WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE review

Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

My husband does not like to go out to the movies. But after viewing the trailer for Where the Wild Things Are a few weeks ago he changed his mind. “That,” he told me, “I would see in the theater. We can bring the 3-year-old.” Here my heart sank: I was ecstatic that my husband was willing to venture out of the house for a movie. But after looking into the film’s production history and reading early reviews, I knew that this film was  not for 3-year-olds.

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Seeing the film this past weekend only confirmed my hunch. It’s not that Spike Jonze’s vision of Maurice Sendak’s classic 1963 book is too violent for children (though there are scenes in which lives are threatened and limbs are removed). Rather, the problem is that the movie is simply not for children. Case in point: when I went to see the film a girl about the age of 7 or 8 was seated in front of me and she continually asked her parents questions like “Why was that funny? What happened?  Why did you guys take me to a 9:30 pm movie?” Okay, that last question was mine.

This child was frustrated and my guess is that the film will also frustrate audience members who were hoping to share the movie with their children, much as they shared the beloved book with them. But, I for one am completely satisfied with Jonze’s re-visioning of Sendak’s work. I’m glad it’s not for kids.

Sendak's Max starts the wild rumpus.

Sendak's Max starts the wild rumpus.

While Jonze took many liberties with his adaptation, the original story remains in tact. A little boy is punished for being a “wild thing!” and escapes to a world in which being a wild thing is celebrated. After indulging his id for a while the boy decides to return to the place  where “someone loved him best of all.”

Jonze's Max rumpusing with Carol.

Jonze's Max rumpusing with Carol.

Jonze’s film completely immerses us in the consciousness of a 9-year-old boy (Max Records):  we listen as he composes imaginative stories for his mother while idly poking at the pantyhose on her toes and we experience how a child’s emotions can change in an instant from pure joy to pure pain during a raucous snowball fight. And this is just in the first 15 minutes of the movie.

Max surveys his kingdom.

Max surveys his kingdom.

Once Max reaches the land of the wild things he  is made king of all wild things and his first post-election promise is to “keep out all the sadness.” How does he does he achieve this impossible task? By initiating a “wild rumpus” through the woods, drafting plans for an elaborate fort — a place “where only the things you want to happen, would happen” — and by promising the beasts that every night they will sleep in a “real pile” (that is, in a giant snoring heap of wild things). Of course, Max soon learns that it is impossible to keep all of the wild things happy all of the time. Carol (James Gandolfini) is perpetually jealous, Judith (Catherine O’Hara) gives him way too much lip, and KW (Lauren Ambrose) insists on making friends (or are they captives?) outside of her small social circle. In other words, Max learns that he much prefers being a child. Let the adults worry about keeping everyone happy. Amen, Max.

For me, the emotional high point of the film was when Max boarded his boat to go home (a trip that lasts “night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year”). The wild things gather on the shore to say good-bye, looking forlorn and abandoned, as children do when a loved one departs. KW approaches Max, putting her face against his, and tells him, “Please don’t go. I’ll eat you up, I love you so.” That was always my favorite line of the book because it could easily come out of the mouth of a child or a parent. I often tell my daughter, when she is being particularly lovable, that I could “eat her up.” For me this is a gesture of love, but for her this is a frightening concept: to be consumed by the love of another. “Don’t eat me up!” she cries and then I have to assure her that I am only joking. But I’m not, really. I could eat her up. Along the same lines, when my daughter was younger she would occasionally bite me when giving me a big hug. Even children understand that love is the overwhelming desire to consume the beloved.

A columnist for Entertainment Weekly, Christine Spines, took her 5-year-old and 15-year-old sons to see the film and wrote about her experiences. Apparently, the 5-year-old “loved” it. But I still see this as a movie for adults, not for kids. Kids don’t need to see Where the Wild Things Are because they are living Max’s life right now. Children know well what it is to run and jump with no purpose other than the joy of running of jumping. Children are capable of  imagining entire worlds for themselves in which they are the king. And children understand that adults have a responsibility to take care of them and to love them, even when they are acting most like a wild thing. Adults, on the other hand, need to be reminded of these departed joys. This movie filled me with both longing and happiness. This movie is not for my daughter. This movie is for me. Thanks Spike.

The Sins of the Mother: Some Thoughts on MAD MEN’s Betty Draper

In the most recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, Mark Harris’ column, “TV’s Great Bad Mommies” was devoted to the “bad mommies” featured on Showtime’s Weeds, Nurse Jackie, and United States of Tara. These women “invite you to be appalled — because, as we all know, few guilty pleasures are as nastily satisfying as secretly ragging on somebody else’s parenting skills.” His column concludes with a nod to Mad Men‘s Betty Draper (January Jones), who “performs motherhood like a scripted role — and experiences parenting less as a fulfillment than as the steep price she agreed to pay for the life of privilege she once wanted.”

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I both agree and disagree with Harris’ assessment of Betty’s approach to motherhood. While it is tempting to see her as an ice queen, as a woman who merely endures her children in order to gain access to club lunches, furs and a maid, I think this view also discounts the richness of Betty’s character. Because Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) childhood is such a compelling mystery, it is easy to forget that Betty also experienced a traumatic childhood. Her story, like Don’s, is only revealed to the viewer in pieces.

We have learned, for example, that the late Mrs. Hofstadt was a beautiful, regal woman, but that she was also a real bitch; Betty discusses her with a mixture of reverence, fear, and resentment. Furthermore, as we discovered in last night’s episode, “The Arrangements,” Ruth Hofstadt took rather Draconian measures to ensure that her “fat” daughter lost weight (and kept it off). While sharing a tub of chocolate ice cream (with salt?) Gene (Ryan Cutrona) tells Sally (Kiernan Shipka) about how her Grandma Ruth would take her mother shopping and then make Betty walk all the way home. This parenting left an indelible mark on the adult Betty, who rarely puts anything other than vodka or cigarettes in her mouth. Oddly, Gene finds the story to be amusing, colorful even, rather than disturbing. He also urges Sally to become something other than a housewife, explaining that her grandmother did drafting work for an engineer in the 1920s. Smart women, it seems, should do things.

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While this exchange exists, in part, to show some of the disdain Gene harbors for his daughter’s shallow existence, it also illustrates that he is surprisingly progressive for a man of his age and time. He sees that Betty is living a life of unrealized potential (I can’t wait for the episode in which Betty receives a copy of The Feminine Mystique [1963]) and worries that Sally, an intelligent and curious child, will grow up to do the same. “You can really do something,” he tells Sally with sudden gravitas, “don’t let your mother tell you otherwise” (I originally had a link to this scene below but it has been removed by AMC. Phooey).

After purchasing a bag of peaches for his beloved granddaughter, Gene collapses in the A & P. Sally is naturally devastated by her grandfather’s death–the only adult to take a genuine interest in her has died. Therefore, when the news is delivered to Betty by a solemn police officer, it is fitting that neither of these two adults acknowledge Sally or her grief. Instead they leave her outside to sob alone in her ballet outfit. Later, when Sally rebukes her parents and aunt and uncle for laughing over a joke (she is too young to understand that laughter is often a part of grief), Betty chastises for her for being “hysterical.” “Go watch TV, Sally,” she commands. During this exchange the mother in me longed to reach my arms through the television screen and embrace Sally. And I wondered how I was supposed to feel about Betty and Don since they did not.

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Indeed, at these moments it is difficult not to hate Betty Draper. But we must remember the lonely childhood Betty must have endured walking home from the grocery store, wiping the tears from her chubby cheeks, wondering all the while how she might gain the approval of the cold woman waiting for her at home. Betty was raised to shut herself away from food and emotion–she can’t even bring herself to discuss her father’s will with him. “Can’t you keep it to yourself?” she pleads, “I’m your little girl.”

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This is not an excuse for Betty’s approach to mothering, but it is an explanation. Meanwhile, Sally is left to mourn her grandfather alone in front of the television, while images of self-immolating monks dance before her eyes.

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So what do you think? Is Betty meant to be a sympathetic character, or do the writers want us to hate her?

The Citizen Kane of Bad Movies

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This fall I have the great privilege of teaching a course I have always wanted to teach, “Topics in Film Aesthetics: Trash Cinema and Taste.” Jeffrey Sconce has defined “trash cinema” as “less a distinct group of films than a particular reading protocol, a counter-aesthetic turned subcultural sensibility devoted to all manner of cultural detritus.” Would Sconce agree with the way I am defining trash cinema in my course? I’m not sure. Nevertheless, the term “trash” is a useful way to denote the broad and shifting category of “bad films” and as a method for getting students to discuss film aesthetics. We will watch films that have been maligned for their “bad” acting (Showgirls), “bad” taste (Pink Flamingos), “bad” subjects (Freaks), “bad” politics (El Topo) and just plain “badness” overall (Glen or Glenda?). We will discuss what qualities categorize a film alternately as “bad,” “low brow” or “cult” and how taste cultures and taste publics are established. Finally, we will discuss why certain films are believed to have “cultural capital” and why and how trash cinema rewrites the rules about which films are worth watching.

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Every week I will discuss one of these films on this blog, my students’ reactions to them, and whether or not these films offer a useful way for undergraduates to discuss film aesthetics as a political, cultural, economic and social construct. This is also a good excuse for me to talk about some of my favorite films.

The first film the students will watch (during the week of 8/31) is Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003). The film has been dubbed “the Citizen Kane of bad films” and has gained an impressive cult following in Los Angeles, where folks line up for midnight screenings. Last year Entertainment Weekly did a wonderful story about it, which is when I first became obsessed with it. The Room even has its own Rocky Horror Picture Show-like rituals.

Which brings me to why I am posting about this now: if anyone out there (are you out there?) is familiar with any of The Room‘s rituals (I know about the spoon throwing and the yelling of “Denny!” whenever that character appears), could you please share them here? My students and I would be most grateful.

More on The Room to come…