Monday, August 29, 2016


Back in elementary school there was Family Movie Night, sometimes at the local high school and sometimes further away.  We saw Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) in North Vancouver, at a school whose name I don't recall.  I was alternately moved and terrified by the film, which I have always resisted rewatching because it had such a powerful effect on six- or seven-year-old me, & which introduced me to the peculiar comic genius of Mr. Gene Wilder, who struck me as someone I would like to be when I was older: a person in charge of an amazing thing that was an outgrowth of his oversize personality, but also someone who had successfully resisted 100% identification with that thing; someone who was still outside of it enough to be amazed by it & his own good luck at finding (or making) a place for himself in the world.

(& the gentleness, which by all accounts was non-acting, but simply imported into the chosen roles from somewhere deep inside, visible here in the glint of the eyes and the smile's curve)

I played Willy Wonka in an elementary school theatrical version of the film script -- or actually half of Willy Wonka; I split the role with Brian.  Brian played an assertive & in-charge Willy.  I played Willy as me playing Gene Wilder playing Willy, which might have been too meta- for an audience of sixth- or seventh- graders and their parents, but I memorized the lines (not easily), didn't fuck my performance up too badly, & even got some applause from out beyond the lights.

Later L. took me to the movies in Los Angeles, where we saw Blazing Saddles, and I discovered that Gene Wilder was not a one-hit wonder.  The film's coda, with everyone running loose in the street, moved me just as much as Wilder's Willy Wonka had as a kid, even though that final scene may be all Mel Brooks and not Gene Wilder at all.  But its openness, its freedom, feels very much like the sensation I get every time I see Gene Wilder's smile, of something unlocking deep inside.

"Universal artist," says the Wilder family's statement in passing, which feels right.

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