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Giving A Second Shot To “Where The Wild Things Are”

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.

Excellent piece Glenn. It’s the cloying presentation of Max that really bugs me in the film. It seems he’s Jonze and Eggers in miniature, but their love of the character and their boys will by emo boys attitude towards him stops any examination of the actual emotional issues he presents in the film.
Great piece, as usual. However, who are these creeps who “much malign” Ram?! Let me at ‘em! The album’s a bona-fide, better-with-each listen masterpiece. Better than Let It Be by a country mile.
Glenn – Haven’t seen the film yet (although I plan to), so I can’t really comment regarding your take on it, but I HAVE read Dave Eggers, and your comments regarding McSweeney’s (and his own writing by extension) feels dead-on. I’ve always wondered what rubbed me the wrong way about his writing, as strong as it can be at times, and that’s exactly it. Thanks.
the funny thing about reviewing this movie is that it reveals more about the reviewer than it does about the movie itself.
@ Ahnmin Lee: Hey, that’s pretty heavy. But I think for maximum effect you need to add a “boogity boogity” or a “boo-yah,” or some such thing, just in case nobody’s fell down dead at the awesome zinger you just landed.
you’re right: boo-yah.
My point being, and I don’t think you necessarily missed it, is that your argument is the ultimate evasion. It’s mysticism: “Oooh, what you say about this movie says more about YOUR SELF than it says anything about the movie.” Oh really? So then what is it that YOU’RE saying? And what’s it say about you? It’s a cute dodge, but it’s a dodge nonetheless. You want to defend “Where The Wild Things Are?” Go ahead. If you can. Without bringing your crap mystifications into the fray. Think you can hack it?
Okay, this is going to be long (but you asked for it). I actually have no desire to defend the film. That wasn’t really my point. But I do believe that it’s a dividing work that seems to resonate with people in very different ways, much more like a poem than say… I don’t know, “Transformers.” Only because the emotional content is so heavy. For me, while watching it, I was reminded of so many of my own fears and insecurities that I felt while growing up as a 9-year-old in a broken home, trying to make sense of feelings too big for me. The funny part is that I went with a group of high schoolers (I am 24) and they all vehemently HATED it. Their general consensus was that it was “scary” and “creepy.” My only guess as to why they took it that way is because they themselves are still dealing with issues that seem to be too large and too frightening at such a young age. They have not yet come to that place where you can finally make sense of what you were feeling and sort through it all. But you see, that’s what I admire about what Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers did (again, not defending the film). They depicted such an accurate portrayl (imho) of what it’s like to be a 9-year-old. And not just any 9-year-old; a fatherless 9-year-old. Growing up without a father is not pretty, in the least. Everyone needs a father figure, everyone needs a mentor, to guide them, to teach them, to take care of them. For Max, there was a huge gaping hole in his life where his father was supposed to be. I don’t mean to make any prejudgments about you but from reading your review, I would (cautiously) assume that you had a pretty healthy childhood. A mom, a dad, a roof, and safety. Now, if I’m wrong by any means and I am grossly over-generalizing your childhood experience, I am terribly sorry. I only say that because your review suggests that the feelings, emotions, and moods brought up by the film, which are very specific to a type of a broken childhood experience, were unpleasant and annoying for you. I said it before but fatherlessness is not pretty. It is ugly and difficult and harsh, whether the father left through abandonment or death. For someone who never experienced that, those feelings would only come across as uncomfortable and nagging. For me, my father was physically present but emotionally, he was always somewhere else. He lacked the character to ever raise me properly and more often than not, I spent my childhood in wild imaginative worlds in search of an answer. And when I wasn’t doing that, I was throwing tantrums. The thing about tantrums is that if you don’t know the motive, you only get annoyed by it. But if you actually took the time to understand where it was coming from, there would at least be some kind of acceptance to it. When I watched the movie, I was able to relive some of the pain I went through and it was hard at first, but I found a great sense of relief and (surprising to me) gratefulness by the time it was over because I was able to relish the fact that I had grown and eventually found a mentor in high school who fathered me and brought me to a healthy emotional state (and now I am trying to do the same with said high school group that I saw the film with). I was able to admire the film for provoking such a strong reaction in me through gorgeous cinematography and skillful filmmaking (which you seem to agree with). This is not to say that “Where The Wild Things Are” is only for counseled adults that overcame their fatherless childhoods. I am only saying that I think what the film stirs up are inescapable emotions that are exclusive to a kid growing up in a broken home. For viewers who attest that the film’s mood was “painstaking” and snotty", I can only conjecture that they themselves did not share that experience. Again, if I’m wrong, I apologize a million times. This has already gone long enough, but I just need to point out that I never meant for my comment to be pejorative or even snarky. I don’t know why you took it that way. I was merely saying that I felt like your review revealed more about who YOU were and what YOUR childhood was like then what “Wild Things” actually was because it’s such a strong piece about specific emotions and specific experiences, blah blah blah, etc. etc. I’ve already repeated myself enough. If you had a great childhood and you can’t relate to what the film was speaking about, then great! That’s tremendous! You are very lucky, and I am not saying this with ANY sarcasm or condescension at all, I promise you (I know sincerity is the hardest thing to communicate online). Please don’t relegate me to that detestable group of forum posters who defend their most beloved directors to the teeth with absolutely zero respect, humility, and saddest of all, thought. Look, this is a movie that says things about the people who watch it. That’s my opinion. Reading your review, I felt like I learned more about who you were then what you actually thought of the film.
Ahnmin Lee: You’ve told us much about yourself, but not much of anything about the movie. You’ve projected plenty of “exclusive” emotions into it — and made an awful lot of assumptions about the psychology of anyone who, in your view, doesn’t “get it” — no matter what their reasons: “My only guess as to why they took it that way is because they themselves are still dealing with issues that seem to be too large and too frightening at such a young age.” How can anyone begin to respond to a swipe like that without some idea of how you’re interpreting particular moments in the movie? You say it presents privileged insights to adult children of fatherless families — how, and what might those insights be? You say “it’s such a strong piece about specific emotions and specific experiences…” Some specific examples would be in order — if there’s to be any actual discussion of the movie here.
All right, then, I did ask for it, and thanks for your response, although I also feel Jim’s points are well taken. I can’t possibly gainsay your observations, as the film touched you in a very personal way. Still, your critical method amounts to special pleading, that is, you seem to be saying that the film can’t be properly appreciated by anyone who hasn’t shared certain of the same experiences. Which would, you have to admit, limit its utility value as a work of art. But it is true, I was rather alienated by young Max, which is why I said that I found him “a bit of a dick, even for a nine-year-old.” In my experience nine-year-olds can be confounding and perverse (like people of mostly any other age!) regardless of the circumstances of their home lives. But Eggers and Jonze obviously wanted to make his fatherless state signify: that globe inscribed “This World Belongs To You—Dad” is a loaded metaphor if there ever was one. My own childhood was relatively comfortable—my parents didn’t divorce until I was in my very late teens, which was weird in its own way, but on the other hand I wasn’t exactly the most popular kid in class. In any event, I asked my mom last week why Sendak’s book didn’t figure more prominently in my early years, and she said, “There was no in-between period with you. First it was ‘Pat The Bunny,’ and then you got a library card, and you were bringing home Trotsky’s biography of Stalin. Go figure.”
“If you didn’t have those experiences…” is not a critique of a film. A film critique is an assessment of the work by the critic, his/her reaction, what they took away from it, etc. It is inherently personal, in a way, but that personality is, hopefully, well versed in the art form being critiqued, an informed opinion that (thankfully for us) Mr. Kenny (and Mr. Emerson) have an abundance of. Yes, it does reveal more about HIM than the film but let’s not forget that HE is a professional who is practiced, studied, and well-qualified to address the task of reviewing the film. That the film had an impact on you is something for YOU to cherish. This is for your own good “You don’t understand” is the lamest, most pathetic, way to argue a point of view. It’s sloppy and ignorant, it is, hopefully, not a view point you should be passing along to these High Schoolers of yours. In fact you should encourage them to go with their own opinion but explore it more, rather than falling back to a personal bias or imploring sympathy. A reviewer in, what used to be, their informed opinion, can watch a film and from the methods employed can make an estimation of what the filmmaker is putting forth, what their potential aims where, and if they achieved this in some way or fell well short. My advice: read Manny Farber. But please watch the films he reviews, otherwise it would be pointless and you would be reading him for cinematic brownie points, something I bet Dave Eggers would do. I hate this culture of cool.
To Glenn: But you see, I AM admitting the film’s limitation. It’s been said before but I believe this is not a work of art for everyone, as proven by its mixed reviews (67% on rottentomatoes last time I checked). To make it so personal is what I appreciate and admire about it, even apart from the fact that I can relate to it. And I never meant to imply that people who haven’t gone through what Max goes through in the film can’t appreciate it. The artistry, craft, and even besides the style, the daring of the film can all be properly appreciated from a critical and filmic point of view. I can watch Tarr’s “Satantango” and be absolutely enthralled by its filmmaking choices. But I will never, in my whole life, know what it’s like to live in a poverty-stricken village looking for a way out. I can never connect to the story on that level but I can still properly appreciate the storytelling. An even better example is “Band of Outsiders”. I HATED this movie. If only for the fact that I felt Anna Karina’s character was treated maliciously by two asshole misogynists. I couldn’t stand them. Did I love the camerawork, dialogue, and blocking? Yes, yes, and yes. But I couldn’t help my own personal experiences and values from keeping me from thoroughly enjoying a mostly loved work. Lastly, thanks for actually having a conversation with me rather than lampooning me for God forbid, an opinion. And I appreciate your honesty and sharing about your own family. Also, from “Pat The Bunny” to Stalin seems only logical. To Jim: Max throwing a tantrum in the kitchen and threatening to eat the one person who could take care of him paralleled with Carol throwing a tantrum and threatening to eat the one person who could take care of him is a remarkable way of driving the point that Max is simply scared, confused, and simply wants the assurance of safety and covering. When Max is being trampled by the Wild Things and all of a sudden is in immediate danger when he was just having fun a second ago is accurate in its portrayal of how kids often hurt themselves and have no reservation for peril. Are those the kind of specific examples you wanted to further discuss? To John: My assessment of the work is that it is well crafted, daring, and personal. My reaction is that I related to Max. What I took away from it is that I am not alone in my childhood experiences. Aren’t these all things that I covered and mentioned? I concede to the fact that Mr. Kenny is more qualified than I am to publish a review. That’s why I’m commenting on his blog and he, not on mine (and maybe even why I’m not actually bothering to review the film!). But for you to just take “You don’t understand” from my lengthy response is missing the point. And honestly, there’s nothing I could really say to you because, in your mind, you’ve already classified me as some trendy hipster that bathes in pretense and insincerity. Whatever I say will be out of the mouth of a Dave Eggers wannabe. And it’s sad because I didn’t even begin to make any preconceived notions about you! Although your imploring of me to read some obscure film critic begs at least some kind of personality genre assignment.
Wow. Ahnmin makes a short comment, Glenn practically taunts him into responding, Ahnmin writes an extremely thoughtful, polite, extremely personal and interesting response and he gets bashed by a bunch of others. Damn. I mean, it would be one thing if what he wrote wasn’t as thoughtful and smart as it was. But also he apologizes a “million times” in it. Ahnmin, I just saw this movie today, I had an amazing childhood, i didn’t love the film but I like it more after reading what you wrote. Thank you. Glenn, I am new to your writing. I really like your stuff, but I think you have to admit this dude has a point with what he is saying. I went back to this article because I saw the film today and I wanted to get your take on it and what I basically got from you is that you think Eggers is overrated and the Max kid is a dick. You seem to still be in that “state of mind” that you were so proud to say you recognized may have clouded your first viewing. Summary – cut this dude (Ahnmin)some slack.
Peter, I’m sorry if you feel like I taunted Ahnmin into a response, but I’m glad he did respond, and if he’s getting a few rather intemperate responses in return, well, while I don’t endorse the intemperateness necessarily, I also don’t think it’s unhealthy you be prodded into arguing the merits of one’s opinion. That said, I’m sorry you didn’t see more in my perspective than a dislike for Eggers and a dislike for the main character of the film. The points that were most important for me had to do with what I considered the film’s very self-conscious efforts to impress the viewer with its own sensitivity. Andrew Sarris had a term for not this precise quality, but something very much like it: “Strained seriousness.” Actually, now that I think of it, my objections to the film can be summed up in those two words alone!
Yes, that’s interesting. I can see that in the film.
Ahnmin: Thanks for responding. Yes, that’s the kind of specific observation I hoped you would provide so I could better understand where you’re coming from.
Great piece, this is one of the only negative reviews of WTWTA that I don’t think is a personal vendetta against Spike or an old hag crying over the “old days” of cinema.
I grew up in a home where my father was on the road, driving truck, almost 8 months out of the year. My girlfriend, who watched WTWTA with me just last night, is Korean but spent most of her life going to school in New Zealand with her mother while her father worked in Seoul. Needless to say, we might as well have come from broken homes, but that fact didn’t help us enjoy the movie any more than we did. It was all cute, cuddly, marketable plush toy monsters running around either praising or harassing this bratty little kid we didn’t care much for. If there’s a lesson that Jonze and co. are trying to teach us here, it’s both vague and heavy-handed at the same time. Here we have a group of 5 or 6 monster friends who are complaining about being lonely. They choose Max to be their god-king out of impulse and then for the rest of the movie question his every whim. The creatures say and do random absurd things that make very little sense to kids or adults. Point being: I didn’t think this movie wasn’t all that great, and trying to say that I don’t “get it” because of my upbringing is a cop out. I’m 25 and remember the book quite well and from what I gathered from it was that sometimes it is more fun to frolic around in your imaginary jungle than it is to deal with the real world. Jonze’s island of Wild Things seemed to be the most depressing, annoying, boring place to be.
This child in the film reminded me much of a child I was coaching how to swim. Last year he was living in his own little world screaming and not listening but once he saw the same actions performed by his friends he seemed to stop all together. The wild things in this film resemble his individual characteristics of his wild uncontrollable childish self. He matured after seeing their actions and left his imagination. This adaptation really felt like it not only preserved the message but also added some other stuff. “Jonze’s island of Wild Things seemed to be the most depressing, annoying, boring place to be” might seem that way near the end of the film representing the main character’s view of being sick of the island. Just thought I should put up a perspective for just watching it today for the first time.

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