In the past week, the deaths of two major creative forces have sent shockwaves through the multiple generations impacted by their work. Last Friday brought the news of Beastie Boys rapper Adam Yauch succumbing to cancer; on Tuesday, children’s book author Maurice Sendak, best known for “Where the Wild Things Are,” passed away after a sudden stroke. In death, the achievements of both men have landed on unexpected common ground: Oscilloscope Laboratories, Yauch’s indie film distribution company, released Spike Jonze’s terrific documentary, “Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak” on DVD; today, the company made the movie available on Hulu (you can watch it on the next page).
Sendak’s voice dominates “Tell Them Anything You Want,” encompassing a perspective on the expansive nature of artistic endeavors embodied by Yauch’s career as well. In retrospect, it eulogizes both men. Beyond that, it is essential viewing for anyone touched by Sendak’s work from an early age. I include myself in that crowd, having no firm memory of art before encountering Sendak’s hauntingly beautiful “Wild Things,” which I probably did for the first time in an infant state. The demographic for his oeuvre has a uniquely wide definition. It grows up with you.
“Tell Them Anything You Want” explains the reason for that. The film takes the form of one long conversation, cobbled together by Jonze and co-director Lance Bangs from numerous interviews they conducted with an octogenarian Sendak at his Connecticut home beginning in 2003. Their efforts coincided with Jonze’s prolonged attempt to adapt “Wild Things” for the big screen, which culminated with that movie’s release to a mixed reaction in 2009, but the documentary provides a more definitive look at the appeal of Sendak’s artistry because it lets him take over.
There is no artifice: The production is entirely transparent, with microphones, cameras and the filmmakers constantly appearing in the frame. The movie falls in line with the kind of short-form portraiture that the Maysles brothers used to churn out in their heyday. Sendak’s personality dominates the show thanks to his intense candor. He repeatedly fails to appreciate his own monumental accomplishments; in fact, he’s tortured by the very themes of fear, failure and repression they routinely confront.
At the same time, Sendak demonstrates a coy awareness of his reclusive persona. “They don’t let me out very often,” he jokes in the opening minutes, “but I said I had to meet Spike Jonze. Fuck, I love that guy’s work. I think could’ve been him, with a little bit of luck.” With that curious observation, “Tell Them Anything You Want” connects Jonze’s decisively strange form of existential storytelling to Sendak’s earlier tradition. In retrospect, it falls into place: Sendak invented an emotional framework for narrative that Jonze and countless others rely on.
But according to Sendak, the feelings in his books come from no specific precedent other than his troubled experiences. The movie is stuffed with powerful anecdotes from every period of Sendak’s life, delivered with his characteristically humorous refrains and solemn regrets. A constantly shaking, wild-eyed, gruff-voiced, hulking onscreen presence, Sendak’s tough exterior unravels over the course of the movie’s trim 40-minute running time to reveal the softie beneath. Like the stars of his most famous work, beyond the harsh appearance he’s a gentle beast.
To hear Sendak now is to make peace with his passing, particularly in a prescient montage of moments where the illustrator speaks of his imminent demise. These comments range from the highly specific (“I’m very aware of death”) to the exclamatory (“Death! Death! Death!”) to the sobering conclusion that “I’m gonna die pretty soon…but it’s no big deal!” Jonze asks Sendak what he might say if someone offered him 20 more years of life. “Make it 10 and you have a deal,” he replies. He made peace with the limitations of life ages ago.
By the time a 32-year-old Sendak wrote “Wild Things” in 1963, he already brought a lot of baggage to the table. As young Moishe Sendak, the author recalls in the movie, he was raised by immigrant parents in Brooklyn who told him at an early age, “we could not afford you.” And so: “I hate my family,” says the man responsible for books found in thousands of family libraries worldwide.
Sendak’s awareness of death also came to him at an early age. He saw the shocking photograph of the infamous kidnapped Lindbergh baby’s corpse on the front page of the New York Daily News in 1932, then later channeled the experience into his 1981 book “Outside Over There,” a project the author describes as “a painful situation turned into art.”
Sendak’s other early encounter with death had a far more traumatizing effect on him. While playing catch with another neighborhood boy, Sendak threw the ball too high; the boy ran into the street and into a passing car that killed him instantly. Remembering that incident, Sendak fights back tears, the only time he fails to contain himself.
His rough childhood was complicated by his closeted homosexuality. Ironically, Sendak died just days before Barack Obama’s historic pronouncement in support of gay marriage, although it’s hard to say if that would have affected his attitude. “I’ve always seen it as a dangerous, interloping thing,” he says with a sigh. “I missed a lot of fun.”
Sendak may have endured a lifetime of repressed feelings, but he succeeded at funneling them into work rich with attitude and philosophical inquiry. His books transcend cultural, educational and intellectual boundaries, addressing multiple ages with the same degree of wisdom. Sendak was the ultimate anti-agist, as the movie’s title makes clear. “I don’t believe in any demarcation,” he says when asked about the appropriate way to address children. “Tell them anything you want. If it’s true, you tell them.”
That brings us back to Yauch, whose work with the Beastie Boys initially had a reputation as dismissible juvenilia before commanding tremendous cultural value and a mature voice. Both men made art that rose above simple categorization. That explains their longevity, as does “Tell Them Anything You Want.” Heartbreaking, funny and miraculously life-affirming, the movie perfectly encapsulates Sendak’s immortal legacy.
Watch “Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak” below: