There is no question that Maurice Sendak holds a very special place in the lives of many people born in the Western Hemisphere after 1960. In books like Where The Wild Things Are and In The Night Kitchen, Sendak’s slightly askew and touchingly honest portrayals of youth hit upon something sorely lacking in much of the popular children’s literature of the past century, which, for the most part, has been saccharine sweet and chock-full of artificially pleasant bromides about obeying your parents and never having any real problems. Sendak’s genius was in his ability to recapture what it felt like to be a mercurial kid, with actual dilemmas and emotions. His work ignited controversy over the years, prompting some child psychologists during the early part of his career to recommend banning his work from public libraries (although, one wonders if the controversy actually stemmed from the fact that Sendak was a gay man).
After making last year’s Where The Wild Things Are, Spike Jonze and Catherine Keener decided to create a portrait of Sendak, attempting to document the contradictions and neuroses that make him such an interesting subject. Enlisting the help of Lance Bangs, a veteran cinematographer and director whose work has run the gambit from R.E.M. videos to filming episodes of MTV’s Jackass, Jonze visited Sendak at his home in New England and spent quite a bit of time putting together Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak, a half-hour documentary that reveals an incredible amount about Sendak’s philosophies of art, life, and childhood, as well as his abiding fears of obsolescence and death. It is remarkable that Bangs and Jonze fit such a large amount of Sendak’s thought and personal story into a half-hour piece, allowing the author to tell them delightful and intriguing anecdotes about his childhood in New York City, and events that shaped him as both a writer and a man. He explains to them how he essentially lucked into the illustration business, creating images for other people’s books long before he started writing his own.
There is an undeniably strong undercurrent of immense sadness in Sendak’s musings, the writer constantly informing the filmmaker’s that he’ll die soon, that he doesn’t believe his life will amount to much of anything. This morbid preoccupation of Sendak’s has an uncanny humor to it, owing mainly to the fact that he is so bluntly matter-of-fact about everything he talks about. The author’s distinct lack of sentimentality throughout his interviews offers a glimpse into what made his books so original and refreshing — rather than coddle children with trite and fuzzy narratives about how special we all are, Sendak populated his fiction with rough-edged characters who illustrated the inherent uniqueness of children rather than serving as a mouthpiece for the informed opinions of their creator.
Maurice Sendak’s works speak for themselves, occupying a pride of place in children’s literature that will hopefully continue to entertain and illuminate young minds for generations to come. The directors of Tell Them Anything You Want had no intention to drive this point home. Rather, Bangs and Jonze did their very best to let the man speak for himself, to allow him to come to terms with a cultural mystique he’s never been quite comfortable with. The results are tremendous and constitute a truly excellent biographical documentary, albeit a rather short one.