While it’s fairly well known that comedians can often be glum, depressed people in real life, rarely does one imagine children’s book writers as anything but cheerful, kid-friendly souls. But Maurice Sendak may be quite the exception, admitting that his awarding winning bestseller stories, which on the other hand have been banned on occasion by libraries for their scary characters, are vehicles for coming to terms with his very personal demons. A candid confessional that comes to light in the documentary, Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak.
Directed by Spike Jonze and Lance Bangs and timed for concurrent release with the Spike Jonze book to screen Sendak fantasy adaptation, Where The Wild Things Are, the documentary Tell Them Anything You Want visits with the eloquent octogenarian in his isolated Connecticut home. Sendak, who has written over 100 children’s stories during the last half century, still projects a youthful and playful sense of the world, in spite of his determined hermetic existence, crabby disdain for the company of most human beings, and decided preference for his dog Herman above all else, because the similarly aged nonjudgmental canine ‘doesn’t critique my work.’
The Brooklyn born child of Polish Jewish immigrants and untrained, naturally talented artist proceeds to describe with an alarming sense of bitterness but at the same time an utterly enchanting, spontaneous gift for storytelling, an unhappy childhood, with parents who made a point of informing Sendak that he was an ‘accident,’ because they could not afford him. And for which various unsuccessful remedies were applied to induce an abortion, including toxic drugstore products and a ladder. Though his deeply resented parents did care enough to name him after ‘the doctor who pulled me out of my mother.’
Sendak then recalls his often stormy relationship with the human race, including public censure for daring to include a graphic, anatomically correct little boy in his Holocaust inspired storybook complete with ovens, In The Night Kitchen. And a confrontation with eminent shrink Bruno Bettelheim who cautioned parents not to let their children anywhere near Where The Wild Things Are, and who told the writer in person, ‘I hate your book!’, then later committed suicide.
Further isolating Sendak as a young man, was coming to terms with his homosexuality. He frankly admits on camera that being gay was a terrible reality he disdained but became reluctantly resigned to, in an ‘unwelcoming’ world back then. Along with the bitter knowledge that such a revelation at the time could have ruined his career as a writer of children’s stories.
And while railing against his own unhappy childhood even as he confesses his general dislike for children, though he has no idea about the contradiction of devoting himself for decades to creating books for them, Sendak illuminates the life of a monastic artist in all its raw agony and simultaneous splendor. And, in an exquisite documentary that seems to be unraveling quite on its own without benefit of cinematic intervention. While Sendak sums up the joy and miracle of creative passion, even as he acknowledges dreaded mortality lurking in the existential shadows.
DVD Features: Maurice At The World’s Fair; Q & A At MOMA; Birthday Tributes At The 92nd Street Y; Theatrical Trailers.