It's such a toxic-potent paradigm it's hard to believe Lewis Carroll came up with it first — female puberty as a mud-wrestle with the irrational, a maiden's journey into a quasi-adult sphere drunk on its own rules and power but actually fucking nuts. It's an elemental conflict that's as political as it is psychosexual — which is why Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, despite having little story to speak of, will not fade into a vague memory of 19th-century kid lit.
LACMA's two-weekend series “Adventures in Wonderland: Alice and Other Lost Girls in Fantastic Worlds” gives you all the opportunity you'll ever need to drown in mimsey-slash-slithy pubertal confusion, and the touchstone here is certainly not Disney's 1951 Alice in Wonderland (screening April 14 at 5 p.m.) — which may be an effective milksop intro for kiddies but which renders the fear-and-desire Lewis Carroll dreamwork all but harmless.
No, the linchpin adaptation is naturally Jan Svankmajer's 1988 Alice (April 6, 7:30 p.m.), which only loosely intersects with the book yet musters an uncomfortable physical world of unpleasant juxtapositions, mucous mixtures, semi-animated impossibilities, revolting taxidermic tension and a pervasive sense of real childhood danger (without, fascinatingly, inciting the merest drop of anxiety from his star, placid blond Kristyna Kohoutova). Self-referential and playfully conscious of pedophiliac threat as only a surrealist's film could be, Svankmajer's Alice does Carroll better than Carroll did Carroll, swapping the smarmy wordplay and faux innocence for the claustrophobia and stress you taste in a real dream.
Other versions can hardly help resonating with an unearthly Victorian oddness, including the 1933 Hollywood version directed by Marx Brothers vet Norman Z. MacLeod (April 7, 5 p.m.). This early talkie antique (not the earliest by a long shot) exudes a cobwebby attic/nursery vibe no amount of glossy Tim Burton CGIs can match, achieved only with wild sets (expressionist designer William Cameron Menzies got credit on the screenplay, and it's hard to imagine he didn't pitch in visually), distorted perspectives, masquerade costuming and a wide variety of cast fauna, from Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle to W.C. Fields as Humpty-Dumpty.
Lou Bunin and Dallas Bower's 1948 Alice in Wonderland (April 14, 7:30 p.m.), British-made but squelched internationally by both a preemptive Disney lawsuit and Bunin's HUAC blacklisting, has until recently been far harder to see, but it's pleasantly loopy, much more comfortable with its George Pal–style animated puppet creatures than with the live people on hand.
For some reason, the Alice axiom particularly seduced the Czechs, who saw the template as being a kind of New Wave, antitotalitarian anthem idea years before Svankmajer. Cine-anarchist Vera Chytilova felt it, her movies landing like in-your-face femme rebellions against the conformism of Eastern Bloc communism; predictably, they were routinely censored. Her justly famed Daisies (1966) is an epochal exercise in feminist resistance, executed with a frenetic degree of norm-meltdown that's still exhilarating to watch. (That is, unless the “story” of two childish, prank-happy, seminude teens violating every middle-class presumption rubs you raw, in which case, sorry, you're the enemy.) Chytilova's rarer Fruit of Paradise (screening April 7 in a 7:30 p.m. double bill with Daisies) is a partner film in crime, beginning with a 10-minute Eden overture of tripled images, rotting textures and crazed editing that would have made Stan Brakhage stomp his foot and yowl. After that, the movie is an entrancing hippie-dippie riff on gender combat that doesn't retell Genesis so much as slip it a microdot, mocking societal structure and masculine imperative under a wary owl's stare. Luridly subversive without resorting to violence, sex or anticlericism, it's impossible to summarize and hard to resist.
If Alice-ness is a troublesome idea in the free-love era, even in Czechoslovakia, then Jaromil Jires' notorious 1970 Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (April 6, 9:05 p.m.) probes the tender nerve endings, surviving its totalitarian context to become a trippy global cult classic decades later. It's a scramble-bag of vampire fantasy and soft porn and hippie largesse, with the titular heroine (14-year-old Jaroslava Schallerova) happily admitting, as she's being carried away over someone's shoulder, “I am dreaming.”
We sure are — the trippy narrative is as relaxed and chaotic as Valerie herself, who skips and slinks and strips through this gauzy phantasia with parent-vexing élan. A wild daisy dribbled with menstrual blood is a typical cutaway. Valerie's thrumming sensuality is all-powerful — and Jires' free-associative movie, never concerned with evoking a conscious reality, explores it entirely from the inside out. Here, finally, Alice has hit puberty full-on, and it's intoxicating.
ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND: ALICE AND OTHER LOST GIRLS IN FANTASTIC WORLDS | April 6-7 & 14 | Bing Theater at LACMA | lacma.org | Co-presented by Cinefamily, where screenings start April 12 | cinefamily.org