Remembering Gene Wilder

My mind has formed a habit of going back to that place where you just want to know what someone is up to, how life is treating him or her. While Gene Wilder has been absent from the big screen for quite some time now, he was one of those actors fitting the bill of interest and concern. His passing a couple of days ago was triggered by Alzheimer’s, which Wilder was suffering of. I say triggered rather than caused because at 83, it’s mostly time that causes someone’s demise. And while I dislike the idea of writing obituaries and plastering the deaths of countless artists to improve IMdB’s…erm, sorry, my click through rate, I reckon I’m insignificant enough to just write whatever I want and not injure my/ most people’s sensibilities. So here goes, a bit about Gene Wilder and why he mattered to me.

As recently as a couple of months ago, I saw him in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Yes, I know, shame on me for only watching it now. I wasn’t even aware that the movie was Wilder’s first major motion picture, but as soon as he popped up, I saw before me the quintessential Wilder character, the naive, endearing fool:

The same year saw him appear in what I would argue to be one of the most sublime comedies ever made. Sure, it’s Mel Brooks, so the humour tends to be sledgehammery, but, as the subsequent remake highlighted (even if in a musical transposition), comedic perfection resides in the execution delivered by Wilder and Zero Mostel. The former, under the guise of clueless accountant Leo Bloom, gets caught in the fiscal schemes of the latter, playing the bombastic theatre/musical producer Max Bialystock – point and counter-point, in a two man show complemented by the talents of Kenneth Mars and Dick Shawn.

The Producers wasn’t a great commercial success upon release and even today it is considerably less popular than the three major movies Wilder did within the next decade. The first and arguably the picture he is best known for was  Willy Wonka and & the Chocolate Factory (1971). It’s a very different take to the recent remake starring Johnny Depp and it’s also darker in tone. Wonka isn’t just another eccentric Depp/Burton persona in the original, he is imbued by Wilder’s warmth and candor, in a way the only normal person alongside Charlie in a crowd of mad and overindulgent parents-children combos. And then there’s the song.

1974 introduced a couple of Wilder-Brooks collaborations, widely seen as the crowning jewels of both their careers. The first, Blazing Saddles, is a western parody I honestly remember nothing about. I didn’t much enjoy it in a laugh out loud way, although it sure is witty and biting in taking apart the usual tropes of westerns. The second, however, ranks close to The Producers, with Wilder producing a more deadpan performance in The Young Frankenstein. The movie is a continuous stream of mostly brilliant one liners, speeches and puns, rendered by equally brilliant actors.

Few to none of his later projects are considered (as) accomplished – although I did hear some good things about his collaboration(s) with Richard Pryor. Then again, many actors don’t have more than a couple of pictures to showcase at a level as high as Wilder’s four cornerstone movies. I don’t know if my preference of The Producers says anything in particular about my appreciation of Gene Wilder, seeing how that is the one film in which he appears alongside an equally excellent lead. Fortunately, his performances have enough depth to stand apart from one another and what is really special is that they have a universal appeal – even if they are particularly relevant to the American mainstream of the era. And now that I think of it, there’s a good chance his most famous work is not even his own.

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So, then, here’s more about the man. I was vaguely aware that Wilder had some unfortunate cancer connection, having been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1999, which was ruled in remission by the mid 2000s.  But his first brush with the disease occurred in the late eighties, when his second wife, Gilda Radner, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Even having this half-knowledge only came about because Wilder took up a proactive role in improving awareness of the disease. He details some of this in a poignant letter written after the passing of his wife, which encapsulates how unlikely and overwhelming such an ordeal can be. The admittance of how ill prepared he was to handle the situation is a powerful statement to his and our humanity.

Gilda compared the effect of their relationship on her life to going from black-white to Technicolor. That’s not far off from what Gene Wilder did to modern comedy on screen with his endearingly anxious characters. And if not to comedy as a whole, then at least to my sorry ass perception of it, because there are few to no actors whose characters I relate to so easily and can still laugh about it. Being me is serious business, of course.

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Moartea domnului Lazarescu (2005): A Hellish Ride

God, I know it’s a terrible thing to say, but I really loved Moartea domnului Lazarescu (The Death of Mister Lazarescu). It was such an accomplished transition for Cristi Puiu, from his earlier works like the 2001 movie Marfa si banii (with the unappealing English title: Stuff and Dough) or his slice of life short Un cartus de Kent si un pahar de cafea (Coffee and Cigarettes). And while I have yet to see this year’s promising Sierranevada, Lazarescu is, to me, the perfect career highlight for Puiu, before he became overindulgent with the time-sprawling nature of his work.

moartea dl lazarescu

So, Mr. Lazarescu: nearing 63, lives alone with his three cats, underwent surgery due to ulcer, has a sister still living in Romania and a daughter who left (it seems) unannounced and moved to Canada. This is the man: old, alone and ill. A terrible fate.

Puiu’s movie, inspired by true events (some years ago, a man was transported from one hospital to the other with a most tragic consequence) follows its protagonist through the final stages of his life: feeling ill, Lazarescu calls for an ambulance and awaits its (delayed) arrival drinking and making telephone calls. As the hands of the clock turn and the ambulance is nowhere to be heard or seen, the old man goes next door, trying to get some help from the neighbors: a stereotype of their kind. Once the ambulance finally arrives, Lazarescu embarks on a most dreadful road trip, from hospital to hospital, in an elaborate attempt to diagnose and operate him. The story begins.

It would be unfair not to acknowledge the film’s authenticity from the outset. Truly segmented – as the director himself affirmed, regarding “Lazarescu” as the first in six stories about the Romanian capital – in several (short) “stories of Bucharest”, we meet most intriguing characters and situations, each of them highly rewarding on different levels. Good doctors, bad doctors, grumpy doctors, snobbish doctors, pitiful doctors – all the guys and girls our great medical system can offer. Still, some continue to resemble human beings, which – to a certain degree – is quite an achievement.

The bad light Puiu sheds on them may be diminished by the fact that the night Lazarescu chose to fall ill was most unfortunate: a terrible car accident filled most of the hospitals so that it was extremely difficult to find a place for an old, drunk man who was automatically labeled as a drinker and treated as such. Few characters in the film show authentic sympathy for Lazarescu, as most of them just want to get on with the job and do themselves a greater good. There is no such concept of readiness to help a fellow man struggling between life and death: commodity reigns. Unlike Lazarus, our main character will most probably not rise from the dead. And the people who still stand and didn’t give their everything are up to their throats in guilt.

But this is the terrible, depressing half of the story. A most regretful reality. Cristi Puiu’s and Razvan Radulescu’s (a bit overlong) script is at times filled with moments of sheer irony, sarcasm and cynicism, all worth their laughs. Some of these moments are brilliant. Lazarescu is witty and gutsy, as long as he can talk. He is a man who – despite what others think – wants to stand up for himself and would rather not let anyone treat him like scum. Sadly, though, all is part of a gigantic vicious circle: doctors remain people and patients are not at all different. Flawed. Yet, there is a question of humanity and dignity involved. A choice between what is right and what is easy, as the saying goes – and my favourite Romanian new wave film.

*****

Originally published on imdb.

Cinema, mon amour (2015): Or Existential Limbo

As a topic for contemplation, the decay and dissolution of the Romanian landscape of movie theaters runs deep. Once a sort of burgeoning socialist arrangement for communist propaganda, less than ten percent of the theaters functional before the 1989 Revolution are still in use today. I wrote about this a while back, in my timely reflections on our local “retro” cinema, Timis. In larger cities, these have been replaced by multiplexes, a convenient mixture of commercialism and, often, more commercialism. These are, at least, solid venues to go to and enjoy a movie every now and again.

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Cinema, mon amour is an ode to times gone by, relating to multiplexes like an art-house picture to a blockbuster. It tells the tale of Cinema Dacia and its manager, Victor Purice, a seemingly passionate and expansive individual. With limited support from the owners of past state-run cinemas, Romania Film, he, alongside the staff of two (maybe three) of the cinema, do their best to keep the movies running in Piatra Neamt. The documentary doesn’t so much build a story arc, as it tries to be an exploration of need and improvisation. As such, we mostly follow Purice around in his day to day duties and musings, in somewhat too fervent of an admiration for the man to feel at ease. But the fact remains that Dacia is an exception rather than the rule, to some degree due to the personal efforts of Mr. Purice.

There are fascinating moments throughout Cinema, mon amour – usually details, more than overt exposition elements. For example, the staff of the cinema takes a lunch break at one point and you see them use movie posters as table cloth. Or as Mr. Purice is explaining one thing or another inside the projection room, the walls are filled not only with traditional posters (Speed seems to have been particularly popular), but also with playboy-esque centrefolds. Moreover, the level of improvisation required to keep the location running is equally fascinating and disturbing. It’s a matter of folklore that Romanians are great at “making whip out of crap”, but Cinema, mon amour really captures the essence of it as Mr. Purice creates a make-shift heating installation under the seating arrangement – a health and safety red flag if there ever was one. But it works, and alongside another heater, blankets and hot tea, the cinema keeps running through the harsh winters of Eastern Romania.

The documentary ultimately portrays a failing business, yet never takes the time to question this matter much. It stays romantic all the way through, not once really delving into why there is no niche in Romania for local cinemas (hell, for local culture in general). It’s something worth discussing, because there is interest in movies and there’s even interest in some less mainstream movies – this very projection took place at a festival showing such pictures and you’ll find weekly movie screenings in cafes and pubs throughout the city (all free entry, though). Looking beyond these macro-issues, I would suggest that most local cinemas like Dacia fail not only because of their decrepit infrastructure, but because they are stuck in time. The movies they show often target similar audiences to the multiplexes and the staff, as portrayed here as well, have been working in the same places for decades. Most of these cinemas don’t only feel cold, they are cold – and lifeless. Having frequently visited a local cinema in my hometown, run by the same company, the borderline untenable conditions are similar, yet I have never seen an authority figure outside the two joyless cashiers.

Mr. Purice, who seems to make some difference in Piatra Neamt, is a solitary figure. More so, while there are some endearing moments, the over-reliance on his charisma wore me out by the end of the documentary. And certain scenes feel off, like one in which he returns from a visit to a cinema in Germany, apparently ready to give up, accepting the futility of it all, only to argue himself out of it in the spirit of unity with his passive and subservient staff. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but I felt Mr. Purece to be rather condescending and overbearing, whichever his other merits might be.

My cynicism notwithstanding, Cinema, mon amour is a story I do care for very much. It does not flesh out its subject matter enough and bets the house on how its ‘lead’ will appeal to the viewer, yet it also has enough character to be authentic and relevant. The ideal meta experience, of course, is to watch the movie at Cinema Dacia – so there it is, a goal for life.

***

Ilegitim (2016): A Difficult Tread

It feels like skewering Illegitimate would be too easy at times. The gist of the movie, which is pretty clear if you’ve either read a synopsis or seen the poster, is that two siblings (twins) indulge in an intimate relationship with one another, which leads to a not quite desired pregnancy. However, this only truly unfolds in the second half of Illegitimate, as the first builds this dysfunctional family and conjures up some context for the less than traditional romantic alignment.

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The ample first scene, setting the stage, is a celebratory dinner. Romeo (Romi) has just finished his studies and the whole family is gathered: father Victor, twin sister Sasha, older siblings Gilda and Cosma, as well as the partners of the latter two, Bogdan and Julie. As the father presents an expose on how time dictates our understanding of life and everyone indulges in drink and the occasional retort, the tables are suddenly turned when Victor is asked whether, in his role as a doctor, he informed to the communist state police on women who wanted to get abortions – an illegal procedure before 1989. The answer is, in a nutshell, yes. Cue Ron Burgundy, as the situation escalates dramatically, Sasha and Romi become verbally aggressive towards Victor, he ends up fighting with Cosma, while Gilda tries meekly and helplessly to stop the madness.

It’s this kind of chaos that Illegitimate draws its energy from and tries to shape into a complicated discourse about the patriarchy, generational conflict, personal v class morality, women’s rights and abortion. While the effort can be appreciated, the movie is not disciplined enough to pull it off convincingly. You’ve got thin character development, characters whose only role is to advance the plot, a strange attempt at levity involving a hamster, your lead bearing the awful name of Romeo, some ill-timed dramatic close ups, which are all tied up with a neat little bow in a sub-par ending. Also, for a movie that deals about incest and abortion, in a country as secular as Romania, the matter barely comes up.

While this might all read rather damningly, there is enough coherence to go around and the artificial constructions are not overly intrusive; they probably just bugged me more than usual. Most of all, Alina Grigore’s portrayal of Sasha is fascinatingly convincing at times, even if the script can leave her little to work with. She’s passionate, restrained, compassionate, principled – but lost, a kind of contrast that comes across powerfully and draws you in. And the story conveys this tactfully, it allows the viewer to infer how overwhelming the recent loss of her (their) mother had been, how this is what has driven them so close together. The pace at which the movie unfolds also works in its favour, keeping it tight and eventful.

The movie’s greatest fault lies in its tonal disharmony, as the more emotionally demanding scenes tend to descend into melodrama. While this eases some of the potentially overbearing tension stemming from its heavy subject matter, it also undermines the otherwise caustic build-up. Paradoxically, Illegitimate still works in spite of its self-indulgence – it’s an entertaining story of how a family implodes. It simply fails to punch as high as it aims to do.

***

Amores perros (2000): Self Redemption

God, the turn of the millennium was such an awesome time for mainstream movies. One of the guys who has since become the Hollywood auteur is Alejandro G. Inarritu. Two Academy Awards for best director in consecutive years? Quite the feat.

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But to me, Inarritu has been insanely hit and miss. Not to say that he makes unwatchable movies, just that they tend to vary to such a wide degree that there’s no guarantees in which mold they’ll fit. The first I saw was 21 Grams (2002), which I recall as being pretentious and melodramatic. Not to mention that it starred Sean Penn, who seems to embody all the worldliness that I dislike in actors/artists – the El Chapo interview representing the crowning glory of his self-inflated irrelevance.

Alright, that’s harsh. I just don’t like the guy, let’s just move along. After 21 Grams I must have seen Babel, because it made me give up on the Mexican director. More of the same with the same high profile actors in their desperate search for their artistic integrity. So imagine my surprise when I finally watched the movie that brought Inarritu into the spotlight, Amores perros. And then the exceptional Birdman (2014), before descending into pretentiousness once more with The Revenant (2015) – another combo with an actor I don’t particularly care for. Biutiful (2010) I have yet to watch.

Bottom line is, there’s no real box for the guy. His bad good movies are so frustrating because you have a sense of the kind of depth and vision he can conjure up at his best. And Amores perros is the perfect example. This review, which I wrote in 2007, retreads some of the things I’ve discussed, not really focusing on why I loved the movie – but at least it’s so prescient (said the non-pretentious one). Enjoy!


I was talking with someone a while ago, saying how Babel is a bland film which offers far too little for its length beyond schematic critique to a rather obvious conception of contemporary flaws. How 21 Grams overwhelmed me as too depressive for its own sake and had its own air of artificiality. I mean, that’s an obvious problem you might get when trying to string together stories and embody them in an integral whole. The someone I mentioned above was quite dismissive of my thoughts, claiming the genius of Inarritu was indubitable in both films, and asked me the most obvious question of all: “Why do yo go to see Inarritu films if you dislike them so?”. My answer was inevitably superficial, for I said “Because I like to believe”.

It’s funny in a way, this feeling of going back int time; he remains absolutely the same, his work is just as loaded with bold, significant statements, but only in Amores perros have I encountered the authenticity I crave. Maybe it’s got something to do with faces, with the fact that his last two movies employ famous faces to which I cannot relate the gritty realism which Inarritu tries to convey. Not that I’m saying Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Sean Penn or Benicio Del Toro are bad actors; it’s just that their well known.

Amores perros is a gritty, realistic and authentic film which dissects the sour, bi-polar reality of contemporary society. Segmented as all of Inarritu’s films in several stories, it introduces each of them in similar style with the oh-so-beautifully-romanticized Hable Con Ella (2002), with a black screen bolstering two character names in large typeface. The three stories are vaguely interrelated, tangentially. They portray the fate of an impoverished, lower class working family in Mexico, a love story between a model and a magazine editor and the in-between tale starring a homeless assassin, ex-teacher, ex-rebel, ex-convict. Inarritu’s social conviction of inequity and unfair distribution are quite obvious, but his view does not infer the well-being of the upper class. The dogs, central motive of the film in some regards, are used as a means to gain wealth in the ghettos of Mexico, while in the central districts they obsessively plague a distinctly alienated and paranoid layer of society.

Inarritu’s films are so pedantic in matters of style and structure, that they offer great ability of insight. I do not necessarily enjoy this, as it goes into an awkward level of schematic realism which I despise. While it is bearable in Amores perros, it is not in his second and third ventures. The Mexican director also has a rather morbid proclivity towards worst case scenarios, taking the already dim reality portrayed and bending it to extreme levels. Again, while I managed to live with it in Amores perros, I could not in Babel and 21 Grams. Straining reality too much does not make reality more real – on the contrary.

There exist therefore several reasons why I shy away from Innaritu’s approach to film-making. I like to avoid the overwhelming and insurmountable abstractions of class. Perhaps that’s white privilege talking,  but I’m not trying to deny the existence of social structures and challenges, just pointing out that their artistic representation treads a fine line between bleak and unbearably bleak – for its own sake and shock value, more so than any insightful commentary. Amores perros gets the balance right and I recommend it wholeheartedly to all cynics – for I was one myself.

*****

Originally published on imdb.

P.S. I must have abused Inarritu’s name a dozen times in the original review, spelling it with two n’s and one r. At least I was consistent though.