Sunday, October 18, 2009

"Where the Wild Things Are" - In Our Subconscious, Of Course


directed by Spike Jonze
starring Max Records, Catherine Keener, voices of James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper, Catherine O'Hara, Forest Whitaker, Paul Dano
adapted from the children's book by Maurice Sendak

Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are” is an ambling, shambling, unlikely wonder of a movie. By all conventional measures it shouldn’t work at all. It’s based on a slender picture book that has maybe ten lines of narrative. It’s formless, almost plotless, and at times so leisurely in pace it borders on soporific. It’s been slathered with the kind of facile pop-psychoanalytical coating that no doubt gives most psychologists fits. Yet for all that, I still fell in love with it at first sight. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up being my favorite film of the year.

I don’t remember when I first read Where the Wild Things Are, but I do remember the part of the book I loved the most. It’s the moment when the bedroom of the main character, Max, begins to transform into a forest. Though as a child I couldn’t articulate precisely why this image fascinated me so, I know now it was the liminality of the moment—the sense it evoked of being on the cusp, of having one foot in one world and one foot in another.

This scene doesn’t exist in the movie. And you know what? I didn’t care. Because the entire movie is about liminality; it’s about a boy just beginning to form a vague conception of adolescence and, beyond that, adulthood, but one that’s still colored by a child’s instincts and desires. It’s this theme, in fact, that gives the film much of its emotional power.

None of this, of course, is in Sendak’s original text. Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers lay the groundwork for it by creating a bit of back story for Max. Their Max is a boy of about eight or ten who lives in a nameless wintry suburb with a single mother (Catherine Keener, looking harried but still luminous) and an older sister, Claire. As in the book, Max is a restless bundle of energy, but the movie also sends clear signals that he particularly craves the attention and affection of his family. We see him attempting unsuccessfully to engage his sister, who’s too occupied with her own teenage world to notice him anymore; when he tries to draw her friends into a snowball fight, they end up destroying his snow fort before decamping, taking an indifferent Claire with them and leaving behind a furious, tearful Max. Mom, while more responsive than Claire, is also distracted—first by her job (though there’s a beautifully tender moment in which she sets aside her work so that Max can tell her a story), later by a boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance) who comes over for dinner. Max, in his grey wolf suit, tries to assert his dominance, but only succeeds in literally wounding his mother. In the one major departure from the book, he then runs out of the house before he can be punished, finds a boat on a bank, and sets sail, eventually arriving at the land of the wild things, whom he persuades to crown him king.

Some viewers may complain, not without justification, that this is where WTWTA loses momentum that it never really recovers. There’s not much shape or direction to the events on the island; in fact, there aren’t really “events” at all. Bursts of fitful activity are interspersed with long stretches of desultory walking and talking and occasionally surreal interludes, while the overall trajectory is a movement towards general disillusionment among the beasties with Max’s leadership, as he proves unable to keep their various discontents at bay. But this lack of structure doesn’t feel aimless so much as reflective of the soupy state of Max’s subconscious mind.

For it’s hard not to notice that the subjects and actions that occupy King Max echo the experiences and observations of Boy Max during the day. Max’s ill-fated igloo is reconfigured, multiplied, and magnified—first as a population of little homes that we first see one of the beasts, Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), wantonly destroying, evoking both the destruction of the igloo and the revenge Max takes on his sister, then later as the mother of all forts, a wondrous conical thing that in the end can’t “keep the unhappiness out.” The snowball fight is transmuted into a dirt-clod fight, with even more destructive consequences, and Max, forced into the role of disciplinarian, bellows the identical words he last heard directed at him. Even the fanciful story Max told his mother reappears, as does his subliminal fear—roused by a chance remark by his school science teacher, early in the film—that the sun will die out some day.

The beasts, meanwhile, quickly take on aspects of Max’s psyche. Carol, with his violent storms of rage, jealousy, and grief, most obviously represents Max’s uncontrolled id, but also channels his wistful, creative side; while the smallest beast, the goatlike Alexander (Paul Dano) is the one who sulks because no one will listen to him. Some of the beasts seem to stand in for the people in Max’s life that he’s lost or fears losing: a disaffected girl-beast, KW (Lauren Ambrose), who always seems to be leaving the others to seek the company of a pair of squawking owls, is pretty clearly a projection of Max’s feelings about his sister; and depending on your best guess as to why Max’s parents split up (the movie gives barely any clues on this), either Carol or the quieter bird-beast, Douglas (Chris Cooper) could also be a stand-in for Max’s dad, and KW, who takes care of Max, could just as easily represent his mother as his sister.

But it’s best not to try to draw too literal a correlation between the beasts of Max's imagination and people or elements in his "real" life. The relationship between those two planes of his consciousness is far more fluid and diffuse, as it is in dreams. Indeed, there’s something altogether dreamlike about Max’s entire sojourn among the wild things, which is shot in a soft, almost hazy focus that gives the forest glades, desert expanses, and quiet beaches an otherworldly glow. Even the beasts look softer and fuzzier than Sendak’s illustrations; at the same time they feel remarkably tangible, probably because Jonze used real, live actors in giant beast suits, though the faces were filled in—to marvelously expressive effect—with computer animation. The overall effect is at once appropriately fantastical and wonderfully organic, in a way I haven’t seen in any other animated or partly-animated films.

And that, ultimately, may be why the movie struck such a chord with me: it feels like the product of a real kid’s imagination. (It helps that the boy who plays Max, though cute, has the demeanor and body language of a normal kid, and none of the studied self-consciousness of a trained child actor.) I’ve seen some complaints that WTWTA is a movie for hipsters, not kids, but other than the Jonze name (and I haven’t been much of a fan of his previous work) and the indie-ish soundtrack by Carter Burwell and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O, I don’t see it. There’s nothing precious or snarky or knowing about this film. Quite the contrary, there’s a purity of spirit that shines through and reminds even the oldest and most jaded viewer of a time when growing up was a kind of betrayal and the destruction of a snow fort the end of the world.



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