The film Where the Wild Things Are (2009), based on the 1963 children’s book of the same name by Maurice Sendak, offers an intimate experience of a child’s world. It focuses on the central character, Max, a nine-year-old boy who uses his imagination in an attempt to escape his tumultuous reality. The film deals with the comfort and fear that is experienced in childhood, expressed to the viewer from a child’s point of view. My analysis of this film will employ a phenomenological framework that will address how embodied perception engages us with Max’s world. Past scholarship has often neglected discussion of the body in the analysis of film and little has been written about the body in relation to the child character. I attempt to address the interaction between the viewer’s body and the film’s expression of a child’s world through the haptic. Through its use of handheld camera, close spatial proximity with objects, a presence of texture, and use of lighting, the film’s body expresses itself to the spectator in a way that is quite often, distinctly tactile. ‘Haptic visuality,’ a mode of vision that I will define further into the article, is experienced in relation to the presence of objects of perception in Max’s world and also through obfuscation of ocular vision (as opposed to haptic vision). Obfuscation occurs as a result of vision becoming confused or distracted as a result of brightness, indistinguishability of forms, or of spatial positioning. I will explore how the viewer’s haptic perception of Where the Wild Things Are encourages a child-like interaction with the child’s world.
My use of the film’s body is as Vivian Sobchack defines it. Its function is similar to our own body; both a subject conscious of the world and capable of perceiving and expressing experience, as well as existing as an object for the spectator to perceive. It is a body that is both perceptive of the world and of itself, possessing vision that, as Sobchack states ‘understands materiality’ (Sobchack, 1992: 133). It therefore ‘perceives and expresses the “sense” of fabrics like velvet or the roughness of tree bark or the yielding softness of human flesh,’ understanding both haptics and proximity (ibid: 133). As our consciousness is directed toward it, it is intended toward us, allowing us as a subject to view it as object and we become objects existing for the film[i]. It is a communication process that involves a bodily interaction, our vision ‘speaks back’ to the film’s expression, which is the ‘sensing and sentient “other”’ (ibid: 9).
Sobchack explains that our perception of the film’s body ‘is always synaesthesia and synoptic by virtue of its finite and circumscribed embodiment of intentional consciousness’ (ibid: 85). Sight is a sense that tends to dominate in film scholarship, which emphasises the interaction between viewer and film through theories regarding the gaze. Sobchack explains that although sight is a sense that can be distinguished from others, ‘it is not isolated from them’ (ibid: 94). In fact, as we perceive the film’s body, our senses inform our vision, drawing upon past experiences. Laura Marks states that ‘it is common for cinema to evoke sense experience through intersensory links: sounds may evoke textures; sights may evoke smells (rising steam or smoke evokes smells of fire, incense, or cooking). These intersensory links are well termed synesthetic’ (Marks, 2000: 213).
This occurs in our interaction with the film; a touch between two bodies. It is a merging of what Maurice Merleau-Ponty describes as ‘flesh of the world’ as well as a touch between our own outer skin and the skin of the film, which allows for an exchange between subject-object; being the means by which haptic reciprocity occurs in spectatorship. While addressing Merleau-Ponty’s work, Jennifer Barker mentions that unlike the skin of the film, the “flesh” is not identifiable by its tangibility, that it is rather a ‘field of possibilities,’ although they both require ‘reciprocity and reversibility’ (Barker 2009: 27). The flesh of the world is the intangible presence of ourselves and all that is encompassed in the world – we are not separated from the world we exist in. Barker quotes Merleau-Ponty, who states that ‘… the presence of the world is precisely the presence of its flesh to my flesh, that I “am of the world” and that I am not it, is what is no sooner said than forgotten,’ and asserts from it that ‘[r]eplacing “world” with “film” in his statement would give us a sense of the permanent intertwining of film and viewer’ (ibid: 27). In relation to the skin of both spectator and film, rather than the flesh, Barker mentions that while the skin can be defined by its biological state, it also the ‘functional boundary and mingling place between the inside and outside of a body’ (ibid: 28). In our interaction with the film object, we perceive it and it perceives us, making meaning for us in our experience of it. This perception is what allows us to touch Max’s world, through an other’s skin (the film’s) that is haptically known through our sensory experience of its perception and expression of the child’s world. We are encouraged to perceive the child’s world as child-like way in our interaction with the film, which expresses its perception as a child.
Vivian Sobchack states that the film ‘entails the visible, audible, kinetic aspects of sensible experience to make sense visibly, audibly, and haptically’ (Sobchack 1992: 9). The haptic offers a way to reframe theories of spectatorship that have tended to privilege the gaze in order to account for a bodily response to film. While viewing a film, we are presented with images which can either be at a distance from us, leading us to identify objects and position ourselves within the scene thus resulting in an established recognition within space, or so close to objects that we can see minute details, allowing our eyes to scan over their texture. This creates an image which is tactile, touchable – without ever physically touching. The term for this mode of seeing is “haptic visuality” (Marks 2000: 163). Marks details in her book The Skin of the Film the difference between haptic visuality and optical visuality. Haptic visuality and optical visuality are modes of vision that, like the senses, exist together but can be individually distinguished. Optical visuality is the deep space vision we engage with while viewing a scene. Haptic visuality is the touch response gained when presented closely with the tactile image – one which can be described as a caress. The tactile image is one which comes very close to the frame, and that is at times indistinguishable to the senses. A salient point that Marks mentions in her book is that this lack of certainty of the object by the eye leads to other senses having increased involvement, uniting in a shared response, leading to a more integrated sensory experience. It is this ocular lack of certainty of the object that requires assistance from the other senses (ibid: 162). The closer we are to the object, the greater the touch response. Marks notes that ‘[t]he difference between haptic and optical visuality is a matter of degree’ and that in most cases both are involved (ibid: 163). When presented with many other objects within the frame, those which are at a distance from the viewer, we no longer see texture as a dominant feature. This optical visuality provides us with mostly distinguishable objects for vision; the viewer is able to see entire forms and recognise these as specific objects, relying mostly on vision than on the other senses. Marks also states that there is a violence that can occur in the sudden change from haptic to optical visuality, forcing the viewer to see the ‘object whole and distant where she had been contemplating it close-up and partial’ (ibid: 184). An example of this violence in Where the Wild Things Are occurs in Max’s bedroom. An extreme close-up shot slowly scans over the surface texture of the globe, travelling down to the engraving on the globe’s base. Our vision rests there momentarily as we continue to contemplate the surface texture that is displayed before us. We are then abruptly cut to a lower distanced shot of Max lying on his bed, looking up at the globe. This shift jolts the senses from a response that is haptic to one that is distanced and optical.
In her article, ‘Video Haptics and Erotics,’ Laura Marks explains that two separate erotic functions are capable of existing in ‘haptic visuality.’ Marks calls this a ‘denial of depth vision and multiplication of surface’ (Marks 1998: 333). Firstly, it brings the viewer’s vision to the surface of the image, and secondly, it ‘enables an embodied perception’ (ibid: 333). Marks explains that haptic images are erotic. This eroticism occurs without regard to the content. One gives up one’s ‘own sense of separateness from the image’ (ibid: 341). This way of looking, she explains, is not a voyeuristic vision because voyeurism implies that the viewer is at a distance and not involved with what is being presented, whereas erotics implies the viewer is an engaged participant (ibid: 345).
Objects such as the ones placed within Max’s bedroom, are expressed to the spectator and made meaningful to us through their touch. Our sense memory is brought into play to touch, smell, taste, and hear based on our historical and cultural associations. Sobchack incorporates this idea within “What My Fingers Knew” explaining that ‘we do not experience any movie only through our eyes. We see and comprehend and feel films with our entire bodily being, informed by the full history and carnal knowledge of our acculturated sensorium’ (Sobchack 2004: 63). Marks states that ‘[p]ure memory does not exist in the body, but it is in the body that memory is activated, calling up sensations associated with the remembered event’ (Marks 2000: 73). Memory is not only a response from our senses but also of our own experience of events. Thus, in our experience of the child’s bedroom, we are invited to not only touch these objects, but also to know them through our memory of the senses.
Sense memory also comes into play in the presence of indistinguishable forms which obfuscate ocular vision, relying on the senses to inform our experience. Sobchack describes this response in relation to her interaction with blurred fingers that covered the frame in a subjective shot within the opening shot of Jane Campion’s The Piano. The fingers were indistinguishable by their lack of form, and were felt by Sobchack’s own fingers as a sensory response to optical uncertainty. She describes her experience in this way:
‘As I watched The Piano’s opening moments—in that first shot, before I even knew there was an Ada and before I saw her from my side of her vision (that is, before I watched her rather than her vision) – something seemingly extraordinary happened. Despite my “almost blindness,” the “unrecognizable blur,” and resistance of the image to my eyes, my fingers knew what I was looking at – and this before the objective reverse shot that followed to put those fingers in their proper place (that is, to put them where they could be seen objectively rather than subjectively “looked through”). What I was seeing was, in fact, from the beginning, not an unrecognizable image, however blurred and indeterminate in my vision, however much my eyes could not “make it out.” From the first (although I didn’t consciously know it until the second shot), my fingers comprehended that image, grasped it with a nearly imperceptible tingle of attention and anticipation and, offscreen, “felt themselves” as a potentiality in the subjective and fleshy situation figured onscreen. And this before I refigured my carnal comprehension into the conscious thought, “Ah, those are fingers I am looking at.”’ (Sobchack 2004: 63)
While Sobchack describes the fingers as indistinguishable forms, she mentions that what she is interacting with is not however ‘an unrecognizable image’ (ibid: 63). While engaged in haptic visuality, what we are presented may be optically indistinguishable but not unrecognizable to all the senses. The blurred image is not always accessible, however. In Where the Wild Things Are, the handheld camera that vision is mediated through is also haptic by obfuscation. For instance, in the opening scene the child’s world is experienced from a close spatial positioning and concurrent movement with the action as Max chases his dog down the staircase within the home. The frenetic hand-held movement of the frame blurs spatial orientation within the mise-en-scène. The viewer perceives the space as an embodied vision through the film’s body’s perception of the events; through its intended vision. In instances of obfuscation through vision, the process of becoming oriented within space, or of distinguishing forms, requires information from the viewer’s non-ocular senses.
This “almost blindness” that Sobchack discusses in relation to haptic obfuscation may also occur in the presence of textures that are haptic for their distinct appearance as texture. When we see the ridges and lines of material through close-up, such as Max’s clothing, the senses respond to their touchable qualities. But it is not only through close contemplation that haptic visuality comes into play. It can also exist in relation to the presence of a dominance of texture, which is the case for the creatures on the imagined land. The appearance of the Wild Things is markedly textural. The fur that covers their exterior is distinctive as it is in stark contrast with the natural textures and colours that surround them. Because of their distinctive appearance and contrast with surroundings, their texture distracts and obfuscates; so in this way their textures possess haptic qualities, allowing for a tactile experience of the creatures Max interacts with. When Max stands next to the Wild Things, he is obscured within the frame not by size, although the larger creatures do shadow him, but by texture that is so distinctive that it overpowers the senses. This textural obfuscation can be observed in the scene in which Max meets the Wild Thing, Carol, for the first time. Carol towers over Max, sniffing him as a dog would in order to capture the scent of an outsider. Max replicates this behaviour as a sign of mutual recognition. The texture of Carol’s fur distracts vision, obfuscating deep space vision. We can feel the texture on the surface of our own skin, allowing us to ‘know’ what he feels like. Sensory knowledge of texture in the child’s world is not only known through memory of the appearance of texture experienced in our own world, but also from a texture’s dominance within the mise-en-scène, obfuscating and emphasising its tactility, allowing proximity to the creatures.
I must also explain how the presence of light may involve a haptic visuality as a result of obfuscation of ocular vision. When addressing light, it is important to first note that the cinematic image is inscribed and projected by light. The transience and luminosity of the cinematic illusion of movement is supplemented by tactile experience. Aside from the viewer’s immediate environment, the paradigm of the haptic suggests a supplementary level of sensation through a sense of tactility that participates in their perception of the film. The suggestion, in this sense, is that the spectator can feel what it is they are seeing on screen. They can feel the light hitting their skin, the sound vibrations – the film’s skin touching their own. All of these things are part of what makes up the film’s body. Jennifer Barker explains that physicists describe light as both a particle and a wave in order to suggest that the light emanating from the screen touches our skin in this way, stating that ‘it leaves a trace on our skins, warming them, scratching them or drawing forth a shiver’ (Barker 2009: 30). In this way, light is capable of being expressed and perceived haptically.
As previously mentioned, Laura Marks states that activation of memory occurs in the body through associated sensations, but the body itself does not possess a ‘pure memory’ (Marks 2000: 73). Thus, the colour and temperature of light expressed by Where the Wild Things Are may then be associated with knowledge and remembered experiences within the individual spectator’s history. For instance, the temperature of the light that fills the room Max’s mother uses as an office is one which denotes a common tungsten bulb light – a yellow warmth. The spectator’s past experiences of this light may be associated with comfort and protection as it is the temperature of light commonly present within interior environments. Light obfuscation may be experienced within the mother’s office. In the centre of the room exists a computer that sits in front of her on a desk. A bright light that emanates from the screen unsettles the harmony the tungsten tone of light creates within the room, creating an almost blindness that encourages haptic visuality. As Trond Lundemo explains: ‘[t]oo much light renders the image invisible and may denote blindness just as well as obscurity does’ (Lundemo 2006: 91). The senses work together in the presence of this blindness from obfuscating light in the same way as obfuscation caused by an indistinguishable object. Although the light that is seen is not so bright that it washes the entire room of its forms, a dissonance exists as a result of the presence of a bright light within an otherwise neutral setting. This light, in a sense, acts to degrade the image. Rather than being a result of real world factors such as the chemical destruction of the film, poor digital compression, or poor projection, it is from within the film world. The light from the screen acts to degrade and obfuscate by drawing attention away from, and in a sense, disallowing deep space vision in our experience of the room.
While the image on screen may evoke a haptic response, the environment in which the spectator is situated in is also haptic. We are simultaneously moving between our own physical positioning and with that in which our vision lies – where our consciousness is intended. In the act of being intended toward an object, this does not mean that we are not aware of, or have not seen other aspects of our environment, but rather that they were not at the forefront of perception. Sobchack uses the example of running a red traffic light. She explains that:
‘[O]ur visual field still has visible content when we run a red light, but it does not “occupy” us, nor we it. Reflecting on what was seen (but unintended and thus unattended), we can now “see” the light as an intentional object. Its diacritical marking as an important figure to which we must respond is apparent to us in reflection as it was not in its actual visible presence.’ (Sobchack, 1992: 88)
In our engagement with Max’s world, we are at times presented with images of objects from a very close perspective. An instance of this is in relation to the globe in Max’s bedroom that I mentioned earlier. In these moments of contemplation of the object, tactile response requires that we must be consciously intended toward the object in order to feel it. Jennifer Barker mentions, while referring to the work of Marks, that a haptic engagement is a form of coming ‘to the surface of oneself’ and, like Marks, describes the relationship between the film’s body and the viewer’s body as a caress (Barker 2009: 35). For Barker, the relationship between film and viewer resides just on each side of the boundary between film’s body and our own. Thus, she writes that we do not ‘lose ourselves’ completely in the image. ‘We don’t “master,” possess, or know the other (the film) completely in that touch, nor do we lose ourselves or give ourselves over completely to it’ (ibid: 36). Our intended contemplation of objects within Max’s bedroom engages our senses in a touch between the object and ourselves, but we do not ever completely know them as our own.
Throughout Where the Wild Things Are, the spectator is engaged with both haptic and optical visuality within the child’s world, maintaining close proximity with the child’s position. We are regularly allowed access to Max’s subjective vision, but maintain our own position as a character within the environment. In each instance, we are aware that this vision we are actively engaging in is not our own. We are always aware that our positioning is ‘here’ rather than ‘there’ where he is. Sobchack describes her experience in this way while engaged with the film The Piano. She explains ‘prior to this conscious recognition, I did not understand those fingers as “those” fingers – that is, at a distance from my own fingers and objective in their “theirness.” Rather, those fingers were first known sensually and sensibly as “these” fingers and were located ambiguously both offscreen and on – subjectively “here” as well as objectively “there”, “mine” as well as the images’ (Sobchack 2004: 63). Sobchack’s description of her own experience of The Piano forms a phenomenological reading of filmic experience which remains specific to the particular configuration of viewer, experience, and technology in each screening. The recognition of one’s physical world and the filmic world is concurrent. Although our interaction with Max’s world is at times experienced while attached to Max’s vision and agency, we maintain our own positioning as a separate being. Thus, we are not completely aligned and are instead simultaneously aware of our own positioning and Max’s, maintaining an active engagement with the child’s world.
Our own vision that is attached with Max’s vision, as well as the presence of optical and haptic visuality, and sense memory, is evident in a scene in Where the Wild Things Are in which Max is lingering at a door within his home. We view him through a long shot, his gaze directed toward something that is outside of the frame, in the centre of the room. We are aligned with the camera and positioned on the other side of the room so that Max is at a distance from us. This distance grants space for optical visuality, which allows the viewer to take in the objects which rest on the table and line the walls. Our movement is kinetic, as we view him throughout this sequence through a handheld camera. The frame does not remain static, which provides a haptic quality by obfuscating our orientation. This obfuscation occurs with simultaneous movement of the frame and action movement that takes place within the mise-en-scène. Handheld movement of the camera and its height denote a youthful perception of the action and the viewer is guided toward a feeling of impatience as vision is obscured by both this movement and being denied the vision we took part in from Max’s point of view. The film’s youthful expression of movement and positioning allows us to perceive as a young child within the space, experiencing Max’s world in a child-like manner.
As Max moves forward, the film’s body expresses a subjective view of the object of his gaze. We see Max’s mother, facing away from our shared vision as she is talking on the telephone. In front of her rests a computer with a bright screen, displaying graphs related to the work she is referring to in her telephone conversation. The height and positioning of the frame, as well as its movement, positions us as a child within the action. The height is in line with Max’s eye level and we are attached to his movement and vision while engaged in his point of view. Although at times we are within his subjective vision, we are also taken away, remaining at his height, our distanced vision mediated through the kinetic movement of a handheld camera. This reinforces our individual positioning as a child character within the action taking place. As Max walks closer to his mother, we take part in his vision and what is revealed to us is texture, but not enough to satisfy an inquisitive or objective gaze. However, although there is a distance between our positioning within the space and the mother, there is proximity of vision. A shallow depth of field has been used, which eliminates the background plane, limiting deep space optical visuality and requiring haptic vision. This draws the viewer’s attention toward the mother. Because we are not able to see her face, we cannot focus on any expression, so we are drawn to her form, to the textures of her hair and clothing, to her posture. However, the obfuscating light from the computer screen prevents us from scanning the object of Max’s gaze. It distracts our attention, resulting in a failure to become completely at ease with the image. Our response to this image of the mother figure may stimulate memory to inform one’s experience of Max’s world. The response from memory may bring forth sensory associations that are attached to this familiar image.
It is at this point we are abruptly positioned across the room, jumping the axis, with Max’s mother between us, and we become aware of our own position within the space – reinforcing that we hold our own position within the action. We are returned to Max’s point of view, and then cut once more to the same distanced position. After Max completes a dance for his mother, who is still on the phone, he falls to the floor and we then cut to a view of underneath the table. Here we see Max is playing with the stocking around his mother’s toes in an attempt to attract her attention. This image of touching emphasises the close relationship between a mother and child. On the left side is her out-of-focus leg. This focus remains unchanged and we are never brought so closely to the stocking as to gain a satisfying view of it. However, we do become so close that we are able to see some texture. Our eyes are unable to decipher the image of the leg with certainty and thus call upon the senses to resolve what is partially obfuscating the frame. This obfuscation is the “almost blindness” that Sobchack discussed in “What My Fingers Knew” (Sobchack 2004: 63). Although the body may feel that it is a leg, it is when we see her foot that we are certain that it is the leg of his mother.
The image of Max pulling his mother’s stocking underneath the table is distinctly haptic in that its appearance as texture and the sound its movement against his mother’s skin makes as he pulls it, encourage the senses to feel the material. The experience of the texture of this stocking, as well as the interaction between two bodies, can also bring forth memories. For example, in my own experience the pulling of the stocking reminded me of myself as a child, watching other children pull at the stocking of our teacher. It also reminded me of my own mother. I have also experienced stockings on my own skin, which brings forth an embodied sense memory associated with a certain type of gender performance. These associations not only lie in the relationship between mother/mother figure and child, but also in personal experience. Although I have memory of this personal experience, because of my distance from the child, I understand that what I am touching is not with my own fingers, however proximity with the texture allows me to contemplate the texture’s surface. My knowledge informs how this feels on my fingers, how it sounds, but in this instance not how it feels tightly clinging to my own skin. These memories that this mode of vision activated from within my body, allow me to ‘know’ this texture within the child’s world.
In viewing a film, the individual is influenced on two different levels. Initially, they are at first guided by the actions of the film, influenced by the accumulation of experiences that will inform their reading of the film. This may mean that their reading is very similar each time they watch the film, but can be influenced by the second level. On this second level are the viewer’s experiences throughout the day leading up to viewing the film. This is tied to historical knowledge but is more immediate, and more associated with mood. This is not to say the spectator is passive in this experience, they are fundamentally active viewers with control over their responses. For each spectator, images expressed by the film of the child’s world arouse a different response, and therefore can garner diverse meanings. The viewer’s positioning remains malleable as they are intended toward the actions on screen and off screen; that is to say, our history is varied and has an effect on how we perceive and encounter Max’s world in Where the Wild Things Are.
What is certain in Where the Wild Things Are is that it offers an experience of the world of an “other,” which is specifically childlike. We view the main child protagonist through the film’s perception and perspective of events. In our engagement with the film’s body, we perceive objects within the mise-en-scène with our entire bodies. Ocular vision, while the dominant sense in spectatorship, is not separated from the other senses. With our eyes we are engaged in both deep space vision (optical visuality) and a close vision (haptic visuality). It is haptic visuality that allows us to feel the texture of the world we are visually presented. Haptic visuality is where the influence from other senses is most distinct, particularly in instances of obfuscation of vision. Blurriness, for instance, may not allow the eyes to distinguish objects, thus requiring the other senses to recognise it. Vision is then informed by the sense memory. Sense memory is present in all intentional engagements with phenomena, informing experience and making meaning.
In the experience of the child’s world, the sight of objects makes meaning for the individual viewer in differing ways. In its presentation as child-like, through the position of the camera and its movement, the viewer is guided toward experiencing the world through child-like perception. The tactile experiences of the child are expressed to the viewer and they are given permission to touch for themselves.
Kelly Burt has completed a Master of Arts in Film Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Her research interests are within the areas of film phenomenology, haptics, tactility, and childhood.
Barker, Jennifer (2009), The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Lundemo, Trond (2006), “The Colors of Haptic Space: Black, Blue and White Moving Images,” in Angela Dalle Vacche and Brian Price (eds.), Color: The Film Reader, London: Routledge, pp. 88-101.
Marks, Laura U (1998), Video Haptics and Erotics, Screen 39 (4), pp. 331-348.
Marks, Laura U (2000), The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, Durham: Duke University Press.
Marks, Laura U (2002) Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press.
Sobchack, Vivian (1992), The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience, Princeton (N.J.): Princeton University Press.
Sobchack, Vivian (2004), “What My Fingers Knew: the Cinesthetic Subject, or Vision in the Flesh,” in Carnal thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 53-84.
[i] My use of the term “intended,” as in “intended toward,” throughout this article is in reference to intentionality. Sobchack explains that ‘[i]ntentionality is “the unique peculiarity of experiences ‘to be the consciousness of something.’” That is, the act of consciousness is never “empty” and “in-itself,” but rather always intending toward and in relation to an object (even when that “object” is consciousness, reflexively intended)’ (Sobchak 1992: 18).