golden ticket my ass

A thorough shredding of popular myth in an effort to understand artistic lament.

During last year's studio tour, if you can manage to remember that far back, I made a lot of references to feeling like Willy Wonka opening the doors of his beloved chocolate factory to the candy-addicted public at large. It was an accurate enough assessment then, but it took me until recently to truly appreciate the reality behind that glib metaphor. After obsessively turning it over in my mind about a million times, I finally gave in and tossed my copy (don't laugh, every artist has a copy of the flick, union rules require it's presence in every studio) into the trusty, and somewhat dusty, VCR to figure out what's been eating at me about the whole notion.

To say the least, it wasn't the fricking Oompa Loompa musical numbers.

If you watch good ol' Mr. Wonka in action, zipping fast-forwardly past the silly songs and over-the-top morality play highlighting the significance of not living the Mr. Bungle archetype, you begin to see the real story of what was going on in ol' Wonka's seriously disturbed cerebellum. Watch Gene Wilder's eyes as he croons through "Pure Imagination", they explain everything.

He's not happy. In point of fact he looks burned out.

Mr. Wilder managed to capture the essence of what it really is to be a candyman. Or an artist. Which I'd gladly argue to be the same thing in some cases. He looks a little tired. Somehow, the majesty that carried him and his grandest-of-prize-winning guests up to that moment is suddenly deflated. All at once, he isn't capable of being amusing or witty. He pauses his troop of spoiled voyeurs and demands a moment of reverence for the divine creation he and his troop of talented midgets has wrought upon the world.

The worst part is that our foppish protagonist only now faces the ultimate indignity. For all his care, with all of his preparation for this day (including countless hours of Oompa Loompa choreography), he knows in the depths of his rapidly emptying soul that all of the yokels behind him are about to miss the point. And he is left with no recourse but to say to hell with it and let them eat candy.

I know, I know...I just ruined an innocent childhood pleasure for everyone. I nailed the Candyman to a chocolate martyr's cross and made Veruca Salt out to be the antichrist. But before you declare me a heretic to the inner child, look into that sugar-coated messiah's eyes and tell me if you don't see it.

So anyway, I'm sitting there with my VCR freeze-framed on Gene's face, watching him hit bottom on deeply spiritual level, and I realize that I've seen that look of total frustration (to the point of hopelessness) before.

Those of you who just said, "In the mirror," can stay after class and clean the erasers.

If you remember Wonka's backstory, as recapped to once-and-future-choclatier Charlie by the local tinkerer (who really proves that Wonkaville has gone to seed because he's wandering the streets with a cart full of sharp objects and has a demeanor that suggests that his hobbies include underlining key passages in Helter Skelter), it wasn't a lack of love or passion for his art that made him hit the wall. It was a nasty boogum by the name of Slugworth that did him in.

Arthur Slugworth never puts in a direct appearance during the course of the film. Don't give me that, "Yes, he did, plain as day," crap: anyone who does their Wonka-homework knows full well that the closest we ever get to a glimpse of the rat bastard in question is Mr. Wilkinson, Willy Wonka's boy-Friday and partner in conspiracy. No, the slug-meister never works quite so directly; he just systematically teaches that woebegone look to our candymaking hero from behind the scenes.

Before anyone points, or gives me, the finger, let me clarify that I'm not implying that I've had some nefarious Moriarty taking the fight out of me. Quite the contrary. It does not require a villain working against you for things to screw up. The parallel I'm trying to draw is that I've learned that the things that force the creative process to run for the safety of the factory and lock the gates behind it usually have nothing to do with anything going awry in the artistic process. More often than not, as in the case of myself, my buddy Willy and our brethren, it is the collision between the real world and the Arcadian vunderland where artisans tend to thrive that fouls up the entire operation.

(Translation for the eloquence impaired: Artists' aren't worth jack when they are in pain.)

Harsh realization of my predicament achieved, time to bite the bullet and watch the rest of the movie. As I un-pause the tape, feeling a new kinship with this rather musical fellow who can't dress to save his life, I begin to look for a way out of my slump. Being that I'm philosophical by nature, and tend to look at everything I encounter symbolically, I start watching intently to see if my confectionery counterpart has any other deep messages to offer. After all, I've already firmly established that we were on the same wavelength, and me and Willy go way back.

Staying on my philosophic bent, or perhaps bent philosophy, I take a long look at what the esteemed Mr. W is doing. Seems to me, if you ignore all the hand-waving, he's managed to line up all the aspects of real life that were trashing his program and set about dealing with them in turn:

Augustus Gluut
Veruca Salt
Violet Beauregarde
Mike TeeVee

Oh, yeah...Charlie Bucket too, but I'll get back to him.

Like representatives of everything that is wrong with his life, Willy invites these ambassadors of the real world's damaging factors into his inner sanctum for a showdown on his own turf. In a sense, each one of these "naughty, nasty little children" embody a piece of what was sucking him dry. These neurotic urchins, who symbolized everything from greed and pettiness to poor table manners, were more than just examples of societal problems for Wonka; like some sort of malevolent deity formed by the collective unconscious, together these meddling kids en masse became the the proverbial straw for our candymaker's camelback. Never mind one guy trying to swipe a few recipes, this ticket-holding group of evil was Slugworth incarnate.

Stay in the deep end with me for another minute, I am meandering vaguely towards a point.

So I watch Gene Wilder dispatch each of these little bundles of joy with style, grace and ruthless efficiency that could only be rivaled by recasting the film with Chow Yun-Fat as the star. When you consider that it would require the inappropriately Woo-esque addition of two large-caliber handguns and a baby to the lead's already cluttered uniform, the notion can be quickly discarded. At any rate, as I watched him systematically clean house, I picked up a handful of valuable lessons on how to un-muck one's life:

1. Sometimes, you have to go into hiding to re-group your Lilliputians.
2. If your personal Slugworth is too big, whittle it down one brat at a time.
3. You won't care about continuing the fight if you don't find your Charlie.

Oh, you thought I had forgotten about young Master Bucket? He's the most important piece of this rant on psychic self-repair. I've long since established that my pal Willy had something vampirically drained out of him by the Slugworth collective. I also pointed out that the real root of all of this bru-ha-ha was a conflict between headspaces: the day to day grind we politely call reality and the happy insane asylum of high ideals where the creative mind functions and imagination rules the day. In the film that provided me source material for all of this symbolic self-exploration, the character Willy Wonka was looking for someone to to serve as an heir presumptive to his kingdom:

I can't go on forever, and I don't really want to try. So, who can I trust to run the factory when I leave and take care of the Oompa Loompas for me? Not a grownup. A grownup would want to do everything his own way, not mine. That's why I decided a long time ago I had to find a child. A very honest, loving child to whom I can tell all my most precious candy making secrets.

Take a moment to note the specific wording of what our favorite candymaker desired. Someone to do everything his way. Someone who could understand his dream and perpetuate it. Someone who hasn't been around long enough to have become jaded by a world full of major and minor Slugworths the way he had. Someone with the youthful vigor that he had used up fighting to maintain his ideals.

Wonka, if you haven't caught on yet, didn't want to find a successor.

He wanted to be reborn.

Charlie embodied everything the tired, aging Willy began as: fresh, innocent and ready to fight. Or make chocolate as the situation required. Whether you want to call it the inner child, a person's center or, as I like to think of it, the reason I wanted to hang in candyland in the first place, without the successful location of your Charlie you simply cannot care enough or have strength enough to keep going.

So shines a good deed in a weary world.

As I rewound the video, it all seemed really simple. Mind you, the same magical transformations of self that ate up only 100 minutes of screen time (with end credits and musical numbers included) for Gene Wilder took me about six months of agony to sort out. I accidentally let real life into the candy room without a golden ticket, and it damn near totaled the frigging workshop. Somewhere along the way, I made the mistake of letting life's nasty combination of stress and Slugworths drink me dry, and I had my head so far up my posterior about it all that I didn't go looking for a Charlie to back me up until the last possible second of film.

Yeah, I know...from the gentle reader's side of this essay, it doesn't really explain what the hell happened over the last few months. Then again, I never intended to sit down and explain what I was doing during my recent semi-hermitage. Part of the truth is still the mundane answers I'll toss in detail into Electric Sheep for public consumption; we have been slammed with custom work (thank you, keep it coming!) and have been retooling both the studio and the business as a whole. My goal was to let people know where my head has been, and share what I learned while I was there...not to play tabloid and hold a bitchfest about my until recently out-of-control personal life.

Besides, other than midget-wrangling, do we really have any idea what Willy Wonka was up to during his self-imposed exile?

I think not. But we all knew he found his Charlie when he got back.

06 / 05 / 2009