I am sprawled across the tomato bisque colored couch listening to the soundtrack to Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums.
One song slides into another, creating a flawless, cool-hearted, melancholy mood— the handiwork of Mark Mothersbaugh (of Devo who has become a composer and film arranger in a big way in the last 25 years).
There’s very little crash or bang in the soundtracks that Mothersbaugh created for Anderson, which makes them ideal for writing.
They build a solid mood. You can slide forward with them. And they will go along with you, anywhere.
Wes Anderson’s films, notably Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, are three touchstones that I return to again and again when I am trying to figure out some intangible in my own work.
Anderson’s films inspire a really strong reaction in most people.
Folks either lovelovelove his flicks or they hatehatehate them.
One trait shared by the fans and dissenters alike is being LOUD about their feelings about the Anderson oeuvre.
I’m one of the lovelovelove folks, so please forgive me my adoration.
And now, before you commence with your eye-rolling exercises at the mere thought of watching an (insert expletive here) Wes Anderson film, give me a few minutes to tell you why I adore his films as much as I do.
I promise to stick to the basics. I promise not to go overboard. And I promise that I won’t hold it against you if you don’t agree.
Just hear me out. That’s all I ask.
(You may commence with the grousing and the grumbling in the comments section at the end.)
Okay. Give me a second to get this sleeping dog off of my legs.
Ah. Much better.
My personal story about Wes Anderson really has to do with the three films I mentioned: Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
In my head, these three films are an informal thematic trilogy about discontent, transition and age.
Rushmore represents the intersection of the sweet terribleness of a teenage crisis of selfhood that crashes right into a grown man’s violent emotional drift following a caustic divorce.
The Royal Tenenbaums revisits the same theme in a grouping of 20-something siblings, all once legendary wunderkind, all now pitched forward by the casual indifference of failure, accidental death, and misguided love.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou picks up the same themes and throws them into the midst of one man’s gigantic mid-life crisis touched with a nice side dish of that same man grieving the loss of his best friend.
Adolescence, early adulthood, midlife— each intersection of a person’s life presents a baffling amount of lumpy cafeteria-style choices laid out behind a sneeze guard on stainless steel steam trays.
Anderson, Owen Wilson (actor and his writing partner on Rushmore and Royal Tenenbaums), and Noah Baumbach (filmmaker and Anderson’s writing partner on TLAWSZ) represent the early midpoint of Generation X[i].
Anderson’ and his co-writers approach to the coming crisis of age and intersection sidesteps the flavorless platitudes of lesser movies and goes straight for the good stuff.
Overeager and lost Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) in Rushmore falls inappropriately in love with a newly widowed young teacher at the same time as his new freshly-divorced older friend Herman Blume (a career-shifting role for actor Bill Murray).
Each inappropriate male tries to show his love to the rose-and-milk skinned Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams) with increasingly baffling results. As Max and Herman realize they are both in love with the same woman, they go to war with one another.
Chas, Margot and Richie Tenenbaum move back home almost simultaneously to their mother Etheline’s brownstone in order to nurse their breaking, broke, broken hearts. Each adult reached the end of the line with their own careers and lives and do not know where to go from here.
Richie (actor Luke Wilson), the tennis star, is in love with his adopted sister, Margot (in an unexpected role by Gwyneth Paltrow). He displays his confusion to the world by sitting down on the ground in the middle of a major match— just after sighting Margot in the stands with her new husband in tow. He comes back from a season at sea to (ostensibly) help his brother.
Margot did not fulfill her early promise as a playwright, nor can she hack marriage to much older Raleigh St. Clair (a repressed and hilarious Bill Murray).
Chas (another great cast choice! Ben Stiller!) lost his wife in an airplane accident. Instead of grieving her loss, he develops a paranoia about house fires, terrifying his twin sons in the process.
After all three Tenenbaum children get settled into their old rooms in the magical brownstone of their childhoods, their wayward creep of a father arrives on the doorstep seeking shelter.
And that’s where the story begins to take off.
Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), the title character of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (TLAWSZ), is a famous ocean explorer and documentary filmmaker (a direct homage to Jacques-Yves Cousteau) who cannot go forward after his best friend and partner, Esteban du Plantier, is eaten by a species of shark he’s never seen before.
His life’s mission from this point on is to get funding to find the strange shark and destroy it for killing his friend. After that, who knows?
“Possibly with dynamite,” he says at a screening in Portugal of part one of the documentary that ends with the death of Esteban du Plantier.
Then, a son he did not know he had shows up with enough capital to fund this expedition to find the elusive jaguar shark.
But, there are risks and complications before they even leave the dock.
(In any good film, there are certain risks and complications. That’s called telling a story.)
What I wonder, often, when I think of Anderson’s trilogy is whether the distaste for these films has to do with a fear of an unfamiliar style of storytelling.
You see, I have a theory— Anderson and his co-writers are making films that feel like novels. No, seriously!
Look at the use of titles and chapters. Check out the FONTS.
With Anderson’s films, you are always going to want to watch a second and third time for the backgrounds. The specific details make a novel, novel, and in a film this idea translates equally.
The plot and the dialogue hinge on an extremely stylized post-modern novelistic approach.
The dialogue is the opposite of the naturalistic patois we are used to— one might even call Anderson’s dialogue baroque.
When people speak to one another in his films, the words themselves have a stilted, eccentric cadence and a pretty music to the ear.
The body language of the actors mirrors the charming discomfort of the dialogue. Characters check their watch as a nervous tic over and over again, like Chas Tenenbaum in The Royal Tenenbaums.
Other characters interact as though they have already left the room, a trick bon vivant wife of Steve Zissou, Eleanor Zissou (Anjelica Huston) uses to great effect and meaning in TLAWSZ.
As I noted earlier, the plots themselves mix the improbable with the all-too-common resulting in endings that feel sentimental without being cloying or twee. In other words, they are just like well-written novels.
Even as I try to diagram the intangibles of Anderson’s appeal, I yearn for more transparency in the way I feel about his work. It moves me.
Still, there’s something about his movies that brings out my own Byzantine behavioral quirks.
Permit me to shake off these ornamented, careful, pronouncements and get a little raw.
Because I love novels, I was transfixed by all three movies.
Because I was/am an extremely driven person fighting standard-sized doubt, these movies spoke to my desires and fears and confusions about how to proceed.
The quirks of the set decoration in all three films mirror my own cracked taste, and the tiny specifics included in each shot speak to my obsessions for visual minutiae.
I love these films because I am a mid-range Gen Xer, and I don’t often feel as though I could find, do find, films that speak to me. (We’re a tiny group, Gen Xers, and our buying power is negligible, hence Gen Xers themselves can’t financially justify creating movies or TV for their own generation. Really.)
I love these films because each one is a little treasure box of visual beauty and thematic colors[ii] and the stories are about fragile people trying to come to terms with difficult aspects of their lives.
And, most of all, I love these films because Anderson’s rise to alternative prominence gave me a good reason to go to the movies every few years when I had a hard time watching movies at all.
After seeing Rushmore in the theater, I believed that if someone like Anderson was out there making movies?
Well, there had to be others.
It was only a matter of time before they had the funding to tell their stories too.
A SPECIAL TREAT: I found the trailer for Anderson’s new film, Moonrise Kingdom, in theaters May 25th!
[i] Ooookay. I’ve been arguing about the parameters of Generation X with the husband for years. Statistically speaking, Generation X starts in 1966 and ends in 1979.
Wes Anderson was born in 1969, as was Noah Baumbach. Owen Wilson was born in 1968.
[ii] The color palette for the trilogy is as follows— Rushmore: Dark red and Oxford cloth blue, accented by wood tones; The Royal Tenenbaums: Orange red and the palest baby blue then pale yuppie pink and green; The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou: True red and silvery-blue, plus hues from vintage postcards.