When I was at the Toronto Film Festival recently, I had a chance to talk to Spike Jonze about his new film “Her” and several other subjects. In particular, I told him a story about sharing “Where The Wild Things Are” with my sons and how it represented a major turning point in the emotional life of my family. He seemed struck by what I said, and I told him that I was planning to write about the experience for my ongoing Film Nerd 2.0 column.
The truth is, I’ve been struggling to figure out how to write this one for a while now, ever since the screening, and it’s been difficult to find the right way in. Even considering how personal much of this column has been, this one has been hard for me to grapple with because, unlike many of these columns, this one isn’t all warm and fuzzy. I am well aware that I spend more time talking about my kids in print than some people might like. I have gotten e-mails and comments and direct messages from many people asking me to either scale it back or stop altogether. “I just want to read movie reviews,” one guy e-mailed me, “and I don’t give a shit what your kids think.”
My kids are so much a part of my work because they have absolutely rewired me. I am not the same anything I was before they were born. Having children changed every part of my life, and that includes the way I watch and process movies. There are things that hit me in a different place emotionally, and there are many things that I feel like I’m seeing for the first time because of how radically I’ve shifted in perspective. When I write about these experiences for this column, I am aware that I am sharing something very personal, and I’ve tried to be very precise in how I’ve rendered the boys and their reactions to things. I’ve written about mistakes I’ve made in judgment and things that they said that never occurred to me, and I think I’ve done a fair job of showing both the pitfalls and the pleasures of programming a media diet for your kids.
Everything is not always sunshine and lollipops, though, and it would be dishonest of me to try to paint it that way. Parenting is hard work, emotionally speaking, and so is marriage, and the two of them together, along with work and money and stress and everything else, can just wear you down. I feel like most days, I juggle all of it well enough, but there are days when anyone would be challenged.
My single worst quality, bar none, is that I have a volcanic temper. I have days where I handle that well, and days where I don’t, and when I am having a bad day, I do my best to stay out of everyone’s way. I am self-aware enough to not want my kids to see that side of me. I would rather turn on a fighting game for twenty minutes and take out my frustrations on some digital avatar desperately in need of a broken spine than vent on the people around me.
In addition, I am married to an Argentinian woman, and she is certainly not shy about voicing her own displeasure. I think calling us a loud couple would be accurate at times. During all of it, I have tried to keep any discord away from the kids, and I would say I’ve been partially successful at best. As they get older, they seem far more aware when things aren’t great between us, and I am starting to worry that all of that is getting in there somehow, messing them up in ways we won’t know for some time to come.
Because the reality of it is that you never know what they’re picking up until you see the ways it is reflected back to you, and recently I had an experience that I found fairly humbling, all because James Gandolfini died.
Like many people, I found the news of his demise terrifically sad. I was away from home when it happened, in Santa Fe where Disney was holding their press event for “The Lone Ranger.” When I got back, I pulled three Blu-rays off my shelf to watch as a way of celebrating Gandolfini and his work. Last year’s “Killing Them Softly” featured a great supporting role for him that seems even more painfully appropriate in light of his passing, and it’s really sad, beautiful work. I find his performance in “In The Loop” insanely funny. He is one of the few people who has ever stood toe to filthy toe with Peter Capaldi trading profanity like they’re throwing fists, and I love it.
Then there was the third film I picked, something that might not be on the top of everyone’s Gandolfini list but that means quite a bit to me. I chose “Where The Wild Things Are.”
I’m a big fan of the film, and here’s what I wrote about Gandolfini’s work when I published my review in 2009:
… If there were an Oscar given for voice work, Gandolfini would be this year’s no-contest winner. I’ve always loved the way his voice is at odds with his physicality. He’s such a big guy, but he’s got that mush-mouthed baby voice that seemed like the perfect expression of Tony Soprano’s childish id. Here, he uses his own natural out-of-breath mumble to perfect effect, playing Carol as a creature of almost pure whim, swinging from high to low sometimes in the space of a few sentences. He bonds with Max before anyone else, and probably to a greater extent than anyone else, but in giving himself up so completely, Carol also lays himself open to disappointment and sorrow. He wants to believe in Max as a great king. He wants someone to handle all the hard choices, someone who can assuage all sorrows, someone who can guarantee that the sun will never die. And if Max can’t be that thing, then Carol has no idea what to hold on to. There is a chilling insinuation that Max is not the first King to come to the island, and that Carol has a terrible way of dispatching Kings who displease him, and there are stretches that are genuinely scary, especially for younger viewers.
I think the film does an amazing job of externalizing the emotional turmoil that makes up much of the inner life of any child, particularly one who is struggling with things they have no control over like loneliness and anger and fear. I think it is a film about childhood and not necessarily a film for children. Both of my sons have been raised with the book as a constant presence in their lives, but they hadn’t seen the film.
When Toshi saw the film on my stack by the TV in the office, he asked if he could watch it with me.
Because it had been a while since I saw it and I’d forgotten quite how hard it hits, I said “Sure,” and so on a Saturday evening, I put the Blu-ray in and both the boys joined me in the office.
So far, I don’t think Toshi or Allen have had to deal with any serious bullying, but Toshi’s had some typical schoolyard hassles with other kids, and it always surprises me how truly rotten kids can be to each other, and how casually it happens. I don’t even feel like it’s a conscious thing most of the time. I think kids just test their abilities, and sometimes that means seeing how they can whip up other kids into a frenzy by picking on some perceived weakness in someone else. Toshi doesn’t seem to have a filter yet to prevent people from hurting him emotionally. He wears his feelings very close to the surface, and he seems to really wrestle with some of the biggest feelings he has. Not often, but just enough that I worry sometimes that people are going to find it very easy to hurt him in the future.
Watching the opening sequences of the film, everything before Max runs away from home, both of the boys were quiet. Normally they settle into a movie, and they can’t help but joke and chat as they do so. That wasn’t the case with this film. The only thing that either of them said during that entire opening stretch was after the big kids jump on Max’s snow fort and smash him in the process. Toshi got closer to me on the couch and said, “That’s terrible. Those kids are terrible.”
Then a few minutes later, after Max intentionally floods his sister’s carpet and his mother realizes what he’s done, she starts to yell at him about causing “permanent damage,” and Allen offered a somber, “Man, he’s gonna be in trouble.”
Once Max reached the island, I think the boys were expecting a typical kid movie adventure, and so when the film didn’t start to hit any of those familiar beats, I could see that it set them on edge. The introduction of Carol, Gandolfini’s character, plays him as a figure of menace until the last possible moment, and we see a lot of him in silhouette. Allen held my hand, squeezing as hard as he could, and at one point, he said, very quietly, “He’s very mad. Someone made him so mad.”
And then, even more quietly, “His kids must have been very bad.”
That’s when I really started paying attention to them and not as much to the movie. Every scene in the film that featured Carol raging and the other Wild Things trying to figure out what to do had the kids anxious and just this side of upset. And once I realized that, in silhouette, I pretty much look exactly like Carol, it was impossible to ignore the implications of their behavior. I may think I’ve done a good job taking my anger and venting it elsewhere, but obviously, they are still more than aware of it, and it obviously scares them. And why wouldn’t it? I’m 6’2″, I weigh a solid 265, and I am loud even when I try to whisper. It’s just the way I’m built.
After the film, we started talking about what they took from it, and for the first time, my kids finally seemed to have the vocabulary to talk to me about how scared they are when I get angry. Keep in mind… I find the notion of physical punishment completely repulsive, and there’s never been a single moment in their lives where they were threatened with it, but that doesn’t matter. My size and my volume and the fact that my internal weather manifests externally is all it takes to make the two of them unhappy and uncomfortable, particularly when my wife also gets into the act. Because the boys have no real way to talk to us about these feelings, it is easy to pretend that we’re not affecting them, that they haven’t heard the worst things said between us, that they believe everything is fine.
All is not fine, though, and less so all the time. And seeing how even my best efforts have failed to keep this from affecting the kids is a hard pill to swallow. The film may have kicked off a conversation that lasted at least four hours over the next three days, but that’s not a solution. The solution is to change the household dynamic in a permanent way, one that creates a healthier space for the boys. “Where The Wild Things Are” is all about one boy’s attempt to gain some sort of control over his emotional life, and I love that the film operates in a place of pure metaphor, where everything and everyone are all in service of Max’s inner life. Even though I don’t think either of my kids could identify a metaphor at this point, it obviously worked on them. By the time we reached the final moments of the film, when Max is leaving the island, I was pretty much a mess. Carol’s howl of pain and sorrow and love as he watches Max sail away is the perfect expression of every feeling I have when I realize how quickly everything with my kids is going to go, how soon they’re going to be out of my house. And, yes, tears were shed, and not just by me. By the time Max got back to his house and into the arms of his mother, there were plenty of tears from all of us, and it wasn’t something that we were able to just switch off as the credits rolled.
There have been two more moments since we viewed the film where things in my house threatened to erupt into a full-blown confrontation, and I’m doing everything in my power at this point to take control. I refuse to let my children spend another day thinking of me as scary in any way. It tore me up, listening to them talk about how they feel when I’m angry, but at least we finally got to that conversation. I have never felt like a worse person in my life than when they connected Max’s feelings to their own, but at least now we have a way to discuss this, and I hope it allows us to build a more open line of communication in the future. I want my kids to call me on my shit. I want them to tell me when I’m out of line. Yes, it is my job to set boundaries for them and to teach them how to be moral, productive, caring people, but they spend just as much time teaching me. Having kids feels like a second chance, and either I can continue to make the same mistakes that have defined me for the first 40 years of my life, or I can make every effort to help them be better than I am, stronger and happier. Here’s hoping we can build from the foundation we already have, and that whatever shape my family takes on in the future, the emphasis remains on these two sweet remarkable souls that have been trusted to me.
My anger has cost me mightily over the course of my life, but my kids shouldn’t have to pay for it at all. Moving forward, all is love, is love, is love.
“Film Nerd 2.0” is a regular feature here at Motion/Captured.