Spike Jonze’s big-screen adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book Where The Wild Things Are has rekindled a debate that’s raged around Sendak’s work for decades: What’s appropriate for children? And at what age? Any kid who’s used to going to the movies should find a lot to engage them in the Where The Wild Things Are movie, particularly in all the scenes of big furry creatures romping destructively around the woods. But Jonze and screenwriter Dave Eggers certainly don’t spare the psychodrama. When rebellious kid Max sails to the island of The Wild Things, he finds that they’re a lot like the children and grown-ups he left behind: petulant, passive-aggressive, quick-tempered and jealous. For all the fun of watching odd-looking Sendak beasts bound about, Where The Wild Things Are is far more gut-wrenching than joyous, and it’s almost impossible to say whether many actual kids will like it.
But some will. And it’s in reaching out to that particular some that Sendak long ago found a living.
Beginning in 2003, Jonze and his frequent collaborator Lance Bangs began taping a series of interviews with the octogenarian Sendak at his home, listening (and sometimes prodding) as Sendak recalled his boyhood, his early career, the phenomena and controversies of Wild Things and In The Night Kitchen, and what it was like to live as a gay man at a time when going public with his sexuality might’ve ended his career. Sendak is a natural performer in front of the camera, and a man of contradictions. In one interview, he makes an offhand comment that he hates his family, yet in another he points out the touching dedication to his parents in In The Night Kitchen, and in still another he talks about his love for his older brother, who worked on art with him, and with whom he designed handmade wooden toys with moving parts. Sendak says that when he wrote and drew Wild Things, he wanted to get across that, “Mothers and children are human beings, and they will sometimes do the wrong thing.” In Tell Them Anything You Want, Bangs and Jonze get across that a man looking back on his life can view it kindly and sadly on different days, because that's the way people are. Anyone can turn sour at a moment’s notice.
Bangs and Jonze accomplish this subtly, through the very structure of the documentary, which jumps abruptly from interview to interview, while keeping Sendak’s stories intact and coherent. The movie plays like one 40-minute conversation—which it sort of is, only stretched out over several years. The conversation wanders freely whenever Sendak needs to digress, but it always circles back. Sendak pines for his brother at one point, and then towards the end of Tell Them, when asked what he’d still like to accomplish, Sendak says, “I want to write something so simple, so short and so silly… and I want it to be for my brother.” Early in the documentary Sendak talks about how he would stare out his apartment window as a boy and watch other children play, which Bangs and Jonze silently recall in Tell Them Anything You Want’s final image: an illustration from a Sendak book that shows a boy peering out a window.
There’s a lot in Tell Them Anything You Want about the secret personal references in Sendak’s books: the pictures of his favorite dog, the images and phrases from his childhood, etc. Yet Sendak still remains largely circumspect about his homosexuality, saying only that while he accepted that he was gay when he was very young, he’s “always seen it as a dangerous, interloping kind of thing,” and he regrets that he couldn’t have been more comfortable with who he was when he was younger. The movie largely shies away from Sendak’s decades-long relationship with psychoanalyst Eugene Glynn, who died during the years that Tell Them Anything You Want was being shot. Sendak begins to talk about Glynn’s death at one point, then backs off because he doesn’t want to cry on camera. But perhaps Sendak also wants to avoid pigeonholing himself, or risking having his work reevaluated through a narrow scope. Not when he's spent his whole life producing idiosyncratic books for idiosyncratic readers.
Of course the irony of Sendak’s hesitation about discussing his love life is that he insists throughout the documentary that he doesn’t believe in the concept of “children” because you should be able to say anything to anyone at any age, “as long as what you say is true.” In that spirit, Sendak gives this advice to the young: “Quit this life as soon as possible. Get out. Get out.” Later, he excuses his morbidity, admitting that he’s obsessed with death. (Bangs and Jonze confirm this with an amusing montage of Sendak insisting that he’s got one foot in the grave, over and over in interview after interview.) And in the most striking segment of the movie, Sendak talks about how he’s been haunted all his life by his memory of seeing a photo of the dead Lindbergh baby when he was a tot, and how that gave him an early lesson in how abruptly life can end.
But there’s another lesson to the Lindbergh story too—one not lost on Sendak, or on Bangs or Jonze. Sendak says he remembered seeing the photo in a newspaper, even though for decades afterward, he couldn’t find any printed evidence that the photo had ever run. Turns out that Charles Lindbergh himself had raised hell after the Daily News ran the picture on the front page, and had it cut from all subsequent editions. Only a handful of people ever saw that picture in the paper, and a 4-year-old Sendak was one. Not every 4-year-old child would’ve made note of a picture of an infant corpse on sheet of paper out on the street.
But some would.
-For a different take on Sendak, I also highly recommend Mirra Bank’s documentary Last Dance, about the creative clashes between the story-minded Sendak and the abstract dance troupe Pilobolus when the latter attempted to adapt the former’s meditation on The Holocaust. It’s a fascinating study of what happens with strong-willed artists of conflicting sensibilities try to collaborate.
-Tell Them Anything You Want will be airing on HBO On Demand starting today, and will re-air on HBO proper on October 30th. It’s also on the shortlist for an Academy Award in the documentary short category. Watch it.