BILL MURRAY WEEK: Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
I LOVE YOU, BUT YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT.
by Brianna Ashby
After seeing Moonrise Kingdom, my brother-in-law wrote to say that Suzy Bishop reminded him of the way he imagined me as a young lady. I was flattered that anyone would ever conceive of me as a possible part of Wes Anderson’s world—and thrilled by the idea that, as an adult, I’ve come to embody the sort of child that I always wished I had been. Unfortunately, I lacked the confidence and the sense of purpose that it takes to embrace your own particular weirdness: It took me years to recognize that the things that separated me from most of my peers were the things that defined who I was—and it took me even longer to believe that someday someone else would actually love me for those very same quirks.
And then it happened. I began to come into my own once I saw so much of myself mirrored in someone else, but at the same time, I wanted to keep it all a secret, afraid that somehow it would tarnish if it was left exposed. I finally felt that I had found someone I could build a world around. Together we collected old photographs and postcards—bits of other people’s histories—and tried to replicate them with grainy polaroids and love notes in loopy cursive that helped to inject a sense of nostalgia into the slowly budding narrative we were busy creating together because, to us, it felt like it had already been written years ago.
When Sam Shakusky meets Suzy Bishop in the summer of 1965, it is the reintroduction of two old souls, a continuation of a story that had begun long before. Their instant connection, the strength of their bond, and their resolve to be together against all odds defies their tender ages, but their courage and defiance in plotting an escape from the world belies the sort of innocent and untainted hope only a twelve year old could ever truly possess. Watching the film, I did see some of myself in Suzy, not as a young girl, but as a young woman who found hope for herself and for the future in the face of a young man. Moonrise Kingdom is a restorative film: unabashedly uplifting, and so very, very alive, breathing fresh air into our dusty old hearts and reminding us what it is like to love with the absolute conviction and utter abandon of the young.
I still have a shoebox full of crumbling sepia photographs that serve as the last vestiges of that formative relationship. Sometimes we need something tangible to jog our memories so we can revisit places and times that have long since gone by. We all primarily use the same means of storing our pasts, and the same tools for recollecting them, and in Moonrise, Wes Anderson ingeniously plays off of this intimate commonality, giving the film a recognizable context, making Sam and Suzy’s love story feel like our love story. Lingering shots of unruly sea grass and weathered lighthouses, threadbare braided rugs thrown over sandy hardwood floors and ancient bike paths read like snapshots from a family vacation; someone’s attempt to capture on film what it feels like when the salty breeze tosses your hair around while you squeeze your eyes shut and see the fiery specter of the sun behind your eyelids.
The brief image of Suzy, binoculars in hand, all white and coral against that impossibly blue sky, is stunning in both its beauty and its simplicity. You get the feeling that if you plucked any moment off of the screen, you would find yourself holding an old Polaroid, marveling at both the sudden pang of nostalgia and the masterful hand of the photographer. The graininess of the “film” and the mostly bleached color palette lend an undeniable home movie quality that instantly lures you in with its familiarity.
Anderson has once again obsessively and painstakingly created a gloriously detailed and immersive world—this time the fictitious coastal town of New Penzance, somewhere off the coast of New England. Having spent all of my childhood summers in coastal towns in the region, the affectionate portrayal of the tiny hamlet is especially striking, but not at all surprising considering the lengths that Anderson will often go to elevate the setting of a film into an integral character. (Rushmore Academy, The Tenenbaum House, The Belafonte…) We conjure the spirits of the places that have held us like we summon the distant specters of lips that we have once kissed, often recalling a sheet of peeling wallpaper or the feeling of a cold tile floor beneath our feet with more clarity than the touch of another. The settings of our firsts and lasts aren’t merely static backdrops, they live and breathe with us, holding fast to the parts of our lives we experienced within their bounds, even the places and people that we’d like to forget.
And it’s not particularly surprising that the people and places of New Penzance are exactly what Sam and Suzy would like to forget. It is abundantly clear to both of them that the adult exemplars they are meant to follow are, in reality, incredibly lonely people that seem to be irrevocably unhappy. What spirited, dreamy, love-struck child wants to believe that they are destined to a life of bludgeoning mediocrity? That they will never be able to flourish and grow and build? Suzy’s parents, Walt and Laura Bishop, are shining examples of what happens when you close yourself off to wonder and surprise, whimsy and adventure, and, most damaging of all, love. Their marriage is stagnant, their lives quiet, mundane and unrewarding.
The older we get, and the longer our relationships last, the more convoluted they often become—until one day we don’t even really remember what we are fighting for or about. Time continues to pass until we no longer recognize the people we’ve become, but have also forgotten who we ever were to begin with. The Bishops’ struggle and misguided efforts to understand their “troubled” daughter, and her reasons for running away, stem from this difficulty in recalling a time when they were bound together through desire instead of obligation. It is this overwhelming feeling of obligation that binds the adult characters together; the Bishops, Captain Sharp, and Scoutmaster Ward, all obliged and determined to protect Sam and Suzy from the same sad fates that have befallen them at the hands of love. When this motley crew of lonely hearts bands together to find the preteen darlings and rescue them from themselves, it becomes painfully obvious who really needs the saving.
With all of the adults in their lives mired in denial and bogged down by rules and regulations and logistics and responsibilities, it is no wonder that Sam and Suzy, two misfits longing for freedom and acceptance, find the perfect escape in each other. The scenes of Suzy reading aloud from her favorite fantasy stories while Sam listening intently by her side are so charming and so wistful and so right; their casual intimacy is enviable in its purity, their youthful awkwardness making it all the more heart rending. (The flawless addition of a Francoise Hardy 45 doesn’t hurt either.)
Seeing Sam and Suzy on screen, I couldn’t help but think back to the times in my own life when I felt like I could throw everything overboard because all I needed to survive was a single other person, us against the world. It is a selfish mindset, but not necessarily a malicious one. Sometimes you have to leave behind the Sharps and the Bishops and the Wards of the world in order to avoid following in their tragic footsteps. Sometimes you have to take the lead so that they can follow your example.
Moonrise Kingdom ignites the spark of emotional wanderlust that lies dormant in so many of us, and shows us what we could do with even a fraction of our youthful lust for adventure. I want to remember what it was like to play fast and loose with my heart, even when it seems foolish, because so much of value can lie buried underneath words like ‘dangerous’ and ‘absurd’. I want to spend more time thinking about what brought my husband and I together instead of what we’re going to have for dinner tonight. I want to feel like I’ve found my place in the world and that it’s exactly where we stand, and every line on every map that does not outline this place is erased by an invisible hand. I want to save myself before I need saving. I want to flip through faded old photographs plucked from moments in my life and feel the sun on my face and the salt from the sea air settle on my skin. I want to find my own Moonrise Kingdom, a place where they will never find us, because maybe, just maybe, there’s still some lightning in me yet.
Brianna Ashby has taken off her shoes and one of her socks and…actually, I think she’s crying.
Carrots, Jaguar Sharks & Beige Lunatics: The Collaborations of Wes Anderson and Bill Murray
by Neil Fox
The mythology of the clown: beneath the perma-smile lies darkness, melancholy. A lifetime expended at the demands to provide others joy leaves a deep stain, a coldness, a loneliness inside that the make-up hides. This mythology has passed from the clown to the comic—despite examples of well-rounded, stable guys and gals making us laugh on stage and screen, we have come to expect tales of addiction, illness and troubled lives in connection with our comic idols. Think of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Andy Kaufman and John Belushi. The last tragic figure on that short list was a friend and collaborator of Bill Murray, a beloved comedian and film star who has remained largely disconnected from this idea that comedians inherently have a Jekyll & Hyde persona.
Despite occasional reports of marital and parental impropriety, I’ve always loved and held to the Bill that is out there on the edge like his old friend Hunter S. Thompson—foiling bank robberies, crashing karaoke parties, calling Mitch Glazer every time Road House is on TV, taking film roles by mistake, drunkenly crashing golf carts. He has a commitment to wild living and mischief that thankfully never boils over into fully-blown mania, so I could largely ignore the signs that have emerged throughout his filmography pointing to a darkness lurking underneath. I took his survival as a signifier that he wasn’t troubled like those others, now departed, that I mention above. But then something happened that I couldn’t ignore any more.
I think in the work of Wes Anderson, a fascinating collaboration that has spanned six films and counting, Murray bares a part of his soul that is exactly in line with this idea of the tragic comic, the downcast clown. Bill is sad. He’s really sad. For me, Wes Anderson is the great contemporary filmic interpreter of sadness. At the heart of his films lies an almost unbearable sadness that completely dispels any criticism that his films lack heart or humanity. His characters are adrift, searching for love, meaning and/or connection. He captures alienation and melancholy as powerfully as Bergman, and in Bill Murray he has the perfect cipher. Bill is a star we expect to make us laugh, and he certainly fulfills that role in Anderson’s films, but there’s more—much more—and it’s hard to watch and it’s hard to take, because we love him and we want him to be okay, to keep on making us laugh. While other films might feed into a serious side of Bill—Lost in Translation or Broken Flowers, say—the Anderson films go deeper, into the potential soul of an enigmatic star.
I’ve been teaching Bill Murray movies for Film Studies a lot this term, and started the year with screenings of Rushmore and Moonrise Kingdom. For the topic of stardom I screened Groundhog Day, and we discussed theorist Christine Geraghty’s categories of “star”: celebrity, performer and professional. According to Geraghty’s categories, Murray could be placed in the ‘celebrity’ camp, as he is a star that we relate to and have a relationship with in terms of his celebrity. His general, common persona is not one we associate with forwarding the craft of acting—which is the criteria for the “performer” category. Often, Murray emulates the “professional,” an actor whose onscreen portrayals viewers believe to be extensions of his or her off-screen life. This definitely holds true for many Murray characters—Peter Venkman, Phil Connors, maybe Ernie McCracken in Kingpin—but the Anderson performances are different; I think these are the yang to the yin of those classic comic roles. I don’t believe we can have one without the other. Of course there are hints of the “Anderson” Murray in other films, and there are films where he plays straight wonderfully. Who could deny the masterpiece that is Groundhog Day, where Murray balances balls-out humour with serious emotional depth? But Phil Connors feels a universe away from the men I’m looking at here, men I truly believe connect us to another side of Bill—these sad, bitterly funny but eerily bitter men, tired and longing for an escape from the life they are trapped in.
I don’t even think it’s a stretch to suggest that Bill’s roles in Wes’s films are all variations of the same character, even his Badger. Bill always plays professionally successful men—businessmen, a lawyer, a writer and neurologist, a famed explorer—all seemingly at different stages of one vast mental breakdown. He imbues them all with the same delicate sadness that makes them human.
'Havin' some carrots?' - Harold Blume (Rushmore)
That line alone, which belongs in the line reading hall of fame, is enough to warrant an essay on Bill and Wes. It’s simultaneously hilarious and utterly depressing in its unease and awkwardness. Much like Harold Blume, I remember the first time I saw Rushmore. It was the first Wes Anderson film I saw, and I knew instantly that he was a director I was going to adore. Furthermore, here was a star I knew so well, doing something I’d never seen him do, even in his more serious turns. He was brazenly uncomfortable, silly and abject, all at once. Bill Murray: fearlessly melancholy, reaching deep into himself for some dark humour and wonderful oddness. It was like seeing Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love, or Jim Carrey in The Truman Show or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—only, not quite. Those feel like one-offs, whereas Rushmore felt like the start of something, the opening of a door, and so it has proved. In an interview with Wes Anderson after the film was released, Bill is incredibly effusive about the writing and the character—it’s clear that he loved and felt committed to the script. He wanted to go all out. Interestingly, Wes wanted Murray for his first film, Bottle Rocket, which would have made it a full house for the pair. I remember feeling incredibly empathetic watching Murray stand, barely, in a hospital lift with Max, disheveled, two cigarettes simultaneously lit, miniature booze bottles being stashed beneath clean towels, delivering an eternal pause before uttering the blackest of lines—‘Ummmm. I’m a little bit lonely these days.’
From there, we go to the imitable Raleigh St. Clair.
'You've made a cuckold of me' —Raleigh St. Clair (The Royal Tenenbaums)
I could watch this movie constantly (and for a while, after it came out, I did). I waded into this film in a big way and I think it’s still my favourite Wes Anderson film. I adore it. So painful, and so funny. So beautiful. It’s also my favourite Murray performance in one of Wes’s films. His Raleigh is utterly adrift. He has one expression and one tone of voice—for work and his utterly awful private life. He is omnipresent, but completely invisible, as a character and as a husband. His is a spectral presence in the film. He is humiliated by his wife, Gwyneth Paltrow’s broken Margot. Even then he cannot leave this family—turning up at the subsequent wedding and funeral. He represents the fascination with these people who are flawed, selfish, broken, pained. His scenes with Dudley, his latest subject, are brilliant comic relief, and it’s here that he shows off his incredible comic delivery. For me, it’s in two moments—when he assesses Dudley’s block building performance, and when he quietly dictates notes on Dudley—that the Murray genius, and the genius of Anderson in casting him, is most clear and joyous to behold.
How does Raleigh fit in with my idea of the sad men? Well, easier than most. This is a man so devastatingly sad that each time he is on screen—usually on the edge of it, in danger of falling completely from view, wearing the same rusty corduroy jacket and purple polo neck combo—I just want to hug him and tell him “it’s going to be okay.” But I know it will do no good. He’s too sad. It’s a more somber sadness than Harold Blume’s, whose grief is aloof—different, too, from Walt Bishop’s sadness, which is bitter. And Raleigh’s not crazy with it, not like the most prominent character he has played for Wes, the mad Steve Zissou.
'I wonder if it remembers me' —Steve Zissou (The Life Aquatic)
Captain Steve Zissou utters this line at the end of a crazy movie, as the sounds of Staralfur by Sigur Ros rise up from the ocean floor, as he comes face to face with his white whale (in the form of the elusive Jaguar Shark). The sadness is as black as the deepest ocean cavern and almost unbearable.
The Life Aquatic is perhaps Anderson’s most divisive, incoherent and rambunctious work. It’s sprawling and crazed and tangential but for me it’s rich in wonder, ambition and a desire to dive head first into its mission, despite the seeming disaster-laden outcome. I love that he took such a leap when he did, which is why I feel this film has so much in common with Moby Dick, even if there is a lack of refinement in its execution. I said to fellow BWDRer Andrew that I felt the experience of reading this essay may be akin to watching this film—ambitious, sprawling, possibly incoherent but profoundly necessary. I digress.
Lack of refinement? Good I say. Zissou is not a refined character. He is embarking on a selfish mission, dangerous to those he knows worship him, but his rage, sadness and bitterness is all-consuming. That emotional cocktail also means he doesn’t really know what he is doing or where he is going. And so the film follows those messy human character traits. And veers and stalls and squirms and frustrates—but also delights, with its black gallows humour and cinematic ambition. I love it when films do that. It’s alive, driving down towards the blackness, aching, needing to see the shark again, to bring the proof of existence to the surface. More films should be as unrefined. And I feel this way about it mainly because of Bill Murray’s performance in the title role, which is gorgeous and pitch-perfect.
He’s let off the leash here, and in his moments with Seymour Cassel’s departed Esteban particularly, the mischievous and improvisatory Bill is plain for all to see. We also get glimpses of the dark Bill mentioned earlier—marital and patriarchal Bill—and it’s not an easy watch as he attempts to philander, then deny, then control his newly-arrived maybe-son:
“This is probably my son Ned,” he proclaims.
The film is unhinged and unconfined. It’s not safe, and this is how Murray plays it. You are never sure where he is coming from emotionally, but he delivers the reflective moments with such deep poignancy it’s hard to really hate him, despite Murray’s challenges to the contrary:
“What happened to me? Did I lose my talent? Am I ever gonna be good again?” He’s narcissistic, vain and borderline horrid—but he’s also funny, and in his zeal and ambition he echoes great figures of lore. He’s a paradox. Through charm and empathy, Murray wins us over to Zissou—a slim margin of victory, as always in the Wes Anderson universe. Here is a man grappling with his mortality and his legacy. Ten years on from Groundhog Day, the high point of the comic/serious tightrope walk in Murray’s career, and it’s as though Murray is asking the same questions of himself that Zissou asks. His Anderson roles are all variations on this theme: men struggling to understand their place, what they have done, what they really have and will leave behind—all save Badger.
“Demolitions expert. Explosions, flames, burning things.” —Badger (The Fantastic Mr. Fox)
In the Murray-Anderson oeuvre, Badger is the anomaly. He provides the moral conscience of the protagonist, and is head of a loving, close family. He is a lawyer and his wife is a doctor and he is mostly together. In the parallel universes of Wes’s Murrays he is the happiest one, but even here, darkness lurks beneath the surface, not only when he exclaims his adeptness with explosives with barely containable glee, but also in the way he constantly challenges George Clooney’s Foxy, undermining, picking at him. They are good friends but there is a clear rivalry, something just shy of jealousy. Even as a Claymation animal he cannot be without a hint of discontent.
“I’ll be out back. I’m gonna find a tree to chop down.” —Walt Bishop (Moonrise Kingdom)
If Harold Blume and Raleigh St. Clair were sad, they’ve got nothing on the bitterness conjured by Walt Bishop, a man so disconnected from his daughter he is addressed in brackets in a note she leaves for her brother. Bishop wears the most incredible trousers, but throws his shoes at a local scoutmaster. He is a lawyer who has lost the ability to communicate any other way—he sits opposite his entire family and utters legalese, “be advised.” His is the most vocally sad of Wes’s Murrays. There is a scene with his wife, each in their separate beds, that to my mind is one of the most brilliant pieces of writing about fractured matrimonial reflection ever written.
Laura: I’m sorry, Walt.
Walt: It’s not your fault. Which injuries are you apologising for? Specifically.
Laura: Specifically? Whichever ones still hurt.
Walt: Half of those were self-inflicted. (pause) I hope the roof flies off and I get sucked into space. You’ll be better off without me.
Laura: Stop feeling sorry for yourself.
Laura: We’re all they’ve got, Walt.
Walt: It’s not enough.
Anyone who has faced the darkness of mental illness, or knows someone who has, can feel the realness in those exchanges, particularly the refusal to leave the darkness. For me, the scene clarifies my earlier claim regarding how perfectly Anderson captures sadness and alienation. Here, Murray again is the voice for that sadness and alienation. His Walt Bishop is married with children, like Badger in Fantastic Mr. Fox, but his lot is not a remotely happy one. Anderson seems to undermine the cherished rom-com categories of marriage and family, suggesting that it’s not enough to aim for those ideals as an end result. They, too, can breed unhappiness. Anderson instead asks us to fight for pure, unadulterated and brilliant love, like that of Sam and Suzy, constantly. If we feel it in the pit of our stomach, we shouldn’t allow it to vanish once marriage licenses are signed and children baptized. It should be stoked and kindled constantly. Even at the end of the film, after Bishop has used his only remaining skill (that of lawyer) to be a half-decent parent, and has returned to something resembling a family man, he is still at a distance, somewhat estranged from his wife and parenting by megaphone. At least they are distanced together. There is hope. If it all seems so unbearably sad, Moonrise Kingdom is further proof of Murray’s ability to plumb the darkest depths, fearlessly, without ego, yet still conjure moments of howling hilarity. The aforementioned shoe throwing, the aimless stumbling around throwing cat food and the canonical moment where he—shirtless (but with amazing trousers) and clutching a half empty bottle of booze—grabs an axe and proclaims to his young male offspring the line that opened this section.
Beyond the inherent sadness in Anderson’s films, his humour is a huge part of why I love them. They never sink into self-pity or navel gazing because there are so many vocal and visual moments of absurdity that lift them into something real and delightful. And this, to my mind, is why Bill Murray is so important to Anderson. This balance of sadness and light is a hard thing to do. It takes a genius. I don’t use that word lightly; the consistent evidence of genius is there in this sublime collaboration. A visionary director has given Murray the tools to conjure masterpiece upon masterpiece of performance, even with limited screen time. And none of his screen time is more limited than the final Anderson film, purposely discussed out of sequence.
The Darjeeling Limited's Running Businessman
Murray’s appearance in The Darjeeling Limited is small. Out of the context of the collaborative oeuvre, it’s innocuous—kind of like Anderson’s saying, “it’s just cool to have Murray in your film even for a minute or two.” It also reminds me of Seinfeld. On the extra features of the brilliant DVD of the seminal series, Jason Alexander talks about the episode where Jerry and Elaine go to Florida, seemingly leaving no need for George (Alexander’s character) in the episode. Alexander was furious. He claimed that if his character wasn’t needed in every episode, even for one line, he was out. It may have been on the prima donna side at the time, but it created a now legendary legacy of a set of circumstances where you can’t imagine it any other way. You can’t imagine a Seinfeld episode without the masterful foursome all in attendance at some point—and so it is now with Bill Murray and Wes Anderson. He’s so integral to the thematic tone of Anderson’s films that we need to see him, even if he is just desperately chasing down a train and fleetingly glimpsed as one of the lost souls seeking love, meaning or connection.
And yet, when seen in connection with the other characters, this fleeting appearance feels the most unifying and symbolic of all. A clearly successful businessman races desperately to catch a train—first in a taxi where he nervously glances back over his shoulder, then on foot with luggage—and fails. He is trying to hold it all together, but alone, he just can’t. And he is passed by a younger, more athletic man. This aloneness is all-consuming, as evidenced by the other glimpse of Murray’s character, in the sweeping, weeping panoramic shot of the train carriages, real and imagined. He sits alone, adrift, nervously glancing back over his shoulder again, unable to let the past go and without the companionship that could ultimately save Messrs. Blume, St. Clair, Bishop, and Zissou—and has saved Badger. And could save us.
I now find it impossible to think of Murray without imagining his Anderson characters. I devour interviews and images of the pair working together, being interviewed together. It is tempting to see this relationship as the central one in Murray’s life, the one that supports and encourages him to show the world his incredible talent on a constant, consistent basis. The relationship that challenges him more than any other. Maybe he has found that true love, and we are all better off artistically, cinematically and emotionally because of it.
Neil Fox would like to be in Stevesy’s A-Squad and wants to front a garage rock band called The Beige Lunatics. He tumbls here.
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.
BILL MURRAY WEEK: Rushmore (1998)
I WROTE A HIT PLAY AND DIRECTED IT, SO I’M NOT SWEATING IT EITHER.
by Erica C.
Max Fischer may be Wes Anderson’s sweetest character.
The son of a barber (though he tells his prestigious private schoolmates he is a neurosurgeon) and a dead mother, enthusiastic Jack-of-All-Extracurricular-Trades. Likely future cult leader, entrepreneur or coup d’état organizer.
Max at fifteen is larger than life and, at the same time, socially and socio-economically insignificant enough to get lost in its cracks unless he rises up and chooses to rage against that fate each and every day.
An impossibly young Jason Schwartzman plays Max—with all his quirk and tender intensity and insanity—perfectly. Bill Murray’s Mr. Blume is good, too, but a bit of a dime story Virgin Mary candle compared to Max’s Christ the Redeemer statue thundering over Rio….or Rushmore, as the case may be.
I realized halfway through a recent viewing of Rushmore just what it is I love about most Wes Anderson movies, in addition to the style, wit and imagination: I love that the characters are slow and awkward; weird and uniquely broken.
And how comforting, how heart-clutchingly magnetic does that sound? Because I don’t know about you, but I am tired of saying the clever thing on dates and in meetings. I would like to say nothing at all or too much and not have to measure and calibrate it all. To have courting be so simple as, “Yes, I’ll have one of your carrots.” To just be my peculiar unrestrained self everywhere and never have to learn that sharing stories about the time your best friend forgot a very critical “L” in the title of a legislative report on “public health care” (which is hilarious, right?) too early will encourage a man to never respond to your email. Ever. And not that that happened recently but it happened once and my heart is SO TIRED OF POISE, you know? Ahem.
Anyhow, when we first meet Max he is the reigning king—or at least administrator—of Rushmore. Captain and Founder of most clubs on campus. Radical idea generator, director, playwright, bee keeper, debater, year book publisher, fencing enthusiast, wresting alternate. Universally respected if not purely popular.
Max meets Mr. Herman Blume—a school benefactor, businessman and unhappy father of beastly twin teenage sons—when Blume serves as the guest speaker at chapel, offering inappropriate, monotone advice on taking down the rich and well-bred in society.
Max is captivated and a mentorship is born. Though it’s never entirely clear if the point is for Mr. Blume to coach Max on guerilla-success in business or for Max to teach Mr. Blume how to regenerate passion, purpose and, well, joie de vivre (as long as we’re using snooty foreign phrases).
Enter Mrs. Cross (Olivia Williams) – the young, beautiful, English-accented grade school teacher that Max falls unrestrainedly in love with over discussions of Jacques Cousteau, Romance languages, and her drowned husband.
Early on, we get the premise: Rushmore is both a cautionary tale on all the wrong forms of love and a gracious admission that we’re going to choose them anyway. And it will be okay. We’ll find our way.
Max sets out to win the heart of Mrs. Cross with the same gusto and deafness to sense with which he approaches every school project. To court her, he mounts a successful petition to save Latin classes at Rushmore and raises funds to build a saltwater aquarium on the school baseball diamond (which eventually gets him kicked out of Rushmore when the construction gets underway without approval from the school).
In other words, Max loves Rushmore more than life, until he loves Mrs. Cross more than Rushmore and then loses everything he values most – the adored school he’s attended on scholarship for ten years, his chance for a more illustrious life than his father – in the doomed pursuit of a woman he must understand he can never have.
“Has it ever crossed your mind that you’re far too young for me?” she asks Max at one point.
“It crossed my mind that you might consider that a probability, yeah,” Max says with his usual undefeatable confidence.
So oddly charming and driven is Max that you understand Mrs. Cross’s occasional waverings. The way she drifts and looks at him once in a while as if he might really be the clumsier reincarnate of her dead husband, Edward Applebee.
Inadvertently, Max brings the miserably married Mr. Blume together with the mourning Mrs. Cross – both having become his age-inappropriate friends. And, as we know it will, a sort of romance blossoms between the two (no pun intended).
And our next lesson becomes this: Which is worse? Hopeless, intoxicating but unrequited love? Or a messy, ill-founded love that both parties suspect is damned from the start.
Rosemary Cross loves Edward Applebee, who is irretrievably gone. And she loves Max and Mr. Blume each a little, despite the wrongness of each of them on legal, ethical, and guilt-stricken grounds.
Max Fischer loves Mrs. Cross, whom he can’t have. And his father, though he’s mostly too ashamed to admit it. And Rushmore, in whose safety he cannot remain forever.
Herman Blume can’t love himself, his sons or his wife, but is in love with the possibility of loving Mrs. Cross. Of loving anything again.
Max and Mr. Blume—who first loved each other in an odd strike of mutual identification—soon lose each other to jealousy. Betray one another, sabotage a marriage, wreck a bike, cut break lines, burn each other’s lives to the ground.
Years ago, I saw Rushmore a half dozen times with a man I was head-over-sense in love with, despite the arrangement being wrong for one hundred different reasons. Nobody ever laughed at Max Fischer like he did, no one else ever quite got this movie and how sweet and brilliant and funny it is like he did. I hated him for a while after we fell apart, but now he is married with kids and the thought of him cradling his stomach over this movie, repeating its lines in gasps - “NICE NURSE’S UNIFORM, GUY!” - makes me smile. Makes me think of him so fondly and without any tie or expectation or heartbreak. Now, in a much more distant way, we are friends again.
And that is exactly the point of Rushmore.
We’ll get it all wrong until we accidentally find our way to something right. And if we’re good to ourselves and each other in the process—if we can forgive and forgive and forgive—maybe the pieces will keep shifting until something beautiful comes out of the mess and we won’t have to sacrifice the ones that didn’t fit the way we needed them to.
We’ll just admire them from two pieces over, knowing we are both exactly where we belong.
Erica C. is a writer living in Los Angeles. 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.
Reader’s Request Week: Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
I’M TRYING TO TELL YOU THE TRUTH ABOUT MYSELF.
by Bebe Ballroom
My mother and I have been obsessing over a house that is for rent.
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 this 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 such a short 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 to be a stranger, to be a specter in the street. One month later, I see the cathedral from across the street, standing where I’d wanted to be before, in front of this house for rent, staring at the steps where the wedding guests stood, elated. I see that same elation in those 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 troubling 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 say.
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 may include thievery, whackbat, journalism, treehouses, Bean’s alcoholic cider, and Mrs. Fox. Throughout the film, his obsessions are both a source of 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 the day 9 months 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 and 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 he has made films that are more relevant to the 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? Imagine Raleigh St. Clair updating his facebook status to “You’ve made a cuckold of me”. What if Rushmore’s Harold Blume had made his fortune in bluetooth headsets? Even now as I try to imagine the most technologically-advanced item in all of his films, 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 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, occasionally implemented successfully at the baker’s dozen or so schools I attended. Would I have eventually seen Rushmore, some night in a freshman dormitory? Probably so. But I saw it precisely at the age of infinite impression, and I’m sure it changed the course of the years to follow. For example, I started nearly-exclusively wearing men’s ties, polyester from yard sales, glitter eyeshadow, and ancient coats that were either much too small or far too big. And they smelled like damp, aged basements. I collected records for years, heaved them around from place to place in Postal Service mail bins, reinforced with heavy wire. I’d have nothing to play them on for five years.
When I saw Rushmore that first time, I remember thinking, “What the hell?” Everything everybody said was so wonderful. Wes Anderson’s films just feel right to me, with the kind of detail for an archetype, a decade, a side table, a shirt collar that obsessives can appreciate.
Mr. Fox is having an existential crisis. One fox year is 6 human years, which would make this fox in his forties. His 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 anyways, 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 turkies 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 as far as involving little Kristofferson in his evening debauchery, as 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 all turns to calamity on a dime. 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 of 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 stare into the windows without shame. This house has been empty for fifteen years. A gold Camry full of girls goes by, one of them shouting, “OMG, stop looking in their windows!” But we do not stop.
We can just make out a red tile kitchen with an industrial steel, trough-like sink. The ceilings are tall, with some water damage. There is a circular window at the eve of the house. I think of Moonrise Kingdom and Suzy Bishop staring out of this attic window with binoculars. My mother and I can see the largest room in the house, cut in half by pocket doors (pocket doors!) that slide in and out of the sky blue walls. I think of Margot Tenenbaum, who would sequester herself behind them, paint her nails, and smoke cartons among cartons of cigarettes. She would do this for years before anyone would suspect her a smoker.
I know that I want to live in this house, I believe it will make me a happier person. I think 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 this 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 loves blueberries. She tumbls here.