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Case Number 18533: Small Claims Court

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Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait Of Maurice Sendak

Oscilloscope // 2009 // 88 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // March 17th, 2010

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The Charge

"You are doing a documentary of a brain-dead person."

The Case

Offered as a companion piece to the ambitious Where The Wild Things Are, director Spike Jonze and cohort Lance Bangs offer up Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak, a unique, intimate, and surprisingly profound documentary into the life of the eclectic children's author and illustrator. Odds are they filmed this beautiful little gestalt to include on the DVD of Jonze's feature film, but managed to convince HBO Films the feature could stand on its own. They're right, for the most part.

Facts of the Case

Author and illustrator Maurice Sendak is best known for his bestselling 1963 Where The Wild Things Are, and if this documentary does anything, it is the immediate establishment of Sendak as someone that an older generation would generously categorize a "character." The opening shots of the film have Sendak emerging from his Connecticut house, dropping f-bombs, pontificating, and making monster movie faces like a deranged Boris Karloff and freely admitting to "making s—t up" all the time. Not quite the delicate sensibilities one might secretly envision of a bestselling children's book author, but Sendak has never been without his share of controversy.

At the ripe old age of eighty-one, Sendak is mentally sharp, physically frail, and emotionally caustic, with a wicked sense of humor and childlike wit crammed into the body of an old Brooklyn Jewish man. Obsessed with isolation, senility, and death, he is passionate, neurotic, dysfunctional, crude, and introspective, a man living in constant battle with himself and the world around him. He's also extremely endearing, and it only takes minutes before you fall completely in love with him. Someone jokes on-camera that he has a half-dozen women proposing to him every year, and it's not hard to see why. It's not hard to see why director Spike Jonze would gravitate towards such an oddball and want to share him with the world.

One immediately finds many similarities between Sendak the man and his literary and artistic body of work. Sendak is neurotic, caustic, and obsessed with death; he is a record player with his needle perpetually stuck in childlike anxiety for all of his eighty years. His books are lavishly illustrated, but often macabre and disturbing. He's no stranger to having libraries and parents object to his material over the years. He draws and writes about childlike wonder, exploration, anger and jealousy, anxiety, and fear. For those of us fortunate enough to have grown up reading his work and getting lost in his amazing drawings, his thematic anxieties landed in our hearts like a whaler landing a harpoon into the side of his prey—we are inexorably tied to Sendak for the rest of our lives through his work. In a sense, his anxieties are our anxieties, and always will be.

Sendak is endlessly fascinating as a character study. As an exercise in dichotomy and contradiction, he is a curio of angst and repression who views the world with a grizzled combination of skepticism, sardonic wit and childlike wonder. Mortality, sexuality, parental issues—you name the anxiety; it all makes its way into his books and illustrations in some way, shape or form. So much of Sendak's life seems to be about repression, secrecy, and fear, all themes that make their way into his work, but only in shadows and glimpses. This strange, wonderful, and neurotic man in Tell Them Anything You Want is so inspiring, you could make a dozen documentaries about his life and still never scratch the surface.

From a technical perspective, this DVD does the job well; this is a simple and honest film with a simple and honest transfer. Shot on handheld digital cameras, the anamorphic widescreen is clean and free from major issue save for some small compression artifacts and edge issues here and there. Color tones, black levels, sharpness, and saturation are all balanced and natural and satisfactory for this kind of documentary feature.

Audio comes in a simple 2.0 stereo presentation, and oddly enough, a 3.0 presentation. You don't see the good ol' three-point-oh Dolby format very often, and the DVD navigation menu cheekily observes they don't have a 5.1 mix, sorry, but it would be cool to have one. Truth be told, there's not much difference between the two tracks; one assumes the dedicated center channel in the 3.0 track offers a cleaner mix, but the film is largely dialogue-based with its subjects directly in front of the camera anyway, so honestly, it's moot.

In terms of supplements, the film contains a lovingly penned liner note essay by playwright and friend Tony Kushner, "Maurice at the World's Fair," a humorous take on a story from Sendak's childhood acted out by Spike Jonze and actress Catherine Keener, a recorded Q&A with Jonze and Sendak at The Museum of Modern Art after the screening of the film, and a birthday tribute with Meryl Streep, James Gandolfini, and Catherine Keener recorded at the 92nd Street Y.

The caveat of "for the most part" I spoke of earlier in the review is the brevity of this feature. With a running time of less than 40 minutes, this is a short film, literally. Add another 40 in supplementary features, the total running time of this disc is less than 90 minutes—and that's stretching things by adding supplements into the mix. Yes, you make the argument that Tell Them Anything You Want is good enough, wonderful and inspiring and amusing enough to deserve its own feature release. Problem is, you can make just as compelling an argument to delegate Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak to supplementary feature status on a Where the Wild Things Are DVD or Blu-Ray.

A charming, surprising, delightful, profound, and remarkably human experience, Tell Them Anything You Want is as lively and neurotic as its muse. This is a film made and distributed solely as a labor of love by its creators, who have clearly been inspired and amazed by the life of Sendak and his larger-than-life persona and simply want to share it with the world.

From a value perspective, this DVD is pretty thin on content, but again: labor of love. Trust me; you won't care once you see this film. You'll just be happy you saw it.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 89

Perp Profile

Studio: Oscilloscope
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 3.0 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary

Distinguishing Marks

• Featurettes
• Interviews
• Essay


• IMDb
• HBO Documentaries

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