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School Trip, Wild Things, Barefoot to Zion - Uncle Orson Reviews Everything

Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 25, 2009

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

School Trip, Wild Things, Barefoot to Zion

Sometimes kids can surprise you. Everybody talks as if they were the product of some combination of genes and upbringing, as if every aspect of them should be traceable to one parent or the other.

Then they come up with something that shows you who they are.

The eighth-grade son of a good friend labored one night on writing something that wasn't homework. He didn't talk about it, didn't ask for counsel, wouldn't even let his parents proofread it.

It was a letter to his principal about an upcoming multi-day field trip. He took it to school and turned it in. Only then did his parents get to have a copy, which they showed to me. Now (with permission, and with names concealed), I'm passing it along to you:

Dear {Principal},

In today's economic state, many people in our community, our nation, and our world have found themselves jobless, homeless, and hungry. They can't afford the roof over their heads, the power to heat their homes, or the recommended three meals per day. Some of these people go to our school. And while the 8th grade is off having fun in {destination} a lot of people will still be as homeless and unemployed as they are now.

I've done the math. If all 300 {School Name} 8th graders go on the trip at the current price of $425, it will cost a grand total of $127,500. Even if just half went, that would still be $63,750. Think of the difference that money could make in the hands of Greensboro Urban Ministries, The Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, or other charities.

I propose that instead of making the voyage to {destination}, the school donate this money to a charity, perhaps one listed above. All those who are willing and can afford it should bring in the money that would have paid for them to go on the field trip. Even if a number of people just bring in small sums, the money will add up. There could be an in-school fundraiser, where all students can make donations, anonymously and as much as they choose. The already planned fundraisers could also be redirected towards the selected charity.

If this option is chosen over going to {destination}, I think it will teach many people, maybe not about politics or history, but about love, charity, compassion, and moral values.



8th Grade Student

In my opinion, this is not a matter of good versus bad. The planned field trip wasn't to a frivolous destination. But the fact remains that in these hard times, quite a few students would not be able to go. This student, all on his own, thought of a good alternative, and had the boldness to present it.

Whether the principal does anything about it is not my concern. I'm just proud and happy to count this young man as a friend of mine.


Even though it's based on a children's book by Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are is not a kids' movie. Or at least not the kind of kids' movie we're used to.

In fact, it's an art film -- which means that it is deliberately strange and unexplained. Things happen, but the writers and director go to some pains to conceal motive and reaction.

Oddly enough, the decision not to explain what's happening is usually regarded as a way to make a film "deep," but the opposite is the truth. When we are given no clue to the real motivations and intentions of characters, we have no choice but to settle for the most obvious -- the cultural cliches.

Shallow and pretentious though this film is -- and it is both -- it is in some ways so brilliant that I'm glad I saw it, and will probably watch it again. That's because, even though shunning the duty to communicate, the script (by Dave Eggers and director Spike Jonze) does one thing brilliantly: It faithfully shows us the lives of children.

It does this, oddly enough, not with the leading character, Max (played by a very talented actor named Max Records), but with the large puppets representing the titular "wild things."

After a nasty conflict at home -- entirely caused by Max's grossly age-inappropriate behavior -- Max runs away and sails across the sea to an island populated by large, heavy, dangerous, English-speaking creatures about ten times his body mass.

Symbolically there's a bunch of nonsense, but the actual story and relationships are absolutely real. It's like going back to kindergarten. Friendships form. Anti-social children are unable to control their jealousies or sustain relationships. They annoy each other and yet remain together.

And as I watched, I realized that it's not just kindergartners. All the shifting moods and loyalties and jealousies and rages and heartbreaks also happen in middle school. And high school. And college. And in companies and shops and family reunions populated entirely by adults.

This is human nature at its most basic -- the "wild things" are wild because they have not learned to conceal these primitive feelings, but such feelings are at the heart of most human behavior.

So in that sense, I have never seen a more nakedly honest treatment of childhood anywhere, ever.

The actors providing the voices of the wild things do a superb job. The dialogue is brilliant. The computer animation of the faces makes them seem to be alive.

So ... what's wrong with the film? Why did I also hate it every bit as much as I loved it?

I've learned to overlook the pretentious undertelling of arty filmmaking -- and sometimes enjoy it. If that were the only negative, I'd simply warn you about it (as I warned people about the artiness of the brilliant Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

But there's are far deeper problems. First, the child has been made too old -- the actor was nine at the time of filming and looks it.

I understand at least one reason for not keeping the child as a five-year-old -- it's almost impossible to find a child that young that can actually act.

I've seen children of three or four behave as the child in this story behaves -- and even then, you look at the kid and think, "Why haven't the parents done their job and extinguished that anti-social behavior" -- that is, you think that unless you're thinking, "That kid is heading for a lifetime of therapy" or even "I would never let a child of mine even visit a daycare that had that child in it."

In other words, the efforts the filmmakers go through to show us why he behaves as he does would not even justify this behavior in a normal five-year-old.

But in a nine-year-old, his behavior is deeply disturbing. Yes, it's funny when he puts on his animal costume/pajamas/leisure suit and jumps up on the kitchen counter and yells at his mother, "Woman! Feed me!"

But it's not funny that it happens when she's entertaining a boyfriend in the living room, and it's not funny when he refuses to get down, and then speaks to her quite horribly.

Yes, he's clearly the child of divorce (though it's never specified -- his father might have died or committed suicide or walked out -- this is an art film, so of course we're never told). But that does not excuse a fourth-grader for doing any of the things he does!

There is a brief moment, right after young Max's worst behavior toward his mother, and just before he runs out of the house, when the boyfriend (played by the grossly underused Mark Ruffalo) says -- in a soft, ineffectual way -- "He shouldn't talk to you like that."

And here's the other thing I hate about this movie: That is the only participation by an adult male in this entire film.

On the island, Max sees his own childish rage echoed in the actions of his friend Carol (a male, despite the fact that this is a name that has moved into the female camp). Presumably he learns something from this, but we're never told that.

Then he comes home -- to a house where the male interloper has been removed. The boyfriend is not there. Just Mother. And Mother asks no questions, suggests no alternative behavior, just feeds him (as she was commanded to do before) and looks at him adoringly.

In other words, after going away, Max comes home to find that the only result of his actions is that he gets his way.

If they had been trying to make a treatise about the devastating effects of fatherlessness on a child, they could not have done a better job.

But it's obvious that they had no such intention. Nor is it even about how fathers aren't needed. The film simply takes it for granted that males are either raging maniacs, like Max and Carol, or completely ineffectual, like the boyfriend and the other males on the island.

If the film had even mentioned the missing father, it would have at least implied that the absence of the father somehow mattered to somebody. But no one speaks of the father at all. He doesn't exist. He isn't missed.

This is a world in which the best predictor of serious problems in life is the absence of a live-in father. Nobody can read the serious science on child development (as opposed to the fantasy science of the politically correct) without reaching the conclusion that the most important thing a mother can provide for her children is a permanent father.

But in this film, the politically correct view (that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle) prevails completely.

Which means that underneath all the truth about relationships among children, there is a big fat lie about family life.

Now, maybe somebody associated with the film will say, "But that was our point -- we meant the absence of all mention of the father to make his presence all the more important!"

But of course that's arty bushwa. These filmmakers know how to make us aware of what's missing. They don't do any of those things. If they made such a claim, that would be like J.K. Rowling's cowardly act in declaring Dumbledore to be gay -- after the books have all come out and without ever giving us even a clue within the book that such a thing might be true.

And yet, as I told you, I will probably watch this film again. To see the gorgeously imagined houses the wild things build. To watch the relationships among them shift and twist the way they do in real life. To see the powerful, brilliant performances.

But I have to warn you. My wife and I watched this film with a passel of teenage girls. Most of them loved the film, seeing only the truth in it; they were completely oblivious to the absence of a father. Which means that they have been taken just one more step down the road of not even noticing when a father is not there.

Yeah, that's what teenage girls should subliminally learn -- that all that matters in life is the beautiful relationship between single mothers and their sociopathic little children, and that families are only really loving and happy when you get that man out of the house.


Next week, on the 5th, 6th, and 7th of November, Barefoot to Zion will be performed by the Summit Players in the LDS meetinghouse at 3719 Pinetop Road (just across from Claxton Elementary). Showtime is 7:00 p.m., the performance lasts only a little over an hour (which is good because the seats are uncomfortable metal folding chairs), and it is free of charge.

My composer brother, Arlen L. Card, and I were commissioned to write this musical back in 1997, when the LDS Church was celebrating the sesquicentennial of the entry of the first group of Mormon pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley.

It's the story of an English family that -- like thousands of Mormon converts in the 1840s and 1850s -- sold everything they had to buy the passage across the Atlantic and join with the Church members, first in Nauvoo, Illinois, and then, after mobs murdered the founding prophet, Joseph Smith, on the trek west across the American prairie to the valleys of the Rocky Mountains.

There's comedy and tragedy, romance and family tension, and our outstanding cast has prepared a first-rate entertainment. For Mormons, the history of the Church and the history of America are all tied up together.

What this play is not is an attempt to convert anybody to Mormonism. After all, it was written for an audience that already was Mormon. This story -- of sacrifice for the sake of faith, of the attempt to build an American Zion -- speaks to audiences whether or not they believe in any religion.

As with Fiddler on the Roof, there are some in-jokes -- like the song in which a young teenager makes a complete mishmash of church teachings when he's trying to explain it all to strangers. But -- again like Fiddler -- everything is perfectly understandable in context.


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