Saturday, October 17, 2009

Where Wild Things Are Born

A long time ago, in a shire that’s not too distant, there was a television set. The television set served as a home for many a child, a shining god covered by oak surrounded by plants, coffee tables, ashtrays and pictures of family on adjacent corners of the living room wall. There’s a record player at another corner, gigantic and with switches that could make any child excited with the opportunity to play the music stored in the rack below. The TV and the stereo were magical things which gave you a passport beyond the world of action figures and Barbie dolls. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, these were your parents’ toys, not your own. One false move on the big RCA tube could cause the family T.V. to go into all weird forms of color, none of which would be acceptable to Mom and Dad. A scratch on a 45 stopped that great record, skipping where there should have been a beat. It wasn’t easy being a kid in the 1970’s. Everything broke and it took a lot of money to fix it. There was no reset button, no re-boot. A child’s hand brought about the electronic apocalypse to these appliances our parents had only dreamt of. In an era where no-one had a thousand CD’s or movies, there were just these two boxes of information. The stereo and television meant a lot to parents raising kids in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It was a semblance of release and relaxation. A virtual babysitter to help take away the daily doldrums of everyday life, yet these advancements left a void. The emptiness which is left when parents aren’t around anymore. This void was filled by imaginations of children, filled with wild things.

Film animation shorts had neared its end in the 1950’s. Film companies like Warner Brothers, MGM and Disney started to transition their product to the widening television audience, ending their theatrical short output in favor of the now famous “Saturday Morning” cartoons. The 1960’s output of MGM alum’s William Hanna and Joseph Barbera proved widely popular but Yogi Bear and Snagglepuss were not adequate substitutes for the quality of film shorts a decade before. The stories were weak, the animation sub-par. For many kids seeing this retread of Mack Sennett’s classic silent shorts was enough to take away a morning of Mom not talking to Dad, or Mom working without a Dad. Maybe watching Yogi Bear take the umpteenth picnic basket was a type of solace; Fred Flintstone or George Jetson getting some comeuppance yet being forgiven by their family for their weekly stupidities made the doldrums of reality easier to take. For many kids, this reality was either too blatant and boring or just enough of an excuse to escape into a book filled with possibilities, maybes and everythings.

Maurice Sendak’s “Where The Wild Things Are” was published during the advent of the Saturday Morning cartoon era. However, it’s words and pictures evoke an era long-gone. The book was a movie before it ever was one. It is a journey into escape, a world without boundaries. It was designed as a story with multiple interpretations for parents to tell their children; have them look at the pictures and dream of a fantastical world of kind, gentle monsters that epitomize comfort when parents cannot, or show a scary land of unpredictability, filled with creatures who love you so much, they’ll eat you up. Sendak’s pictures of the “wild things” make you love or fear them, depending how you look at each creature. It seems they move through the flow of your emotions. Is it how you look at them or how they look at you? Each moves differently through different eyes. The book is short, yet the eyes of the wild things catch you: are you joining the “wild rumpus” or running away? Is the real world worth escaping? Is the comfort of being loved, no matter how complicated it may be, more real than a world of adoring monsters? Is the soup still warm?

Many of us join Max on our various escapes from the real world. We want to get away, just for a little bit, to take our journey outside of our bedrooms and our lives. We clutch the blanket over our heads, hiding from the world as we finds sleep underneath the covers. Sometimes we hold our kids, sometimes we hold our spouses, sometimes we just hold on to pillows. There is a wall that sits when we go to sleep. It is the wall with a small door we want to go through before we think about it. It can be seen in a cuddle, the part you feel next to your loved one right before sleep sets in. Their door opens and you become just a little bit of them. Maybe it is in part of your kids as they hold onto you while they are coaxed to sleep. As they chase their dreams or nightmares, your steadfast comfort provides a journey full of wonder and hope. If you find yourself lying alone, cold and against the wall with a blanket covering your head, you can draw the way out with the tip of your finger. As it gets cold and lonely, place your finger on the wall, drag it up a little bit, then sideways and down to make a door. It might take a few times but trust yourself. By the second or third time, you’re deep into sleep and you’re gone.

A recent article by Bruce Handy in the New York Times questioned the appeal of the original 1963 book, implying “Where the Wild Things Are” was intended to garner the favor of critics and not necessarily children, at least not modern youth raised on such fabulous works such as the film adaptations of “The Grinch” and “The Cat in the Hat.” Maybe Handy has a point but if he does, it is a sad one, indeed. Have we grown into such literal-minded adults, hell-bent of creating literal-minded youths by age six that all the imagination has slowly been squeezed out of the psyche like extra lemon juice unneeded for a modern mental cocktail? However, it is worth noting Times devoted multiple articles a little over a month ago covering the great resurgence of another product from 1963: The Beatles. It should be suggested to Mr. Handy that he trash his Beatles records (if he has any) any purchase a nice copy of the Kingsmen’s Greatest Hits as “Louie, Louie” seems to be more his speed. Modern children are not much different than those Maurice Sendak wrote to in 1963. The have infinitely more technology and access to media but they still become bored with commercial crap written in a Hollywood boardroom. For every kid who was bored by the Hanna-Barbara shows of the sixties such as Yogi Bear or Huckleberry Hound, there are kids in 2009 who think they are being subjected to a visual lobotomy by watching “The Grinch.” I supervised a group for fifth graders last December who treated the Jim Carrey abomination like an episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” I let them have their heckling fun, knowing their own sense of humor was infinitely better than the jokes they were being subjected to. The reason classic shows such as “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and Rankin-Bass specials like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” retain their appeal is they never lose the sense of imagination and wonder which exists inside children be they eight or eighty-eight.

Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are” required significant expansion of Sendak’s original book. Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers never lose focus on the imagination of the boy, Max. An early scene in the film shows Max building a fort in his room with many of his stuffed animal friends sitting just so underneath the sheets. It is a short but poignant shot, as any child who grew up lonely (to a certain extent, we all do) could empathize with Max’s longing for companionship and adventure. Anyone who had stuffed companions in their youth might remember that many of their friends’ personalities were malleable, changing to accommodate the adventure of the day. As Max begins his adventure into the land of the wild things, the creatures mirror the various emotions of a young child and the personalities they inject into their own bedside companions. There is Carol (wonderfully voiced by James Gandolfini) who wants everything in the world to be perfect and to be the center of attention and affection. Another, K.W., does not want to play, but when is coaxed into doing so by Max becomes the “new” favorite, much to the ire of Carol. Judith, the suspicious one, slowly joins the fun as well. Many of the other creatures are treated with less attention and detail, which is how any child plays out their imaginary adventures. There can only be so many best friends at one time and the shy sweetness of several of the wild things shows an imagination full of love, but there only is so much room under the sheet fort.

As with many pretend adventures, building and comradery turns to conflict out of the necessity of new excitement. Max decides to have a war and puts the wild things on sides of “good guys” and “bad guys.” The favorites Carol and K.W. are part of Max’s team with most of the other wild things delegated to “bad guy” status despite their protests. Like any rough play, real or imaginary, things get hyper, out of control and someone gets hurt. Alexander, the diminutive goat, is picked on repeatedly and another wild thing suffers an injury all too common in stuffed animals: the loss of a limb. Jonze and Eggers show the fallout from the eyes of young Max who slowly realizes each and every one of these creatures has feelings of their own. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience in the past, cherished friends who became casualties in a bedroom version of “Lord of the Rings.” When you saw them hurt, arms ripped, eyes cracked, how did you feel? Did you like the world you created or did it make you sad to see what happened to the friends you piled on top of you in the middle of a scary night? Did you feel bad for the one you ignored or the one that lost an arm? Making things better in your own imaginary world can be just as emotional, if not more so, than the real one.

The only scene between Max and Alexander involves the feelings of being ignored. Max attempts reparations, but there is sadness dominating the world he once loved. The playtime is over and he longs to be comforted, stating he wished they had a mommy like he did. The adventure is over and it is time to leave, just as it is always time to leave the fort in the bedroom. There are goodbyes, tears and sadness. The severed arm of the injured wild thing is not healed, just replaced with a clumsy stick. When you said goodbye to your friends, was it not the same? There is always tomorrow for dreams to come true. As Max journeys back to his home and to reality, he takes the adventures of all kids, big and little with him. In the end, a nice hot bowl of soup and the embrace of someone who loves you unconditionally is the destination we all want to land in, whether we are immature enough to admit it or not.

When you see “Where the Wild Things Are,” think about where you were when you were Max. Be it ’62, 72, 82, 92, 02 and all the years in-between including the present day. What were your adventures? Who (and what) accompanied you? Do you miss them? Do you want to go back there? Do you miss being under a real, big pile? If you have children, take the time and watch them go on their adventures. Be quick about it, for eventually they will hide them. Go through the fingernail door in the cold wall, before it shrinks forever. Watch the stories they tell. They are the same stories, just different players. Notice the friends who are guarding them against the dragon and those who have to sit and hold up the fort. Maybe that sad, little friend just needs a little love. Go back to that world, just one more time. I dare you. Your kids will notice the glimmer inside you, the belief of what is impossible and illogical is believable as long as you have enough childhood inside you to still believe. The child in us may be distant, but is never truly gone as long as we believe in a world of forts, sailboats and wild things.

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