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The Royal Tenenbaums

Well, the holidays have kind of snuck up on me, and because of that (and the fact that I’m traveling) I don’t have a Steve Zissou Saturdays installment ready to go. But I did rewatch The Royal Tenenbaums last night, and I do have something I found really interesting that I hope will make for a decent substitute.

I don’t know how many times I’ve seen The Royal Tenenbaums. It has to be at least 30 times, and yet I’m still finding new things, every single time I watch the film. Usually it ends up being something to do with Richie, Chas or Royal, as I end up paying a little more attention to them than I do to the other characters.

This last time, however, I noticed some brilliantly subtle layering in the development of Margot, and that’s what I wanted to share here.

The Royal Tenenbaums

Each of the Tenenbaum children self-destructs in their own time, and in their own way. For Chas, it comes a year before the start of the film, when his wife is killed in a plane crash. For Richie, his meltdown occurs a good way into his professional tennis career, and then, obviously, he hits another low point after discovering Margot’s past.

Margot’s descent into self-destruction begins much, much earlier in her life. A private investigator even assembles a file documenting her descent, and it begins at age 12, with her buying a pack of cigarettes.

Her smoking — and her secrecy about it — is alluded to throughout the film as a pivotal stage in her self-destruction. The fact that it’s the first entry in her dossier would seem to support that, as would the fact that it’s brought up in the opening narration, also identifying it as beginning when she was 12.

However that in itself seems rather small in the face of the romantic, artistic, sexual and even physical self-destruction that follows. In fact, it’s so small that the significance both the film and the characters attach to it qualifies as a joke in itself.

The Royal Tenenbaums

But while it doesn’t appear in the background file montage, we do get a scene in the opening sequence of Margot one year prior: the night of her eleventh birthday.

Chronologically speaking, this is actually the first sign we get of the unraveling to come. Yet despite what the film frames as the most important moment at the party — Royal insulting the play she stages with her two brothers — there’s something else that suggests very directly the deliberate self destruction to come: the play itself.

Of course, we don’t see much of it. In fact, all we see is the curtain call, with the three Tenenbaum children on stage, in costume.

The Royal Tenenbaums

Afterward, during Royal’s dismissal of the play — and his adopted daughter — we see that it was Margot who played the zebra. In the curtain call, and again here when she stands up, we see bullet holes and fake blood on the costume. One of these wounds is directly over the heart — Margot’s heart — which implies strongly that the shooting was fatal.

Margot literally cast herself in her own play as the figure that gets destroyed. But so what, right? As Royal points out — callously — it’s just a bunch of kids in animal costumes. It can’t be worth reading any more deeply into that. Perhaps Margot cast herself as the zebra because it had the most important lines, or was the central character, or to best showcase her talent in front of her family on her birthday.

But, no. Not quite.

The Royal Tenenbaums

Earlier in the opening sequence we see Margot at a typewriter, working on a script. And what’s that on her wallpaper?

The zebras are all around her. Throughout the film we can see them from almost every angle in her room; it’s Margot’s symbol. The zebras surround her and watch over her while she writes, while she reads the works of other successful playwrights, while she dreams, and while she does anything at all. The door to her room is always closed, with many locks and KEEP OUT signs, suggesting that she spends as much time in there, alone, as she possibly can. The zebras are always there.

Therefore it’s impossible that she associates the zebras with either of her brothers, or either of her parents, or with Eli, or with Pagoda, or with anybody else in the world. She is likely, however, to have internalized their presence, and for them to have worked their way into her writing, whether consciously or not.

By writing the zebra as a tragic figure, and then by literally climbing into that role herself, she’s foreshadowed her entire path of self-destruction. She assassinated her own image of the night of her eleventh birthday, and played the role herself.

Royal denouncing her artistic efforts? Buying that pack of cigarettes? No, those weren’t triggers. They were simply manifestations of an unspoken desire to self-destruct that had been part of Margot Tenenbaum all along.

The film makes no overt reference to this. It’s one of many carefully placed breadcrumb trails that Wes Anderson trusts us enough to figure out for ourselves.

I’m still figuring them out, and none of them make me feel like I’m reaching. Everything was always right there, ready to be noticed, and if it took me 30 viewings to find them, that’s okay. Anderson’s films are patient. They wait for you. And when you finally get there, they welcome you home.

Speaking of which, in the image I used to open this article I notice that Margot’s listening to Between the Buttons, which is the Rolling Stones album she puts on when Richie comes home from the hospital later in the film.

Oh, and Royal being the only one to criticize her play here is subverted nicely by the fact that he’s the only one who enjoys her new play at the end of the film. So many layers, so many details, so many connections and mirrors and echoes.

My lord I love this movie.

ALF, "Don't It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?"

So, this is it. This is the episode I’ve been warned about by multiple people. (Two is a multiple.) It’s not one of the episodes I remember from its original run, but I guess it’s something that’s stuck with a few others. Honestly, I’m not surprised. It’s definitely memorable for one reason, at least.

The more episodes of ALF I review, the more I wonder if I even saw season one when it first aired. I’m sure I caught at least a few of them in reruns, but I’m starting to think I didn’t join the ALF party until the second season. That’s got the first episode I remember seeing for sure, and man I can’t wait to get to that one.

Anyway…this is a bad episode. Not that that really needs to be said at this point, but just in case you thought I’d end up loving this…nope. It’s fucking bad.

It’s even worse than it would have been otherwise simply because it’s the third episode in a row(!) about ALF dealing with his affections for someone. He sure does rebound quickly, doesn’t he? Last week it was his ex-girlfriend Rhonda that he never dated, and the week before that it was Jodie. Remember Jodie? ALF sure as hell doesn’t. Fuck you, Jodie! You depressed blind nobody!

This week it’s Lynn. Which totally isn’t creepy at all. It starts immediately when Lynn hangs up the phone and announces that Scott Maynard wants to put his band equipment in her garage. “Band equipment” is a pretty obvious euphemism for his penis, but I’m not quite sure which of Lynn’s holes is being referred to as her “garage.” I guess I’ll just make a point of watching carefully.

ALF gets jealous and presses her about whether or not she finds Scott more attractive than him. The family just sits there listening to this, I guess, because, hey, it’s just an alien that lives in their laundry room making it very clear that he’d like to fuck their daughter after they go to bed. No biggie.

Scott is coming over in fifteen minutes, which means Lynn has to cancel her “date” with ALF to redecorate his room. Since they live together and it’s not like either of them do anything with their miserable lives I don’t know why they couldn’t just postpone it until tomorrow, or even later that night, but ALF’s pretty heartbroken. I know I complained about having three episodes in a row with similar plots, but I’m okay with it because each of them focuses around ALF’s increasing sadness, and at this rate the season finale will be about him slitting his wrists over the bathroom sink.

The credits come up and I see that this episode was written by Jerry Stahl. Now, I can’t say anything about this personally, but Stahl is the one that several commenters here have identified as the most likely candidate for my One Good Writer theory. Apparently he wrote a book called Permanent Midnight about his experiences writing for television, and it was later made into a movie. I haven’t read or watched either, but I’m willing to defer to folks who have. Stahl’s later credits certainly suggest he was capable of a lot more than writing for a slutty puppet.

Of course, the fact that Stahl is the credited writer for this episode doesn’t necessarily mean much. It’ll be interesting to see if this one bears a stronger stamp of the One Good Writer than the other ones do, but ultimately it’s pretty moot. The way these shows tend to work is that, yes, there is a credited writer (or sometimes more), but it’s actually “written” by a full staff of people. Who they decide to credit will vary from show to show, but usually it’s the person who pitched the initial idea (whether or not the final product is anything like what he or she envisioned), or the person who took the time to organize everyone’s contributions into a final script (whether or not he or she pitched any ideas that made it into the episode). So, it’s a little confusing. If this episode is great, that doesn’t necessarily reflect on Stahl. Likewise, if this episode is lousy, that doesn’t necessarily mean he wasn’t the most talented one in the room. It just means he got stuck typing up everyone else’s bullshit.

I’ll spoil it for you: he got stuck typing up everyone else’s bullshit.

ALF, "Don't It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?"

Scott arrives, and Lynn was right! He’s a total babe. Hunka hunka! Just get a load of that sweater. If that doesn’t scream “teenage rock musician,” I don’t know what does.

There is actually a decently funny moment when he says that his band is no longer The G-Men, because they found out some other band already had that name. Then he holds up a bass drum that reads DOORS. It’s actually an alright moment, but Scott doesn’t get any characterization beyond this. I thought maybe his schtick would be that he’s a bonehead or something, but I don’t even know what his schtick is. His only joke in the entire episode is holding up that drum, so I guess the writers didn’t give him one. It’s a shame, because this is the kind of joke that would work better if they carried it a little further and let it give us some insight into who he is.

Whatever. I’ll take what I can get. While I’d rather this joke serve as some character work, I need to just accept the fact that he’s not a character; he’s a sweater with some meat stuffed inside of it. I’ll just be happy the show got a relatively appreciative “hm” out of me.

Actually this scene isn’t so bad, probably because Lynn’s acting works so much better in this context. She’s nervous around Scott, so, while I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, her “too careful” enunciation of her lines works very well. Of course she’d make a point of speaking deliberately…she’s worried about making a fool out of herself in front of the guy she likes. She fidgets with his instruments, too, and it’s kind of a nice moment.

ALF, "Don't It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?"

But then the show remembers it’s about ALF, so ALF starts poking his head into shot in the presumable hopes of seeing Scott take Lynn’s shirt off.

She keeps trying to wave him away and she shouts “No!” when Scott asks her out, but really she’s talking to ALF, only she can’t say that, so she makes up an excuse about swatting a locust and Jesus Christ did this scene fall apart.

ALF, "Don't It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?"

ALF gives up on seeing teenaged nip and ropes Brian into helping him decorate his room instead. He has the boy paste wallpaper all over the windows, and Kate comes in and gets upset.

Which, hey, good for her. ALF has proven week after week that he doesn’t misunderstand any human concepts at all, which means that he must be wallpapering their windows just to be a dick.

ALF asks Kate for advice on women, but he does so in such a way that she thinks he has a crush on her. Her response is that women love poetry, so ALF starts writing a poem.

I’m not blaming ALF here, but I’m curious where this cliche came from. You always hear advice like this on sitcoms, but when in the whole of human history did any little boy impress the girl he liked by writing her a poem? More likely he’d just be exposing his feelings in the most clumsy and inexpert way possible, and he’d be providing her with physical evidence of his awkward advances that she can show her friends on the bus ride home and then they all laughed at me. :(

ALF, "Don't It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?"

ALF tries setting his poem to music, and Willie walks in on him. Willie says, “AAAALF,” and ALF replies, “WHAAAAT.” I don’t think I’m looking too deeply into this to see it as a dig at Max Wright’s line delivery, and it’s kind of funny that the poor guy was asked to be the butt of a joke about how shitty an actor he is.

There’s another dig at Max Wright immediately afterward…or, at least, I think there is. He asks ALF if he can see his poem, and then he reads it out loud. “Take a look at me / and tell me what you see. / Just another pretty face?” Then Willie looks at ALF’s hideous visage and says, “…very amusing!”

It’s obviously a joke, but the fake audience doesn’t laugh its fake laughter, which has to be a deliberate choice. Maybe Wright complained about not getting any funny lines, so Fusco and crew gave him one to shut him up and then just twisted the knife later by not pasting any laughter after it.

ALF, "Don't It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?"

Willie then tries to turn the poem into a song, and the entire history of popular music was just a prelude to this moment, when it’s all revealed to be just one long, elaborate joke on mankind.

ALF tries to make himself vomit, and it’s the only time I’ve felt anything like empathy with him.

It’s really bad, but…well, that’s okay. Because the point is that Willie’s really bad.

But just you wait, friends. Because this doesn’t compare to the mountain of shit that’s yet to come…and that one’s unintentional.

ALF, "Don't It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?"

Brian is sleeping, ALF is setting his awful poetry to awful music, and Lynn is getting digitally violated by Scott at a drive-in, which means Willie and Kate have the house to themselves. Kate makes some romantic overtures toward him, but fortunately Willie doesn’t reciprocate, sparing her from a night of sluggish, oily fucking.

The phone rings, and it’s Mrs. Ochmonek. Wait, isn’t she dead? If she’s not dead, then why the fuck was ALF praying to her in the last episode? Maybe they aired these two out of sequence. I don’t know. Either way she doesn’t appear in the episode, so maybe she’s calling from beyond the grave to complain about ALF bashing out shitty music in the garage at all hours of the night. It makes sense, actually…I don’t think death could prevent me from complaining about ALF either.

Willie tells Kate about it, and explains that ALF is setting a poem to music. Kate replies by saying that she thinks it’s because ALF has a crush on her.

ALF, "Don't It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?"

And there you go, folks. The only time Willie Tanner has ever smiled, and it’s because he’s laughing at his ugly hag of a wife believing that anybody could ever be attracted to her.

Remind me, please, why Kate is with this putz?

Of course, belittling his wife for being horribly undesirable is really just Willie’s idea of foreplay, so Kate leans in seductively, and Willie makes a sex face that will not only get him laid, but also ensures that I never want to get laid again.

ALF, "Don't It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?"

In another stroke of luck, though, ALF interrupts their tender moment and they no longer have to pretend to be attracted to each other. He is holding a VHS and explains that it’s a “rock video” that he made for Lynn. This makes Kate leave, because she’s upset, I guess, that ALF doesn’t want to fuck her.

Willie also leaves, upset, I guess, that ALF doesn’t want to fuck his wife.

These concerns seem to override for both of them the fact that they’ve just learned that ALF wants to fuck their daughter.

This is messed up on all kinds of levels, folks. I can’t even bring myself to unpack it. Just make a list of the ways in which this isn’t messed up, because that will be a lot shorter.

ALF, "Don't It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?"

Lynn and Scott come home laughing at something we don’t get to hear, because God forbid the writers of ALF have to write a joke.

ALF spies on them through the window and starts shouting insults and threats at the boy to scare him off, because it’s been well established by this point that ALF is the only one who is allowed to insert anything into any members of the Tanner family.

Really, people. This show. It’s so…ugh.

It’s so gross. When I started doing these reviews I expected to be disappointed by how unfunny it was, and at least mildly embarrassed that I liked it so much as a kid. But I didn’t expect every episode to deteriorate into some kind of alien sex festival.

It’s terrible. The whole time I was watching this I wanted Scott to take Lynn away from whatever the hell was screaming at them from inside the house. Instead, though, he leaves alone, probably to think about what character trait he’d eventually like to pick up for himself.

ALF, "Don't It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?"

We’re getting closer, folks. We’re getting closer to that moment.

But first Lynn comes inside to yell at ALF for fucking up her one chance to get date raped by a rock musician. Willie comes out to find out what the hell is going on, but it’s not like it matters because he’d never, under any circumstances, punish the alien.

ALF, "Don't It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?"

He pulls up a chair to discuss “the facts of life” with ALF, which means he’s about to have the sex talk with a creature from outer space, while his daughter sits on the other site of the couch observing. I couldn’t imagine a more awkward scene if my life depended on it, and it’s not helped by the fact that there’s a plate between them covered with what looks like a small child’s bones.

ALF ate a kid I guess.

Sure. Why not.

Willie goes to bed because he just taught the creature that’s currently lusting after his teenaged daughter how to have sex, so his work here is done.

ALF, "Don't It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?"

ALF reveals to Lynn that he made a rock video for her and SERIOUSLY WHAT THE FUCK ARE THOSE BONES

She wants to see it, but he refuses to show her. She recites to him the moral of tonight’s episode, which is that you should never feel ashamed about videotaping yourself singing about the sex you’d like to have with an underaged girl of a different species. He takes the lesson to heart, and I hope all of you will, too.

ALF, "Don't It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?"

ALF asks Lynn to turn the VCR on, because the midget had the day off and the puppet can’t leave the couch.

The video starts and it’s just a slow zoom on the drum kit, and I’m sure Scott won’t mind that ALF scraped off the DOORS thing and replaced it with a sticker bearing his name and his clearly alien face, because seriously fuck trying to hide the fact that an alien lives here anymore. Just fuck it all forever.

ALF, "Don't It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?"

And then…

And then.

Oh yes, ladies and gentlemen.

And then.

ALF, "Don't It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?"

Yup.

This happened.

ALF filmed himself singing his song to Lynn, cutting between different takes of him, I guess, at different instruments and wearing clothes meant to evoke famous rock stars. In one shot he’s dressed like Bruce Springsteen* and in another he’s dressed like Elton John, who’s very well known for getting all the girls.

It’s really bad. Really, really bad.

And it only gets worse.

ALF, "Don't It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?"

He’s singing this really shitty song which is probably called “You’re the One That’s Out of This World,” and I feel humiliated just for watching it.

I know it sounds silly, but while I was taking notes and making screengrabs I was genuinely afraid that I would drop dead at my computer, and somebody would find my body and see what I was watching. That was a serious source of concern for me.

I mean, just look at this shit.

ALF, "Don't It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?"

Yep, this must be why people remember “Don’t It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?” as being such a lousy episode. Prior to this it was just bad in a sort of vague, lamely predictable way, but watching a bunch of ALF puppets performing a song about how fuckable Lynn is definitely elevates this to brave new peaks of shitness.

Seriously. Just LOOK AT THIS.

ALF went all out for his music video, rigging up pyrotechnics, fog machines and laser light shows in the garage. And I’m not even going to question how he edited all this shit together. It’s not enough that ALF knows how to play all of these instruments? He also has to have comprehensive knowledge of how to work videography equipment?

I hate this.

I hate this, I hate this, I hate this.

And it KEEPS GOING.

ALF, "Don't It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?"

End! Why won’t this end? This is the longest three minutes of my life.

I guess ALF’s supposed to be dressed up like one of the guys from ZZ Top now, but it just looks like he found a shitty Santa Claus costume in the garage.

How long is this fucking video? It’s been nothing but guitar solos for God knows how long. Did they run out of lyrics? Then why not just end this stupid thing? We don’t need to see a puppet pretending to play instruments. It isn’t funny or interesting. It’s just happening and it won’t end and there aren’t any jokes and the music is fucking terrible and these pointless solos are just padding out a sequence that was already pure padding.

Did they think we’d be impressed by ALF’s musicianship or something? He’s not real, you know. He’s a piece of cloth holding a guitar while somebody else’s uninspired rock solo is dubbed over it in post. We get the point after about ten seconds…we don’t need to watch the extended cut.

ALF, "Don't It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?"

It’s not over. ALF is playing the saxophone.

Did the writers just harbor secret dreams of being rock stars or something? Is this music video their chance to show off what they’re capable of? If it is, I can see why they ended up writing for ALF.

It’s so out of place. None of the lyrics are even comic. I guess they didn’t want to ruin this beautiful performance with a laugh track, so they left out all attempts at jokes.

I don’t get it. Did they really think this was a good song or something? There’s no other reason to give over the whole final fifth of your episode to it — not to mention the fact that the whole rest of the episode was building up to it — if it’s neither good nor funny.

I can’t understand this. I can’t even comprehend what I’m watching and WHY THE FUCK WON’T IT END

ALF, "Don't It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?"

One of the ALF puppets is at a computer while the rest of the ALF puppets noodle around endlessly, and the ALF puppet at the computer watches instruments and music notes come flying out of the computer because holy mother of cockshit how long is this crap

ALF, "Don't It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?"

It’s still going. This must have been the easiest episode to write ever. It’s just some horse shit about ALF wanting to fuck Lynn, then there’s one page that says, “ALF dicks around on guitar until the credits roll.”

Done. Another masterpiece in the can.

My Christ is this painful. I actually never want to listen to music again. I need to avoid triggering memories of this at all costs, because I don’t think I could live through it a second time.

ALF, "Don't It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?"

It does finally end, though, and Lynn tells ALF that she really appreciates the nonsensical bullshit she just watched that was mainly just ALF fucking with Scott’s instruments and barely about her at all, but she’d rather be sexually violated by boys of her own age and genus.

ALF is cool with this, probably because he knows he can do whatever he wants to her while she’s asleep and there will never be any consequence to his actions.

Then the music video plays again under the end credits because it’s been almost a full fucking minute since we saw it last and boy howdy do the ALF writers hate you.

This was probably the worst episode yet. Analyze it yourself in the comments, because I refuse to think about it any more than I already have.

Fuck you, ALF.

—–
* When I was a kid I actually had an ALF puppet that was dressed as Bruce Springsteen. I guess that comes from this episode, but it could just be a coincidence since they also made ones where he was dressed as a chef and a gynecologist and shit like that. In addition I had a stuffed Jodie doll that I kept locked in a box where nobody would ever think about it.

Travelin’ Man

December 4th, 2013 | Posted by Philip J Reed in Meta - (2 Comments)

We are off!

I just wanted to take a moment to let you know that as of tomorrow, I’ll be off to the motherland for a week or so. I do have some stuff scheduled to go up in my absence, so obviously keep refreshing this page every half hour, like you agreed to do when you came here in the first place. Things won’t go quiet when I’m gone…I just won’t be around.

Of course I won’t be checking my email regularly (it’s a vacation, yo), so if you do need to reach me, be aware that I probably won’t be responding quickly. Also, I won’t be monitoring the site as closely as usual, so try not to start any fights or leave too many comments about your cheap, home-made Viagara. The community here is a great one, so I don’t expect any problems…but even so, play nicely.

The ALF reviews will continue uninterrupted, as I’m really hoping I can make it through the entire first season without missing a single week. I’ll probably take a short break at that point, but my goal is to actually see something through for the first time in my miserable life. It’ll be fun!

Also, did you notice the new ALF archive page? You can see all the upcoming episodes, and try to guess what they’re about from their titles. Whatever you guess, you’ll be wrong, because nothing ever happens in this awful show.

This is also a great time to work on your submission for The Lost Worlds of Power! We’ve received seven great ones so far, and you still have about two months before the deadline (Jan 31). Get cracking!

And don’t forget about the First Annual Noiseless Chatter Christmas Party, on December 23. It’ll be a live stream (with cutting edge chat room technology!) of the ALF Christmas special, along with some other goodies. Or maybe I should say baddies! Ha! I kill me.

Finally, buy me stuff because it’s xmas. Or, don’t. It’s definitely up to you, but I made a wishlist so I’mma pimp it God dammit.

See you soon!

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