Johnny Depp: The Mad Hatter’s Context

I have always felt that context was decisive, when it came to acting styles. I have heard it said that an actor should approach King Lear in the same way he approaches a French farce, and while I understand the point, I think it goes too far (as most generalizations do). The point of approach is important, and if there is a sense that you are condescending to the material, that you feel it is somehow beneath you, then that is obviously not good. I used an example from Katharine Hepburn’s life to illustrate this point in the post I wrote about her at HND. She was known for melodramas and weepies, up until that point. She had won an Oscar. She literally did not know how to “do” screwball comedy, and kept telegraphing to the audience, “I’m being funny!” It took a lot of work for her to get into the right context. And by context I mean: the stakes are just as high in Bringing Up Baby as they are in Macbeth – that is one of the reasons why it is so funny, and why comedy in general, when it does work, works. Stakes. Everything one does when one is acting must have stakes behind it. The stakes must be incredibly high. It may seem ridiculous that Cary Grant is wearing jodhpurs digging up the yard looking for a lost dinosaur bone, but why it is so funny is because it is so serious to HIM. If you condescend to the material (“David Huxley’s problems are just silly compared to Hamlet’s problems”), then the entire project suffers. You have not created the proper context for your work. The context of King Lear is different than the context of Noises Off, and the actor who can go from one to the other, seamlessly, adjusting his or her approach and talent to the material, is a rare gem indeed.

Another example I can think of is Gena Rowland’s acting. If you saw her only in her husband John Cassavetes’ pictures, you would be forgiven if you thought that she only had one context, and that was Cassavetes’ context. She so inhabits his world, of manic madness and alcohol addiction and neurosis, that she has melded completely with her director. But then you see her in Woody Allen’s Another Woman, and suddenly there is a revelation about this woman’s talent. I remember Mitchell saying this to me, years ago, in college, when we were talking about Rowlands – and I just looked up Roger Ebert’s review of Another Woman and find, gratifyingly, that he says the same thing:

There is a temptation to say that Rowlands has never been better than in this movie, but that would not be true. She is an extraordinary actor who is usually this good, and has been this good before, especially in some of the films of her husband, John Cassavetes. What is new here is the whole emotional tone of her character. Great actors and great directors sometimes find a common emotional ground, so that the actor becomes an instrument playing the director’s song.

Cassavetes is a wild, passionate spirit, emotionally disorganized, insecure and tumultuous, and Rowlands has reflected that personality in her characters for him – white-eyed women on the edge of stampede or breakdown.

Allen is introspective, considerate, apologetic, formidably intelligent, and controls people through thought and words rather than through physicality and temper. Rowlands now mirrors that personality, revealing in the process how the Cassavetes performances were indeed “acting” and not some kind of ersatz documentary reality. To see “Another Woman” is to get an insight into how good an actress Rowlands has been all along.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. Rowlands is able to so completely adjust her context, depending on the project she is in, that when you see her in this or that part, you think, “THAT is her at her most natural state.” But it’s all different states. She does not bring the Cassavetes energy to the Woody Allen picture. It’s not just that her energy is different, she seems to have actually switched souls. This is not a gift that all actors have. Some are eager to show “range”, yet they have no idea how to operate in a context other than the one they are already familiar with.

Johnny Depp has always been an actor who is able to switch contexts with breathless agility. I guess you would call him “versatile”, but I am not wacky about that word, because it sounds too practical, too much like a trick. Depp has never had a signature part, although I suppose the word “quirky” comes up a lot with him (He picks “quirky” parts, he’s “quirky”!) another word I am not wacky about, because it’s too easy, too pat, it doesn’t come close to explaining what is going on with this actor. I don’t have enough distance yet from his body of work to see what it will look like after he is gone, but I have a feeling it will be one of those things that just continues to magnify in stature as the years pass. But who can say. For now, we are just left with the movies he makes, and also the pretty much inarticulate interviews he gives, where he is cagey about talking about acting, and doesn’t seem to have a language to describe what he does. (I experienced this in person, as well, when he came to my school.) Acting, for him, seems to happen in a realm that has nothing to do with words. It’s like a painter, perhaps. If it’s not on the canvas, then all the explaining in the world won’t matter. “What I was GOING for was …” Nope. What matters is whether or not you succeeded. So I’m not sure, I cannot speak for Johnny Depp, and I won’t even try. I can just give my response to this guy.

He is sensitive, that’s obvious. When he is involved in a project, he takes on the concerns/mood/theme of the whole. That’s a movie star. He melds himself to the needs of the director, the story. Harrison Ford talks a lot about this as well, although he doesn’t have the same range. I have always felt, though, that Ford’s personality would go very well in screwball comedies, that there would be something very interesting about seeing that big handsome guy bumbling around (a la Cary Grant), and his virtually supporting role in Working Girl showed how deft his talent really is. He’s got a great sense of humor. He is interested in story, not himself, which is one of the reasons why the last Indiana Jones movie was so much fun. Look at the flexibility with which he leapt back into that part after so many years. To nail the point home, he knew the context. He knew what movie he was in. So many actors at his level of fame lose their ability to do that, out of caution, fear, whatever, and so they keep repeating themselves, sometimes to almost grotesque levels (phone call for Al Pacino …) As far as I’m concerned, Al Pacino has one context. And when he’s in a project that aligns with his limited context, nobody is better. He has a signature. Or … he did. Now, I’m not so sure.

Johnny Depp’s context in Public Enemies is completely different from the context in Alice in Wonderland. But I never feel like it’s a trick with him, or anything facile. It seems to be a natural extension of his talent. Something he has fun with. Total immersion. He’s a complicated guy, I have a hard time getting a line on him, but I do know this: I always want to watch him. And it is my opinion that he keeps getting more and more interesting. I feel like he’s just getting started. Finding his sea-legs. But what a body of work already.

As John Dillinger (and I wrote about this extensively here), Depp had a thin-lipped almost blank quality to him. This is more brilliant under examination, and goes along with Michael Mann’s themes of celebrity and adulation: Dillinger was a blank slate for the Depression-era audience who watched his exploits. Things were projected onto Dillinger. He was glamorous, he represented THEM, he was the glorious little-guy standing up to the banks, and etc. Even the cops got in the act. This is one of the facts of Dillinger. He was a cultural phenomenon. But let’s also be honest: Dude robbed banks. He was a hardened criminal, almost totally institutionalized. Both are true. It is a very American story. The script of Public Enemies served Depp’s creation of context here, because we are not told anything about Dillinger, his early life, his Freudian issues – nothing like that. His dad beat him. That’s all we know. But other than that: all we are left with is the dead-eyed smiling-face of Johnny Depp, a boyish lock of hair coming down on his forehead, just like Dillinger’s, and a strange blankness behind all of it. Depp is embodying not just the character he is playing, but the legend itself of Dillinger. This is no small task. If you think that’s easy, or a done deal, or so obvious, then you obviously haven’t seen a lot of biopics, which explain too much, and feature actors who have been unable to create a context for themselves in which to operate. Depp, along with Michael Mann, created a blank canvas, pretty much. That’s what I found so strange and singular about the film (again, see my post about it), is that it really had no interest in explanations. Here’s what happened. Dillinger said this about himself. So we’ll show that.

Depp’s disinterest in audience sympathy has always been a rather extraordinary thing for an actor who was once a teen idol, featured on the pages of Tiger Beat (just take a look at Corey Haim to see where his path COULD have gone, and where it most usually goes). Depp just flat out did not have an interest in that kind of fame, although he HAD that kind of fame, and unlike other actors who spit on the same audience who made them famous (Zac Efron’s recent comments about High School Musical come to mind), Depp never seemed to get caught up in it to the extent that it defined him. It had to be difficult, and I know he has struggled with the tabloids, and his love life, and drugs, and all of that, but his work remained strange, whimsical, fun, moving. He did not repeat himself. But at the same time, you didn’t sense an effort there to not repeat himself, as you do with some actors. He was as at home in Edward Scissorhands as he was in Benny and Joon, as at home in Pirates of the Caribbean as he was in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?. He switched contexts with such ease. Also, it seemed fun for him. He seems to have fun in his career, as seriously as he obviously takes it. I am not making a value judgment here, by the way, about actors who have more struggles in the areas where he has ease. Acting is a tough career, and those who are really talented often have the toughest time, even if they have a lot of opportunities. I love Daniel Day-Lewis, and think he’s a genius, plain and simple, but I get the sense that acting really bothers him on some level, and he has to leave the career, from time to time, to get his bearings, to regroup. That’s the nature of his talent. So I’m not being positional here. I am just talking about Johnny Depp, and what I sense in him specifically, which I think is quite rare.

One of his strengths is that he has avoided the big action blockbuster route, something that I think has really impacted Russell Crowe’s career (and not in a good way). Crowe seems to struggle more openly with the demands of Hollywood and what it wants from him – and some of his huge hits have been so defining that they have ended up limiting him. I’d love to see him do a quiet little movie directed by, oh, Wes Anderson, or Sofia Coppola. I’d love to see him be allowed to switch contexts again, which he was so damn good at in the beginning of his career. As an example: watch Proof, Romper Stomper, The Sum of Us, LA Confidential and The Insider back to back, and you will see an actor who is seemingly comfortable in whatever context is thrown at him. He’s like Rowlands: his very soul seems to change, in these projects. Now, not so much. Fame is not easy. And fame like Crowe’s is a blinding light. It’s hard to go back to being fearless and NOT worrying about your Gladiator fan base and what they will think of you.

Depp was a heartthrob. But somewhere, he must have known who he was, what he was capable of. His homage to Buster Keaton in Benny and Joon is a real clue, and I thought a lot of his performance in that movie when I watched him as The Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland. Buster Keaton wore a poker-face, even as buildings collapsed around his body. It was a mask. There was great sadness in his face, and yet you laugh hysterically watching his films. The face is a big part of it. His spectacular athletic ability is breathtaking, but without that poker-face, he wouldn’t be Buster Keaton. He’d just be a stunt man. Depp has that quality. Much of his work seems to involve “masks” (shut up, Mitchell), but the thing about “masks” is that in days of yore, when an actor put on a mask, he embodied the mask – the mask told him what to do. The mask led the way, not the other way around. Buster Keaton’s poker-face was a mask, a brilliant construct that makes his films the heart-rending and hilarious films that they are – and I think Depp uses masks in a similar way. It is not something to hide behind, as other actors seem to hide behind changes in their appearance (prosthetics, bad teeth, or even an accent – all of these things are masks, in a sense). Depp seems to use masks in the way the ancient Greek actors did, or the commedia dell arte troupes did. The masks telegraph to the audience: This is the character. You know this person already. He is a lover. A thief. A king. Keith Richards. Whatever. It plays on the audience’s sense of familiarity. But then the brilliance of the actor that can inhabit a mask elevates it from a trick or an effect. Meryl Streep does this, obviously, in a way that is extraordinary. But I don’t see Depp as similar to Streep. His work is more mannered, and that is what is so fascinating about him to me. He does not lack reality – on the contrary, whatever he is in seems totally real to him. He adjusts his context completely, depending on the project. I have often wondered if that is why he came off as so shy, and almost boring, when I met him. Of course that was an artificial situation, so let’s put THAT into context as well … but his inventiveness and sheer virtuosity seems to be in evidence only in his acting. He came off as soft-spoken and sweet, almost embarrassed, and like he couldn’t wait to get out of there. It was endearing.

It’s like meeting a writer you admire and love and seeing that they are just a regular old person. I met Sharon Olds, she came to see a show I did, and I spoke with her a bit afterwards. I am absolutely in LOVE with Sharon Olds, her work has a burning intensity of feeling and personal anguish that I found it hard to reconcile with the nice lady with glasses and a low-maintenance haircut that I was talking with. I love that. She was the opposite of eccentric. She obviously, from her work, lives life in a deeply personal way. She resonates, she vibrates, she turns her life into her poetry. But there she was, chatting with me, and there was nothing extraordinary about her at all. That was the best part of it. Johnny Depp was a little bit like that in person.

Frankly, it made his work seem even MORE important. It made him seem even more like a freak, outside the normal constraints of career-planning and fame-management. The personae cannot be reconciled. They are not meant to be. He is all of his roles. Every time you see in something, you think: THIS is the best context for him. And that feeling lasts until you see the next project.

As The Mad Hatter, Johnny Depp takes on a “scarecrow”-like role, to Alice’s Dorothy. He has been sitting at his long banquet table for years, waiting for that little Alice girl to come back. Perhaps it is the wait that pushed him over the edge.

What I got mostly from his performance was loneliness and what loneliness can do to someone. Depp is not “playing” mad here. There are times when his eyes get suddenly serious and grim, based on no external stimuli, he is responding to some inner cue, and it appears truly delusional. The Mad Hatter has an inner monologue of paranoia and denial that is going on at all times, and all Depp needs to do is look off to the left, or look inward, for a split second, for us to get all that. He resists camp, despite the makeup, the colored contact lenses, the wig, the crazy Artful Dodger costume (and the horrible ending where he does that dance. WTF?). Depp uses camp very specifically, and Pirates of the Caribbean is the most campy performance since Tim Curry in Rocky Horror Picture Show. (By the way, I love the stories of the producers seeing the first batch of dailies for Pirates – and saying to Depp, “Are you going to do the whole performance that way?”) Depp has a campy drag queen in him. Obviously.

We have seen it time and time again (and that is Depp in Ed Wood, one of my favorites of his performances), but, like a conductor, he can adjust it, he can modulate it. IT serves HIM, not the other way around. This is a very delicate dance, hard to describe. You just know it when you see it.

The Mad Hatter is an artisan in exile, sitting at his trashed banquet table in the woods, telling the same jokes with no punchline over and over and over again. The boredom of it has gone to his brain. Who is he without his work? Which was passed onto him from his ancestors? Who is he without a rollicking companion? He has gone mad. Maybe he was always a little bit mad, but here we see him at the breaking point. It is a very very funny performance, in its specificity. He has moments where his head bucks up, his eyes widen, and he repeats the same line over and over again, with different inflections, like he is trying to make sense not of events, but of the chaos in his own mind. It is strangely moving. Depp has captured the cruelty and anarchy in Lewis Carroll’s classic, which is, in its essence, a nasty piece of work, full of nasty sometimes-frightening characters.

In Tim Burton’s Alice, the Mad Hatter shares center stage with Alice and the Red Queen. Contrasted with those three, I felt that Anne Hathaway as the White Queen did not find a proper context for herself as the character. She looked phony and I was embarrassed for her. She was play-acting, she was pretending, she was aware that she was in a Tim Burton movie. She hadn’t worked it out for herself. Burton’s Mad Hatter becomes Alice’s primary compatriot. This is not quite what Carroll wrote, but this movie is not the book. Alice goes back to Wonderland as a young woman (yuk). Now, as a young woman, she revisits that place, not remembering that she had been there before. In Tim Burton’s Alice, the Mad Hatter takes on iconic proportions. He is “the one”. In Alice in Wonderland, it is the white rabbit who is the key. In Tim Burton’s Alice, Depp recites the Jabberwocky poem, preparing Alice for her Frodo-like confrontation with the feared beast. As he recites it, a Scottish lilt comes into his voice, something the character had perhaps crushed down in the various royal courts he worked in, and you can feel him going back in time. His eyes are full of horror and remembrance. Depp’s relishing of Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical words take the exact right tone. It is how I have imagined these words being said. It is the fearfulness behind all of the “nonsense” penned by Lewis Carroll. The nonsense is used not as sheer fantasy, but as a way to express the absurdity of reality. It is close enough to reality to be frightening. We cannot laugh at the Jabberwocky, because the nonsensical words strike at the heart of what we most fear, the monsters that come to us in dreams. Watch how Depp recites that poem. He knows exactly what he is doing. He is lost in it. There is a technique here – I believe that – I believe he has a reason for doing every single thing that he does, as an actor. I can picture him working on a role with mirrors alone at home, surrounding himself with reflections so he can see himself, and adjust. Play with different effects, a full-bodied performance, as all of his performances are. There is a rock-hard technique at work in Alice – watch the specificity of it, the choices made. Yet never do I feel Depp’s work to be labored. That is his magic.

He’s on a big playground. He gets to play. The context may change. He is in Roman Polanski’s context in The Ninth Gate, and so his acting adjusts itself accordingly. In Tim Burton’s context, he operates with the same level of commitment and specificity – but he seems to be a different actor entirely.

Mike Nichols has said that one of the defining characteristics of working with Meryl Streep is that she seems to have the attitude of, “Oh, goody – I get to do this again today!” I get that feeling from Depp as well, which is why I think his work has such breadth and joy and feeling in it.

His conception of The Mad Hatter is what matters to me here. He and Tim Burton obviously have a great and close working relationship. I didn’t care for the movie at all, actually. It drove me crazy. But it’s Depp who interests me.

Johnny Depp doesn’t need to be directed. He always knows what movie he is in. It is the keen of sadness in his Mad Hatter that strikes me now. It is a poignant performance. And – beautifully – totally – MAD. This isn’t movie madness. He is actually mad. Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is populated by frightening random wackos, who batter Alice about between them. These are not cuddly eccentrics. You feel that they could fly off the handle. You feel that events could spin out of control. And they do. Alice grows, shrinks, grows, shrinks – she is a completely passive participant in this crazy-making world, a terrible metaphor for what can be done to children by the cruel adults surrounding them. Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter is unwound, totally. He loses track. He can’t concentrate. He goes off into his own flights of fancy, and then comes back to the present moment, with a little tick of loss on his face, like: “what is wrong with me?” The final exchange between he and Alice is a perfect button to this. There is no ulterior motives here, no “sense” – he cannot be explained, or talked down. He is who he is. He is a hatter by trade, and he is stark staring mad. He also loves Alice and has missed her human presence. Instead of coming off as cuddly, however, Depp comes off as, again, a very Buster Keaton-like presence, with a mask of madness, his eyes clicking and thinking and reflecting and deflecting – with an almost total avoidance of sentimentality, and yet with great heart, great potential for feeling.

The contexts in which Johnny Depp can operate are wide and seemingly endless. He doesn’t have many failures under his belt. I know he doesn’t like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, because he was on drugs throughout the shooting – and so Depp has said when he re-watches that film, all he is aware of is how “polluted” he is. This may be the case, but I think his simple belief in that story, that very specific family dynamic, is one of the reasons why it works so well. If he did that cloudy with drugs, then just look at what he is able to do clean and sober.

There is not a lot of explaining that happens with Depp. He has a mystery to him. To me, what is so extraordinary about him is his willingness to submit to as many different contexts as he possibly can.

And so, like a painter, he can point at the canvas of work and say, “There. I put all of it there. There’s nothing more to say about it.”

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42 Responses to Johnny Depp: The Mad Hatter’s Context

  1. Ken says:

    I wasn’t a fan of his until I saw Cry-Baby. He didn’t smirk or sneer (well, okay, he sneered a little but it was the character sneering, not the actor), he didn’t do the “Hey, lookit me being edgy in a John Waters movie!” shtick that I like to call “Chad Palomino,” he played it like a pro. Gilbert Grape, Benny and Joon, and Edward Scissorhands proved it wasn’t a fluke. One of these days when the dissertation is wrestled to the ground, I’ma get Dead Man from the liberry and watch it all the way through.

  2. red says:

    Dead Man’s another good one. I think my favorite performance of his is in Ed Wood. It’s a perfect example of the kind of thing I’m talking about here – it’s stylized but real, mannered but heartfelt – I love the performance.

  3. Cullen says:

    It’s weird because I really thought Depp did an amazing job portraying the Hatter, but I was so uncomfortable watching him on screen. I found it off-putting for exactly the reason you explain him embodying the role – he became unbalanced. In the same way you’re uncomfortable around a real person who’s suffering mental anguish, I felt that way about the Hatter. I really want to see the movie again, because now that I have a better sense of context, I think I can enjoy it more for what it is. I went into it thinking it was going to be toned down a tad for families, and as far as what was presented gore/language, etc.-wise, it was. But Burton gave us something almost more disturbing than harsh imagery or events, Depp’s Hatter was unsettling. He was so good at being so off … you felt like at any moment he was just going to snap.

    I love that you mention Tim Curry’s turn in Rocky Horror. As you describe Depp’s ability to become characters in context, I thought of Curry specifically. Not the heartthrob Depp is or was, but he certainly possesses and uncanny quality to be whatever he needs to in role without bringing any of his own ego to the part. And Curry has had to do some awfully campy stuff in his career. I don’t think he’s as versatile as Depp (sorry for that word!), but he’s along the same kind of path.

  4. red says:

    Well, if you remember the original book – it’s quite a nasty book, and nobody is kind, nobody is friendly – everyone is off their rocker, and it’s truly an unpleasant read. I love the book DEARLY – but it really is a disturbing piece of work. It’s cruel. Tim Burton is obviously not known for cuddly family-friendly movies, he’s too dark and twisted – I did like that this wasn’t EXACTLY the book, in that Alice is now a woman – I thought that was very interesting. But the Mad Hatter in the book is truly insane – and also impatient and rude to Alice – so I thought it was interesting the switch-up they did. That the Mad Hatter, years later, has REALLY lost it. Waiting for that little girl to come back.

    Burton actually captured the spirit of Lewis Carroll’s book. That’s what Carroll wrote, that’s what those characters are like. Terrifying creatures, all of them.

    But focusing in on the Mad Hatter as opposed to the White Rabbit was the big change for me – and I thought it worked well.

  5. red says:

    From the “Mad Tea Party” chapter in Alice in Wonderland:

    “Your hair wants cutting,” said the Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for some time with great curiosity, and this was his first speech.

    “You should learn not to make personal remarks,” Alice said with some severity. “It’s very rude.”

    The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”

    “Come, we shall have some fun now!” thought Alice. “I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles – I believe I can guess that,” she added aloud.

    “Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?” said the March Hare.

    “Exactly so,” said Alice.

    “Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

    “I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least – at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing, you know.”

    “Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “Why you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”

    “You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’!”

    “You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, which seemed to be talking in its sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”

    “It is the same thing with you,” said the Hatter, and here the conversation dropped, and the party sat silent for a minute, while Alice thought over all she could remember about ravens and writing desks, which wasn’t much.

    The Hatter was the first to break the silence. “What day of the month is it?” he said, turning to Alice; he had taken his watch out of his pocket, and was looking at it uneasily, shaking it every now and then, and holding it to his ear.

    Alice considered a little, and then said, “The fourth.”

    “Two days wrong!” sighed the Hatter. “I told you butter wouldn’t suit the works!” he added, looking angrily at the March Hare.

    :”It was the best butter,” the March Hare meekly replied.

    “Yes, but some crumbs must have got in as well,” the Hatter grumbled; “you shouldn’t have put it in with the bread-knife.”

    The March Hare took the watch and looked at it gloomily; then he dipped it into his cup of tea, and looked at it again: but he could think of nothing better to say than his first remark, “It was the best butter, you know.”

    Alice had been looking over his shoulder with some curiosity. “What a funny watch!” she remarked. “It tells the day of the month,a nd doesn’t tell what o’clock it is!”

    “Why should it?” muttered the Hatter. “Does your watch tell you what year it is?”

    “Of course not,” Alice replied very readily, “but that’s because it stays the same year for such a long time altogether.”

    “Which is just the case with mine,” said the Hatter.

    Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter’s remark seemed to her to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English. “I don’t quite understand you,” she said, as politely as she could.

    “The Dormouse is asleep again,” said the Hatter, and he poured a little hot tea upon its nose.

    The Dormouse shook its head impatiently, and said, without opening its eyes, “Of course, of course: just what I was going to remark myself.”

    “Have you guessed the riddle yet?” the Hatter said, turning to Alice.

    “No, I give it up,” Alice replied. “What’s the answer?”

    “I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter.

    hahahaha Now that to me is a really unbalancing passage – Alice thinks she is with normal people, trying to deal with them normally, but it all is complete nonsense – with a strange decay behind it – the passage of time, having a watch that shows you what year it is, etc.

    I love how Burton obviously honed in on this one passage to basically create the overall theme of the Hatter – the raven/writing desk riddle being his refrain – almost like he’s a Rainman type of character, who keeps batting about the same thing, hoping he will come up with the answer.

    He’s kind of haunted by the fact that he doesn’t know the answer to his own riddle. (In Johnny Depp’s portrayal, I mean).

    In the book, they always sit outside for a tea-party because their watch has stopped – and it’s tea-time according to the watch – but they can’t move on with their lives, or wash up, or do anything – because it’s “always tea-time and we’ve no time to wash the things between whiles”. They have been sitting there for YEARS. It’s really depressing if you think about it.

  6. red says:

    Cullen – about Curry/Depp: yeah, there’s a real embrace there of theatricality. They seem to love to go big, and bold, and take those types of risks.

    Anne Hathaway seemed to think that the LOOK she was given (white hair, white gown, black lips) would do all the work for her. I think she thought that was all she needed. She suffered – she didn’t know what she was doing.

    Depp and the others were iN that theatricalized stylized world – they seemed to inhabit it.

  7. red says:

    I would be so curious to hear the meetings Burton and Depp probably had about this character – imagining him into life.

    Depp is such a weirdo. John Dillinger to this???


  8. red says:

    Cullen – what did you think of the change-up, making Alice a grown woman fleeing from a silly marriage? That she had been to Wonderland before but didn’t remember it?

    I think it worked pretty well, although I missed the aspect of the book which is: that a CHILD is being treated so rudely and cruelly by all these weird characters. And Alice is a feisty little girl, who sticks up for herself – but in that nonsense world, she just can’t win. She tries to rule by logic and that just isn’t flying!!

  9. Cullen says:

    I really liked Burton’s take on it. Like you, I kind of missed the child’s take on the world, but I think he kind of made up for that by presenting Alice as the kind of person who kind of innocently stumbles through the world – Wonderland, at the lest second time around proves to be her awakening.

    And I didn’t mean to imply I was disappointed in the movie I saw, just that it wasn’t was I was expecting and it was jarring at first. I have, going back over it in my mind since, come to really appreciate his making it darker like the original story. Of course, it’s Burton, I don’t know why I was thinking otherwise.

    I wasn’t as bothered by Hathaway as you were. She obviously didn’t encompass the role like her peers, but given the part, I thought she filled it OK. There were times I really enjoyed her – when the Hatter did his dance at the end and she just just did the lilting little side-to-side thing – I loved that. But I totally think she was overshadowed by everyone else in the movie, and, to her credit, I think Hathaway kind of knew it, too. I saw her on some shows and she was like, “I’m just happy to have been a part of a Tim Burton movie!”

    What did you think of Crispin Glover’s Knave of Hearts?

  10. red says:

    Yes, in the book, very early on – Alice stops thinking it’s a dream, and begins to try to openly deal with the realities in front of her. I got a bit sick of the “This is only a dream” thing of the grown-up Alice, because it hindered her involvement. I suppose that’s true of adults – they would not be as willing to accept that down-the-rabbit-hole world as real. I LOVED the fall down the rabbit hole. It was absolutely terrifying – beautifully done – and really captures Lewis Carroll’s description of it – the things flying through the air – domestic objects, parlor furniture – remnants of Alice’s old life up above ground. I loved that section!

    I thought Crispin Glover was awesome. He removed all of his twitchiness, I thought – and really embodied this bad-ass Knave with total command.

    To me “okay” is not good enough, in terms of Hathaway. It’s her job to create a context in which she can be free and create a character – I felt she was totally lost. I am trying to think of an equivalent – I’ll come up with one, I know there are other examples. She really stood out for me. She looked amateurish. I like her a lot, but this was not a good moment for her. It’s funny: something like Tim Burton and his projects can REALLY reveal the flaws in an actor – unlike other films where you can perhaps hide better. Where you can just go with a realistic approach. But this requires something else, and I felt she was completely lost – hoping no one would notice.

    And Bonham Carter was awesome! I’m not a big fan of hers, but I absolutely loved her performance – and her look – that crazy lipstick, and how you could see the lips beneath were totally chapped. Like I was aching to hand her some Chapstick. The sense of decay and corruption – of empty gestures – it was all there in those chapped lips.

  11. red says:

    From Alice in Wonderland:

    The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down what seemed to be a very deep well.

    Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and to wonder what was going to happen next. First, she tried to look down and make out what she was coming to, but it was too dark to see anything: then she looked at the sides of the well, and noticed that they were filled with cupboards and book-shelves: here and there she saw maps and pictures hung upon pegs. She took down a jar from one of the shelves as she passed: it was labeled “ORANGE MARMALADE,” but to her great disappointment it was empty: she did not like to drop the jar for fear of killing somebody underneath, so managed to put it into one of the cupboards as she fell past it.

    “Well!” thought Alice to herself. “After such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling downstairs! How brave they’ll all think me at home! Why, I wouldn’t say anything about it, even if I fell off the top of the house!” (Which was very likely true.)

    Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end? “I wonder how many miles I’ve fallen by this time?” she said aloud. “I must be getting somewhere near the center of the earth. Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down, I think -” (for, you see, Alice had learnt several things of this sort in her lessons in the schoolroom, and though this was not a very good opportunity for showing off her knowledge, as there was no one to listen to her, still it was good practice to say it over) “– yes, that’s about the right distance – but then I wonder what Latitude or Longitude I’ve got to?” (Alice had not the slightest idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either, but she thought they were nice grand words to say.)

    Presently she began again. “I wonder if I shall fall right through the earth! How funny it’ll seem to come out among the people that walk with their heads downwards! The Antipathies, I think –” (she was rather glad there was no one listening this time, as it didn’t sound at all the right word) “– but I shall have to ask them what the name of the country is, you know. Please, Ma’am, is this New Zealand? Or Australia?” (and she tried to curtsey as she spoke – fancy curtseying as you’re falling through the air! Do you think you could manage it?) “And what an ignorant little girl she’ll think me for asking! No, it’ll never do to ask: perhaps I shall see it written up somewhere.”

    Down, down, down.

    The fall in the movie is much more terrifying – she is falling FAST – but maybe for an adult it WOULD be more terrifying. Alice as a little girl submits to the fantastical- that’s part of being a child.

    But still: the mix of domestic objects and dirt and branches in the film really captures what that rabbit hole was all about.

  12. Cullen says:

    Yeah, I think Glover was the biggest surprise for me. I hadn’t picked him out in previews and I was so happy to see him there. I, like you, think he did a wonderful job. I’m glad to see he’s still getting work!

    I understand what you’re saying about Hathaway. Not being able to separate her actor persona from the role she’s supposed to be playing was a bit distracting.

    Carter was great! My favorite role in the movie. She just owned it. I like her a lot, so it wasn’t much of a stretch for me to like her here too, but she was just fantastic. Still, though, my favorite role of hers was in Big Fish.

    Speaking of Big Fish, I sure am glad Burton was able to subdue his father-centric subplots to a relatively minor part in this movie.

  13. red says:

    Glover also has a very funny part in the upcoming Hot Tub Time Machine.

    I loved how his torso seemed to be about 5 miles long.

    I loved the playing-card soldiers. At the end of Alice in Wonderland, during the trials – all the cards fly up into the air- it’s terrifying – and Tenniel has a really frightening illustration of it – you’d never think a pack of playing cards would be so scary – but it’s almost like Hitchcock’s The Birds. They’re EVERYWHERE.

  14. red says:

    From end of Alice:

    “No, no!” said the Queen. “Sentence first – verdict afterwards.”

    “Stuff and nonsense!” said Alice loudly. “The idea of having the sentence first!”

    “Hold your tongue!” said the Queen, turning purple.

    “I won’t!” said Alice.

    “Off with her head!” the Queen shouted at the top of her voice. Nobody moved.

    “Who cares for you?” said Alice (she had grown to her full size by this time). “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!”

    At this the whole pack rose up into the air, and came flying down upon her; she gave a little scream, half of fright and half of anger, and tried to beat them off, and found herself lying on the bank, with her head in the lap of her sister, who was gently brushing away some dead leaves that had fluttered down from the trees upon her face.

    “Wake up, Alice dear!” said her sister.


  15. red says:

    Cullen – I’m not bothered by Burton’s themes at all – he’s a personal film-maker, and that is obviously something that concerns him – but it didn’t really work here, unless you consider Alice’s eventual break with her family (a necessary break – she had to get free.)

  16. Cullen says:

    YES! Glover’s switcing from a normal-seeming perspective to suddenly flatening and stretching out — my favorite effect in the film. I love how Burton has kept his stop-motion asthetic in the digital world. You still get that sense, despite the advanced animated techniques, he’s still using clay and puppets. The same kind of feeling you get in Coraline is what I got from the Knave. Love it.

    My kids loved the Dormouse.

  17. Cullen says:

    When his themes work, they’re good. Big Fish is wonderful, my favorite of his films, but it ruined Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I think he struck a very good balance here.

  18. red says:

    The Dormouse was very funny. I loved how it kept iNSISTING that “this is not Alice”!

    Yeah – the effects were really interesting, and had some grit to them. I am really over CGI in general, and I also just didn’t feel that 3D added ANYTHING to the film. I’m so bummed out that 3D is making a comeback. Dumb, dumb, dumb. It will DATE these movies, just like the movies back in the past are DATED from their 3D status.

    I’d like to see it without the 3D – it really added nothing, as far as I’m concerned.

    And yeah: the sort of effects that Burton and team went for were so fascinating – Bonham Carter’s tiny body and big head look JUST like the Tenniel illustrations!

    And how – the horse that the White Queen rode, and the Knave – it was ALMOST real, but something was OFF about it. Same with the dogs. A perfect representation of how things seem in dreams – they’re almost accurate, but not quite!

  19. Cullen says:

    And that illustration is also wonderful. I love it when the mundane is made horrible. Like how Tiny Tina is able to scare us so terribly. Burton should remake Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive. OK, maybe not Burton, but someone should. The idea is sound and someone with good vision and sense of drama could make it so much better than the original.

  20. red says:

    Also: the Bindersnatch is not in the narrative of Alice or Looking Glass – it comes out of the Jabberwocky poem – and I liked how Burton et al made the Jabberwocky poem central (although I could have done without the big clash at the end – too much Lord of the Rings, not enough Lewis Carroll). But the Bindersnatch coming OUT of that poem – to enter the plot – really drives the point home that all of this is a narrative, a story. There is no divide between the stories told to us and the stories we live.

  21. red says:

    Burton’s one of my favorite filmmakers working today. He really does have a vision. Gotta see Ed Wood again – have you seen it, Cullen???

  22. Cullen says:

    I have a love-hate thing going with 3D. Most of the animation flicks have really been awe-droppingly amazing in 3D. But, yeah, with Alice I wasn’t so impressed. It was pretty and everything, but I don’t get the big deal.

    Unfortunately, it seems to be where the technology is going. There’s a huge push for 3D TV and more and more 3D films are being planned. If they can successfully produce and market 3D TV and begin to broadcast programming in 3D – it’ll be over. Especially if those broadcasts are sports. James Cameron was talking about this in a recent interview – how he’s pushing the technology, but also trying to get studios to invest in the technology so there’ll be a market for home users to buy into. HD was a slow adoption, but it’s happening. I predict the same for 3D.

  23. Cullen says:

    I love Ed Wood. Ed Wood is what turned me into a Burton fan. He was just another film maker to me up to that point. I was such a huge Plan 9 fan … his almost reverence for Wood meant a lot to me. It’s also the movie that made me respect Depp.

    So, yeah, I get that he has vision. I just don’t think it always works. But when it does, whew! Heck, I loved Sleepy Hollow; I’ve not talked to many who did.

  24. red says:

    The same thing was said about 3D back in the day, as well as Cinemascope – you see those old movies and you think: so the technology is there, but does it serve the story? Does it make a better movie?

    Nah. Never does.

    This was a case where 3D added nothing. Felt the same way about Up. The story was fine without it, the visuals fine without it.

    Trends are just trends. Like legwarmers.

    And, in my opinion: movies that over-use CGI already are dating themselves badly. They already look dated, and it’s only been a couple of years. Recently watched The Fugitive and the train hitting the bus sequence is done obviously with a blue screen, and a mix of live action and projected footage – and it works wonderfully well. CGI might have made it seem more “real”, but again: it would already have dated itself.

    The story is paramount, always will be.

  25. red says:

    Yes, his reverence for Ed Wood – and how it just captured how much Ed Wood loved what he was doing – such a moving film, I thought!

    And there will be various degrees of success when you’re working out your own issues in your art – that’s always the case, I suppose.

    I think it’s funny when people say re: Wes Anderson: “Enough with films about childhood!” But: what do they want from him – to make a big action flick to show his versatility? He makes films that interest HIM.

    I loved Big Fish so much – basically had a nervous breakdown in the theatre.

  26. red says:

    I need to see that one again – Haven’t seen it in years.

  27. red says:

    Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) wrestling with the giant octopus in the puddle is one of the funniest and most tragic scenes I’ve ever seen – it captures, for me, the true dignity of the acting profession, in the middle of the most undignified scene possible.

    I remember my friend Ted and I saw it together in Chicago, and we were both laughing and crying at the same time during that scene.

  28. Cullen says:

    Big Fish was like a catharsis wrapped around an epiphany. So good, so moving … just a masterpiece of filmmaking.

    I really worry about the 3D technology this time around though. They’ve found ways to make it cheap and deliver it in any format. If the TV studios adopt it, it’s over. Consumers can only vote with their pocketbooks when there are options. I hope, HOPE, it remains a niche.

  29. red says:

    Yeah, me too.

    The general disgruntled attitude I sense about CGI is a good sign – something like Where the Wild Things Are, which could have been TOTALLY digitized – looked gritty and raw, with basically giant puppets in REAL settings – it worked so well, and was a breath of fresh air.

  30. Cullen says:

    My favorite scene is where Wood coaches Lugosi about why he’s giving the intro to Glen or Glenda and Lugosi goes improve with the “Pull the strings! Pull the strings!” Such a powerful non sequitur.

  31. Cullen says:

    Yeah, as good as CGI is, it’s just not there yet. At least not for living breathing creatures (though I’ve yet to see Avatar). Things are reproduced well – spaceships, battledroids, cars, trucks, and the like – but creatures still lack the something, it’s the Uncanny Valley. Burton sidesteps that by backing off the valley and taking his animation back into surreality. That works a lot better for me.

  32. red says:

    Nothing will ever replace the sensation that you are looking at something alive.

    That’s why C3PO works so well, and why Gollum doesn’t work as well, as amazing as the technology is. It just lacks something, and that something is life. It just doesn’t cut it.

    And I don’t go to the movies to Ooh and Ahh over technology – at least not primarily. You can have all the awesome technology in the world, but if your story blows – then, to quote Mitchell, “who the fuck cares”?

    I certainly don’t.

    Pixar is amazing, technically – but I would not care a bit if they didn’t focus so much on STORY and CHARACTER. They don’t think that technology alone is enough.

    Love that Uncanny Valley piece!

  33. Cara Ellison says:

    I love Johnny Depp and I loved his performance in Alice in Wonderland. I thank you for expressing some of the random wisps of thought I had myself, organizing them, and writing them so eloquently.

    I did notice you didn’t write much about the actress who played Alice. Did you like her?

  34. red says:

    Cara – Yes, I thought she was fine! I didn’t really want to do a full-on review – just focus on Depp and what I think is going on with him. He’s really at an interesting point in his career – I think he’s just going to keep blowing us away. It’s the CHOICES that make him so weird – and so singular.

    Nobody else right now is really on the path he’s on – at least no movie star of his gigantic fame.

    Like – Tilda Swinton has a similar sensibility, I think – and although she gets major props, I wouldn’t call her a gigantic sexy movie star. Johnny Depp continues to behave as though he is an indie-favorite, a best-kept secret of the indie world – when in reality he is a huge freakin’ star. That’s not easy to do – he really seems to just do whatever the hell he wants to do, whatever project that interests him. Fascinating!

  35. Cullen says:

    I love Gizmodo. That was a very good piece. I don’t think I’m quite as critical as the author – I loved the 3D in Coraline especially – but I compeletly agree with his thesis. Movie-goers aren’t ready to surrender to the format and won’t be until it can be delivered without any special glasses or other accoutrements. 3D has come a very long way, but not far enough.

  36. red says:

    Yeah – totally agreed.

  37. Todd Rester says:

    Hi Sheila,

    Been lurking for a while. I initially linked to your blog from The House Next Door, and I can’t read as fast as you write! I love your analysis of Ben Marley in Apollo 13. It’s one of my favorite movies, but every time it’s on now, I find myself focusing on his performance. I similarly love your take on Bruce Davison in Short Cuts, another favorite of mine. It’s refreshing to see reviews (if they can be called that- I mean that in the best way possible) from this angle.

    The Depp post prompted me to comment, since nobody has mentioned my two favorite films of his, Donnie Brasco and Blow. Okay, I like gangster movies, but I thought he elevated both of those projects immensely. He seems to “be” his characters. Granted, as with Dillinger he was portraying real people, but I find these roles so much richer than any “biopic” I can think of.

    There was a great article on Depp in Vanity Fair this past year. The reporter spent several weeks with Depp on his private French Island. What I took from the article was that this is a very interesting, somewhat contradictory person. I also got nothing about his acting process. I think the very best have a tough time explaining it. As I beleive you have referenced somewhere, as with Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting, they “could always just play.”

    Depp reminds me of Jeff Bridges, in that he can disappear into almost any role. My current favorite actor, Philip Seymor Hofmann, is the same way, but I’ve heard him speak more openly about his process, and I think it relates to both Depp and Bridges. He said that the most important thing for him is to find a way to “Love” his character, regardless of what character he’s playing. Not like, not repect, not identify with, but LOVE his character. In that way, he becomes. Now, this might not have been hard for some roles, say Boogie Nights or Charlie Wilson’s War, but must have been quite a trick for, say ” Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” or “Love Liza”. But it sure works for him. Whether Depp or Bridges know it or not, I sense them “loving” their characters.

    And on a completely unrelated note, here’s a link I saw today to “The worst Irish accents in movie history”, which I’m sure you’ll appreciate!

    Thanks again for your great blog.

  38. Cara Ellison says:

    I saw him once in LA. He is almost painfully beautiful in person – as you probably observed when you met him too.

    Such incredible male gorgeousness.

  39. Sharon Ferguson says:

    Oh now I REALLY want to see “Alice” – have not been able to because of this, that, or another…and I love what you say about Depp, even though I am rather neutral in my feelings about him. I remember hearing all the chatter about his turn as Willy Wonka – being a fan of the Book and “original” film, I thought I was going to find myself goofing on his performance, but I found myself completely entranced by his take (Pirates was amusing, but have to say that my heart was already stolen by another Captain Jack and one who did NOT take kindly to pirates). Have been intrigued by the promos for Alice. I may even have to get myself a new copy of it!

  40. Mandy says:

    Time Burton helped create a wonderful Alice in Wonderland! Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter is perfect, because the bewilderment Hatter feels seems to actually come from inside Johnny’s head. He is a little bit mad himself, and just has to draw it out.

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