I don’t write about movies often. I’ll just leave it at that: I don’t write about movies often. AND, several weeks ago I went with my girlfriend Nicci to see Where The Wild Things Are, directed by Spike Jonze, who actually bears some resemblance to the protagonist, Max Records (who lives about 1/2 mile from my house in Portland):
Of course I had read the books of Maurice Sendak as a child, had them read to me, and pillaged the pages in exploration of the secrets about how one gets the walls of one’s room to turn into a jungle and become the territory of escape and adventure, rather than the clammy chambers of adolescence. The film is many things, and firstly, an explicit testimony to the power of the book’s illustrations. The film is kind of a hipster film maker’s version of the DC Comics films. That being said, it is not trite, the way some hipster philosophy can be. Immediately, the film removes the viewer’s expectations of a fantasy. The first scene is a raucous jolting attempt to follow Max, the boy, around his house, wearing a fur monster pijama get-up, terrorizing his dog, nearly falling down stairs, screaming and exploding out of his skin. The situation is very middle class, there is no expression of architectural design or any cinematic romance of any such quality of a working class home. Shag carpet, cheap furniture, lighting, surfaces, etc. Max is trapped here, trapped by the culture that built this place. Trapped by a family, trapped in this culture. Max makes forts and creates imaginary wars. He builds a snow bulwark and starts a snowball war with his sister and her friends; they too seem trapped in the dimension of their development (somewhere around High School) and fight back with snow, then crush Max’s snow building. He is equally crushed and terrorizes his sister’s room, destroying a gift he’d given her, among other bits of malfeasance. His behavior snowballs until an eruption at his mother (Catherine Keener) in front of her new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo), in which he meets a psychological wall and cannot listen, cannot observe, cannot feel anything beyond himself, and he rages. He flees. He goes to be where the wild things are.
They do not live within the wall paper here, however; he goes to a body of water and gets in a boat and sets sail. He sails some nights and some days through the tempest of his feelings and arrives at a savage coast line…
…in a land populated by these creatures whose forms take us into the imagination of this boy. They seem to be nothing less than the puppeted pantheon of his own psyche, sized disparately and discordant; when he arrives, Carol–the sometimes leader of the wild things (played by James Gandolfini)–is erratically destroying these large woven nest type things that comprise the Wild Things’ homes. None of the other Wild Things know why Carol is destroying their nests, except that it feels like it’s happened before. When they turn their attention upon this boy–interrupting this seemingly independant episode of emotional selfishness and eruption–they bare sharp teeth and circle around him menacingly. Max explains that he is a king with a long track record and that he can lead these things. They are intrigued by this offer and ask him if he will be able to keep loneliness away.
It is really at this moment that the film begins to offer its darker interpretations of the book, almost re-writing the book, or at least creating a vast subtext. The Wild Things qualify Max’s trip by getting into his head, getting into your head, and creating a raw reality to the delicacy of human development. The film makes the story a frightening reality, rather than a fantastic escape into the imagination of a better place than being in trouble with your parents. In the theater I could sense a palpable discomfort in the audience, akin to the unease a play like Sartre’s No Exit might occasion. The Wild Things employ Max to ward away loneliness, their greatest fear, probably the cause of the rankling discordance between all of them, and distancing all of them from themselves. There is a striking discord between Carol (the sometime leader) and KW, who seems to be like a troubled girlfriend. This discord mirrors Max’s parents divorce probably and colors the interactions of the rest of the group. KW’s new friendship with two owl friends breeds distrust and jealousy on the part of Carol… and Max is suddenly completely unable to repair the actual problems of the group… because they are, in fact, larger-than-life manifestations of his problems. He wants to show them how he knows how to rage, offering a solution to their woes: a big dirt clod fight, in which the Things’ feelings get hurt and Carol even rips off Alexander’s arm in anger and inability to look inward. (Alexander is the small goat-like creature, soft spoken, the injured ego feeling:)
The story spirals into a chaotic emotional war between the Wild Things and Max, unable to preside over them, over his feelings… which are seemingly too big to change, too wild to manage. In the small sample of his “real” life that we are given, we see this boy who is unable to account for himself; he does not understand the feelings of other people. This dilemma is compounded by his imaginative impulses to create games and battles; when others are not interested in playing with him in his own way, he cannot mend the fracture between his game and theirs: he cannot feel himself in their lives.
This phenomenon is common, probably to every single developing boy in the world… yet it is never observed as such. It is mended, punished, pushed away, or forgotten about. It is rare to see an open exploration of this scary emotional wasteland, which is in large part destructive. (The main pastime of the Wild Things is uprooting trees, making holes in them, scratching them, pile-driving one another, destroying the homes of one another, and so on.) For a mother, witnessing this behavior in her son, it is equally frightening; the tools to navigate this terrain are not readily available in our society. We have systems of reward and punishment, systems of education and athletics, systems of eating and medicating, but what of the methods of securing a growing individual’s feelings, helping that developing being to interpreting his own feelings, gaining perspective on them, moving through them? The reality of the film is stark: at the moment of this breakdown, Max’s mother is tired from a long day at work and dedicated to a couple of hours with her boyfriend. She cannot spread herself between everyone in the house. She’s often gone, works late, etc. Max’s sister is consumed by her social experience of puberty and high school friends. Max IS alone. And so are we when we watch the film. Forced into his loneliness. This is the feeling which, given the wrong set of circumstances, can lead a kid miserably astray. (Drugs, violence, etc.) The sense of loneliness in growing up may be one of the most terrifying thresholds of all human development, and the only real way to deal with it is to go through it; if you’re a parent, be there with the kid and try to go through it with them. The consequences are dire. The things have sharp teeth and will eat the boy.
The book may actually carry these undertones, but they are distant (if there at all) and must be extrapolated. And the end of the book seems to contain a euphoric exhaustion, like, whew, after that breakdown it was nice to go into the wall and spend three days in the wild rumpus with the things of my imagination, and, yes, I miss my parents, and how nice it is to be back and have a hot dinner. WHERE, in the film, Jonze does not give the viewer this kind of resolution: the feelings are real, they are outside the house, in the real world (Max had to come back through the front door), and his mother is happy to see him because he’s ALIVE. The final scene is remarkable: she feeds him and he eats as though he’d been gone for three days, ravenous, a boy becoming a man… basically without any recognition that he has these lethally selfish feelings, and his mother is simply exhausted, and still loving. She falls asleep while she watches him eat. And it ends. And nothing has changed.