Day 2: ALICE UNDERGROUND (Kate Kline May, USA, 1984)
Reading an oversized book as she waits for BART, Alice is minding her own business when she notices a group of odd figures milling about the platform (who hasn’t?); once on the train a man in costume dashes by and she takes chase, first through several BART trains and then across the cavernous corridors of Civic Center Station. So begins Bay Area photographer Kate Kline May’s appropriately anarchic adaptation of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” which casts 1980’s San Francisco as a surrealistic space just as unpredictable—and full of possibility—as the one encountered in Lewis Carroll’s famous book for children. Shot on grainy black and white 16mm film and flaunting an infectiously inventive, DIY attitude, for a half hour the film follows Alice as she stumbles through a series of vignettes inspired by the original book (the most wonderful being a rowdy croquet match presided over by Sigrid Wurschmidt as the Queen of Hearts, who seems at once to be channeling Joan Collins and the great silent film vamps).
May dispenses with the gentle, child-appropriate whimsy of the original material and draws instead from the gritty aesthetics and sensibility of the “underground” film and performance art communities of the 1960’s and 1970’s for her evocation of a modern day wonderland; the improvisatory films of Warhol and Jack Smith often come to mind, as do the fantastical dimensions of the everyday as glimpsed in the work of Rivette. But it’s the spirit and artistic vision of Maya Deren that seems to hover most dominantly over the proceedings—there are moments, particularly in the sense of unsteady spatial dislocation, where the film almost feels like a reimagining of the classic At Land.
In the end what is most irresistible about this playful adaptation is the sense of comradery it evokes, the tangible excitement generated by a group of friends who as artistic individuals band together to create something and have a marvelous time doing it. It’s no wonder that once Alice returns to “real life” she frantically descends back down the escalator into Civic Center Station once again, as if desperate to begin the cycle all over again. An undersung Bay Area gem.