Saturday, March 15, 2014


Every now and then at Screen Vistas I like to team up with Max O’Connell over at The Film Temple to tackle the work of one of our favorite directors. This time we’re looking at comedy stylist/master of whimsy Wes Anderson.

Loren Greenblatt: I think in some ways The Royal Tenenbaums serves as a companion piece to Rushmore, where the earlier film gives us a young precocious lead bursting with talent and ambition, Anderson’s third film shows us the same kinds of people only to fast forward to show us how that talent and ambition can be beaten down and diminished.

Max O’Connell: It’s a more mature film, one that recognizes that initial success can lead to great failure.

LG: I’ve always felt that The Royal Tenenbaums was Wes Anderson’s greatest masterpiece, and it surprised me when I figured out recently that a lot of people don’t rate it so highly.

MO: It surprises me more when people don’t rank it in their top three. It’s so clearly his most personal, his most ambitious and his most formally exciting to me. It’s bizarre that there are Wes Anderson die-hards who don’t adore it the same way.

LG: It’s his first foray into this really large palette of world building in filmmaking. It’s a multigenerational New York tragedy, to some degree his version of The Godfather.

MO: More specifically, it’s his version of The Magnificent Ambersons, which it’s very consciously modeled after: the title, the downfall of a great family, and the detached narrator (Orson Welles in Ambersons, Alec Baldwin here)…

LG: And that Amberson-esque opening is one of the most arresting moments in Anderson’s carrier. It’s a prologue where we get the details of the Tenenbaum glory days along with the cracks in their façade of perfection. It starts with Royal (Gene Hackman) announcing that he and Ethel (Anjelica Huston) are splitting up to the kids. In a roundabout way, he sort of blames it on them even as he says that it wasn’t their fault. “Obviously we made certain sacrifices as a result of having children…”, cue the butler entering with a martini.

MO: It’s perfect, because kids tend to blame themselves regardless, and he has not made things any better.

LG: Something I really keyed into with this viewing was Royal and his intentions. He’s passive aggressive towards his kids because he’s intensely jealous of them. Everyone else in the family is a genius from a young age: Chas (Ben Stiller) is a real estate agent as a teen, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), whom he introduces as his “adopted daughter,” won $50,000 for a play she wrote in the ninth grade, and Richie (Luke Wilson) is a tennis champion. These kids are so bright, and the mother is also a beacon of warmth and supportiveness. I don’t think Royal felt like he was ever a part of that. He needs their love, but he needs to push them away.

MO: And I don’t think that’s ever a conscious thing for him. He doesn’t seem to totally understand how horrible he’s been to them.

LG: But at the same time, he’s consciously manipulative.

MO: Yes he is, but he doesn’t take into consideration how this has shaped his kids until late in the film. But that opening, while not my personal favorite scene in the film, is right up there. It closely models Ambersons in how much ground it covers in six minutes. You have a similar montage to the buildup of clubs in Rushmore, but in a much more melancholy way. Instead of a joke about how overcommitted our young hero is, we see of buildup of how doomed they are.

LG: And it’s scored beautifully to an orchestral version of “Hey Jude,” which is notable because Paul McCartney wrote the song to John Lennon’s son, Julian, when John abandoned him. It’s very conscious, watching Royal interact with and then abandon his kids. It’s one of several songs choices where Anderson seems to be playing extratextual notes.

There’s this glow of the past, but also this bitterness to it that reverberates throughout the film. I always get the sense that the Tenenbaum family is almost living in exile, that there’s this magical place of happiness they could return to if only the figured out their own demons. After the prologue, we jump twenty years and see that everything the kids have done in the interim is an attempt, to some degree, to hold onto the promise they had as kids.

MO: Most of them are dressed in a slight variation of the way they dressed as kids. They’re all damaged to some degree. Margot is almost totally withdrawn emotionally, and she doesn’t respond to most of the people around her. Chas lashes out at everyone. Richie, meanwhile, is too sensitive. He’s so willing to forgive and embrace everyone in a way that’s not necessarily healthy, and whenever he is hurt, his reaction is completely without control.

LG: Royal related to Richie more than the others, took him out while he left the others behind, and that’s why Richie responds to him. He actually has a relationship with him. And he doesn’t understand the bitterness that Chas and Margot have, because he didn’t experience the same degree of alienation that they did.

MO: And it’s sad, because Richie tries to be empathetic towards everyone, even Chas, who really tears into him, but he doesn’t fully appreciate how fully hurt everyone else is in that family. Chas confronts him, saying that he’s been suckered and that whatever he’s trying to get, it isn’t worth it. Richie responds by saying that he loves him, but he also unintentionally downplays the real pain that Chas feels.

Now, there’s another major player here, who is notably not a Tenenbaum: Eli Cash, played by Owen Wilson (who served as Anderson’s co-writer for the last time and received a Best Original Screenplay nomination for his efforts), once again playing best friend to his real life brother.

LG: Here it works. For me, the characters they were playing in Bottle Rocket should have been brothers, because of the dynamic in that film. Here, the separation is more intentional. Eli “always wanted to be a Tenenbaum.” He lived in a little apartment with his grandmother, where he slept on a futon, and he’s very drawn to the Tenenbaums and their perceived encouragement. He’s not quite there in terms of their brilliance, but he tries to be. As an adult, he’s become professor and writer (just about everyone in the film has written a book other than Royal). Eli’s a third-rate Cormac McCarthy type who doesn’t get good reviews but has been very successful lately. He’s secretly in love with Margot, as are a lot of other people, most notably her husband Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), whom she’s drifting apart from, and Richie, who notes that Margot is only his adopted sister. As the film begins, Richie has been traveling the world to get away from her.

MO: It’s interesting to see Eli looking for the kind of approval that the Tenenbaums got. He didn’t get the kind of encouragement that they got from their mother (though Royal sanded away a lot of that), and whenever Margot makes an off-handed remark about how Eli’s talents are limited, he’s really hurt. “Please stop belittling me” is one of his key lines. Moving onto another subject, I feel like this is the best cast Anderson every assembled.

LG: It has a lot of actors who don’t really get their due. Luke Wilson is fantastic as this sensitive, forlorn man, and I never understood how he didn’t become a bigger star. There’s a lot of levels. He’s very funny and warm, but remote. It’s a difficult balance to pull off.

MO: He’s frequently cast as the handsome but generic love interest, and he’s capable of so much more. We see that sometimes in stuff like Idiocracy, but not enough.

LG: Then there’s Ben Stiller, a performer I have a very contentious relationship with, because he does a lot of terrible stuff. I think he’s a very smart guy who doesn't always pick the right projects. He’s good at goofball but even in a lot of his comedic performances, he’s really good at playing abrasive, but until this point I don’t think  he’d ever played anyone quite this misanthropic and certainly didn’t again until Greenberg.

MO: Both characters bring up the neuroticisms to a pathological degree, where he lashes out at everyone around him. It’s easy to empathize with him even though he treats people terribly. Even Margot, who’s emotionally withdrawn, will defend people from Chas, as she does with Ethel’s suitor Henry Sherman (Danny Glover, perfectly understated). But Chas is an intensely lonely, intensely unhappy person, which has been exacerbated by the death of his wife in a plane crash. I’m not just thinking of his outbursts, I’m thinking of the scene where he briefly leaves his twin sons alone in his old room (they’ve moved back in with Ethel), only to re-enter about two seconds later and decide that he’s going to sleep in their room, too. It’s played for a laugh, but it’s so fucking sad to see how he has nothing else but his children, and he’s smothering them, and Wes uses the song “Look at Me” by John Lennon perfectly here. Royal warns Chas later, after he realizes what a shit he was, to go easy on his boys, because he doesn’t want Chas to end up like him for the exact opposite reasons.

LG: I think to some degree he has. He decided early on not to be his father, but he’s ended up just as bitter and vindictive, if not more so. At least Royal can be avuncular and warm in moments, even if you can’t tell if he’s being genuine. Since the death of his wife, Chas and his sons dress up in matching Adidas jumpsuits so he can pick them out of a crowd quickly, and he’s started running endless safety drills. He never feels safe, and that leads to him moving back to the Tenenbaum house. And that feeling of never being safe ties in perfectly to how a child might feel if they were raised by someone as untrustworthy as Royal.

MO: Wes Anderson wrote Royal directly for Gene Hackman, who wasn’t sure he wanted to take it because he prefers to disappear into characters…but how perfect is he here?

LG: He’s excellent. He’s retired recently, and this is easily the peak of his late-period performances which consists mostly of thrillers of varying quality (let’s ignore that his last film was Welcome to Mooseport).

MO: It’s a really important mixture of genuine charm and casual cruelty, one that another actor might overplay or, worse, underplay and try too hard to ingratiate himself to the audience. Or how about Gwyneth Paltrow, who’s received a bit of a backlash from overexposure recently, but I’ve always thought she was a talented actress. She’s frequently cast as a very charming character, even if they’re hurting on the inside (Hard Eight, Seven, Two Lovers). Here, she is against type, not even sort of hiding her unhappiness. She’s so close to being emotionally dead that she’s had a number of affairs (and an annulled marriage that no one in her family knows about), because she’s looking for anyone to connect to. It makes the way she shuts people out even sadder – her family doesn’t even know she’s smoked since she was 12.

LO: I love the black eyeliner she has. It makes her sad eyes so much more expressive, like a silent film character. Anderson also does a good job of framing her in ways that accentuate her loneliness. She’s often either to the side of everyone or in the far background compared to everyone else. The removal is a reaction to her, but it’s also a choice that she makes.

MO: She doesn’t trust anyone to not hurt her. Even from the beginning, when we see the doors to all of the children’s bedrooms, hers is the only one that’s closed.

LG: She was adopted, and Royal never let her forget it, so she never felt like she belonged. Maybe that’s why it was emotionally okay for her to embrace the feeling she has for Richie. It’s a way for her into the family, just like she’s a way into the family for Eli. It’s this very weird push-pull element.

MO: We should talk about the style of the film. Anderson really doubled down on the densely-packed anamorphic compositions, the dioramas.

LG: He’s pushing his wide angle, anamorphic diorama aesthetic harder than ever before. The Tenenbaum house is treated very much like a dollhouse visually, particularly in the opening where Anderson moves from floor to floor carefully noting the intensely manicured décor of each room. At one point in that sequence, we see young Margot building a model set for one of her plays, and we can’t help but notice the echo.

MO: And while there’s a lot of sadness, how joyous is it to watch the way the film was made?

LG: Oh, I absolutely adore it. It’s so meticulous and perfectly done. One thing I noticed about the house is…normally, especially in early color films, you paint the walls a pale color, then dress the characters in something more saturated so they pop out. Wes Anderson and a lot of other 90s directors said “fuck all that.” The Tenenbaum house is filled with saturated reds and pinks and blues, and it’s a very warm, cozy look for all the coldness within the façade. There’s also a lot of little text inserts, which we saw a bit in Rushmore, but here there’s Helvetica and Futura fonts in here. He’s moved away from that a bit in recent years, but it’s very emblematic of Anderson’s style. Those modernist fonts call attention to themselves as objects first, and parts of words second, just like Anderson’s style does.

MO: And yet, there are moments of…I wouldn’t say extreme verisimilitude, but we’ve talked about how handheld shots are an underrated part of Anderson’s style. There are two that are used as bookends of sorts, both related to Chas. The first shows him racing through his house with his kids for a fire drill that shows just how much his attempt to instill order on his life has actually thrown him into chaos. The second is at his mother’s wedding, after a stoned Eli crashes a car and almost runs over Chas’s sons. Not only is it the same style, but the same pounding drum music theme plays. It’s a nice touch that doesn’t get called out enough.

LG: Those drum parts of the scores are another underrated Wes Anderson element. Every score Mark Mothersbaugh did for him have them. Maybe Wes is a frustrated drummer?

MO: How about the framing, how it’s used as a way to hammer a joke home? Raleigh is a neurologist, and his recent subject, Dudley (Stephen Lea Sheppard) is, among other things, colorblind and dyslexic, but has an extraordinary sense of hearing. When Raleigh mentions that Dudley is color blind, Dudley is shown in a long shot down a hallway, and he overhears it and questions it, because he doesn’t realize he’s colorblind. As written, it’s kind of funny, but with those visual dynamics it’s hilarious. It doesn’t work without that framing.

LG: We talked about darkness, loneliness, and suicide, but we should stress that this is a comedy, and a very funny one. Dudley has a few other great moments, like when he points out something that’s beside the point for the rest of the scene (“there’s a dent in that cab…and another dent…and another”).

MO: There’s a bit that was played up in the trailers, but it does make me laugh – Chas mentions in a flashback that Royal stole bonds from him, to which Royal can only pause and give a nervous laugh. It’s played perfectly.

LG: There’s a montage at one point after Raleigh and Richie hire a private investigator to find out about Margot’s infidelities, and after we see a litany of men Margot has slept with (set to “Judy is a Punk” by the Ramones), and all Raleigh can say is a quiet, understated, “She smokes.”

MO: And that’s only my second favorite montage in the movie. The best for me is set to Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” in which Royal takes his grandsons out on the town for a day of recklessness. It’s so joyful, and there’s an increasing level of absurdity, starting with them running into pools or racing go-karts, leading to theft, riding on the back of a garbage truck, and watching a dogfight.

LG: That’s an interesting turning point in the film. He still has ulterior motives but it’s the first part where Royal does something that isn’t purely selfish.

MO: Yes. He tried bringing his family to his mother’s grave for the first time (Richie was the only one who was ever invited), but he botches it badly, especially as he trivializes the death of Chas’s wife with “oh, yeah, we have another body buried here.” Which is funny, but I felt terrible for laughing because he’s such a bad person. We’ve talked about how Anderson pays tributes to his favorite films without doing it in an obvious way. He reimagines his homages. Did you see any examples?

LG: There’s three I noticed in the “Me and Julio” sequence alone. There’s a moment of them driving go-karts under elevated trains that looks like the climax of another Hackman film, The French Connection. The scene where they steal milk plays like a similar scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (it should be noted that there’s a bit of Blake Edwards in Anderson’s sense of framing). And there’s also a sequence of three characters jumping into a pool that’s reminiscent of The Graduate (a scene he already referenced in Rushmore the twist here is that the people jumping into the pool are happy).

MO: Two that struck me are Elia Kazan homages. One is a new version of what Kazan did for East of Eden, where James Dean was framed in a hallway to make it look very claustrophobic (using CinemaScope in a similar way that Anderson uses anamorphic framing). This is a bit of a jump, but there’s a shot of Ben Stiller on the stairs that’s somewhat similar, and this is a similar tale of generational conflict. The other is another homage to the scene in On the Waterfront where Brando confesses to Eva Marie Saint. Here, it’s a scene between Eli and Margot on the bridge, where they discuss Richie’s love for Margot. It’s not exactly the same, because instead of using a shot/reverse shot rhythm and drowned out dialogue, here we hear the dialogue and Anderson uses slow whip pans between them.

LG: It’s one of Anderson’s most interesting use of whip pans.

MO: It’s a very deliberate shift to see how their words can hurt each other even without them intending it.

LG: It’s almost like they’re playing tennis and the camera is following the ball.

MO: Speaking of Margot’s veil coming down, there’s a great two-shot of Margot and Raleigh at a key point in the film where he confronts her about her infidelities. It’s so simple, yet so effective, to see those two finally brought together and having a frank conversation about what’s going on between them without them dodging. That actually joins the “I coulda been a contender” scene from On the Waterfront as one of my favorite two-shots, because it relies on the two actors to carry the scene and let their characters finally be honest with each other.

LG: Let’s talk some more about notable uses of music. There’s a lot of really sorrowful songs here, like Nick Drake’s “Fly,” or the Velvet Underground’s “Stephanie Says.” One of my favorites comes with Richie’s arrival in New York, where he’s waiting for Margot to pick him up, and she gets off the bus in slow motion to the sound of Nico singing “These Days,” and it’s gorgeous. There’s a great reverse of the camera dollying to Richie, and the look on his face is, “yep, that’s my girl.” And these sailors walk behind him like The Beatles in the Abbey Road cover. It’s this beautifully orchestrated moment of artifice and one of my favorite moments in '00s American cinema. I feel that a lot of undue emphasis has been placed recently on films needing to look and feel realistic. Shots like that make me think, “No, why are we bothering with realism? Film can do so much more!”

MO: It can be so much more expressive, just like it is here (in a shot that’s a subtle take on the bit of Cybill Shepherd in slow motion in Taxi Driver), and that moment never fails to send a chill down my spine. As for the scenes where Wes tones down the artifice, I love the shot of Royal following Ethel and lying to her, saying “I’m dying.” For the most part, it’s a single wide shot that shows Ethel going in and out of the frame as Royal changes his answer, but on “I’m dying,” there’s a very effective axial cut (or close to an axial cut) that brings us closer to Ethel but maintains an illusion of continuity, so it almost doesn't register with us. I love when he tone it down, because it makes stuff like “These Days” feel all the more powerful.

I also love how each Tenenbaum has their own theme music: Eli has some of the more coked-up rhythms of The Clash’s  “Police & Thieves” and “Rock the Casbah.” Chas has the drum music. Ethel has two Bob Dylan instrumentals. We talk about how Anderson uses left-of-field songs from greatest artists. How’s “Billy” from Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid and “Wigwam” from the much-derided Self Portrait.

LG: That album isn’t his best but it’s still underrated, but that song is so joyous that every time I feel sad, I listen to “Wigwam” and I feel happy again.

MO: We need to also talk about…oh boy…”Needle in the Hay.”

LG: (heavy sigh) Gimme a second…

MO: That is still the toughest scene that Anderson has ever shot.

LG: We’re in the middle of this comedy that’s dark, but still very funny. But Richie is at his lowest point. Margot has been with so many men, none of them him, and he’s so sensitive that he’s thinking, “She’ll never look at me.”

MO: And when Richie enters the bathroom, the lighting is much darker than it’s been in the rest of the film. It goes from a warm look to a darkish blue hue, as if Ridley Scott briefly took over.

LG: He takes off his thick sunglasses for the second time in the entire film. He cuts his hair, he shaves his beard, and it’s cut in a very French New Wave style with a lot of jump cuts. And as “Needle in the Hay” plays, he decides he’s going to kill himself, and there’s a lot of blood. It’s the most unexpected and daring thing Anderson has ever done.

MO: But it’s a very well-handled tone shift for what’s one of the major fulcrums of the film, not just for how it sets up Richie’s relationship with Margot, but it’s also the point where the family starts to come together a bit, and where Royal realizes what a shit he’s been and how devastating his affect on his kids was.

LG: “Needle in the Hay” works so well that it makes you sad that the initial plan to have Elliott Smith record material specifically for the film, including a cover of “Hey Jude” for the opening, but that plan didn’t pan out due to his mounting personal issues (his death by suicide two years later doesn't make it any easier to watch).

The “Hey Jude” choice at the begging was apparently part of a larger plan to bookend the film with Beatles songs that fell through due to the difficulty of getting Beatles material which is the start of a general theme in Anderson films after this to highlight a particular artist in each soundtrack (Wes’s original choice for the ending was an alternate take of “I’m Looking Through You,” after which he moved on to the Beach Boy’s “Sloop John B” before settling on Van Morrison’s “Everyone”).

MO: Another key musical scene involves The Rolling Stones: a left-of-field choice with “She Smiled Sweetly,” followed by “Ruby Tuesday,” a big hit, both off of the Between the Buttons album.

LG: It’s a very intimate scene, the first where Richie and Margot get a real chance to be alone. It’s post-suicide attempt, and they’re being very frank with each other. It’s interesting to see two songs by the same artist used back-to-back, that’s something people don’t do often. He’s playing these songs against type. So even though Ruby Tuesday is easily the more melancholy song. The way he uses it, it becomes downright triumphant .

MO: For the record, we completely disagree on the meaning of that song’s placement. You see it as a moment of progress for Richie, now that he and Margot have acknowledged their love for each other. I see it as a moment of great uncertainty, not unlike the ending of The Graduate, because they’re unsure of how they’re going to deal with it or move forward. I also think that viewing that scene as a triumph makes the cigarette exchange between Richie and Margot, the real triumphant scene, redundant. Considering Margot’s “I think we’re just going to have to be secretly in love with each other and leave it at that, Richie” line, “Ruby Tuesday” is used perfectly to type, not against type. It’s a beautiful moment because they’re so uncertain. The song just happens to have an up-tempo rhythm that makes it a perfect segue to the next chapter, where things actually do start to get a little better for everyone.

LG: Another interesting thing about the style is the conceit that the film is a novel. Every section of the film is broken up into chapters, complete with a shot of a title page. It’s such a cute thing that goes right in with the literary New York fairytale thing, not to mention the fact that just about everyone in this film is a published author.

MO: Here’s the thing about it, though: I remember reading in a review of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou where Owen Gleiberman said that he wished that Anderson would stop having a tone of “Isn’t it ironic?” for everything.

LG: What? No…

MO: His films are so earnest that I don’t know how anyone could get that. You’ve mentioned what separates Anderson from imitators like Napoleon Dynamite is the level of empathy that Anderson allows his characters, even the minor ones, while being just removed enough to avoid wallowing like Garden State. Something that struck me this time was Dudley, who’s the jokiest character in the film, but there’s a shift that Raleigh takes towards him. In the beginning, he laughs at Dudley’s predicament. “How bizarre!” By the end, he still has a sense of humor about Dudley (“Can the boy tell time?” “Oh, my lord, no”), but he hugs Dudley closer to him. This is the kid he’s living for now, someone he can help.

LG: His characters are so well realized that we could spend the whole review psychoanalyzing these people.

MO: I can empathize with everyone on screen. It’s a real Renoir feeling. Richie is quick to forgive, but he doesn’t understand the depth of Chas’s pain, and Chas resents him because of it, not to mention because he was Royal’s favorite. The level of resentment these characters have for each other is understandable, and yet by the end we see how much they care for each other.

LG: Agreed, there’s a lot of Rules of the Game in this film (lots of hidden and unrequited love affairs between upperclass people). One of the most heartfelt moments is between Eli and Richie. Richie tries to get him into rehab, and Eli says, “I wish you would’ve done this when I was a kid.” “You didn’t have a drug problem then.” “Yeah, but it would have meant a lot to me.”

MO: The two best directors working today, for me, are Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson, and The Royal Tenenbaums has a lot in common with P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia. Both are about how what happens to people as children shape their adulthood, about their pain and loneliness, about the humanization of the people who hurt them, and how difficult it is to move on, but both films are ultimately optimistic. And you talked about that moment, but I’m always touched by everything Chas does in the final twenty minutes. First, when he goes up to Henry Sherman to say that he’s a widower too – it’s like he’s looking for a new dad. And he does finally embrace Royal, saying, “I had a rough year, dad,” the response being, “I know you have, Chazzie.” I always need a minute.

LG: Wes has these moments of empathy with these characters. It never feels fake. Sometimes it’s a bit buried because the performances are minimalistic, or the style is arch, but the more you rewatch them, the more you realize how much the emotion is there and how genuine it is.

MO: Yeah. Another example is when Royal realizes how bad his advice has been for his children, and he admits that to Richie. He wants to have done better, and that counts.

LG: “Can’t someone be a shit their whole life and repair the damage?”

MO: There are so many lines that could serve as the thesis. That’s just one of the best. And I love how the first things he can do to repair that damage is get a divorce.

LG: We need to make sure we talk about Anjelica Huston, who’s so warm and so amazing in this film. You almost wonder how it is that she and Margot never connected more, I think Margot was always going to be on the outside, but Etheline tries so hard to do good for them.

MO: Yeah. They’re messes of people, but they’d be a lot worse without Etheline.

LG: There’s something interesting that I noticed this time around. When they announce the divorce, it’s Royal by himself. I don’t think he’s doing this to take initiative. I feel like she left it to him to do this. And that’s an interesting choice, that she put it off on him.

MO: Why don’t we talk about the last 15 minutes, which wreck me completely. It starts with this great long crane shot that’s maybe slightly ostentatious, but essential. It moves around after the car accident at the wedding, where Eli everyone has found some solace. Eli is confessing that he’s on drugs and he needs help, but the cop booking him is a fan. Raleigh and Dudley get goofy and they get a connection. The Shermans are analyzing. Etheline is taking care of the boys. And Chas and Royal finally mend their relationship.

LG: And then, after we get through the scene where Richie and Margot embrace their odd let’s-forget-we-were-raised-as-siblings relationship, “The Fairest of the Seasons” by Nico starts. The epilogue is perfect because of how it ties Chas to Royal, the son who hated him the most turns out to be the one who’s closest to him. It’s such a perfect moment of catharsis, and the shot of Gene Hackman on the ambulance gurney, slowly looking over with the air mask on gets me every time.

MO: You talked about how Rushmore was a happy ending that nonetheless wasn’t naïve and knew that they’d still have to work through problems. That’s here, too. There’s negative stuff left behind: Margot’s play fails, Eli’s in rehab working through things but he’s lost Margot, Raleigh has Dudley but lost Margot, Richie is teaching kids, probably better adjusted than most. They have each other, so they’re going to be OK, and Royal finally made things right after being a shit his whole life. Those hurt feelings can be mended even if they can’t be totally cleared away.

LG: Then there’s the funeral, which I think is the last time Wes Anderson used slow-motion as the last shot if you include the end credits of the other movies. And it’s perfect here. My favorite detail about this funeral, because it needs a laugh for all of the somberness, is that Ari and Uzi have black jumpsuits for the funeral, and they’re firing BB guns in a salute. That’s a Wes Anderson detail if there ever was one.

MO: It’s a Wes Anderson detail, and it’s a nice throwback to Chas having been shot in the hand by Royal, showing how he’s let his anger go. And then that epitaph is perfect: “Died Pulling His Family From the Wreckage of a Destroyed, Sinking Battleship.”

LG: With “Everyone” by Van Morrison playing them out in slow-motion. It’s just…I don’t know what else I can say. I think it’s his best film,

MO: Yeah, no contest his best.


That concludes our discussion of The Royal Tenenbaums, if you enjoyed it feel free to leave a comment below. You can also follow Screen Vistas on facebook by clicking here.

Roundtable Directory:  
Bottle Rocket (short and feature)
The Royal Tenenbaums
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissiou
Hotel Chevalier / Darjeeling Limited
The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Moonrise Kingdom
Shorts and Commercials
The Grand Budapest Hotel

Tuesday, March 4, 2014


Every now and then at Screen Vistas I like to team up with Max O’Connell over at The Film Temple to tackle the work of one of our favorite directors. This time we’re looking at comedy stylist/master of whimsy Wes Anderson.

Max O’Connell: Bottle Rocket got Wes Anderson noticed in a few places, but by and large no one was really prepared for Rushmore. One of the most daring and original comedies to come out of the independent film movement, it became an instant cult classic, an example of how to make a comedy as fresh and formally exciting as any drama. It’s been over 15 years since its release, but it feels like it could have been made yesterday.

Loren Greenblatt: Remember how we had that nuanced debate about Bottle Rocket last time? That ain’t gonna happen this time, I think we both love this film beyond all reason.

MO: Yeah. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Rushmore. I feel almost like I can’t talk about it reasonably, it makes me so indescribably happy.

LG: It was a film I saw when I was 15 years old, the same age as the character. For a long time, it was the most important film for me. Weirdly enough, I see an uncomfortable lot of myself in Max Fischer.

MO: I think anyone who ever had any sort of precocious talent can relate to Max Fischer. But who is Max Fischer?

LG: Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) is a teenager who’s dazzled by the possibility of life, but who gets carried away trying to grasp it and lets everything get away from him. Despite his intellect and drive he’s about to flunk out of the titular prep school to which he earned a scholarship in 1st grade (“I wrote a little one act about Watergate”). There’s a great montage early on showing how off-kilter his priorities are by showing us the clubs he’s involved with, I counted 19, set to The Creation’s “Making Time.”

MO: He’s almost uncommonly intelligent, but he doesn’t have the least bit of focus in the right places, and in a sense he sees his actual studies as beneath him. He will overcommit to the point where he’s doing great things, but he’s also failing out of class. “He’s one of the worst students we’ve got.”

LG: He does overcommit. But I also think he’s overcompensating in a way. He’s a working-class kid in a school for rich preppies, and he never got over his mother’s death. He’s hiding who he is. I think his greatest fear is being seen as ordinary in some way.

MO: He overcompensates with an almost impossible level of confidence, which does attract a lot of people, especially Dirk (Mason Gamble), his younger chapel partner and close confidant.

LG: Dirk Calloway is the fucking man.

MO: He’s the fucking man, and he’s the only one with a good head on his shoulders, as he’s one of the only one who operates out of kindness and consideration most of the time. But he attracts other people, including steel magnate Herman Blume (Bill Murray).

LG: It’s this very bizarre friendship between a 50-something man and a teenager. There’s this wonderful montage near the end where they’re riding bikes and popping wheelies, among other goofball stuff.

MO: The interesting thing about the Bill Murray character is that he’s like an older version of, well, the Bill Murray character, the guy we loved in Stripes and Ghostbusters who’s had his devil-may-care attitude worn down, and who’s deeply unhappy in spite of everything he has, or maybe because of it. He’s middle-aged, he’s deeply sad, and he sees a lot of himself in Max.

LG: I completely agree. This is a film that came in a very interesting point in Bill Murray’s career. He had a few semi-dramatic hits like Groundhog Day, but he was stuck doing the stereotypical late-period funnyman trife. He was in Space Jam two years before this.

MO: And Larger Than Life, that “Bill Murray takes an elephant cross-country” movie.

LG: It’s wacky! He was getting tired of it, and he was looking for something better. He found it in Wes Anderson, and he’s been in every Wes Anderson film since. Hell, he loved the script for Rushmore so much he offered to do it for free. This is Venkman from Ghostbusters in ten years, in the middle of a failed marriage with kids he doesn’t like. There’s a really interesting undercurrent of sadness to it, which helps make it distinctive. This is a comedy, but it’s a dark comedy.

MO: And a very melancholy one. I’d like to talk a little bit about the style of the film. You felt Bottle Rocket didn’t take place fully in Wes Anderson Land yet. Rushmore, I assume, does?

LG: Oh yeah, he got the passport status moved down to X5, to quote a different Anderson film. He had the budget he needed to do what he wanted to do visually this time. Here that style works as an extension of Max’s plays (literally, with those curtains throughout the film). It’s sort of his ultimate refuge from reality.

MO: There’s some other interesting things about the look of the film. There’s this theory I’ve had for a while, that a lot of critics we respect have echoed (including Matt Zoller Seitz, whose book The Wes Anderson Collection is essential reading). A lot of the reasons that the compositions are so orderly is that these characters are trying to keep their lives in an impossible level of control. We get to see how they can’t.

LG: I completely agree. Max is this guy who’s trying to have a ridiculous amount of control over his world, what with the clubs, and those amazing little handwritten invites that tell everyone when they should come and go. It’s his way of trying to force his control over the world he’s in. It’s hilarious what he does by sheer force of will, like trying to build an aquarium under the nose of the faculty. He has this confidence and charisma to him that makes you believe that he really could do that (Schwartzman is so good here). The dark side of that is that he’s tremendously entitled, and he has an out of control ego.

MO: He’s an arrogant little shit.

LG: He is, and every teenager is an arrogant little shit at some point, and he’s going through that phase now.

MO: Some of the things I noticed visually is a shot in the opening scene where we see how perfectly organized Max’s desk is. It’s a throwback to what Scorsese sometimes does with how characters ritualistically arrange things (think of the guns in Taxi Driver), but where Scorsese does it religiously, Max does it as a way of controlling things. It’s very charming, but it also shows how trapped he is.

LG: It’s very OCD.

MO: Another thing is how much more assured Anderson is with the editing. There’s a very simple scene between Max and his crush, the kindergarten teacher Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams). The way it cuts back and forth between the characters from the wide, deep focus shots in the anamorphic framing to much tighter shots on the character’s faces, it’s a way to show how at one point, they’re closer to each other psychologically, and at another, they’re further. An example of when they’re further, for example, is after Rosemary informs Max that a relationship between the two could never, ever happen.

LG: The library scene is wonderfully staged. There’s another transition I noticed, where, being an arrogant little shit, he tries to get revenge on Blume, who’s also fallen in love with Rosemary and started a relationship with her. His first act of revenge is burning leaves on the Rushmore school ground, and in the next scene, he sabotages Blume’s marriage by giving his wife information about the affair. And Anderson cuts from the burning leaves to a garage building that’s in smoke.

MO: There are other scenes of him getting back at Blume, too. We’ll talk about some of the other great uses of music in the film, but I love the use of Donovan’s melancholy “Jersey Thursday” in both Max’s burning the leaves and flipping the bird to Rushmore principle Dr. Guggenheim (played wonderfully by Brian Cox) and giving the information to Mrs. Blume. But even better is the montage of Max vs. Blume set to the Who’s “A Quick One While He’s Away.”

LG: Which is an especially long song, but he mostly uses one movement where the refrain is “you are forgiven!”

MO: Which, judging by what’s going on the montage, not so much. 

LG: And they get pretty dark with it. It starts off with little things like Max putting bees in Blume’s hotel suite, escalates to Blume running over Max’s bike, and then gets to the point where Max cuts the brakes to Blume’s car, at which point we’ve gone off the deep end. There is something pathological about him. There were some critics at the time that wondered if Max was going to kill everyone at the end of the film.

MO: And there were some who felt the tone of that scene was misjudged. I think Ebert gave the film 2 ½ stars because he felt it didn’t know whether it wanted to be whimsical or dark. But it does show how immature these two are, and how they have no sense of proportion. And much of the movie is about them finding that balance.

LG: And I’m not going to lie, the idea that he’d go psycho crossed my mind the first time I saw it for about half a second (he does purchase a large amount of dynamite near the end). But Anderson is in control, and on repeat viewings especially, it’s clear that as dark as it is, this film is too gentle to end up that way.

MO: For all of the OCD framing, it’s a delicately handled film.

LG: I love the plays that he throws on as part of his escape from reality. He does a rehash of Serpico–
MO: It’s not a rehash of Serpico! He does Serpico!

LG: Here’s a question I have – in the film, he’s credited as the writer, not the adapter. In the world of the film is he meant to have written Serpico?

MO: No. I think after a while, he’s remaking the classics of New Hollywood. He’s got Serpico, and then Heaven & Hell is him remaking a lot of Apocalypse Now.

LG: It is every Vietnam War movie ever.

MO:  The way I see it, it shows how in debt young artists are to their influences, and it’s a nice tongue-in-cheek joke about how the 90s American independent film directors were in debt to New Hollywood. For god’s sake, the year before shows Paul Thomas Anderson blending Scorsese, Altman, and Demme (among others) for Boogie Nights. You could play spot-the-reference the whole time if you wanted.

LG: And Boogie Nights hasn’t completely shaken that criticism, unfortunately. Wes Anderson isn’t completely immune to that either. Though I see more French New Wave than 70s New Wave in here. I was watching Godard’s Band of Outsiders, and there’s a lot linking that to Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, with this tenuous relationship fantasy and reality, and the handheld camerawork that isn’t talked about enough when it comes to Wes Anderson.

MO: There’s also an early classroom scene (“the hardest geometry problem in the world”) that consciously echoes a shot from The 400 Blows, too. There’s other shots taken from Lindsay Anderson’s if… (part of the 1960s British Angry Young Man New Wave), where instead of a machine-gun shootout, Max has a BB gun he uses on the bully. And there’s some American New Wave stuff. I mentioned Taxi Driver, but there are also some bits of framing that are reminiscent of Harold and Maude,

MO: Another throwback to Taxi Driver in that phone scene at Grover Cleveland, with an uncomfortable moment of things turning for the protagonist. Instead of the camera panning away as he’s rejected, we see it in all of its glory as Blume betrays him on the other line and the teacher hangs up the phone for him.

LG: He does these references, but they’re never too obvious. He reimagines them.

MO: There’s another scene that’s a direct reference to one of my favorite movies, On the Waterfront, where the sound is drowned out by a foghorn as the protagonist tells someone bad news. It’s very close, but the compositions aren’t exact. It’s him rearranging films he loves.

LG: It’s very interesting to see Anderson talk about his influences. I never hear him talking about proto-Anderson films like Harold and Maude. He said his primary visual influence on Rushmore was Rosemary’s Baby.

MO: (laughs very loudly in disbelief) Where’d you hear that?

LG: It’s in a Charlie Rose interview. The way he shoots reality slightly off-kilter influenced him.

MO: That’s incredible. There is a break between reality and fantasy in all of Anderson’s films, and this film has curtains at the beginning of every new month in the school year, almost as if we’re watching act breaks in Max’s play of his story. There’s a level of artificiality you’re either going to go for or not, and holy god, do we go for it.

LG: We’ve seen other directors try to do Wes Anderson’s thing, and it comes off as cloying or stilted. I’m thinking of Napoleon Dynamite.

MO: Or Jared Hess in general. I can also think of Little Miss Sunshine, which I don’t dislike as much as some, but which is Wes Anderson/early David O. Russell lite. Or Garden State, which I do dislike intensely. They don’t have the same warmth or self-criticism as much as Anderson, and they don’t balance whimsy and melancholy nearly as well, as you said in the last entry.

LG: And that’s something that, starting with this, he does on pretty much every film.

MO: Speaking of influences, there are a lot of throwbacks to Mike Nichols’s New Hollywood starter The Graduate. It’s pretty clear that Blume’s wife, even before the affair with Rosemary, is having her own affair, and Anderson described it as The Graduate as seen from Mr. Robinson’s point-of-view.

LG: Well there’s that scene at the pool party, where instead of Ben Braddock coasting in the water, we see Herman Blume sinking to the bottom of the pool. It’s a moment of great depression, and it’s a very conscious echo. We can’t really talk about Rushmore without mentioning The Graduate. There’s a very interesting way where I can see Ben Braddock as an older Max Fischer with the verve kicked out of him. And there is a similar sense of melancholy where the world is slowly breaking him. Hell, Herman Blume could be Ben Braddock twenty years later.

MO: Yeah, that great line about what happened to Ben and Elaine, “They became their parents.”

LG: Mmhmm. It’s part of what makes the friendship between Max and Blume work, they’re kind of going through a similar thing at different points in their lives. I can sort of see it in Blume’s intro, where he’s telling all of the working-class kids to take down the rich kids. There’s a bit of that rambunctiousness that he’s trying to force back into his life.

MO: There’s an intense loneliness in all three of the main characters that bands them together. Herman is losing his wife, and his kids are annoying dipshits. Max lost his mother, and he’s in a school where he’s precocious to the point where he can be off-putting, and he’s a working-class kid hiding the fact that his father (Seymour Cassel) is a barber. It’s sad, since his father is so supportive, and he relates to the “take the rich kids down” thing, but he can’t quite admit that he doesn’t come from the same stock. He wants the appearance of success at all times.

LG: That’s what I like about the bully, Magnus (Stephen McCole), a Scottish student who sees right through Max. There’s a very humanizing moment near the end where they recognize each other.

MO: Yeah. Before that, Magnus is the one person who sees that Max can be a phony and that he uses people, which Max sees as a threat (also, Magnus is kind of an asshole himself). As Max grows and starts to have more empathy for others, he sees the goodness in Magnus. They’re friends by the end!

LG: I love the way they make up. It could have been so schmaltzy, but instead Max shoots him with a BB gun, and then offers him a part in his next play. Now, we also have to talk about the third major character, Rosemary, who’s lonely in her own way. Max finds her when he reads an inscription she wrote in a book given by her old husband, Edward Appleby. She lives in his room, surrounded by his stuff. She never got over it, and Max never got over the death of his mother – he literally lives next to the cemetery where she’s buried. He cuts through it on the way to school.

MO: I feel that with Rosemary, he does fall for her, but much of it is also that he’s found someone warm and maternal as a surrogate mother. She’s so encouraging that I see it as him finding a new version of the person who supported him when he was a kid.

LG: I didn’t see that, but I see how you see it. In my mind his courtship of her is another way he’s trying to find a shortcut to adulthood by having an adult girlfriend rather than someone his own age.  He does find a girl his own age by the end, Margaret Yang (Sara Tanaka), a wonderful, bright, sweet person that he treats horribly throughout most of the movie. Part of his growing up is realizing that he could act his own age and realize that he’s still a kid to some degree.

MO: And here’s the thing – he wants to grow up, but he also wants to stay in adolescence. Blume asks him what his secret is, if he’s got it so figured out. Max’s solution is “Find something you love and do it for the rest of your life. Mine’s going to Rushmore.”

LG: And when he’s expelled for the aquarium fiasco it shatters his reality, but he tries to pretend. After enrolling in public school he should theoretically drop the prep act and stop pretending to be rich, but he doubles down. He keeps wearing the Rushmore uniform like a suit of armor, and he tries to transport his Rushmore clubs to Grover Cleveland High School (he starts a fencing team, which is inexplicably not popular). But this school won’t put up with his shit as much. Rushmore at least gave him awards for Perfect Attendance and Punctuality (which, aren’t those pretty close to being the same thing?), but this school hangs up on his phone call to Blume when he doesn’t have a phone pass.

MO: I love how he gives a speech about who he is when he arrives. He’s not exactly bullied, but they look at him like he’s this weird space alien, like, “Is this guy for real?”

LG: And when he’s led out by police later after he cuts Blume’s brakes, he’s posing like a badass and it’s moving in slow motion, and girls are like, “Him?”

MO: I love that, and no one thinks he’s a badass, no one finds him nearly that charming…except for Margaret Yang, who’s equally driven, and who’s attracted to his confidence and his ambition. I also love how the first thing that really endears Margaret to Max is that we learn she faked her science project results.

LG: There’s a bit of phoniness in both of them. They’re trying too hard for things that they might be good at, but they’re not where they want to be. I get that frustration; I look back on the stuff I wrote when I was that age and it sucks! It goes to your theory that the best he can do at this point is adapt someone else’s stuff.

MO: We both admire Max a lot, but how uncomfortable is his big scene with Luke Wilson, the doctor who Rosemary brings as a date to his play?

LG: I love the arrangement of that scene. Rosemary has to reject Max, then we go to the play, Max’s retreat from reality (with the sound of applause exaggerated to an impossible degree). And then we’re brought to the dinner with Max, Blume, Rosemary and Dr. Peter Flynn (Wilson), the most affable and mild-mannered man ever. She’s getting a little cautious, and Max is upset, because he was not invited. He gets drunk because Blume made a very wise decision to buy him a whiskey-and-soda, and it goes over about as well as you’d expect. He acts like such an adult sometimes that you can understand how an adult might forget, oh yeah, he’s an immature teenager.

MO: It speaks to how precocious teenagers are treated like adults, and then they do something that shows the adults why they can’t do that.

LG: There’s some interesting foreshadowing to Anderson’s later films, like the Jacques Cousteau book that hints at The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, or the subplot about the aquarium.

MO: Do we want to talk about Anderson’s use of music? We’ve talked about his use of unexpected songs from great musicians. He doesn't use The Rolling Stones’s “Satisfaction”, he uses “I Am Waiting”, this great melancholy song that perfectly soundtracks the point where everyone in the film is lonely. Cross has left Blume, Blume is stuck in a hotel without his kids or wife, Max has essentially dropped out of school, Margaret is trying to connect to Max but can’t…there’s so many shots in this montage where characters are isolated in a side of the frame to augment their loneliness, and “I Am Waiting” is perfect for it.

LG: And later on, we get “Oh Yoko” by John Lennon for when Max and Blume rekindle their friendship and start getting back in the swing of things. No one would expect you to use those John Lennon songs, but it’s so delightful and earnest for the scene. “In the middle of a shave, I call your name”, how wonderful is that?

MO: What are some of the better lines in this movie for you?

LG: “You’re like an old clipper ship captain, you’re married to the sea.” “I know, but I’ve been out to sea for a long time.”

 MO: I love the exchange when Max visits Guggeheim in the hospital after he’s had a stroke. This is the guy who was so patient with Max for so long that you can’t blame him for finally losing it, and when Max visits him out of genuine kindness, I love that he goes from being resting in a hospital to “WHADDYA WANT? IT’S FISCHER!”

LG: That scene almost doesn’t work for me, actually. It’s a good laugh, but it’s much broader than the rest of the film. I’m not complaining too much.

MO: It’s maybe a little broader, but it’s funny, so it works.

LG: The whole exchange at the end in the last scene of the film, where they explain that the Vietnam play was canceled when he tried to perform it at Rushmore. Why? “Too political?” “No, a kid got his finger blown off during rehearsals.” And the weird running gag of everyone pretending they’re getting handjobs.

MO: It’s the immaturity of the characters. It says something that Max can’t think of anything beyond that when it comes to sex. When he tries to kiss Rosemary, and Rosemary confronts him by flat-out asking what he expects with regards to sex, he’s clearly uncomfortable with it. He’s just a kid.

LG: Yeah. That’s a very hard scene to watch. It’s what separates Anderson from other comedies. He’s willing to go to dark and uncomfortable places.

MO: He never forgets that, as messed up as these people are, they’re still people. They’re worthy of dignity. The level of empathy he has for them is essential, because it’s a movie that shows growing up as learning to care about people other than yourself. Max learns to really appreciate Rosemary’s loss. He fakes being hit by a car in his last asshole act, but he realizes the profound hole her husband’s death left in her life, and how profoundly lonely Blume is.

LG: That’s an interesting scene, because it starts with him being an asshole. He’s heard that Rosemary dumped Blume, and he’s there in part to get them together again, and in part to charm her. He climbs a ladder onto her roof to get into her room and brings a mix CD with an Yves Montand song to romance her. But he realizes, “Oh, fuck, I’m a dick.”

MO: He also apologizes to Dirk and Margaret by the end, and the play, Heaven and Hell, for all of its clichés, has a remarkable effect on the characters. On one hand, the Rushmore custodian played by Kumar Pallana thinks it’s hilarious (“Best play ever, man”), but Blume who was “in the shit” during the Vietnam War, is moved by it.

LG: I love how you can tell he was there because he’s the only one who doesn’t put on the safety goggles and earplugs.

MO: The sweetness of his gestures by the end, with the dedication of the play to Rosemary’s husband along with his mother. That whole ending is sweet. He’s mended his relationship with his friends, everyone has a partner for the dance. He’s mended the relationship between Rosemary and Blume, he’s finally realized that Margaret Yang is incredible and they’re dating. There’s a friendly dance at the end between Blume and Margaret, and Rosemary and Max are left alone. There’s this great off-center framing that I think Anderson said is influenced by Demme. The shot/reverse shot shows Max and Rosemary on opposite sides of the frame, but the way it’s arranged actually shows them close together rather than far apart.

LG: I love that scene. It’s a perfect end. It’s a great teenager scene where there’s a happy ending, and he’s over her, but he’s still getting over her a little bit. But it’s going to be okay.

MO: Because he’s learned to care about other people.

LG: It’s not a trite “everything is solved” thing. It’s slightly more mature. And it’s hammered home by the use of the Faces’ “Ooh La La”, a melancholy but still upbeat retrospective on relationships.

MO: Not to mention another left-of-field song choice from Anderson, since “Ooh La La” is the one song by the Faces sung by Ron Wood rather than Rod Stewart. It’s a slightly ironic use of the song, since the lyrics are to some degree sexist, but the exuberance and the wistfulness of the song fits. And as the various couples dance in slow motion and the curtains close, we end the film smiling.

LG: I think a lot of times, great directors’ first films are a little uneven, but with Wes Anderson, he really hit a home run on the second film. This is the arrival of a major director.
MO: It’s still close to being my favorite of his, and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who named it as their favorite. 



Roundtable Directory:  
Bottle Rocket (short and feature)
The Royal Tenenbaums
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissiou
Hotel Chevalier / Darjeeling Limited
The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Moonrise Kingdom
Shorts and Commercials
The Grand Budapest Hotel