My whole life, I’ve loved movies.
I’ve been obsessed. I’ve liked them more than reality, most of the time. They’ve always seemed like the ultimate marriage of art – writing, photography, imagery, performance, music. I don’t know if I’d be that way if it wasn’t for what I started off with.
The earliest memories I have in my life blend together, and I can’t tell you which came first, but they go like this: I’m sitting in the living room of the house I lived in as a young kid, and I’m close to the TV set, and it’s big, bigger than me, and on its glass screen I’m watching a girl click her heels together to go home, and I’m watching a glass elevator burst through a rooftop, flying through the ceiling.
Seeing The Wizard of Oz and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory as a kid showed me things I wasn’t going to see in real life for years – beautiful, swirling, gorgeous imagery, fantasies that blended into reality, perfection and wonderful, full-color life that defeated the drab, dark, dingy worlds around them. They made me believe in magic. The blended together in that way that only the earliest, foggy childhood memories do, but they’re there still. Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka was enchanting to me. He was magic. He was life. He was the opposite image I had of every adult I had ever met. He was, quite simply, perfect. He was commanding; he was sweet. He was mysterious; he was warm. He was lovely.
All my memories go from there. I can chart my whole life in film, and on that chart, that’s where life really began – being a little kid, barely able to register reality around me, but registering the reality those two movies made, and I don’t know if my life would have ever really started in such a way if I’d not seen him pretend to be feeble, and pretend to fall, and then suddenly and majestically rolled with absolute grace.
I’d go on to love him in all the things everyone else ever did – anything with Mel Brooks was like heroin to me as a kid, and even though none of the jokes made sense to me, Young Frankenstein was an early favorite. Blazing Saddles was the kind of film they could never make at any other point in time. He was a beam of bright memory for my young mind to latch onto during the insanity of Bonnie and Clyde. I always loved seeing that man on the screen, and even though I didn’t know the guy, and even though there’s nothing that special about my memories, memories that millions of countless others have, hearing that Gene Wilder is gone – that man who I will always, always see in my head as that magical, frightening and unbelievably delightful agent of imagination and wonder – it hits.
I wasn’t old enough to ever be hit by the passing of Judy Garland. But in my weird, toddler memory full of VHS tapes and phantom lines across the screen, she and he are bound together permanently. None of this really matters, but it matters a lot to me. I’m not one for the afterlife, but if Willy Wonka taught me anything as a child, it’s that imagination is just as powerful as reality if all you do is believe, and in my imagination, those two are together, guiding one another through the land of Oz and that chocolate factory, singing and dancing, giving hope to a little kid who watches it happening, and making him believe in art and magic in a way that nothing else in his life would for years to come.