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By Michael Sicinski
Two of this year’s most spectacular auteur-driven releases—“spectacular” used not as an interchangeable superlative, but in the specific sense that the films generate spectacle through unique technical means—have been met with strikingly different expectations, and notably different responses, although both (owing to the wonders of the Internet age) had to put forth a little extra effort to overcome “bad buzz.” Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s picture-book classic Where the Wild Things Are was tagged as a “troubled” production, owing to delays, reshoots, and some 2008 test screenings that resulted in slight shifts in direction (notably the decision that the Wild Things’ mouths would move, rather than going the Sid & Marty Krofft/Yo Gabba Gabba! static route). However, one single Arcade Fire-scored trailer made the hipsters swoon, reversing the film’s prerelease fortunes. The pendulum of buzz began to swing in the other direction when Wild Things was notably absent from the fall festivals, and even when it was met with general approbation upon its release, there was a general sense of great expectations unmet. In many lukewarm reviews of Wild Things, one finds a particular refrain: “This is not a film for children.”
Released about a month later, Wes Anderson’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox has mostly garnered the exact opposite response: “It’s not just for kids.” The multi-layered humour and subtlety of Anderson and Noah Baumbach’s script rests on its continual making-strange of the stock-in-trade anthropomorphism of kiddie-lit. Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is a chicken thief turned newspaper columnist who, as per usual with signature Clooney roles (cf. his work with the Coens), is given to fast talk and elevated verbiage—then, suddenly, he’ll revert to his vulpine nature, ferociously tearing apart his breakfast like a “man” possessed, only to straighten his tie and stride off to work. In some sense, Anderson’s use of the painstaking, old-school claymation style, with limited digital assistance, heightens this comic distanciation, because it encodes the film’s dominant themes right down into the DNA. Fantastic Mr. Fox straddles the line between advanced and primitive film craft, representing both a Rankin-Bass/Harryhausen throwback and the most sophisticated form of such “primitivism” imaginable. Add to this the fact that Anderson’s most fully realized films, Rushmore (1998) and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), were essentially feats of live-action puppetry—shadowboxed sets, iconic costuming, symmetrical staging—and it’s no surprise that Mr. Fox almost feels like the film Anderson was born to make.
But it takes nothing away from Anderson’s substantial and, at times, even staggering achievement to note that Jonze’s film has been largely misunderstood in comparison, and that both films can be quite productively understood within a broader social context. Anderson and Jonze are approximately the same age, and as opposed to the baby-boomer/movie-brat generation of filmmakers, who perhaps held a bit tighter to certain crumbling notions of childhood and its (dis)contents (especially the search for missing or distant fathers—virtually the entire Spielbergian corpus, along with most of Lucas and Coppola), these post-boomers seem to have a tacit understanding that “childhood” is a semiotic construct at best. While notions of childhood innocence become ever more lionized in the US political arena, with everything from censorship and surveillance laws to tighter border patrol being rhetorically justified as a means to protect the young, a new generation of artists draws on a much different well of experience. Statistically, most of us are children of divorce. Our relative economic security compared to our parents, combined with a post-Vietnam/pre-Iraq Pax Americana, paradoxically tended to inculcate isolation over social bonding. (By contrast, the “millennial generation,” who are said to follow the post-boomers, are allegedly free of this difficulty, accepting group identity and conformism as the basic parameters within which any and all self-expression must flourish.) There are certain social facts about the post-boomer generation the meaning of which will, of course, be interpreted according to one’s ideological schema. The prevalence of working mothers, for example, means a weakening of family structure to conservatives, whereas we lefties understand that a productive and necessary destabilization of traditional gender roles has been one of the results and, arguably, one of the hallmarks of post-boomer identity, something carried along when some of us choose to become parents ourselves.
Though I’ve gone out of my way to avoid using the dreaded word here, the context to which Wild Things and Mr. Fox speak, as films and larger cultural signifiers, is one defined by the “childbearing hipster” (to borrow the title of the popular blog). The crises that defined our own childhoods are now the plate-spinning acts of over-extended adults who, in some cases, are attempting to raise new humans from inside the proverbial void. If Jacques Lacan defined the Law of the Father as designating “the Subject Presumed to Know,” then post-boomer parenting, as a cultural force, is largely defined by an open admission of befuddlement, an almost formalist “baring of the parental device” whereby parental authority is a constant work in progress, continually negotiated and earned, never simply assumed.
The broad landscape of “hipster parenting” is an odd, unevenly developed terrain. Bloggers represent a significant beachhead for post-boomers working to resignify motherhood and, occasionally, fatherhood. While media attention and book deals have predictably gravitated toward accessibility (and comfortable ideology) over substance—e.g. Heather Armstrong’s “Dooce,” a second-rate ex-Mormon Erma Bombeck—other bloggers such as Finslippy, Mimi Smartypants, and daddy-blogger Sweet Juniper! are far more involved, for better and sometimes worse, in remaking parenthood (and, by extension, childhood) as an explicit yet discontinuous narrative, a process incompatible with the arcs and trajectories of traditional memoir and, inevitably, an endless comedy of errors. At the same time, recent children’s television has, in true postmodern style, moved in two related directions at once, drawing on nostalgic tropes from post-boomer childhood memory as a means of creating more “advanced” kiddie TV.
The prime mover here is the aforementioned Yo Gabba Gabba!, whose explicit Krofft-style head-trip colours and guest spots by Jack Black, Cornelius, and The Shins, have very little to do with reaching out to the Pre-K set. However, there is a basic post-boomer philosophy at work in a show like Gabba, or its Icelandic cousin Lazy Town. Kids can assimilate all sorts of disparate information, be it slow, fast, quiet or loud, so long as it’s relatively bright (in both respects). It’s an implicit rebuke to old-model programs like Dora the Explorer, designed on the assumption that kids require the security of constant repetition. But even beyond the formal level, we see the attitudinal shift in work like Ian Falconer’s Olivia (both the books and TV series) and the British Peppa Pig series, when compared with Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers: “Adults are silly, and often buffoons. But they love us, and we love them, too.”
Seen as entries onto this broad canvas, the stakes change significantly. While Fantastic Mr. Fox is by any reasonable measure the “better” film, it succeeds, in part, by sticking to Dahl’s world of wily animals, who are cute and funny, as compared to the revolting human farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean (“one fat, one short, one lean…”). The adult Mr. and Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep), the lawyer Mr. Badger (Bill Murray), Fox’s opossum friend Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky)—all become “kids” because they’re implicitly pitted against human “adults.” This is by no means to sell Anderson’s film short: in fact, in addition to its ample formal and comedic virtues, Mr. Fox is also a remarkably anarchistic response to the global financial crisis. Spinning off from Dahl’s original tale, Anderson turns the farmers into captains of British agribusiness, and the animals who steal from them are moral heroes by any measure. Contrast this with Dahl’s rather discomfiting validation of Willy Wonka’s corporate chocolate manufacturing and his reliance on colonial Oompa-Loompa labour, a conundrum no film adaptation has been able to, er, outfox.; or, elsewhere in the kiddie-lit pantheon, with Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and Don Bluth’s more mystical adaptation The Secret of NIMH (1982), in which the colony of intelligent rats and mice feel a moral charge not to steal from a farmer, but rather to enact the Plan (echoes of Lenin no doubt intentional) in order to generate electricity and a self-sufficient society. Lodged safely between the poles of individual enterprise and a nascent vulpine/mustelid socialist alliance, Mr. Fox is winning in large part because it is a Robin Hood story with a typically charming Clooney rogue at its centre. (What’s more, the underground lairs and warrens of Fox and his friends at last provide Anderson with an incontestably apposite rationale for the enclosed, in-frame-only movie worlds he prefers.)
But despite Anderson’s clear triumphs, I would argue that Where the Wild Things Are is the more radical of the two films, due to the fact that Jonze and (hipster alert!) co-screenwriter Dave Eggers chose to zero in on Sendak’s most enduring truth: childhood as a space of uncontrolled emotional danger, a makeshift field of creation and destruction. A handheld, white-and-beige prologue shows us the world of Max (Max Records, a preternaturally gifted first-time actor) from the low angles of the little brother, of the lonely child, of the kid learning to deal with divorce. The sequence in which Max lies under the desk while his mother (Catherine Keener) tries to complete some late work is spot-on and heartbreaking. After Max fails in his competition for his mother’s attention with her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo), Max bites her and runs, then sails, off to the island of the Wild Things. While Jonze and Eggers have for the most part patterned their creature designs very closely after Sendak’s original renderings, on the narrative level they have quite explicitly made them monsters from Max’s id, an interpretive move for which they have taken a great deal of heat. (One notable critic referred to the film as “Where the Emo Things Are.”)
But look more closely, and it’s evident that Wild Things is a film which not only explores a young boy’s subjectivity but takes it very seriously, regarding it with deep empathy yet refusing to treat it as sacrosanct. Following the post-boomer tendency to hold “childhood” as a suspended term, one with uncertain frontiers and semiotic contours yet to be defined, Wild Things populates Max’s new world (“you are the owner of this world….except for that…and that…”) with bizarre creatures themselves suspended between childhood and adulthood. That is, they embody Max’s “juvenile investigations” (to borrow Freud’s term) about the adult world—he knows Judith (Catherine O’Hara) and Ira (Forest Whitaker) are “in love,” but what does that mean beyond inseparability? And what does it mean that Carol (James Gandolfini) loves and misses K.W. (Lauren Ambrose), but that Max, “the king,” cannot repair their bond? Likewise, in terms of Jonze’s set design and mise en scène, Wild Things foregrounds things ramshackle and tentative. Most notably, the massive twig-fort resembles the architecture of Gaudí or Boullée from a distance, but up close is so porous as to essentially be all interior, a proper structural analogue for a purely psychological space.
It’s possible that one’s reaction to Wild Things may depend in part on one’s position relative to the question of divorce itself. Post-boomers who have had to steel themselves against the very experience they underwent may well find the film mawkish, whereas parents, identifying less with Max than with the desire to protect him, might come away from the film with somewhat different emotional centres having been activated. Max’s relationships with unstable Carol, paranoid Judith, or insecure Alexander (Paul Dano) can and will scan as too-convenient, even schematic Jungian gestures. However one’s scansion of the film is mitigated significantly if it is weighed against the daily observation of a living child’s development, wherein distinctions between peer-group struggles and the fitful formation of a coherent subjectivity are blurry at best. Every social interaction is always also a laboratory for the articulation of self—and that too, it seems to me, is “not just for kids.”
Despite its rather obvious missteps (the science teacher’s speech; Karen O’s too-cool-for-school soundtrack), Where the Wild Thing Are describes the complex and multi-directional arc of a young mind at work, embracing and then eventually shunning his own most destructive tendencies, only to discover that, in a kind of psychological catharsis of the sort that art therapists only dream of, every last bit of himself is completely lovable and worthy of acceptance. It may be pat or overly contrived; I don’t know. But as a member of the post-boomer generation and a struggling parent myself, I found the conclusion of Wild Things both tender and reassuring, since it spoke directly to the experience that we—Jonze, Anderson, all of us—have so clearly taken from our own childhoods. It is not within our power to reunite our parents, but with time and great difficulty, we can make ourselves whole. Whether that prepares us for bequeathing an entirely different set of lessons is harder to tell.