October 2009

Thinking Through and Feeling Where the Wild Things Are

In my analysis of this splendid film, I want to state first off that I understand that I’m pulling some heavy interpretations that may come across like a 1:1 metaphorical statement about what the film is saying. While I believe that these insights into the film can help flesh out one way of seeing the film, I am totally open to many interpretations and understandings of it. That is a mark of good film: Debate and various parsings. What I do want to dissuade others from is a quick dismissal of the film as ‘depressing’, or ‘dark’.

When I have heard or read others’ reactions to the film including that it is boring, depressing, etc. I have not heard them relate to the film in its mythic level. This to me seems telling when the movie is essentially a step by step hero’s journey with resonances of course to pop-psych, religious, and spiritual motifs. If there are reviews of the film which include why it fails as a mythic quest, I have not seen them and I welcome being turned on to them.

So let me pull no punches. Right off I’ll tell you that I quickly saw the film taking a ‘vision quest’ or hero’s journey type of narrative. This influenced my entire viewing and once I’d locked onto that format, it was hard for me to not see it otherwise. This is the trap of all rigid worldviews, isn’t it? Well, I’m guilty here. But I will say that it made the movie flow quite coherently and endearingly so with fresh interpretations and statements about many of our contemporary conditions.

I’ll also say there’s a bounty of spoilers ahead. If you haven’t seen it, stop here. Also: what’s up with people saying this is or isn’t a children’s movie? Why is that even on the radar? “Because of the book it derives its title and images from, you dullard!” you scream back. But Jonze has repeatedly said that it is an adult’s movie that is about childhood so enough of that. I would say that the youngest a person could be and enjoy the film would be roughly around ten years old.

So anywho: Max, the protagonist (and white male hero figure—haven’t we had enough of these? Didn’t Keanu kind of put the exclamation mark on that stereotype?) is a youth on the cusp of puberty and is living in a fantasy world of unbridled energy. He terrorizes the family dog, he believes that other’s attention should be unwavering from him, that his mother is an extension of himself, and that other’s should play by his own rules (the snowball fight that escalates to a level that is beyond his control or comfort). Ultimately, he is an unchecked ego in the full exuberance of childhood.

But his world is crumbling around him. His sister has developed friendships and possibly romantic interests that are consuming her attention. His mother and father are divorced and mother’s new romantic interest is invading the pacific and Max centered family unit.

We are to understand that Max’s life is an island where his needs and identity rule unchecked. Even from the title card credits, Max has scrawled his name over the production houses’ logos. His name gets etched into the boat, and he plants a garbage bag flag on his snow pile like a colonizing Lord. His interest in self expression and unique spirit are not at issue here. It is his inability to be responsive to the shared social world he is slowly being birthed into. He is reaching the ‘age of accountability’, individuation from his mother, and connecting his actions to consequences.

A number of important events lead to his hero’s journey or spur him on to his crises among the Wild Things.
He learns of the mortality or changingness of all things. Everything changes, flows, dies, transforms. Marriages dissolve, sisters grow up, new relationships begin, and the childhood years of irresponsibility ultimately end. This is a core tenet to many spiritual teachings. This knowledge pushes one to focus on the bedrock values within themselves and their society. Max is faced with not only the mortality of himself and others around him, but the world and indeed the solar system when the Sun itself will transform. We must come to terms with our Earth’s future demise—and face an ethical response to it and the other life that lives on it. Will we cower at this with ignorance or apathy? Will we foolheartedly welcome it with misguided apocalypticism, dreaming of a blood drenched and sword welding Christ? Or will we dissolve ego, see past the lies of a culture of rabid consumption, and humble ourselves in compassion? Anywho, I digress. Max sees death before him, like Guatama on his chariot ride.

Max experiences fear of loss. He had given his heart (in card form) to his sister. When his sister ‘betrays’ him by not standing up for him and his defeated snow fort, he tramples on the card he had made for his sister. His destruction of the heart shaped card is intended to hurt his sister but it hurts him also. One may never lash out at another, hate another, or withdraw love from another without harming oneself, after all. With the help of mom, he performs a mea culpa and tries to restore his sister’s room to its previous condition but as we know physical damages may be patched up but the emotional and psychological effects will ripple much longer. The buildings and neighborhood of New Orleans can and will be restored, but what of the people living there who experienced the largely racialized betrayal of their government? His loss of his sister and the loss of his mother are largely connected—as well as the loss of the father we can presume who is not seen in the film. His repentance towards his sister is connected also to the third event…

Max commits violences towards his mother. Standing on a table he screams, “Feed me woman!” Is this a gendered attack that he had heard from his father? The leering wolf-suited Max stars at his mother from the kitchen table, the demanding male in a house whose status as ‘head’ is being challenged all around. After the divorce, perhaps Max had become accustomed to being the only male presence in the house and now he’s got mother’s new boyfriend in the other room drinking wine and laughing. Max then lashes out and bites his mother-the mouth that like Remus and Romulus had suckled from a wolf had nursed at his mother is now like a wolf biting her. He then runs away into the night and thus begins his journey.

Like any good mythic journey, we’ve got to traverse water—the symbol of the unconscious. He sets off in escape, or adventure? We know that his is a journey that will resolve in his return. This is a circular journey, following the Eastern narrative. The hero leaves, finds his boon, wisdom, transformation, spirit animal, or weapon and returns to his fold.

The first thing Max sees is a fire on the hill. Is this civilization? Hope? A warming fire? No, it is destruction and madness. Appropriately Max finds Carol (the Wild Thing representing his dominant characteristics) crushing bird-nest-like houses. What should be sheltering and a symbol of safety is being crushed by Carol’s actions. I won’t get into too much detail (really?) about the Wild Things, but Max finds semblances of his sister, mother, facets of himself, and presumably others there. These are his spirit animals, perhaps, or his more properly his ‘demons’ in need of taming and stand-ins for the others in his life which he must live with ethically.

Max is crowned King. Of course! This is his new snow fort, his world and he is the unquestioned ruler of it. This is the seductive power of the Dark Side, if I may borrow from Yoda. It is a human experience to want to rule, command, dictate. We may not seek CEO positions or great wealth. We don’t need to. This comes in many expressions: wanting to win each argument, defend yourself when you’re in the wrong, disregard others, etc. The Wild Things reveal that many kings have died and been eaten by them. As it is! Yes, the combat we must face daily with our desire to be right, be served, be gluttons, be God’s ‘elect’, be ‘better than’, is mortal combat. It is perilous. Max will only survive in the end by giving up his crown and declining kingship. This is the Christ teaching that we can all emulate. By accepting a crown of hardship and service to the marginalized and cast-off rather than glory we can survive and succeed in honor.

Max then goes through a journey that has meaning at personal, familial, and political levels.
He tries to create a mono culture—a universal and totalizing system. He is King and his saying is final. This is the desire of egoistic systems—Hegelianism, reductive materialism, maculinist systems of power, exclusivist religious systems, etc. This does not work. Communities, relationships, and power dynamics occlude a universalized or single, easy answer.
Max tries by his design to create a Utopian community. Again, a ‘city’ (really just a bigger bird’s nest) is made with hopes that technology and progress will cure the ‘ailments’ of ethical relations. It does not. There remains in some progressive circles a believe that if only our technoscientific knowledge could be harnessed and a ‘green economy’ created, we would enter a new age of human development. However, as Max finds out, dynamics of power remain: A Wild Thing questions his favoritism of Carol and asks “Can I be your favorite color?” No matter how many solar panels we may make, we as a global community, still need to deal with and find justice in matters of class, race, ‘gender’, ‘sex’, and sexuality.

In even universalizing systems, difference must be accounted for. Difference is an important developmental step to undergo also. How does one deal with ‘difference’? Usually we call it ‘evil’, heretical, bad, impure, ‘against nature’, ‘them’, etc. Max is no different. He separates the Wild Things into Good Guys and Bad Guys. This escalates from a play fight to a real fight and real violences and hurt. Again—I want to support many interpretations of this movie and I understand that individual interior battles and national political policies have overlap and there are many ways to view Max’s interactions with the Wild Things.

Most importantly, Max finally makes his transition. This occurs, unsurprisingly enough within the belly of a Wild Thing. This is the travel into death. The belly of the beast, The Grave, the Death Star’s trash compactor, Jonah’s Whale, Christ’s descent into Hades, and womb imagery and thus ‘born again’ language is the place of transition in many myths and Max is no different. It is here that he ‘faces’ Carol and has his vision or full repentance moment. He is pulled from the mouth reborn.

His first act is to find Carol quickly knowing he must return to his ‘real family’ and not finding Carol leaves his heart again. Mirroring the risk of giving his heart to his sister and overcoming his need to have his name proclaimed, he places a “C” in a heart shape for Carol to find.

But he cannot stay here. He has transformed. Carol finds the heart as Max renounces his Kingship.
Carol, the embodiment of Max’s old childish egotism cannot meet Max. He is already sailing for home and like we all must do, Max can only see his childhood years from a distance. We cannot say goodbye to our old selves, for we have moved on before we know it. Grief, repentance, or ego dissolution can accomplish this transformation of our person and no matter how we transform we are left to look at a distance at our old selves.

And how will we relate to our old self? The Wild Thing who is a Bull, figuring perhaps as the full grown and mature personality that Max will grow into asks Max: “Will you say nice things about us?” Max says he will.
We must look back at ourselves with forgiveness and mercy. The same compassion that we must extend to all life includes our pasts. Without regret and shame.

Max returns to the real world, barking at a neighborhood dog. He has changed but that does not mean he must leave his playfulness and joy behind. One may be childish without being a boor or self important.

His mother greets him at the door and no words are exchanged. This is the triumph of a script: allow the words to be said with knowing faces. They look at each other a mother and her reborn son. The movie closes as Max now watches his mother fall asleep, experiencing his mother as a separate entity—also human, fallible, vulnerable.

So I’ve gone on too long about this movie. But I loved it. Great acting, music, visuals, script…

And it has spiritual impact upon me. I’m cool with people disliking this movie, as with any other movie. However: I beg that one who dislikes the movie first question how they engage any movie that deals with mortality and the spiritual quest that underlies ethics. For I’m of the belief that without a clear stance on one’s feelings towards death and the mythic adventurous we undertake as humans love is stunted.
And love is what its all about after all.

Ryan McGivern


Someone pinch my nipple and tell me this is real.  A breathtaking true life stop motion animation by Blu and David Ellis:

Thanks for the tip, Horses.