May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
March 25, 2009
I know that fan is moving air,
I can see it in your hair
But I can’t bear to breathe it in somehow
– Joe Henry, “You Can’t Fail Me Now”
The trailer for Spike Jonze’s movie Where the Wild Things Are spread like wildfire across the Internet this week. Call it “The Tweet heard around the world.” And it caught my attention for many reasons.
First, it’s a beautiful trailer, a perfect match of imagery and music.
As it begins, a boy wakes up (or does he?) clinging to an immense, furry creature. The creature is striding through a forest of tall trees. As the boy looks up, he sees the horns of the wild thing’s massive head jutting up sharply into air that is saturated with golden light.
Secondly, there’s the nostalgia factor. Maurice Sendak’s book meant a lot to me when I was a kid, filling my imagination with adventures and “beastmen.” There was something rather halluicinatory about this simple tale of a boy, a costume, and a forest full of dangerous benevolence. It was a place where a timid boy could have confidence and face intimidating monsters, even rule them. Sound a barbaric yawp, if you will.
Third, the trailer caught my attention with the surprisingly realistic texture of its imagery. It doesn’t look like a world of CGI illusion. Max is being carried through a real forest, in real sunlight. You can almost feel the wind on your face as you’re carried along with him.
But most of all, it was the sound — the wind in Max’s ears — that caught my attention. If you don’t hear it, put on headphones and turn it up. In spite of this vivid, dream-like imagery, it’s what I hear that impresses me most.
Wind. The forest resounds like a living, breathing entity. Through its steady, oceanic roar, the Wild Thing’s footsteps have a deep resonance, the drumbeat of something in touch with the grassy forest floor, the bark of the trees, the shadows.
The boy’s sleepy realization of these circumstances gives me a thrilling feeling of escape, relief, and consolation. I’m reminded of Mei’s discovery of the creature in that miraculous childrens’ film by Hayao Miyazaki, My Neighbor Totoro: There’s something wonderful about encountering a big, benevolent entity who is at once foreign and familiar. But it’s not just the Wild Thing that intrigues me. It’s the feeling of being swept away into a beautiful place, away from all of the crowdedness and artificiality of human endeavor, carried into a world of sound, texture, natural beauty and revelation. It doesn’t feel discovered so much as it feels remembered.
Man, I love the movies. Or better, I love what sometimes come shining through them, trying to wake me up so I don’t miss out on my life.
As I played that Quicktime trailer for the first time, I was immediately reminded of a similiar sensation I had experienced the night before, watching another movie about lonely children who long to escape: a film called Times and Winds.
In Times and Winds, we follow three children who are trying to cope with their difficult parents, their changing worlds, and their own turbulent adolescence. Their adventures play out in the Turkish village of Kozlu, a landscape alive with color and clamorous with the bells of livestock, a place as punishing as it is beautiful. All three live in fear of the adult world. Their wide-eyed wonder, their playfulness – these things die a little more every day, as they are battered by their fathers’ tyranny and worn down by the inevitable burden of growing up. And there is no wonderland of wild things into which they can escape, no benevolent Totoro to lift their spirits.
These young actors convey, with very few lines of dialogue, a palpable sense of their characters’ loneliness, their enthrallment with natural wonders, their dread of the coming ordeals. Few films in my moviegoing experience have conveyed the hardships of growing up with such piercing eloquence.
Ponette comes to mind, with its beautiful scenes of a child’s struggle to understand mysteries beyond her grasp. Spielberg’s underrated Empire of the Sun comes to mind as well, in which a young man searches for help in a forbidding, chaotic world. I wasn’t much taken with Joe Wright’s adaptation of Atonement, but the moments that do stick with me belong to Saoirse Ronan as Briony, the young girl whose innocence crumbles as she stumbles into a world of grievous adult compromise. Those are all very different films, but in their best moments they convey the fleeting nature of childhood, and the burden of adulthood that gives so many children a sense of dread — an intuitive and justifiable apprehension of the struggles ahead. Loved ones will die. Heroes will fall. Parents will be found out as flawed and double-minded. And in their suffering, the children will stumble into pride and prejudice themselves.
But while the film is full of striking imagery, expressive performances, and poetic composition, what sticks with me above all is the sound of that late-night wind that roars through the film’s opening act, shaking the trees and blazing through windows. It haunts me. The film’s sound designers captured it beautifully, and give me a sense of the unstoppable, frightful forces in which these young men and women feel caught. Mystery. Change. Growing up.
One young man even tries to harness the influence of that wind in order to strengthen him against his cruel father. I couldn’t help but think of Bowie: “And these children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds, they are immune to your consultations, they’re quite aware of what they’re going through…” It could have been just another coming-of-age story. By recognizing the influence of the natural forces that envelope his characters, director Reha Erdem gives us something richer. Instead of trying to package his sentiments in dialogue, he lets the elements speak for themselves.
Then, as if the wind wasn’t powerful enough, Erdem draws his music from the deep well of Arvo Pärt. He shows the audience no mercy. Enough, already, I surrender!
I am still learning that a work of art’s power comes, in large part, from how it captures and reflects spiritual experiences that escape our more didactic forms of expression.
What has the wind said to you today? Don’t tell me that the light you’ve encountered hasn’t been speaking. I spent my day today at my desk trying to keep myself awake enough to notice it.
I’ve written before about how that persistent blue light in Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue, and the beams of light that flicker from prisms in The Double Life of Veronique, convey to me a powerful sense of being pursued by a Spirit… a haunting and yet strangely comforting sense of Presence. And I’ve written about how, in The New World, Terrence Malick’s penetrating gaze somehow translates for me the way that the heavens “declare” glory and that days can “pour forth speech.” But it’s not just what I see. Sound design matters too.
In Tarkovsky’s Mirror, a young woman sits on a fence and gazes across a field to a stand of trees. All is quiet and still. Then, a sudden flood of wind comes around the bend. She can’t feel it at first. But she knows it’s coming by the way the field bows down before her. Then the wind reaches her, and she is almost carried away by that flash flood of air. I have to catch my breath.
Okay, maybe it seems like I’m just gushing about hot air. But I think there’s something to this.
It’s what I’m excited about exploring here at Filmwell.
I’m weary of rumors about celebrities, of trivia over who’s going to play the villain in the next big-budget Marvel comic sequel, or whether the Star Trek movie is going to be consistent with the episodes we’ve seen on television.Will such speculation and debate matter in 20 years? I don’t meant to berate the fanboys because, I confess, I’m one of them and have been or many years. But I’ve spent so much of those years talking about the minutiae of commercial entertainment that it bothers me to think about it. And the more time I spend exploring the wide world of art, the more I lose interest in such stuff as which hot actress will play a supervillain next, or what unremarkable directors of forgettable movies have to say about how they achieved such dispoable stuff.
I’d rather live in a way that is enhanced by great art, rather than sit and amuse myself to death. As Henry Miller wrote, “Art is only a means to life, to the life more abundant. It is not in itself the life more abundant. It merely points the way, something which is overlooked not only by the public, but very often by the artist himself. In becoming an end it defeats itself.”
So I’m looking forward to conversations about what’s happening in and through great works of art on the big screen. I hope you’ll join in from time to time.
When movies are really working, they give me a sense of revelation, a sense of connection with something bigger than myself and the world as I’ve experienced it. They remind me that I’m a part of something meaningful instead of arbitrary; full, instead of empty; personal and hopeful, instead of separate and disappointing.
I can’t describe fully that sense of something Other, because I’m working with broken tools. But when light, color, and sound unite in a way that brings us together, we’re reminded of our connectedness. Rewarding questions are kindled in our minds. We’re awakened to a great Mystery. And I don’t think we’re being fooled. If Truth is mere delusion, why do we recognize it? Why do certain scenes strike resonant chords in our hearts?
And isn’t there something remembered in the pulse of the Wild Thing’s steps through the woods? That fusion of thunder and wind, that sense of being carried — it’s rather like what we must have experienced in the womb. What could be more comforting for poor vulnerable Max, who is so worried about growing up?
With purposeful, rhythmic steps, the Wild Thing carries Max forward — each step bearing us further into light. The wind rushes around us. The sunlight envelopes us. The music starts. The spirit moves. We can feel it, although we cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.
The song begins.
“Children… wake up.”
Welcome to Filmwell, everybody.
Has the wind ever rushed from the screen and caught you by surprise?
Jeffrey Overstreet watches far too many movies, writes film reviews and two weekly columns for ChristianityTodayMovies.com, maintains the Web site LookingCloser.org, contributes to Paste Magazine, and is at work on a series of novels. He works at Seattle Pacific University.