We’re going to make a place where only the things you want to happen, happen!” shouts the young Max, his smile awash in exuberant, bittersweet innocence. The eyes of his ploddingly adorable, furry — yet somehow vicious — guardian, Carol, light up. The monster’s king has made the only promise that matters, a sweet assurance of infancy’s infinite possibility and the answer to Max’s six-word question: “How do I make everyone happy?”
In my IMAX theater seat, I blink and understand: my childhood is gone. And so is yours.
I was more moved by Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers’ impossibly original fable than I felt safe admitting in the days that followed. As Max wandered among these sensitive, neurotic and violent beasts, vivid incarnations of his own, inner world, the film seemed to misfire. But at its core, it had caught me (and thousands of others) mid-breath; we, the young and unsure, wandering at the threshold of adulthood, are trying desperately to “figure it all out.”
We traverse a Peter Pan tragedy, scared of growing up into a confusing real world, where possibilities are limited, and certainties are impossible to come by. We may howl defiantly at this new realm; it leers back at us, menacingly. Our wild things are slowly being silenced or pushed aside in the name of practicality; these college years are their last hurrah. Carol will be muzzled. The wild rumpus will end, forever.
Of course, singing an idealistic swansong to childhood is silly. Growing up brings with it its own pleasures and fulfillment. But what kind of adulthood are we constructing out of the ashes of Max’s dangerous, hauntingly evocative forest? What are we becoming in these final years of our youth, with the dirt-clod fights a distant memory, and the forts in our parents’ bedrooms nothing more than old mattresses and errant shouts? This, we ask ourselves as our mental landscape is distilled down to the possible and the real, fantasy replaced by responsibility, and expectations mount.
Max may be cruel; but the world is boring.
“Where the Wild Things Are” vividly captured an extraordinary inner depth and turmoil, present from an early age, that adulthood seems to preclude — a hidden chaos we all share. Repressed, constrained by necessity, we have come to mask this plane, to deny its very existence.
The “wild” child is diagnosed with ADHD, and medicated with mind-altering drugs. The professional adult renders his or her internal confusion up to psychotherapy, $500-per-hour specialists and self-help books. In academia, emotional vitality is demonized, as abstracted logic and rational discourse ascend to the marble pedestal. The young and hip cultivate intellectual apathy, masking their inner insecurity with cool detachment and clear resolve.
As we leave our teenage years behind, we feel that, in order to be happy in this ratiocinated world, we must inhibit or silence the passions of youth. This is dangerous. A caged animal beats itself raw against the bars of its cage. Our wild things, with their surging energy, are unrestrainable. Suppressed by social dictum, they turn inwards to bruise each other, to rend us from within.
This dilemma explains the success of Jonze’s film. With its creatures of the id running amok, it shows us a world for which we quietly yearn. We have sanded and leveled ourselves, hid our wild things behind resumes and carefully curated Facebook profiles. Arcade Fire’s defiant affirmation is our biography: “Our bodies get bigger but our hearts get harder.”
As I walked out of the theater, I saw many a tear rolling out from under wayfarer sunglasses, and onto V-neck shirts.
We all know where the wild things are: within, falling away as childhood slips out from under their feet. The film is about us, living in a despiritualized generation of apathy and relativism, in which evils are ever-present, in which we can no longer find anesthetic certainty in the exemplar of a monolithic parent, church or tradition.
Perhaps then the solution is to be transparently flawed, to embrace our raw interestingness, our deep and complicating conflicting drives, our internal war. We are all as defined by our demons as by our angels. We are as striking, however disquietingly, in our fears and imperfections as our certitude and composure. To forestall inner and outer isolation, we should allow ourselves more immaturity, more freedom, relaxing our standards of conduct and searching out the vitality of childish misbehavior.
Why rail against so-called “scandalous and libertine” behavior? It may indeed be our personal, spiritual and communal salvation, our avenue of release. We are ever children, but if we conquer our inner, youthful exuberance, we will end up hollowed. With our wilder passions gone, our wonder, our sense of possibility and our creative dynamism will fade. We will be left empty shells: straw men built of external circumstance and expectation.
If that is truly our generation’s fate, then let this be my eulogy to childhood — a remembrance of my temper tantrums, imagined worlds, crayoned walls and muddied clothes. But if inside all of us, there is a wild thing — a sparking remnant of that innocent, passionately emotive child, wandering, enraptured, in those long-lost woods — then I doubt its howl will ever be fully silenced.
Alex Klein is a sophomore in Davenport College.