Tell Them Anything You Want
Tell Them Anything You Want
— a documentary by Spike Jonze & Lance Bangs
Sendak is humorous, macabre, and an absolute delight. He's one of the most fierce and honest artists I know; to hear him speak about art, and about life and death is heartbreaking and calls you to love him even more.
'Tell Them Anything You Want' started with Spike discussing the film adaptation of 'Where The Wild Things Are' with Maurice. Whenever they spoke, on the phone or in person, it was vivid and full of things Spike wanted to remember, and Spike being Spike, the obvious thing to him was to bring a camera along.
The documentary is a heartfelt portrait of one of America's most popular children's authors. It's edited in a way, that even though the recordings were spread out over a few years, it still feels like a continuation of the same conversation.
A conversation about the things Sendak loved intensely during his life, and the events that shaped his personality, as well as his artistic expression. In a rather humorous montage, we also learn just how often Sendak talks about his impending death.
The documentary is filled with the intense love Sendak felt for those in his life: Herman, the German Shepard named after Herman Melville; Eugene Glynn, his partner for over fifty years; Jack and Nathalie, his brother and sister; Lynn Caponera, his best friend who lived with and took care of him during the later years of his life, and who now manages the Sendak estate. And, then there is Ursula Nordstrom, his editor.
"She made me who I am. She gave me a book every year. She kept me working, I mean, can you imagine mentorship from a publishing house? She intended that I should be an important illustrator, she knew I could be. I had bad habits; I never went to art school; I drew in a clumsy fashion, but she could see beneath that."
Sendak knew just how much trouble 'Wild Things' would cause, and so did Ursula, but all she did was encourage Sendak, "Go for it, don't worry about anything or anybody". Maybe I wouldn't have done it without her."
When Ruth Kraus found some of Sendak's sketchbooks at Ursula Nordstrom's office in 1952, "she screamed with laughter at my little people—as she called them." And, that was that Ruth was sold on Sendak and wanted him to illustrate 'A Hole is to Dig', and the next book and the next. From the age of twenty on Sendak had a children's book out almost every year.
Ten years after, in 1963, Sendak's first book, both written and illustrated by him, came out. Each page of 'Where The Wild Things Are' is filled with his distinct characters; wild things drawn in his strong pen strokes and set in full colour. The book was banned at first, received terrible reviews, it just wasn't the kind of book, at least for the times, you wanted your kids to read.
What if they, like Max, rebelled? Children loved the book, though, but it still took two years before it became clear just how popular it was.
Spike: "What was the controversy over The Wild Things?"
Maurice: "It was really the idea of a mother not having disciplined her child, and also she was reduced to his level of anger. When he says 'I won't eat' and she says 'you won't eat anything' and she throws him in his room. No mother should do that, and I agree no mother should do that, but I also agree that mothers and children are human beings, and they will lose their way occasionally and do the wrong thing and say the wrong thing.
Because 'Wild Things' became such a juggernaut within children's literature, his other books stood within its shadow, and some even came under scrutiny. His book 'In the Night's Kitchen', created in a comic book style and filled with the things and people Sendak loved, repeatedly ended up on the American Library Association's list of frequently challenged and banned books.
Spike: What do you like in the Wild Things? What are your favourite things still forty years later?
Maurice: It’s probably the only real children’s book I’ve ever done. It’s scary and funny and ludicrous.
Every book I’ve done since that book is controversial. I did like fifteen books up till then, they got away with murder, then I do that book and oh, mama mia, okay, and everything after that is: hey, they found a dick in The Night Kitchen, Mickey has a penis. Gevalt, who would’ve thought such a thing could happen to a child. So, you can hear my contempt.
Spike: Did you intentionally make him naked or was that…
One of the more painful memories Sendak insists on sharing is the influence the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby had on him when he was very young. Charles Lindbergh Jr. was abducted during the beginning of Spring in 1932, what no one knew at the time was that the baby had died during the kidnapping and his body dumped less than a mile from the Lindbergh home. The infant's body was discovered over two months after the abduction.
When the news broke, the morning edition of The Daily News ran the story along with a photo of little Charles Jr.'s body. And, a three-year-old Sendak, walking with his mother past a newsstand, saw the photo in the newspaper and completely lost it. Everyone thought the youngest Sendak had gone insane, saying there had never been such a picture.
"But, it was always in my head, that now I would die, there was no question about it, because if a rich, gentile baby couldn't make it, then how was I gonna fare?"
It wasn't until years after, when Sendak met the author of a book exonerating the man accused and put to death for the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby that he got to the bottom of the picture he had seen as a child.
Maurice had seen a morning edition of The Daily News. When Charles Lindbergh Sr. found out the newspaper had published a photo of his dead son, he threatened to sue the newspaper. Under threat of a lawsuit, the paper abstained from printing the photograph in their afternoon edition.
...and that laid down the basis of a lifetime of, you wonder what children see, I mean the life of a child, what they see and what they hear, and what they don't discuss with you or choose not to discuss.
Who else must've seen that photo when they were young? "...did it affect them all, and what was that? An accidental occasion of no consequence at all, not to the world, but it certainly invested me in children forever." I don't think any child goes through life without some kind of trauma or adversity, however small or insignificant it might seem. Don't we owe it to them to create art and entertainment that holds space for the darker sides of life? To not create, in Sendak's words, "a little quaint ghetto-land, otherwise known as kiddie book-land".
Sendak has always held space for the more serious and uncomfortable sides of life in his art. The sides we so often try to keep away from children. Space for death, loss, sadness, love, and identity. If there is a running theme in all of Sendak's works it is this, "...how does a kid get through an occasion when he or she is all by him or herself without the aid and assistance of an adult.” And, the answer? “They make out as best they can.”
As Sendak got older, he showed more of his witty, cursing, and macabre side. I'm not sure if Sendak got less fearful of showing that side of him to the public, I think he just tried to care less about caring.
I'm learning how not to take myself so seriously, that what I'm working on, that what I'd like to work on, it's not earth strikingly important anymore. I am not earth strikingly important. So, what am I saying, I'm just clearing the decks for a simple death. Get done with your work. Get done with your life. And your life was your work.
Near the end of the film Spike asks what Maurice would've missed out on if he had never been born, aside from the people in his life and his dogs, Maurice said he would've missed out on making his books.
"...I did some very good books, which mostly is an isolationist form of life, doing books, doing pictures, and it' the only true happiness I've ever, ever enjoyed in my life. It's sublime to just go into another room and make pictures. It's magic time, where all your weaknesses of character and all blemishes of personality and whatever else torments you fades away. You're doing the one thing you want to do and you do it well and you know you do it well, and you're happy. The whole promise is to do the work, sitting down at a drawing table, turning on the radio, and I think what a transcendent life this is that I'm doing everything I want to do and in that moment I feel like I'm a lucky man.
I think what I’ve offered was different, but not because I drew better than anybody or wrote better than anybody, because I was more honest than anybody and in the discussion of children; and the lives of children; and the fantasies of children; and the language of children, I said anything I wanted. Because, I don’t believe in children; I don’t believe in childhood; I don’t believe in a demarcation, like you mustn’t tell them that, you must tell them that, you tell them anything you want. Just tell them if it’s true, if it’s true, tell them."
Rent 'Tell Them Anything', buy it, or if you truly can't find it because of where you are in the world, rip it, but make sure you watch it.
— Design & Essay by Julie Smits
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From a 1993 interview between Maurice Sendak and Charlie Rose. Rose is stil an absolute dick, but Sendak's parts are so poignant that it felt a shame not to include them.
“I do a lot of other stuff and then when I have an idea for a movie that I have to make I’ll go make a movie. (..) I don’t look at myself (..) like a director in the movie business machine looking for my next project, I look at myself as somebody that just likes making things and I like wherever that leads me, whether it’s a skate video or a documentary or a tv channel or a dance piece. (...) If there’s an artist I love the most exciting thing is getting to work with them, become friends with them, collaborate with them, and create something together.”
The Nine Club with Chris Roberts | Episode 78. Spike Jonze
What the hell is The Nine Club? It's the show that has skaters talking, and if you have no idea what Spike has to do with skating, then you should go ahead and watch the interview.
Honestly, whether you're into skating or not, go and watch The Nine Club. Aside from the quality and the excellent edits, they're top-notch interviews because the team's thoroughly into the subject matter and the people they interview.
And, I know, you could say: "Of course they're into the subject matter, it's skaters interviewing other skaters." Dude, I know, but it's about more than them talking about skating, they're also into all the other stuff their guests are into, especially Chris Roberts. He's an engaging interviewer, humble, and almost wide-eyed in the interest he shows. Which is a complete gift; honestly what better way to choke up an interview than to drag a bunch of ego into it.
In the last 15 min Spike, Chris, Roger, and Kelly discuss the evolution of The Nine Club, which I love. Think how brilliant it is to have the person you're interviewing comment on the growth you've made on your show..
Conversation between Maurice & Spike
Maurice: "It seems I can never satisfy some need in me to achieve something of incredible height. For my sake. It puzzles me deeply and it sours my life, so there's a permanent dissatisfaction, not in every way. When I'm lying in bed and he's lying next to me (Herman, the dog), when I wake up and have tea in my room with the sun pouring in, I think: 'My goodness, how many people enjoy this privilege?' So, I know, I know, but I cant make it feel, I can't get it to feel, it's like something's dead inside, I dunno."
Spike: "Are you getting tired, we should probably wrap it up."
Maurice: "Yeah, I think we should wrap it up. I really am tired. I wish I could satisfy you as a friend."
Spike: "You do."
Maurice: "Be a normal human being."
Spike: "I wish I could just strangle you and slap you..."
Maurice: "Go for it."
Spike: "...and make you realise you do find joy, and why isn't that enough."