Saturday, October 31, 2009

Movies: Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are is my favorite children’s book. I love it so much that, not only do I have the tale committed to memory (“That night, Max wore his wolf suit, and made mischief. . . of one kind and another; his mother called him Wild Thing, and Max said, “I’ll eat you up!” so he was sent to bed, without eating anything. . .”), but I consider it one of my favorite books period, placing Sendak in the pantheon with Foster Wallace and Barthes, who write for adults (very smart adults, at that). As a child, I didn’t like monsters or adventure stories, and I didn’t identify with Max the way most children probably do; my attachment to the book was perhaps precocious—I loved it for its poetry—it’s tempo and its tone.

Generally, movies made about our favorite childhood things are destructive forces—nothing so materially realized can compete with the melting edges of our nostalgic dreamscape. But Jonze and Eggers nailed it, fleshing out the story only as much as needed to make a 101-minute movie out of a book comprising less than ten sentences. And by some trick of masterful art direction, watching a handful of giant, live-action furry monsters tenderly hugging a little boy seemed perfectly real and natural; not once did I feel that spark of critical distance that so often strikes me at the movies—even when watching actual actors not dressed as giant, furry monsters.

Max of the movie is a bit more sensitive (dare I say “twee”?) than Max of the book; his anger is grounded in frustration, with an older sister who ignores him for her friends, and a mother (the sweet, scratchy-voiced Catherine Keenar, who appears in the top-five of every hipster’s MILFs list) who ignores him (briefly) for a wine-swilling Mark Ruffalo-as-boyfriend. The Wild Things, rather than simply “rolling their terrible eyes and gnashing their terrible teeth and showing their terrible claws” also express a fully human range of emotions, with particular attention to the darker feelings of loneliness, insecurity, jealousy, and anger. They are, thus, able to move us as much as Max does, often bringing us to tears.

Characters aside, where the magic of the book lies in the pacing of the page turn (during the wild rumpus, there is no text at all, but the swinging bodies of the wild things propel the story forward nonetheless), the magic of the movie resides in the art direction. This begins when Max climbs into his private boat, something just tattered enough to belie the dreamscape, but solid enough to carry a small boy in and out of a day, and a week, and a year. The sloshing sea, the driving rain, and the huddled boy in his filthy, bedraggled wolf suit set us up for the craggy cliffs, endless dunes, and enchanted caves that Max discovers in the land where the wild things are. The Andy Goldsworthy-like palaces of twigs—huge, swooping organic gestures tumbled across a clearing in the wood and surrounded by a network of tunnels, a fort “to keep the sadness out,”—add another element to the movie—the human compulsion to build—not actually in the book, but in perfect keeping with Max’s psyche (for the land where the wild things are is, of course, something that Max has built in the first place, even if it is fully natural and uncontrolled, without technical structure).

And so, even if detractors will say that this is another hipster puff-piece (the Karen O. soundtrack is neither for children nor adults, for example) made by and for overgrown children, its values (creativity and friendship) are valid. Rarely does movie by the hipsters for the hipsters wear its heart so openly on its sleeve; there is nothing here that is coy or disaffected or too-cool-for-school. Jonze proved himself as tender as he is clever ten years ago with Being John Malkovich, probably one of the smartest and saddest movies ever made, and it’s a bit shocking that he hasn’t done a feature other than Adaptation since then. The man is a genius of humanity and should be making a movie every year, like Steven Soderbergh or the Coen machine. Eggers, further, has proven that he is a worthy screenwriter, and that the travesty that was Away We Go can be blamed fully on wife and co-writer Vendela Vida.

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