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Giving A Second Shot To "Where The Wild Things Are"

Glenn Kenny

It is not common practice for a film reviewer, or film writer, or, not to split hairs, a film critic, to reveal the state of mind he or she was in when seeing a film. Nor to necessarily admit that said state of mind colored one’s perception of the film. In practice, that sort of thing of course happens all the time. But the critic’s not supposed to admit it. More to the point, the critic is, or was, expected to make sure that such a thing doesn’t actually happen—to maintain his or her  objective perspective while viewing and apply a subjective aesthetic/sensibility/analytical apparatus to the picture at hand after that. Again, as to whether this ideal ever really obtained in practice is open to question, not that we’ll ever discover the answer.

One thing that internet film “criticism” has given rise to is a more personalized mode—one that I myself have deplored in the past, in instances where the mode has yielded some of what one might call “TMI” from the critic. But one that I also have found occasion to indulge in, as in my admission last week on my Some Came Running blog that I attended a screening of Spike Jonze's Where The Wild Things Are in a particularly foul humor, and that this could have affected my conclusions about it.  "I had a great deal of admiration for the filmmaking," I wrote there; "for the craft and the aesthetic choices that resulted in a fantasy film shot in a near-documentary style. Make that, rather, a child's notion of a documentary style..." But, I continued, "I found the film's predominant mode of being was not so much as a celebration of childhood, or a painstaking examination of childhood emotional states, as I found it to be a rather snotty privileging of childhood, specifically male childhood. I was particularly put off by the film's coda (I don't know that this is actually a spoiler, but I suppose I ought to alert you), which seems to direct a very specific message at single mothers, that message being, if you even try to carve out a minute corner of life for yourself, your little boy is going to turn on you, and then you'll be sorry, so best not to even go there."

The responses from my readers were respectful—I'm lucky that I have an audience that leaves behind a very smart and civil comments thread pretty much every time—but critical. I did not get the film, and I did not get the ending particularly. And while the critical consensus on the picture is not nearly unanimous, the picture's champions are both impassioned and persuasive. So I figured, maybe I was wrong. Maybe I need to give this picture another shot.

So on in the early afternoon of Monday, October 19, I did. My conclusion: I really ought to trust myself more. Because I actually disliked the picture in larger measure this time than the first.

Don't get me wrong: in terms of sheer filmmaking imagination and chops, it's damned impressive. Those big-twig-constructed forts, a visual echo of the rubber-band ball in Max's "real" room (the representational cues for the world of the wild things cataloged in the film's prologue are even more extensive than those that turn up in the sepia opening sequence of The Wizard of Oz), are staggering. And while one of my commenters rather hilariously compared the film's creatures to the Hanna-Barbara live-action creatures The Banana Splits, the animatronic/CGI hybrids are entirely believable and all beautifully voiced. The problem is, once I came to believe in them, I wanted to get away from them as fast as humanly possible. If the film's Max is, let's face it, a bit of a dick even as nine-year-olds go, these whingey wild things are simply annoying, and not in a particularly engaging way. Watching the rages of the most complicated thing, Carol, as he destroys the forest homes of the wild things while moaning how things aren't supposed to be like this, I was rather reminded of the half-fake tantrums that singer David Thomas throws during Pere Ubu sets. The thing is that said tantrums are punctuated and/or buttressed by genuinely visionary, kick-ass rock and roll. This is what some people call a dialectic. In any case, Carol doesn't have the rest of Pere Ubu backing him up, just these other neurotic feathery simps.

My friend James Rocchi has marveled that this is "a film that knows about confusion and reality and sadness." He is right, but then again, there's the rub—the film is very much concerned that you understand that it knows about confusion and reality and sadness, it's constantly tugging at your sleeve like a fidgety child to make sure of this. This concern is a hallmark of the work of Wild Things co-screenwriter Dave Eggers. When Eggers' McSweeney's periodical first began appearing, various critics noted its antic, iconoclastic, often snarky tone, and in some cases came to the horrified conclusion that Eggers and his claque didn't believe in anything. The thing is, he/they actually believed in plenty, that plenty often having something to do with childlike "wonder" and an eschewal of critical thinking. And when they did choose to tell you about something they believed in, they wanted to make sure that you understood that their sincerity in this regard was in fact almost painful. And what were YOU going to counter that with, huh?

That's the stance that is behind some of the film's most gut-churningly on-the-nose bits, as when the wild things actually ask their new "king" Max: "What are you going to do about, you know; what about loneliness?" and "What he's saying is, will you keep out the sadness?" Maurice Sendak's original book was about an awful lot of things (and with so few words!), one of which was the infectious fun of potentially destructive mischief-making. Here, the mischief is bombastic, ugly, and scored to Karen O's lameoid simulation of a Go Team! song. The film knows plenty about confusion and reality and sadness, okay; it knows almost nothing about a good time, and laughter. ("Does anybody remember laughter?"—R. Plant) I swear I laughed more during Tarkovsky' Stalker than at this film.

As for the ending: yes, maybe I overreacted...and maybe not. I'll allow that the expression on Max's face as his mother begins to sleep, and he continues munching on his cake is finally unreadable, but as far as I'm concerned the damn kid is still a little too pleased with himself.

(And speaking of Karen O, I really want her agent: the opening credits say "Music By Karen O and Carter Burwell," and then, in the end credits, in tiny print, you see that Ms. O worked with no less than six, get this "co-composers" for her contribution to the score. One uncredited one is Paul McCartney, who first used the lyric "you took your lucky break and broke it in two" [warbled by O in a crucial real-world scene] in his song "Too Many People," from the much-maligned Ram LP.) (UPDATE/CORRECTION: I wasn't being quite fair here. The "lucky break" line is from a Daniel Johnston tune Karen O. covers in the film. Johnston's an admitted Beatles freak and can be excused for his lifts, I suppose. But Karen O. is still something of a credit hog.)

Writing about Where The Wild Things Are in the October 20 op-ed section of the New York Times, conservative columnist and self-appointed zeitgeist temperature taker David Brooks went counter to the Village Voice's J. Hoberman's conclusion that the film is pretty much "group therapy with Muppets." Describing the film's fort-building, Brooks noted, "Max has all his Wild Things at peace when he is immersed in building a fort...[t]his isn’t the good life through heroic self-analysis but through mundane, self-forgetting effort, and through everyday routines." Therefore, Brooks proposes, the film's improvement on the book is its assertion that "it is possible to achieve momentary harmony through creative work." Except the fort turns out to be just another false hope, false solution for the Wild Things. That it's revealed as little more than a distraction from those constant bedbugs of sadness and loneliness doesn't seem to bother Brooks (one is reminded of Irving Kristol's admission that while he himself was not a believer, relgion sure was a good thing for the lesser masses). While I'm largely an art-for-arts-sake person myself, I do also believe in the glory of art as its own value in a way that the movie does not. Except, maybe, in terms of its own self. Which notion makes Wild Things seem ever emptier to me the more I think about it.

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