October 21, 2009

Weirder and Wilder Things

by Vadim Rizov

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T Visiting a friend in Omaha this past weekend, I saw The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. at the lovely Film Streams theater. I'd never seen the one-and-only Dr. Seuss-scripted 1953 classic, and the spangly print certainly didn't disappoint. Mostly, though, it got me thinking about everything that's wrong with Where the Wild Things Are. Both are sui generis translations of maverick beloved children's authors to the screen in ways that could be "scary" or "inappropriate" for children. And there the similarities end.

Even among surreal, culty kid's films (Return to Oz is my favorite, but Babe: Pig in the City and Pee-Wee's Big Adventure come to mind as well), The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. is singular. A source of dismay for Dr. Seuss (who compared the reviews to an on-set accident where all the children vomited at once) and a financial calamity (losing over $1 million), this weirdest of all children's movies inevitably became a cult hit (yes, a musical version is on the way). Director Roy Rowland was a journeyman who began his career helming Robert Benchley shorts and acting as assistant to W.S. Van Dyke on the Tarzan movies, and ended up directing spaghetti Westerns. Among other things, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is a film in which the director is clearly as confused as any of the spectators; watching him trying to figure out the most efficient way to shoot something this unprecedented is one of the film's bracing qualities.

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T Most of the film takes place in a boy's nightmare, but even the bookending "real world" sequences are radically disorienting. Bart Collins (Tommy Rettig) lives with his mother Heloise Collins (Mary Healy), who forces him to take piano lessons he has no interest in from the downright fascistic Doctor Terwilliger (Hans Conried). Young Bart's only ally is the town's best plumber, August Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes). In the super cursory opening, Rowland shoots and cuts like an accidental Kenneth Anger, privileging lurid color, screen-filling close-ups of self-consciously mannered performances and a subtly deranged, artificial narrative flow. This suburbia is Sirk for kids; all is clearly not well. In most of the film, though, Bart is in his nightmare world, processing his fears through a bizarre scenario where Dr. T's simultaneously enslaving little boys to his ultimate practice piano while hypnotizing Heloise into marrying him.

As an expression of childhood fears, Dr. T is simultaneously amazingly direct and utterly bizarre. In Bart's dreamscape, he's got a mother he loves—but who forces him to do things he doesn't like—and two competing father figures; the Oedipal complexes are too obvious to need explication. Here, Bart and Zabladowski bond; in a really unnerving sequence, their replacement-father/son bonding takes the form of an unnerving two-person close-up, each staring at the other dead-on, that makes it look as if it's about to turn into a pornographic NAMBLA ad. This isn't just me being unnecessarily perverse: Dr. T is thrumming with weird, inappropriate sexual energies.

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T Bart's familial paranoia is hardly the only point of view, however: he disappears for whole reels given over to musical numbers and adult drama. Zabladowski cracks wise about preferring to think of himself as an "independent contractor" and whines about overtime pay; Terwilliger's egomania is clearly based off much more than animosity towards Bart, as opposed to the usual kidpic villains. This is a film in which childhood is as much about scrambled receptions of the adult world as the experience of "childhood." By the time both Joseph McCarthy and the atomic bomb have been invoked, we're in a world that's equal parts Freudian confusion, genuine childhood, and '50s Cold War zeitgeist. By not privileging Bart's viewpoint exclusively, it suggests larger worldviews and fears that can't quite be articulated but are clearly felt; to the extent I remember my childhood at all, that seems about right.

That's way truer to the idea of "childhood" than Where the Wild Things Are. In the world cooked up by Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze, who we are as children is the same as what we grow up to be: fearful, incapable of processing our inappropriate emotions in any way other than the bluntest and most unsophisticated way. For too long, the argument goes, we've repressed our naïve, truthful reactions and true emotional selves. Talking about needing a "sadness shield" is the new sophistication. I'm not being hyperbolic; this is a movie whose trailer is scored with The Arcade Fire. Simplest thought = truest. And so on and so on. It drives me up the wall.

Where the Wild Things Are The first 20 minutes of Where the Wild Things Are have been nearly universally praised, and I can see why: young Max's loneliness, need for attention from his mother and sister, and inexplicable fits of rage cut pretty close to the bone. Jonze's frequent insistence on roughhewn handheld camera has never seemed so right; we're as untethered and volatile as Max is. Yet, the trouble is once you see Maurice Pialat's 1968 L'Enfance Nue, you can't unsee it. That film depicts from outside what it's like to be around a troubled child, and the answer is sheer, unending abrasion: you can feel bad for the kid and still want nothing to do with him. That's because the movie has adults in it who act like adults; in Jonze and Eggers' world, though, childhood is more relatable than any putative form of adulthood.

To be clear: what I'm not asking for is some kind of '50s world where men are buttoned-up and keep their emotions to themselves. Maturity takes many forms, and sometimes it's the healthiest thing to let it all out. The trouble starts when that mode of perception is never challenged or shaken — when tweeness becomes the ultimate wisdom and everything else is cynicism. That's what bugs me about Wild Things: it's not so much about childhood as about perpetual regression, and an endorsement of it no less. Work, relationships outside the family, culture, nuclear fears, everyday snark: everything Dr. T. shoehorns into the story of an equally lost and sad kid has been stripped away. Jonze and Eggers aren't really privileging kids; they're privileging their view of what childhood is, which is preparing for a world of emotional woes whose essence never changes. Making the wild things neurotic adults who grumble about their fears on the same maturity level as Max is a funny joke, but it also isn't a joke: Jonze and Eggers really seem to believe that's true.

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T Myths about childhood change all the time: the very idea of it as a privileged time that deserves special care is itself pretty recent. One of the new big bugaboos is that parents from the '90s and onward have been too controlling and fearful, trying to shelter their kids from all harm while denying them the opportunity to express themselves. I see that Michael Chabon is the latest to parrot this mantra. "The sandlots and creek beds," he says, "the alleys and woodlands have been abandoned in favor of a system of reservations—Chuck E. Cheese, the Jungle, the Discovery Zone: jolly internment centers mapped and planned by adults with no blank spots aside from doors marked Staff Only." All of which is kind of true—but it's a manifestation of exactly the same kind of thinking as Eggers'. Childhood should be a rumpus, childhood is special, childhood should be scary because life is, childhood is where the imagination should flourish before adulthood kills it and all that remains is the sadness. It's of a piece with Wild Things' basic parenting philosophy—take your kid to a mosh pit and let them get it all out—and it's just as monolithic and prescriptive a viewpoint as keeping your kids locked up in the house all the time. So: Dr. Seuss vs. Maurice Sendak? Seuss wins. The true wild things are where the adults are.

Bookmark and Share

Posted by ahillis at October 21, 2009 2:12 PM