Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Achocalypse Now

Just spent an evening with family watching the old Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the one with Gene Wilder in it. It confirmed my view that parts of it are as terrifying as Apocalypse Now.

It really is a case of death by chocolate. Consumerism is not only judge, jury, and executioner in this story, it's also the accused and the crime. The garden of chocolate scene is truly obscene in its staged confrontations with the unique, idiotic enjoyment of each character (“innocent” Charlie and Grandpa Joe included). Mr. Wonka himself, of course (with his obvious name) as the obscene superego father of enjoyment. (Some of Wilder's dead pans are just incredible in this respect.) And the psychedelic bardo of the “Tunnel of Love” episode is almost unbearable. More intense than almost anything by David Lynch. The anality of Augustus Gloop's chocolate suction. The heavy-handed Oompa Loompa songs, with their limping, foot-dragging beat and their sadistic chants (a foretaste of Twin Peaks?). Children should not be allowed to watch this film. It should be NC-17, really.

Three cheers for Aphex Twin for making a tune with a sample of Wilder quoting Arthur O'Shaughnessy:
“We are the music makers, / And we are the dreamers of dreams.”

As an environmental poetics guy, I'm struck by the weird ambience of the chocolate garden, surely an allusion to the underground garden of jewels in The Thousand and One Nights, which Keats turns into the palace of the stomach, in which a good claret creeps around (this is from an important letter he wrote). Kubla Khan-ish, too, and possibly also Milton's Eden, “A wilderness of sweets.” I'm fascinated by these inside–outside confusions. It's a meme that can mean lots of different things. Hitler called his policy “Lebensraum” for heaven's sake (“Living Room”). There are those weird Twilight photos by Gregory Crewdson that play on the inside–outside inversion meme. Interesting, isn't it, that we think of lawns as carpets? Kind of like your house has part of its inside on the outside.

But the Wonka garden is no hyper-masculine lawn with its crewcut straightness and republican public privacy. Lawns symbolize individualism that is non-unique. The Wonka garden, on the other hand, is a space of utterly unique pleasures. There's something queasily perverse in watching Mike TV's mom drinking white chocolate from some flower like a cupful of pus. It's almost like Tarkovsky's Solaris (which came out one year later) in its lugubrious use of flowing water, but an idiotically, hyperbolically sweet Tarkovsky.

In this space where your desires are instantly realized in the external environment, there is no humor and no laughter, despite the presumably comic antics of Wilder, which are done with a touch of Coca-Cola superego mania (“Enjoy!”). The sinister music, which keeps sounding a note of fear, makes this evident.

In his movie The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, Slavoj Zizek says something great: “We have a perfect word for a dream realized. That word is nightmare.”

In a way there's more ecocritique in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory than in a whole raft of wilderness epics.

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