The following essay was written for the course LIT-135: Critical Approach to Cinema. The assignment was to review any film we watched during the semester.
Wes Anderson: Writer, Director & Visionary
“The Royal Tenenbaums,” a film directed by Wes Anderson in 2001, follows the bizarre story of an estranged family composed of former child prodigies living in New York City circa the 1970s. Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson, Ben Stiller, Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston and Owen Wilson portray multi-faceted characters that use deadpan humor to shade in their black and white extremes. As stated by writer Pamela Collof, the film is a “mix of deadpan wit and melancholy longing”. As a director, Wes Anderson is well-known for his distinctly quirky style. He often uses vibrant colors, witty dialogue, and music that carries popular culture elements based on the time period his films embody. Anderson’s cinematic trademarks are also easily distinguishable: symmetrical compositions, wide-angle shots, and swish pans. All of these charming elements combined enchant viewers and for an hour or two, send them into a fantasy world full of nostalgia with a dash of absurdity. What goes unnoticed by the average viewer is how Anderson subtly utilizes his characters to contrast childhood and adulthood, and the purpose of love and romance.
Anderson is a mastermind storyteller, creating a theatrical, soap opera drama much for his own personal enjoyment as well as for the viewer. Watching “The Royal Tenenbaums” is similar to leaping into the pages of a modern day fairytale story, narrated by Alec Baldwin. The film opens with the image of a book, The Royal Tenenbaums, being checked out of a library. Throughout “The Royal Tenenbaums,” there are shots of chapter headings from the book, dividing the film into chapters.
“The message is clear: we are not engaging with a naturalistic reality here, we are having a story read to us. This storybook anti-naturalism is pursued rigorously throughout every aspect of the film” (Le Cain).
In the majority of his films, Anderson uses children to explore mature subject matters that are more suited for adults. He presents adult themes such as elitism, alienation, yearning and dissatisfaction, but approaches them with childish wonder and naivety. When Royal announces his divorce from Etheline to their children, Chas, Richie and Margot, they react to the news as if it were merely a business transaction— detached and unemotional. The children sit beside each other in velvet red chairs on one end of a long wooden table while Royal is on the other, casually smoking a cigarette and sipping his martini. Chas, Richie and Margot are literally and figuratively distant from Royal as he casually states this sensitive declaration in a most impersonal manner.
The adults in Anderson’s films are portrayed more like children, completely out of touch with their own reality as they routinely behave immaturely. Meanwhile, the children are quite the opposite and fully aware of occurrences in their surroundings. This is ironic because as the story line advances and the Tenenbaum children become adults, they conduct themselves in a manner that seems as though they never actually grew up or evolved. It is a paradox; Chas, Richie and Margot are still children within their adulthood. Anderson inserts a new sense of oppressive energy that emits itself into every frame.
“The overall impression is of a story for children, listened to by children whose perception of the world has not yet extended beyond the space of their family environment and whose understanding of adult character is still somewhat broad. This is an intriguing and appropriate approach to a story in which many of the characters are prisoners of their childhood, either attempting to escape or regain their pasts or engaged in trying to create a childhood for their own children free of the problems which marked their own upbringing” (Le Cain).
Another example of the presence of childhood in adulthood comes from Anderson’s 1996 film, “Bottle Rocket.” Towards the beginning of the film, Anthony (Luke Wilson) visits his sister, Grace at her middle school. They engage in a conversation that presents Grace as the put-together adult.
Anthony: You told, you told your friend, Bernice, I’m some kind of jet pilot?
Grace: What was I supposed to say, they stuck you in an insane asylum?
Anthony: It wasn’t an insane asylum, Grace. I explained to you back then that it was for exhaustion.
Anthony: Yes, exhaustion.
Grace: You haven’t worked a day in your life. How could you be exhausted?
After their conversation comes to a close, Grace asks Anthony when he plans on returning home. Anthony deliberately makes a point to acknowledge their difference in age, replying, “I can’t come home, Grace, I’m an adult.”
Anderson artistically expresses a crossroad that we all experience at one time or another: Growing up. The transition from child to adult is actually one of the most traumatic experiences in a person’s entire life. Being an adult is not as thrilling as children imagine— the struggles are real and the world can be harsh. As children, we do not appreciate the carelessness and freedom attached to our youth.Our childhood becomes a series of memories that we eventually reflect upon fondly, but can never re-live again. As adults, the persistent and childlike urge to escape from our world lingers, but at some point we have to face our childish fears and accept the reality of our own adulthood.
Question: If adults are supposed to be “older and wiser,” why do they continue to construe the simplest of things into complicated and confusing conspiracies? Every married couple’s relationship is on the verge of falling apart in Anderson’s films. Exhibit A: Royal Tenenbaum and Etheline Tenenbaum still love each other, but not enough to stay together so she gets re-married to Henry Sherman (The Royal Tenenbaums). Exhibit B: Laura Bishop cheats on Walt Bishop with Captain Sharp, further ruining their relationship with Suzy (Moonrise Kingdom).Exhibit C:Herman Blume has an affair with the widowed teacher, Rosemary Cross, destroying his friendship with Max Fischer (Rushmore).For adults, romance is a dying sentiment and sadly, loyalty a fleeting thought. It is human nature to love and be loved. Children recognize this and in the minds of children, love is pure and loyalty is true. Anderson always emphasizes that the innocence that children possess conveys a deeper meaning to many of life’s biggest complexities.
In “The Royal Tenenbaums,” Richie loves Margot—he has and always will be hopelessly devoted to her. Without Margot, his life is meaningless, as exemplified by the mostremarkable yet disturbing scene in the film when Richie attempts suicide in the dim, blue shaded bathroom. This scene in particular really captures Anderson’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker.Richieslowly strips off his tennis gear and places it on the sink, cuts off his hair with scissors, and then shaves his face with a razor. When the light above the mirror flickers on, Richie stares at himself and has flashbacks of his childhood and every evocative interaction with Margot. Elliot Smith’s “Needle In The Hay” musically depicts how Richie is overflowing with endless misery, excruciating regret and surrenders to the tragic futility of love and loss. While Richie slits his wrists with a razor blade, the frame cuts to a full shot of blood streaming down his pale arms and hands into a white, porcelain sink filled with running water and hair clippings. The final cut shows Richie sliding down a white wall. He falls onto the cold white-tiled floor, leaving a pool of warm red blood surrounded by clumps of hair. It is a mess, literally and figuratively.
Unbeknownst to everyone, Richie’s feelings for Margot were mutual, as revealed in a profound conversation between them in his tent. The scene is set up with a yellow tent glowing in the middle of a dimly lit pink room with paintings of Margot hanging on the wall. From the outside, the tent appears to be quite small, but on the inside it expands and resembles a living room. While singer Nick Drake’s voice filters through the room, Richie enters the tent as Margot adjusts the record player. The camera cuts from high to low angles and close-up frames as Richie and Margot sit on opposite sides of the tent.
As the two casually talk about Margot’s ex-husbands, the conversation jumps to Richie’s stitches, which he shows her with indifference. Margot then tells Richie that he was the only attraction between her and his best friend, Eli Cash. After Richie moves closer to Margot and tells her that he loves her, she reciprocates the confession. The two passionately kiss each other and then lie down on the sleeping bag. As they talk about the suicide attempt, Margot immediately assumes responsibility for it. The lighting and the music really set the scene and the mood, creating an intimate and poignant moment. Their conversation is motivated by their highly intense and suppressed feelings. Margot cries as Richie holds her hand, the first time she has expressed any emotion to anyone, and a first to even herself. After this tender moment, Margot tells Richie that they will “have to be secretly in love with each other and leave it at that.” The entire movie has been building up to this moment and it’s a letdown when the lovers will not fully embrace their sentiments towards each other. Instead, Richie and Margot choose to conceal them for reasons unknown.
On the contrary, in “Moonrise Kingdom,” Suzy and Sam are completely open about their eternal love for one another. When Suzy tries to explain her undying romance to her parents, she says, “We’re in love. We just want to be together. What’s wrong with that?” Even though they are both only 12 years old, they understand each other on a deeper and more emotional level. In addition to swapping life stories with each other, they exchange “I love you’s” and wedding vows. They willingly leave behind their families and friends to embark on an adventure through the woods. All that matters is that they are together.
“This is the only time I’ve been consciously trying to capture a sensation, which is that emotion of when you’re a 12-year-old and you fall in love…I remember that being such a powerful feeling, it was almost like going into a fantasy world. It’s stuck with me enough that I think about it still,” said Anderson in an interview for The New York Times (Lim).
A. O. Scott‘s review in The New York Times essentially shredded every aspect of “The Royal Tenenbaums.” In his review, Scott insists that Anderson is guilty of admiring his own handiwork because “for every moment that hits a delicate note of pathos and surprise…there is another that suffocates in cuteness”. Another reviewer, Maximilian Le Cain also commented on this same concept.
“Anderson frustratingly fails to put it to any better use than to tell his story in the safest, most obviously calculating manner possible. His relationship with the audience is that of an adult reading to the viewers who, he assumes, sit like children on his lap, hanging off his every word. But, like many adults telling children’s tales, his attention is constantly trained on the child’s reaction with the twin preoccupations of satisfying his ego that he is constantly impressing the listener and, most importantly, never saying anything which might cause any discomfort or be even remotely disturbing” (Le Cain).
Scott acknowledges Anderson’s techniques, highlighting how he presents the characters “with the fastidious care of a collector arranging prize specimens on a shelf” by “shoot[ing] them alone in the middle of his wide, meticulously composed frames as if they were sitting for formal portraits” (Scott). Although he states it condescendingly, he also mentions Anderson’s “obsessive regard for their individuality, the care he takes to make sure we see their uniqueness, isolates them from one another”. Scott’s strongest criticism is that “the actors are asked to convey real and complex human emotions, but the characters are paper dolls”.
Maximillian Le Cain also underlines similar details in his review of “The Royal Tenenbaums”. Le Cain points out that “the most irritating thing about this film is its constant need to comfort – scene by scene not one bad thing happens that isn’t immediately, mechanically alleviated by humour which acts in this film as the reassurance that no real harm has been done.” Perhaps this is a reflection of Anderson himself—he’s a child living in a grown man’s body, trying to play with the big boys and girls in the real world.
“Of course, there is nothing wrong with extreme stylization of performance or characterization, or in distancing the audience from the drama. But there must be a purpose to it and the only purpose discernable here is to highlight Anderson’s ability to push buttons in his audience, a celebration of the neurotic, limiting control he exerts over both the film and the viewer alike” (Le Cain).
On the contrary, I was impressed and even moved by the characters. Although the Tenenbaums’ story revolves around “dysfunction, despair, and death”, the characters all struggle with long-standing issues of their own that they must each come to terms with and resolve (Collof). Chas is unable to move on from the tragic death of his wife, but refuses to be the failing father figure to his children that Royal was to him so he becomes extremely overprotective of them. Richie’s professional tennis career plummets due to his unrequited love for Margot. Despite winning awards for her playwriting, Margot struggles to overcome her second rate status as a non-blood-related Tenenbaum. Everything in Royal’s life has fallen apart including his career, marriage and relationship with his children. While the characters may not openly express their emotions, they convey them through habits and mannerisms. Le Cain argues that “by undercutting our exposure to his characters’ suffering through this constant emotional reassurance, we are given no opportunity to engage with them and they remain abstract.” The truth of the matter is that Anderson’s characters have psychological depth. He doesn’t make every aspect about them blatantly obvious to the viewer, but potent enough to feel a gentle tug on your heart strings. Anderson builds a fantasy and demolishes it by making his characters feel and react to their emotions.
Dennis Lim, another New York Times reviewer, states it best: “Mr. Anderson wears his inspirations on his sleeve. For him and his characters alike, the objects and objets d’art they love are not merely decorative references but also incarnations of passion, markers of identity.” After analyzing several of his works, we can conclude that every object incorporated into one scene holds significance to the character and describe the essence of their being in the scene. Keeping “show don’t tell” in mind, Anderson does just that. In the beginning of “The Royal Tenenbaums,” Anderson uses the rooms and costumes to characterize the personalities of the children. Their talents and interests are reflected within their outfits and bedrooms, but do not solely define them as people. The characters are shaped by the story instead of taking on the role as actual shape shifters. They make mistakes—not too costly of course— but learn from them nonetheless. And isn’t that how every children’s book ends? After every tragic event, every character experiences that life-changing coming-of-age moment; they “grow up” mentally and emotionally. The most touching of these moments occurs towards the end of the film when Chas and Royal finally engage in a brief yet profound conversation. “I’ve had a bad year, Dad,” says Chas. “I know,” replies Royal. It’s a simple gesture that contains so much meaning considering everything that has transpired between the two.
Wes Anderson does not sugarcoat childhood, but he makes light of a grim tale. His films take a more complicated and artistic approach to unraveling a plot, a technique that easily confuses an audience that prefers to watch everything happen on the screen without formulating their own thoughts. Anderson has a sense of dry humor that can be difficult for some to fathom, but as Pamela Collof states in her own piece, he is “making comedy smart again.” Though he may be artistically challenging, Wes Anderson is one of the best filmmakers of our era because he stays true to his creative vision and every story has a purpose. Wes Anderson makes the sane question themselves and the insane make a little more sense.
Colloff, Pamela Colloff, “Grand Royal”–Review of The Royal Tenenbaums
Texas Monthly; Jan 2002, Vol. 30 Issue 1, 82-89/144.
Le Cain, Maximillian, “Storytime: The Royal Tenenbaums”
Lim, Dennis, “Giving Chase to Young Love on the Run”
May 11, 2012, Movies, The New York Times
Lopez, John, “Wes Anderson Explains How to Make a Wes Anderson Film”
June 26, 2012
Scott, A.O., “Please Do Not Feed or Annoy the Woebegone Prodigies”
Dec. 14, 2011, Movies, The New York Times