17 October 2009

Wild Things Psycho-Analyzed

When rumors surfaced that Maurice Sendak’s 1963 picture book, Where The Wild Things Are, was slated for the big screen, I (like someother people) wondered: How do you stretch a ten-minute bedtime story into a two-hour movie?

Robert Zemeckis confronted that question in 2004, with his adaptation of The Polar Express, another children’s story famed for its sparse sentences and Caldecott-winning illustrations. He fattened the narrative with show tunes, adventure subplots, innovative CGI, and new characters, mostly voiced by Tom Hanks, and the result was a family film that mimicked the book in appearance but diverged from it thematically.

Spike Jonze and his co-writer, the multi-talented Dave Eggers, add to and complicate the Wild Things story in startlingly different ways. For one, there are no A-list actors’ names printed in gilded yellow letters above the movie’s title. I don’t mean to say the actors aren’t A-list material:James Gandolfini, Chris Cooper, Forrest Whittaker and Catherine O'Hara are hardly unknowns. But if you don't recognize their voices during the movie, you’ll have to lift your feet for the popcorn-sweepers and scrutinize the credits for the actors’ names. And contrary to typical Hollywood fashion, child actor Max Records is rightfully credited first.

A second difference is the soundtrack. No, Max and the monsters don’t break into song and dance. If this were an auteur-less Disney movie, you know it would feature an I-Just-Can’t-Wait-To-Be-King-style number when Max demands the “wild rumpus” commence. Jonze hands the musical reins over to undervalued composer Carter Burwell and Karen O. The music, which exists on a plane somewhere between catchy and harrowing, may be one of the reasons Stephanie Zacharek over at Salon.com characterizes the film as an exercise in “shoe-gazing”.

But actors and soundtrack aside, let’s talk about the narrative. How do Jonze and Eggers thicken Sendak’s ten-sentence book into a hundred minutes of filmstrip?

Easy. They furnish Max with an Oedipus complex.

Freud’s argument, in ten words or less, was this: Boys lust after their mothers and want their fathers dead. Wild thing he may be, but at the outset of the movie, Max’s relationship with his mother (Catherine Keener) is exactly his ideal: Max has no father to compete with (we’re left to assume from odd shots of the father’s possessions that he is dead). And his mother dotes on him--even when she should be working.

Consider the movie’s first crisis, the snowball battle Max picks with his sister’s numerous boyfriends, which ends with Max in tears and buried in snow, while his treacherous sister drives off unconcerned in a car full of older penises boys. In a fury, Max accuses her of betrayal and abandonment. His mother calms him, reassuring him that if she had been there, she would have stood by his side.

But then Max's mother does abandon him. She invites over another penis her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo), and she cuddles up with him and a glass of wine on the couch, ignoring Max's demands that she come upstairs, into his bedroom, and crawl with him into his tent. The psychological links from tent to bed, and from bed to sexual intimacy, are easily drawn. When Max's mother refuses his sexual advances in preference for her boyfriend, so to speak, he storms into the kitchen, picks a loud fight with her over frozen corn that he knows will embarrass her in front of the boyfriend, and then yells that he will eat her up.

It's at this point that Max thunders out of the house, like an enraged lover, and after a few days (real or imagined) on a discovered sailboat, he comes upon the island of the Wild Things. There he demonstrates his supreme manliness and is not only accepted by, but made king of, the gendered but sexually ambivalent Wild Things. (Why does Max's main advocate, the one voiced by James Gandolfini, have the androgynous name "Carol"?) For more about Max's interactions with the Wild Things, I direct you to another reviewer.

I prefer to fast-forward to the point where Max's dominion over the monsters begins to wane. Dissatisfied about Max's performance as king, Carol reasserts his leadership over the clan and transforms from a friend into a figure of competing masculinity. He chases Max across the forest, presumably to eat him up, in an obvious counterpoint to the boy's own agitated departure from his mother's house.

Again, as after the snowball fight, Max looks for refuge in his mother. However, because his mother is far away in the world of humans, Max finds protection and comfort in a surrogate, the female Wild Thing who splits her attentions between Carol and Max (as Max's mother splits her attentions between the boyfriend and Max). She literally swallows Max to obscure him from the wrathful violent Carol, and for the first time since his arrival amongst the Wild Things, Max feels sheltered and safe. He is precisely where he has longed to be this whole time, back inside his mother's womb -- and it is a profoundly disturbing vision, boy child covered in bile inside a woman's stomach.

When Max returns home he finds, to his delight, that his mother is waiting up for him, and the competing penis boyfriend has disappeared. She serves him chocolate cake, and as he scarfs it down she closes her eyes, in pleasure and in exhaustion, like a woman sinking sleepily into her pillow beside her lover.

In perplexing weirdness, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation are hard to surpass. Yet in Where The Wild Things Are Spike Jonze may have accomplished just that.

12 September 2009

American Classic by Willie Nelson

The one time I saw Willie Nelson in concert — this was in an outdoor rodeo arena at Cheyenne Frontier Days — he took a few songs to warm up, to settle in, to really sell his material. Then he rocked.

Maybe that's just the way Willie rolls: His newest record, American Classic follows a similar trajectory, though its end result is more shuffle than rock. The album takes a few songs, maybe even one complete listen, before it feels warm, settled and authentic, before it feels less like an impostor and more like a genial stepbrother to the rest of Willie's admittedly idiosyncratic discography.

This isn't Willie Nelson's first collection of standards. That distinction belongs to 1978's Stardust, which critics said sounded Willie's death-knoll but which actually won him a Grammy and became his best-selling (and maybe his best-liked) album to date. Three decades ago, Stardust was audacious. Today, an album of innocuous pop hits is a common a move for a veteran musician. An entire standards genre, sometimes miscategorized "easy listening", is in full-swing, dominated by Rod Stewart's indiscriminate Great American Songbook, Barry Manilow's Greatest Hits of the [insert decade here], and Bette Midler's Bette Sings the [insert crooner here] Songbook series. Even Dolly Parton, whose genre roots aren't far from Willie's, often polishes up rusty oldies from unlikely sources like Cole Porter, Smokey Robinson and Bread.

Now, I can't make a case for anyone more qualified than Willie Nelson to compile a list of tunes that merit the title "American Classic". The man has been on the music scene in one role or another for nearly fifty years, and — lest we forget it — he himself penned songs like "Crazy" and "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys" that remain so beloved decades later that they don't require inclusion on an album like this to remind us they're classics. If I have one complaint about the songs on American Classic, it's that they're not as classic as many of Willie's originals.

At the outset of this review, I said the album takes some time to warm up. Let me be more specific: The disc takes exactly four minutes and forty-five seconds, the entire running length of its first track, "The Nearness of You", to warm up. Made famous by Glen Miller in the 1930s, the song is familiar to Twenty-First Century listeners because of Norah Jones (who, coincidentally, also makes a guest appearance on this album). It opens with a soft bath of piano and orchestra, neither of which is an obvious accompaniment to Willie's trademark wispy/raspy vocals, and it establishes the comfortable tempo that marks the whole album, but otherwise it's an unremarkable cover.

Like most of the tunes in this new collection, "Nearness" has already been covered who-knows-how-many-times by who-knows-how-many musicians, and that must put the artist in a quandary: What do you do with material that's been stretched in so many directions there's no place else for it to go?

Most artists would probably opt to just leave it alone. Willie, however, opts to call the material home again, back to its Tin Pan Alley roots, and that more or less summarizes his approach on American Classic. His intent doesn't seem to be to rework or reinvent so much as to mark these particular songs with his own stamp of approval, namely his voice, and it's not unfair to state that the primary difference between the originals and these covers is Willie's delivery. In "Nearness", and in the album's other lesser tracks, his performance is reverent and accurate, about what you'd expect from the anonymous entertainer at any black-tie event. But Willie is not an anonymous lounge singer. I hold him to a higher standard.

Or maybe I just expect him to have more fun, which is exactly what he does on this disc's standout tracks, which may be as good as anything on Stardust. Consider, for example, the album's strangest "classic", "On the Street Where You Live", written in 1956 by Broadway legends Lerner & Loewe for the minor character Freddy Eysnford-Hill in My Fair Lady. This one has also been covered by a smattering of other musicians, from Vic Damone to Marvin Gaye, but Willie's version is a bit bouncier and consequently a whole lot sexier than any of these.

He brings a similar growling sex-appeal to "Baby, It's Cold Outside". [For the record, if I ran the world, this song would be banned from new albums until its ubiquity had gone away. Seriously, has anyone not recorded it?] Norah Jones plays the part of the damsel who doesn't really want to go home but nevertheless worries what the neighbors (and her maiden aunt) may think if she stays the night. Jones, herself no stranger to sultry vocals, is about forty-five years younger than Willie, and that gap in age lends the tune an appreciable creepy edge — particularly if while listening you can't help but imagine the two on a couch together. Still, the combination works, and "Baby" will probably catch some radio-play this Christmas.

Other highlights include Bart Howard's "Fly Me to the Moon", which appears to be the album's first single, as well as "Come Rain or Come Shine", which like "On the Street Where You Live" was written for Broadway (in this case by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer for 1946's St. Louis Woman). I especially enjoy Willie's bluesy take on the "Come Rain" chorus: "The days may be cloudy or sunny / We're in or we're out of the money / But I'm with you always / I'm with you rain or shine". When he digs down into it, Willie sure can sell a love song, even one that's been a few times around the block.

But we already knew that. We knew it in 1978 with Stardust. And we knew it again in 1982, when Willie hit the top of the country charts, and won another Grammy for, his rendition of the Elvis smash, "Always On My Mind". American Classic fades out with a new and lusher recording of this same tune, a move that is at once both nostalgic and political. Nostalgic because it reminds us that covers have always been at the center of Willie's oeuvre. Political because it argues that Willie Nelson, a consummate musician, has had a hand in making standard many of the standards that appear on albums like this one.

Would I have preferred a new record of Willie originals? Yes.

Is American Classic a good album anyway? Absolutely.

29 August 2009

New Review: The Graveyard Book

It's my first review in a while, I know, I'm sorry, and I posted it first over at BlogCritics. Here's a preview:

The plot is archetypal Gaiman: an unsuspecting ordinary person (this time an infant) wanders into an unfamiliar and magical but not unappealing otherworld (this time an abandoned graveyard) where he learns just as much about himself as about his new surroundings.

Given the fact that I've read enough Gaiman books to identify this pattern, I suppose it's obvious I'm a fan. I had an inkling I would like this book before I cracked open its spine.

And I did like the book. So did the folks at the American Library Association (ALA), who rewarded the book their respected John Newbery Medal for singular children's literature. I can't quite reconcile myself to the thought that Gaiman, who one wrote a devilish story in which Snow White, a vampire-waif who seduced forest men for access to their blood before she married the necrophiliac Prince Charming, now joins the ranks of Beverly Cleary and E.L. Konigsburg as one of our country's foremost youth raconteurs, but that's how it is. Who'd have thought?

So, I liked the book, and some other people did, too. But despite the trophies it has amassed in the near-year since its release, the Newberry being only the most prestigious, I'm not convinced that Graveyard is Gaiman's masterpiece.

I have two prime complaints.

You can read those complaints here.