Monday, November 2, 2009

King For A Day (Until The Sun Dies)

Where The Wild Things Are (2009)Directed By Spike Jonze
When looking at Children's literature it's important to realize three things; one you can as an adult look at and for metaphorical and thematic content, two that you must understand that even if you find these things the story is not intended for adult understanding, three kids are not as dumb/innocent as we make them out to be (it is often more of an adult insistence than a kids proclivity). This is a task so difficult for some that Children's stories must be relegated to either a trivial entertainment or a didactic lesson, and though many a classic bedtime tale or storybook might contain both, it's no greater a criticism than could be lodged at any other form of narrative. I've been trying to fathom the responses surrounding Spike Jonze's adaptation of Maurice Sendak's "Where The Wild Things Are", and have all but given up, realizing the gap between my understanding and appreciation and those of the films detractors might be oceans apart. Sendak's original book is only ten sentences long, and in what I can only imagine is an attempt at clever homage, those who don't like the film, can't be bothered to write more than 10 sentences venting their disappointment. I was impressed with novelist Dave Egger's expansion of the screen play, into a story free from the standard good vs. evil formula. Eliminating a need for bad guys to "conquer" which seemed so worth praising back when Miyazaki did in it "My Neighbor Totoro" but is apparently for many of the same viewers and critics, now passe and out of style. In place of an enemy, we get a story of a boy put in the place of being an adult and coming to realize the grass is not always greener on the other side. King for a day, until the sun dies.Max is a rambunctious child who is not given the standard psychological treatment/excuse of wicked mother, intrusive step-dads, or new town, new life, etc. He's a hyper-active, easily excitable kid who wants attention and is willing to throw whatever tantrums he needs to get it. One of the things I've learned in the last semester of surveying Children's Literature is that it's not always helpful to reduce everything to that household pop-psychology mantra of "the inner child" (which the advertising for the film seems in line with), which is only another way of saying anything relevant must be relevant to adults first and foremost to be relevant at all. More often than not these "inner child" stories might be more applicable to the actual literal child sitting next to you or running around uncontrollably in the ailes than an abstract representation of adult loss. Max is not a representation of the child within, he's the very real brat next door. When his mother is giving someone else in the house some attention, and the cooking him frozen corn rather than "real corn", he unleashes the beast shouting on the table, biting her, and ruining her date. He then runs out of the house and into a park and finds himself alone a small sail boat in a stormy sea. The imagery here is Jones and Eggers design and poetically pits the small vessel in the tumult he can't control; life itself and getting older.
A constant reference is made to the fact that one day even the Sun will die; all things must change. A disturbing thought for a young person that those same laws once eternal and a-priori are also subject to decay and change. A melancholy streak runs throughout the film lightly casting its shadow over many of the characters, dialog, and scenery, but ultimately imbuing the films more jubilant moments with a greater sense of meaning. Enjoy it now kids, while you can.Max doesn't have a wardrobe or a bridge to Terabithia, and the Island universe he stumbles has its own warped sense of logic, particularly Max's logic. Roger Ebert jokingly asks how the "species" of Wild Things mates, which though mildly amusing, is a text book example of looking at the film and story only from your adult perspective, and the need for irony that entails.
Maurice Sendak does in fact have more adult and sexually explicit books to be sure, but his children's stories are just that, for children. Max meets Carol and a group of other 8 foot tall furry monsters. Before they can eat him, he tells them a wild story similar to the one he tells his mother earlier from beneath the table, and is fancifullly elected King of the Island.
Carol is destroying the homes of the other Wild Things, because he fears K.W. (a female wild thing he fancies) has left the group, and without her the huts just aren't worth sleeping in (if this was transposed to the story of an adult being self-destructive after the end of a relationship, I doubt anyone would call Carol's actions inexplicable).
He and Max become friends, and he is taken to the center of the Island, a barren desert that was once rock and will turn to dust, "and what comes after dust no one knows". In a cave Carol has created an miniature city with carvings of all his friends, a secret place where his imagination can "run wild", showing in general rebuttal solipsism, even fantasy creatures have fantasies of their own (see Diana Wynne Jones brilliant "Dark Lord of Derkholm" for even greater use of this idea).
Max decides they should build the city, and makes it his first decree as king, updating the design to include such necessities as a Detective Agency, a swimming pool with a trampoline on the bottom, and lasers which will cut out the brains of anyone who they don't want there.Quickly Max learns that being the head of a family is a complex business, where being selfish, impulsive, and simply "wild" while sometimes the heart of fun, can be equally destructive and hurtful. If the characters don't always make sense, perhaps that's because childhood and being a child doesn't always make sense. I certainly don't remember why I felt so strongly about climbing on everything that was climbable, it just made sense at the time. Carol is jealous and selfish and so is Max, neither is able to comprehend fully why, but they are old enough to eventually recognize a difference between not wanting people to be mad at them, and not wanting to hurt anyone else. Though teddy bears in a dog pile in one scene, the Wild Things are still capable of becoming nightmarish Ogre's (ripping off arms), just as otherwise sweet kids are still capable of being cruel. The Kid (the goat man of the group) is also poetically the one no one listens too and ends up pegged multiple times during a simple game, picked on to the point that he quits. It was funny when for Carol and Max to peg the Kid, but not so funny when KW steps on Carol's head in an equally playful gesture. Everyone knows during a dirt cloud war there is going to be one kid who takes it too far, and another kid who ends up getting their feelings hurt. Violence is not without consequence, even on fantasy island. Spike Jonze creates a beautiful universe out of natural island and desert landscapes, handheld cameras, and lovely furry suits commanded by real actors that perfectly resemble Sendak's drawings. The film is a visual joy to behold, and a feast for the senses as any good fantasy film should be.
I've heard objections raised to Karen O of "The Yeah Yeah Yeahs" soundtrack, which indeed might have been better without vocals at points, but is not enough to detract from the film. "The Point" and "Yellow Submarine" used similar jangly pop-folk songs to add another layer of whimsy to their productions, and my lack of interest in Ms.O's work not withstanding, I see no reason why she should be singled out as playing to a hipster in-crowd (methinks YYY is by now too popular to be hip, no?) any more than those films were playing to the "cool" of their day. Personally I'm just glad Danny Kept-On-Speed-Dail-For-Fantasy-Films Elfman wasn't piped into the mix.I wonder what people are comparing this film too as they watch it; to Spike Jonze previous Charlie Kaufman films, or "Citizen Kane" and "Amaracord"? It's a contemporary of "Spy Kids", "Coraline", "The Never Ending Story", "MirrorMask", "The Great Yokai War', and the add nauseum talking animal films (animated or otherwise), and ought to be judged accordingly.Though rare it's nice when mainstream films can escape being made engineered for the 15 to 25 year old males (like me) who dominate the cinematic market; any flight of fantasy that dodges the all too convenient cynicism and good versus evil binary, with wit, grace, loveliness is always a welcome change of pace, and for myself, and I "imagine" for a kids today, something magical.
Where The Wild Things Are is a melancholy film, one which is sad but not tragic. If you find this movie depressing it might be because, you not the movie are in fact depressed. Those who insist kids couldn't handle the shadows in the films plot are likely the same group who prevented us from seeing Aldous Huxley's script for "Alice In Wonderland" or constantly asked me why I didnt draw more "happy things" while I doodled notebook after notebook with monsters, superheroes, and surreal landscapes; those who would also set off Max's laser beam brain chopping security devices, no doubt. If the movie ends with whimper and not a joyous bang, perhaps it has a right too. Real life past your bed time is no place for "uplifting" bells and whistles (which dozens of Disney films have crammed down our throats so long we can't process anything else) but for small gestures of kindness, smiles of recognition, and an intimate family bond which doesn't require exposition. Does Max have to announce the lesson he learns, for us to understand he learned one? Have we become so dense and bloated with instant gratification, that anything not shouted from the mountaintops ceases to exist?
What does Charley in "Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory" (not that god awful soulless Tim Burton film, but the Gene Wilder O.G. version) learn besides that if you're a naughty, mean, or selfish child you will get no candy, but if your good and pure you will get all the candy in the world? Compared to other films of it's genre, what is there to complain about? And how dumb do we think kids today really are? Maurice Sendak who enjoys the film, said his book and the trilogy around it, "In The Night Kitchen" (which is also very good) and "Outside Over There" are "all variations on the same theme: how children master various feelings..." In "Where The Wild Things Are" Max learns that being a family takes patience, forgiveness, and honesty. He learns that the world can and will change in strange, sad, and frightening ways but with people you love, even if you can't keep them piled around you as insulation at all times, is still worth exploring. I dont think anyone who doesn't like this movie is a heartless monster, the movie is not perfect, nostalgia bolsters its appeal for those who have some for the project, but hopefully one day we can recover from our intellectual grumpiness, and learn to appreciate forms of storytelling outside of the tragic realism that the university discourse of the industrialized world has homogenized us into narrowly worshiping. In other words maybe we can all learn to play nice. "Frozen corn, IS real corn".

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