Sunday, October 18, 2009

Max = Not Marriage Material

When I was in kindergarten my dad taught me how to feed insects to ants. In the backyard of our house we squatted down, looking for bugs and swarming ant's nests. If you found the right size bug and the right location in an ant's nest, you'd have a show that beat anything on Wild Kingdom. Years later, my parents divorced and I spent a lot of time turning over stones in the dry brush of our backyard, "playing" with bugs by myself.

Thinking back on it, I'm a little shocked at the cruelty of the pastime. I like to think of myself as a compassionate person. Torturing bugs is the recreation of sociopaths, after all. But my regret is tempered by an appreciation for how I was battling my own loneliness and trying to assert some control over a world that seemed so far beyond me.

And it's also true that you end up doing a lot of (strange!) mean stuff when you're a kid.

So, watching Where the Wild Things Are, I felt partially transported back to that backyard, with it's rough stones and soft dirt, and solitary malice. Spike Jonze's beautiful adaptation of the Maurice Sendak story is picture-perfect in creating a world that is somber, hopeful, cruel, weird, melancholy, menacing, and joyful. The experience is similar to one of those strange dreams where you're know you're sleeping, but the dream world seems real anyway.

But I was not Max. Although I missed my mom and dad because they worked so much, in the movie Max's father is absent. It's never explained, but the sadness that hangs over the family suggests that the absence is permanent. My dad was still there to show me how to hit a baseball or play chess or drive a stick shift.

Plus, I never tweaked on my mom like Max does in the movie. He jumps on a kitchen counter, in full wolf costume, yelling at his mom to "make my dinner, woman," (even though she's got company and it's obvious she's trying to get her groove back.) He later takes a bite out of her shoulder and runs off like a wild animal. My mother is a kind woman, but I was smart enough to know that the consequences for that kind of behavior would be unspeakable.

And quick word of advice for all the single ladies out there trying to get someone to put a ring on it: if you find a wolf costume, with a pointy crown, in the closet of the man you are dating, keep stepping. As much as I like Where the Wild Things Are, it might as well be called Portrait of a Woman Batterer as a Young Man.

One of my quibbles with the movie is that I wasn't clear how the movie wanted me to feel about Max's cruelty to his mother. Early on we get that she cares a lot for him and is sacrificing for her son. (The scene with him dictating a story to her to make her feel better was a very "writerly" moment by the way. Word to Dave Eggers.) But then we see there's some new guy in the house who looks kind of wormy and mom is giggling with him and they're popping bottles. When Max comes through looking for some loving attention, all he gets is frozen corn. Although we empathize with the mother (even mama should get to swerve), the scene sets the stage for a justification of Max's crazy behavior.

Later, one of the movie's most touching moments is also one of its most troubling. When Max returns home, his mom doesn't say anything. I thought she might at least shake the teeth out his head, and then give him a hug, but no. From her reaction, I thought she was going to apologize for hurting his teeth with her skin. And despite his incredible and harrowing journey with the Wild Things that taught him about empathy and family and love, he doesn't have much to say to his mom when he gets home. No Sorry about that. No My bad. No My fault. No See what had happened was...

As a matter of fact, the main lesson he learns is that if he wants a home-cooked meal all he has to do is go missing for a couple hours. He gets all of mom's attention (no swerve for her!) and a fat piece of chocolate cake. The grin on his face as his mother falls asleep from exhaustion is not chastened with regret, but emboldened by self-satisfaction. That doesn't seem like a good sign.

Despite these quibbles, the movie is amazing. Visually it's stunning, but the characterization of the Wild Things is even more so. In fact, I haven't had this much fun since the great stink beetle/ant hill battle of 1988.


MsBeanMSSW said...

I wholeheartedly agree. Not only does the boy exhibit some troubling misogynistic behaviors towards his mother, but he befriends Carol, a monster who is very abusive towards his friends/family. There's even a point where Max rationalizes (read: makes excuses for) Carol's abusive behavior towards his fellow monsters. You see the cumulative effects of the abuse on the monsters, too, as they are forever falling victim to him and seem to have not found any way to band together and put an end to the abuse. Neither Carol nor Max learn that their battering ways are unacceptable, something that really concerns me since people are taking kids to this very kid-unfriendly movie.

Abdel Shakur said...

Yeah, that's a good point about Carol. I didn't consider him as the centerpiece of the Wild Things unhappiness, but he is definitely a big part of it. It was telling early on in the movie when Max first met them and Carol changed the subject when Max noticed the human skeletons that were laying on the ground. Creepy.
However, it's important to note that this kind of misogyny and violence is not outside the realm of most of our "traditional" children's stories. Looking at everything from "Hansel and Gretel" to "Little Red Riding Hood," "Where the Wild Things Are" is right in line. Unfortunately.