With the passing of actor Gene Wilder, a few of his bigger hits are receiving repeat mentions… the Mel Brooks ones — Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, The Producers — and, of course, Willy Wonka. The timing of my childhood engagement with cable television (which was new, then, kids) leads me to suggest that the picture isn’t complete without a few lesser known films.
With reference to the movies above (minus The Producers), Richard Lawson writes in Vanity Fair about the “menace” and edginess underlying Wilder’s persona, but I don’t think that quite captures the character. The viewer empathized with Wilder’s apparent lunacy; he was like that crazy friend who would never hurt you... never really hurt anybody deliberately or without cause. Even where, in Start the Revolution Without Me, he escalates his response to a request for his name into a manic parody of the absurdity of pleasantries, given particular circumstances, one never feels a pull toward violence beyond the emotional rage:
He’s the warm, funny radio actor in Haunted Honeymoon whose intensity sparks from the friction of trying to convince himself that the monsters aren’t real:
In other words, there was no menace in him. Not really. Even in the too-intense-for-young-children boat scene in Willy Wonka, the menace isn’t located in Wonka, but in the environment in which such a character would naturally exist.
He won’t poison you, but he lives in a factory of danger, which is, more than anything, a manifestation of the dangers in his own imagination (and ours). In fact, he’s trying to work the risks out of the objects of his imagination so that they’ll be wonders of fun, but he can’t resist telling you what he’s got in mind. In the meantime, he’ll warn you and tell you how to avoid harm with absolute confidence, but he won’t stop you from proving your inability to resist your own nature.
Lawson laments the loss of Wilder’s edge in comedy, and the Wilderesque layers of complexity, with its vaguely disconcerting intensity just below the surface. I think of Mark Judge’s question: “Is Contemporary Liberalism Creating a Soulless Monoculture?“:
Thus in America came the monochromatic washing of a country that once could boast not only crazies like Scientologists and Louis Farrakhan, but creative and unusual icons like Norman Mailer, Georgia O’Keefe, Baptists, Hindus, dry counties, John Courtney Murray, Christian bakers, orthodox Jews, accents, and punk rockers. The eccentric and the oddball, as well as the truly great, are increasingly less able to thrive.
Thus it is more than just sarcasm that leads Ed Driscoll to mark Wilder’s passing with the wry quip, “This year just keeps getting better and better.” More profound than the death of an old man from whom we hadn’t heard in years or decades is that our society may not be able to sustain the likes of Wilder anymore, in large part because it assumes menace in difference. Consider another Wilder role, this one as the fox in The Little Prince:
As a child, I thought this scene simply sad. What strikes me now, as an adult, is that there’s something creepy about the closeness between the fox and the prince in the film, because it isn’t a fox at all, but a grown man talking in ways into which it is very easy to read innuendo in our cynical, oversexualized society. But if we take Wilder’s side as our perspective, we see that what’s sinister isn’t the man, but the world, in this case the world that has taught us to read the innuendos. Maybe you’ll blame him for your unease, but maybe it’s your fault because you’ve let yourself learn to assume menace in men.
Perhaps the book version of The Little Prince anticipated this problem, with a message that I’d never quite pieced together before, disregarding it as translated poetry. For the fox, men bring the menace of the hunt; on the other hand, they bring chickens to hunt. But the fox has found that the chases become monotonous, because impersonal. So, he asks the prince to tame him. That way, there will be one “sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow.” With that personal connection, his life will be rich. The wheat fields that currently “have nothing to say to me” will begin to speak with the wind memories of the prince.
In comparison, the monoculture and the drive to perfect society are more like taming into the impersonal, because the perfected society cannot allow closeness if there’s a risk of innuendo. It cannot allow for puzzling characters. No more intense complexity. No more Wilders.