Saturday, October 17, 2009

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

Not just for his short stature and elvish voice has Spike Jonze always been a filmmaker who deems it necessary to keep an artistic eye on that chamber of life that contains childhood, youth, and adolescence. Remember the look on that girl's face in the back of the car at the end of Wax's "California" video? How about those teenage bull riders in Jonze's short documentary Amarillo by Morning? There's also the touching posthumous video for Notorious B.I.G.'s "Sky's the Limit", the skater kids in Sonic Youth's "100%", the high school gymnastics competition of "Elektrobank", and the throwback letter sweaters in "Buddy Holly". Even Jonze's intermittent work with Jackass evinced an interest in a specific type of manchild that is still too devilish to grow up. So now, at a point in his career that seemed to be at its calmest, Spike Jonze resurfaces with his finest testament to date, a film that critic Kent Jones has described in the most perfect way as "childhood in motion".

At the midpoint of Where The Wild Things Are, there's a moment where average-kid-turned-imaginary-ruler Max (Max Records) sketches blueprints in the sand of an improbable kingdom that he and his monster friends will build and live in together. The unbridled imagination pouring out of Max's mouth as his hands try to keep time with his head during a tutorial for the beasts, made me think of what the production brainstorming sessions must have been like on the set of Being John Malkovich. Writing about a giant Emily Dickenson puppet, a portal into John Malkovich's head, and a 1/2 floor office with short ceilings, is much easier than actually pulling it off for the camera. But such is the ambition of Jonze, a cinematic wish granter whose own fantastic ideas stand responsible for churning out the total uniqueness of his art.

There is much to love about the bulk section of Where The Wild Things Are that takes place out of reality, on the island where Max and his subconscious "wild things" work things out, but of particular note should be the sequences with Max at home and at school that take place beforehand. Frankly, I can't recall a better on screen summation of rambunctious, rambling childhood than WTWTA's first fifteen minutes. Max builds an igloo, gets in a snowball fight, jumps on the bed, tackles his dog, cries tears down his cheeks, talks to a fence, builds a bedroom rocket ship over some bedroom lava, does "The Robot", picks at his mom's pantyhose, yells at his sister, and runs. Of course, all of this is given emotional heft due to the prudence and careful direction of Jonze. Watch the transition that is made from classroom to car when Max's teacher talks about the sun dying out. As his teacher's lecture trails off, the lingering words follow Max into the passenger seat of his mother's car and place a gaze of awestruck fixation on his face, a look that only comes from the fascination of a young discovering mind.

As soon as you can accept that the monsters or "wild things" represent the individual characteristics that make up the prepubescent milkshake that is Max, images of the kid with giant furry puppets start to emit a much grander significance. To watch Max speak up and out to the monsters as they surround him, or to see him leading a charge of all through the woods, is akin to a child's self-discovery of his or her own vulnerabilities and strengths. During a daytime nap, the monsters dogpile each other and form a mountain of mumbling, snoozing bellies, paws, and snouts over Max. Underneath this protective mound, Max huddles, bonding with the most independent and mature of the beasts, KW. The way KW stands apart from the group (she arrives late it greeting Max) as the most aware and accepting of Max's true nature, reveals her to be the stand-in for Max's real life mother.

Though not a theme which dominates on first glance, Max's coping with the separation of his mother and father, and, therefore, the lack of his father's attention in general, is revealed as Where The Wild Things Are's red, beating core. In an early scene, we see Max peering around the corner of the hallway onto his mom enjoying herself with a new boyfriend. Later, as he hides behind a branch, that same intimidated stare returns to Max's eyes as he watches KW and Carol fight over, what feels like, the rubble of old romance. But Max's anxieties, and Jonze's brilliant visual recreation of them, hit their peak in a scene where KW shelters Max from a raging Carol by hiding him in her stomach. The in utero allusions are clear, and it's quite striking to look at a knee-to-chest Max cocking an eye towards the muffled bickering outside between the two larger figures. If Max doesn't blame himself (his conception, his birth, his existence) for the absence of his father, then the possibility of it is definitely something he ponders.

But the loveliest set-up Jonze produces is the miniature stick & clay scenery that Carol shares with Max out in a private, solitary cave of his. The tinker toy landscape - a bite size model version of a monster utopia that Carol dreams about for he and his friends - recalls every child's toy train set, doll house, race car track, or playset that satisfies that under sixteen universal urge to live in a idealized alternate world where every possibility is controlled by you. When Max sticks his head through a hole in the middle of Carol's creation and catches an eye-level view of this matchstick wonderworld, it's the perfect embodiment of childhood imagination within its own physical limitations. I suppose you could say that the making of Where The Wild Things Are was exactly that for Spike Jonze, or, maybe there really is more than mere coincidence to the director's boyish features and voice after all.

29 comments:

Hokahey said...

You hit on the aspects that I liked best about the film: the sharply realistic vignettes of Max's hooliganism before he embarks for Where the Wild Things Are. Also, I loved that play-world of sticks made by Carol - loved it - but that scene is all to brief.

Thus, for me, the film had not enough of the poignant realism of the pre-adventure scenes and not enough of the whimsicality of scenes like Max poking his head into Carol's stick world - so that, for me, the parts that the majority of the film comes off as toneless and overly moralistic.

Fox said...

Hokahey-

Obviously we disagree on the tone - I thought it was near perfect - but I find it curious that you saw the film as "overly moralistic".

The morality of WTWTA is something I loved b/c I think it's honest to the simple dilemmas kids face (yes, it's fun to throw dirt clods, but it's also easy to hurt someone by doing so) and learn from - or not.

Was it that type of stuff that bothered you?

Hokahey said...

It may have been that dirt clod lesson and the whole mopey part after it. It just got heavy and I lost interst. The best parts are Max's whimsical imagination - how he images the big fort that will do everything - and the stick world seen through his eyes. I know the Things were manifestations of Max's emotions - but they got so draggy to be around. Maybe that was the point.

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