Thursday 22 October 2009

Portrait of the Id as a Young Man

Sitting in the theater last Friday, I found myself trying to figure out how filmstrips had worked. I distinctly remember how fascinating it was to run the narrative both forward and backward -- although it may be unimaginable from such a technological distance. But it was with clear images of the immensely enjoyable filmstrip version of the wonderful children's novel Where the Wild Things Are that I sat with trepidation and anticipation of the newly released film adaptation of Maurice Sendak's story about a boy who has been sent to his room without any supper for behaving badly.

I assume that most readers who may be interested in the film will have read the book, although I will still issue a spoiler warning. (As the OnFiction editors will attest, I am wildly averse to story spoilers; this aversion steers me so clear of film reviews that I had no idea, for example, that this was a live action film and not an animation, as I had expected -- presumably based on my filmstrip experience.) The only thing I had heard was that the film was a bit whiny. And that complaint has inspired my current reflection on how this film may be interesting from the perspective of the psychology of fiction.

The film is a very well constructed psychological portrait of a child -- a boy of perhaps 10. The entire narrative construct the film presents is steeped in the logic of a 10 year old. The humor, violence, and emotions that organize everything that happens, consequently, create a fascinating dissonance. On one hand, I found myself thinking, but you shouldn't do that (express anger by throwing mud clots at people so hard it cuts them), or, that's not the way it should be (getting chocolate cake after running away from home) -- but then catching myself over and over again realizing that that, indeed, is the point: most of these social impulses that govern me now are more recent acquisitions, not necessarily conclusions to which my ten-year-old self would have jumped so quickly, even if I, like Max, was starting to perceive and try out some of them.

As I've mulled the film over all week, I keep coming up against this impulse -- to dismiss the film as somewhat simple seeming, for example. But then I find myself grappling with the narrative again as in its own way quite complex, because it's not easy to put together a whole film from that perspective without sliding into sentimentalism or moralism or something spectacular. The phenomenally non sentimental touch of Maurice Sendak (as co-producer) showed: rather than being merely whiny, it was perhaps instead just as exuberantly and terrifiedly whiny as you might expect a kid facing the complexity of the world might be (on a good day, in a wolf suit -- but also on the day he realizes mortality and grapples with what it might mean that even the sun will die).

The sentimentality in the film functions in a very abstract way -- as perhaps you might expect from the perspective of a scriptwriter reliving 10 year old angst and consequent wild rumpus in the face of uncertainty, although perhaps not as you might expect from a film using giant puppets, unless you are an aficionado of subtle weird Henson puppets. And this abstract sentiment is part of what creates such a supportive framework in the film -- to keep the viewer engaged in the psychological drama that unfolds, while also keeping the viewer held back a bit from jumping in to insert what he or she would do at the moment, even if that impulse keeps creeping back in. This abstract sentiment also creates an emotional spaciousness around what might otherwise feel like a claustrophobic childhood realm of emotion. This film joins my shortlist of fiction that is engaging, in part, because the narrator is so difficult to relate to, and yet rewarding to stick by despite a foreshortened sense of emotional depth (along with, for example Disgrace, and Oryx and Crake).

M. Atwood (2003). Oryx and Crake. McClelland and Stewart.

J.D. Coetzee (1999). Disgrace. London: Secker & Warburg.

Spike Jonze, Dave Eggers, & Maurice Sendak (2009). Where the Wild Things Are. Warner Bros.

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