Last night I met Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka–I guess revisited him for the first time since becoming an “adult.”  What a sad, strange man.  I suppose that’s the whole point.  But it was truly refreshing to see the movie again after more recently seeing the Johnny Depp/Tim Burton version in the the theaters.  Although the new version was fine and entertaining–and it was a nod to the genius of Roald Dahl that his book finally had a movie treatment that followed it more closely, which was his preference–but I didn’t love the movie.  There was no “pure imagination” moment for me–no moment of transcendent bliss as the elevator breaks through the glass ceiling.

What was interesting about this viewing is how well the movie spoke to me now as an adult.  There were certain grating moments (like every time one of the parents of the four naughty children opened their mouths) but the subtleties of the movie were also more apparent.  For instance, take the low card that is the first big musical number, “The Candy Man Can:”

I had heard this song and some parodies  many times since seeing the movie, but I didn’t really remember the actual number from the film.   That’s why it was surprising to see the slouchy Aubrey Wood version–all lurching  and smiling with his mouth (but not his eyes!).  What I expected was something much more raz-a-taz with kids tap-dancing with the candy shop owner on the counter.  Instead we have a tired, middle-aged man willing excitement after a lifetime of hard work.  It’s all so workman-like, but catchy.

The other great treat was Gene Wilder’s performance of “Pure Imagination” (follow link):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZ-uV72pQKI

To hear this song out the scene from the movie might mean missing the layers buried beneath the schmaltz.  From the moment he begins to sing, Wilder’s Wonka stares ahead vacantly with virtually no interaction with the other characters, who demonstrate a range of emotions while experiencing the chocolate room for the first time.  The characters are initially awed by room (matching the viewers own reaction) but immediately begin to excitedly interact with the space. One could say Wonka has entered his own internal world of pure imagination–one that is freeing because it does not involve connecting with other people.  In fact, Wonka’s detachment is quite startling when juxtaposed against the rabid consumption of the others in the room, who are in fact devouring the products of Wonka’s imagination and, one could say, Wonka’s very self.

Yet, Wonka’s authority over the space is reaffirmed visually in a few key moments.  For instance he is seen “solving” the problems others have within the room–he helps both Violet and Mike TeaVee access the candy they are struggling to obtain.  He also controls the space for the viewer by surprising us with his interaction with objects: picking up a mushroom and using it as an umbrella and then pulling a tea cup from a plant to drink from and eventually eat it.  Here Wonka has authority over us because he has knowledge about the objects in the room and seems to effortlessly command them in a way that we could not do.

The mushroom umbrella and tea cup are also important because they signify a certain level of refinement, which is especially ironic giving the varying degrees of feeding-freezy taking place all around Wonka–Veruca Salt’s violent destruction of a giant ball and then her gobbling up of its innards is an especially jarring, somewhat animal-like, contrast to the neatness of her outfit.

Then there’s the whole stroking of and ripping out of Mike TeaVee’s hair.  It would be interesting to pick apart, but it’s late so let’s enjoy the strangeness for the sake of strangeness.

It is also worth noting that after all that analysis of the scene, I still love “Pure Imagination” the song for its unbridled schmaltz.  It’s this and the original theme song to Reading Rainbow and Muppet Babies and I’m in a happy space for a long, long time.  Join me:

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