Up the Rabbit Hole: Through the Porno Looking Glass with Alice in Wonderland (1976)

Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Comedy (1976)

Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Comedy (1976)

“You need the big dicks, the big tits…But how do you keep them in the theater after they’ve come? With beauty, and with acting…It is my dream, it is my goal, it is my idea to make a film where the story just sucks ‘em in. And when they spurt out that joy juice, they’ve just got to sit in it.”

That’s Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights, declaring idealistic porno auteur Jack Horner’s statement of purpose on this Earth. He aspires to a loftier standard, hoping to elevate smut to the stature of cinema by virtue of artistry and expertise. He recognizes that commitment to storytelling would separate his work from the no-plot all-twat cheapies giving his beloved genre a disreputable name. Porn didn’t have to be limited to the realm of masturbatory fodder; it would certainly have to be that, but it could also be a text unto itself, with ideas and feeling and narrative. (That the product of this stirring vision includes the brilliant one-liner “Let’s go get some of that Saturday night beaver” is one of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s blacker jokes.)

In that speech, made to his well-hung new muse over late-night fries at a diner in the Valley, Horner captures the philosophy of what critics and scholars contend to be the “Golden Age” of pornography. In that halcyon era, pornographic films shot higher and accrued according respect. Working with greater budgets and scoring distribution from the big-dog studios, skin flicks became acceptable topics of conversation in the public arena, worthy even of praise from such cultural gatekeepers as Roger Ebert. One such film was a 1976 adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s most famed work, magnificently titled Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Comedy. In his mixed-to-positive two-and-a-half-star review, Ebert remarked that the film “actually has some wit and style to it” and that “maybe because I went with low expectations, I found the film a pleasant surprise.” Relatively faint praise, to be sure, though I can’t say mine would be much stronger. To provide my update to the words of that late dean of American film critics: Alice in Wonderland actually has some profoundly upsetting cognitive dissonances to it, and maybe because I went in expecting a porno, I was surprised to encounter a swirling torrent of psychosexual terror.

Make no mistake—1976’s Alice makes an impassioned argument for its own legitimacy as a film, beyond its utility as a jerk-off aid. While the $400,000 budget couldn’t afford the polish of a blockbuster-scaled production, director Bud Townsend brought a palpable sense of dedication (if not competence) to the gig. It has a story, albeit a shaggy and largely directionless one. It has performances informed by character, some of them torturously close to the plane of “good,” most of them landing somewhere between “unsettling” and “legally actionable.” Townsend—who first gravitated to the project because Carroll’s prose had entered the public domain and could thusly be defiled for free—kept costs low by shooting almost entirely outdoors and eschewing the need for pricey sets, but sprung for props and costumes and enough bits of set-dressing to create the impression of an interior world. It’s a bona fide movie, and by the standard of its pornographic contemporaries, pretty elaborately produced. The musical numbers, in particular, demonstrate a willingness to go the extra mile to stimulate the mind as well as the genitals.

And that’s where the trouble begins. Townsend’s film provides a vivid illustration of why most pornographic cinema chooses not to hybridize genres with the musical. If the raison d’etre of the porn genre is its orientation around the sexual spectacle and the proxy pleasure it creates, then Alice’s musical numbers serve only to muddle that arousal. Townsend’s creative ambitions may be in the right place; inserting slapstick humor and peppy showtunes between fuck sessions represents his notion of “a little something for everybody.” And Townsend refrains from fusing every last production number with a coupling, in no small part due to the impossibility of singing with your mouth full. But the way these discrete, generic elements share space in the film lays bare the harshness with which they clash. Though the film’s $90 million global box-office take vigorously posits the contrary, one would assume that upbeat pop ditties would make the sex scenes prohibitively difficult to masturbate to. The sight of a woman bouncing up and down on her lover with a rich alto dubbed over her lip-syncing mouth is mostly silly, a touch surreal, and at most faintly enticing. I, of course, cannot speak for those viewers with musical theatre fetishes, and what’s more, I hope I never have to.

But the bizarre incongruity between pornography and the musical is not half as disturbing (or, for that matter, erection-stifling) as the incongruity between pornography and the Alice in Wonderland mythos. The conflation of unbridled carnality with the childhood imagery of Lewis Carroll’s whimsical book is, in a word, chilling. In a bunch more words: both formally and narratively, every aspect of this film contributes to an overall feeling of lecherous perversion worlds away from the playful horniness Townsend was aiming for. The worn soft-focus photography, right from that ‘70s sweet spot before celluloid gave way to the cost-effective scourge of videotape, gives the picture the look of something lost and rediscovered, as if it was hidden and not meant to be seen. The costumes are such stuff as wet nightmares are made of; picture the animatronic in-house band at an off-brand Chuck E. Cheese rip-off, all hopped up on over-the-counter aphrodisiacs.

The marriage of nostalgic storybook fables and the primally coded connotations of childhood they carry with lust proves stomach-churning. Tweedledee and Tweedledum, in spite of the fact that they appear here as siblings, go to town on one another. The Mad Hatter explains that the card marked “9 7/8” refers to the size of his “thingamajig” before helpfully pulling it out to show Alice. You’ve never really understood what it means to fondle a breast until you’ve seen a breast fondled by a cat-man’s leopard-print mitten. It’s a moment that jolts you out of the film and and triggers a sudden flash of perspective compelling you to trace the choices you’ve made that have led you to this specific juncture, as you intently stare at the face of a 30-something actor from 40 years ago, trying to look close enough to tell if they share at least a trace of your deep discomfort.

More unsavory still, this slant on Carroll’s original text reorients the story around the corruption of distinctly childish innocence with the lure of sexuality. When we join Alice, she’s in the middle of a mild quarrel with her boyfriend, due to her sexual frigidity in the face of his desire. During her time in the realm through the looking glass, Alice grows to accept and take pleasure in her own body’s urges, but only because the world around her explains this to her as an adult might to a guileless 12-year-old. Upon her entry to Wonderland, she’s beckoned into a clearing where a small gang of cat-people summarily begin licking her body, and when she shoos them away from her nips, a nearby forest sprite purrs, “If it feels good, it is good. Learn to trust yourself.” Alice’s arc as a character amounts to how she learned to stop worrying and love the orgasm; the self-conscious caterpillar at the film’s outset metamorphoses into an insatiable, pansexual butterfly by the close.

If Townsend’s lone goal was to keep his audience on their toes, then he undoubtedly surprised quite a few unsuspecting masturbators. The film veers into light experimentalism as it approaches its shuddering climax, aping the French New Wave in a madcap chase sequence cobbled together from so many jump cuts it nearly qualifies as stop-motion. A non-diegetic title card (scrawled in a messier fashion than the intertitles tastefully packed with bawdy puns) warns “RUN ALICE RUN,” and, in the most jarring flourish of all, a crew member blinks onto the screen with clapperboard in hand to mark a new take. Sense itself nears collapse as the filmic wheels come off the medium’s wagon, pushing this dreamlike atmosphere into a register more aggressive, hectic, perhaps even a touch hostile in its extreme erotic exaggeration.

So it really comes out of nowhere when the film ends on a note of guileless, wholesome sentimentality. Lecherous as this film may be, its heart appears to be in the right place as it assumes staunchly pro-pleasure and pro-love stances. After Alice returns to the land of the living and brings her newfound sexual appetite to her relationship with her boyfriend, everything’s beer and skittles. Townsend elegantly wraps things up with the following text scroll: “And so Alice settled down, got married, raised a family in a house with a white picket fence, filled with kids, and a little arf! arf! puppy. And they all lived happily ever after. Be sure to pick up a copy of Alice’s new book, ‘Fear of Shrinking.’” That last line is a bit randy, but for the most part, it’s a disarmingly Rockwellian resolution for a film so intent on raw-dogging your childhood’s last remaining vestiges of purity.

The viewer leaves the film like Alice, but only in the sense that they are both irrevocably changed. “That’s what it is, isn’t it? Growing up, I mean,” Alice says. “It’s believing in yourself, and trusting yourself, and not a lot of other people!” Her coming-of-age is complete, she’s seized control of her womanhood (but in a hot way!!), and she’s been rewarded with the ultimate gift of domestic bliss. We, alternately, walk away with an entirely reoriented understanding of what pornography is and what it’s for. Alice in Wonderland carried out Jack Horner’s wishes for a nudie picture with more going on than interlocking organs, but that pie-in-the-sky dream resulted in long stretches of footage that create only flaccidity and despair. In the most literal of senses, Townsend succeeded in creating a pornographic film that audiences would sit through past the point of orgasm; a sort of traumatic paralysis takes hold somewhere around the scene where a pair of sexy nurses walk on-screen with no explanation whatsoever, and do a striptease in order to give Humpty Dumpty an erection. It cannot be looked away from, and cannot be unseen.