BILL MURRAY WEEK: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
"If you think you’re enlightened go spend a week with your family." - Ram Dass
LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES
by Karina Wolf
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 reenvisioned.
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. But as Eli Cash, the would-be son, understands, they’re the most compelling group of dysfunctionals around. Who wouldn’t want to be a Tenenbaum? It’s emotionally spiky but it’s never dull.
Karina Wolf is a writer living in New York City. She tumbls here.
THE HEART IS THE TARGET.
by Karina Wolf
In cinema, there are two kinds of spy. There’s the ambivalent servant wearing his double life like a rumpled overcoat: a pained intellect and wounded soul who dissociates from civilian life to the point of irreversible exile. He is propelled by big ideas and lured by intellectual bloodsport: strategy, counterfeit, betrayal, and, perhaps most of all, psychological profiling—the practice of inhabiting the mind of his opposite number. These characters are avatars in the dream lives of John le Carré and Graham Greene: the observer who wants to come in from the cold and join the messy business of life.
In contrast to those compromised souls is James Bond, gleaming archetype of the smooth operator – a machine who is licensed to kill and to ladykill, who works a tuxedo, wields a punch and jockeys an Aston Martin without peer. He is pure action and no affect: he displays a troubling sang froid in the face of opponents defeated, women conquered, human limitations breached. He is nearly without emotional need – a stiff cocktail is sufficient to recharge him.
Each age gets the 007 it deserves. When the franchise began in the Sixties, Connery’s Bond was an entitled hedonist, all purring Scottish-burred seduction to titillate a newly liberated era; Roger Moore resonated with the louche and capitalist needs of the 80s; Pierce Brosnan rarely menaced but wore his clothes as fiercely as the 90s demanded. Daniel Craig’s Bond is a more ambivalent figure – perhaps this reflects the actor’s own publicly expressed hesitation about the role, or maybe the part has been influenced by the self-doubting Bourne heroes, who regret their contract killer obligations.
Skyfall, the film released on Bond’s 50th anniversary, grapples again with recalibrating its central character. The Daniel Craig installments started with a kind of Bond Begins: Casino Royale is a creation story about Bond’s a-human psyche. His failed romance with Vesper Lynd inspires enough sorrow, remorse, and longing to explain his detachment from all other conquests and foes. These days, spy work is more understandable as the addictive domain of the mentally febrile (Homeland’s bipolar Carrie Mathison) or of the out-dated humanist trying to find some wrongs to correct (Saul Berenson). I’m not convinced that Bond is motivated by the love of country or woman, but he is equally hooked on his job. Despite the bare bones toys from Q (now played by Ben Whishaw) and the morally ambiguous leadership of Judi Dench’s M, the job provides the crucible environment that uniquely gratifies 007.
If Bond’s work remains individually compelling, two challenges remain for the filmmakers: finding obstacles that are sizeable enough to create dramatic suspense and contemporary relevance. The film begins with an implausible MacGuffin: a hard drive that contains a laundry list of all active MI6 agents has been stolen. In the process of pursuing the thief, Bond is shot by his colleague Eve, falls from a bridge into a waterfall, and is declared dead. M herself issues the command to “take the shot” in order to take out the terrorist—Bond be damned—and the perceived betrayal is enough to drive Bond to remain a ghost, with booze and girls for company.
Bond is such an unstoppable character that his real challenges come from within—the filmmakers have to create self-doubt and unearth early wounds. Skyfall takes its title from the name of Bond’s ancestral home where as a boy he witnessed the traumatic deaths of his parents. Bond’s jujitsu relationship with M is meant to be filial; everyone, even Bond, needs someone to whom he is accountable. M’s life and livelihood are imperiled; as she is investigated for professional misconduct, Bond is called back to service so he can protect her and pursue the mastermind behind these attacks.
Skyfall has a pedigreed team of creators: writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have written five Bond films; and John Logan, a playwright who has adapted materials as various as Coriolanus and Hugo, revived the sword-and-sandal epic and ennobled Russell Crowe to frat boys everywhere with Gladiator. Roger Deakins knows how light anything and photograph anyone. Director Sam Mendes is a merely adequate visual stylist, but let’s say he makes some good casting decisions.
The problems of Skyfall are various, from the ungainly and overlong story to the lurching pace to the curiously underused talent. Ben Whishaw, who next to brawnier actors becomes intellectual sidekick and comic relief, could give lyrical and intelligent readings of technical manuals. His very young Q manages to cock up everything that’s in his purview - he allows internet security to be hacked by Javier Bardem’s anarchic villain, Silva. While Ralph Fiennes seems comfortable leaving behind Romeo and Hamlet types in favor of villains and bureaucrats, here he’s all square routine, bureaucratic threat and boring decency—it’s the kind of part that’s perfect for Colin Firth and would be ennobled (isn’t everything) by Fiennes’ friend Liam Neeson. Judi Dench, that great lionness of screen acting, is also underserved by the script. In Skyfall, she is euthanized by the dialogue long before her character M has her final reckoning.
And then there’s Daniel Craig, a curiously hazy Bond. It’s difficult to say which part of his job he relishes, though he doggedly performs. His Bond slips into bed, but we see no dirty intimacy, no saucy suggestions, no false hopes. Even Eve, imprecise motorist and poor marksman who clambers repeatedly after Bond, doesn’t seem disappointed when 007 tosses his radio surveillance into her drink in order to chase Severine, the mistress of Bond’s mysterious foe.
Do you know anything about fear?, Severine asks. All there is, replies Bond. Cool banter, but — REALLY? Bond never fears for anything; that’s the mandate of the character, he’s more cartoon than man, turned on only by mastery of a challenge. Severine has a wonderfully witchy look—a Feuillade character by way of Lartigue—with impractical crimson claws, an easy smile, and an accent that creates an estrangement effect that I’ll accept as some variety of Brechtian performance. She perishes in a William Burroughs/William Tell shooting contest with a shot of Scotch perched on her head as a pistol target. Naturally, Bond is more upset about the waste of the liquor than of the girl’s life.
Bond films consist of a number of worn conventions: the signature phrases, the fantasy locales, the decadently evil antagonists, the glitzy pop song title sequence. The Adele poltergeist is back, and as her Skyfall theme earworms into the brain, we are reminded lyrically that there’s some grand conception in these adventures: the spy game is always a game of romance. Above all, secret service requires the spook to fuse his mind with the intimate minutiae of an elusive other— his foe—until he knows his subject better than the subject knows himself. Villainous seduction is Bond’s professional trump card.
Javier Bardem, with his Easter Island minotaur’s head, is capable dramatically of anything. He steals a scene from Judi Dench! No one can do this, not even Maggie Smith. He’s truthful even when outlandish. He makes a blond wig and red eyebrows attractive. As a rogue agent who tries to turn James Bond from MI6 and to turn him on, Silva fondles Bond’s chest and thighs. While this humor is eye-rollingly childish — does any man look better in a pair of jeans, a tuxedo or a tracksuit than the impressively fit Daniel Craig? nd Bardem is suitably impatient at narrative moments when the film collapses into formulaic action. He really relishes his bad guy, who is equal parts Rasputin, Voldemort, and golem.
Skyfall unfolds amid the usual grab bag of exotic locales: Istanbul, Shanghai and Macao (though these locales are so sketchily depicted they could’ve been filmed nearly anywhere), a crumbling and deserted island that seems to have been CGI-assembled from Inception outtakes and Soviet propaganda films; subterranean London. To escape Silva’s technological supremacy, Bond goes low-fi and old school, running away for a lost weekend with Judi Dench to northern Scotland, that unearthly and inhospitable clime where Bond was raised. Skyfall is the name of his bare-bones manse set in a misty valley worthy of a Bronte novel. Albert Finney plays the Scottish groundskeeper as lamentable caricature, complete with woolen orange vest, shotgun and hunting hounds. For whomever’s listening: Albert Finney is a global treasure, but he does not need to act in every spy franchise.
Bond flicks have always been a pastiche of popular global concerns. This time the characters mull the effectiveness of field intelligence versus computer espionage, whether human intelligence—agents in the field—can do anything that computer information and military drones cannot. The problem above all in Skyfall is how much weakness the writers embed in its spymasters – which may be an accurate reflection of the limitations of modern leadership (if the actual head of the CIA can’t control the flow of information about his private life, should we expect more from his fictional counterparts?). If only these weaknesses worked as commentary on the practices of Western intelligence instead of as convenient plot advancements. In one way, Skyfall is accidentally prescient – we live in a world of individual mayhem that exploits collective weakness. And solutions lie often in individual strengths, foibles, and quirks of character. Give us a little more of that—show us more of Bond’s heart—and you’ll see a spy most completely resurrected.