There is a tendency in art house cinema towards the pseudo-intellectual. It is a tendency not merely to tolerate witless navel-gazing, but to actively celebrate it. To elevate its whiny introspection above all other forms of human activity. To revel in its portentous self-indulgence. To confuse its bourgeois posturing with grand tragedy and genuine insight. This tendency is best summed up by the films of Sophia Coppola.
Coppola’s best known film remains the Oscar-winning Lost in Translation (2003). Lost in Translation is a sordid tale of two wealthy Americans coming together in a foreign land and forging a bond of some kind out of their shared alienation despite the differences in age and life-experience. It is not really a film about love. Nor is it a film about cross-cultural alienation. In fact, it is not really a film about very much at all but it does have lots and lots of footage of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson looking vaguely depressed in the middle distance. Coppola’s skill as a director lies not in her understanding of the human condition, but rather her mastery of techniques used in art house cinema to create an aura of depth and thoughtfulness regardless of whether any actual ideas or insights are present in the text of the film itself. Indeed, it is telling that two of Coppola’s other films deal with the emotional lives of people who are effectively children. In the case of Marie Antoinette (2006) we have a film ostensibly about the ennui and alienation felt by a child-like Queen of France and in The Virgin Suicides (1999) we have a film that purports to be about the ennui and alienation felt by actual children.
Behind much of modern American independent cinema is the adult equivalent of a temper tantrum. Grown-ups who throw themselves on the ground and roll around screaming because they do not know what to do with themselves. They do not like their jobs. They do not like their families. They do not like their towns. They do not like their children. But they do enjoy staring wistfully into the middle distance while some pleasingly arcane piece of rock or pop plays over the soundtrack.
In a way, it is surprising that it has taken until 2009 for American film makers to realise the degree of similarity between the existential dramas favoured by certain strains of art house cinema and the simple coming-of-age tales favoured by much of children’s fiction. Wes Anderson – one of the acknowledged kings of middle-brow malaise – capitalised on these similarities by transforming Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (1960) into a tale of mid-life crisis and existential alienation. Spike Jonze continues this trend with Where The Wild Things Are, his adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s children’s book of the same name.
Max (Max Records) is an unpleasantly petulant spoiled brat. Growing up in a nice middle-class suburb with a nice middle class mother (Catherine Keener) and a nice middle class sister (Pepita Emmerichs), Max smoulders with resentment at the fact that neither his mother nor his sister are at his entire disposal. When Max’s sister Claire and her friends leave Max after a snowball fight, Max reacts by angrily smashing up Claire’s room. When Max’s mother scolds Max for making a nuisance of himself while she has a friend over for dinner, Max promptly bites her and runs away. The comparisons with scenes from Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999) in which Kevin Spacey walks out of his job and throws his dinner against the wall make themselves.
Max runs away to an island populated by huge monsters. Initially, the monsters want to eat Max but the boy convinces them instead to make him their king. After the group bond over an evening of destruction, Max attempts to prolong the happiness he has felt by constructing a utopian civilisation for the monsters. However, Max’s imaginary landscape soon reveals itself as being contaminated by the problems he faces back home. As King, Max has to try and solve these problems and so he has a space in which to think about the problems he faces in the real world. For example, when Judith (Catherine O’Hara) complains to Max, Max responds truculently but Judith immediately lets him know that it is not okay to be angry with someone because you realise that you have upset them. Other people have feelings too and they are just as valid as Max’s. Similarly, when KW (Lauren Ambrose) turns up with her new best friends – a pair of owls she has just captured – Max sees them only as squawking animals but KW gets something out of them and so do some of the other monsters. This suggests that just because you might not see the value of someone’s other friends, those friends are valued by the other person and you have to respect that. Your friend is not merely pretending to like these people in order to annoy you. The biggest similarity between the world of the monsters and that of Max lies in the similarities between Max and Carol (James Gandolfini). Carol is petulant and destructive. His response to situations he does not like is to smash things up. He is jealous, intolerant, paranoid and completely incapable of controlling his emotions. When Carol realises that Max is not a real king (or father-figure) he goes mad. Terrorising the people he loves just as Max does back home.
While this psychological landscape struggles to maintain a narrative thanks to its comparative thinness, there is no denying that its realisation is impressive. Jonze revisits the blend of surrealism and grittiness that characterised Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002) but here it is projected not against an over-developed urban landscape but rather an unkempt wilderness. There are flickers of Terrence Mallick in Jonze’s forests and the camera returns again and again to the middle distance as first Max and then his monsters find themselves “lost in translation”, consumed with existential angst and alienation as Max’s real-word problems relating to his family keep finding their way back into his imaginary land. Jonze also uses that old expressionist technique of having the island change to suit Max’s emotional state. When Max and the monsters are unhappy, the background becomes filled with fires. Burning out of focus. Started by means unknown.
The result of all of this is a film that is undeniably clever, undeniably intellectual and undeniably beautiful to look at. However, as with the films of Sophia Coppola, it is not clear which, if any, truth is being groped towards. Unfortunately, while the bulk of the script chooses to extemporise on rather than strictly follow the events of the book, the ending sticks rather closely to the book’s child-friendly use of parental authority to provide emotional closure. As Max prepares to flee the Monsters’ island, he forlornly wishes that they too could have a mother. When he returns home, his mother receives him with open arms and lavishes attention upon him, almost justifying not only his running away but also his earlier tantrums. We are never made privy to whether or not Max realises that the problems he faced on Monster Island are the exact same ones he faces at home. In short, Where The Wild Things Are fails to resolve in anything approaching a satisfying manner. Its content is too sophisticated to cohere happily to the source material’s yen for parental love and authority. Mum simply cannot solve Max’s problems.
That film-makers such as Jonze and Anderson have decided to work against the tide of American cinema is interesting. While recent years have seen the infantilisation of genres previously aimed at adults, films such as Fantastic Mr. Fox and Where The Wild Things Are import grown up concerns into films that appear to be aimed at children. However, by doing so, Anderson and Jonze are also drawing attention not only to the childish self-absorption and egocentrism of these kinds of stories, but also the limited intellectual and theoretical pallets used by many contemporary film-makers. Have we really reached the point where “Don’t be a dick to other people” is a valid dramatic epiphany?
While there is much to praise in Jonze’s adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are, my mind is drawn back to Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960). Antonioni’s film not only pioneered some of the story-telling techniques that Jonze uses, he also used them with an awareness of the limitations of the kinds of stories these techniques allow you to tell. In L’Avventura a collection of self-involved middle-class people go for a boat ride. However, when one of their number go missing, nobody goes looking for her. Nobody cares. If the characters do not care what happen to each other, why should the audience? This is a question never far from my mind as I watched Spike Jonze’s beautiful, technically skilled but ultimately lightweight adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are.