Friday, September 09, 2011

"Happiness is not always the best way to be happy": Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are (2009; dir. Spike Jonze). Trailer here. And here is a (dead-on, I think) review by Christopher Orr (which is one starting point for this post). Image found here.

The Mrs. and I finally saw this for the first time back on Labor Day. First things first: I highly recommend this film. The poster you see here is a pretty good encapsulation of its dynamics, I think: big, furry creatures (of course) that seem to be responsible for the scratches on the tree trunk (but what do they mean?); a mysterious round section removed from a distant trunk; is the creature hiding out of fear or playfulness, or the desire to harm?; and, suffused throughout, a bright-but-hazy light filtering through a forest in a late-fall state. Max (Max Records) may or may not be lurking about. The mood is ambiguous. It could turn in any direction, and without warning.

The whole film is like this. I had to sleep on it and go on my morning walk with Scruffy before I could think of a comparable film; and, this past Tuesday, while musing on how to introduce compare-contrast papers in an "interesting" way, the film I thought of was The Wizard of Oz.

I do like The Wizard of Oz, but for a long time I have wondered what the source of its enduring appeal (too polite: how about, "its stranglehold on the American popular imagination") is and, in particular, why it's presented these days as a film whose target audience is children. Is it its glossy, brightly-lit cartoonish surface in the Oz sequences, or Judy Garland's luminous voice when she sings "Over the Rainbow," or Margaret Hamilton's having entirely too good a time in her dual roles as Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch of the West (the flying monkeys scare me more than she herself does), or what? Whatever traces of political allegory in L. Frank Baum's novel that might remain in the film are clearly not meant to be its focus--indeed, its preamble makes clear that the film, released almost 40 years after the novel's publication, is itself meant to be a nostalgia trip (already!) for "the Young in Heart"--it's intended for adults, in other words. (It's hard to have nostalgia-filled childhood memories of debates over the gold standard or the shortcomings of farmers, manufacturers and governments.) As one of my students blurted out in class when we were discussing this, it's really not a children's film, though it clearly is about childhood. There's something very strange about all this, though, something that neither nostalgia nor the tradition of having grown up watching it and so your kids should, too, don't fully explain.

It was in making certain connections between Oz and Wild Things that Oz became less strange to me. Max and Dorothy are very similar in their relationships to their respective families: each feels pushed aside as their parents/guardians are busy with their own concerns; each seeks protection from sorrow (Dorothy wants to go over the rainbow; Max, when he lands on the island of the Wild Things, announces that he has brought with him "a sadness shield that keeps out all the sadness, and it's big enough for all of us" (If that isn't enough to meet your minimum daily requirement of poignancy, by the way, pay a visit here; this film's language, by director Spike Jonze and novelist Dave Eggers, is extraordinary). The figures each meets in his/her respective fantasy sequence bear striking resemblances to figures from their "real" lives--indeed, in Wild Things Max also meets himself, though he doesn't recognize this, in the creature named Carol (who is male, and about whose name I have some completely unfounded speculation later on); as Dorothy says at the end of Oz, in each fantasy sequence, "some of it was awful, but most of it was beautiful"--which is to say, the fantasy sequences are troubled spaces as well, a fact which explains the long, wordless closing scene in Wild Things and Dorothy's realization that "it wasn't enough to just want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em - and it's that - if I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with!" (all sorts of stuff is rumbling beneath the surface of those words) and her declaration at the close that she's "not gonna leave here ever, ever again."

If you think about it, Dorothy's speech about looking for her heart's desire is a much less direct way of saying what one of the Wild Things tells Max: "Happiness is not always the best way to be happy." And it's realizing that, along with the other striking similarities between Max and Dorothy, that leads me to say that Oz has endured as long as it has because we sense it's telling us something genuine about childhood after all. That something is harder to see in Oz--one gets the feeling that Dorothy's speech went through a whole lot of re-writes so that it doesn't sound like it's saying what it actually says, which is, "A sepia-toned Kansas is what you've got in this life"--and much closer to the surface in Wild Things, a fact which seems to be at the root of the criticism it received.

Watching Where the Wild Things Are is kind of like watching your ecstatically-happy three-year-old daughter jumping up and down on the couch and being too far away to catch her if she happens to fall toward the coffee table: you feel their delight and yet can't help but feel at least some vague dread and, sooner or later, anguish (part of the anguish having its source, of course, in your not ever quite knowing when she'll fall), and then, after an interval, watching it all start all over again. (Yes. Her collarbone. Just once, though.) The scene from which this still comes (image found here) is a case in point. Max has just seen his mother (Catherine Keener) kiss a man she has invited to the house for dinner; he is angry, and when his mother asks him to call her sister down to eat, he does what you see here instead. I had expected this either to turn into slapstick or that there'd be some simple, violin-filled resolution to this scene as I watched--how many other films with similar scenes are there in which the parent tries to placate the child in some way?--but this scene only escalates from here. Max will end up biting his mother on the shoulder and then run out of the house into the woods. Soon, he'll find the boat that he sails to the island of the Wild Things, where he will declare himself king and declares he can make his enemies' heads explode . . . oh, and that he has brought along his sadness shield, too. We're only a third of the way into the film. Lots more couch-jumping to come, each scene standing on the edge of a knife, the sad ones veering into happiness every bit as quickly as the happy ones suddenly careen into an aching poignancy.

It's hard to watch; but then again, we know there's nothing truer one can say about childhood.

It's never in real doubt that Max will return home and be reconciled to his mother, and certainly never in doubt that she will choose to meet his needs. But the film's end doesn't tie everything up in a bow, either, the way that, again, any number of films with similar moments have conditioned us to expect: the mother still has to earn a living; there's no discussion of the would-be boyfriend; and where is Max's sister, Claire?

Back in 2009, before Where the Wild Things Are was released, I had this to say in a post on Carol Reed's great film, The Fallen Idol--another film that is not for children but which has a child at its center:

Such films reveal the uncomfortable truth of childhood that children, heavily dependent on adults for nurturing and protection, must learn to deal with their growing realization that adults are not dependent on them for anything at all--that kids have no choice but to rely on grownups, but adults--yes, even parents--are free to choose (or not) to acquiesce to satisfy that reliance. Kids are lucky--and luckier than they know--when grown-ups make that choice.

I have no evidence whatsoever for thinking this, but I do wonder if Jonze and Eggers gave the name Carol to the central Wild Thing as a tribute to Reed. Reed knew how to make movies about childhood. So also do Jonze and Eggers. I somehow doubt that yearly showings of Where the Wild Things Are will become a treasured American tradition, but I'm perfectly okay with that. One slightly-odd movie per year is enough annual nationally-shared weirdness.

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