Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic Where the Wild Things Are isn’t plot-driven. There’s not much text, and he uses a lot of repetition (“and they roared their terrible roars,” etc.) that gives the book an incantatory feel. As though we, as children, can will ourselves into our own dreamspaces, through certain phrases. Max, a lonely wild little boy, who was making all kinds of trouble the “night [he] wore his wool suit”, is sent to bed without supper. In the book, while in his room, he suddenly realizes that a forest has grown there, his room has opened itself up to the natural world. There are trees, and an ocean right there, and also a boat, made just for Max. He leaps in it and sails away on a long long journey. It takes him weeks, a year, until he arrives at the land “where the wild things are”. Max is dreaming himself into a world where he is King, where he has power, where he can command a group of scary-looking yellow-eyed “wild things” to be quiet, to do what he says, and where HE gets to send THEM to bed without supper. A fantasy of being in control. The wild things look to him with awe and admiration. They accept him as their King. At Max’s command (the famous “let the wild rumpus start”), they all go crazy, jumping and swinging through trees, stamping their feet. Max has no plans as King. A wild rumpus is enough for him. But then he realizes he’s hungry, the most prosaic of needs, and yet also the most human. So he gets back in his boat, and sails back home, to find his supper waiting for him in his room, “and it was still hot”. Time can bend, stretch out like molasses, if you have an imagination. You can be gone for a year and when you come back your soup is “still hot”.
When I was a small child, one of my favorite toys was my mother’s metal collander. I wore it as a helmet. There are photos of me, a mini-Viking, peeking out from beneath the collander. You know how you are when you’re a kid. You put on a costume, and you enter another world. Some of us, in the arts, never get over this proclivity. But still, it’s not the same thing as when you are a child. Much of acting is either trying to remember what it was like as a child, when you were free enough to play “make believe” for hours on end, or trying to recreate the circumstances that allowed you to be that free.
Spike Jonze’s film Where the Wild Things Are captures the spirit of Sendak’s book with a lawless charm. It doesn’t try to do too much. It doesn’t add, oh, a giant war between two opposing factions of wild things, it doesn’t try to compete with, let’s say, Lord of the Rings (which it could have done, it’s another story of a quest, a small creature thrown into the big world). It fills out the characters of the wild things, gives them names, whereas in the book they are nameless, but at its heart it is the story of “wildness”, particularly the wildness in a small imaginative lonely boy. If his fantasy could come true, in the real world, what would it be? Maybe it wouldn’t be a super-hero fantasy, where he leaps tall buildings in a single bound. Maybe it wouldn’t involve clanking chainmail and the stomping of medieval-era horses’ hooves. Maybe it would just involve him entering a world where he got to be the one ordering others around, especially those who are BIGGER than him, and where he got to be as wild as he wanted. Wildness would be sanctioned in his fantasy world.
The opening of the film shows Max (played by Max Records) playing by himself. Jonze films this in a jagged manner, following Max as he dashes around, jumpcutting from one crazy activity to another, which puts us right into Max’s world in the most subjective manner possible. This is one of the times when handheld jumpcut camera movements are actually appropriate to the story being told. It gives a breathless feeling of the creativity and also boredom that little kids feel on almost a moment-to-moment basis, especially if they don’t have a gang of friends to hang around with. How to occupy oneself?
Max does pretty well by himself. A small toy boat sails over the waves of his bedspread. A globe sits by his bed, and he stares at it, lost in dreams. But then he also races up and down the stairs, wrestling with the dog roughly, leaping over chairs and crashing into walls, before dashing up the stairs again. The way this opening section is filmed tells us everything we need to know with minimal dialogue, and the best part of it is most of it is suggested by Sendak’s book. In the book, his mother sends him to bed without supper. No father is mentioned. Whether this was deliberate or no on Sendak’s part I can’t say, although I imagine it was. In the film, Catherine Keener plays Max’s mother. She’s a single mother, a bit harassed by her wild son, and by her responsibilities. There’s a brief scene where you can see her working at night, after being reprimanded on the phone by her boss about her work. Max, in one of the most touching moments of the film, lies at her feet, idly playing with the toe of her nylons. He’s still a child. He has a vivid fantasy life, but Mom is always there to come back to. There is a great comfort in her presence, even when she scolds him. None of this is filmed in a golden-glowed mist of nostalgia, which would have made it insufferable. This is a film about childhood, but it’s not about childhood seen in retrospect, with the rough edges smoothed out. Childhood is intense, sometimes unbearably so. Children go through the full gamut of emotions that adults do: love, fear, rage, feeling trapped, guilt, shame … only they don’t have the context of experience, so events tend to take on grandiose sometimes grotesque shapes, especially to a sensitive child, like Max is. You don’t know yet that spilt milk is not to be cried over. You still have to learn that.
Max sees his older sister Claire, once his comrade in play, now moving on, with a new group of friends. The script remains spare, almost wordless in this opening section, a big part of why it is so intense. Much of what goes on, subtextually, in childhood, is on a wordless level. Fear of abandonment is one big thing, but what child ever says, “I fear you abandoning me, Mom, and that’s why I’m acting such a nutbag”? Abandonment is part of life, in all its forms. Claire is allowed to grow up and have new friends, but to Max it is abandonment. A huge loss. His heart is broken. He trashes her room, stamping around her rug with his snowy boots. He tears up a little popsicle-stick heart he made her, and there’s another shot of Max kneeling on the floor picking up the pieces, and you don’t see his face, but the gesture tore at my heart.
Where the Wild Things Are made me remember. Made me remember what it felt like. To be that little and that intense, feeling everything, but not yet knowing that feelings aren’t forever, and you won’t feel sad forever.
When Max runs away (a significant change from Sendak’s book), he finds a little boat in a small body of water, and leaps in, sailing out into open ocean. One of the strengths of the film, I would even call it revolutionary at this point in cinematic history, is how real everything feels. The film has a tangibility to it. The waves Max sails through are real waves, you can smell the salt in the air, feel the slap of the water against the boat. If there’s CGI used, it’s unnoticeable. This also goes for the “wild things”. They appear to occupy real three-dimensional space, as befitting creatures built and created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Watching them, again, made me remember what it was like the first time I saw Empire Strikes Back, as a child, at a drivein, in my pajamas with my cousins, and what it was like when I first saw Yoda. Yoda, a puppet, with the voice of Miss Piggy, for God’s sake, LIVED. He breathed, sighed, turned slowly, whatever, he looked like life, therefore he was alive. Additionally, he and Mark Hamill obviously existed on the same plane, in the same space. CGI is fine, I’m not knocking it, but at times it leaves me cold, knowing I am looking at something that is not alive. Where the Wild Things Are appears to take place in a real place. The trees are real, the dunes are real. But most importantly, it has that Yoda-Luke dynamic, where Max is actually occupying the same three-dimensional space with these creatures.
A melancholy came up in me as I watched the film. A beautiful melancholy, with many different aspects. And one of them had to do with the question of progress, in all its guises. Just because something is possible, doesn’t mean it is right, or artistically pleasing. CGI adds a lot, no doubt about it, but sometimes a lot of LIFE is lost in the process. Where the Wild Things Are pulses with life.
Here’s an example. At one point, Max was face to face with Carol, the main “wild thing”, voice by Jim Gandolfini (and he does a spectacular job, my God). And they were having a chat, and it occurred to me, out of nowhere, “Man, I bet Carol’s breath STINKS.” This, to me, is indicative of the level of reality Jonze (and his collaborators) were able to generate. Bad breath is a tactile thing, bad breath doesn’t exist in CGI, at least not on the visceral level I got watching Wild Things.
The wild things decide that Max, who shows some startlingly bossy and alpha qualities almost immediately (out of his fear of the creatures), is their King. Max, in his filthy “wool suit”, with the sweet little whiskers coming out of the side of the hood, is a tragically adorable little figure, in his tarnished gold crown. My heart ached. The valiant nature of children, so small, so easily dominated. But their experience is not only valid, but from whence all good things come. The people I love best remember what it was like to be children, who haven’t forgotten how to play, who have a respect for that level of experience, who don’t pooh-pooh it. I am not sure what a child would think, watching Max in his crown, cavort with the wild things. The scenes have a crazy energy, with everyone whooping and jumping, the earth moving with the impact, Max scampering among their feet, nearly getting crushed with every step, but somehow escaping. They aren’t joyful scenes, not really. There’s more of a savagery there, a release, a catharsis. Sometimes it feels good to just go off on a “wild rumpus”, throwing snowballs, smearing mud on your face, rolling around in the leaves. To me, as an adult, tears were in my eyes watching these scenes, because I remembered. I remembered myself, and how lost I got in my fantasies of being a coal-dusted Cockney orphan when I was a child, how real it was to me, how fantastic, how awesome and street-smart I was in my dreamworld, how I was always the Artful Dodger, never Oliver, no, no, I was a LEADER. I do look back fondly on those times as a child, but it is pricked with grief and loss, and Where the Wild Things Are manages to capture that very delicate balance, without tipping over into retrospective analysis. Max is not a grown man looking back on his dreamworld. He’s still in it. But for me, in my place in life, watching him lost in it, made me ache. For what will come, for him. For what comes for all of us. Loss of innocence, having to leave the nest, having to learn to let go, all of those tough tough lessons we somehow (hopefully) assimilate when we are children.
The world of the wild things is not fantastical, not overtly anyway. However, there is a forest right next to a rolling Sahara desert, which goes right up to an open ocean. The fort that Max and the wild things build together is a masterpiece of set design and conception. There are shots in this film unlike anything I’ve ever seen, a whole world evoked, and with palpable reality, the way things seem in dreams sometimes.
The “wild things” here are not actually wild, although they look scary, and you feel like they could be dangerous if provoked. They’re more worried than anything else. They bicker amongst themselves, petty infighting. The arrival of Max, however, coalesces them into a group. They have been waiting for him all along, even though they hadn’t realized it. When Carol asks Max what his powers are, and Max sort of stutters out some generalities, Carol asks, “Can you keep out the loneliness?”
When he said that (and Gandolfini has never shown more vulnerability than he does here – although his recent performance on Broadway in God of Carnage comes close), my breath suddenly caught in my throat. I felt like a dork. A tsunami of emotion built up behind me. Because that is the question. That is the question to ask a potential friend. “Can you keep out the loneliness?”
Perhaps the wild things are manifestations of Max’s personality, phantom images of his own anxiety about growing up, losing things, having to leave Puff the Magic Dragon behind. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but that was the beauty of this film, for me. It gave me the space to contemplate such things, to have moments such as that one, where I got to sit and think about loneliness, and friendship, and how the human condition is so much about loneliness, and coping with it. Here, a “wild thing” is saying it, not human, but the anxiety in his yellow eyes was the anxiety I’ve seen in my own from time to time. Are you the one? Could you be? Could you help me? With this loneliness?
Are you the one?