Remembering Gene Wilder Simply Pays Its Respects to a Complex Artist

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Remembering Gene Wilder Simply Pays Its Respects to a Complex Artist

Gene Wilder’s piercing, glassy blue stare is the first image we are greeted with in Ron Frank’s Remembering Gene Wilder. It is the most iconic moment from his iconic career: Willy Wonka, clad in his purple suit, with the delicate melody of “Pure Imagination” ringing out. For an actor known for his frantic, zany delivery, it is a starkly reserved introduction, capturing an enthralling, strategic stillness that explains Wilder’s genre-defining success. Frank uses his documentary as a hypothesis, making a case for the alluring blend of dramatic and comedic talent that elevated Wilder, endeavoring to expose the effort behind his kind of effortlessness. If only the mode of expression were as unpredictable as the talent himself.

Documentaries covering an artist’s life are subject to a few set conventions, the narrative bound by photos that range from grainy black-and-white to more recent digital snapshots, while the subject’s friends and family spout stories as a range of talking heads. First-person B-roll and secondary opinions blend to form a familiar tapestry of unfamiliar perspectives. But this texture is complicated by the decision to hold the story together with Wilder’s real voice, as recorded through the audiobook of his memoir Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art. It is a surprising decision, one that intriguingly negotiates the ethics of documentary-making. Rather than prying into the psyche of a complicated man, Remembering Gene Wilder tries to let the subject “remember” for himself. 

This choice proves to be a double-edged sword, impeding and propelling the story. It lends the film a gentle tone, as honest and earnest as the man himself, but also a certain staleness—the movie becomes locked, incomplete and in the past. There is not much space for reinterpretation, with the story frequently grinding to a stuttering halt. Frank marries this voiceover to movie clips we’ve already seen and highly posed, “behind the scenes” photos, inadvertently constructing a stylized stillness. 

Fortunately, Mel Brooks (Wilder’s close friend and frequent collaborator) lends the film bouts of welcome momentum and legitimacy. Brooks is a famously witty storyteller, and as the only witness still alive to testify to this juncture in Wilder’s career, he is a crucial resource. This first sequence is located in the Martin Beck Theatre where Wilder co-starred with Anne Bancroft in a production of Mother Courage and Her Children. Eventually she introduced him to her partner, Brooks, and so began an illustrious moviemaking pair. 

This part of the movie is an unwieldy summation of the first sentence in the “Acting Career” section of Wilder’s Wikipedia page and as such, it feels like a frustratingly predictable starting point, purposely obfuscating his quieter, less easily defined beginnings. Gradually, it becomes clear that this is indicative of the film’s general ethos. Frank has constructed a hall of mirrors, with everyone’s opinions offering slightly distorted versions of the same refrain; Gene Wilder was a good guy, Gene Wilder was talented and easy to work with. It’s unclear whether Frank actually wants to make sense of his subject’s complexities, but regardless, Remembering Gene Wilder doesn’t succeed. Its center remains unknowable, conceivable only in brief flashes.

One of these flashes arrives early on, courtesy of Wilder’s own observations. There is a moment in The Producers (his first foray into critically acclaimed terrain) where his character, Leo Bloom, races around a fountain. Water is launched into the air, bouncing in the light silently, while Gene’s voice curls around the scene. “And the fountain was turned on,” Wilder explains, “in the film and in my life.” It is a simple and lovely expression, and an effective argument for this story’s sense of narrative intimacy.

People are complicated, and there seems to be a growing unease with movies’ limited ability to convey that. Remembering Gene Wilder opens with the star’s introduction to public life and affirms this vantagepoint throughout. Regardless of its attempts, the film is only ever able to look from the outside in, never able to make sense of the complex tragedy which sat beneath the eccentric good guy. 

Director: Ron Frank
Writer: Glenn Kirschbaum
Release Date: March 15, 2024

London-based film writer Anna McKibbin loves digging into classic film stars and movie musicals. Find her on Twitter to see what she is currently obsessed with.

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