Posts Tagged ‘Gene Wilder’

Democracy

Monday, March 5th, 2018

headland sky by Ian of Zo

Headlands and Sky photo by Ian of Zo

“Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself.” Conan Doyle

In 1972 I was living in a twelve-person commune in Santa Cruz, part of the commune movement that sprung up spontaneously across America as the housing component of the cultural revolution known as the Sixties. And from 1968 to 1975, I was very excited to be part of that housing component and hopeful about the positive social, political, and cultural impact that widespread communal living could have on American society.

The first commune I lived in was an eight-person affair I started with a friend. I left after a year of frustration because my fellow communards were extremely reluctant to subsume their individual needs, even a little, for the betterment of the collective. We gave lip service to that idea, but aside from shared meals, it was largely every man or woman for him or her self.

So I was excited to join a commune with much more collectivity built into an operating system that quite effectively served twelve members and our many guests. I planted a huge vegetable garden and organized the eager volunteer gardeners, we shopped and cooked and cleaned collectively, and the entire group met once a week to discuss practical and emotional problems.

I felt there were a few duds in the dozen, but overall the communal living experience was economical, ecological, healthy, and emotionally satisfying. Four heterosexual couples and four singles, two straight, two gay, composed our twelve, and my only secret complaint was that most of my fellow communards were not particularly creative.

After a year and a half in that commune, my girlfriend and I were on the verge of breaking up, and our dyadic divide coincided with two members of the commune moving out, thus creating two vacancies to be filled through our well-established selection process. Our commune was famously successful in Santa Cruz, we were right on the beach, and we had dozens of people applying for those two spots on the roster.

Eventually we winnowed the applicant pool down to four finalists, three men and one woman. One of the men was Ted, twenty-five, boyishly handsome, charming, a fine musician and actor, a graduate student at the university, and one of the most brilliant, funny, interesting people I’d ever met. The other two men were boorish stoners and I was baffled every time either of them made the next cut. The woman, Tina, was twenty-four, a zealous gardener, poet, yogini, dancer, professional cook, and bright and funny.

I assumed we would immediately and unanimously elect Ted and Tina, and I was so excited about them joining the collective that I kicked off our final group discussion before we voted by extolling their many virtues and speaking of Ted wanting to host a Drama night and Tina wanting to help me expand the garden and lead a daily yoga session.

To my horror, only one of the five women in our commune voted for Tina, and only one other man joined me in voting for Ted. All the women voted for Ted, and all the men voted for Tina, but since eight votes were required to win a place in the commune, Ted and Tina were not invited to join, while the two boorish stoners got the nod. Two weeks later, I broke up with my girlfriend and moved out of town.

But before I moved away, I spoke privately to each of the men who voted against Ted, and I spoke privately to each of the women who voted against Tina; and I asked them why they voted against such wonderful people and for such boorish dopes?

Three of the women admitted to being threatened by Tina’s charm and talent, and especially by how much the men liked her. One of the women said she felt Tina was too good to be true and didn’t trust her. One of the men said Ted was “hyper”, another of the men said Ted was “too intellectual”, and the third male dissenter said he was intimidated by Ted’s talent and by his girlfriend’s attraction to Ted.

Thinking about that turning point in my life—I might have written a hit song with Ted and married Tina and had three kids and moved to Denmark—I am reminded of when George W. Bush was running against Al Gore. In a large national poll conducted a month before the election, seven out of ten American men said they would rather have a beer and hang out with George than with Al, and in that election 75% of all male voters, Democrats and Republicans, voted for George, and 75% of all female voters voted for Al.

And that reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from the movie Blazing Saddles when Gene Wilder is explaining to Cleavon Little why the townsfolk won’t accept an African American as their sheriff.

“What did you expect?” says Gene to Cleavon. “A welcome sign? Make yourself at home? Marry my daughter? You’ve got to remember these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know…morons.”

And that reminds me of a recent and shocking study conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center that found only 8% of high school seniors across America today identify slavery as the main cause of the Civil War, while 57% say tax protests caused the Civil War. How can this be? And isn’t it interesting that this phenomenon exists throughout the United States, not in isolated areas of the former Confederacy.

I am often chided by friends for being a conspiracy theorist, so I will not elucidate my theory about how and why one of the most important historical facts in American history is not properly taught in our schools. I will say that this monstrous educational lapse cannot, in my opinion, be accidental. Who would be best served by misleading entire generations of Americans about the cause of the Civil War?

And that reminds me of when I watched Jimmy Carter debate Ronald Reagan prior to the 1980 Presidential election, the last Presidential debate I ever watched. I howled with delight as Jimmy made a fool of Ronald at every turn in the debate, and I danced out of my house overjoyed that Jimmy would soon be re-elected, only to read the next day that multiple polls revealed well over 90% of Americans, Republicans and Democrats, felt Ronald easily won the debate.

Which is why, conspiracy theories aside, it didn’t surprise me even a little bit when Donald Trump was elected President of these United States.

Gene and Grandma

Monday, September 12th, 2016

andmischief

Mischief painting by Todd

“My blanket. My blue blanket. Gimme my blue blanket!” Gene Wilder’s line from The Producers

Gene Wilder died in August. He was eighty-three. Thinking about him took me back to the first time I saw the movie Young Frankenstein on the big screen in San Francisco in 1974. And I remember feeling as I watched the film that I was witnessing one of those extremely rare creations, a work of art that would never grow old and never be successfully imitated—the result of the unique chemistry of six superlative actors and a brilliant director, none of them duplicable: Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Terry Garr, Peter Boyle, Madeline Kahn, and Mel Brooks.

To my surprise and dismay, many people did not agree with my assessment of Young Frankenstein. Indeed, the three people I attended the movie with enjoyed the film, but thought it silly and forgettable. I saw the movie three more times during the initial release and found everything about the film more inspiring with each viewing. Indeed, I was so inspired by Young Frankenstein, I wrote two screenplays and two plays imagining Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn in leading roles.

Alas I was never able to get my creations to Gene or Madeline, but even now, four decades later, I still imagine them playing parts in my stories and novels and plays. As the neurobiologists say, I resonated profoundly with Gene Wilder. I enjoyed him in later films, but never again loved him as much as I did in Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and The Producers, all directed by Mel Brooks.

In 2007 I attended a party in Berkeley rife with college professors, and in the heat of talking about movies, and perhaps having had a wee bit too much to drink, I suggested that Young Frankenstein, which I had recently seen again for the tenth time, was as magnificent and timeless as Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

I was immediately set upon by a pack of indignant academics, one of them saying, “How can you compare a goofy spoof of a horror movie to one of the greatest plays ever written?” And I replied, “Many of Shakespeare’s plays, including The Taming of the Shrew, were variations on previously produced plays written by other writers. Romeo and Juliet is based on a classic Italian short story. Hamlet was Shakespeare’s takeoff on a popular play from Europe. Young Frankenstein is two hours of flawless and wholly original genius.”

“But Shakespeare’s writing,” said another of the professors, wringing her hands. “The poetry of his lines. His astonishing wit. How can you compare Young Frankenstein to that?”

To which I replied, “Where in Shakespeare is there wit to compare to Gene Wilder saying to Marty Feldman, ‘Are you telling me I just put an abnormal brain in the body of a seven-and-a-half-foot-tall…gorilla!?’ Or Gene saying to Marty, ‘You know, Igor, I’m an excellent surgeon. I could help you with that hump.’ And Marty replying, ‘Hump? What hump?’”

My other favorite Gene Wilder performance is as the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles. Never before or since has a movie of such supreme silliness featured a scene so long and slow-developing and entirely convincing as when Gene explains to Cleavon Little why he gave up gun-slinging and became an alcoholic.

I think what made Gene Wilder such a unique star was that he was one of those rare male actors who was neither a macho tough guy nor a one-trick pretty boy. He was thoughtful, funny, emotional, intelligent, moody, rebellious, graceful, constantly surprising, and he thoroughly inhabited the character he was playing. I have known several men and a few women who felt Gene was effeminate and possibly gay, and I could only pity them for having so little appreciation of nuance and subtlety and originality.

Sadly, like so many of America’s best actors and actresses, Gene Wilder was only in a handful of movies worthy of his talent—Hollywood the great debaser of genius. Thankfully, Gene made Willie Wonka and those three fabulous movies with Mel Brooks, so we can rejoice in that.

“Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.” Francis Bacon

Speaking of good movies and great actors, Marcia and I recently watched and deeply appreciated Grandma, written and directed by Paul Weitz and starring Lily Tomlin. The trailers for the movie emphasize the comedic aspects of the film and give no hint of what a thought-provoking gem this movie is.

Tomlin’s performance as an aging cantankerous lesbian academic, once an impassioned poet, is so consistent and truthful, what might have been a drab pseudo-comedy becomes a profound character study and a potent examination of what it is to be a formerly revered artist, a product of the wildly creative 1960s and 70s, growing old in America today—the intellectual vapidity of nearly everything in our post modern culture a source of vexation and dismay.

Grandma is a movie that would surely have devolved into tired cliché in the hands of a less talented writer/director working with less talented actors, but that never happens. Lily Tomlin’s relentless cynicism might have implausibly vanished now and then in service to formulaic sappy moments and a forced happy ending, but she remains true to her character to the last frame of the film. Her fellow actors are also unwaveringly consistent, and the director is impeccably dedicated to his vision of a single day in a woman’s life recapitulating her entire life.

In this way, Grandma reminded me of Young Frankenstein, both films far greater than the sums of their parts, neither creation impeded by notions of idiot studio executives aiming to make the movies more marketable and palatable to audiences disinterested in the emotional intricacies of what it is to be a human being. Both films are ensemble pieces, and both films are especial delights.

Todd’s new novel Magenta is now available at UnderTheTableBooks.com

Life & Death

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

Rose for Life & Death

Autumn Rose photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2013)

“All men’s misfortune, and the appalling disasters of history, the blunders of statesmen and the errors of great generals, come from the inability to dance.” Jean Molière

Marcia and I had breakfast on Wednesday morning at Ravens’, the wholly vegan restaurant at the Stanford Inn, our meal courtesy of a gift certificate Marcia received for officiating at a wedding. I especially enjoyed the coffee and orange juice and the view of Big River Beach. We were celebrating Obama’s decision not to bomb Syria just yet, and I wore my new salmon-colored shirt Marcia bought for a mere four dollars at a thrift shop in Santa Rosa. Having recently exchanged our life savings for a house on land suitable for growing vegetables and fruit, we rarely dine out on our own dimes these days, so the experience of eating at the Stanford Inn, an establishment catering to wealthy people who like to travel with their pets, felt decadent and strangely fun.

After breakfast we drove into the village of Mendocino to get our mail and take advantage of the 10%-off-everything sale at Harvest Market, and in the beer section we ran into a friend who informed us that Antonia Lamb had just died. We finished our shopping in stunned silence and drove home feeling discombobulated and saddened by this unexpected loss.

I saw Antonia several times in the last month as I walked to and from the village on Little Lake Road and we waved to each other as she zoomed by in her station wagon. The last time I had a conversation with Antonia was in the post office a couple months ago, the post office being where the majority of my meetings with her took place over the last six years, which is how long I knew her. I asked how she was doing and she said, “I’m very sad. My best buddy John (Chamberlain) just died and everything feels…” She shrugged and fought her tears.

“I’m sorry,” I said, embracing her.

After our hug, she told me all about her new CD and asked what I was up to musically these days. I said I was working on my fourth piano-centric album, and then I shrugged and said, “Though I sometimes wonder why I bother.”

“You bother because you’re an artist,” she said in her forthright way. “That’s what artists do. We make art. That’s our job. Don’t worry about why, just do what you were born to do.”

“To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.” Samuel Beckett

As antidote to the sorrows of the world, we recently watched Blazing Saddles, found in the DVD section of our tiny village library. I first saw that zany film in 1974 at the Fine Arts theatre in Palo Alto when my brother was the manager of that comfy popcorn palace. Blazing Saddles was on a double bill with another Mel Brooks film The Producers, and I laughed my butt off and fell in love with Madeline Kahn.

For being such a silly movie, Blazing Saddles was and still is an irreverent, daring, and surprisingly frank portrayal of American racism, sexism, thoughtless violence, and endemic government corruption. Gene Wilder as the Waco Kid, the only non-racist white person in the mythical town of Rockridge, is brilliant as an urbane drunk who befriends Bart, the black sheriff, played by the charming Cleavon Little, their friendship a model of non-racism in a viciously racist society. Movie lore has it that Wilder only agreed to play the part of the Waco Kid after Brooks promised Wilder that their next film would be Young Frankenstein, their crowning achievement as collaborators, in my opinion, another movie about friendship that transcends spoof and slapstick and rises into the realm of sublime revelation.

“An actor is totally vulnerable. His total personality is exposed to critical judgment—his intellect, his bearing, his diction, his whole appearance. In short, his ego.” Alec Guinness

Speaking of ego, I recently made an appearance at Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino to tout the new edition of my long out-of-print novel Inside Moves, and I’m happy to report we had a good turnout with several attendees announcing they were readers of the Anderson Valley Advertiser. Mazel tov! Despite my usual pre-performance anxiety, I enjoyed the evening, my first public appearance in some years, and I especially enjoyed the questions the audience asked after I shared a few of my adventures in publishing and read the first chapter of Inside Moves.

Two of my favorite questions were, “Do you ever incorporate your dreams into your fiction?” and “Why don’t you do a one-man show at MTC? (Mendocino Theater Company).”

My answer to the first question was that I do sometimes incorporate my dreams into my fiction, and to the second question I replied, “I did give a reading some years ago at MTC, and counting my wife, four people came to the show, so I have not been asked or inclined to perform there again.”

“I delight in all manifestations of the terpsichorean muse.” John Cleese

In the midst of writing this piece, I got a phone call from Kathy Mooney and she shared a beautiful poem she had just written in honor of Antonia Lamb. With Kathy’s permission, I present the beginning of her poem for Antonia.

Up on her toes

she goes

strumming to the

stars—she brought

them back down

for us, in wisdom,

myth, mirth and whimsy

Singing

she bared her heart—for us

who knew the Mendocino

she was missing—

and now, oh yes,

we miss you

“The theater is the most beautiful place on earth.” Anne Bancroft

My niece Olivia just graduated from the University of Oregon where she starred in several plays, and now she is on the verge of moving to Los Angeles to see if she can make it big in the movie and television business. Heaven help her. She is young, beautiful, photogenic, talented, funny, smart and ambitious, and she will be competing with tens of thousands of other young, beautiful, photogenic, talented, funny, smart, ambitious young women trying to make it big in show business.

I have no advice for her other than to watch her ass, literally and figuratively, nor can I open any doors for her. However, I will make a habit of imagining her auditioning for a part in an independent film and catching the eye of a latter day Mel Brooks who recognizes in her the comic genius of a latter day Madeline Kahn. I will imagine Olivia getting a juicy part and giving a remarkable performance that makes her the darling of great directors of stage and screen. I believe this will help Olivia, my imagining her becoming a big success because of her talent and originality, and not because she somehow manages to hook up with well-connected sleaze bags. And even if she doesn’t make it big in show business and does something else entirely with her one precious life, I still think it will help her if I visualize her winning the day with her unique talent. And if that sounds like hackneyed spiritual crap to you, so be it.

“We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” Henry James

So the last thing Antonia said to me was, “Don’t worry about why, just do what you were born to do.”

Which infers that we know what we were born to do, and I think by born to do she meant something beyond staying warm and dry and getting enough to eat. But how do we know what we were born to do? Or maybe a better question would be: how do we go about discovering what we were born to do? And the answer is: we go on a quest, otherwise known as living our life. We keep our eyes and ears and hearts open in anticipation of seeing and hearing and feeling things that will guide us on our way to discovering our life’s purpose, which might ultimately be many purposes, though underlying and connecting those multiple purposes is our desire to be of service to others, to share our passions, to give, to connect, to love and be loved—or something along those lines.

Copies of Inside Moves signed by the author are available at Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino.