Gene Wilder Marathon: Rhinocerous, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother and The World’s Greatest Lover

I’ve enjoyed a lot of Gene Wilder movies over the years, and like a lot of people, when he died I decided to pay tribute with a mini movie marathon. But rather than revisit the beloved classics, I decided to dig a little deeper into his repertoire and watch some lesser known movies. The ones I chose were “Rhinoceros,” “The Worlds’s Greatest Lover,” and “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother.”

“World’s Greatest Lover” was both written, and directed, by Gene Wilder. I’d never actually heard of this movie before digging into his IMDb, and probably for a reason. WGL is a deeply flawed film, although it does have some truly funny moments. It co-stars a very young Carol Kane as the wife of Wilder’s neurotic and fame obsessed character. The two travel to Hollywood so that he can participate in a search to find “The World’s Greatest Lover,” who will star in a new film from a studio trying to compete with Rudolph Valentino ’s reign as the king of romance. The movie studio head is played by a typically manic Dom Deloise, who has a few good moments, but is basically just playing himself. The movie comes across as more farce than comedy, although that’s clearly not the plan. If you’re a huge Wilder fan you might enjoy it, just for being able to see Wilder doing his thing, but I have a hard time recommending the movie.

The next film on my list is “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother,” that co-stars a young Madeline Khan as the femme fatale to Wilder’s quirky detective, and Marty Feldman as his whacky assistant. Unlike WGL, this movie knows exactly what it is trying to be and is downright hilarious, thanks to Wilder doing his best slapstick, bar none, impromptu song and dance numbers, and a comically fraught sexual tension between Wilder and a pathologically lying Khan that delivers laughs scene after scene. This is an incredibly fun film that should really have a bigger part in Wilder’s legacy.

The final film in my mini-marathon is “Rhinocerous,” an adaptation of a play by absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco. Wilder plays an alcoholic accountant, caught in an epidemic that is transforming people into, yes, rhinoceroses. It co-stars Wilder’s “The Producers” co-star Zero Mostel and Karen Black. The film feels very much like a play, complete with monologues and dialog heavy scenes. But the absurdist humor that made the play so much fun is delivered flawlessly by Wilder and Mostel. In fact, watching the two play off of each other makes me wish we had seen more of the two of them on screen together. The movie has a terrible, horrible, musical score, but is otherwise a delightful, fun, film that gives Wilder a fantastic forum for playing both frenetic and mellow in the same role. It’s no “Young Frankenstein,” or even a “Holmes’ Smarter Brother,” but for the Wilder fan, a great movie you probably haven’t seen.

Cultural Appropriation

As a writer I have watched the conversation around cultural appropriation with a great deal of trepidation. The developments with writer Lionel Shriver at a writers festival in Australia put a nice fine point on the debate as it relates to creativity.

Simply put, the concept of cultural appropriation is that it is inappropriate for privileged whites to co-opt the cultural trappings of other groups, be they Mexicans, LGBT communities, or Australian aborigines in pursuits ranging from Halloween costumes, to restaurant menus and fiction or film.

My name is Ricardo Sanchez. My family is mostly Spanish, German and Irish. But because of the name, I have more than a passing familiarity with anti-Hispanic sentiment that is mainly targeted at Mexicans. So I have a foot in both the privileged white community and a toe in the  disadvantaged minority community (for the record, I’m not saying I am a member of a disadvantaged community, only that I have experienced bias based on my name.) Because of this perspective, I do understand a lot of the arguments of the groups that have championed the fight against cultural appropriation, and as much as I might sympathize with a desire to see marginalized or minority voices heard (in the case of the arts) I think the whole notion of cultural appropriation (CA after this) is bullshit. Particularly in America.

As far as the United States is concerned, there is only one “native” culture and we’ve pretty much decimated it. The dominant “culture” is in fact a culturally appropriated mix of Spanish, French, English, and African (for the most part) influences that permeates everything from our food to our music and literature. Without CA we would not have New Orleans, probably the best pro-CA argument one could make. Creole food alone is 100% American, and %100 borrowed from the Spanish, French and African inhabitants of Louisiana. Rock and Roll got it’s start in blues with black musicians, but would anyone really argue the case that it was inappropriate for the Rolling Stones to make their blues influenced music? What about “The Grapes of Wrath?” Should Steinbeck not have written a mentally challenged character since he, himself, was not mentally challenged? I’ve picked some fairly easy examples of where the CA argument fails, but what about when you push it? A white guy writing about a black, lesbian amputee? There are three distinct cultures there that might be appropriated. Rather than ask if it’s okay for a white guy to write that story, one might ask, is it only okay for a black, lesbian amputee to write that story? The CA argument, taken to it’s logical conclusion, would have to be yes. Because nobody else could understand where the character is coming from.

I’m playing absolutes, which is a little disingenuous, but it helps me make my point – decrying cultural appropriation is a slippery slope, like any form of censorship, and that’s essentially what it is. Writers should be free to write any character that serves their story, regardless of what cultures it might pull from. If I think I can tell a compelling story about a black lesbian amputee, nothing should stop me from writing it. If it sucks (hell, even if it’s good) nobody will read it. And if it does get read, it’s because the story is universal enough that people are engaged, regardless of their own backgrounds.

Yes, we should absolutely do more to help marginalized groups tell their own stories. Yes, white male (and female) writers certainly have some advantages over non-white writers, partly due to education levels, partly due to cultural bias, and partly due to market economics. And we should absolutely work to level the playing field so all creators have access to readers. But when you consider that there are virtually no geographically based cultures (LGBT, or deaf, and a few other cultures are different in this regard, but the anti-CA argument doesn’t distinguish between Mexicans and people with dwarfism) on Earth today that haven’t taken, or stolen, something from some other culture, the whole concept of cultural appropriation seems absurd on the face of it. Mexican culture isn’t unique, it is a mix of native cultures and Spanish influence. Spanish culture is, itself, influenced by the Moors, the Basques, the Catalan, the Castilians, and the Romans. The Romans by the Greeks. And so on and on. Go back far enough and we can all trace our roots to every culture of which homo sapiens is a member. Dismissing CA doesn’t let us off the hook with regards to helping unique, unheard voices reach more ears, but it also doesn’t make someone like me, a cisgendered straight white-ish guy, a villain for thinking it’s fucking idiotic to say “you can’t write that!” because I’m not my character.

Queer (Tragic) Storytelling

Jo Chiang, on the New York Times, has written an article about creative choices and the real world impact of storytelling on marginalized groups that I found really compelling.

The initial thrust of the piece is that characters in queer relationships frequently end up with tragic endings. The author, Jo Chiang, sites a statistic that 35% of on screen queer characters end up dead. I don’t know how accurate the number is and what type of character is being considered (main character, supporting, character of the week) but I would be curious to know what percentage of straight characters also end up dead, for context, as killing characters is a time honored tradition for writers to up the drama and conflict. 

I agree with Ms Chiang’s desire to see more on screen queer romance have a happy ending, but I question some of her assertions about the intent on the part of creators. She singles out a show I really enjoyed, “Person of Interest,” as an example where queer characters are “punished” for their orientation. One female character is shot and presumed dead upon confirmation of her feelings for another woman – but she fails to mention that the actress had to take a break from the series for maternity leave. Is this really a creative choice to punish the character? (Plus we all sorta knew she was going to make a come back) Then later, her lover does in fact get killed. But this takes place in the final culmination of everything the show has been building up to finally coming to a close. The character’s death is also both a noble and reasonable ending for her story in many ways. More importantly, the character is treated with the same narrative respect that the male lead receives. 

There is a line of critical thought that suggests the viewer is the final arbiter of meaning, regardless of the creator’s intent. It’s a sentiment I can understand, but have always been somewhat uncomfortable with. Using “Person of Interest” as an example, either the creators did choose to inflict harm on their queer characters, in which case it’s totally fair to interpret it as a cultural bias toward violence against queer relationships, or the creators were writing around external circumstances and just trying to deliver the best story they could. 

Obviously, I believe creator intent is very important. I highlighted this poor example because Ms Chiang cites many other very good examples of queer relationships ending in tragedy in films, where there is no question about the choices of the creators. 

One of those examples is “Thelma and Loise” and their drive off the cliff. But could this story have had a non-tragic ending and still been worth watching? They could have turned around and given themselves up, but then we need to know what happens next and it is either A) a lot of publicity that rips up their lives on the way to a trial where they are acquitted or B) they are both sent to prison for manslaughter. Either alternative is a very different story and perhaps no less tragic.

While I think she over played her hand a bit, there is still a clear case to be made that, historically, Hollywood was able to include queer characters only if their on-screen romance is punished, ”The Children’s Hour” being a particularly good example of hers. She is also at least partially correct when she suggests that for a writer:

“Any character’s death can be shocking and upsetting, but taking a character who attained happiness despite the fundamental struggle of being queer and ripping them from that happiness? Now that’s tragic. And that’s how we’re taught to see the pain of queerness. As fundamental.”

But take queer out of that assertion and replace it with: black, Muslim, Irish, one armed man, a vampire. In the context of narrative, tragedy by definition is setting up a character for a fall. In modern narrative, we see more queer tragedy, but we are also just seeing a lot more queer characters.

There is a lot in the first half of Ms Chiang’s piece I could argue with, but all of this is really the lead up to her second, and more important, concern, which is about whether or not non-queer creators should tell queer stories, and if the industry history of tragic violence in queer stories results in real world violence, and finally what should be done about it.

In her piece, Ms Chiang says:

“The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported that 2015 had the highest levels of violence against the L.G.B.T. community since 2011, the most frequent victims being transgender women of color.”

I have no reason to doubt this is true. L.G.B.T. issues receives a LOT of coverage in 2015, between bathroom bills, kids being denied access to their prom, and the litany of characters and TV shows with queer storylines being the central dramatic theme. I tend to believe (without supporting statistics) that the rise in violence may largely be a result of increased awareness – that those who feel threatened by changing social attitudes are lashing out at the people they identify as responsible for a decline in their world view. But it’s entirely reasonable to question whether repeatedly seeing queer characters punished for loving or being loved isn’t a part of the problem. 

Ms Chiang goes on to cite statistics about how white guys essentially dominate Hollywood and are the ones responsible for making most entertainment, including the shows and films telling queer stories. She doesn’t suggest that creators shouldn’t tell stories they don’t (or biologically can’t) identify with, but she does ask for more representation in content creation by the very people who’s stories are being exploited for commercial entertainment. I think she’s right to ask, but I don’t think the solution is to look to big Hollywood for a solution. 

Movie studios are businesses first. Most film isn’t art. Studios will make creative choices in the context of greatest profit at lowest risk. And the most certain way to achieve that balance is to staff the biggest name talent you can afford, which isn’t always going to lead to a lot of diversity, even with plenty of examples showing diversity isn’t a profit killer. 

So what is the solution? I don’t know, but I suspect the queer community will have to fend for itself, at least for a while. Thanks to venues like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, funding for projects no longer has to come from traditional Hollywood sources. A Stonewall movie directed by a more representative individual, featuring a cast more like the actual participants, could probably find crowd support quite quickly and easily. 

But whether you think I am right or being insensitive to queer concerns, Ms Chiang’s piece is thought provoking and a worthy read. As a writer, it certainly have me a lot to consider as I contemplate writing characters I can’t biologically identify with.