Alex in Wonderland is about a crisis in the life and art of a young film director in Hollywood, searching for a new project and life style with the success of his first film just behind him. If one were simply to place a value on it, a price tag reading “marked down from 8 ½ ” would be about all that was called for. Alex in Wonderland simply wouldn’t exist without 8 ½, for all of the differences, and, no matter how it may attempt to forestall or disarm such criticism by mocking its indebtedness to the Fellini film, the self-mockery in no way diminishes the degree of dependence.
And yet the curious thing is just how little like 8 ½ Alex in Wonderland really is. This is not simply a question of the latter film’s inferiority to the former, though I think even those who admire 8½ less than I would have to admit that, compared with the self-indulgence of the imitation, the original is a model of toughmindedness. Nor is that inferiority itself inherent in the relations of imitations to originals, as Modern Times’s indebtedness to A Nous la Liberté might remind us. In any case, were one to press charges of plagiarism of 8½, Fellini himself has more to answer for than Larry Tucker (co-author of Alex in Wonderland) and Paul Mazursky (co-author and director). If 8½ can be made to look bad, it is more by the desperate self-exploitation of Juliet of the Spirits than by the frank homage of Alex in Wonderland.
Though the director in 8½ both is and is not the director of the film, it is clear that the penultimate works of both directors bore striking similarities. The director of Alex in Wonderland and the director in the film have both made one successful film previously, the previous work of the director of the film being Bob & Carol & Ted & A lice. And what of Alex? One never knows, though from what we learn of him and from some oblique comment on his first film it is difficult to believe that the earlier works of the two directors had much in common. Mazursky himself makes an appearance in Alex in Wonderland, playing a new-style, longhaired, Philistine producer who suggests some properties for Alex to consider for his second film, and presumably he is meant to be the object of some satire on how little Hollywood has changed. Yet, though Alex rejects the producer’s ludicrous projects (Huck Finn as a young revolutionary, an interracial Love Story, etc.) out of hand, his own ideas when we hear them (black guerrillas taking over Los Angeles, etc.) sound scarcely different; nor, for that matter, does the idea of Alex in Wonderland: a now generation 8½, or Fellini with beads and headband.
Is this perhaps the butt of the joke: that Alex, the one-film director of no discernible distinction, should fancy himself soul-searching with Fellini? If so, it is inseparable from the idea of Larry Tucker and Paul Mazursky making an 8½ in Alex in Wonderland. Is it a joke that, when Alex fantasizes, what fills his mind are not images from his own life but second-hand fantasies of Fellini’s—Fellini’s popes and priests and choirboys and circus people; that Alex cannot even fantasize except parasitically? If so, it is no less a joke that, when Mazursky directs into one of Alex’s fantasies, he telegraphs it by archaically moving the camera into close-up of Alex’s head, in utter insensitivity to the marvelously fluent continuity of the film which he purports to honor. There are some decent things in Alex in Wonderland: the sequence in which Mazursky acts is amusing, and the scenes of Alex’s family life capture some rather sweet and genuine sense of a dense and ongoing complex of relationships among parents and children, these family scenes aided greatly by the performance of Ellen Burstyn as Alex’s emotionally vulnerable wife. (On the other hand, the non-fantasy scenes with Alex’s mother suffer most, and in ways I doubt Mazursky and Tucker are even aware of, from their film’s feeding on Fellini.)
Yet finally the film is as much a symptom of the new Hollywood as a satire on it. Alex, Mazursky, and Tucker soul-search for what to do next, but I suspect they need nothing so much as a flourishing studio system to save them. So far, the best work that Mazursky and Tucker have done in films remains their script for I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, anonymously directed by a nonentity, and immeasurably bettered by a performance from Peter Sellers. In the 30′s and 40′s, Mazursky and Tucker (and Alex) would probably be right where they seem suited to being—on the assembly line; and probably making better films and running up smaller analysts’ bills for it. Now, rudderless in the new Hollywood, such light-comedy technicians not only have to make their monthly payments but must find something to say as well, and the strain is proving too much for them. If one really wants to know how far Mazursky and Tucker are from being capable of what they’re attempting, the film to compare (and to club) Alex in Wonderland with is not 8½ but Sullivan’s Travels, Preston Sturges’s film about a successful comedy film director trying to “say something”; one of Sturges’s most compromised and equivocal works, but nevertheless a film by a director with a spark of comic genius, and one made in 1941 for Paramount in its heyday. I wonder if the most significant thing about Alex in Wonderland isn’t that this film, which begins by seeming to be about the crisis of a director who can’t decide what his next film should be, ends up by seeming to be about the crisis of a new-bracket taxpayer who can’t decide whether or not he can afford to buy an expensive house.
I suspect that for many readers of COMMENTARY, Arthur Penn’s films are of interest mainly as they document a case history of the filmmaker’s flirtation with all the “progressive” social and political fashions of his times: teen-age rebels, romantic outlaws, folknik hippies, etc. For me, in my aesthetic frivolity, Penn’s work remains chiefly an episode in the history of bad taste. When Ingmar Bergman calls Penn “one of the greatest directors in the world,” one can understand what he sees in Penn’s films—energy; that quality in which Bergman’s own later work has generally been so critically deficient. Penn’s films do have energy—a visceral energy which survives even the loudest and showiest excesses of the director’s style. What they lack finally is artistic energy, the unifying energy which comes from an artist shaping his materials to the dictates of some controlling vision. Penn’s films bound restlessly all over the place, but they just don’t come together.
There is energy in Little Big Man, though rather less than usual by the director’s standards, and rather more of the gentleness which Penn communicates as a person in his television talk-show appearances. As a quid pro quo, this isn’t necessarily all to the bad, and the scenes between Dustin Hoffman, the white man adopted by Indians, and Chief Dan George, the tribal patriarch, do achieve a certain real tenderness despite the somewhat labored version of the Indian chief as bountiful, food pushing Jewish mother. (In contrast, the scenes between Hoffman and his Indian bride strive for tenderness and succumb to salt-of-the-earth-like banality.) Hoffman himself impresses chiefly for a vocal tour de force as the film’s one-hundred-and-twenty-one-year-old narrator, but he is always at least interesting to watch in his other guises, and more than that as a slit-eyed, black-clad gunfighter in a hilarious and affectionate parody in which he is joined by Jeff Corey as an equally deft Wild Bill Hickok. But while such virtues might be almost enough to bring off a little film, Little Big Man is unfortunately a big film, or rather a little film swollen by its aspirations to being an epic and making a statement. And, as an epic, Little Big Man simply lacks scope, both in space and time. The episodic nature of the early scenes in the narrator’s life as he is shunted between white man and Indian is appropriate to the picaresque tale he is telling, but the first part of the film both misses any sense of progress from episode to episode and fails to convey any feeling of the passage of time—the sequences with Faye Dunaway and Martin Balsam in particular are merely instances, and not very funny ones, of hip revue humor, the new bane of film comedy. And the sequences of battle and massacre in the final part of the film seem equally cramped, muffed by Penn’s inability to delineate a large-scale physical action with cogency and coherence. Despite the “big picture” appurtenances, the film remains a closet epic, with little more than its budget to match the size of its ambitions.
It might be sufficient to leave it at this—the purely artistic failures of Little Big Man—were it not for the film’s insistence on being taken seriously in another way, to be seen, like Alex in Wonderland, to be saying something. For, in Little Big Man, Arthur Penn has moved on to the subject of Indians, even by-passing Negroes in his progress (unless they can be presumed to have been covered by the South-baiting of The Chase, and by the Indian chief’s remark in Little Big Man that blacks are “not as ugly as the white, but . . . just as crazy”). The film is, in fact, about nothing less than the history of the white man’s decimation of the Indian; its charge genocide, and its indictment against the white race in toto.
Now I have little doubt that such a charge could be made to stick were it leveled judiciously at a more precisely defined target, nor do I think it would be a bad thing for us to be given an honest account of our westward expansion. The trouble is that such things rarely reach the audience that most needs them; I could enjoy the thought of Little Big Man being seen by Richard Nixon, but Nixon, as we know, is busy studying Patton. In any case, for such a work to ask more of its audience than guilt feelings, something more than a piling up of atrocities is required. One needs to know: why the genocide? One needs to be given some sort of historical analysis, if only on the level of the principals’ egomania, as in The Charge of the Light Brigade, Tony Richardson’s and Charles Wood’s somewhat similar exercise in the debunking of history (and, compared with which, Little Big Man has more “heart” but less wit). Is all the bloodshed attributable to the vainglorious folly of Custer? The Charge of the Light Brigade at least sketched in a large cast of characters to support this history-as-bedlam view.
Instead of a view, what one is given in Little Big Man is simply an Indian-fighting Western with its conventional demonology reversed: bad white men riding against good Indians. Nor are the Indians merely good; they alone are “human beings” (according to the film, the translation of the word “Cheyenne”), and are given to saying such things as, “There is an endless supply of white men, but there always has been a limited number of human beings,” and the like. When one of the Indians calls the narrator a white man, the narrator explains that the Indian was merely delivering the “biggest insult he could give me”; at another point, the Indian chief remarks sententiously to the narrator on the time “before you became a human being.” Though the Indians aren’t exempt from the film’s burlesque, an effeminate Cheyenne seems finally to attest chiefly to the Indians’ enlightenment on the homosexual question, while the narrator’s white butch sister testifies rather to the perversion of white society. Indians fornicate, and we are to see it as earthy and healthy; whites do likewise, and it is testimony to the bankruptcy of their religion. When the whites massacre the Indians, we are spared no painful detail of the bloodletting; when the Indians attack whites, it is either the work of some tribe that the narrator “never had no use for,” or to perform a Bonnie-and-Clyde-like comical killing-to-music, even the victims expiring with smiles on their faces.
If Little Big Man is indication that we are now in for a spate of good-Indian versus bad-white Westerns, certainly no one can claim we don’t have it coming to us, if only in the name of equal time. Perhaps it is even true that beyond the specific injustices and cruelties, the particular historical oppression perpetrated by the white man on the Indian, there can be discerned the dichotomous archetypes of white devils and “human beings”; that the white man really is revealed as a creature of inferior virtue. But I’m inclined to believe, to quote Conor Cruise O’Brien (reviewing Edmund Wilson’s Apologies to the Iroquois), it is rather a case that “All weak peoples are apt to cherish a sense of superior virtue, corresponding to the magnitude of the crimes they have been powerless to commit.” The ultimate failure of Little Big Man is in its inability to perceive that it is not one or another demonology but demonology itself which brutalizes an audience, and is the enemy of humane feeling. The notion that art may be ennobling, may offer us noble images to which to aspire, is not a very powerful one at the moment, and understandably so, given our art and culture. But when John Ford (who had already portrayed a megalomaniac Custer in an earlier work) depicts the patriarchs of both Indian and white nations joining together to foil the war plans of the hotheaded young (in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon), the sense which emerges may not correspond with our actual history but does command the power of an ideal, of a vision of ideal fraternity. I remain unconvinced, at least, that such a vision constitutes a less desirable myth to be lodged in the national consciousness than that of immutable enmity, or that the contemplation of it is less edifying than the spectacle of affirming guilt to the already guilt-ridden.