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I had a lot of ill-will built up toward Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are. It wasn’t just the usual enmity for a film adaptation of a book. But you’ve got to understand Maurice Sendak’s classic is the bedrock on which the colours and shapes of myself and many other adults’ understanding of the world are constructed. Colours and shapes that form some idea of “innocence” (at least in my mind). Colours and shapes that form some sort of retreat from the rueful visage of real life in the adult world. The story in Sendak’s book leaves space open. Plot and character are less narrative and more evental. The book opens on Max when he is called a wild animal and sent to his room. Then, he creates a jungle and sails to a distant land, meeting horrific creatures who make him their leader. After this, he sails back home. As an adult, I want all the other things filled in. But I gather that when I was a child, it was all there in front of me. The images were inclusive of a myriad of emotional and psychological realities.
When I was a kid, I didn’t need the space filled in. In fact, I didn’t find filler useful at all. It was sudden occurrence of being named a “wild child”, of being cast out of the world of the home and then creating a new home that was so important for me. Everything circulated around a moment to moment experience of life. One thing goes wrong and little time is spent dwelling on it before you move onto a new experience. The book’s most endearing part for little Nick Hilbourn might’ve been Max leaving the land of the wild things and returning to his home where he finds his supper on the table waiting for him. He never doubted that it would be there. There was a trust in the world conveyed in that image that I don’t think we ever get back after puberty.
Jonze’s film (co-written with Dave Eggers) could easily fill in the space. This is what I thought he was going to do (especially knowing what I know about Eggers particularly penchant for social awareness in his works, I thought it was going to be some moral fable on the emotional abuse of children and their coping mechanisms). I feared it. I loathed it. The film had yet to begin and I had already decided that it was a failure.
I was filling in the space.
Jonze and Eggers didn’t do that. Considerable backstory is given. Max’s father is absent. His mother is an overworked single parent, his sister is a godforsaken teenager and Max is a lonely, friendless kid. Worry crept in that I was seeing some intolerably sappy exaggeration of a New Sincerity school of narrative taking shape. In other word, it would be an emotional, socially-aware narrative with an obscure indie musician singing in the background that would end up collapsing on itself.
It was and it wasn’t and it didn’t.
It could easily have led in the exact direction I feared; yet, what Eggers and Jonze managed was to create all this backstory and still not tell us what exactly makes Max so angry. The beginning of the film suggests that his footing is being shaken out from under him. Max’s sister leaves him to be flattened in his own snow fort by a group of her friends when a snowball fight goes a bit overboard. Later, his mother seems to disown him in a moment of emotional distress when Max interrupts a date with a love interest. In these two scenes, Max’s distress is both his own fault and completely outside his control. He’s aiming for some sort of connection, but he has no idea what he wants to connect to. He wants to be included, but he wants it on his own terms.
A short side-note: in the movie, Max never once looks in a mirror. It’s not necessary, but it’s typical for characters undergoing a development change over the course of a film (especially children moving from one threshold to another developmental plateau) to have some sort of self-confrontation signified by a reflection (a la mirror or water). This never happens for Max. Although it’s obvious that Jonze and Eggers caught on to what we uber-smart adults caught onto when we were older (that the monsters must be aspects of Max’s self in confrontation and perhaps at the roots of his aggressive outbursts and not real beings), Max seems not to have this epiphany for a majority of the movie. If he does, Jonze doesn’t make it obvious.
Instead, what comes across is Max’s disbelief as he watches the Wild Things play out in front of him. Many of the riotous and (sometimes) ingratiating things done by them mirror the activities Max does at the beginning of the movie. This could easily be seen as a lazy narrative fall-back: The Allegory. All the Wild Things are just expressions of Max’s emotions. That’s a layer that seems explored, but it’s also trite. All adults worth their salt in adulthood made that connection. It’s part of being a healthy, cynical human being. However, I think a deeper connection is the sense of disbelief Max has for himself and the things he does.
After Max’s snowball fight with older kids comes to a quick denouement when a potential love interest of his sister hops on top of the snow fort, Max crawls out of the destruction terrified and angry and sad. A ruthless mix of emotions that he can’t reconcile. His response is to soak the living room carpet and tear apart the house. Later, when his mother confronts him about the mess, Max’s face is blanched. As if he’d just woken from a deep sleep and been blamed for the apocalypse. He makes the same face as he watches Carol and K.W. (two of the Wild Things) tantrum. These things have no basis or conceptual foundation for him. He’s flummoxed. To paraphrase the words of curmudgeon and certified adult Martin Heidegger, he experiences a paradoxical sense of alienation from and yet inclusion into a strange environment that he had no say in creating.
This isn’t what exactly comes across in the book. Eggers and Jonze fill in the gaps. Their movie points to a qualia abiding in Sendak’s book. They don’t zero in particularly on the origins of Max’s anger, but they do investigate the experience of being angry, of feeling alone, of wanting to be alone and yet needing someone to be on your side.
As I was thinking about this movie, I thought of a quotation from Eggers’ You Shall Know Our Velocity! that I found so relevant to my own experience of growing up. One that I scrawled on a piece of paper and put in my wallet. I’m pulling it out right now. It says, “…I had that feeling you always have when you’ve arrived somewhere unconscionable: you wonder what went wrong in the world to allow you to be there. You want to go back. You want to have never left home. You’ve made a mistake. Everyone’s made a mistake. It’s a nightmare. You never want to have left. You want to throw yourself back into your bed… But also told or reminded why you’re there in the first place.” The desire to remain inert and unmoving. Fear. Terror. Safety in emotional paralysis. Things can’t get worse if you don’t do anything. The book usually has Max moving, staunching, marching or moving in any number of ways that indicative confidence and authority. The only time he’s still is when he screams or yells at the Wild Things, when he’s trying to maintain some sort of order.
In Jonze’s film, Max’s character is punctuated by this stillness, this emotional paralysis. A moment when he reaches the extent of his comprehension and must create a new concept to understand the situation facing him. He doesn’t receive help from the Wild Things. In fact, they look to him for guidance, for exorcisms of sadness and answers to metaphysical issues (like, for instance, why the sun is going to blank out?)
The qualia of Sendak’s book to Jonze and Eggers seem to be going for is the subtle message of a child’s education at the heart of the meeting that takes place between a boy and a cadre of monsters. The authors may have caught onto the shift in thinking around education occurring in the early 60s (when Sendak’s book was published) that, in the words of philosopher Emmanuel Mounier, opposes the view that education was “to fashion the child in conformity with an environment, either familial, social or of the State, nor can it be restricted to adapting the child to the function or occupation that he is to fulfil as an adult. The transcendence of the person means that the person belongs to nobody else but to himself.” That’s a terrifying, stultifying prospect that hopefully occurs to all of us when we reach the foreboding drop-off point known as adulthood. I am alone with myself. You run from it and, ironically, run toward it.
This is what Jonze and Eggers seek to focus on and the film’s final scene captures it in blissfully melancholic fashion. After returning from his jaunt in the world of the Wild Things, Max runs back home and he and his mother face each other as equals at a table in the kitchen. A slice of chocolate cake between them. The mother does not ask where Max has been and Max does not feel the need to tell her. They’ve both been thrown into a new present. Awareness is on the reality of the other person in front of them. The unspoken sentence goes something like this: we’re going to start going through these things, whatever they are, together now.