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Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak

Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak is appropriately erratic and weird, part documentary, part video diary, and part cunning fantasy.

Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak

Airtime: Wednesday, 7pm ET
Cast: Maurice Sendak, Lance Bangs. Lynn Caponera, Spike Jonze, Catherine Keener
Network: HBO
Director: Lance Bangs, Spike Jonze
Air date: 2009-10-14
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Why is my needle stuck in childhood? I don’t know.

-- Maurice Sendak

"Just me and Herman." Eighty-year-old Maurice Sendak lives in Connecticut with his German shepherd. Herman, he insists, is the perfect companion. He "says nothing," smiles Sendak. "He doesn't critique my work, he doesn't cluck his tongue." Instead, he lies nearby in case a head-rub is forthcoming, and goes on long walks in the brisk autumn air. "He's the best trained, because of my legs and back," Sendak notes, "He walks slowly, he takes care of me."

It's 2003, and filmmakers Lance Bangs and Spike Jonze are visiting with Sendak and Herman. The result, Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak, is appropriately erratic and weird, part documentary, part video diary, and part cunning fantasy. In this series of conversations stitched together in a sort of thematic progress, Sendak talks about his parents and siblings, his lengthy career as a maker of children's books, his gayness ("Don’t forget when I was gay, the world was extremely unwelcoming and it was very different"). He also talks, a little, about Where the Wild Things Are, winner of 1964's Caldecott Medal and the book Jonze and Bangs have adapted for a movie of their own.

"It was my first big, big book," Sendak remembers, "It was a big risk. As it was being done, people at the [publishing] house were already shaking their heads." Gee, asks Jonze, what was the controversy, so long ago? Sendak explains that it bothered readers who thought children's books should be exemplary tales, guides to good behavior for kids and parents. Because it features "a mother not having disciplined her child and really, having reduced herself to his level of anger," the book inspired condemnation by Bruno Bettelheim, who wrote, Sendak recalls, "Don't let this book overnight in your child's room."

Sendak remembers as well his meeting with an unapologetic Bettelheim, who apparently told him, "I will always hate your book" (as well as the psychiatrist's eventual suicide, serving here as a bizarre footnote to Sendak's story). The artist is more interested in children's experiences than he is in adult's' responses tot his work. Describing how he came to his livelihood, Sendak says, "It's a peculiarity of mine that I do this. Something malfunctions in me, okay? What I do is peculiar, but it's all I can do." What he does, he says, is represent kids' lives, honestly. "In the discussion of children and the lives of children and the fantasies of children and the language of children," he asserts, "I said anything I wanted, because I don’t believe in children. I don't believe in childhood. I don’t believe there's this demarcation, 'You mustn’t tell them that.'"

He remembers his own childhood vividly. "I mostly observed children," he says, "I'd sit at my window, even when I was a child. And I would tell their stories, as their stories floated up to the window." He didn't have much fun, except when he and his brother made toys together, or his sister took him to the movies ("She was the mother I chose"). Appearing in frame with camera in hand, Jonze delights in the mechanical toys, which the artist keeps in his barn/studio ("It's amazing how you engineered it!"). Sendak, in turn, commends the younger man's capacity for fun. "You see," he nods, "You take that for granted, as you should, and to me, it's a dilemma, it's like 'How do you cross the Alps? How do you have fun?'"

His tendency to worry, Sendak says, is a function of his own childhood, specifically, his early awareness of death. Not only did he witness and feel responsible for a friend's death in a traffic accident, but as well, he submits, he was very early (at two) exposed to the concept through a newspaper photo. "My obsession with death," he says, "comes from the Lindbergh baby," whose corpse he saw on the front page of the Daily News (a photo the paper then removed from the next edition: "Just a lucky few, like me, had seen it"). Sendak recollects this encounter as life-changing. "That a child could die," he says, "is an infamous insight for a child."

Seeing that image -- and being told by adults afterwards that he had never seen it -- shaped his sense of how children comprehend the world, usually quite apart from adults. "That laid down the basis of a lifetime. You wonder what children see, the life of a child, what they see and what they hear and what they don’t discuss with you or choose not to discuss." As adults are increasingly removed from childhood, Sendak proposes, they miss what children experience, forgetting how it was or could be. It's this sense of possibility that Sendak represents in his art. As different as his wild things may be from Jonze's, they share a commitment to imagining, and sometimes revealing, what children see and feel. The work of both men has been repeatedly commended as "magical" and "enchanting." But as Tell Them Anything You Want insists, their art shows children's fears and quandaries, more real than romantic.

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