Alex Morrison (Donald Sutherland) should by all rights be blissfully happy: he has a loving wife Beth (Ellen Burstyn), two children who adore him, and a hugely successful film he has directed under his belt, so why is he so dejected? It’s down to the problem of what to do next when you have achieved all your goals, as the film he made is anticipated to generate a large profit for both himself and the studio, so the expectations are that his next project will do the same, but what could it possibly be? There are no shortage of scripts out there, but Alex wants to create something relevant to the times, connected in some way to the ongoing civil rights struggle facing the African-American population; or maybe he’d be better off with staying personal…
There’s a scene in slap bang in the middle of Alex in Wonderland where the title character strolls along the beach with his pals and strikes up a conversation about masturbation, when the last time they did it was, and who they thought about. It was all too apt, for director Paul Mazursky’s movie was more or less an act of cinematic masturbation, and the person he was thinking of while he did it was evidently his own good self. Like his protagonist, he had made a massive hit with creative partner Larry Tucker – Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice – in the previous few months and the pressure was on to deliver a follow up that likewise would spawn the big bucks at the box office, but as was obvious here, he didn’t have a clue about what to do.
Therefore he looked to his inspirations in European film, specifically Federico Fellini, crafting a tribute to the Italian maestro’s style that the critics disparagingly labelled One and a Half, and to underline that depth of feeling even persuaded the great man to show up in the movie for a cameo where he appeared more distracted and irritated to be there than flattered by the effusive tribute Sutherland relayed in the dialogue. Mind you, Fellini must have noted the incident for a few years later he cast Sutherland as his Casanova, so something productive emerged from this, though it did not seem so at the time when this was barely released and when it was played to almost empty theatres, simply because there was no market for it.
Most people even at the time could have told Mazursky that, but he ploughed ahead regardless, and would go onto use bits and pieces of his life in his following movies, which landed him the accusation of being self-indulgent, something that was all too appropriate as a description for Alex in Wonderland. So difficult was it to get a way in to this extremely personal effort that only those with a specific sympathy to Mazursky’s work would find any satisfaction: pretty much Paul Mazursky, then, though it did, as with many of his seventies and eighties films, find a cult following. Even so, it was a paltry one, and once he died not many were interested enough to carry on that appreciation, leaving this as a relic of a bygone age.
Take that opening sequence, where a naked Sutherland lounges in the bath discussing Shakespeare with the equally naked little girl playing his screen daughter – any filmmaker these days would have to be insane to include a scene like that in their movie, yet here it was back then and nobody batted an eyelid in those getting to be post-hippy days where letting it all hang out was the in thing. Then take one of Alex’s fantasy sequences where he envisages about fifty naked black men and women dancing wildly on the beach; quite what this had to say about race relations was a mystery, and as a spectacle you had to wonder what the participants thought about this white guy insisting on them getting down with no clothes to inhibit them, all for the sake of his art. The only fantasy that really impressed was a mishmash of Hollywood turned into a war zone, obviously expensive to stage and saying, er, something about the Vietnam War, whatever it was about it was very arresting, more so than the most typical scene with Sutherland serenaded by Jeanne Moreau in a horse drawn carriage. Culturally interesting for, well, Paul Mazursky. Music by Tom O’Horgan.