated characters steal most scenes.

Anne Hathaway as the White Queen seems every bit as evil and dangerous as the Red Queen, except for her vow not to kill anything -- which, of course, she breaks (indirectly) when the Jabberwock shows up.

Ultimately, Tim Burton's Alice isn't about anything and doesn't mean anything. One might suppose this would make it more, not less, faithful to Lewis Carroll's original -- but the movie clearly asks us to think that something is at stake and that we should believe the story is real instead of a dream -- a point which is stated more than once.

So the phenomenal box office of Alice in Wonderland -- for this time of year, anyway -- is quite understandable. For one thing, there's nothing else new that's worth watching. (What, a movie about Iraq that beats to death the fact that there were no WMD's? When will Hollywood catch on that the American war-movie audience won't go to anti-American movies?)

More important, though, is the fact that Lewis Carroll's inventions are so memorable and powerful that even vain, incompetent storytellers are able to coast on his talent to achieve a watchable movie.

The filmmakers' contempt for Carroll's writing is epitomized by Depp's recital in a voiceover of a drastically-cut version of the poem "Jabberwocky." They didn't even bother to check pronunciation or even read the words carefully. For instance, Depp says "borogroves," when Carroll wrote "borogoves" -- no R after the G.

And he says "gyre" with a G as in "good" instead of the correct G as in "gyroscope." Was there no one involved with the film who had actually studied the poem? I know -- few people will know the difference. But it bespeaks a level of disdain for the original material that further demonstrates the unworthiness of these filmmakers to have touched Lewis Carroll's work.

The great film version of Alice in Wonderland remains to be made. This is just a second-rate sequel.

Do I recommend seeing it? Of course I do: If you want to go to the movies this week, this is the one to go to, for lack of a better. Some bits are done very well. The awful ones at least have style.

*

What about the 3D in Alice in Wonderland?

Some of the problems have been solved. When I put on the glasses I did not get a headache within the first three minutes. I never got a headache at all, though it was certainly a relief to take the glasses off.

Also, the filmmakers used restraint -- there were almost no leap-from-the-screen gotcha moments, which always break the audience's trance and destroy believability. The 3D is mostly taken for granted, which is the only effective way to use it.

Because each lens of the special glasses filters out a portion of the spectrum, the total amount of light reaching the eyes is significantly reduced -- the film is darker and details are harder to see. Still, by filming with more saturated light, the result is still watchable.

With most technical issues solved, it's possible now to evaluate 3D on its own merits.

And my evaluation says: This is the most worthless film technology ever developed, with the possible exception of smell-a-vision.

The idea of 3D is to replace the flatness of the screen with something more akin to how we really see the world.

The gimmick of 3D is based on binocularity. Flat films have only one lens; 3D uses two, the way the human brain does, as it checks out the world through two eyes.

But the purpose of two eyes, evolutionarily speaking, is not binocularity, it's redundancy. You can lose an eye and still see. By having two eyes, you double your chance of survival in a world where lack of vision can kill you.

The binocularity effect is, while mildly useful, fundamentally trivial. It's a biproduct of the fact that two eyes cannot occupy the same spot. It might help you negotiate tricky grabs while swinging about in trees; but it is not the dominant feature of our vision.

We don't see the world in 3D. We conceive the world in three dimensions, but images of the real world come flat to our retinas.

We perceive distance primarily through focus -- when we focus on near things, far things blur a little; when we focus on far things, near things blur. Our peripheral vision does not have to be in focus; the spot where we're looking is always in focus.

In a film, however, the focus has to be the same for all viewers, because you can't control where people are going to look. Focus is embedded in the film. So every layer of the 3D film is in focus at the same time, no matter where you happen to look. This is so contradictory to our normal visual experience that 3D movies are more unreal than the pastel colors of filmed musical comedies.

You never for one instant think you're seeing something real. You can't -- it's slapping you in the face all the time that you are not. Whereas the old-fashioned 2D movie is much, much closer the way we see the real world, because the lens focuses the way our eyes do -- when one thing is in focus, farther and nearer things are less in-focus.

In other words, we have a medium -- flat film, even black and white film -- that has always done a superb job of reproducing our visual experience of the world, yet in the name of "greater realism" we replace it with a fundamentally unreal worldview that turns everything artificial.

Hollywood is so excited about 3D that some people want to use it to make every visual-effects-centered film. I think this is a horrible mistake, except with films like Alice where we want to have the sense of being in an unreal dream-state.

Every time someone says, "Hey, Ender's Game needs to be filmed in 3D, so the battleroom sequences really jump out at you" I shudder and do my best to change the subject. Because Ender's Game depends on letting the audience become absorbed in the story and characters, and 3D would be an enemy -- a constant distraction.

Imagine if the Harry Potter films were in 3D "so the quidditch sequences will look good." Aren't the quidditch games among the most boring moments in each movie? Yes, it's exciting for about ten seconds. Then we're ready to get on with the story.

And for those ten seconds -- or thirty, or ninety -- we have to watch the whole rest of the film in a medium so unreal that we will never really forget ourselves and fall into the audience-trance that makes storytelling arts an essential part of human life?

3D makes you watch the film instead of forgetting the film and watching the people.

And that's why it's a deadly mistake. Only in films where the special effects or cool, unnatural designs are the star is 3D an asset. The rest of the time, it's worthless at best, detrimental at worst.

And even when they don't give me a headache, I hate the glasses. When am I ever going to lean back in my chair at home, ready to watch a film on DVD, and be glad to put on a special pair of glasses? I don't think "never" is too strong a word.

*

You have to catch the Discovery Channel's promotional story about the YikeBike. It's a motorscooter that really is so light, so foldable, so portable that you could ride it to work and park it at (or under) your desk, or carry it on the bus with you. I'm not sure if it will fit in the overhead compartment on an airplane ...

When I watch the video, though, I have to wonder how often the ordinary perils of biking -- irregular road surfaces, the need for sudden swerves and stops -- would lead to a devastating face-plant. There's something secure and reassuring about biking with your hands planted on handlebars in front of you.

So I don't think I'm going to be a customer any time soon ...


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