Sunday, November 1, 2009
More Emo Than Wild: Where the Wild Things Are
Imagine watching a YouTube video where a baby plays with his rattle and flings it right at his mother's head (because he/she doesn't know better). Then the Mom, having a rough day, stomps on the rattle in front of the baby, who we watch cry its eyes out because it's too young to understand what it did. The camera would then hold on the baby's face so we can witness every little tear making the mother cry as well. One can argue that going against expectations makes this video more artistic and truthful, while others may wonder what is so entertaining about watching a cute baby cry?
I watched "Where the Wild Things Are" over a week ago and have admittedly had trouble finding something to write about it considering all that has been written about it so far. But the main reason I'm hesitant to dive into thinking about this movie again is that it bummed me the hell out. If you knew my favorite films, you would realize there are many so-called "depressing" films I consider classics. However, those films may have depressing subject matter on the surface, but there is a level of exhilaration watching a great filmmaker telling a story that may be a complete downer.
This did not happen for me during "Wild Things", which played for me like relentless emotional posturing. What surprises me most about this is that I would never think Spike Jonze was a director who would go out of his way to take the movie in the direction of anti-entertainment. You may consider me unsophisticated to not appreciate the artistry that's on the screen, but I just could not believe the film was saying anything remotely new or insightful about childhood. It just wants you to accept its version of childhood as honest, although it is represented by a bipolar protagonist with sociopathic tendencies who conjures up playthings, who can each take up a chapter in the Freudian playbook.
"Where the Wild Things Are" is based on a popular children's book (unread by me) written in 1963 by Maurice Sendak. Encouraged by the author to find his own unique take on the material, Spike Jonze has made a film that wants you to look back at your own childhood, but not through rose-colored glasses. That is commendable, considering the various condescending and outright vulgar trash that is directed at children these days. But Jonze overcompensates and winds up making his least subtle film in the process.
It should be noted that this is Jonze's third film after "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation" and the first not to feature a screenplay written by Charlie Kaufman, although it has been said Kaufman contributed uncredited rewrites. After watching Kaufman's own directorial effort last year "Synecdoche, New York" and this movie, I do wonder if Jonze and Kaufman complete one another. I am currently wrestling with my feelings about "Synecdoche", which I think about often, but also felt that it was rubbing my face in its own depression. In some ways, I feel Jonze has made a film similar in tone, although with subject matter that doesn't really earn it as much as Kaufman's film does. The thing about "Malkovich" and "Adaptation" was that those films never lost their sense of humor, which, without it, could have made the subject matter tip over into full pretentiousness. While watching "Wild Things", I wonder what happened to the Jonze from those two films. He was a director who often knew when to alleviate the melancholy with humor. When did he turn into a filmmaker who wants you to feel his pain?
The first 15 minutes of this film are dedicated to portraying the sad home life of the protagonist Max. The pre-opening credits shows him chasing after the family dog. When he catches up to the poor creature, he practically grabs it by the neck and shouts at the top of his lungs. This is then followed by an incident where his older sister's friends get into a snowball fight with Max, destroying his snow fort causing him to cry. We then meet his mother (played by Catherine Keener) who is raising the kids on her own and also seems to have pressures from her own job. At this point, we see how much effort Max puts into getting his mother's attention when she's working or having a date. Every slight that Max feels he gets from his family results in him acting out. The final straw happens when Max bites his mother while she's trying to get him to calm down.
Believe it or not, these first 15 minutes of the film were the closest thing to the feeling of joy this film ever came close to approaching. Sure, the colors are drab and the depiction of family life is not exactly happy. Perhaps, in Spike Jonze's world, this level of family dysfunction may seem like the most traumatizing thing for a 9-year old to deal with. But while I watched this, I can only be envious that Max has such an understanding and kind mother, while also wondering whether Max himself simply represents the most extreme version of childish narcissism. I almost feel like taking Spike Jonze aside and letting him know how easy Max does have it in life for him to be acting out this way. It is another film where I often say to myself, "Man, I wish I had their problems!"
"Wild Things" becomes a true sadness pile when Max hops on a boat and goes to the island where the Wild Things live. These creatures are quite a handful, as if they were created for a psychotherapy coloring book. The main creature which Max bonds with is Carol, voiced by James Gandolfini, who is an equally interesting, distracting and ultimately preverse choice for this role. Prone to violent fits and insecurities, I could not be the only person who kept imagining this character pouring out his issues in Dr. Melfi's office. The character shares several of the same neuroses of Tony Soprano. And, much like Tony, I never thought there was anything that would appease the character's fits of anger.
We have other characters like Ira, KW, Douglas, Alexander, and Judith who each wear their resentments and insecurities on their sleeves. KW, who at first you think is a little more enlightened and less morose than the others, reveals that she has two bird friends, Bob and Terry, who she meets up with by clocking them hard with rocks to make them fall out of the sky. She even remarks after doing this that Bob and Terry do not mind that she hits them like that. This is quite a mopey group of creatures, anything but wild, bizarrely reminiscent of the mental hospital patients in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" with Max assuming the role of Nurse Ratched. What kind of child conjures up imaginary friends who seem ready to hurt him emotionally and physically at any given moment? Even the imaginary friend the kid from "The Shining" had was trying to warn him of impending danger.
As beautiful as the film looks, as shot by Lance Acord with fine uses of the color brown and sun glares, I believed the poetry resided solely within the images, but not the screenplay which truly does come across as written by psychologists rather than dramatists. The bulk of the movie takes place on the island, but the structure in this section is often shapeless and repetitive. Max and the creatures play, someone gets their feelings hurt and everyone mopes around for a bit until Max decides they should have fun again which results in the same hurt feelings. This happens again and again in approximately 15 minute intervals.
Does this film have anything truly insightful to say about childhood? Not particularly. It's more emo, a commercially branded melancholy than anything else. The movie sells sadness to depressives so that it can then symbolically pat you on the shoulder reassuringly to let you know everything will eventually be alright. The score by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs attempts to soothe those bad feelings, but sounds like a hip kindergarten teacher leading her kids in a sing-a-long, trying too hard to unite the sullen and happy kids by trying to whip up their spirits with happy chants.
What does Max have to be so sad about? What makes him so special from all the other kids who have to adjust to the realities of growing up? I almost would use this film as a reason to explain why I haven't had kids yet not to necessarily understand a troubled childhood. Wouldn't anybody out there would like to have a mom like Catherine Keener? This is a woman who takes out time from her own work to type one of Max's stories. Who wouldn't want to have a parent who encourages your imagination like that?
I never quite get what Max learns from being on the island with the Wild Things, outside of the obvious parallels between them and himself, as well as the other people in his life. Except his family never directs anything at Max with any genuine malice. The Wild Things, however, cannot contain their anger and bitterness. Anytime they threaten to be cuddly things, they will blurt out a line like when one of them asks Max, "Are you going to keep out the sadness?" Considering all of the Wild Things have adult-sounding voices and feel as if they should have considerable life experience, it is difficult to think of them as merely representatives of children as much as they represent adults who are too childish to grow up. Perhaps, if the Wild Things sounded more young, I would have understood the way they behaved. But, after one of them throws yet another fit, the first thought that came to my mind was "What an asshole!" They don't resemble children, as much as they represent the self-entitlement of those who are actually well-off comparatively. It is not like these Wild Things have jobs or families to raise or bills to pay. They get to live out in the wild. How can that be so bad?
Often, in films like this, when the inevitable end comes when Max has to leave the island to return to the real world, there is a certain feeling of sadness about leaving an imaginary world behind. In this film, I really wanted to get away from that island long before Max did. In fact, I thought Max should have stayed there because they all deserved one another. I certainly did not believe any of the characters truly gained much of the experience. I definitely imagine Carol reverting back to his usual nonsense a couple of days after Max leaves.
I did not attain any greater understanding of my childhood while watching this film as much as I resented the film for thinking its depiction of a child's psyche was either original or universal. Max and the Wild Things are fashionable mopers who advertise their emotions because, ultimately, those who act out get more attention than those who try to deal with their problems in a way that is constructive and acknowledge that they are not the center of the universe.
I find it difficult to knock this film because this clearly came from Jonze's heart. The problem, from my viewpoint, is that it is difficult to care that much about problems I consider to be petty in the grander scheme of things. It has been remarked that this movie will be embraced more by hipsters than anyone else, which is an admittedly derogatory statement directed at a type of person who elicits little sympathy from most other people. Although I do not like to stereotype, the sad part is that there is some level of truth to this. I can certainly imagine those from Williamsburg, aka Hipster Central in New York, openly weeping at this movie for revealing how tough childhood was for those who were loved and supported emotionally and financially by their parents than most. You can argue that inserting obvious elements of family dysfunction into the script would have been more obvious, but it also would have been more dramatically relevant. This film is a litmus test in some ways as people like me will shrug their shoulders wondering what was so important about this story, while others will tout this as being as important a piece on childhood as "The 400 Blows".
"Where the Wild Things Are" was a drag. An artistic achievement, but depressing without purpose. As much as I did not like the film, I admire it for going against the obvious creative impulses. But, yet admiration for this film does not translate to the pure joy I have when watching something truly great. I never would want to sit through this film again. A film whose sole mode is melancholy for the sake of melancholy is just not enough to justify getting depressed over. Sure, it's effective in its manipulation of that emotion, but I do not need to be as traumatized by Spike Jonze's relatively painless depiction of childhood as much as he seems to be. Did we need to make this entire journey for an ungrateful kid to finally appreciate his mother?