Sunday, September 18, 2016

In Praise Of Eccentricity, And Of An Eccentric Named Gene Wilder

I was sad when I learned of the death of Gene Wilder, of course, as was my wife.  For each of us, he was the star or co-star of a movie that had a major impact on us as children.  For her, it was his performance as Willy Wonka in the original (for some of us, the only) "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory."  For me, it was his performance as Leo Bloom, the nebbishy accountant convinced by Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) to become a partner in crime in "The Producers."  They were very different films, of course, and vastly different characters.  But Wilder's performances in each were very recognizably his.

Wilder had a way of seducing you into identifying whatever character he was playing, through a very special combination of manic behavior and utterly sincere personal warmth.  Even more amazingly, he knew how to balance those qualities in a way that you bought the idea that they could comfortably co-exist in a single performance, as well as bring the character to life in a way that unmistakably belonged to him.  And he did this again and again in films, for decades to follow.  You can read all about it here, along with a tribute from his frequent collaborator, Mel Brooks.

We still have, and always will have, his film work, so that our children and grandchild can still appreciate how special he was and always will be.  But I find myself wondering whether, in a world that increasingly rejects any sort of true creative originality, there is room for the next Gene Wilder to emerge--assuming in the first instance, of course, that such a miracle is out there somewhere.

The financial structure of our culture mirrors the structure of everything else in our country, and around the world.  We have a one-percent world of movie and TV studios, theaters, museums, galleries, concert halls, recording companies and so on owned by individuals who expect geometrically-increasing profits, year and and year out.  And to get those profits, they increasing turn to the tried-and-true--to remakes, re-issues, revisicals, reruns, and other forms of retro entertainment.

In such a world, it is harder and harder for newcomers to get the kind of break that would make a difference in their lives--to say nothing of ours.  Ah, but there's the Internet, you say?  Yes, the Internet--the electronic land where anyone can be a producer or a publisher, but very few know how to be a distributor.  Except, of course, for the one-percenters who have learned how to bend the Internet for their purposes, and dominate it at the expense of all the strivers.  And so, we are back to square one with our basic dilemma:  the slow death of cultural creativity.

I hope that we can somehow find a way to ultimately get beyond square one, to give all of the new eccentrics, the Gene Wilders who are yet to be, their chance to bring to life something we could not have imagined for ourselves, but that we will embrace as something that will feel indispensible as soon as it becomes part of our experience.  We can't afford to have a culture of Xeroxes, something that will wear down our hearts, minds and souls to nothing.  If our thoughts, feelings and perceptions aren't being constantly challenged, we lose our own individuality, and ultimately our ability in a democracy to govern ourselves.

It's not quite that bad yet.  I pray that it never will get there.  But we need to find a way to give the 99% of voices without a meaningful platform a way to speak.  We need to give the new eccentrics a chance to dazzle, inform and inspire us with their eccentricity.  I can think of no greater tribute to Gene Wilder than finding a way to do that.

In the meantime, rest in peace, Gene.  Good day, sir!

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