“Now stop!” Max said and sent the wild things off to bed without their supper. And Max the king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.
-Where The Wild Things Are
Birth name: Adam Spiegel.
Occupation: Film director and sometimes screenwriter.
First job: Working at a BMX shop.
Dislikes: Olives and mushrooms. (He says they’re evil.)
Spike Jonze is not heir to the Spiegel family fortune. He grew up in Rockville, Maryland and spent most of his childhood skateboarding. Jonze is known for his films Adaptation and Being John Malkovich, as well as a slew of inventive commercials and music videos.
The photo above is the whole reason I saw Where The Wild Things Are. Hitherto, I’d had no interest in the book or the film; all the connection I had with them was a fuzzy memory of being six and freaked out by little stuffed Wild Things in Barnes and Noble. I didn’t understand why anyone would cuddle something with fangs. But then I saw this photo of Spike Jonze and Max Records, and I knew I had to see this movie, though I wasn't sure why. It reminded me of something.
When the trailer for Wild Things first came out in March, I watched it over and over again. Seldom had I anticipated a movie so much. I watched countless behind-the-scenes videos, read dozens of interviews, and indulged in other such reckless nerdhood. Finally, it came out in October. I loved it. I saw it three times. It was an honest and devastating look at childhood. But still, I was kind of disappointed. The movie was beautiful, but the third time I saw it, I felt like it was missing something.
Eventually what I figured out was that, though I loved Wild Things, what I really loved was the story behind it. The story of Spike and Max Records.
This video really gets me for some reason. The part that gets me the most is when Max gets licked by one of the Wild Things, and he gets grossed out because his face is all goopy. Spike yells “CUT!” and then he walks up to Max.
“Sorry,” says Max. He sounds like he’s afraid of getting in trouble.
“It’s okay. I know it’s hard,” Spike says, and he wipes the goo off of Max’s face himself. He doesn’t ask a crew guy to do the dirty work for him. He doesn’t cry out for the makeup team. Spike walks up to Max and he wipes the goo off his face himself.
There was another scene in Wild Things that required Max to be covered in goo, and Max hated it so much that, after a couple takes, he would only let them film the scene again unless Spike let Max cover him in goo. And he did.
And I started thinking…this kind of reminds me of God.
“But Elyse,” you say, “this is a seriously flawed metaphor. God doesn’t hire us. God doesn’t pay us money to act out stuff. God doesn’t control everything that happens to us like some master puppeteer.” And you’re right on all accounts. Really, any metaphor that attempts to describe God is flawed on some level, because God is indescribable. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
Here’s my attempt: God is like Spike Jonze, who gets covered in goo.
Let me explain. I’ve been wondering for some time if God is really empathetic. At the beginning of one of my writing classes last year, my professor asked us to write down what question we would ask if we could ask anything in the world. I wrote, “What does God really think of us?”
For all I’ve been taught, a large part of me still pictures God as being indifferent to our circumstances. He doesn’t want to help us, I think, and if he does help, he does so begrudgingly. “Elyse needs me again?” says the God In My Head. “Geeeeez. Can’t this girl take care of herself by now?”
I thought this, and then I met my friend Dante.
Dante is a brilliant writer. He's so brilliant that, after his professors read his essays, they gallavant around the room like the teacher in A Christmas Story. (I know this is true. They’ve told me so.) I've tried telling Dante this, but I don't think he believes me. I think someday I will tell people that I used to get coffee with Dante, and they won’t believe me either.
Dante is also an atheist. The funny thing about this is that I’ve learned a lot about God from Dante. I’ve learned more about God from Dante than just about anyone else I know.
One night, I was up really really late writing. It was three or four o’clock in the morning, and I was trying to distract myself through the Internet, like I usually do. Through said Internet I found out that Dante was in trouble. Big trouble. The kind of trouble that you can’t get out of all by yourself.
Now understand that I am not an especially empathetic person. Maybe it’s because I was raised Republican, but I used to look at suffering people and say, “That’s nice. Now pull yourself up by your bootstraps, please.” I think this might be why I expected God to be indifferent too. (In retrospect, this was anthropomorphism at its worst.)
But when I found out about Dante, I didn’t feel that way at all. I wanted to help him. I didn’t have his phone number, and there was nothing I could do, so I just stayed up all night and prayed for him. Had I known where Dante lived, I would have jumped in my car and sped to his house, even though it was three o’clock in the morning and there was black ice on the roads. I would have broken down the door. I would have done anything to save him.
Later, when I found out that he was okay, and that the whole thing had been a misunderstanding, I went to my car and cried for half an hour—which was weird, because I only cry maybe three or four times a year. My best friend has never seen me cry.
I told my friend Lindsey this whole story, and about my wondering how God feels about us, and she said, “Well, that’s it right there.”
“What’s it?” I said. (I’m kind of slow sometimes.)
“‘I would have done anything to save him,’” she said. “If you’re trying to understand how God feels—which is pretty unfathomable—God pretty much said, ‘I’ll do anything to save him,’ and then he ran off and did just that.”
When Lindsey said this, I had to sit down for a minute. I was stunned. If I, a person, and a pretty selfish one at that, had been so worried about another person, one that I didn't know very well, how did God feel about us?
I told Dante about all of this, about all of the things he had taught me about God. (I made sure he knew I wasn't hitting on him, because, you know, girls say weird things to get guys sometimes.) I rambled on for a good ten or fifteen minutes. When I got to the part about my wanting to help him, I thought I was going to cry again.
It didn’t matter if he believed what I believed. I wasn't trying to make a convert out of him. I just wanted him to know that I cared about him. Dante sat there silently and gave me this look I will never forget. Dante gets very sad sometimes, and when he does, his eyes look like dark holes inside of his head--they're closed off, like they don’t want to take in anything else of the world. But that night, his eyes weren’t like that. They searched me. They were looking at me like they wanted to bore right through me. They were looking for a catch.
This shouldn’t have surprised me, because I do the same thing to God all the time. Okay, God, I say, that stuff about you loving me unconditionally is nice and all, but where’s the cold, hard truth? Where’s the heart of the matter?
The heart of the matter is that there is no catch.
Back to Spike and Max. Back to the goo. When my friend said that “God ran off and did just that”—did the anything to save us—she was referring to the Incarnation. This was God's ultimate act of empathy: becoming a man, dealing with the common cold and the same crap (pun intended) that you and I deal with on a daily basis. God let himself get covered in goo. Some of this stuff we don’t really like to talk about in church—like I told Dante, Jesus had a penis. (If you’re curious about Jesus and his manhood, there’s a book called The Gospel of Biff that I highly recommend.)
Why does this help? Because it means that God understands what it is to feel pain.
I, like everyone else on the planet, often wrestled with the “Why Do Bad Things Happen?” question. I came to the conclusion that bad things happen because people make bad choices. I was okay with that, because of free will and everything. But what I wanted to know, what I needed to know in order to trust God, was that he was moved by these things. I wouldn’t want to follow a God who sat indifferent and unmoved by all our sufferings. I needed a God who felt things, and felt them more deeply than I did. After talking to Dante, I understood that he did.
Contrary to logic, though, a caring God is far less comforting than you might think. It’s easier to deal with the thought of a God who’s indifferent—because if he’s indifferent toward me, it’s okay for me to be indifferent toward him. But a God who can feel, can be hurt, and I hurt him all the time.
Some days I wish God didn’t give a damn about me (again, pun intended—sorry), because that would mean I could do whatever I want. Some days I’d prefer a Big-Man-In–the-Sky God who waves his fingers and says, “Go off and do what you want, my children! Fornicate away!” But if parents did that, we wouldn’t think they were good parents. We’d think they were crazy. Parents tell us not to run out in the street because they love us. By the same token, it’s God’s giving a damn what happens—his giving a damn about me—that makes this whole thing worth it.
So really, this has nothing to do with Spike Jonze at all, which is why writing this essay took me four months. But look at this picture of Spike and Max Records anyway. It reminds me of me and God.