The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) dir. Wes Anderson
The usual criticism raised against the work of Wes Anderson is that his films are all style, with no substance. The problem with this formulation is that it suggests that style and substance are mutually exclusive, when really, aesthetics do have depth, or at least have the ability to provoke meaningful, human interactions with a given piece of work. If style could be called a personalized view of reality then the way that we relate to specific stylistic representations can tell us things about our own entrenched perspectives. The way that dissonance opens up between the gloss of a movie, and our everyday much-less-sexy and interesting existence makes itself apparent and produces a kind of meaning. This all happens somewhere in a nebulous zone between your ocular lens and the screen itself. I promise I’m not being facetiously sci-fi-esque, or wind-baggy, I’m just trying to say that at some point, between the storybook narrative and the pastel palette of this movie, you’ve got to come to the realization that your particular life looks nothing like this. So what exactly does that mean for us?
“In fact virtually all memory of the brilliance of the young Tenenbaums had been erased by two decades of betrayal, failure and disaster.”
The Royal Tenenbaums circles around a broken family of geniuses headed by the patriarchal Royal Tenenbaum, who hasn’t been in contact with any of the other members for some time. The children: Margot, Chas and Richie, were a set of wunderkinds who grew up to dominate their respective fields. Margot is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Chas sweated his way to becoming a prominent real estate investor and businessman while Richie was a champion tennis player nicknamed Baumer, before he retired at twenty-six and began living on an ocean liner. When I say this family is broken, I mean it in the same way we apply that word to a program or other piece of technology, these people aren’t just a little bruised up, they’ve ceased to function. The dials lie flat-lined and the cogs have locked up. Death, aborted romance and the cumulative force of too many bad decisions have brought this family to a point of melancholic stasis. It is at just this point of emotional inertia that Royal returns, kicked out on his ass by the hotel where he’d been squatting, to stir things up.
Anderson’s characters, in all his movies, are obsessive and relentless in their pursuit of goals, they are inveterate list-makers, they are wearily world-wise, and they like to pretend that they are above the passions that bring other people down. They have pet projects, they make blueprints, and they build things. All of this is to say that they work excessively hard in order to give the appearance that they are in control. This is a universe in which the worst possible outcome is one by which you might appear naïve, that you might show your squishy parts, and (gasp!) be thought of as something just quite almost human. This impulse is reflected in the cinematography, which is almost geometric in its need to present environments in little, discrete boxes. The camera has an encyclopedic eye for inventorying the screen. Everything is compartmentalized and contained. But these efforts at control are always positioned ironically so that we in the audience understand how funny it is that these people think that they actually have a handle on their absurd lives. We get this kind of perspective not only from Anderson’s straight-on, almost objective shots, but also through Alec Baldwin’s narration and the constant reminders that this movie is supposedly an adaptation of a novel. These levels of disassociation give us a vantage point from which to watch the family members as they scramble to piece together the shattered statue of their former glory.
“I think we’re just going to have to be secretly in love with each other and leave it at that Richie.”
But it is important to realize how this detached irony functions in The Royal Tenenbaums, because many people who misunderstand the film do so out of an inability to see past this one element. If Anderson’s films were just about this detachment than they would be no different from the hundreds of other aloof and emotionally distant movies of the American Independent Scene. Irony as the postmodernists of the 60s and 70s envisioned it was a kind of eye-opening revelatory tool. It was useful because it allowed artists of the time to bring down the ideologies, the norms and conventions that had become an accepted part of our culture. These artists hoped to use irony as a means of seeing the familiar in new ways. They aspired to show us the bars of our cage, so that we might thereby figure out ways to escape. But what they couldn’t account for was that their ultimate weapon might be used against them, eventually forming a new kind of emotional prison. Because irony today acts as the ultimate scorched earth policy, the final negative which can reduce everything to a flat nil. It serves as a great destroyer because nothing really stands up to its intense speculation. The real problem is that it leaves nothing behind, it is an apocalyptic endpoint. If you find it hard to believe in things like love, human kindness, or a genuine connection between two people, it is because irony is looming somewhere over your shoulder just waiting to mock your sincerity. We qualify every emotion that we have because the lessons of our culture teach us that there are always extenuating circumstances and to not acknowledge them would make us look naïve, which is something we are always uncomfortable with. We’d rather keep it all under wraps, because not admitting something allows it to escape scrutiny.
And this is something that Wes Anderson understands very well. The irony in his films is more an ecosystem than an ethos. He pays due observance to the cultural dominance of the nihilist “who-gives-a-fuck” attitude, but he doesn’t let it win. In his films there are stronger, more essential things at play, and the real hero is a kind of muffled sincerity. When we get emotional honesty from these characters it is only under duress, when they’re backed into a corner and about to break. When Richie and Royal move to confront Eli Cash, the family friend who’s become addicted to mescaline, Cash gloomily admits that he “always wanted to be a Tenenbaum”, beautifully summing up an entire life’s spent living on the outside of the inner circle. And after Chas goes on a rampage, releasing the furious vents of anger he’d kept closed since the death of his wife, when his father moves to comfort and calm him Chas says simply: “I’ve had a rough year dad.” These understated quiet moments of confession expose the hyper self-reflective state of mind that is at work. These characters spend their entire lives trying to complicate their various insecurities and emotional damage because they are afraid that the crux of so much pain could actually be as simple as it first appears. It actually comes as a surprise to these people that they have the kind of insecurities that we would call cliched. But sometimes a scar is just a scar and our efforts to recalibrate these wounds into some megalithic psychological complex distracts us from the simple, banal things that we need: forgiveness, love and some kind of family. In fact this may be the central issue at stake in the movie. We all grow up to realize that we aren’t the geniuses we thought we were, and that eventually we have to re-imagine our very sense of self in order to survive.
“I’d like us to have a relationship, but we have to pull some strings to make it happen.”
Still what this movie confirms is that real attachment is not impossible, just incredibly fucking hard. Richie’s suicide scene is ritualistic for a reason. It is more a spiritual attempt to get back to ground zero, to an emotional core, than an actual bid for self-annihilation. It comes just after Richie is shown the file on Margot’s past affairs with questionable men (most of which take place on public transportation). This is a kind of sneak attack by history. Richie who had gone to sea to escape his love for his adopted sister has come unwillingly back into the fray of human relationships only to be sprung by the info that Margot has found a half a dozen men through which to forget him. And Royal’s attempt to get back into the family involves a complete disavowal of who he used to be. What’s suggested is that real emotional connection today involves a kind of self-death, or at least a killing off of the personal history that we have so far stuck to. The poses that once were the means of our survival will now serve only as anchors to keep us disconnected at the bottom of a sea of loneliness. But if we can beat our need to wear protective chest plate armor we can bet that the pay-off will be sublime, something like the sight of Gwyneth Paltrow gliding off a Green Line bus to the tune of “These Days”.