When I dipped my toe into the cool Irish Sea yesterday afternoon, I thought to myself “How detached I am from the enveloping present, how remote from the surrounding world.” Sure, I dip into the currents of culture now and again, but little of what is current seems to have any grip on me. I just shake my mind like that wet toe and retreat. Not that the beach was any more comforting for being terra firma. I was chilled by a feeling of rootlessness, intensified, no doubt, by my relatively recent transplantation to the west of Britain. And yet, here I am, nowhere and anywhere, tending to my journal. Well, according to Technorati, there is one born every second.
Not permitting myself to become wistful, I slipped into the darkness of a movie theater to take on the latter-day mongrel that is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. What a reassuring experience it turned out to be. Once again, I know where I am—and why I am there and loving it. The “there,” of course, is nothing but the sanctuary of my confirmed biases.
Tim Burton’s re-adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1964 story is a mongrel indeed. It is a cautionary tale for children playing itself out as a computer game. Curb your greed, your arrogance, and your precociousness, it tells children, or you will suffer the fate of obnoxious brats like Augustus, Violet, Veruca and Mike. Obey your elders, even a deranged manchild like Willy Wonka, and your humility will be amply rewarded. The eponymous kid is too much of a goody-two-shoes to make a compelling hero (and, given the lesson learned by Wonka himself, retaining the title of the 1971 adaptation would have made more sense).
The trouble with Charlie is not its muddled message about innocence and purity, however; it is that, in its now treacly, now quirky delivery, in its very conception, there is too much of Augustus Gloop and Mike Teavee to render it sincere. Charlie is a self-conscious if diverting botch. It is eye candy with a cavity built in; it is at once a celebration and a negation of fantasy. Does not Dahl’s description of Augustus Gloop sound like a critique of Hollywood blockbusters, of the spirit of Disneyfication? Listen:
How long could we allow this beast
To gorge and guzzle, feed and feast
On everything he wanted to?
Great Scott! It simply wouldn’t do!
However long this pig might live,
We’re positive he’d never give
Even the smallest bit of fun
Or happiness to anyone.
So what we do in cases such
As this, we use the gentle touch,
And carefully we take the brat
And turn him into something that
Will give great pleasure to us all . . .
It is telling that Burton’s movie very nearly drowns out these words in its lavish production numbers. In time it will metamorphose into DVDs and computer games, into the videodorous playthings of Mike Teavee. Conveying the warning about being a guy like Burton’s movie once again drowns the message by dreamcoating it in Technicolor:
The most important thing we’ve learned,
So far as children are concerned,
Is never, NEVER, NEVER let
Them near your television set—
Or better still, just don’t install
The idiotic thing at all.
In almost every house we’ve been,
We’ve watched them gaping at the screen.
They loll and slop and lounge about,
And stare until their eyes pop out.
(Last week in someone’s place we saw
A dozen eyeballs on the floor.)
They sit and stare and stare and sit
Until they’re hypnotised by it,
Until they’re absolutely drunk
With all the shocking ghastly junk. . . .
IT ROTS THE SENSES IN THE HEAD!
IT KILLS IMAGINATION DEAD!
IT CLOGS AND CLUTTERS UP THE MIND!
IT MAKES A CHILD SO DULL AND BLIND
HE CAN NO LONGER UNDERSTAND
A FANTASY, A FAIRYLAND!
HIS BRAIN BECOMES AS SOFT AS CHEESE!
HIS POWERS OF THINKING RUST AND FREEZE!
HE CANNOT THINK–HE ONLY SEES!
And what else, other than reading, “used the darling ones to do?” in the days “[b]efore this monster was invented?” Well (you may have guessed it, coming from me), they listened to the radio, that forgotten generator and amplifier of fantasy. Long before colorful butterflies like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory dazzled kids with a flutter of images, there was “My Client Curley,” Norman Corwin’s madcap adventures of a boy, Stinky, and his dancing caterpillar.
Stinky has to learn what Charlie seems to know and Burton doesn’t quite remember: money talks so loudly at times, it threatens to mute happiness and muffle the imagination. Unlike Burton, who clutters his film with pointless references to popular culture (Busby Berkeley, Psycho, the Beatles), Corwin offers a poignant mass media satire, of a world of commerce, sensationalism, and mediocracy.
Throughout it all, the dancing caterpillar comes vividly alive without uttering nary a syllable. There he is, in all his terpsichorean splendor. I’m there, too, knowing why I love old-time radio. Not because it is past, but precisely because it is present whenever I put my mind to it. So, to appropriate Dahl’s words for a plea for the theater of the mind, “please, oh please, we beg, we pray, / Go throw your TV set away, / And in its place you can install /A lovely [radio] on the wall.” Well, okay, keep the TV—but do give Corwin’s “My Client Curley” a try.