A Rumpus Orange: Where The Wild Things Are & Bronson (2009)

Posted by Charles Reece, October 18, 2009 10:28pm | Post a Comment

I dreamt that it was night and that I was lying in bed. (My bed stood with its foot towards the window; in front of the window there was a row of old walnut trees. I know it was winter when I had the dream, and night-time.) Suddenly the window opened of its own accord, and I was terrified to see that some white wolves were sitting on the big walnut tree in front of the window. There were six or seven of them. The wolves were quite white, and looked more like foxes or sheep-dogs, for they had big tails like foxes and they had their ears pricked like dogs when they pay attention to something. In great terror, evidently of being eaten up by the wolves, I screamed and woke up. My nurse hurried to my bed, to see what had happened to me. It took quite a long while before I was convinced that it had only been a dream; I had had such a clear and life-like picture of the window opening and the wolves sitting on the tree. At last I grew quieter, felt as though I had escaped from some danger, and went to sleep again.
-- Sergei Pankejeff, the Wolf Man


I caught what might be called a double-feature of the Id this weekend: Spike Jonze's long-awaited adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are (co-written with Dave Eggers) and Nicholas Refn's adaptation of the long-waiting life of Michael Peterson, Bronson (co-written with Brock Norman Brock). If little Max hadn't eventually come back to the comforting constraints of familial order, then he would've found out as Peterson (aka Charlie Bronson) did that society is always ready to force that order on him.

Maurice Sendak's tale is about as perfect as could be imagined, and Jonze hews closely to the book's essential truth, while detailing more of Max's home life, adding neurotic personalities to each of his mental chimeras and marketing his despair towards the type who's always pushing the bangs from the eyes and wearing a hood indoors (the hoodie being a more socially acceptable way of getting a few more years out of that wolf suit). Sendak probably did as much for making Freudians of us all as Freud himself, but we needn't consult Herr Doktor to get his point. As Jonze has it, Max drifts off to Lidsville after trying to eat his mother up by literally biting her. Seeing mom make googly eyes at her boyfriend was more than Max could stand. This event comes at the end of an already shitty day which began with his sister siding with her friends when they accidentally destroyed an igloo that he had built. Loneliness here results from feeling cut-off from the locus of control, of feeling ineffectual in his ability to curry favor with those more (emotionally) powerful than he (in desperation he jumps on a counter and cries, "feed me, woman!"). His mother calls him wild, so off he escapes to a land of feral desires. If the movie does anything more effectively than the book, it's in making the Puffinstuff menagerie grotesquely cuddly and fearsome, like keeping a panther for a loving pet provided you can throw it a leg of lamb fast enough. Max is king of the fuzzy-wuzzies so long as he can provide for their emotional needs -- not all that different from the maternal order he fled. Going wild turns out to be pretty similar to desiring absolute control -- a childish / bureaucratic / fascistic fantasy, take your pick. As he loses control over his wild things, Max comes to the adult realization that power is everywhere and nowhere, and begins to miss his mom. With a tearful goodbye to his imaginary friends, back he sails to his family where he can become a productive member of society. 

And daddy doesn’t understand it
He always said she was good as gold
And he can see no reasons
'Cos there are no reasons
What reason do you need to be shown?
-- Bob Geldof


At age 22, Britain's "most violent criminal" Charles Bronson (who initially took the name for his short-lived boxing career and then had it legally changed) began serving a 7-year sentence for armed robbery. The year was 1974, less than 2 years after Stanley Kubrick pulled his movie Clockwork Orange from the theaters due to death threats. With the exception of just over 4 months, Bronson has spent the last 35 years as a ward of the state, all but 4 of them in solitary confinement. This extended sentence has to do with his seeming love of violence for violence's sake, something like the performance art of an evil Andy Kaufman. As such, he's a child of Alex de Large, or an Agent Orange, that is, one whose real life lends itself to Kubrick's satire. Or, at least, that's how Bronson's director Refn takes it (some of Bronson's victims tend to approach his nature a little less abstractly). Therefore, Refn gives us Clockwork Orange's malevolent juxtapositions of barbarity and high-toned culture, gravitas and cornball pop tunes, with a comic book color palette and told through the wide-angled, symmetrical perspective of a demented narrator in clown makeup. Not exactly original, but like Cape Fear was to Hitchcock, livelier than most other films that don't steal from only one source. In fact, there are enough parallels between Alex and Bronson that telling the latter's life as a remake of Kubrick's film becomes an artistic statement: they share a vocation for ultraviolence; they come from solid, conservative and loving middle class parents; the State has tried penal, psychiatric and even artistic means to correct their moral deficiency; they both show a fondness for art, Alex with his beloved Ludwig van, and Bronson with his writing and drawing; and they were released back into civilian life despite the questionable success of those corrective procedures only to rediscover their true calling.

Kubrick's adaptation ends on a downer that Anthony Burgess' original does not because Chapter 21 was excised from the American version that the former had read, the age of 21 being that of adulthood in which Alex was to have sought redemption for his youthful sins. That doesn't sound like an ending the cynical Kubrick would've used even had he known about it, and it finds a counterexample in Refn's protagonist. Despite his size, Bronson never reaches Max's realization, much less Chapter 21. In demanding complete freedom for his base desires, he achieves it internally (as he periodically demonstrates to a mental audience) while being socially isolated through the most punitive means society can offer, a smaller and smaller box. Thus, his repeated demands for harsher imprisonment are shown to be paradoxically a dream of absolute power, a radicalization that doesn't look all that different from complete submission to authoritarian control. Imagine that.

Relevant Tags

Spike Jonze (3), Where The Wild Things Are (2), Cinema Criticism (32), Clockwork Orange (3), Stanley Kubrick (6), Nicholas Refn (3), Bronson (2), Violence (12), Fantasy (23)