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.
Bottle Rocket (1996)
Like a Little Banana: Childhood and Adulthood in Wes Anderson’s Films
by Mills Baker
In Wes Anderson’s movies, one senses a preoccupation with detail that is almost mannered: it is as though the story is told so that the houses, ships, and trains can be built, their colorful, scale-model intricacies reminiscent of the spaces in one’s favorite children’s books. From room to room in the castle of the Tenenbaums, one sees on the walls and shelves, under the bunks and tents, a toy-chest’s worth of objects that intrigue: as when one is young, one wants to explore, one wants to touch and inspect, one is curiously awed. Seeing the decks of the Belafonte reminded me of how I felt about my toys when a boy: every compartment seemed as large and fascinating as a world!
(And how neighborhood children’s toys often seemed like Hennesy’s equipment compared to my Zissou-style oddities).
This is Anderson’s style; he is like a director still fascinated with the treehouses in Swiss Family Robinson. His characters are often partial sketches or simply unbelievable; his stories sometimes seem to involve very little transpiring, although they often verge on a kind of epiphanetic or heroic character transformation, usually deferred; this transformation has something of “childhood’s end” to it, although in keeping with our times the men-children are often far beyond adolescence. But a central reason that his films are so widely-liked, despite the oddity of men with gray hair having teen crises of responsibility, is that his environments touch upon some secret, persistent childhood in audiences and entrance, delight, fascinate. In this, they are a kind of special effect: they make his movies into children’s books. Like the best special effects they serve to amplify themes already present, rather than compensate for something missing.
Bottle Rocket is interesting as an example of Anderson without these effects but with the same themes; whether because it was his first feature-length film or for budgetary reasons, the closest we come to the hyperarticulated little worlds of his later movies is Dignan’s notebook with its plans for “Living into the Next Century.”
Dignan is an excellent reflection of the preoccupations later explored by costlier special effects. He is a strange little world in himself, and a tragicomic world-creator. His mind is like the Belafonte, his plans as detailed, fascinating, absurd, and sui generis as Royal’s home or Max Fischer’s aquarium model. Where does Dignan develop his ideas about the criminal world and Mr. Henry? How does he come to think that the confusion of his Breathe-Rite strips is sound, tactically? Why do we come to believe in Dignan, despite his tyrannical bossiness, his insecurities, his manifest cluelessness, his repeated betrayals of his friends? Like Zissou and Tenenbaum in particular, his egotism, creativity, and eccentricity are what drive the lives of those around him. Because his defects are what catalyze the adventures of his friends –and because of his naïve innocence—we forgive him as we forgive Steve and Royal.
Aside from the characteristically fantastic Dignan, Bottle Rocket contains atypical elements of realism: its portrayal of the idle, stunted Southern male, ever-employed by family friends, is very good, and its rendering of the Southern Preppie, in the person of the inexplicably-named “Future Man,” played by yet another Wilson brother, is the finest I’ve ever seen. In a film comparable to The Big Lebowski for memorable dialogue, Future Man’s scenes are some of the finest, particularly his pitch-perfect evocation of the Texas jock when he laughingly asks, from his Bronco II, if Dignan “used to mow our lawn” and notes that “he looks like a lil’ banana!” Later, Anderson shows admirable restraint when Future Man receives some moderate comeuppance from Mr. Henry but still gets off a self-satisfied snicker as he walks away. Preppies always get the last laugh!
Anthony is another more or less plausible character; he serves as an ambassador for the audience. In later Anderson movies, the absence of any reasonable, comprehensible character is sometimes disorienting; watchingThe Darjeeling Limited I anxiously wondered if someone would ever show up to smack some sense into the three main characters, someone capable of commonsensical thought and reason. Anthony does so for Dignan, containing his criminal ambitions, making him return stolen valuables to Anthony’s parents, refusing to cut his hair (prompting Dignan to call him “a damned fool” in the manner of a child impersonating a Confederate soldier). Anthony also supplies some of the better lines in the film, as when he describes his nervous breakdown to an adoring girl, whose fawning he doesn’t notice but which Dignan rather pitifully covets.
Bottle Rocket also features something Anderson was not to return to until The Darjeeling Limited: a group of central characters entirely without the quirkiness, neurosis, precious oddities, and make-believe quality of his principles, and in both cases these emissaries of the real are ethnic minorities. Inez and Rocky are like the Bronx to Anthony and Dignan’s Williamsburg. It’s worth noting, too, that rarely are female characters in Anderson movies as caricatured as the males, but neither are they given much attention; they are often the sole exemplars of human emotion, wisdom, strength, but seem outside the world of the quirky story because of it. It is both a compliment and a marginalizing.
(That Anthony falls in love with Inez problematizes his friendship with Dignan, who like all children and egotists requires complete attention; in a scene which were it not so amusing would be heavy-handed, Dignan hands his firework to Inez, an explicit reference to her symbolic role as Anthony’s graduation from childish plans and into the world of sex, love, and work. Dignan seems to understand this better than Anthony; I always did better than my friends! Some of us get left behind, although the movie later disingenuously suggests that the situation might not be so stark).
Of course, Bottle Rocket also features some peripheral characters of the sort who would comprise such an essential part of later Anderson films: Applejack, Kumar, Anthony’s sister Grace, whose sole scene features the two siblings enacting what sounds like an adult lover’s dialogue (“What’s going to happen to you, Anthony?”), and more, several portrayed by Anderson regulars. The interactions between the Anderson characters and the “ordinary” characters, between Dignan and Inez for example, are like conversations between precocious children and harried adults. They also tend to be extraordinarily funny, partly because translation between the world of the fantasizing child and the prosaic adult is difficult: a central plot point involves Dignan failing to pass along an important declaration of love because he is so immersed in his own universe that he assumes Rocky is “just a mixed up kid,” perhaps not unlike himself.
Eating ice cream cones, planning one’s life with one’s best friend, wearing jumpsuits, driving mopeds, and running around with your gang of friends is something most of us leave behind and look back at longingly. For Anthony and Dignan, arrested development means that in an unspecified time in the recent past, in a Texas suburb of homes where the parents are all away and the kids are at the country club or shooting fireworks from cars, even adventures that conclude with jailtime are harmless fun. Anderson’s movies tend not to depress even when death, violence, or imprisonment occur, and this is because –as in most children’s stories- the real consequences occur outside of the imaginative framework of the protagonists. Walking back into prison, Dignan is still making plans, even if in jest, and it is only the expression he wears as he turns his head that suggests that the Scooby-Doo wrap-up isn’t as neat for him as it seemed.
Slight hints of greater depths suffice here, especially since one is laughing for most of the movie. Indeed, the first time I watched it, I laughed so much that I was actually surprised to notice that at the end I felt real sorrow: amidst the pretending and the daydreaming, I’d not noticed childhood’s end at the chain-link fence.
Mills Baker is a writer living in San Francisco.