I’ve been writing this entry in my head for quite awhile and the announcement of Gene Wilder’s death prompted me to write it down. While this entry is focused on one song in one movie, his acting across many movies and plays etched its way into our cultural granite.
I remember being a child sitting in a movie theater and watching Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for the first time. The somber tone of the first part of the movie highlighted by Wilder as Wonka walks out of his factory limping with a cane to welcome the lucky golden ticket winners at the factory gates. He falls! The fall turns into a sumersault and a triumphant ta-dah and a smile. We then enter the factory, filmed as if we were one of the guests. Strange things begin to happen and we're crowded into a tiny optical illusion filled room. And then the door opens and we see the chocoloate room as the song "Pure Imagination" kicks in.
Wonka teases the guests as they proceed down the stairs, as they have to pay attention to his pauses, stops, whipping cane, and goose steps all the while wanting to focus all their attention on exploring the fantastic chocolate room opened up in front and around them. The eagerness, anxiety, and pure happyiness all playing across their faces. And there's Wonka who not only still enjoys his chocolate room, but also enjoys showing it off to them.
Forty or so years later and the movie and this clip continue to impact me and the teacher I am becoming.
I teach photography – digital, darkroom, and alternative processes (weird, odd, arty, processes created in the 1800s, blending digital and darkroom techniques, toy cameras, instant film, etc) classes. In all of the classes I teach, I try to bring a sense of fun and creativity to the class – sparking the childlike sense of wonder and excitement and exploraiton to the class that is captured in this one song.
I’ve been known to show the “Pure Imagination” clip from the 1970s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” in class, telling them I am Willy Wonka introducing them to the wonders and fun of the photography chocolate room. I’m there to open the door to their sense of wonder and fun.
Wilder's performance introducing the visitors to the chocolate room is much like the first day of class teaching. There's the sense of excitement, tension, apprehension, anxiousness of exploring something new and unknown. The way he leads them down the stairs, starting and stopping, making them pay attention to their progress while at the same time they want to scan the room to take in the wonders there.
In the classroom, the students have an energy and excitement. I am eager and excited to introduce them to the wonders that are in front of them as they explore photography. I don't tire of looking across the photography lab and I gain energy from their energy. It is the first day of class.
The movie also contains other lessons such as sometimes you run into situations where there are unwritten rules that can cause you problems in life. I try to remind the students, and myself, of the risks of just jumping into the chocolate river because you’re so excited to drink from it, drinking too much fizzy lifting drink, wanting to try new technologies, etc, without thinking about the risks or consequences. The antcipation and energy of exploring the new with a slight pause, like Wonka leading them into the chocolate room, is lost and forgotten later in the movie. In life, we find ourselves rushing ahead without remembering the lesson to sometimes slow our entrance into the chocolate room.
The childlike amazement isn’t confined to the chocolate room in Wonka’s factory as the sense of playful experimentation and exploration permeates the entire Wonka factory. They can permeate your entire world and day. The world and your day are filled with places where it’s ok to smile, have fun, and let your inner child shine. It's ok in life to find and bring that same sense of exploration, the removal of the serious masks we wear in our everyday worlds, to smile and have fun, the permission to skip and laugh and hold a bunch of balloons, the asking of “What if…?” while at work or making dinner, to watch the clouds and find shapes, to log roll down a hill and not worry about getting grass stains on your clothes and knees and elbows.
It is in finding this zone of exploration where the self-censoring editors are put aside, our tendencies and habits are suspended, and the creating from the inner self comes through and out. Where we put aside the "am I doing it right?" anxieties and let our true uncensored selves come out, explore and create, and be seen by ourselves and others.
Pure imagination to change the world if you want to. There's nothing to it.