Letter from the Editor

by Chad Perman

In 1996, two filmmakers—unrelated but sharing the same last name—both released small, personal, independent films into the big wide world. Each film started out, first, as a shorter one—a promising calling card used to get the director’s foot in Hollywood’s door—before finding its legs (and some financing) and being developed, lovingly, into a full-length feature film. The two films, Bottle Rocket and Hard Eight (née Sydney), were quite different on the surface. One was a decidedly quirky comedy, and the other was an intense drama. Yet each film bore the unmistakable stamp of its creator, offering up tantalizing glimpses of style, talent, and vision. Both filmmakers clearly felt a great deal of love and affinity for the characters in their debut films, and both stories largely concerned themselves with the lives of men and mentors, novices and father figures.

The directors, Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight), were both 26 when these films were first released. Both were single, stood around six feet tall, and were almost freakishly well-versed in the language and history of film. Both of their films earned decent reviews and ardent admirers but were then, for the most part, largely ignored by American audiences. Still, the Andersons were young, and only getting started. And the next time around—armed with bigger budgets, bigger actors, and more studio backing—each crafted signature films (Rushmore and Boogie Nights), masterpieces that ultimately ranked among the finest American movies of the 1990s.

Ever since, each auteur has continued writing and directing highly idiosyncratic films—creating worlds that seem to bear their distinctive stamp in nearly every single frame—and has amassed a body of work that, nearly twenty years later, stands among the finest in contemporary cinema. Their visions, though wildly different in approach, content, and style, have remained, always, their own. (Amazingly, it appears the Andersons have never met—or if they have, no one was there to see it—have never spoken about one another, and have kept their careers almost entirely separate in every way. Despite the fourteen films made between them, and the big-name ensembles for which each is often known, only Gwenyth Paltrow has the honor of appearing in both Wes’s and PTA’s work.)

And so it is these “Magnificent Andersons” that we have decided to build an entire issue around this month. Elizabeth Cantwell, Andrew Root, and Michael Arbeiter take a look at three of Paul Thomas Anderson’s seminal films (Boogie NightsMagnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love), while Daniel Reynolds, Karina Wolf, Bebe Ballroom, and Michelle Said explore a selection of Wes Anderson films (Bottle RocketThe Royal TenenbaumsFantastic Mr. Fox, and The Grand Budapest Hotel). Dutch artist Marieke Pras contributes the first comic to ever grace the pages of this magazine, and Alexandra Tanner ties the whole issue together with a thought-provoking piece on the ways in which each Anderson wrestles with themes of violence and love in their work. It’s a big issue—the largest one we’ve put out to date—and a wide-reaching one, despite its very specific focus.

The title of this issue, incidentally, is not incidental. Lifted, in slightly altered form, from the title of Orson Welles’ follow-up to Citizen Kane (The Magnificent Ambersons), it is meant to evoke both the youthful vigor and the bold artistic reach of Welles, who made Kane at the tender age of 25, and is one of the few overlapping cinematic touchstones that both Andersons site as a primary influence on their own filmmaking. Thankfully, though, neither Wes nor Paul seems headed toward the kind of thwarted, wasted mess that Welles’ cinematic career ultimately became. In fact, each Anderson, now sneaking into his mid–40s, is releasing a brand new film this year: Wes just put out The Grand Budapest Hotel to much critical acclaim—and the best international box office numbers of his career—and PTA’sInherent Vice, based on a novel by Thomas Pynchon, is set to be released during awards season this December.

It’s a good year to be an Anderson fan.


No, Man, It’s Not Evil. It’s An Illusion.

by Elizabeth Cantwell

illustration by Elizabeth Vazquez

illustration by Elizabeth Vazquez

The thing about “rock bottom,” about actual real rock bottom, is that anything is an improvement.

To most of us—watching Intervention or gossiping about a former colleague or talking about a tragic character in a film—the part that comes after “rock bottom” is often pathetic, silly, sad. She’s a cashier at Macy’s now we say with a wry shrug. Apparently he’s, like, selling Bibles on the subway or something. We shake our heads and sip our coffees and feel bad for these people and marinate in the misfortune of their lives and love every second of it, this ability to judge and conspiratorily make sad faces at each other over $5 lattes. We will not hit rock bottom. Anyway, if we did, we’d climb out of it with a lot more grace.

Right?

*

When Boogie Nights came out, I was 14 years old. From snatches of overheard freshman locker conversations about Dirk Diggler (or, frequently, about Mark Wahlberg himself), I patched together a conception of what the movie must be like. The majority of this conception was just a giant dick. Then there was a hot tub, and Heather Graham’s boobs, and the word “PORN” (in all capital letters like that).

I let this elegant mental composite satisfy my curiosity about the movie for over a decade. It was just, you know, the Giant Dick movie. What else did I need to know?

The great thing about Boogie Nights is that if you go into it assuming that it is just Paul Thomas Anderson’s Giant Dick Fun Porn Film, it doesn’t dispel that (misguided) belief too quickly or harshly. It breaks you in slowly. It lulls you a bit into feeling like you DO have this film’s number, that you’ve been right all along. Sure, you might feel an initial, subtle disturbance when you see Mark Wahlberg in that first scene—his youth (not a virile youth, but a youth that should still be drinking OJ, riding bikes). But you can get over that, and, you know, it’s Burt Reynolds, being awesomely sketchy, and yeah, Heather Grahamdoes have awesome tits, and okay, you’re titillated, you admit it, by the world in which Eddie Adams (soon to be Dirk Diggler) gets swept up.

Anderson’s camera moves so seductively you’re barely able to separate the sensation of the world from its reality.

There are the skates, and the dizzy kisses, and the colors, and the lights. There are the smiles and the promises and the mirrors and the dollar bills. There is the beautiful push and grind of it all. There is an intensity, which you won’t figure out until later is there simply because all of the pieces of this world are trying so very very hard to stick together. To coalesce into something resembling a structure.

*

When things start going south, you’re just as nervous and thrown off as Adams/Diggler himself. In fact, you find yourself in the position of Little Bill (William H. Macy), the cuckolded assistant director, walking in upon scene after scene that you’d give anything to un-see. Getting viscerally upset, but ultimately resigning yourself to your impotence to change anything. Or, better, convincing yourself that it won’t happen again.

When Little Bill finally can’t take it anymore, when he shoots and kills his wife and her lover-of-the-night (on New Year’s Eve, no less), and then casually rests the gun in his own mouth and blows his brains out, you know there’s no going back. Raise a glass to the new year, the new decade. The 70’s are gone, and with them the bubble gum-flavored mixed drinks and the good-natured fondling. It’s 1980: coke and upper-arm bruises from here on out. All the resolutions in the world can’t turn this car around.

(And we know what this is like, we people watching this film on the other side of 9/11, on the other side of the 2008 financial collapse. We know this way life has of giving you cocktail parties and backyard pools and free drinks and business propositions and then yanking it out from under you in a split second and leaving you with the pieces. How you put them together again is up to you. Some get caught up in the details of the thing. Some take the pieces and paint them and make them into cabinets and dressers in which to store their secrets. Some cry. Some run. Some just get down on their hands and knees and fashion them into whatever shape they can manage.)

Of course, by the time you want to turn the car around, it’s too late. The car, the “competition orange” Chevrolet Corvette that Diggler buys as a symbol of his new lifestyle, which prompts sad, lovesick Scotty (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to paint his own car the same color. The car, the limo in which Rollergirl rides around on her producer-dictated quest to find random strangers who will have sex with her on camera. A too-real car. A car that can take you for miles and miles—past donut shops and coked-out girls and parking lots with all the wrong people waiting in them—but will, in the end, only spit you out further away from where you were to begin with.

*

At their hearts, Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood share a key notion: your greatest asset (some pun intended) too often ends up being your greatest curse. Anderson seems fascinated by the ease with which people subconsciously self-sabotage. The inexplicable urge to take what we’ve been given and destroy ourselves with it. Daniel Plainview’s single-minded obsession with oil brings him money, success and dominance in the industry, but alienates him from his son, his sense of humanity, and even his own body. Eddie Adams’ gifted endowment brings him the exact same three things (money, success, dominance in the industry) and costs him many of the same things as well—his family, his physical health, and his sense of reality.

And it’s this last loss that’s both the most terrifying to contemplate and the most horrible to recover. For, in the end, though Diggler understands how bleak his life has become, how far in execution from whatever his imagined vision was all those years ago in front of the mirror in his parents’ house, he also realizes that he’s crossed the point of no return. That he no longer has the option to live a “normal life.” His reconciliation with Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and return to the Oedipal arms of Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) can’t even be described as bittersweet; it’s the voice of despair, the callous touch of you-never-really-had-it-in-you. It’s just plain fucked up.

*

At least, that’s how I once saw the ending of this movie: as a tragedy. An array of bodies on a Shakespearean stage, among which one man is still standing, mantra-ing himself into a state of complete denial: I am a star. I’m a star, I’m a star, I’m a star.

Anderson’s genius comes in his ability to make this scene simultaneously terrifying on a primal level, meditatively self-reflective, and darkly optimistic. We cannot really separate ourselves completely from Diggler here. It’s partly a trick of the camera—forcing us to see Diggler’s reflection as our reflection—and partly a twist of the soul. We have all stood there, staring at our own assets, convincing ourselves that our outward appearance (our new hair cuts, our expensive shoes, our perfect nails, our smiles, our jawlines) somehow makes us worth something. And what’s more, we have all succeeded.

(Is it a lie if it has the desired effect? Is it wrong if the placebo works for you?)

The thing about “rock bottom” is that anything is an improvement. Diggler’s return to the fold, as distorted and disappointing as it is, is nevertheless something safer and better and kinder than the nights spent trying to sell his body to anyone who’d take it. What do we do in the face of the rapidity with which the industries around us are changing but forge on, keep doing what we know, do it even as we feel it’s been corrupted, do it in the face of videotape or of Twitter or of climate change or of robots. And this is a strangely comforting thing, this insistence on maintaining some faith in what got you to where you are now—this belief that, despite the turning world, we can stay relevant. We can keep using pencils, we can understand it all.

Right?


Elizabeth Cantwell is the Managing Editor of Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is the author of one full-length book of poetry, Nights I Let the Tiger Get You (Black Lawrence Press, 2014) and a chapbook, Premonitions (Grey Book Press, 2014). She lives in Los Angeles with her husband (screenwriter Chris Cantwell) and their son, and teaches Humanities at The Webb Schools.


A Film in a Minor Key

by Andrew Root

illustration by Justin Reed

illustration by Justin Reed

In the Bangkok Post, May 26th, year 1967, there is an account of a concert pianist, a piano, and the pianist’s wife: the humidity of the climate produced a swelling of the felt pads within the piano, causing several of the keys to stick. The wood slowly expanded, warping the strings and changing their pitch and timbre, and what had begun as a performance of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D-minor” finished as “Fantasia and Fugue in G-major,” much to the annoyance of the American pianist, Myron Kropp, who departed the stage in an unexpectedly collected manner. Kropp returned shortly thereafter to destroy the piano in front of the shocked audience using an axe that had been hung backstage in case of fire. Several ushers, the house manager, two stagehands, and a passing police officer eventually succeeded in disarming Kropp and dragging him off stage, but not before he had pulverized the temperamental piano. The Baldwin Concert Grand, generally regarded as a fine instrument, has been noted to be particularly sensitive to its environment, and while many blame the humidity for the instrument’s strange behaviour, others point to the attitude of Kropp himself, who – that very evening before the performance – had murdered his wife with a handgun upon discovering an infidelity. The aforementioned police officer stumbled upon the body of Kropp’s wife and her lover – a man named Gregory Sanford Baldwin – upon returning the pianist to his hotel room to calm down. While the exact cause of this acutely bizarre series of events may never be known, the inextricably interconnected nature of the players in this drama – be they human-to-human, human-to-instrument, or instrument-to-climate – bears mentioning. Relationships, in all their forms, are powerful things.

The trailer for Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film Magnolia (which Anderson insisted on personally directing) sells the film–and its multitude of relationships–thusly:

There is the story of a boy genius; and the game show host; and the ex-boy genius. There is the story of the dying man; his lost son; and the dying man’s wife; the caretaker. And there is a story of a mother; and the daughter; and the police officer in love. And this will all make sense in the end.

Paul F. Tompkins (who plays Chad, the “Seduce and Destroy” operator) has remarked that the film has a phone book sized script, and the plot of the movie is that “everyone in the phone book starts talking to each other.” With a cast that features Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Jason Robards, Philip Baker Hall, Melora Walters, and William H. Macy—among dozens of others, all of whom have a distinct storyline which criss-crosses nearly every other character’s—it’s an apt description. Each character is introduced in a self-contained manner; this is a parent, this is a child, this is a genius, this is a misogynist, this is a drug addict. When you first meet these characters, they are striking in their completeness. Cruise’s Frank ‘T.J.’ Mackey is a force of nature as undeniable as a thunderstorm as he leads his “dating” seminar to a packed room of grunting dudes. Walters’ Claudia Wilson-Gator is hopelessly broken, bringing random men to bed in her drug-filled, bed-sheets-for-curtains apartment. Hall’s Jimmy Gator is a charming, beloved tv host. Robards’ Earl Partridge is a cranky old man. Hoffman’s Phil Parma is a nice guy. You can pick them out as easily as notes on a scale. This is a C, this is an F, this is a B-flat.

I took piano lessons for six years, and my favourite pieces to play were always in a minor key. These songs could be haunting, or threatening, or melancholic, and they could contain moments both soft and dark, all depending on the relationships between the notes – a single semi-tone one way or the other could transform a phrase entirely, taking it from joyous and celebratory to mysterious and contemplative. At the height of my ability, before I lost interest in the classical standards that were being provided, I once transposed The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” from major to minor (you can hear a similar exercise here). A simple change in the relationships of the notes gave the song a new emotional resonance; what was once a song about helping a sad child come into the sunlight became the tale of a kid on whom it never stops raining. Every lyric became bitterly ironic, the final chant becoming a jeering taunt. The song still felt valid, neither better or worse.

There are a lot of people who are stuck in the rain. There’s a regretful, absentee husband who lies dying of the disease that killed his wife; there’s a boy genius who was betrayed by his parents; there’s a father who wants to confess all of his sins, but not that, please no, I won’t speak of that. There’s the story of a man who pressure moulds a lifetime of grief into a domineering need for control; of a daughter whose self-medication speaks to her stripped ability to trust; of the nicest person you’d ever want to meet who has the saddest job in the world. And these things happen all the time.

And then frogs fall from the sky. And the piano re-tunes itself. And these are also things that happen. Because we may be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us. What we’ve done and what’s been done to us informs our present moments almost entirely; an old man wakes up and sees his estranged son before he dies, allowing the son to confront a lack of control he’s been avoiding for years; a police officer realizes that helping people is more than just his job; a man who has a deeply buried secret is denied the chance to take his own life with his crimes unspoken; and an exploited child regards the chaotic storm with serene calm, perhaps knowing that while some things in life just happen, many more things are distinctly in his control.

How do we take part in a world in which things “just happen?” Comedian Tig Notaro, a regular at the Los Angeles nightclub Largo—also frequented by Paul Thomas Anderson— recently endured a string of things which “just happened” (chronicled on her album, Live). She contracted pneumonia, followed by a life-threatening intestinal infection called “C. diff.” A few days after she was released from the hospital, her mother died unexpectedly. She broke up with her girlfriend, and was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts which required a double mastectomy. This lifetime’s worth of tragedy took place over just four months, which caused Notaro to remark that it was difficult to hold a conversation without sounding like a “total drama queen.” She concludes by saying that she still can’t quite make sense of it all, but she’s hopeful, joking about a dementedly self-assured God who is sure she can take a few more hits. In one of Magnolia’s most striking sequences, the characters – each lonely, broken, confused and at their lowest—sing Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up.” They’re dying, and betrayed, and so uncertain of what lies ahead that the repeated line “it’s not going to stop” feels like it’s referring to their respective misfortunes.

The song’s final line (“so just…give up”) feels like a particularly crushing blow, but giving up isn’t always a defeat. Giving up, giving in, giving over to the flow of events that life sends your way can be freeing. The joke is that it’s all a joke; life is painfully funny. And life goes on; things keep happening, some planned, others not so. You lose your parents, and you have a child that you love more than anything. You hurt people that you love, and maybe they forgive you. You work in a job that strains you more than anything because it helps people. You can feel the weight of every bad decision you’ve ever made, but you use the regret to make things better. Life isn’t going to stop raining frogs on us, so just…give up. Give in. Give over. And if the past isn’t through with us, then we need to use the present to do good. (It’ll be the past soon enough.)

The account of the pianist Myron Kropp is actually an urban legend, though the murder of the pianist’s wife was my own addition. Similarly, the stories of the murdered pharmacist, the dead scuba diver in the tree, and the suicidal teenager noted as an accomplice in his own murder which are featured in Magnolia’s opening are also urban legends (with various details added by Anderson). When I think about Magnolia, I first think about the cosmic improbability of the relationships featured therein, and a quick story about an equally improbable set of relationships helped me approach and unlock this film that I’ve been returning to for over a decade now. Perhaps I can’t say why Magnolia made such an impact on my filmic landscape. Maybe it was coincidence, or chance; maybe it “just happened” that I first saw it in a darkened dorm room at the rare invitation of a group of older students, but watching the stories of these characters made me feel like I was leaving one part of my life behind and entering into a new phase. It felt like so much more than coincidence.

In 1997, Paul Thomas Anderson saw his father die of cancer, a condition which sadly seems to “just happen.” The loss of a parent is a downpour of frogs, and can’t help but be a defining moment in a person’s life. Graduating from high school and moving away from home might only require watching a movie to help make sense of it, but for something on the scale of the loss of a parent, sometimes an intense philosophical reimagining is required. Sometimes wetell stories to help understand moments like these. Magnolia’s trailer promises that this will all make sense in the end, but the trailer itself ends with Frank Mackey, sitting in his interview chair, asking “was that unclear?”

“Kind of,” replies Gwenovier, the interviewer.

“Oh, god,” says Frank, twisting his mouth in mock apology. This is Anderson winking at us—his film is going to be complicated, and it’s going to be difficult, and it’s going to be in a minor key. And this is true not just of his film, but also of the experience of life itself. And if you’ve ever seen the video of the director horsing around behind the scenes with Philip Seymour Hoffman, being an absolute goofball while filming a scene directly inspired by one of the most tragic events of his life, you know that he gets the big joke: it all makes sense in the end, even if it makes no sense at all.


Andrew Root is a professional part-time job holder, and a Senior Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. He lives by a creek in Peterborough, Ontario.


Like I'd Never Seen Before

by Michael Arbeiter

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I wasn’t allowed to keep the door closed. I never got an explanation, though I had to guess that it was at least somewhat related to the house rule that limited me to electric razors. So I’d watch the den TV on low, developing a friendship with the even-numbered movie channels as I grew more and more adept at blocking out the curiosity of what my fellow fifteen-year-olds were up to, the desire to have been invited along, and the throat-swelling dread that accompanied the thought of actually going. On one of these glory day Saturday nights, I hit a movie I’d heard of: Punch-Drunk Love. That Adam Sandler one—though, as critics promised, it’d be Adam Sandler “like we’ve never seen him before.” The movie kept that promise. And then some.

Barry Egan, Sandler’s character, was many things I had never seen before. He was the courier of a cinematic style that was altogether new to me: half-sprinting from an alleyway curb to his warehouse office with a lopsided harmonium in tow, Barry was the focus of the very shot that taught me that movies could, and should, look interesting.

He was a type of character that I wasn’t used to. One who didn’t smile, command rooms, fan out statements of certainty, or whisk anything anywhere. One who had to swallow his tongue whole in order to trudge through a conversation with loved ones. Whose insides turned aluminum at the sound of his sisters’ voices. Who suffered anaphylactic shock when asked difficult questions.

He was a class of human being that I had always been sure consisted of only one member; he was scared, he was ugly, he suffered through sentences and lost footing in the line of eye contact. He admitted outwardly to his unsympathetic brother-in-law that he didn’t like himself, which was something I didn’t know other people felt. I certainly didn’t know they were allowed to say it.

And, in a state of panic, humiliation, and guttural derision, he smashed the hell out of his sister’s kitchen doors.

The scene played at a volume just shy of inaudible on my den TV. But blaring through my mind as Sandler lay waste to life-sized plates of glass, much to the chagrin of his resentful family, was a supplemental soundtrack—a thought I didn’t know I could have, and one I didn’t like: “That’s what I would do.”

Having seen only bits of Magnolia and knowing Boogie Nights by name alone, I hadn’t been exposed to Paul Thomas Anderson’s dark grace before Barry took out that glass. It was the first time I saw this kind of pain really accessed, in the movies or beyond. Barred from the dangers my parents deemed intrinsic in a closed door or a razor blade—or from those I’d grow breathless just imagining as part of a night out with kids my age, a phone call to friends—I was kept from everything the cruel world of Punch-Drunk Love doled out at Barry.

Lucky enough to lead a lifestyle moreover absent of extortive phone sex operators and their bonehead thugs, I managed to hide well enough from triggers. To pretend there was nothing to trigger at all. To go on not talking about why I wasn’t allowed to close doors, or shave like the other boys. To go on assuming that there wasn’t a name for this—that it was just my lot to deal with quietly.

But Barry, an Adam Sandler performance, movie character, and human being that I had never seen before…Barry was all too familiar.

Then, at that monumental instant of glass door annihilation, Barry became something in me that I hadn’t realized existed. And once I hit the scene wherein Sandler goes ape on the team of criminals who put his beautiful new friend’s life in danger, beating the nerve out of them with his bare fists and a tire iron, he was something I couldn’t accept that I also might be.

So I changed the channel. Something nicer.

Still, Paul Thomas Anderson stuck with me. From then on—when I’d grab desperately for any semblance of a coherent sentence, when I’d shuffle across crowded rooms with the fluidity of a pixelated arcade avatar, when I’d assess the slouch I’d have to face daily until modern technology came up with a preferable alternative for the mirror—I’d allow myself memory of Barry, a character who, inscrutably, I was allowed to root for.

He was the reversal of the cinema’s longstanding view on our breed of freak, but at no expense of authenticity. What John Hughes did for brains, Richard Linklater did for slackers, and Cameron Crowe did for the uncool, Paul Thomas Anderson had done—and continues to do—for the freaks, creeps, weirdoes: John C. Reilly in Hard Eight, Philip Seymour Hoffman inBoogie Nights, William H. Macy in Magnolia, Joaquin Phoenix in The Master, and Barry at the top of the heap. A film hero for a community of individuals so isolate that they couldn’t even consider themselves part of that community.

Though I didn’t finish watching the film, I had seen enough to know what came after the stammering. I felt too close to Barry to categorize his latter actions as fantasy. When my jaw would grow sore from anxious gritting, I’d imagine what was to follow: am I about to snap? Will the victim be my parents’ windows, the next band of rude strangers I pass, or someone of value to me? With a clear picture of just how bad things could get, courtesy of an earnest and merciless Anderson, I no longer had the luxury of simply biting my lip and keeping the volume down. I did what was then the most difficult thing for me: saying something. I need therapy. There was a lot more stammering involved, but you get the idea.

Ten years passed before I gave Punch-Drunk Love a second go. At twenty-five, I was far better versed in film, and leagues more social; I do still only shave with an electric razor, but some habits die hard. Immediately upon completing Anderson’s 2002 picture for the first proper time, I regretted all those years spent in dread of Barry’s ultimate fate. Imagining just how far down into his own pitch black crevasse he might tumble, and whom he might drag down beside him. All this time spent in terror over my likeness to this guy, and I never knew he wound up a winner.

But I don’t mind anymore. Here and now, still a far cry from eviscerating the Barry in me altogether, it’s nice to have Punch-Drunk Love’s happy ending in my pocket. At fifteen, I wouldn’t have been up for the task of reading into its ambiguity, likely taking the final scene as an endorsement to fly off to Hawaii on a misguided quest for self-fulfillment. I didn’t need the ending back then. I just needed to see a Barry Egan. The sort of movie character that wasn’t easy, pleasant, or attractive. The sort of hero who couldn’t speak, smile, swallow, breathe, or bear the threat of the human eye without it feeling like the end of the world. The sort of person whom I had never seen before, but whom I had known too vividly for a very long time.

And whom, thanks to Paul Thomas Anderson, I realized I wouldn’t have to know forever.

portrait by Blake Loosli

Michael Arbeiter.jpg

Michael Arbeiter is a staff editor for Hollywood.com, as well as a writer of film criticism, fiction, and excellent birthday cards. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.


I Just Wanna Feel Everything

by Alexandra Tanner

It’s hard to think of two filmmakers less alike than Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson. Right?

Think of PTA—PTA, who went to film school for two days, whose smile can’t be described as anything other than mischievous, who got Paul Dano and Daniel Day-Lewis to agree to mud-wrestle on film.

Think of Wes—Wes, in his corduroy suits and shiny shoes; Wes, carefully arranging the individual hairs on the tiny, made-of-real-fur animal figurines who were the stars of his stop-motion adaptation of Fantastic Mr. Fox.

It’s true that we can’t think of the Andersons as the Andersons in the way that we think of the Coens as the Coens or the Wachowskis as the Wachowskis. They are not related; they do not make films together. There isn’t even a single photograph of the two of them together—at least not one readily available on the internet. (Believe me, if there were, it would be the background wallpaper on every electronic device I own.) However. I think the Andersons are united not simply in name, but actually have between them some unnameable but indisputable communion: some on-the-down-low meeting of minds that manifests not necessarily as aesthetic homage or dialogic in-joke, but rather as a strange, stunning, and unmistakable set of patterns in the emotional landscape of both men’s films. Their work revolves singularly around a core of emotional violence—of weird, raw love—of caring for another person or place or thing or idea so deeply that it manifests as actual pain. For all of their seemingly disparate aesthetic interests, strengths, weaknesses, writing styles, directing styles, and lifestyles, both Andersons have an innate and profound understanding of all the different things that could (and often do) happen when humans are pushed to the edges of their emotional capacities.

Think of the elder Whitman brothers, Peter and Francis, wrestling each other to the ground of their teeny train compartment on The Darjeeling Limited, wailing:

“You don’t love me!” “Yes I do!” And then their younger brother Jack chiming in: “I love you too, but I’m gonna mace you in the face!” And then think of him wincing, macing them both in the face.

Think of Barry Egan and Lena Leonard, locked in each other’s arms in a Hawaii hotel room, newly and deeply in love, whispering back and forth:

“Your face is so adorable, and your skin and your cheek— I want to bite it. I want to bite your cheek and jaw it’s so fucking cute.”

“I’m looking at your face, and I just want to smash it. I just want to fucking smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it you’re so pretty.”

“I want to chew your face and I want to scoop out your eyes and I want to eat them, chew them, and suck on them.”

None of this, by the way, is to say that a comparison of the Andersons’ work on a literal narrative level would necessarily reveal startling similarities in their treatments of love and violence. Obviously, the authorial or directorial view of love and violence in a film like Moonrise Kingdom is worlds away from that of, for example, Boogie Nights—and each Anderson has his own firm notions about how best to investigate what happens when emotionally charged people reach a breaking point.

The Andersons know violence and vengeance and they know love and compassion, and they know how to render these strange, often scary states of being honestly and gorgeously in ways that consistently surprise and confound. Think about how a viewer, after watching Rushmore and Magnolia back-to-back, would likely be hard-pressed to say with any real confidence whether Max Fischer loves his teacher Rosemary Cross any more than Quiz Kid Donnie Smith loves Brad, the bartender with the braces on his teeth. These mad and needy and bonkers-in-love relationships, among countless others that appear throughout each Anderson’s oeuvre, are never weighed or measured—rather, they’re rendered patiently and honestly, with compassion and complete openness in equal measure.

We connect deeply to the Andersons’ films because each envelops us in a world that has been built for us from the ground up—and as each film starts to make sense to us, it becomes a sort of touchstone that aligns aesthetic and emotion. The world of Boogie Nights looks and sounds like this; watching Fantastic Mr. Fox makes me feel like that. Together, their films begin to offer us comfort and structure and familiarity (doesn’t watching the opening sequence of The Royal Tenenbaums feel rather a lot like listening to a favorite bedtime story?). The deeper reason, however, that we respond to these films in the ways we do, is that they let us see a hidden sliver of ourselves and of those around us. They let us flirt with danger, speed-date the scarier parts of our personalities, and then emerge with a larger, fuller understanding of the real ranges of our emotional lives. They let us try on the skins of people who are murderous or meek or desperately in love (or just desperate) and see how we feel about it. See what fits us best.

*

Wes Anderson’s critics accuse him time and time again of shallowness—of being obsessed by perfecting the details of the physical worlds he creates while casting aside the people who inhabit it. In any review, positive or negative, of a Wes Anderson picture, you’re sure to see characters and scenarios described as repressed or deadpan or dysfunctional. Who, though, is to say that these quieter, odder modes of displaying feeling—Margot Tenenbaum wordlessly carrying her presents away from her eleventh birthday celebration; Herman Blume with a cigarette between his lips, aimlessly tossing golf balls into a dirty swimming pool—are inherently wrong or invalid or not quite enough? Wes Anderson’s characters that do make violent displays of their emotion become all the more vivid for their quiet counterparts. How would we understand Chas without Margot, or Suzy without Sam, or Ash without Kristofferson? Bill Murray as Steve Zissou, in particular, might be the most exciting Wes creation yet (or ever)—his quiet, terrifying rage is the obvious emotional core of the film, criticized as it was for (in many people’s views) making use of style over substance and puppets over people. But it’s impossible to deny the emotional resonance in the idea that Zissou appears to feel nothing until he feels everything all at once. To sit in the dark at the film’s climax and watch Bill Murray finally, quietly cry is in itself an act of violence—it feels like an intrusion, and it scares us.

Deaths in Wes Anderson’s films shock me every single time. Thinking and talking about death is not something he’s ever shied away from as a filmmaker, and yet, for some reason, it often feels as if Wes’s worlds aren’t bound by our natural laws or cognizant of the circle of life—until they are. Wes creates worlds that feel entirely complete, assembled with the help of intricate directions from some complicated manual written, perhaps, in invisible ink—every little piece is always accounted for. Perhaps it’s that sense of having everything unmistakably in its right place—of the world being orchestrated seamlessly and entirely from top to bottom—that causes every death to make us feel as if some tremendous act of epistemological violence has been visited upon us. By taking even one person out of the working order of his films—by removing a moving part from the carefully-created whole—Wes consistently overturns his own micro-managerial aesthetic. Snoopy, Khaki Scouts Troop 55’s mascot; Royal Tenenbaum himself; the small Indian boy, whom Peter Whitman fails to save and whose name we never get to learn—these deaths blindside us and rattle our sense of order. And although death is present in many of Wes’s films, it’s never part of the landscape quite the way that it is in PTA’s. Whereas Wes tends to render death as anomaly or tragedy, PTA chooses to feature death frequently, prominently, and almost always as a result of the physicalization of violent emotion.

PTA loves love and he loves violence. He loves them fine when they’re in contrast with one another, but mostly, he loves them when they work together. After all, his one attempt at a romantic comedy—2002’s roller-coaster-fast, scarily-beautiful Punch Drunk Love—is, by all accounts, a really violent movie. Watching Adam Sandler pick up a crowbar and beat the shit out of some pasty Mormons in the name of love is, in many ways, unambiguously more frightening than more obviously scary moments in PTA’s other films (like, half of There Will Be Blood, anyone?). What scares us most about Punch-Drunk Love, I think, is the notion that the relationship between love and violence is deeper and more entangled than we’d like to think. The film posits that the idea of violence, and the willingness to enact it on another’s behalf, is a necessary component of romantic love. This knocks us off our axis a bit, so to speak, because it’s easier and nicer to think that violence only enters the realm of love when it’s a last resort; that violence and love, while alike in the sense that they are two extreme states of human emotion, can easily remain separate from one another.

There Will Be Blood is arguably PTA’s most violent feature, and our era’s definitive filmic manifesto on greed and the American dream (sorry, Wolf of Wall Street). Moreover, this film marks the first time in one of PTA’s films that we see violence completely obliterate and obfuscate all traces of the sympathetic emotional core behind it (this certainly never happens in any of Wes’s films). Daniel Plainview is in deep and irreparable conflict with everyone who surrounds him, and his voracious, bottomless capacity to do harm to others can’t be stopped once it’s been tapped. By the end of the film, we realize that it’s not oil that he loves. It’s not his son, it’s not himself, it’s not his big empty house. Plainview’s great love affair is with violence itself.

What’s incredible about the way we watch Plainview rapturously, joyously succumb to violent impulse after violent impulse is that he’s not someone like Steve Zissou, trying to blow up a shark to avenge a dear friend’s death. He’s not even someone like Linda Partridge, screeching at pharmacists a livid screech from the very depths of hell—a screech that could only be born of true sadness and anguish. Plainview is violent because violence is the only means to his end, because violence is the only thing that’s ever worked for him, because he loves what it ultimately offers him every single time.

Wes works in miniature; PTA deals in scope and space. Wes wants to know just how much stuff can fit in a frame until it’s full to bursting; PTA wants to see what happens to an object or to an actor when there’s too much room, too much air. How this central and defining aesthetic disconnect relates to the ways in which each explores physical and psychological expression, outbursts of love or of anger, and the physicality of emotion is remarkable to see side-by-side. An example: there are motorcycle-riding scenes in both The Master and The Darjeeling Limited. In The Master, Freddie Quell hijacks Lancaster Dodd’s motorbike during an afternoon of taking turns riding through the vast desert. Dodd watches as his friend and mentee roars off towards the horizon—ecstatic at first, then concerned, then angered. The mountains wait in the distance, the sky is hot and bright, and there is the overwhelming sense of abandonment and escape. In Darjeeling, we watch the three Whitman brothers—stacked on their motorbike like toys on a shelf, hands around each other’s waists, smiling to themselves separately and somehow all together—speeding quite literally into the sunset, towards the Himalayas. Although these two scenes are different in almost every way except for the motorcycles, it’s clear that the driving force behind each is an emotional tipping point. For Freddie, it’s restlessness, it’s anger. It’s the impulse to flee. For the brothers Whitman, it’s not runningfrom but rushing towards that drives them—it’s having gotten off that train, it’s the news of Peter’s baby boy, it’s the idea that they are all going to be fine.

In both scenes, there’s the proverbial bursting well of feeling—of joy, of fear, of longing—that hits us in our guts and marks a moment in which love and violence can transcend and transform one another.

*

Past a certain point, all of the careful uncovering of similarities between the Andersons’ films that can be done is no longer enough. As viewers or admirers of one Anderson’s work or the other’s—or both—we have to ask: what exactly is it that draws us in to these strange and often difficult films? Why do we respond to these bizarre, stylized depictions of love as violence and violence as love? Why do we yearn to zoom in close on that fine little line between the two, and why are we so fascinated by the unpredictability of their relationship to one another?

The amazingly simple answer is that we have all, at some point, seen ourselves as versions of the people we see in the Andersons’ films. We have all been Scotty J., crying alone in a shiny car that we bought solely to impress the someone we love; we have all been Suzy Bishop, with a hand that’s bloodied and bandaged because we were unfortunate enough to be standing in front of a mirror when we finally lost our tempers with ourselves. We have emotional reactions to these films because they are films about the nature and the implications of human emotion itself—about why we feel what we feel, how we choose to express it, and what happens to us when we do.

Something I’ve learned: people like to tell other people not just what they should be feeling, but precisely how they should best prove that they feel it. There is a right way to celebrate and there is a right way to grieve. You are having too many emotions or not enough. You are hysterical or you are robotic. To all of this, the Andersons say pooh. (Edit: Wes says pooh. PTA probably says something out-there and unprintable.) The Andersons say to all of us: feel how you feel like feeling, in the way you feel like feeling it—and even if it’s ugly or strange or just kind of sad to look at, don’t forget for a second that it’s important, that it makes sense, that it’s good enough.


Alexandra Tanner lives, writes, and goes to the movies in New York.


Growing Up with Bottle Rocket

by Daniel Reynolds

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

In 2002, my last year of high school, I worked in a local video store and dreamed of movies. The store was supposedly a single link in a smaller franchise chain, but I’ve never seen another of its kind. It wasn’t a particularly flashy place. That it has since been erased from the remote northwest Toronto strip mall that housed it feels fitting. I can drive past that plaza now, on the way to my parents’ house perhaps, and feel a tinge of nostalgia for something that once was. This is the unremarkable setting I conjure whenever I think back on discovering Bottle Rocket.

Wes Anderson’s debut film is an inauspicious introduction to a film style that would eventually be described, circularly, as “Andersonian”. Back in 1996, Anderson was simply working with what he knew: Well-appointed houses, an isolated motel, and a collection of bland suburban blocks buffeted by empty Texas streets. There is no majestic Indian train here, no listing boat; not even an ostentatious manor makes it onto the scene. Anderson had yet to cultivate his trademark style, his combination of symmetrically centred shots, ornate production design and generous dollops of whimsy. I try to imagine what it must have been like for James L. Brooks, the producer who first shepherded Anderson and company into the world of big time filmmaking, to see the finished movie and realize that a new, genuine voice had emerged. The technique may not yet have been full grown—and Bottle Rocket flopped upon its initial release—but its heart was always in the right place.

At its centre, Bottle Rocket is a coming-of-age story that resolutely does not want to come of age. The main characters, best friends Anthony and Dignan (brothers Luke and Owen Wilson, respectively), along with their reluctant third wheel Bob (Robert Musgrave), all look much older than the typical story should allow. These guys are post-college aged, still living within the orbit of their parents’ houses. When Anthony’s younger sister Grace remarks, “You haven’t worked a day in your life. How could you be exhausted?” we want to think “slacker”, maybe even feel a little self-righteously upset. Who do these layabouts think they are? But the film charms us out of this notion; these guys are just too innocent for that.

We meet Anthony as he leaves a mental institution, after an apparent wild sabbatical in the Arizona desert. Younger brother Luke’s jughead smile invites us in, a whole acting career soon to be mapped out underneath his haircut. Dignan arrives from a life of quixotic schemes, a world where he is the hero of his own action movie, a leader of men. Owen’s energy is infectious. He was 26 whenBottle Rocket came out, with a crew cut and an incredibly broken nose, but he may just as well have been 13. Early in the film Dignan flips through a notebook with five, ten, fifty-year plans. It’s a painfully sweet glimpse into an impossible adult world. For it to be realized the guys just need their criminal enterprise to take off. Every kid has to have a dream, right?

Somewhere in my own parents’ house there are boxes of notebooks and binders, collections of comics and cards. I didn’t have an army of regimented tin soldiers like Anthony’s, but I can marshal a flotilla of Lego if need be. I admit, my blueprints were never quite as elaborate as Dignan’s, my goals probably not as far reaching as Anderson’s, but the restless desire was there. Theirs is a guileless spirit harnessed both in front of and behind the camera, a reckless will to make oneself into something else regardless of what the world thinks. As a kid, I usually had to be reminded to pipe down, to remember that not everyone was as gung-ho about my enthusiasms.

The first job Anthony and Dignan pull off is a ransacking of the former’s parents’ house. We never question the ease of their entry until afterwards, when it becomes clear we’ve witnessed a mostly harmless robbery. They want to be glamourous bandits like the ones they’ve undoubtedly read about in cheap novels, or seen on TV and in movies. So, next, with an overly elaborate plan masterminded by Dignan—which includes bird calls and innocuous nose tape—the crew robs a book store, making off into rural Texas with what feels like a fortune (in tiny plastic book bags). The police don’t enter the film until the end, but the characters’ adolescence has already been arrested. Still, Anderson invites us to protect their fantasy. We know the real world is going to be hard.

Anderson and Owen Wilson met while studying at the University of Texas in Austin. They’ve said in interviews that the idea for Bottle Rocket, first a short film, was born after they had broken into their shared apartment. They wanted to prove to their landlord that the windows needed to be fixed. The landlord suspected it was an inside job.

I have no trouble imagining how difficult it must be to get a film made. For a gang of bemused Texans in the early 90s, even ones backed by Brooks, it must have felt like an impossible dream. Maybe I’m projecting. When you’re a teenager or grinding through university, the future begins to feel like it’s bearing down, like important decisions will soon be demanding your attention. At the same time, that life of impending adulthood feels so far away. I remember asking myself how I was supposed to go from part-time video store clerk living with my parents to fully-grown person with a career and responsibilities and, who knows, maybe even a girl on my arm. Young passion—for film, for books, for music—is powerful but directionless. My parents quietly guided me into practical career pursuits, the first step towards a real life.

Mr. Henry (James Caan) is the most powerful person in Bottle Rocket. He runs a landscaping business and has associates with colourful names. He wears a necklace made of animal teeth. He even has a private headquarters, a base from which he can host parties, play table tennis and practice karate. To an aspirant gangster like Dignan, this is his future. Sure, let Anthony have his puppy love with the housekeeper Inez, his comically naïve vision of adult life, filled with a morning paper route and youth soccer. Dignan will not wake up. He’d rather try to convince everyone else that his dream is real. Your heart breaks for him. Gradually, Caan’s presence tilts the film in a disquieting direction. He is the perfect stand-in for the deviousness of reality. How far, really, can innocence take our heroes when faced down by Sonny Corleone?

There’s that thing about confidence, the old idea that you just need to fake it until you make it. I see Anderson and Owen Wilson, summoned by Brooks to write a feature length film based on their short. I see the film bombing and Wilson giving serious thought as to whether or not to join the Marines. I see Anderson going away for a couple of years before returning with Rushmore and a new muse in Bill Murray. I see myself at my first real job interview. I wore a suit and tie and strained to project the feeling that I knew what I was talking about. I may have had a comic book in my bag to read on the way back to my parents’ house. I see Anderson working with his best pals and directing tough guy Caan in scenes that were written for fun, on a lark, a year or two before. Bottle Rocket is suffused with the spirit of, “Hey, this is so crazy, it just might work” enthusiasm.

Why is that tape on your nose? Exactly.

The final heist sequence features a sleepy, cold-storage facility and a robbery crew in yellow jump suits. Dignan has supplied walkie-talkies (including a headset for himself, of course) and binoculars. He’s in his element, as ridiculous as it may seem to everybody but him. That’s the thing about not knowing any better, you just don’t care. It’s remarkable watching these scenes now and seeing how ordinary they look. The drab walls and featureless offices of the building feel like they belong in a different movie. You think, “Wes Anderson directed this?” He chases Dignan and Anthony with a handheld camera. The cops that show up are not played by Edward Norton.

Bottle Rocket‘s great achievement, really the cornerstone of Anderson’s whole career, is present even without any bold flourishes. It’s in his un-ironic appreciation of genuine wonder, expressed in his characters’ heartrending desire for love and understanding. It’s there later in his filmography when Zissou admits that 12 is his favourite age, when Royal embraces his inner child, when the Whitmans shuck off their heavy baggage, when Sam and Suzy declare their beach the Moonrise Kingdom. But it all started with Bottle Rocket, the most unassuming Anderson film, the one deemed the least “Andersonian”.

Years later, in a segment with Roger Ebert, Martin Scorsese would call Bottle Rocket one of the ten best films of the 90s. He said, “I love the people in this film, who are genuinely innocent, more than they even know.” I like to believe sometimes that Anderson feels like he got away with something, like he broke into the vaulted world of Hollywood and decided to hang around. It is easy to believe that Scorsese saw Anderson as innocent, too.

I work in an office cubicle. I have a computer and file boxes and papers arranged across my desk. I think sometimes of where the old toys and notebooks in my parents’ house have gone. Sheepishly, I remember the time spent playing video games and drawing fantasy worlds, the neighbourhood clubs started and abandoned. I’ve become, as is the fashion, something of a cynic, or at the very least, a sarcastic person. Irony seeps into everything. High school, university, and the working world all taught me to keep my imagination to myself, to express a little embarrassment at my passions. I do have my own place, I’ve had a girl on my arm, but I never rode off half-cocked like Dignan, flaring out like a bottle rocket against the sun.

As Anderson continues to add to his filmography—we’re up to eight films now—the question is being asked more and more: Which one is your favourite? When posed to me, I often take a minute, maybe hem and haw about how Anderson’s style has changed and grown over nearly two decades now (geez, really?) The answer is always the same, though. I find myself at the beginning, with Bottle Rocket.

The other films can try, but they’ll never catch it, man, because it’s fucking innocent.


Daniel Reynolds is the editor-in-chief of The Same Page, a Toronto-based sports and culture website. He claims to be a dedicated municipal employee but spends most of his time writing, irregularly appearing on Global’s The Morning Show, and talking about movies, books, music, and basketball.


Les Enfants Terribles

by Karina Wolf

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

“If you think you’re enlightened go spend a week with your family.” - Ram Dass

When Royal Tenenbaum is found out by his family – when they discover (not a spoiler) that in order to live with them, he’s only pretending to have stomach cancer (while eating cheeseburgers and scoffing Tic Tacs from medicine bottles) – he accepts his eviction and retreats to the 375th Street Y. There’s something about this hyperbolically placed men’s association which locates the exact artistic terrain of The Royal Tenenbaums.

It correlates with the more modestly numbered streets of Washington Heights where you’ll find a hilly Manhattan full of shambling buildings. The neighborhood is downtrodden and grand: a reminder of a time when New York’s greatness was still under construction. One of my friends, a new New Yorker, moved up there because he thought that’s where he’d find the real city. Trying to find the real New York, of course, is like trying to live in the real Paris – the Platonic version exists only in novels and films. The Royal Tenenbaums is, in part, a love letter to this imaginary Manhattan, a fable which lifts liberally from other renditions of the place, a Calvino-esque invention in which the streets extend to infinity.

The Tenenbaums can exist only in this magic periphery. They are an extended family of oddities: prodigies, addicts, hustlers, and students (of anthropology, of the Old West, of aberrant neurological disorders). They come together when, out of financial need and petty jealousy, the patriarch fakes an illness to reclaim his home and his wife.

There is no formula to the Tenenbaums story: Royal’s fakery is a child’s fraud, easily detected and exposed. But his presence is enough to draw the characters together. One by one, the stunted siblings return to their childhood home and confront their troubles with family and maturity. Chas is angry and terrified after losing his wife. Playwright Margot is blocked, unhappily married, and having a secret affair with her childhood neighbor. Richie has been literally afloat – wandering the seas since a breakdown on the professional tennis circuit. The rest of the story follows the characters falling apart and reconfiguring their lives.

*

The Tenenbaum’s world is a cinematic picture book. Probably the greatest strength of Anderson as an artist is his attentiveness. Each detail hums: the dalmation mice, the kestrel named Mordecai (which was held for ransom during the shooting), the taxidermied capybara, the closet of board games, the tent in the living room with illuminated globe and record player. This hand-drawn, low-fi quality is singular – even important – in a world of Photoshop and Autotune. It offers an ideal of the genuine, as the product of things gleaned and re-envisioned.

Part of the pleasure of Anderson’s productions is recognizing their inspirations: the French New Wave, the British Invasion, literature for and about children. Like Bergman, Kubrick and Woody Allen, Anderson even employs a signature font (Futura Bold, in his case). But his works wouldn’t persist if they were only pastiche.

His world reminds me of that line from Borges’ “The Aleph”: “Each thing…was infinite things, since I distinctly saw it from every angle of the universe.” The viewer can relax in the contemplation of meticulous construction. There are things we’ll never know about the narrative – the origins of conflicts and names and visual motifs – but there is an assurance that they have meaning. Who could ask more from art than that – to impart a kind of Kabbalistic importance to every observation?

Of course, this relentless aestheticizing can raise objections. One might say it allows Anderson to explore only the shallow end of emotions—or, at best, the depths of adolescence, a state in which many of his characters linger. But perhaps this is most relevant: these days the condition of youth can be indefinitely extended (or at least pretended). Time and shifting perceptions do penetrate this chrysalis; the Tenenbaum children are traumatized in the process.

Anderson describes The Royal Tenenbaums as a film about people who peaked early, whose best years are perhaps past. In a way, the movie interrogates the implications: childhood and genius are two cherished states in Western art and culture. Both seem to offer a less fractured sense of self; to allow one to conquer what might otherwise be unbearable; to be celebrated for achievements and indulged in unruly behaviors.

But the Tenenbaums’ genius is more coping mechanism than gift. Royal is a pathological father – negligent toward Chas and his adopted daughter Margot, doting upon Richie only until his failure on the tennis court. Royal possesses the same childish vendettas and selfish goals as Rushmore’s Max Fischer. His wounded children seem to have been formed in reaction, elaborating their own intense interests and abilities to remedy his neglect. What happens when those techniques fail? The kind of crisis that envelops all these characters.

Anderson gets terrifically glum performances from his actors. Margot is not just venomously funny; she is affectingly fragile and unable to help herself. It’s certainly Paltrow’s best role. As Royal recognizes, she is unfair to her husband and the men who love her. Royal reproves her by saying, “You were a genius.” She retorts, “No, I wasn’t.” We’ll never know—it’s quite likely that her assessment is severe (she graduated valedictorian at age 12). But maybe her comment reflects a different idea of genius, classifying it as a resident spirit that visits unpredictably. Or maybe she’s bereft: Margot’s strength resides in her plays and in her secrets. Both betray her in adulthood.

Richie is the heart of the film, a silent sufferer, a less active character but one who wrestles with a moral compass. The success of the film is in Richie’s suicide attempt – his dysphoria is real, unmitigated, and without solution. When Richie reveals to Margot the stitches that lace up his veins, there is visceral discomfort.

The characters with the more evident wounds – the grieving, bristling Chas and the drug addled Eli – are the ones who can negotiate a more immediate solution to their problems. And the wedding ending—even with car crash, dog death and an intervention—are easy fixes to Tenenbaums’ ambiguities. The more complex characters reflect the impossible contradictions in life. Margot and Richie’s love can be incestuous and also meaningful and pure; Royal’s narcissism can also yield generosity and nurturing.

I used to have a game: whose family out-Tenenbaumed the other? The implications are multiple – it’s an avidly individualistic family, united (at least at the start) more by their single-minded pursuit of their own interests than by mutual affection or understanding. They’re a genius clan divided by betrayal and disaster. But who wouldn’t want to be a Tenenbaum? As Royal, the con artist father, understands: they’re the most compelling group of dysfunctionals around.


Karina Wolf is a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She has written copy and essays about food, fashion, film and art. She is the author of the children’s book The Insomniacs, and she lives in New York City.


I'm Trying to Tell You the Truth About Myself

by Bebe Ballroom

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Before it was ours, my mother and I obsessed over our house.

It’s across the street from the Roman Catholic church my grandma goes to four to six days a week, which is an unreasonable amount of time, in my opinion. Some friends of mine got married in the church last month, someone I went to high school with and his new bride, a poor man’s Taylor Swift.

They waited at the top of the steps as the guests left the cathedral, greeting everyone as if they were the lone guest, the one person they’d hope would be there, lingering slightly, like you never do in your day to day life. The wedding guests were in front of the cathedral, looking like the best versions of themselves (so much effort for so short a service), and they were smiling and laughing and touching hands on the steps and it seemed cinematic.

I remember wondering what it would have looked like from across the street, that it must really be something to see. I know that I wanted to view the spectacle from there, was comfortable removing myself as a guest in exchange for being a stranger, to be a specter in the street.

A month after the wedding, I saw the cathedral from across the street, standing where I’d wanted to be before, in front of the empty house, staring at the steps where the wedding guests stood, elated. I see that same elation in the windows that aren’t boarded up. Looming double-paned windows, elaborate baseboards, glimpses of inanimate objects that represent a life one could have.

It is unsettling how quickly obsessions begin and end, troublesome how they resurface for a month or an hour or a year and then die and die again. Each one perfect at the beginning and then, near the end, like a piece of rotted fruit. Some potential version of yourself that you leave behind for reasons that are hard to determine.

In the film Fantastic Mr. Fox, the title character is an obsessive, too. He says, “I used to steal birds but now I’m a newspaper man”. Former obsessions include thievery, whackbat, journalism, treehouses, Bean’s alcoholic cider, and Mrs. Fox. Throughout the film, his obsessions are a source of both inspiration and resentment.

One can relate to this. I always wanted to play the violin and then someone in my life actually gave me one and it’s been cased in the same corner since that day years ago when it was given to me. Like John Laroche in Adaptation, who spends years utterly captivated by fish and then one day, “fuck fish”, as in “never so much as putting one goddamn toe in the ocean, that’s how much fuck fish”.

The Fox household is home to Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney), Mrs. Fox (voiced by Meryl Streep), Ash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman), and cousin Kristofferson (voiced by Eric Anderson). Mrs. Fox paints thunderstorms and tends house. Despite her son’s staggering attempts to be seen as an athlete, Ash is seen as “just different”. Kristofferson is the cousin who visits while his father battles double pneumonia. He is composed and modest, excels naturally at everything he tries (“Just look at him dig!”) and is ultimately an unwelcome house guest to Ash, who longs for the attention and notoriety that is showered on Kristofferson, someone who spends most of the film trying to avoid the exaltations.

The story belongs to Roald Dahl. And while a PG-rated stop-motion film based on a childrens’ story is definitely a departure for the filmmaker, Fantastic Mr. Fox is still completely and wholly a Wes Anderson film. Like his other films, there is a color palette here: this one features mustard yellow, candy apple red, and hen brown—with textures of animal fur and gray tweed and corduroy.

What is it in Wes Anderson’s heart that is so old ? Clint Eastwood is a 138-year-old man and even he has made films that are more relevant to these times than Anderson. Can you imagine an Xbox Kinect in a Wes Anderson film? Maybe in the year 2050. Can you imagine if, in The Royal Tenenbaums, Richie Tenenbaum told Eli Cash that he’s in love with his own sister via text message? Or if Raleigh St. Clair updated his Facebook status to “You’ve made a cuckold of me”? What ifRushmore’s Harold Blume had made his fortune in bluetooth headsets? Even now, as I try to imagine the most technologically-advanced item in any Wes Anderson film, it may be the radio transmitter Steve Zissou has implanted in the diving helmets in The Life Aquatic, or possibly the laminator Francis’s bald assistant Brendan must own in The Darjeeling Limited.

I happened upon Rushmore airing abridged on the USA network during the summer vacation between 7th and 8th grade, a secretly strange adolescent who kept an outfit diary, practiced new handwriting styles for the forthcoming school year, and had an eleven step plan to achieving popularity (implemented with occasional success at the baker’s dozen or so schools that I attended). Would I have eventually seen Rushmore some night in a freshman dormitory? Probably so. But instead I saw it precisely at an age of infinite impression, and it undoubtedly affected me. I started nearly-exclusively wearing men’s ties, polyester from yard sales, glitter eye shadow, and ancient coats that were either much too small or far too big for me. They smelled like damp, aged basements. I collected records for years, heaved them around from place to place in U.S. Postal Service mail bins, reinforced with heavy wire. I’d have nothing to play them on for five years.

I remember being particularly taken by the dialogue in Rushmore- not merely whimsical but genuine, too. Wes Anderson’s movies just felt right to me, filled with the kind of detail for an archetype, a decade, a side table, or a shirt collar that fellow obsessives can surely appreciate.

Mr. Fox’s obsessions have brought him to an existential crisis. One fox year is six human years, which would make this fox in his forties. His own father died at 6 and one half, and this seems to drive Foxy’s crisis. He asks himself if a fox can be happy without a chicken in its teeth. It seems like a rhetorical question, but then again maybe it’s a metaphorical chicken.

Mr. Fox doesn’t wanna live in a hole anymore because it makes him feel poor. Mrs. Fox says that foxes live in holes for a reason. Nonetheless, Foxy disregards the advice of his badger lawyer (voiced by Bill Murray) and buys a treehouse anyway, although, as he puts it, “It’s not exactly an evergreen, is it?”

Despite a promise to Mrs. Fox to quit banditing chickens, his move to the tree features an ominous view of the the empires of Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. Boggis is a chicken farmer, Bunce a duck farmer, and Bean a farmer of turkeys and apples. The latter of which makes the best, strongest alcoholic cider that “burns in your throat, boils in your belly, and tastes almost like pure melted gold”. Quicker than you can say “beagles love blueberries”, Mr. Fox is back to his old tricks, going so far as to involve little Kristofferson in his evening debaucheries. Night by night, he knocks off the farms and storehouses of all three capital B’s.

It doesn’t take long for Mr. Fox to lose his grip on the situation and soon all turns to calamity. The farmers fight back, led by Bean, who wears Mr. Fox’s tail as a necktie. He shot it off with a pistol—my boyfriend tells me it’s a luger. There is much more to lose this time around, and soon all the animals in the area are affected.

The idea that everyone, even animals, have true natures and talents, drives the story. Biological and psychological curses and blessings that begin and end before you realize what they even are. In the end, it’s the animals’ true natures that help them all escape with their lives.

Mrs. Fox asks, “Why did you lie to me?”

“Because I’m a wild animal,” Mr. Fox says.

“You’re also a husband and a father.”

“I’m trying to tell you the truth about myself.”

My mother and I would stare into the windows without shame. The house had been empty for many years. I remember that a gold Camry full of girls went by, one of them shouting, “OMG, stop looking in their windows!” But we did not stop.

We could just make out a red tile kitchen with an industrial steel, trough-like sink. We could tell the ceilings were tall, with some water damage. There was a circular window at the eve of the house. I thought of Moonrise Kingdom then as I do now, Suzy Bishop surveying all with her binoculars. My mother and I could just make out the largest room in the house, cut in half by pocket doors (pocket doors!) that slide in and out of sky blue walls. I thought of Margot Tenenbaum, who would sequester herself behind them, paint her nails, and smoke cartons among cartons of cigarettes for several years before anyone would ever suspect her a smoker.

I knew that I wanted to live in that house, I believed it would make me a happier person. I thought of seasoning the violin, having a reputable Halloween party, and turning the pantry into a board game closet.

I think of the wedding ceremony that took place across the street and I wonder again if I noticed our house from the cathedral steps, if I had been compelled to its edifice, twinkling there.

I want to believe I saw it, but know in my heart that I didn’t.


Bebe Ballroom writes from a small river town in Missouri, where she does not possess her dream job of naming shades of nail lacquer or house paint. She was born on the same day as Woody Allen and Bette Midler, which makes too much cosmic sense to dismiss. She has cultivated inadvertent collections of chopsticks, bobby pins, loose glitter, and neglected musical instruments which haunt her from the corner of the room.


Is This The (Hyper) Real Life?

by Marieke Pras


Wes Anderson builds worlds that makes us want to live there. We’d all much rather be on the Darjeeling Limited, drinking Sweet Lime, instead of dealing with cold leftovers and unpaid bills. Real life doesn’t tend to work that way though. Unfortunately. Not even if you make a comic about it. - MP


Marieke Pras is an illustrator-in-training / coffee addict, living and working in The Netherlands. When she isn’t busy watching movies, she’s busy making comics about movies.