Wednesday, March 23, 2011
I recently watched the movie, Where the Wild Things Are, on DVD. I loved the book when my son was a little boy, and he did too: we read it over and over, and he had some stuffed toys based on the lovable monsters in the book. I knew that Dave Eggers had been one of the script writers, so I knew it would be good.
And it was! Visually it was great: the monsters are like big muppets, but with much more expressive faces than Grover and Big Bird, thanks to animatronics. And it does justice to a truly great children's book, although it takes a lot of liberties with that original short picture book. In the original book, a little boy wears a wolf suit, creates some mischief, and gets sent to his room. The room turns into a forest, and he sails on a boat (while apparently still in his room) to an island where there are big Wild Things even more mischievous than he is. He is crowned their king, but he wants to go home, so he sails home to his room, where his supper is waiting. We never seen an adult: just Max, in Sendak's unforgettable illustrations, and the Wild Things.
The movie is a bit darker. Max seems older--about eight or nine--and he has some real troubles: his parents are apparently divorced; his older sister has some mean friends and they won't include him in their teen play or outings; his mother is distracted and worried, although loving. Also, she has a new boyfriend. All these situations, and an apparent sense of being left out or lonely, drive Max around the bend one night, and he puts on his wolf suit and goes native: he howls, he tries to order his mother about, and finally he flees civilization, like Huck Finn, and goes out Into the Wild.
But this Wild is not contained by bedroom walls. He runs out into a suburban landscape, pursued by his frantic mother, but he escapes her. (A parent watching this film is constantly mentally at home with the mother, sharing her anxiety about a child who has run off into the night!) As in the picture book, he sails to an island. The sailing scenes are particularly beautiful, as is the wonderful little wooden boat he sails in. He arrives at an island and, as in the book, charms and intimidates the little family of monsters, who make him their "king."
But the monsters in the movie, one quickly realizes, are not much different than Max's own fractured, contentious family: there is a quarreling couple; the monsters can't play nicely together without fighting; they even smash each others' "forts," just as Max's sister's friends smashed his. Max attempts to "tame" all this wildness by alternately dominating and befriending the monsters, but it doesn't work. The wildest Wild Thing, Carol, goes berserk and smashes up everything, and Max is powerless to stop him, at which point the other Wild Things realize that Max is no king at all, but "just regular."
This may sound a bit trite, but somehow it is moving. Max's distress at home, before he runs away, is acute: his little face looks so sad at times that it almost broke my heart. And you can see that his rage and temper tantrums, while justifiable in part, are frightening to himself. He stands at the cusp of that time in childhood when one must "put away childish things," when kids stop playing pretend and dressing up in wolf suits, and start learning to put aside their own narcissism in order to get along with others better. But it's so hard!
Max's kingship is a kind of metaphor both for his desire to master his own impulses, and his desire to not have to master these impulses: to remain a little willful tyrant all his life, saying lines like, "Feed me, woman," to his mother while standing on the kitchen counter. Who wouldn't love to be an infantile, demanding King one's whole life in a way? The monster Carol, who is always "out of control" but is also the most visionary and creative of the monsters, seems to represent Max's--and everybody's--Inner Child, both passionately creative and capable of destructive infantile narcissistic rage. Max can't control Carol; he can only admit, belatedly, that he is "just regular."
The key moment in the movie happens when Carol is raging through the forest, breaking trees, and trying to catch Max, threatening to eat him. The Inner Child has become a real monster, capable of destroying everything! Max runs to K. W., the rational, calm, maternal female monster (and beloved of Carol), and she hides him by swallowing him! Max dives into her capacious mouth, and we see him inside her stomach (or is it her womb?), listening while she quarrels with Carol. Later, she symbolically gives birth to him by drawing him out of her mouth, all wet and a bit traumatized, but safe. At this point Max says, "You don't need a king. You need a mom."
Aha! Freud's neat little trinity of Id (the raging, nonconformist Inner Child), Ego, and Super Ego never included The Mom, now, did it? One always assumed that the Super Ego parent was a father, as indeed Freud conceived of it. Max had tried to be the paternalistic, domineering Super Ego--the King--and failed. It didn't "get rid of the sadness," as the monsters begged him to. He couldn't stop their fighting or their destructiveness. (Even Freud admitted as much, in Civilization and Its Discontents.) It seems that K.W., the mom, is the only one capable of that, through her gentle kindness and inclusiveness.
So Max remembers his own mom, almost like Odysseus waking out of his dream on Calypso's island and remembering Ithaca and Penelope. He rushes down to the sea and sails away in his boat, leaving the grieving monsters behind. His mother, as we can imagine, is very glad to see him. It's not clear how long he's been gone in her world: fifteen minutes? days? She looks very tired, though, as if she's been crying for days and many nights. But apparently no police were sent to find Max. He arrives like Odysseus, unsought-for, but recognized by the one important person.
The "moral" of the story seems to be that connection and love are the only things that can tame the wildness without crushing it out of existence. Domineering kingship--trying to crush the Inner Child, the Wild Thing within--didn't work; it just made the situation worse. The mother's calm presence and waiting for the storm to subside are the magic needed to help Max grow out of his narcissistic rage and into a more social being, happily. This is pretty much what child psychologists say about the narcissism of early childhood: a heavy hand can just perpetuate the narcissism into adulthood; while no containment at all of the rage--the sleep of reason-- also can create monsters. Max's mother is "just right."
This movie spoke to me so strongly in part because I've been thinking about place of Wildness--or rather, its absence--in modern urban life. I miss, literally, the call of the wild when I'm in Houston: that thrilling sound of coyotes howling at night that I hear at my farm in Tennessee. I'm working on a series of photographs called The Call of the Tame, about domesticated animals. Humans are a kind of domesticated animal: we've domesticated ourselves. And there's a loss in that. So the Wild has a mystique, the mystery of a kind of lost paradise of the ancient past, or even one's own childhood.
I'm also re-reading Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, which trades in some of the same familiar tropes that Sendak used brilliantly in his original picture book: the lone male child going on a kind of vision quest on a boat, to a place where you can be wilder and crazier, where none of those irksome laws exist, and then finding that you miss the rules. I guess Where the Wild Things Are is kind of like Heart of Darkness for little kids, in the same way that Lord of the Flies is Where the Wild Things Are for middle schoolers. At any age, we need our myth of the Noble Savage, but when we actually meet, or become, him, we sort of balk and have second thoughts. It's a conflict that can't really be resolved. Mistah Kurtz, he may be dead, but the desire to "light out for the territory" never dies.