Monday, December 6, 2010

Tell Them Anything You Want

A portrait of an artist by a group of fellow artists, Tell Them Anything You Want is an entertaining and inspirational documentary.

Film is an inherently collaborative medium, though you wouldn’t know that to listen to most big-name filmmakers or those who write about them, who tend to make it sound as if feature films spring full-blown from the head of a single man or woman. But not Spike Jonze, a joyful collaborator who has always found his creativity within the context of a clan of kindred spirits.

Jonze’s team for Where the Wild Things Are, a marvelous movie that captured the spirit of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book while taking the story in new directions, included screenwriter Dave Eggers and actress Catherine Keener, one of Jonze’s most frequent collaborators. While he was working on that film, Jonze enlisted the help of video documentarian Lance Bangs to shoot this 40-minute tribute to Sendak, a free spirit Jonze was getting to know and love while consulting with him about his book.

At a Q&A after a screening in New York City last February, moderator Mike Myers, a longtime friend of Jonze’s, noted that Jonze, Bangs, and Sendak are each “an odd combination of emotion, intellect, and imagination.” Was it that shared sensibility that attracted them to their subject? he asked.

“Maurice’s imagination is certainly inspiring, and that’s what initially drew me to him,” Jonze said. “But the thing that I find most deeply inspiring is his ferocious honesty and his fearlessness to be honest. He has no ability for small talk or chitchat. He is who he is and he doesn’t have the energy to pretend that he’s someone else.”

That winning directness infuses the film, which was shot over a couple of years, when Sendak was in his early 80s, in his Connecticut home. While Tony Kushner, Meryl Streep, and James Gandolfini – not exactly chopped liver – offer brief tributes to Sendak, what sticks in my memory these months later is Sendak’s impish presence and things he said to his friends Jonze, Bangs, and Keener, who we see now and then but who mostly stay off-camera.

Funny, frank, and charming, the self-described “spoiled brat” talks about his unhappy childhood, his obsession with death, and the “permanent dissatisfaction” that dogs him in a kind of running monologue that manages, like his books, to be profoundly life-affirming while acknowledging the scariest and worst life has to offer.

He speaks lovingly about his dog Herman, his live-in assistant, and Ursula Nordstrom, the great children’s book editor and writer who discovered him, but he barely mentions Eugene Glynn, his life partner of 50 years. That near-silence was Sendak’s choice, Jonze and Bangs explained in the Q&A—Glynn was dying while the film was being made, and Sendak wanted to keep that part of his life private. But he does recall the difficulty he had in coming to terms with being gay, and his need to keep his sexuality secret for years for fear that coming out would kill his career as a children’s book author.

He also talks about the seminal event of his life: the kidnapping and presumed killing of the Lindbergh baby. Sendak was just three years old when he saw the tabloid news photos and heard the talk, but they made an indelible impression, making him realize that even a child could die. All the elements that have obsessed him since were contained in that incident: death, the peril that lurks under the surface even of the most placid domestic environment, and the vulnerability and sensibilities of the very young. He thinks he may have gotten stuck in childhood, in a way, because of the intensity of that experience, which “certainly invested me in children forever.”

Even when he was a child himself, Sendak says, he always watched other kids and then retold their stories in the drawings he made. His close observation has taught him that children are a lot smarter and more observant than adults generally give them credit for. “I don’t believe in children. I don’t believe in childhood,” he says. “I don’t believe in ‘You mustn’t tell them this, you mustn’t tell them that.’ I tell the truth. Tell them anything you want.”

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