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Why ‘Wild Things’ = ‘Wild Bunch’ (Commentary)

Both understand that society is constantly caught in a dialogue between its human and animal side.

It just so happens that I saw “Where the Wild Things Are” a few weeks before my students — I am teaching them a college course in American movies this semester — are due to watch Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch.”

My brain registered the obvious: that both movies have “Wild” in the title. But being the overactive organ that it — thankfully — still is, the same brain started to make other connections.

Which is why “health care” and “town hall meetings” also entered the anything-goes domain of this unedited thinking process.  

“Wild Things,” which Spike (“Being John Malkovich”) Jonze directed, is the adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s inspired and brief 1963 bedtimer about a young boy whose primal urges make him a sort of persona non grata in the eyes of his mother. He is screaming, howling and carrying on, the way boys do. The way animals do. And in doing so, he is connecting — without any self consciousness — to the wild side of his nature.

He still has a viable link with the primeval. So his mother, that benevolent martinet of civilization, that id basher, sends him to bed without supper.

So the boy retreats deep into his imagination and goes to find a world that does not fear the wild side — that fully embraces it. And he sets sail for a land where Wild Things live.

He meets all manner of furry monsters and he becomes their leader. He celebrates their monster lifestyle with a royally declarative “Let the wild rumpus start!” and he enjoys a sort of primeval lost weekend. After an untold amount of time, he returns home, emotionally readjusted, in time for his still-hot dinner.

Mom is there, all hugs, smiles and reconciliation.

Sendak’s story was deceptively simple and brief, but it played such deep human chords, parents and children have been resonating, bedside, ever since.

It seems to me that “The Wild Bunch,” Peckinpah’s 1969 movie, is simply the adult version of the same thing. It’s a lament for man’s uncivilized side, and yet it’s also an implied admonishment for man’s tendency towards violence. In the movie, a gang of professional thieves find themselves caught in the precipitous gap between two social stages in the American story — the era of lawless independence and the coming of the motor car, the train and the technology of a commercially and socially and morally interdependent society.

The men in “The Wild Bunch” are essentially grown-up, chin-stubbled, snaggle-toothed, hard-drinking, gun-toting versions of Max. They are always looking for a wild rumpus. But in this emerging world, wild rumpuses are becoming illegal. If they continue to rob banks and kill anyone who gets in their way, they are going to be sent to a different kind of bed — the wooden kind that’s buried underground.       

Both movies lament the sanctity of the id, yet acknowledge it needs serious monitoring. Man is inherently aggressive and even needs to be. But there are consequences, without those government (read Mom) controls. On a larger scale, both movies understand that society is constantly caught in a disconcerting dialogue between its human and animal side.

Both movies have their indirect roots in the growing social tumult of the 1960s. Sendak’s book was published in 1963, the same year President John F. Kennedy would be shot. (Sendak, born of Eastern European Jewish parents, was also powerfully aware that the Nazis slaughtered several of his paternal relatives during the Holocaust.)

“The Wild Bunch” arrived in theaters in 1969, as brutal images of the Vietnam war had become commonplace on America’s living room TV screens. Peckinpah declared that he wanted to draw peoples’ attention to the war, and that he wanted to open up the experience of violence for moviegoers — make them understand that guns aren’t toys. They kill viscerally.    

All of which is to say: You mess with the human id at your peril. It’s necessary to exercise our wild sides. It’s inevitable and perhaps even necessary for those crazy people to cause disturbances in those health-care town hall meetings. They need to honor their wild sides, the kind that is illogical and undisciplined and emotional.  

They need to do this before their more rational sides — or perhaps other people around them with calmer, more deeply reflective qualities — can step in and negotiate a more balanced approach to life.

We are a society of Maxes and Moms, and it’s good we have them both.