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L.A. Popcorn Adventure #103
October 21, 2009

Where The Wild Things...Art

Where The Wild Things Are + Charles Burchfield at The Hammer

Like everyone else who has read Maurice Sendak's "Where The Wild Things Are" countless times, we were curious as to how Spike Jonze would bring these signature characters to life in his film adaptation Where The Wild Things Are (in theaters now). When Max (played by the starry-eyed Max Records) clashes with his mother (Catherine Keener), he runs away from home and embarks on a tumultuous, fantastical journey.  Max sails his flimsy boat through a terrifying ocean storm and scales dangerous cliffs in his wolf suit, before he discovers monstrous creatures dancing in the firelight of a deserted island. He tames the beasts, as in the book, and declares "let the rumpus begin' as he does in the book. But where the book leaves the rest of the tale to to our imagination, Jonze gives us a roller-coaster ride through the dark caverns of a young boy's psyche, peaking at the euphoric moment when Max is bestowed a crown and a scepter to preside over the entire Kingdom and reaching its zenith when he learns that it is impossible to appease everyone under his rule.  Amidst moments of sheer visual ecstasy (the Wild Things unite to construct architecturally masterful forts) are violent and frightening fits of rage between the creatures - the strangeness of which might scare younger movie goers. Yet, Jonze's vision is compelling - in Max he is able to strike a careful balance between tenderness and fury, portraying a young boy's gut-wrenching longing to be able to make the world right.

Jonze's stunning personal take on Sendak's creatures had our heads spinning with our own elaborate fantasies of mystical beings and far-away lands.  Online we were able to page through hundreds of drawings inspired by Max and his Wild friends, as we were delighted to discover two mesmerizing virtual galleries, Vice Magazine and Terrible Yellow Eyes, that combine representations of the contorted, exotic, demonic, and gentle giants birthed from the minds of both the amateur sketcher and several well-respected artists. What is it about the idea of escaping to a wild place - if only in ones' mind? In order to know more, we headed over to the Hammer Museum to view Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield.  Burchfield's early vibrant water-color paintings evoke the exoticism and energy of the natural world; the artist's focus on the simple extravagance of humming insects, moonbeams, tall grass, and nature's smallest gifts, evoked the wildness in even the most mundane scene. He evokes a child's view of the natural world as magical and strange, powerful and frightening. The artist spent years painting on the side as he toiled to make a living, but finally was able to leave his day jobs to paint full time. Despite a debilitating illness, he is able - at the end of his life - to recapture the vibrancy of his earliest, most brilliant compositions - his late stage paintings have a spiritual wildness to them that most calls to mind the powerful imaginative renderings of both Sendak and Jonze. If all this has got your creative juices flowing, head to your local art supplies store for some glue on googly eyes, pipe cleaners, feathers, and anything else that catches your eye, and set up shop with the kids to create your very own depictions of Wild Things. 

Film Title: Where The Wild Things Are
Directed By: Spike Jonze
2009, Rated PG, 101 minutes

Our Buttery Bits of Wisdom about this Film:

  • Why it's Worth It: Maurice Sendak's Caldecott Award winning picture book Where the Wild Things Are (1963) is a childhood staple that has sold over 19 million copies worldwide -- many of us grew up with it!  While the book has minimal text and dialogue, the 2009 feature, directed by Spike Jonze and  screenplay by David Eggers, brings to life the illustrated creatures, giving them unique personalities and problems.  The film boasts an original soundtrack by Karen O of the Yeah, Yeah, Yeah's. We found the film wildly uneven, but undeniably visually and emotionally poignant. Critics adore it but some kids might find it mystifying.
  • Red Flags:  The film is a rocky ride, with themes that are rather adult, like Max feeling rejected by his mother.  Their initial fight might upset younger children, as there is a lot of screaming, yelling, and banging involved, and although it is PG, when Max runs away in the sailboat, the eerie ambiance and violent storm could upset young ones. Once on the island, the beasts leap upon each other rather roughly, and Max nearly gets crumbled by falling trees and lax monster piling. Also, the incessant bickering of the monsters -- meant to represent various sides of Max's personality, presumably -- will go over the heads of little children. The filmmakers are much more interested in interpreting a classic work, than pleasing an audience, which is bound to disappoint some viewers.
  • Literary Savvy: Although the monsters are fearsome creatures who initially threaten to eat max, he wins them over by staring into their yellow eyes without blinking, therefor demonstrating his courage and bravery, and his king-like abilities.  

Our Tips for Talking with your kids about this film:
  • Director Savvy: Where The Wild Things Are took six years to make, partially due to the fact that director Spike Jonze chose not to rely on advanced C.G.I technology to build his beasts, in favor of the Jim Hensen Creature Workshop.  Jonze chose to have Hensen build these full-body puppet suits so that "to see the monsters romp around with Max on screen is to feel the heft of their bodies and the heat of their breath."  Do you agree with Jonze's choice to use puppets, or do you think he should have relied more heavily on animation technology?
  • Psychological Savvy: Click here to read David Brook's on-point psychological analysis of the film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are in a New York Times Op-Ed piece from 10/20/09.


Facing Your Monsters - Art Around Town and Online

Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield, The Hammer Museum

Time allotment:   1 1/2

Age Recommendation:  10 and up

Cost:  Admission to The Hammer is free, and parking is $3 in the underground lot.


Our Buttery Bits of Wisdom about this Film:

  • What Worked for Us: The Hammer, located in the center of Westwood, just keeps getting groovier and we love hanging at the new Wolfgang Puck Cafe in the museum's airy, ground-floor outdoor space. Burchfield's early watercolors are absolutely stunning, and we were amazed at his early visionary sense of design and color. It took him years to recapture this early genius - laboring to raise a family, make a living and absorbing the politics and artistry in America in his lifetime, but his late work (the larger, spiritual canvases) seem to return to some of this raw, early energy. We recommend that kids focus on the first (really, the second room with the watercolors from 1917 and last rooms of the show - the work in between is interesting for adults, but kids might lose focus).
  • Hammer Website:  Click here to learn more about the Burchfield show and related programming at the Hammer.
  • A Seemingly Idle Diversion: Family Workshops at the Hammer: In conjunction with the exhibition Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield, this series of workshops invites families to investigate doodling as a key part of the creative and learning process. Burchfield made scrapbooks for the hundreds of doodles he created, describing the doodles as a "free exercise in abstraction" that yielded some of his most useful motifs. Parents and kids will engage in the same process, doodling in response to music, conversation, sights, sounds, and smells. At the end of the workshop series, participants will create both a beautiful scrapbook of their doodles and a culminating artwork using their doodle motifs. The workshop will be taught by trained UCLA student artist/educators. Click here for more details and to sign up. Session 1: Sunday, October, 25, 3-5pm; Session 2: Sunday, November 1, 3-5pm; Session 3: Sunday, November 8, 3-5pm. All ages welcome, parents and children encouraged to enroll together. There is a $25 per family refundable registration fee to hold your place, but the Hammer is waiving it for KOTC members. Please call Sue Bell Yank at 310-443-7047 or email to enroll.

Our Tips for Extending this Adventure:

Here's What you can do at home:

Want more? Here are KOTC's picks of films, books, music, and websites that connect your family to more culture.

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