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Fall down the rabbit hole at ACMI's Wonderland

Maxim Boon

It was a sunny July afternoon in 1862 when Charles Lutwidge Dodgson took his friend Henry Liddell's three daughters on a boating excursion down the river Isis. As they floated downstream, passing through the heart of the great university city of Oxford, one of the girls grew bored and asked Dodgson, who was known for his yarn-spinning talents, to tell them a story. The name of that little girl, so eager for a tall tale, was Alice. And it was on that humble boat trip that Dodgson, better known today by his pseudonym Lewis Carroll, first conjured the fantastical universe of Wonderland.

Encouraged by the positive reception from his young boating companions, Carroll committed his bizarre and brilliant fable to paper, and in 1865, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland finally appeared in print. But even Carroll, wild as his imagination was, could not have foreseen just how influential his absurdist odyssey would become.

In the century and a half since its first publication, the story of Alice’s unfathomable journey has been an evergreen pop culture reference, as well a seemingly limitless muse for theatre and filmmakers. Following a handful of stage adaptations in the late 1800s, Alice received her first cinematic incarnation in 1903. In the ensuing decades, more than 40 films, including Disney’s much loved 1951 animated classic, and 30 television “moments” (ranging from adverts to music videos to appearances on The Simpsons) have explored her fateful tumble down the rabbit hole.

This wealth of Wonderland on film is the subject of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image’s latest winter masterpiece exhibition, the first major survey of its kind ever staged. Visitors will literally follow in the footsteps of Carroll’s titular heroine, into an exhibition space lifted from the pages of his treasured book. There’s a descent into a strange world, a corridor filled with odd shaped doors, a tiny rabbit-sized house, and even a royal croquet lawn, bringing to life more than 150 years of cinematic interpretations.

Photograph: Phoebe Powell

As the show’s curator Jessica Bram shares, exploring Alice’s indestructible appeal has revealed a touching perspective on this iconic adventurer.

“She has a brilliant combination of traits that Lewis Carroll brought together. She’s as clever and curious and cunning as she is a little bit cheeky and a little bit reckless, and I think those are certainly the parts of her character that are exciting for children. But she’s also appealing to adults – Alice has this wisdom beyond her years which is so engaging. And there’s a timelessness to the absurd and to the tensions between children and adults, manners and riddles, the rational and the illogical. So much of this story has a universality that has endured across time and across cultures.”

Following more than two years of exhaustive research, the Wonderland exhibition offers an unmatched overview of just how far Carroll’s influence has reached. With an international roll-call of filmmakers represented – from Japan to Eastern Europe to America and beyond – the show captures the remarkable malleability of Alice, not just as a dramatic protagonist, but also as a role model, a political allegory, and even as a feminist trailblazer. “This is a character who can be read in as many different ways as language and culture afford,” Bram notes.

Photograph: Phoebe Powell

Working with a team of local and international artists, Bram has transformed ACMI’s gallery into an immersive environment, offering first-hand a glimpse of the weird wonders Alice encounters. Using the chapters of Carroll’s book as a blueprint for the show, it also makes use of state-of-the-art technologies, including a breathtaking projection-mapped Mad Hatter’s tea party, and a digital croquet match on the Queen of Hearts’ lawn. Including these surprises in the exhibition, moments that are purely about play, was a vital tribute to the spirit of Carroll’s creation, Bram says. “We knew what we were creating had to be wondrous, and that’s why there had to be pockets in the gallery where people are literally whisked away from the scaffolds of real life.”

There’s also a fascinating subtext that has emerged from the sprawling archive of manuscripts, films, props, costumes and artworks that make up the show. Carroll’s story has been captured on screen since the very earliest days of the cinematic art form; a history of Alice in film is also a history of the evolution of cinema itself. From silent movies to stop-motion animation to the latest CGI used in James Bobin and Tim Burton’s 2016 movies, virtually every technical advancement in filmmaking is chronicled. “The exhibition is about Alice’s story, but it definitely operates on two levels,” Bram explains. “We’re on Alice’s journey into Wonderland as you move through the show, but alongside that, it’s also a physical chronology of how film craft has become increasingly sophisticated and how that has opened up new frontiers in the way filmmakers can explore Wonderland.”

Wonderland is at ACMI until October 7.

Looking to get out and about? See our hit-list for the best art in Melbourne this month.

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