The Royal Tenenbaums
Directed by Wes Anderson
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
What a lot of people don’t realise is that Wes Anderson basically makes science-fiction films.
I very much have a soft spot for science-fiction stuff and science-fiction movies in particular. Although it’s not that I just watch and enjoy anything a sci-fi tag labelled on the cover (I literally do not understand people who will just anything in a genre regardless of quality – that’s kinda like enjoying the taste of a food just because it’s a certain colour – but maybe that’s a conversation for another time). Nah – it has to be made with love and care and attention and some kind of quality and you know – have somekind of cool philosophical dimension that stretches my mind into some interesting new shapes. But hey – that could be any sci-fi thing right? What’s the thing about sci-fi movies that make them so special and puts them at such a cut above? Well – ok I’ll tell you. It’s the fact that they push the film-makers further in terms of not just imagining new characters and new situations and outcomes – but even further – to the point where sometimes: they have to imagine whole new worlds. The best example of this and the thing that first made me realise it was with the Alien films. I mean forgive me if this sounds obvious – but absolutely everything in those movies had to be designed from zero. They couldn’t just grab their cameras and hop on an interstellar mining vessel and travel to an alien planet and film the wildlife. No. They had to design the spaceship. They had to design the spacesuits. They had to design the alien spaceship. They had to design the alien. They had to design the clothes. They had to design the technology. They had to design the weird symbols on the buttons. They had to design everything. And the same with the sequels. You watch them and you’re transported to a strange new world which yeah is what movies do – but with sci-fi movies – it’s always further. Because everything they’re designing is completely fictional and completely removed from our real world the effect it has on me when I watch them is – I don’t know – even more intense – you know?
And this is why Wes Anderson films are science-fiction films.
They do not take place in the same reality as our own. In the world that we live the colours are not so bright. The characters are not so outlandish. And the design and all round craftsmanship is nowhere near as impeccable. Which means that when you’re at the cinema and sitting at home and they start to play – the effect of transportation is so incredibly strong – you know? You’re watching something that doesn’t and couldn’t possible exist playing out in front of your very eyes. And whether it’s an indestructible xenomorph or Gene Hackman wearing sharp suit and a smile like the big bad wolf the effect is still the same: your brain going to places that aren’t real and yet being so swept up by the art of it all that it can’t tell the difference.
And well yeah – at the risk of stating the complete obvious: it’s the design and the attention to the smallest detail that pushes Anderson into a class all of his own (case in point: those red tracksuits that Chas Tenenbaum and his sons wear contain all sorts of depths). I mean – the dude is just so very singular in a way that most directors just aren’t. I mean: would you know you were looking at a Kubrick film or a Fincher film or a Spielberg film just from a single shot? I mean yeah – you can say that it’s a cliche or way too stylish or whatever: but you need to be pretty good where you can get to the point where you can fully mint your own style you know? What’s the Miles Davis quote? “Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.” I mean holy shit – Wes Anderson was basically there by his second film.
Of course all of this stuff leads me to wonder about what exactly it is that people love about Wes Anderson so much? (And I would strongly argue that he’s probably one of the most loved directors out there – equally admired by your casual cinema goer as he is by the people that like to throw around words like “auteur” “leitmotif” “cinéma vérité” and argue over their favourite Godard picture.
Strange as it may be to think – back in the day he was just another indie director making quirky little films that brought to mind a confection that you might buy at an upper class bakery. Ribbons and decorations hiding a little something sweet inside. Altho – no that’s not quite right is it? I mean – while the received public image of Wes Anderson is basically a hipster with a taste for cinematography so delicate and sophisticated that you could eat your dinner off it – the truth is hidden inside those delicate confection underneath all the ribbons and decorations there’s always been carefully placed shards of glass… Culturally he might seem like he’s from the same family as Spike Jonze (would not be surprised if they were distant cousins or something) but beneath all of the straight lines and sets that look like doll’s houses there’s a melancholy that cuts deep and a worldview that’s a lot less cute than it first appears.
Part of me thinks that most people are into the superficial aspects of his work. That fey sensibility that puts him in the same neighbour as Belle and Sebastian. The sing-song nature of his dialogue. All of those ribbons and decorations: the Futuras and Helveticas and the charity store records playing in the background – of course – Bill Murray being very Bill Murray. But also – fuck it – the guy is very good at being very good. And even if from far away his stuff looks too immaculate to be worth taking seriously (I know of a few people that kinda dismiss him as something for hipsters and I can see where they’re coming from for sure) but when you get up close there’s a lot there that’s uncomfortably real and messy.
Case in point: The Royal Tenenbaums is one of the best films ever made about depression.
Gotta love how Royal is the only one smiling.
Heavy Amélie vibes to this. Both films were released in 2001 and maybe there was something in the air demanding very crafted, wry voiceover-laden films that look and feel like picturebooks. Tenenbaums is a bit better than that though. Amélie is oversaturated to the point of being garish and oversugared to the point of being sickly. Ultimately its characters are collections of quirks, and the overriding deception it pulls on the audience is that its creators and their protagonist are actually capable of human connection or taking a risk on real life. In actual fact it’s all a load of window dressing. Amélie‘s narrator gives you everything you need to know, so you don’t actually have to think as the perfectly framed sequences flash one after another. Whereas the narrator in Tenenbaums (an unrecognisable Alec Baldwin) gives you the set-up but really there’s quite a lot to look into after that.
I mean you could argue that the film is at its weakest when the narration steps in and tell you what the point of the story is – the most glaring example is when it confirms that Royal realises that the time with his family is the most precious time of his life. It’s couched in half a joke, but it feels like it’s intended as the keystone to the film’s elaborately constructed plot. Whereas when I watched it as a teen and rewatched it now, the knockout moment is very clearly Luke Wilson’s suicide attempt, which drastically twists the film away from its cutesy, curated feel and into quite a dark place. If the film is all about the issues that lie buried and unaddressed in dysfunctional families, that is the moment which communicates it most effectively. It’s when the evasions in the script end and the trauma is exposed quite literally in hideous scars on Luke Wilson’s wrist.
That arc, and the related forbidden romance between step-siblings, is the film at its most affecting for me, despite the fact that Royal’s rehabilitation is ostensibly the focal point through which we understand the family. The film may be overly constructed on that point (as on every other) – Anjelica Huston’s regimented and obsessive mothering instincts set against Gene Hackman’s freewheeling and uncaring approach to fatherhood, that clash being the source of their children’s various emotional problems. But it nonetheless feels true that the revelations that cascade from Royal’s less-than-welcome reintegration into the family rarely resolve those problems. Change is hard and incremental, forgiveness or redemption isn’t quick or easy. The funeral at the end where no-one speaks is a testament to the mixed emotions such a conclusion elicits. It underlines the fact that with The Royal Tenenbaums, the less there is to say, the more there is to see.
Royal Tenenbaums works very hard to make you think it is about Royal Tenenbaum. Sure he is the titular character and his leaving feels like the catalyst for everyone’s woes, but apart from Angelica Huston all the other characters are living with tragedies of their own. The main thread of the movie circles round the various forbidden romances Gwyneth Paltrow is involved with. This is the basis for three of the main characters barely being able to function in their lives and leads up the emotional climax of the movie, a climax which Royal is explicitly on the outside of.
As Ilia says the suicidal attempt is the key moment in the film. Through this graphic scene Wes Anderson is able to use this to break the Woody Allen spell of everyone being so wry and self referential that they cannot acknowledge tragedy. When Luke Wilson slashes his wrists it’s shocking and there is no glance to the audience to reassure them it will be alright, indeed it’s deliberate matter-of-factness is so in character you realise that Richie had been dying for years, ever since the day he saw the women he loved married to another man. This was the logical end of the road, but you didn’t realise you we’re watching that kind of movie and the change in stakes finally breaks the tension that the film has built up. It’s the dissonance up until that point where you are expecting characters to react, except that they don’t even when their dad betrays them, they are stuck in shrug mode right up to that point and that makes the moment a necessary shock but is also why I can see why some people found the movie frustrating.
By contrast in Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox the dad is genuinely the centre of the story and the story feels like it is a sort of prequel/sibling to the Royal Tenenbaums set just before Royal leaves. It has a risk-taking hustler father who is unwittingly or uncaringly damaging his children and his marriage because he is so caught up in his own legend. Except that because he is an actual legend he is able to effect change in a way Royal cannot. Fantastic Mr Fox naturally sidesteps the more adult tone, but it definitely feels like a different draft of the same story where they have to work a lot harder to redeem him in his children’s eyes in an emotionally satisfying way. Given the way Tenenbaums could have focused on any of these characters and gone any number of ways it’s interesting to think that Anderson wanted another go and maybe felt conflicted about how it plays out. Lastly while I’m kind of on the subject something I noticed today reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was that similar structure with the golden ticket winners. The book takes a long time to get to the chocolate factory because it goes to the effort of flesh out all the children’s characters several chapters before you even meet them, and I was reading it while trying to write this Tenenbaum’s write up and was like “huh, I guess Wes Anderson really liked Roald Dahl.”
If you haven’t had the chance to visit The Horniman Museum then I can highly recommend it, not least because it is a living Wes Anderson set. I’m reading this Wikipedia entry in Alex Baldwin’s husky voice:
The cash from the business allowed Horniman to indulge his lifelong passion for collecting, and which after travelling extensively had some 30,000 items in his various collections, covering natural history, cultural artefacts and musical instruments.”
The vividness of Wes Anderson’s worlds is that they do resemble things that actually exist but those things shouldn’t really exist either. The Horniman is a ridiculous place full of the stuffed corpses of confused looking animals, and not just exotic animals, it includes dogs and pigeons and rabbits oddly juxtaposed with lemurs and peregrine falcons. Even the building absolutely refuses to conform to its contemporaries looking like a sort of church that’s been left in the sun too long.
As Joel says the care that goes into every element of design is very effective at building up a unique but strangely atmosphere which he can then overlay with interesting characters. I was trying to compare Royal Tenenbaum’s with Grand Budapest Hotel, and the only real difference is that the latter is a much more lavish production. That being said both films invite you to enjoy looking at them while at the same moving things along so you never get quite as much time as you think you would like to appreciate the rich environments.
This contrasts fairly neatly with Ari Aster’s Midsommar which is also has incredibly meticulous world building but has annoying characters and spends a lot of time admiring itself for how nice it is. Indeed you have to admire the hutzpah of creating a character whose actually job is to wander around marvelling at the universe the director has created.
That’s not to diminish world building, it’s just that while people might queue round the block to see the sets at Harry Potter World (and they are also amazing) they shouldn’t underestimate the less obvious care that has gone into Wes Anderson films and Tenenbaum’s is definitely the most “oh this little universe that I made? Sure I guess it’s nice.” The magic trick that Anderson and the Potter world’s manage is to somehow inspires nostalgia for places that never really existed, while also not making a big deal about it by foregrounding a rewarding plot.
The Royal Tenenbaums is a bowl of hot soup kinda film.
You know what I mean – the type of thing that after you finish watching it leaves you feeling all warm inside. Which I’m guessing for a certain type of person is what they think a film should do / should be. It’s what most kinda Oscar films do – the whole bittersweet thing where maybe the team ends up coming first but the coach has a heart attack and dies at the same time.
In my head all of Wes Anderson’s films worked in kinda the same way – making you wryly smile at the same time that they made you ache – but over the past few weeks I’ve been going back and revisiting some of his stuff and most of them haven’t been that… good?
I started with The Darjeeling Limited which just felt very very slight. Almost like watching a short instead of a full movie. With a final denouement which is a little too on the nose even for me. (You see – they’ve been carrying around this luggage that belongs to their father and at the end they have to learn to just – let it go). It had all of these bits that kinda looked like they were going to add up to a full movie – but then they never quite come together. Although now I’ve written that I realise that it actually is more applicable to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou which feels like a rough draft of a movie swimming around in search of a point. There’s all of these elements that orbit each other but none of them really manage to build up into something larger. There’s Bill Bill Murray in search of a maybe-mythical shark that killed his best friend, Owen Wilson has someone who may be his long lost son, Cate Blanchett has a pregnant journalist with a cute accent, Jeff Goldblum as his richer nemesis and a whole subplot about pirates in an abandoned hotel that I had completely forgot about (“Is this… Wes Anderson doing an action scene?” I said at one point).
But watching them helped me realise what it needs for Wes Anderson to get it right – and that thing is basically: families. The Royal Tenenbaums after all is also a lot of disparate elements all floating around each other. Each character is basically a whole universe in and of-themselves and each of them makes you feel like they could run off with a whole movie by themselves – which is a pretty neat trick when you think about it (the campaign for the Royal Tenenbaum Extended Universe starts here). But because they’re all family and because they’re all living in the same house – it all feels connected. Because even tho they all have different quirks and worldviews and numerous types of damages – those damages all stem from each other and feel like they’ve come about as various sorts of response mechanisms. I mean yeah The Life Aquatic is set on a ship and the crew is kinda like a family – but the ship never really feels lived in in the same way as the Tenenbaum house (and there’s one baffling tracking shot that makes the ship look like a giant doll’s house that kinda breaks the reality in a way that the rest of the film never really picks up on – just one more element in a sea of elements).
Same thing with The Darjeeling Limited as well. The train is a good place to build up a sense of consistency but then the film gets clever and the boys get kicked off the train which is kinda cool but then just means that the rest of the film feels… adrift. And the fact that it’s just three brothers just makes it feel small and half-baked instead of – well – whatever it was they were going for.
If you want that hot soup feeling then you need that feeling of togetherness and completeness. There’s also this shot that comes way towards the end of The Royal Tenenbaums that helps to build that up inside me. It’s after all the craziness and everyone has calmed down a bit and there’s this long single take where the camera moves from left to right checking in with each character as it goes along. It would have easily been possible (and would have been easier) to film them one by one and cut between them – but the fact that you see them all inhabiting the same space just slightly apart from each other kinda gives you this emotional swell. I mean – I don’t want to go too big: but it’s very much the magic of cinema isn’t it? Taking separate moments in separate lives and making them feel like they’re part of something larger. Which I guess is also – ha – what family is about too.
This is probably just personal preference, but there is something about Wes Anderson’s overly curated style that leaves me a little cold. For me, the very very careful framing of every shot in Tenenbaums gives the story an artificiality that detracts a little from being able to fully buy into the characters. The whole film is presented as a novel that has been adapted for the screen, with an omniscient narrator packaging up the people we meet into little boxes. Joel is right that there are depths to dig into despite this approach to the story – given that it’s all about tensions bubbling beneath a beautifully manicured surface. But it leaves me wishing for more moments when the characters get to break out of the shells they have been forced into, by the film as much as by their dysfunctional family. The film sidesteps dramatic flourishes and confines its actors to delivering deadpan dialogue heavy with evasions. That I guess is the point – it’s hard to bare your all, particularly in the toxic atmosphere created by Royal. But it gives licence for people to like this film for the comedy inherent in its style and delivery, and to miss the fact that these things are killing the people inside it.
OH DEAR GOD WHY Presentations
Twitter / Barbican Comic Forum
~~What follows is an unconstructed rant from a Wes Anderson fanboy in remission~~
The Royal Tenenbaums as Sci-fi. The Royal Tenenbaums as depression. The Royal Tenenbaums as an excuse to make critical (and thus invalid, if somewhat cogent) aspersions against The Darjeeling Limited. The Royal Tenenbaums as a pastel washed roarscharch test for whatever brilliantly unexpected idea the film club’s constituents have to mind. All of them, aptly, Royal.
One thing this chat has forced me to reconcile with myself is that while TRT is a beloved old favourite of mine, I’ve never actually dug that deeply into it. I’ve long been content to bathe in the shallow end of the Wes Anderson pool. I’ve been happy to just enjoy the emotional pull of Nico playing along to Gwenyth Paltrow’s entrance, the wit and the perfectly composed aesthetic of the world according to Wes Anderson and not consider what he’s actually trying to explore.
That’s part of why Wes Anderson works so well – it’s why some pretentious art graces the annals of history and the rest wallows in no one’s memory – it just looks and feels good. Fuck the meaning or it’s post-war comments on socio-economic structuralism – THAT YELLOW LOOKS COOL. For all the things Anderson digs into, he knows how to do it with the coolest looking shovel in the world (complete with a painfully Shazamable soundtrack).
(Now I’m wondering what music Wes Anderson would dig to:
- I’ll Come Running – Brian Eno
- Wild Horses – Rolling Stones
- Obscure Random Concerto B – I ran out of ideas)
Anderson himself has form for oscillating between the shallow and the in-depth. His two animated efforts offer an example of this variance. Where Fantastic Mr Fox offers a remorseful exploration of middle age and making peace with what dreams you can actually achieve, Isle of Dogs is a fun, goofy adventure with little to say (Prove me wrong kids, prove me wrong…). Though in fairness, visually, Isle of Dogs leaves Fox absolutely in the shade (setting aside that iconic wolf in the mountain shot).
(I think a similar thing can be said of Moonrise Kingdom and Grand Budapest – where Grand Budapest is a richly emotional film on faded memories of a man’s greatest days that doubles as a meta commentary on Anderson’s ouevre – Moonrise is just some well composed images and goofy schtick with nothing below the hood than an ornately illustrated blueprint for an engine that should be there but isn’t).
But back to TRT – I feel like I disagree with Jonathan on this one (and it’s telling that even he refers to Royal as the catalyst). I feel like the title says it all about this ensemble. It’s about the impact one ass has had on his family. His downfall is their downfall and his redemption is their redemption. Royal adopted his children, arguably (in tandem with his then wife) gave them the tools to become the prodigies they were, but the emotional damage he casually passed off on them has ruined them. And in the end he’s the one that saves him. Their climactic face offs and resolutions with their own strife comes about as a direct result of his boorish, cigar stained intervention. The opening beats outline how he left a family in ruins, the closing tells us how his death united a family that he’d redeemed by redeeming himself. Ben Stiller’s character story can be summed up in that one sweetly heartbreaking grip of the hands in the ambulance. His funeral is Van Morrison’s “Everyone”. Everyone comes out for Royal – in an ensemble as magnificent as TRT – he’s the one that brings them all together. We follow him through it, through the chaos and the hope he absent mindedly weaves.
I love that all the characters are terribly depressed – apart from Royal – which is actually, somewhat hilarious (especially in light of Hackman’s gleeful performance). Though in writing, I feel like he’s a massive extrovert who has become incredibly depressed as time has gone on – and he’s out to try and fix his pain. He thinks it’s in getting back the love he had of his family a long time ago, but really it’s in acknowledging and repairing the damage he left behind – the new love he gets from his family, and how that finally allows them to become people unshackled from their pasts, in doing so is almost a byproduct.
Genre-wise, the sci-fi argument is a nearly-convincing, bold one – but I feel like I’d plonk it down in magical realism. There’s nothing entirely impossible about this world and I feel like Anderson is offering us a wittily detailed rendition of a reality we recognise – rather than inventing a fancifully imaginative extension of it.
Finally, I’d agree with Ilia (despite picking a bone with Jonathan over Royal’s role in the film) – that the knockout is absolutely the suicide attempt. It’s so simply, heartbreakingly done – and the switch in musical cues from the whimsically sunny juke box that Anderson had so carefully curated thus far – to the heart breakingly sparse and modern Eliot Smith is possibly the most persuasive example of how powerfully Wes Anderson wields his sound track choices.
~~This concludes the unconstructed rant from a Wes Anderson fanboy in remission~~
This post was created by our Film Club email list.If you’d like to join the conversation send an email marked “Film Club” to here.