Saturday, 8 March 2008

Cult Movies

In some respects the term "cult movie" is easy to define. Quite simply a cult movie is any motion picture (a movie) with a small, obsessive following (a cult). There are many today who believe that cult movies are a relatively modern phenomenon, beginning at the earliest in the Fifties. That having been said, cult movies have probably been around almost as long as there have been feature films. Some even go so far as to claim that the term "cult movie" itself only goes back to the Seventies, popularised by author Danny Peary in articles and in his book Cult Movies (published in 1981). In truth, the term goes back a bit farther than that. The term appears in a review ("Rebel with a Sense of Humor") of the book The Strawberry Statement in Time, May 9, 1969, in which it is stated that the book "...could easily become a cult movie." The term "cult film" is almost as old. It appeared in the article "Pop Records: Moguls, Money & Monsters" in Time, Feb. 12, 1973, where Midnight Cowboy is referred to as a "cult film."

While the term "cult movie" would appear to be easy to definite, it is sometimes difficult to determine what is and is not a cult movie. It does seem that for any film to be considered a cult film by anyone, it would have to have a somewhat substantial (but not necessarily large) following. The 1999 version of Beowulf featuring Christopher Lambert in the title role may well have its fans (how I don't know...), but I doubt there are enough of them to constitute a substantial following or "cult." For a film to be a cult movie, it must not only have a following, but a somewhat substantial one. This can be demonstrated by looking at such archetypal cult films as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Evil Dead 2, and Donnie Darko, all of whic have pretty substantial followings.

At the same time, however, it seems to me that there must also be that for a motion picture to be considered a cult movie, it must not be part of the mainstream. I have seen Casablanca described as a cult movie, but I don't believe it for a moment. It is true Casablanca has a substantial (in fact, a very large) following. It is true that many are obsessively devoted to the film. At the same time, however, it must be pointed out that Casablanca is very much a part of the cinematic mainstream. Indeed, it is widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. By their very nature, it would seem that cult movies are films which have in some way been rejected by the motion picture establishment,the general public, or both.

This is not to say that all cult movies must have done poorly on their first release. A Clockwork Orange made a very respectable gross of $26,589,355 in the United States when it was released in 1972. What makes it a cult movie is that it has maintained a cult following over the years and, despite its success, it pretty much lies outside the mainstream of movies. Of course, many cult films, perhaps most cult films, did fail at the box office upon first release. Harold and Maude bombed when it was first released in 1971, but developed a loyal following over the years. Eraserhead never even received a wide release, but became a cult movie after several years. It seems tome that it is ultimately not important whether a cult movie was a hit upon its first release or a box office bomb, but that it maintains a loyal following over the years and lies outside the cinematic mainstream.

Here it must be noted that the overall quality of a film appears to be insignificant as to whether it develops a cult or not. Many cult films are justifiably considered classics, among them A Clockwork Orange, Night of the Living Dead, Freaks, and Harold and Maude. Other cult films justifiably count as being among the worst films of all time, among them the anti-marijuana propaganda film Reefer Madness (originally released in 1936 as Tell Your Children), Robot Monster, and the entire oeuvre of Ed Wood. These films are so poorly made that they are laughable and hence, in some strange way, entertaining.

As stated earlier, it seems likely that cult movies have existed nearly as long as there have been feature films. In fact, Danny Peary, the author of Cult Movies, believes that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (released in 1920) may well be the first cult movie. There would also be several other films which would develop cults surrounding them before the Fifties, among them Pandora's Box (1929), White Zombie (1932), Freaks (1932), and To Be or Not To Be (1942). There is no reason to believe that cult movies are a relatively recent phenomenon.

That having been said, it was arguably with the Fifties that cult movies would arrive as a widespread phenomenon. This was most likely due to a number of factors. Chief among these was the advent of regularly scheduled, broadcast network television in the United States in the late Forties. Television gave many older films a new lease on life, bringing them to a new generation of audiences. Movies such as The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and Sons of the Desert (1933) developed cult following after repeat showings on local television stations.

Another factor was the growth of independent film following World War II. A major blow was delivered to the Hollywood studios who had controlled the film industry, from the production to the exhibition of movies, in the form of the 1949 Supreme Court decision in the case of the United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. Among other things, the decision put an end to the practice of block booking, in which theatre owner would have to buy an entire package of a set of films from a studio. Block booking made it very difficult for smaller, independent studios to compete with the major Hollywood studios. It also put an end to the studios owning their own theatres, where they would naturally be inclined to show their own films. Among the consequences of this Supreme Court decision was that independent film was finally able to proliferate after years of the industry being dominated by the major Hollywood studios. In the Fifties many independent producers released sci-fi and horror movies which would eventually become cult films. Many developed cults because they were actually very well done, such as The Blob and Roger Corman's classic Little Shop of Horrors. Others developed cults because they were so horribly bad that they could be enjoyed as comedies, such as Robot Monster and all of Ed Wood's films. Of course, as the Fifties became the Sixties, independent film matured. Bad sci-fi movies gave way to somewhat better, more intellectual motion pictures, such as Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy, many of which also became cult films.

While cult movies began to proliferate in the Fifties and Sixties, it would arguably be the Seventies that would bring the phenomenon to the fore. It was the Seventies that saw the rise of midnight movies. For those of you who are too young to remember, there was a time when many theatres showed movies at midnight on Friday and Saturday (some even did it every night of the week). For the most part the most successful midnight movies seem to have been those which were well off the beaten track--in other words, they were perfect fodder to become cult movies. It was as a midnight movie that The Rocky Horror Picture Show developed its following. It was also as a midnight movie that Erasehead became a cult film. The list of movies which had bombed in their first release, but saw success as midnight movies and hence became cult films is a rather long one. Sadly, midnight movies declined in the Eighties, largely because of the advent of the VCR.

Of course, home video itself would be responsible for turning box office bombs into cult movies. The VCR and later the DVD player could redeem a movie that had failed at the box office, provided its VHS or DVD sales were good enough. And in some cases home video was responsible for turning movie into cult films. Examples of such films which received new life as cult movies on home video are Brazil, Angel Heart, Heathers, and Donnie Darko.

The phenomenon of cult films have existed at least since 1920 when The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari first hit movie screens. I rather suspect that it will exist as long as there are feature films. It is perhaps natural for like minded individuals to flock to the same film again and again. And it is perhaps even more natural if that film is somewhat left of centre. Given this, it can be expected that cult films are pretty much here to stay.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Two Figures in Music Pass On

Two figures in music have recently passed. One was Leonard Rosenman, the film composer who scored many classic films and TV shows. The other was Norman Smith, the engineer on every single Beatles song from their first single into 1965.

Leonard Rosenman died Tuesday at the age of 83 from a heart attack. He was born in Brooklyn on September 7, 1924. He served in the Army Air Corps in the Pacific during World War II. Afterwards he received a bachelor's degree in music from the University of California, Berkeley. He eventually moved to New York with the intent of becoming a concert composer. He made his living teaching piano, numbering among his students the actor James Dean, then acting in the film East of Eden. It was through Dean that Rosenman met the film's director, Elia Kazan. Kazan was so impressed with Rosenman that he hired him to score East of Eden.

Beyond East of Eden, Rosenman would score several films over the years, including Rebel without a Cause, The Fantastic Voyage, A Man Called Horse, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. He also worked extensively in television. He composed music for the series Law of the Plainsman, The Defenders, and Combat, as well as several TV movies.

Although best known as a film composer, Rosenman continued to write concert music throughout his life.

Rosenman was among the most versatile film composers of his generation. He could write traditional film scores, such as the one he wrote for East of Eden. At the same time, however, he could write starkly original material, such as the atonal score for Fantastic Voyage. It is little surprise that Rosenman did win two Oscars one for Bound for Glory and Barry Lyndon.

Norman Smith, also known as "Hurricane Smith" and nicknamed "Norman Normal" by John Lennon, died Tuesday at the age of 85 from cancer. He was the engineer on The Beatles' early recordings and worked with other big names in rock as well.

Smith was born February 22, 1923 and grew up in Edmonton in London. Smith served in the Royal Air Force in World War II. After the war he worked as dance hall musician, even forming the band the Bobby Arnold Quintet. He did not enter the world of recording until 1959, when he took a job as a tape operator at EMI in 1959. Smith worked his way up the ladder at EMI until he was a full fledged engineer. In 1962 he was the engineer on duty when The Beatles came to EMI for their sound test. At that time EMI was very formal and engineers were required to wear suits and ties. It was because this that John Lennon nicknamed him normal. Despite being ribbed by The Beatles over the way he dressed, Smith chose to stay with the group. He was the engineer on every Beatles record until he last worked with them on the album Rubber Soul in 1965.

Following his work with The Beatles, Smith struck out on his own as a producer. He not only scouted a young band called Pink Floyd, but signed them as well. Smith would go onto produce their first two albums, Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Saucerful of Secrets. Smith also produced The Pretty Things' albums S. F. Sorrow (one of the earliest concept albums), Parachute, and Silk Torpedo.

Smith would have a bit of a recording career of his own. Adopting the nom de plume "Hurricane Smith," he had a modest it in the United Kingdom with "Don't Let It Die" in 1971. He followed this with a song that would be a hit on both sides of the Pond in 1972, "Oh Babe What Would You Say." He had some minor success with the follow up singles "My Mother Was Her Name," "Beautiful Day, Beautiful Night," and "To Make You My Baby."

There can be little doubt that Norman Smith played a major role in rock history. As the engineer on The Beatles' early recordings, it was Smith's job to pick out the instruments and the recording techniques, and then to combine everything together into a finished product. Smith went against the current tide in pop music and chose for The Beatles a sound that was more raw than what was usually heard on the radio at that time. And while Pink Floyd may have considered Smith too old fashioned, it seems likely they were wrong. Smith not only did a fine job producing the band's first two albums, but explored psychedelic sound even further with The Pretty Things. If S. F. Sorrow is considered a classic today, it is largely because of Smith's production. Whether as The Beatles' engineer or the producer for Pink Floyd and The Pretty Things, Norman Smith left his mark on rock history.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

D&D Co-Creator Gargy Gygax Passes On

Many of you have probably not heard of Gary Gygax, but I rather suspect you have heard of the game he co-created with Dave Arneson, Dungeons and Dragons. Gary Gygax died Tuesday at the age of 69 He had suffered from an abdominal aneurysm recently.

Gygax was born in Chicago, Illinois on July 27, 1938. Gygax's family moved to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin when he was eight years old. He developed an interest in gaming while still young. He was around 15 years of age when he started playing miniature war games, including the legendary war game Gettysburg from Avalon Hill. It was in 1966 that Gygax, Bill Speer, and Scott Duncan founded the International Federation of Wargamers. It was in the late Sixties that Jeff Perren and Gary Gygax created the medieval miniatures wargame Chainmail. In 1971 they introduced a fantasy supplement for Chainmail, covering the use of fantasy creatures and spells. It was by that time that David Arneson and Gary Gygax began developing what would become Dungeons and Dragons. In 1973 Don Kaye and Gary Gygax founded Tactical Studies Rules, better known as TSR, as a partnership. Brian Blume and, for a short time, David Arneson, would later join the partnership. Initially publishing a board game called Cavaliers and Roundheads, TSR published the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons in 1974.

Although it may not have been the very first role playing game, Dungeons and Dragons was perhaps the fist to be widely available. Quite simply, role playing games are games in which the players create fictional characters, each with their own histories, personalities, and motivations distinct from their own. Another individual, the game master (GM for short), controls the imaginary enviroment in which the player characters exist (anything from a Tolkienesque fantasy world to World War II Europe), from playing non-player characters (NPCs) to creating the settings for adventures. The game master also acts as referee for the game.In many ways they are simply modern, adult variations on the old children's games of "cops and robbers" or "cowboys and Indians."

As one of the earliest role playing games, Dungeons and Dragons took the wargaming world by storm. Other role playing games, such as Game Designer's Workshop's sci-fi game Traveller and Flying Buffalo's Tunnels and Trolls, appeared almost immediately. Don Kaye died from a stroke in 1975, whereupon his widow sold his shares in the partnership to Gygax. Entering financial difficulties, Gygax would later sell shares to Brian and Kevin Blume. By 1977 they would own controlling interest in the company. It was that year that the company introduced Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, which would ultimately prove more successful than the original Dungeons and Dragons. Gygax would also co-create Boot Hill, TSR's popular role playing game set in the Wild West.

With changes in management in the company, Gary Gygax left TSR in 1985. After leaving TSR, Gygax created the game Cyborg Commando, published in 1987. It did not prove successful. He later created the role playing game Dangerous Journeys, published in 1992. Dangerous Journeys was meant to cover several different genres. Unfortunately, the system would not last. Lawsuits from TSR alleging that Dangerous Journeys infringed upon the Dungeons and Dragons trademark, even though the two gaming systems were notably different. In 1995 Gygax started work on yet another new role playing game. Originally meant to be played on a computer, Lejendary Adventure appeared in 1999 as an old fashioned, pen and paper role playing game. Lejendary Adventure is still in print. In 2004 Gary Gygax used the original rules for Dungeons and Dragons and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons as the basis for the role playing game Castles and Crusade.

As co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons, Gary Gygax also appeared as himself on the TV series Code Monkeys and Futurama.

It was in 1981 when my brother returned from college that I was first introduced to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. The next many years would not only see me playing a good deal of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, but other role playing games as well (including Gary Gygax and Brian Blume's Boot Hill). And I think I actually owe a good deal to the role playing games in which I took part. I think role playing games helped energise my imagination, improved my ability to develop plots, and improvedmy ability to develop characters. Quite simply, I think that they made me a better writer. While I don't play role playing games any more, I must admit I owe a good deal to them. And because he co-created the game that started it all, I therefore owe a good deal to Gary Gygax. I must say I am truly saddened by his death.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Thin is NOT In

Anyone who sits down and watches a half hour of American cable television will probably see numerous commercials for diet plans and weight loss products. On the surface, this seems perfectly natural given the ongoing "epidemic" of obesity in the United States. Indeed, according to two different National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, obesity in Americans aged 20 to 74 years increased from 15% around 1976 to 1980 to 32.9% from 2003 to 2004. That having been said, I don't think the growing waistlines of Americans is the only reason for the prevalence of diet plan and weight loss commercials on American television. I think the reason for many of these commercials may be an unhealthy obsession many Americans have developed with being thin.

Indeed, one need only look at the covers of women's magazines to see proof of this. Not only do the women's magazines often feature articles on various diets inside the magazine, but they often feature a dangerously skinny model on the cover. Between the articles on various diets and the ultra-thin models on their covers, these magazines seem to be sending a very direct message--to be skinny is to be beautiful.

I must confess that I have no idea how this all started. I have often heard the blame for this rage for being thin placed at the feet of men, but I honestly do not think that this is true. One need look no further than the magazine rack for proof of this. Compare the average model on the cover of women's magazines to the average Playboy centrefold and one will notice one significant difference--the Playboy centrefold will weigh considerably more than the average model. Indeed, I remember reading several years ago an article in either Time or Newsweek in which teenage girls and boys were asked what they though the ideal weight for a woman who was 5 foot 7 inches tall. The girls generally thought 100 pounds was the ideal weight for a woman of this height. The boys tended to place the ideal weight for a woman this tall at 125 pounds or more (here I must note that the government has determined a healthy weight for a 5 foot 7 woman to be anywhere from 123 pounds for a small frame to 163 pounds for a heavy frame). To me this poll proves two things. First, even then (which may have been as long ago as ten years) young girls had an unhealthy obsession with their weight. Second, boys (and most likely men as well) prefer women with some meat on their bones.

Regardless of how this obsession with being thin began, it seems to me that it must end. Ultimately, it doesn't matter that men prefer Kate Beckinsale to Kate Moss. What is more important is the individual's own health. In 2006 an ultra-skinny model died just as she stepped off a runway in Madrid. The cause was simple malnourishment. And it is well known that Karen Carpenter died as a result of anorexia nervosa. The physical consequences of not eating enough are nearly as serious as eating too much. It can place a strain on the heart and the cardiovascular system which can ultimately result in cardiac arrest. It can also compromise the immune system, making one more vulnerable to disease. Not eating can even result in the early onset of osteoporosis. The simple fact that being too skinny can be a danger to one's health.

I am not about to say that Americans should not be concerned about obesity. Certainly the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys indicate that many Americans are at overweight to an unhealthy degree. That having been said, I think Americans should recognise that being overly thin can be just as dangerous. It is time that Americans should start focusing more on being healthy than what the fashion industry or women's magazines is trying to dictate as being attractive.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Answers to the February Oscars Quiz

For those of you who are curious, here are the answers to the Oscars Quiz I posted on February 23.

1. What was the first film to win Best Picture?
Cimarron at the 1930-1931 Academy Awards. Prior to that the award had been called Best Production. In the very first year of the Oscars there were two awards--"Most Outstanding Production" and "Most Artistic Quality of Production."

2. Who gave Oscar its name?
We don't really know. Bette Davis always claimed she called the award "Oscar" after her first husband, "Harmon Oscar Nelson." Another and, perhaps more likely explanation, is that when employee Margaret Herrick (eventually the Academy's executive director) first saw the award in 1931, she said it reminded her of her Uncle Oscar. Soon the Academy employees began to refer to the Academy AWard as "the Oscar." At any rate, Walt Disney supposedly used the term as early as 1934 in his "Thank you" speech. (note for purpose of scoring, anyone who says "We don't really know," "Bette Davis," or "Maragaret Herrick" will get a point.

3. Who supervised the design of the Oscar statuette?
Cedric Gibbons, then art director at MGM and one of the Academy's founders.

4. Who hosted the most Academy Award Ceremonies?
Bob Hope, who hosted eighteen ceremonies. Billy Crystal comes in a distant second at eight.

5. What actor, director, or producer received the most Oscar nominations in a lifetime?
Walt Disney, with 59 nominations, 26 awards, and the Irving J. Thalberg award.

6. Did Alfred Hitchcock ever win an Oscar?
No, even though he was nominated for Best Director five different times.

7. Who was the youngest person to ever win an Academy Award outside of special awards?
Tatum O'Neal, who won the Best Supporting Actress award for her role in Paper Moon at age 10.

8. In what year were the Oscars first telecast?
1953

9. Name one of the two films nominated in the most categories without winning a single one?
The Turning Point or The Colour Purple.

10 Name one of the three films to win the most Oscars?
Ben Hur, Titanic (the one from 1997), and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King are all tied with eleven wins apiece. Of the three, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King is the only one to sweep, winning every category into which it was nominated.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

"White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane

Recently Jeremy posted a mashup of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" with all too fitting clips from the classic Star Trek on his blog Popped Culture. Since then I have not been able to get the song out of my head. I must confess, it is one of my favourite songs of all time. It is also one of the most interesting songs from the Sixties. Here I must state that while it is one of my favourite songs and its subject matter is obviously drug oriented, I by no means intend to condone drug use through the discussion of this song.

"White Rabbit" was written by Grace Slick either in late 1965 or early 1966. It was first performed by The Great Society, the band of which Slick was a member at the time, in 1966. It was largely on the strength of that song that Jefferson Airplane asked Slick to join them as them. The song was recorded for Jefferson Airplane's debut album Surrealistic Pillow, released in 1967. It was released as their sixth single and was their second hit, following their remake of The Great Society's "Somebody to Love."White Rabbit" went all the way to #8 on Billboard's Hot 100. It would later be covered by everyone from George Benson to The Damned to Patti Smith.

As its title demonstrates, "White Rabbit" is inspired by the works of Lewis Carroll, drawing parallels between Carroll's works and the hallucinatory effects of LSD and similar drugs.According to the official Jefferson Airplane biography of Grace Slick, the song "...was intended as a slap toward parents who read their children stories such as Alice in Wonderland (in which Alice uses several drug-like substances in order to change herself) and then wondered why their children grew up to do drugs." As will be seen below, the song includes incidents from both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass in which Alice ingests various substances. In addition to the White Rabbit, many of the characters from two books are mentioned in the song as well--the caterpillar, the White Knight,the Red Queen, and, of course, Alice. Below I will analyse the lyrics, stanza by stanza.

One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you
Don't do anything at all
Go ask Alice, when she's ten feet tall

The reference to the pill which make you larger and the pill which makes you small is drawn from Chapters One and Two of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, although the allusion is somewhat inaccurate. It was not pills that made Alice change in size. Instead, in Chapter One "Down the Rabbit Hole," Alice ingests a liquid labelled "Drink Me" which causes her to shrink. She then eats a cake labelled "Eat Me," which she discovers in Chapter Two "The Pool of Tears" had made her grow. Of course,the reference to pills is perfectly in keeping with Slick drawing parallels to Lewis Carroll's works and the Sixties drug culture. The lines to "And the ones that mother gives you/Don't do anything at all" would appear to be a reference not to Caroll, but instead to placebos. A placebo is any preparation which has no demonstrable effect on the human body, but has therapeutic benefit merely through the power of suggestion. The Fifties (most notably Henry Knowles Beecher's 1955 study) into the Sixties saw a good number of studies into the "placebo effect."

And if you go chasing rabbits
And you know you're going to fall
Tell 'em a hookah-smoking caterpillar
Has given you the call
Call Alice when she was just small

The first two lines refer to the first chapter of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It is in this chapter that Alice sees the White Rabbit (in waistcoat and carrying a pocket watch, no less) and falls after him down a hole. The hookah-smoking caterpillar first appears in Chapter Four of the same book.and plays the central role in Chapter Five, in which he tries to advise Alice. The final line may be a reference to either Chapter One (in which Alice shrinks) or to Chapter Four (in which she shrinks again).

When the men on the chessboard
Get up and tell you where to go
And you've just had some kind of mushroom
And your mind is moving low
Go ask Alice, I think she'll know

With this stanza "White Rabbit" shifts from allusions to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to allusions from Through the Looking-Glass. The chess pieces make their first appearance in Chapter One of that book.By Chapter Two she has become one of the White Queen's pawns. Throughout the book she receives direction from the various chess pieces. "And you've just had some kind of mushroom" would appear to be a reference to both psilocybin mushrooms (commonly called "magic mushrooms") and an incident in Chapter Five of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Having shrunk once more, Alice eats a mushroom and returns to normal size. This seems curious coming as it does before the line "And your mind is moving low," as eating the mushroom returns Alice to some sense of normality. It could be that "your mind is moving low" is unrelated to the reference to the mushroom, instead referring to the effects of various drugs, as well as to yet other incidents in both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Alice is warned drop down on the ground to avoid a confrontation with the Queen of Heats. At the end of Chapter Eight in Through the Looking-Glass Alice throws herself down upon the lawn, whereupon she discovers she is wearing a golden crown (finally achieving her goal of becoming a queen).

When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the White Knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen's off with her head
Remember what the dormouse said
Feed your head, feed your head

The lines "When logic and proportion/Have fallen sloppy dead" would appear to be a reference to two different things. It is most obviously a reference to psychoactive drugs, which can alter both one's sense of proportion and have an often adverse effect on one's sense of logic. It is also yet another reference to Lewis Carroll. Carroll worked in the genre of literary nonsense, in which language and logic are often stood on their heads. This is particularly true in his works dealing with Alice, in which he often toyed with logic. Of course, the reference to proportion clearly harks back to Alice's often changing size.

Here it must be pointed out that in no point in Through the Looking-Glass does the White Knight actually talks backwards. That having been said, the line could be a reference to Chapter Eight, in which the White Knight rescues Alice from the Red Knight and escorts Alice to her next destination. The White Knight is exceedingly clumsy and keeps falling off his horse. At one point the White Knight falls head first into a ditch. Alice asks him, "How can you go on talking so quietly, head downwards?" The White Knight replies, "What does it matter where my body happens to be? My mind goes on working all the same. In fact, the more head downwards I am, the more I keep inventing new things."

As to the line "the Red Queen's off with her head," this does not appear to be a reference to the Red Queen in Through the Looking-Glass, who at no point offs her own head or anyone else's, but instead to the Queen of Hearts of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. In the book the Queen of Hearts is foul tempered and her most common order is "Off with their heads." She even demands that Alice be beheaded. Of course, the line could have a double meaning. "the Red Queen's off with her head" could indicate she is off thinking. Or, given the song's subject matter, it could indicate she is tripping on some drug.

Here it must be pointed out that the lines "Remember what the dormouse said" and "Feed your head, feed your head" are probably unrelated despite coming one after the other. The Dormouse is one of the attendees of the Mad Hatter's tea party in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. In his first appearance he is being used as cushion by the Hatter and the March Hare. Much of what he says, including a story about three girls who live on treacle, would seem to have much meaning with regards to the song "White Rabbit." The line perhaps then refers to the Mad Hatter's questioning in the trial which unfolds in Chapter Eleven "Who Stole the Tarts," On the witness stand, the Mad Hatter is asked by one of the jury, "But what did the Dormouse say?" The Mad Hatter replies, "That I can't remember." The King of Hearts then threatens to have the Hatter executed if he can't remember. The Mad Hatter only saves himself by stating that he is a very poor man. The line could be a reference to the effects of drugs on memory, or perhaps a warning about such. As to the line "Feed your head, feed your head," given the era when the song was written, and the fact that Grace Slick did use psychoactive drugs at the time, it is perhaps encouraging people to experiment with drugs. Then again, it could also be a warning not to become forgetful as the Mad Hatter was and to keep one's mind active.

One the surface, "White Rabbit" would appear to be a song advocating drug use. Indeed, in making the comparison between Lewis Carroll's works and the effects of psychoactive drugs, it would seem to be encouraging their use. That having been said, I have often thought the song could also be interpreted as discouraging the use of psychoactive drugs, whether Grace Slick meant it as such or not. From the very beginning the song emphasises the mind altering effects of such drugs, "One pill makes you larger/And one pill makes you small." These effects become more extreme as the song proceeds. From growing and shrinking to encounters with white rabbits and hookah-smoking caterpillars, the song moves to chessmen telling one where to go. By the last stanza it would almost seem to be describing a bum trip. Logic and proportion have lost all meaning. The White Knight is talking backwards, perhaps indicating reality has lost all coherence. And worst yet, the Red Queen is apparently demanding decapitations. The growing sense of menace in the song is only amplified by its music, which is a gradually rising crescendo. As the song progresses, the music's volume grows and with it so does this impending sense of things gone awry, particularly when combined with the lyrics. Given that the lyrics seem to grow darker and more menacing with each stanza, as does the music, I would think that in the end the song would in the end cause people to stay as far away from psychoactive drugs as possible!

Here it must be noted that while today it is commonly assumed that Lewis Carroll frequently used psychoactive drugs, and in the drug culture of the Sixties it was practically taken for granted, there is no evidence that he ever did. In fact, in Victorian England psychoactive drugs would not be exceedingly common. I seriously doubt the average Englishman of the time knew of psilocybin mushrooms. LSD would not be invented for around another seventy years. Opium was certainly known at the time. In fact, a common painkiller of the time was laudanum, essentially an alcoholic tincture of opium. Carroll most likely did use laudanum from time to time, Perhaps he even used it for something other than medicinal purposes. But there is no real evidence that he used it frequently or that it influenced his writing. While many assume that the hookah-smoking caterpillar may hint that Carroll smoked marijuana, it must be pointed out that there is no evidence for this. Indeed, most likely the caterpillar was smoking nothing worse than tobacco. While many in the Sixties may have thought they had a kindred spirit in Lewis Carroll, it is very doubtful that he used psychoactive drugs beyond possibly laudanum. And given the era, it seems likely that he might not have even approved of such.

"White Rabbit" would become one of those songs most identified with the Sixties and the drug culture that existed at the time. Its lyrics would provide the title for the 1971 young adult novel Go Ask Alice. It would also be referenced in Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Stephen King's Insominia, It has appeared in the movies Platoon and The Game (where it provides a sense of menace in one of the scenes of psychological harassment upon Michael Douglas's character). The song has been utilised in TV shows ranging from The Simpsons to The Sopranos. There can be little doubt that it was one of the most influential songs of its era.

Here again, I want to stress that in no way is the discussion of this song intended as an endorsement of or condoning of the use of psychoactive drugs.