East and West in Wonderland

by | Brighton, UK

Monday, 22 November 2010

tags: consumer culture, culture, europe, making sense, sequencing

It’s 2010, and Queen Victoria’s empire is still going strong. At least in Tim Burton’s film version of Alice in Wonderland. Here we have Alice falling down the rabbit hole in order to resolve a few psychological issues and find herself, before returning to the real world to set sail for China and open up some new trade routes.

So, while it only gets the briefest mention in the plot, the East is the film’s end-point and possibly its hidden meaning too. Here, the story becomes a personal-development narrative, all about strengthening its heroine for her colonial mission. Transposing this version back into the late 19th century would make Alice a Girl Guide, undertaking character-building missions aimed at forging resolute servants of Empire.

The film shows the extent to which the themes of identity and empire-building go together. Alice’s identity quest is all about working out whether she’s the ‘right Alice’ — the girl whose mission it is to fight the enemy and establish the rule of good.

Good, evil; true, false; even red and white — the film is propelled forward by pure binary logic, pitting self against other, heroes against villains, and of course West against East too.

It’s strange that this most violent and oppositional of logics should be instated at the heart of one of 19th-century England’s most deconstructive stories.  After all, when Alice meets the Caterpillar, and confronts his scornful question ‘Who are you?’, it’s to undergo the unravelling of identity — to keep getting it ‘wrong’ without any hope of getting it ‘right’ — not to start out on a quest for her true self.

In 1966, Jonathan Miller adapted Alice in Wonderland for the BBC in a version fully open to this deconstructiveness. No binary opposites or identity quests here; no colonial missions or Manichean showdowns. Instead, we have Ravi Shankar’s sitar accompanying Alice as she wanders from one mystifying experience to the next — East and West together bending sound and logic as they venture outside the conceptual structures of opposition, violence and empire.

Of course, it’s possible to read the use of the sitar in this film as a signifier of exotica, or 1960s psychedelia — keeping in place a colonial idea of the East as the West’s fantasy playground. But, interestingly, Jonathan Miller wanted to use the instrument because it was the best way to get the sound he was looking for: the buzzing of insects on an English summer’s day. What better deconstruction of the East-West opposition than that: the sitar as the very sound of the English pastoral?

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