Monday, October 19, 2009

On Vilde Chaya

Mr. SENDAK:...A lot of people were angry at my books because they put children in jeopardy, just what you're talking about. And the idea of an American children's book where the child is not perfectly safe was something that was new.

I didn't know it was new. I didn't set out to break any new ideas. I was just doing what was only in my head, which was of course mostly autobiographical because childhood was a terrible situation.

INSKEEP: Why was childhood a terrible situation for you in Brooklyn?

Mr. SENDAK: Well, Brooklyn, by the time my brain began to function, we were in the war. And we were Jews. And all of my father's family had been exterminated and much of my mother's family had been exterminated. So from very early on I knew of mortality.

The film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are is coming out to a rumbling identical to that which greeted the initial book upon release half a century ago. Mainly, it doesn't speak to a childhood story/story about childhood we can fondly remember/immediately embrace. In actuality, it was a story we grew fond of and are now facing a new set of complications with. There's a nagging notion that a definitive statement on childhood is missing from the proceedings.

While the film might, on the surface, not be a definitive statement on childhood, to ascribe it such value would one, negate its still valid entry into the catalogue, and two, judge it on the merits of its introductory sequence as opposed to the increasingly complicated events that follow. While it initially situates itself within the burgeoning alienation of Max's adolescence from the vantage-less point of Max himself, the environmental factors Max bounces off of thereafter are not bottom-up. But to criticize the movie for its lack of immediate communicability with the younger set as a result of adulteration by the adults who made it negates the potentiality of diluted nostalgia, and lack of communicable relation with one's past self except within the framework of what you now know.

And so, the introductory sequence i.e. Max's real life, bookends the film and said bookends are of a particular kind of childhood sadness. Max comes from a white, middle-class home within which everyone suffers the same alienation but at the expense of their kin. His father is absent, the only trace being an inscription on a globe telling Max "this world belongs to you." His mother, wit's end with her job but with no shortage of love for her kids, seeks solace in a potential suitor. His sister defies familial connection and seeks solace within her friends. Max himself grows more introverted with every failed interaction, measured by how much it caters to his attention, with what gradation of pain (as with a snowball fight turned sour).

Talk of the sun's hypothetical demise in science class are filtered through doom and gloom mythos, internalized by max as a looming concern, or perhaps as an explanation, with the sun as one of a few coming references to patriarchal abdication's effect on the offspring. His attempts to scratch the glacial separation are passive agressive, veering from lovingly indulged storytelling to void-weary outbursts that when seen replicated in his mother's response causes the shock of recognition and sends him running.

Back to the nature of definitive. "Definitive" would suggest such a thing exists ignoring how a more class/race conscious composite would negate this one's reality, and two, its inconsistencies aren't the relation between the film's suggested initial reality and the variegated experiences of children from all kinds of backgrounds, but between the film's suggested initial reality and what transpires during the subsequent escape from it, which itself, if considered, offers the missing link.

While Max's origin story in the film feels tamed and bridled by industry concerns of marketability, with the broadest target audience being Max's class background counterparts whose parents, assumed, would be the most likely contributors to ticket sales, along with the niche indie market the trailer's use of the arcade fire seemed to be tailored for (calling to mind that New Yorker piece they got cornered in), the only reason that might be an issue is because of the embellishment a film adaptation of a ten-sentence book requires. The origin story before script revisions was still what it ends up being in the film, the only changes were to Max's portrayal, previously less sympathetic and heavy on brattitude. While Max in the story IS an angry white kid, the fleshing out of the reason for his behavior seems relegated to something with the least visceral potential.

Not to trivialize the absence of his father, something wholly devastating in itself, but the ensuing violence of the wild things seems to be working out subtextual trauma derived entirely from another kind of upbringing, one which makes more sense in the context of Sendak's quote above, as well as from one of Jonze's stated reference points, Lynn Ramsey's Ratcatcher. A Gummo critics could get behind as it overtly concerns the politcs of poverty, Ratcatcher showed a dustmen's strike exacerbating the filth and degradation of Glasgow's working class and the way that affects an adolescent's reaction to a drowning/his surroundings. For reasons I'll get to in a moment, I kind of feel Julien Donkey-Boy would serve as an even better reference point. Or John Darnielle's The Sunset Tree, or this Tyson interview with Oprah.

So while a quiet, reflective suffering paints the opening scenes, with intimations of the hazards of play (as in Max's stunned tears from out of a crushed igloo) that perhaps offer a connection to the causal mishaps in the land of the Wild Things, it is nowhere near preparatory for what follows. Once we get there the onslaught of growing up's discomforting complications have more parallels to the communal disintegration and reconfigurative processing techniques of the Together collective than to Max's own life. In fact, the socio-political implications of what ensues came off as almost uncomfortably exploratory of abrasion's symbiotic relationship with comfort.

The oratory skills of the Wild Things take on the half-lucid id first ruminations of dreamworld avatars, with the shambling confessional mistakes of inebriation. Their hang-ups control their diction, with their fears punctuating the brash but inquisitive defiance of their statements. Things turn on dream logic, too, as Max's arrival disrupts the jaded and disgruntled demolition binge of Carol, sending Max into the jaws of death when Carol's approval of his participation clashes with the others' death penalty castigations of wanton destruction. For Carol there's something going on under the surface, being that they've all got something going on underneath this tyke's carefree indulgence is a cruel joke.

As for the wild things' hangups: Alexander barely speaks up, mainly to spell out his exclusion in audibly self-loathing tone, perking up only at the site of KW. KW is a loner, with a glum but resigned acceptance of futility, uncharacterisitically indulging the magical promise of Max's arrival while averting Carol's passive-aggressive, history-laden displays of romantic interest. Carol is unstably optimistic, with the possibility of being failed and failing himself constantly lining any pleasant disposition with looming rage. Douglas is Carol's wingman, there to pick Carol up in lieu of encroaching breakdowns. Judith questions the legitimacy of everything with knee-jerk disillusionment hyperaware of her percieved intrusion but always game to partake in failed projects. Ira is actually kind of stoned-happy and easygoing.

Judith and Ira are the only ones who maintain an overt kind of linkage with the wild things' inspiration, Sendak's Jewish immigrant family. Not a positive one, really, as Ira has a big nose and Judith has horns with an ADL style victim-complex and nasal whine but their presence lends the proceedings a tangential connection to Sendak's succeeding works' relation to the holocaust and the destruction it wrought on his extended family in Europe.

LUDDEN: What do you think has drawn you to children's literature? Why there?

Mr. SENDAK: I don't know. I think my own childhood. If I had a unhappy life, and most of us do, actually, and if you have an immigrant life and if you come to this country--I was born here--but then you grow up and everybody in your family who's not here is dead in a concentration camp, and all you hear is your father or mother weeping and tearing hair out, and knowing that pleasure was a sin. Playing ball in the street or laughing was a sin because they can't play ball and they can't laugh. How dare you have pleasure in life when they can't have anything? So I hated them. For a long time, I hated them, and my childhood was completely misshapen by what was going on in the world.

So I had my brother and my sister and my father telling us horrendous stories. He didn't know what was appropriate. He just knew how to tell a story, and it was great, which maybe gave me insomnia, maybe not. But they were really terrifying of shtetl life in Europe and his experiences and stories where--and there were children dying. `I remember Eli and oh, he died in such a terrible way.' `Papa, tell us. Tell us how Eli died,' you know, like that was the best thing we could possibly hear. And then he wouldn't spare us the details. He'd tell us the whole horrible details of Eli's death, and they stayed with me for the rest of my life.

The wild things' horseplay with each other transitions from roughhousing to disturbing in ways that sometimes echo what Liliana Cavani was aiming for in the Night Porter, others the various responses to domestic abuse. Their bipolar vacillation between angry despondence and joyous revelry is both psychological and physical, going at each other like permanently damaged creatures who've come to accept the violent imperfections of their behaviors as both liberatory in the infliction of pain and defensible in the context of displaced anger.

Carol's violent outbursts are shrugged off in "he means well" phraseology. When dirt clod warfare breaks out, KW's facestomping of Carol causes him to take it personally, resorting to the arms of Douglas who he claims would only do such a thing as an accident. To remedy the situation KW asks him to step on her face, he doesn't satisfy the request. When Max takes on the role of face-stepper, she thanks him, relieved. Each one's outward displays of hostility are masks for their insecurities, (SPOILER, kinda) best exemplifed by KW's turning to the mysterious Bob and Terry and willfully interpreting their responses as everything she needed to hear (an action echoed by the wild things later on (SPOILER END)).

When John Darnielle was interviewed by Nerve about the difficulty of The Sunset Tree's autobiographical content, in which a younger Darnielle tries to grow into a functional adult in spite of his abusive stepfather, an unexpected geniality flowed through his response. "I don't want people to feel bad for me because I'm fine, and I don't think of my stepfather as this monstrous figure. A lot of the reviews describe him as drunken, which really annoys me because he didn't drink, really." When that ruffled the standard notion of confessional discourse, he deconstructed Oprah:

The thing about those people on Oprah is, I wouldn't blame them. It's the way you have to frame stuff for an audience as broad as a daytime-TV audience. You really have to spell the story out in the simplest, most black-and-white terms possible. There's no room for nuance in best-selling self-help books. I mean, yes, the abuser is wrong to abuse and yes, the abusee deserves better than to be abused, but after that the dynamics get real sticky. If you are in that dynamic you learn to sort of play the role. I think art would be the better place to investigate these sorts of things. You don't work out problems in your marriage on TV; you do them in the house in really complicated ways.

Darnielle's stepfather had passed on years before he thought of making the album, sparking off a powder keg. For his mother and sister, his stepfather's behavior had passed on, too. The album's last track, though, is an uncharacteristically fond memory , and further complicating things Darnielle leaves something else for him, too: "My stepfather was a passionate, political man. He talked a good game about not lying about the world as you see it. To do honor to that part of him that made me who I am, I felt like I needed to tell the truth." The political machinations alluded to in the Wild Things are also a lot more complicated than expected.

Almost immediately, there's a voluntary vassalage to Max's ascension to the throne, brought on by the Wild Things' percieved need for guidance, for the comfort of hierarchy and being told what to do. It's a desperate response to an emotional rut with grave consequences if the last-ditch effort becomes just another another slap in the face. Initially, it's almost Hobbesian, born in fear, with a "war of every man against every man", liberty sacrificed on behalf of something finally putting an end to it all.
Max's crown is pulled from an unidentified skeleton, one Carol shrugs off as something that was there before they were, before taking Max around the island and repeating the inscription of his father.

The top-down age-ist mechanization the creators are accused of finds defensible character here in that the dissolution of power and utopian vision aren't played off as a world-weary, hopeless dead end but instead a complication of prescriptive naivete in taking on the world's ills, whose resonance here is seen to be derived as much from internal expurgation as external observation, the world is as fucked up as we are. In doing so, the effect isn't to render attempts at remediating, both interpersonally and globally, as null and useless but perhaps perpetually flawed in a way that requires practical application of sympathetic oversight.

That the realization comes from an illusory throne is loaded, obviously. Though his father's absence is never explained, you may gather the hazards of being one are accounted for in Max's travails, but his throne's dissolving importance seems to reflect on the power conferred to the vacated role and the reclamatory ability realizing the overcompensation in doing so entails. Yet when I watched the film the resonance of what transpired with the Wild Things wasn't informed by the introductory sequence, but my mother's experiences, something which recieved an unexpected reaction when we dialogued after the movie's end.

Now my mom, like Sendak, grew up with the Shoah generation. While Sendak was around as a tyke for it it's implications for both of them were gained from the post-traumatic behavior of their parents. When my mom was max's age she was in Israel, and between the Six Days and the Yom Kippur Wars. As she describes it there was a whole generation of kids under parents with double baggage. Either tattooed or refuged, they came out of one catastrophe into another in the role of perpetual war veterans, with the attendant shock. Her dad, and a bunch of others, had PTSD and those kids got caught in the crosshairs of PTSD's blind rage.

For a while there was a disconnect. Growing up and still now my granddad on my mom's side was a comforting example of gentle care. His deliberate movements mirrored the passing of time, not only in the way his methodical thoroughness with every action corresponded to the ticking of the clock but in the way it seemed to accept the futility of rushing, perhaps in light of "where to?" But the trajectory of how he got there over time eventually filled out in less than comforting ways.

Yet, there's never been any animosity in our family trips to Israel, unless it was extra familial and aimed at the news. My mom, seemingly, had internalized the damage, simultaneously acknowleding both his and my grandmother's failure to properly introduce her to the world and that it was their introduction nonetheless, citing mitigating circumstances. With the potential for harm subsided, their presence was innoculable and the endearing parents they could have been, and were from time to time on the family outings she marks as the good times, are instead there now, enabling a familal relationship for her and the rest of us.

When I mentioned the lack of connection between the introductory characterization and subsequent abrasive quality of the wild things and how the initial depiciton of alienation failed to account for the conflicted relationship with violence and love that ensued, my mom countered with the gradations of depression as measured by personal experience. Foregoing comparative trauma, she focused instead on the devastation wrought by incommunicable despondence in direct relation to one's surroundings and the destructive potentiality in any of its unremediated forms. Basically, the capacity for depression and violence isn't solely rooted in environmental factors, and comparing backgrounds ignores what most immediately informs it. All of a sudden it sounded like I had it in for the kid and wanted him to experience my mother's traumas, disregarding the intermitting melancholy I can fall prey to without the assistance of CPS violations.

Yet all my assessments of the Wild Things interactions were second hand. I wouldn't want Eggers and Jonze to have explored that with anything other than genuine interest, and I wouldn't want a harsher reality displayed at the expense of the audience whose recognition of it on personal grounds would result in anguish. As it exists the opening sequence offers a comparative experience with the ensuing activity offering subtextual relation without being overt, but the latter part's engendering of that discourse suggests the discrepancy is worth addressing. It still begs the question, "what kind of wild thing exists in all of us?"