Noiseless Chatter Spotlight: Rushmore (1998)

Pipe dreams, dad.
I’m a barber’s son.

When it came time for me to decide which film to spotlight for Wes Anderson month, I found it to be a pretty difficult decision. I could easily have turned to personal favorites The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and rattled for a few thousand words about why I think they’re great. Or I could have done a piece about why The Darjeeling Limited feels like Anderson catching himself off guard, with mixed — though ultimately excellent — results. And, of course, I could have written a piece about either Bottle Rocket or Fantastic Mr. Fox, giving myself an opportunity to explore critically my misgivings.

But all of that would have been almost too easy, especially when, all month long, Rushmore has been calling out to me, and attempting to instill itself in my mind as the perfect ambassador of Anderson’s form and methods. Eventually, I caved to its charm and confidence, and accepted what it told me wholesale. Rushmore positioned itself so effectively in my mind the same way Max Fischer positions himself so effectively in the film: by already believing itself to be right. That’s also how Anderson, at his best, manages not only to overcome contrived situations and wooden performances, but to harness their dormant energy and ultimately use them to his creative advantage. It’s a whole lot of charm, a larger amount of confidence, and a willingness to invest absolutely everything. Rushmore embodies all of that perfectly.

After all, Rushmore itself is a movie about manipulation, and I mean that in both the constructive and reductive senses of the word. Max Fischer is seemingly a 15-year-old omni-prodigy, though he doesn’t happen to be particularly good at anything. Or, perhaps, he’s not particularly good at anything other than manipulating people into thinking he’s good at things. It’s enormously telling — and appropriate — that the only thing that earns Max any genuine accolades throughout the course of the film is his work as a playwright.

Writing and directing plays allows him to work with his most effective resources: the tools of manipulation. Every line spoken, every step taken, every lighting decision and element of background animation are within his control, and that’s how he likes it. By default, Max is not easily shaken. Upon given notice that he’s being placed on sudden-death academic probation and may be kicked out The Rushmore Academy, he responds coolly and attempts to strike a reasonable bargain to remain enrolled. By contrast, when one of his actors fails to deliver a minor line in his stage adaptation of Serpico, Max becomes emotional, aggressive, and instigates physical violence.

Plays are where Max feels the most control, and they’re where he can rely on retaining that control. As evidence, it’s no coincidence that his assemblage of actors go under the name The Max Fischer Players. These are Max’s projects, in his hands and under his control, and if anything threatens his complete dominion over them he feels threatened, and he will lash out.

It’s also no coincidence that hands are a recurring motif in Rushmore. In fact, the film is largely — arguably entirely — about Max’s relentless manipulation of the world around him. Interestingly, the word “manipulate” itself derives from the Latin manus, which means hand. Manipulating means literally to position by hand. The word “manufacture” shares a similar original, meaning to create by hand, and both “manipulate” and “manufacture” feel like inextricable parts of Max’s daily routine. (The Latin connection is also a pleasant surprise when considering this within the context of the film.)

All of this goes to justify and explain the film’s compulsive interest in hands, and what one can do with them. Perhaps most overtly, Max lies about receiving a handjob from Mrs. Calloway, the mother of his chapel partner Dirk, which is an interestingly specific fabrication. Handjobs also factor into Dirk’s deliberately needling letter to Max later in the film, when Dirk claims he witnessed Miss Cross and Mr. Blume giving them to each other. The comedy comes from the fact that Dirk clearly doesn’t know what a handjob is — they’re rather necessarily one-sided in heterosexual relationships — but when Max believes it, he reveals that he doesn’t know either. It’s something that sounded appealing to Max, and its emphasis on handiwork — so to speak — fits in perfectly with his personal ethos, and lent itself to a thematically fitting lie.

Miss Cross also invokes the concept of a handjob when she asks Max what he’d tell his friends if they did sleep together. She also asks whether or not he’d claim that he fingered her…another clearly (and more accurately phrased) reference to his hands in a sexual sense.

Less obscenely, Max uses his hands to make statements that he cannot — or chooses to not — make through his words. He orders a construction crew to shut down by gesturing to them, he signals to a disc jockey to play a song he’s selected specially for the occasion, and he flashes Dr. Guggenheim the middle finger after starting a fire outside of his office window. For an artist, particularly one who engages regularly in strongly physical extra-curricular activities, the hand can be as expressive or more expressive than the voice. Even his handwriting is deliberately considered and executed, with a careful calligraphy employed even his least formal note taking.

Max’s hands serve as a clear symbol of who he is, and of what he does. That’s why when Dirk refuses to take his hand after a school-yard scuffle, it’s much more clearly a rejection of who Max is as a person than a simple — though loaded — refusal to help him up. Dirk eventually apologizes for not taking his hand, and Max, in the same conversation, apologizes for claiming that his mother gave him a handjob. A hand caused both insults, and an apology — pardon the phrasing — waves them away. Soon afterward Max overcomes his funk by taking the kite from Dirk and flying it himself…a physical engagement and act of control that immediately causes him to begin brainstorming a new endeavor: The Kite Flying Society, with a flood of names for potential members following close behind. It’s Max regaining control…however far removed from what he might have lost on his way down.

This unstoppable yearning for absolute control is endemic to Anderson as well, and the meticulous structuring of each of his films — starting, of course, with Rushmore — makes that clear. Like Max, there’s not a set detail that escapes his notice, or that could possibly receive too much of his consideration and attention. Like Max, he demands limitless artistic control over his actors, their wardrobes, and the soundtracks playing behind them. And, like Max, his critics would argue that in this search for clinical perfection, he misses the human element that makes these pieces of art worth creating.

The latter is a viewpoint I don’t particularly endorse, but it does mean that Anderson’s taking a sideways approach to humanity, which to some is one of his clearest hallmarks and to others is one of his most distracting tendencies. For Max, it was more a question of realizing that those around him — along with the world as it actually is, as opposed to how he wishes it to be — are beautiful in their own way, and worthy of his respect and appreciation for who they are. Max wants to see the world as a series of purposefully constructed moments marching toward a grand statement or triumph…which, it must be said, is exactly the environment Wes Anderson creates for him within the film. But, along the way, those moments reveal weakness, and a genuinely pained emotional core.

It’s not until the end of the film that Max can accept that, sometimes, we just need to take the world for what it is, and realize that while we can’t have everything we think we want, we can live a perfectly fulfilled life with what we have. His father may only be a barber, but that’s a disappointment only in the relative sense that he’s not a neurosurgeon…a fiction Max invented for the sole purpose of being taken more seriously, but which instead proves to be a painfully distinct schism between his fantasy and the real world around him.

And Margaret Yang, a classmate whom he remakes into something more attractive by removing her glasses, doing her hair and dolling her up with makeup, fails to capture his fancy even after all of his meddling. When he dances with her at the end of the film and is sweetly embarrassed by the possibility that she might now be his girlfriend, it’s the real Margret that he finally embraced…not the deliberately manufactured fiction that he put on display in front of everybody. (It’s also worth noting that the character of Margaret Yang was originally intended to have a missing finger — a concept that was latter reappropriated for use in The Royal Tenenbaums but would have even further advanced this film’s manual infatuation.)

Max Fischer’s world is less a place to live than it is a stage upon which he intends to will to life a carefully shaped destiny. He cultivates the world like a gardener, pruning what doesn’t work, attending to what does, and if there’s anything missing that he really wants, he’ll go out there and plant it himself. It’s precisely the opposite of Herman Blume’s worldview, which is more akin to being trapped in a Hell of careless accumulation. He ends up married to a woman he doesn’t love, with two brutish sons he never expected to have, and he’s envious of a 15-year old boy…not because he has everything together — he’s already heard from Dr. Guggenheim what a lousy student Max is — but because he seems to have everything together.

Max’s confidence is seductive. It doesn’t matter to Mr. Blume what Max’s situation actually is — from bad grades to being a simple barber’s son — it matters to him that Max has found a way to thrive within those circumstances, something Blume’s not been able to do. Of course, Max’s very act of thriving is confined to a rather thin and obvious bubble, but it’s more than Blume has, and it’s understandable that he would be seduced by that, just as fans of Wes Anderson’s are seduced by his own, just as clearly manufactured, bubble. It’s a worldview that certain people — Blume and ourselves — active want to buy into.

As much as Max attempts to restructure the world around him through sheer force of will, Blume — far too late — now attempts the same thing with Max. After all, Ronnie and Donnie are the two sons he never thought he’d have. The unspoken sentiment here is that Max is the son he thought he’d have: an achiever, a charmer, and — seemingly — a self-assured young gentleman. That Max would probably also have preferred being born to this steel mogul is also unspoken, but equally clear, and the fact that they both settle upon Miss Cross in a romantic way that skews enormously toward the motherly on both sides is also quite telling. These are people attempting to build their worlds…Blume for the first time, and Max continually so.

They may be at different stages in their lives, but they yearn for the same things. Blume and Max may seem perfectly suited as father and son surrogates, but as Miss Cross — and many other aspects of the film, including the escalating prank war that nearly results in death — reminds us, they’re made for each other. They’re friends, whether they like it or not, and whether they know it or not. The love story would involve Miss Cross if Max had anything to say about it — his frustration here stems from the fact that, no, for once he doesn’t have anything to say about it — but, in reality, it’s Blume that’s his soul mate.

It’s a sweet movie with a clear and loving craftsmanship that keeps the tragedy from being too tragic and the comedy from removing it too far from reality. It takes place within a distinct bubble — presented literally as a play — but that’s as it should be. Rushmore is Max’s story, and Max’s story deserves to be told with as much charm and detail and structural obsession as possible.

It’s also Anderson’s story, and an exploration of the results of unchecked control. It makes for a beautiful portrait, but one that needs to be penetrated before you can see the actual human shape that’s being painted.

Guest Post: It’ll Knock Your Fox Off

Noiseless Chatter advisory: Please give a warm welcome to our first guest author! Dave, of Dave Wrote This, wrote this. He offered to write a defense of Fantastic Mr. Fox and I took him up on that immediately, because that was pretty much going to be the only Anderson film that wasn’t getting much attention during Wes Anderson Month. So thanks, Dave…and I hope everybody enjoys reading it. Spelling his and British.

For some reason Phil has a willful blind spot in the shape of Fantastic Mr. Fox. His spoiler review of Moonrise Kingdom (so far) reads: “It’s better than Fantastic Mr. Fox. Because come on.” Phil has set himself up for potential (and possibly well deserved) disappointment. I think Fantastic Mr. Fox has suffered unjustly at his hands. I’m hoping to redress the balance here.

“Alright, let’s start planning. Who knows shorthand?”
Mr. Fox

Roald Dahl was apparently not a fan of the film adaptations of his books. He felt that the 1971 film version of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, focused too much on Willy Wonka (as indeed the name change to Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory would suggest). The film also departed from the source material with the addition of a plot thread of the children spying for Slugworth and the scene of Charlie and Grandpa Joe belching their way to safety. He later described the 1990 film version of The Witches as “utterly appalling”.

“Are you cussing with me?”
Mr. Fox

It’s not clear whether Dahl simply resented the liberties taken by filmmakers with his original material or if he actually hated the films themselves. When Danny DeVito was promoting Matilda, he was repeatedly asked in British TV interviews whether the late Dahl would have approved of his film. The answer he gave, and to be fair pretty much the only answer he could give in the circumstances was something along the lines of “I hope so”.

What does this have to do with Wes Anderson?

After the success of his first five films it’s interesting that an auteur filmmaker as clearly obsessive as Anderson would choose to film an adaptation at all. Therefore whatever his choice of material it would always be a significant one. That he would choose Dahl is interesting. That he would choose Fantastic Mr. Fox is surprising. That he would choose animation is fascinating. That he would choose stop-motion animation is very revealing.

Mole: I just want to see… a little sunshine.
Mr. Fox: But you’re nocturnal, Phil. Your eyes barely open on a good day.
Mole: I’m sick of your double talk, we have rights!

Phil’s primer describes Fantastic Mr. Fox as a “curious expansion on a minor Roald Dahl story” and again I disagree. Firstly, there are no minor Roald Dahl stories. Secondly, I thought the story was very well expanded. Did I go back and re-read the original book, compare and contrast the content and then weigh up each decision that was made? No, I just thought the story on screen was better than I remembered it. I know it’s not quantifiable, but it does mean that even without the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia this film has achieved what must surely be best outcome for an adaptation: it’s an improvement on the original.

Turn the concept of this expansion on its head, Roald Dahl’s novelisation of Rushmore (with illustrations by Quentin Blake obviously) would be a simple, yet pithy, cautionary tale which would swap Anderson’s montages for a stark list and there would be far less Serpico. The story would survive this, but the subtlety of Anderson’s storytelling would not. The flavours would obviously be different.

Ash: What’s that white stuff around his mouth?
Kylie: I think he eats soap.
Mr. Fox: That’s not soap.
Kylie: Wha- why does he have that…
Mr. Fox: He’s rabid. With rabies.

In previous films, Anderson has used his live action actors like talking props and at other times like puppets. I disagree that the subtlety this affords him in live action doesn’t transfer to his animation, but I will concede that the emphasis is different. Anderson recorded this film’s dialogue on location rather than get ‘perfect’ takes in a studio, which gives the vocals a distracted quality that echoes the feel of his live action films.

The musical soundtrack is very Anderson, featuring the likes of The Beach Boys, Art Tatum and in particular the use of ‘Street Fighting Man’ by the Rolling Stones. Although, any film that features an animated Jarvis Cocker singing is probably going to be alright by me.

Franklin Bean: What are you singing, Petey?
Petey: Erm… I just kind of made it up as I went along, really.
Franklin Bean: That’s just weak songwriting! You wrote a bad song, Petey!

The other “obtrusive hallmarks” that make a Wes Anderson film into ‘a Wes Anderson film’ are all present and correct in Fantastic Mr. Fox. The onscreen captions, the family dysfunction, the colour palette, the insert shots to exploit exposition and the moments of stillness are all there. None of which is particularly Dahl. None of which matters. I think it’s safe to say that Dahl would probably never have enjoyed a film based on his work, but I think even he would respect the care and attention that went into this.

For me, Fantastic Mr. Fox sits favourably alongside the rest of Wes Anderson’s work. His biggest achievement with this film is that without obviously compromising he has successfully made both a Wes Anderson film and a Roald Dahl adaptation that the author might not have hated. Rather than assuming Moonrise Kingdom has to be better than Fantastic Mr. Fox, maybe Phil should be hoping that it’s nearly as good.

Compare & Contrast: Cross-Cultural Romance

As in the case of the Reader Mail feature from Monday, Compare & Contrast is something I’d like to do periodically on this blog, and I have a good number of things I’d like to eventually write about in this fashion. But now, since it’s Wes Anderson month, and since my girlfriend and I just rewatched Bottle Rocket, I thought this might be a great time to introduce it.

After all, for the first time, I think I’ve figured out just why that film’s handling of the central romantic relationship rubs me the wrong way. It also made me think about a pretty similar corollary in The Darjeeling Limited, which I think handles the same material far more impressively, and retroactively sheds some light on what Bottle Rocket did wrong.

The Situation

In both cases a well-enough-off American man seduces a young woman of differing cultural heritage. In both cases the men are guests at their places of employment, and the women are employed to keep them comfortable.

In Bottle Rocket, the American man is Anthony Adams, played by Luke Wilson. Anthony is staying at a motel with two of his friends when he first sets eyes on the woman, a housekeeper named Inez.

He doesn’t speak to her, but he follows her with his eyes, and his facial expression (alongside the tellingly infatuated camera work) makes clear that he feels something for her. On the surface however, there’s no real way to separate whatever he thinks he feels from simple lust.

In The Darjeeling Limited, the American man is Jack Whitman, played by Jason Schwartzman. Jack is traveling by train with his two brothers when he first sets eyes on the woman, a stewardess named Rita.

Rita appears with snacks and drinks for the brothers, and, as such, Jack does engage her directly as part of their first meeting. Compared to Anthony, he is taking an active role, and not simply staring at her from afar (it also helps that Rita is aware of both his presence, and his gaze).

Rita, in contrast to Inez, is a known quantity. Jack knows at least something about her, which makes his feelings — more on what feelings those are in a moment — more understandable than those of Anthony, who doesn’t even know what Inez sounds like…he can only know that he likes the way she looks.

Jack also much more openly has hunger in his eyes. Rita offers him savory snacks and sweet lime, but it’s an unspoken third option that he seizes immediately upon. Jack, in a word, is predatory. So is Anthony. The major difference here, however, is that The Darjeeling Limited is aware of the decidedly un-savory nature of Jack’s motives, while Bottle Rocket remains naive. As a result, it’s Bottle Rocket that fails to handle the situation maturely…something that ties at least somewhat into Anthony’s character, but also would have benefited greatly from some larger, film-wide acknowledgment that we’re not supposed to agree with his actions.

The Courtship

Instead, we have the romance playing out successfully, which indicates that Anderson didn’t quite understand how problematic the situation actually is. Anthony essentially stalks Inez, and his overtures to her don’t sound as innocent as he certainly thinks they do. In fact, they belie a predatory mentality that Anthony wouldn’t recognize in himself, in spite of the fact that he goes about trailing Inez, forcing himself into her routine and even ignoring her instructions not to follow her into a guest’s room. Anthony is essentially courting Inez in such a way that in reality would have had the police — or at least a motel security guard — called on him.

In Jack’s case, he is more aware of the lustful nature of his attraction, and even proclaims to his brothers his intentions to sleep with her. Jack Whitman is under no delusions about what he wants, and he makes no secret of it. His courtship of Rita is as accelerated and urgent as Anthony’s, but whereas Anthony believed he was in love and followed Inez around to prove it, Jack just wanted to fuck, and beckoned to Rita to follow him down.

So far, so fair. After all, different characters might feel different things, and they should certainly be going about achieving their goals in different ways. But there’s one thing we haven’t discussed yet, and it’s a big one: the language barrier.

This is where the major difference comes to light: Inez does not speak English. Or, at least, not very well. She doesn’t understand most of what Anthony is saying to her, and while that’s certainly a humorous situation as he knowingly engages her in conversation anyway, it leads to a somewhat unsettling feeling when the topics turn more serious, and we have no reason to believe that Inez understands what they’re even discussing, at least not without an interpreter. One is fortunately on hand in the form of a dishwasher named Rocky, but he is notably not present for most of Anthony and Inez’s conversations.

The advantage here is firmly on Anthony’s side. He is the one with the money, and Inez is there to help. They’re both sharing the same space, but if Inez upsets him — or any guest — she is liable to lose her job, and be replaced rather easily. Anthony has no such fears or cause for concern. It’s notable that Anthony is even more ignorant of Spanish than Inez is of English, but that need not trouble him, as she barely says anything to him in return.

This should speak pretty loudly to Anthony — and to Anderson — that Inez is not interested at best, and fearful and intimidated at worst. At one point in the film Anthony takes a small picture from Inez and, assuming it’s her, asks to keep it. It’s actually a picture of her sister that she keeps in a locket that she wears at all times. Anthony asks if he can have it anyway, and she agrees…though there’s really no reason for us to assume that she understands the question. This American man who has followed her around all day and interfered with her job has now taken from her an item of immense sentimental value. At this early stage in his directorial career, Anderson doesn’t see that that might be illustrating something other than love.

Jack, on the other hand, has no such difficulty communicating with Rita. She speaks his language, and his lack of interest in hers is a theme that The Darjeeling Limited explores in many ways across all brothers. It’s not shrugged off as Bottle Rocket allows Anthony’s to be; it’s a symptom of who Jack Whitman is, and the film doesn’t endorse his viewpoint.

When Jack engages with Rita, he does so as one adult human being to another. He is fully aware of her station in his life — and in life in general — and it’s clear that he does not consider her to be his equal (another theme explored by the film later on). He will say nice things to her and treat her well in an attempt to win her physical favors…but beyond that, there is nothing. He pretends that there is not a clear imbalance of power in their dynamic, but you can be certain he hasn’t forgotten it.

Jack’s courtship of Rita is no more or less hollow than Anthony’s of Inez. They’re exactly the same in terms of what they want — if not what they think they want — and they’re executed in similarly despicable ways. The difference is that Jack is aware of his inherent womanizing, and simply dresses it up in a nice suit when it goes out to play. Anthony is not aware of what he’s doing, and, as we’ll see in a moment, neither is Anderson.

Sealing the Deal

In each case, the elaborate seduction plot is a success. Both Anthony and Jack bed their respective sirens of the service industry, but the difference is that in Jack’s case, it makes some sort of logical sense; Rita behaves in some understandable, identifiable way. In Anthony’s case, Inez falls for him because the script requires her to do so, and what we see next is less an organic unfolding of a new relationship than it is a forced plot point without any clear connection to what we’ve seen before.

Early on, Inez is reluctant even to share the same physical space with Anthony. She’s rightfully concerned about this strange man who keeps plying her with words she can’t understand and refusing to leave her alone. She is uneasy and nervous around him, and all of that is perfectly fitting for the situation at hand. I would never argue that a capable artist can’t turn this, eventually, into a sort of complicated romance, but first the artist would need to be aware of how incompatible it is with such a traditional outcome. Instead, Anderson has Inez fall for Anthony as well, simply because she has to, in the small space of time it takes his friend Dignan to get a haircut.

She still can’t speak his language and it was only a matter of hours prior that his relentless hounding was both terrifying and unwelcome to her, but now she embraces him and kisses him in the swimming pool, because it makes for an admittedly nice image and that’s what the script told her to do. In an unintentional bit of artistic racism, Inez’s character doesn’t actually get to be portrayed like a human being with thoughts and feelings of her own.

By contrast, Rita in The Darjeeling Limited does not undergo the immediate magic of a script that needs a love scene. She does succumb to Jack, but she does so in a way that suggests that this is nothing new. Rich Americans come through here all the time, and this is just one way of coping with the endless stream. In fact, her physical engagement with Jack may well be as much a game for her as it is for him, and though he does selfishly interfere as she’s trying to do her job, as did Anthony, Rita is able to stand her ground and tell him to back off. That Jack doesn’t oblige shows us two things: that he knows what he’s doing, and that Anderson knows what he’s doing.

Rita, likewise, is not romanticized by camera angles and soft focus. Jack catches her in unflattering situations, such as when she’s smoking a cigarette through an open window. Rita is treated like a human being by the film, rather than as some heavenly agent of wish-fulfillment that doesn’t need a personality of its own. She can stand up to Jack, she can stand up to her boyfriend, and she can make her own decisions. Eventually she even has the strength to call Jack on his bullshit. That one of her decisions is to sleep with him anyway may well reflect poorly on her, but it at least does not reflect inhumanly on her.

The actual sex scenes as well as also ripe for comparison. In the case of Bottle Rocket, Anthony trots romantically around in search of Inez, whom he finds cleaning a vacant room, because she’s a minority and that’s what they do when they’re not washing dishes. She obligingly lays down and undresses, the strains of “Alone Again Or” by Love fills the air, and the two unlikely (and unrealistic) love birds smile like children and enjoy each other beneath an artfully fluttering sheet. In short, it’s exactly what Max Fischer imagined a night with Miss Cross would be like in Rushmore…before she dashed his naive and idealized view of sex. As lovely as this scene is out of context, it doesn’t fit into the actual flow or characterization of anything we’ve seen before, and, as such, it just makes it seem as though Anderson still had some growing up to do.

He’s certainly grown up by the time of The Darjeeling Limited, as Jack’s sex with Rita is raw, impersonal, and not romanticized in the slightest. The two don’t even bother to disrobe, the only soundtrack is the train rattling noisily around them, and any possibility of romance is dashed by Jack’s abrupt digital penetration and Rita’s instructions not to cum inside of her.

It’s not romantic, and it’s certainly not sexy. But Jack and Rita don’t want romance, and they don’t care if they’re sexy. They want to have sex, and they have neither the time nor interest to make it anything more meaningful. When Anthony beds Inez, the movie presents it to us as a grand, triumphant moment for both of them. When Jack takes Rita against the wall of a moving train, the movie presents it to us as something that happened. And that’s okay, because when two strangers have sex, that’s all that it is.

That might sound like a kind of cheap way to put it, but not if you’ve ever fucked before it isn’t.

The Resonance

In other words, the big difference between these two films is that The Darjeeling Limited is aware of what’s happening, and presents it realistically. Bottle Rocket is not at all aware of what’s happening, and so is able to present it in a much more romanticized light. The latter sounds appealing, but it serves as a barricade for the audience. The former they can believe in, but the latter seems to exist somewhere without them, separate — and notably so — from how they could have reasonably expected these events to transpire.

This is clear as well from contrasting the ways these men express their feelings to others. In Anthony’s case, he picks up a crayon and doodles Inez — tellingly without eyes or a mouth but with pronounced mammaries — riding a horse. The horse has nothing to do with Inez, or with any of her interests, or with anything he could possibly know about her. In fact, the only word he scrawls alongside the picture, three times, is her name…again, one of the very, very few things he knows about her, which should really remind the audience how shallow this “love” must be, in spite of everything the film wants to tell us to the contrary.

In Jack’s case, he expresses himself through the clearly more mature method of writing fiction. (I’m not trying to put my own literary tendencies on a pedestal here…I just think it’s safe to say that writing fiction is more or less universally understood to suggest more maturity than drawing on the backs of placemats with crayons.)

We don’t know that he will write about Rita, but we do know that he wrote about his experiences at the Hotel Chevalier and at Luftwaffe Automotive…two other scenes in the film that Jack could only process by writing about them. In fact, Jack may well not write about Rita. Why would he? She is one of many woman he will sleep with, and it’s possible that he won’t even remember her name.

Jack has a method of dealing with things — or, perhaps, a method of avoiding having to deal with them — and it’s up to him whether or not Rita should ever factor into that. She might not…she means nothing to him, and he always knew that. So did the film.

Anthony labors under the misapprehension that Inez means more to him than she really could, and so he picks up a crayon and gets to work. We do see Anthony doodle once more in the film — a nice flipbook animation of Dignan pole-vaulting during their upcoming heist — but it’s more a way of passing the time than it is any serious and mature exploration of the feelings and concerns racing around inside of him. Point: Whitman.

The Aftermath

For Anthony, he and Inez get to live happily ever after, at least as far as the film is concerned. We leave Dignan in prison, Bob Mapplethorpe is getting along with his brother, and Anthony is happy with Inez, who plans to send Dignan a care package. Everything’s worked out just fine for these two crazy kids who couldn’t understand a word each other said and had nothing in common or any reason to connect or to continue corresponding, let alone develop their relationship into anything larger than “housekeeper” and “that creepy guy who fucked the housekeeper.”

It feels unearned, not least because Inez doesn’t even get to show up in person at the end of the film and let us know — in some way — what she’s feeling. We see that it makes Anthony happy, and that’s enough. Or is supposed to be. In reality, it just feels disjointed. Inez recoiled from him, then slept with him, then said she loved him, and then apparently entered into a serious relationship with him, but we never get any insight into why, or into how she might be feeling. Does Rocky still come along on their dates to translate? Bottle Rocket frames the situation as a triumph of romance, but it just feels like a story we can’t understand…perhaps as though it’s being told in an unfamiliar language.

For Jack there is no aftermath, because he was always aware that there wasn’t a relationship in the first place. There was no love involved. They had sex. Jack would have liked to have had more. When the Whitmans are kicked off the train Rita leans out of a window to offer him savory snacks, and something very strange and unexpected happens: she cries.

Unlike in Bottle Rocket, where emotion was constantly abound whether or not it was needed, appropriate or earned, here emotion was never part of the arrangement. Rita cries for Jack, because she feels sorry for him. Jack, hoping it’s not as personal as it really is, assumes she must have accidentally gotten maced during the brotherly spat that got them ejected.

He remains distant, and cold. He’s more comfortable without the personality, without the investment, and without the emotion. He walks to keep pace with the train as it pulls away, as the strains of “Charu’s Theme” play behind him. There was no music during the sex and no real soundtrack to the seduction, but here, at last, is Jack’s artistic overture toward romance: the goodbye. For Jack, the romance is in the heartbreak. He may not feel compelled to make every sexual encounter one to remember, but he sure knows how to make an exit.

Wes Anderson, as noted above, would do much better with handling cross-barrier romances in the future, whether it’s teacher / student, adopted siblings, or the stunted courtship of Ned Plimpton and Jane Winslett-Richardson. He made one mistake early on, but after those awkward romantic fumblings, he sure grew up fast.

Reader Mail: Art From Artifice

Reader / humorist / friend (titles in ascending order of importance) David Black wrote in recently and asked a very interesting question. He was wondering if the obtrusive hallmarks of a Wes Anderson film could also be serving as barriers, holding his films back from being great in their own right. In other words, does Anderson’s strict adherence to being Anderson restrict the growth of his films?

My first instinct, of course, is to respond with a simple no, hit David very hard with the Royal Tenenbaums script book, and never speak of it again. But he’s far away and I actually do think it’s a topic worthy of consideration. After all, Anderson’s films — like Anderson’s characters — do erect walls between themselves and others. It’s part of what defines their identities. Dignan plots every step of his life 75 years in advance, Steve Zissou surrounds himself with script writers, camera men and original score composers so that he’ll never have to cope with an unstructured moment, and Francis Whitman distributes daily itineraries — laminated, natch — to keep his brothers ever on task.

Those are his characters, of course, but in a larger sense Anderson does the same thing. His scenes are dense and detailed, his dialogue deliberate and cautiously delivered, and his soundtracks meticulous. There’s rarely a moment in any of his films that feels spontaneous; it would work against what he does, and it would be well outside of his comfort zone. The films of Wes Anderson are almost painfully composed. You may not feel that his scenes are particularly lively or energetic, but allow your eyes to drift a bit to the margins and you’re going to find evidence of truly passionate, boundless and insatiable creativity…a carefulness of purpose that seeps much deeper into every scene than the words his characters are asked to speak.

Which, I think, becomes quickly the crux of my response. The hallmarks to which Dave alludes are clear, and his question about their accidentally subverting Anderson’s emotional thrust is valid. After all, what are some of the most common criticisms about Anderson’s films? Read a negative review or ask somebody who’s not particularly a fan, and you’re bound to hear things like “unnatural dialogue,” “unrealistic characters,” “coldness.” Perhaps Anderson is missing the forest for the trees, so to speak, spending so much time and investing so much of his energy in refining the details that he forgets to — or neglects to, or is unable to — provide an engaging and resonating emotional experience.

The question, as I say, is valid. The answer, however, relies on another question: is Anderson’s trademark detachment and ennui structurally consistent — or tonally sound — with whatever grander point he’s trying to make? Kurt Vonneget’s fourth rule of fiction writing is this: Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action. He was speaking about literature, but we can apply that to film as well, so long as we broaden our concept of the word “sentence.” And even though Vonnegut himself actively encouraged breaking these rules, it provides us with a decent baseline of intent: do each of Anderson’s details either reveal character or advance the action?

I would absolutely say yes, though Anderson’s intentions lean far more toward revealing character than advancing action. After all, in each of his films the seeming narrative thrust is subverted and replaced before it really gets moving, whether it’s Max getting expelled from The Rushmore Academy, Royal’s lie being exposed or the brothers Whitman being left behind by the titular train, Anderson is telling us in each case that the story is changing, all around us. We once meant to do this, but now, instead, we are going to do that. What happens isn’t important merely because it happened…it’s important because of how it made us feel. As the great Frank Zappa said, you should be digging it while it’s happening, because it just might be a one-shot deal.

Advancing the action is of comparatively little interest to Anderson, and he’s perfectly willing to bring it to a complete stand-still if it means we’ll get to spend more time learning about his characters…something that happens quite literally in The Darjeeling Limited when the train comes to a complete stop, leaving the Whitmans (and us) with an unplanned opportunity for ceremony and soul searching.

But what do Anderson’s obtrusive hallmarks — the reason Dave asked this question in the first place — have to do with this? Well, on the surface, perhaps not much. Anderson’s characters are as deliberately constructed and detailed as his sets, something even his detractors would admit, but these details can serve as deterrents to digging deeper, and finding a real human being inside. That’s something that some would call a weakness, but it’s exactly what Anderson wants. He may well overtly manufacture his characters, but since these characters overtly manufacture their lives, that’s a pretty fitting approach, thematically speaking. In fact, I think it’s much more helpful to view the question from the ground up: instead of looking at Anderson as a man creating these characters, look at the characters themselves, and then see Anderson’s methods as a way of telling their stories while remaining true to who they are.

It’s difficult — and intimidating — to dig into Anderson’s characters in order to find a shred of humanity, but that’s not Anderson’s shortcoming; it is true the personas his characters deliberately cultivate. The most obvious example of this is Richie Tenenbaum, who isolates himself at sea, and behind sunglasses, and behind a curtain of hair, to prevent anybody from seeing who he really is. After his public meltdown he very much retreated from the world, and erected barricades to keep himself safe — if not exactly sane. When he finally lets down those walls, even in a solitary, dark bathroom, he sees the damaged and weak human being within, and he attempts to destroy it.

Richie’s attempted suicide is a self-fulfilling prophecy. He was afraid that if he let anybody inside, they would hurt him. Therefore the moment he lets himself inside, he knows what must be done.

In a less drastic sense, we can see deliberately cultivated quirk serving as emotional barricades for his siblings as well, which serves to underscore the fact that Anderson chooses these details carefully, rather than slopping them on for the sake of confounding audiences. In the case of Chas Tenenbaum, the matching red track suits that he wears with his two boys are a way of both pressing his sorrow inward — his wife’s death, which must be re-internalized every time he slips into the outfit — and sheltering himself and his family from ever facing it again, with the bright red uniforms becoming, suddenly, identifiable beacons in the event of tragedy.

It’s an unspoken detail strengthened by the fact that the closest thing to a real tragedy — a car accident that kills his dog and nearly his sons — occurs once the track suits are removed. Its removal also, however, allows Chas to soak in the full benefit of a Zen garden, and without his protective shell he’s much more receptive to his father’s unexpectedly selfless gesture: buying the family a new dog. Being freed of this physical trapping allows Chas to admit to the true depths of his sorrow, something he was never able to do earlier, opting instead to storm off and internalize.

A similar — though differently functional — affectation can be seen in the case of Margot Tenenbaum, who — for reasons equally unspoken — chooses to wear a wooden replacement for her missing finger, both visually and aurally obtrusive, rather than something a bit less conspicuous. To many, this might seem like just one more of Wes Anderson’s distracting details that allow him to focus on design over character development, but for Margot it’s a symbol of her own detachment. She wears it like a scar, and draws attention to it so it won’t be forgotten.

Throughout the film she stands apart from the rest of her family, likely a result of Royal’s tendency to inform people up front that she’s adopted, and therefore not technically his. This unwitting familial detachment became a defining feature of her personality, and ultimately manifested itself physically during a visit to her biological family, where her finger is accidentally severed, and her outfit and demeanor make clear that she’s necessarily detached from that family as well. Her missing finger is a symptom, and a reminder of a completeness she will never feel.

I think that instead of Anderson’s hallmarks standing as obstructions to genuine greatness, they instead help inform a cohesive whole. His films work better with a cumulative impact, meaning more and reaching deeper the more of them you experience. One film on its own may or may not move you, but viewing several will give you a better opportunity to feel moved by his uncommon methods. And like the unreliable narrators of Nabokov or the deliberately terrifying specificity of Pynchon, these are similar devices deployed differently each time, seeming similar when viewed from a distance but, once studied, revealing themselves to be impressive variations upon what we may have thought was a barren theme.

Consider, for instance, Max Fischer in Rushmore. Max also lives an affected life, with a deliberate bearing and an impressive attention to detail. But this is a life he has manufactured in order to detract from what’s actually there: he is a barber’s son. He piles on extracurricular activities to distract from his less impressive curricular performance. He creates art, wills companionship and outright lies about his father’s vocation and sexual exploits, all in the service reinforcing a bubble around himself, constructing a world that means everything to him that he wished the world could mean on its own. He even demands control over his soundtrack, bringing a cued-up cassette tape along when he makes his move on Miss Cross, and signaling to a disc-jockey to play Ooh La La as an indication of the progress he’s made…even as such a gesture tends to call that very progress into question.

(As an amusing sidenote, Jason Schwartzman’s character in The Darjeeling Limited shares this compulsive control over his life’s soundtrack, relying on his iPod in the same way that his brother relies on his laminating machine to keep the universe in order.)

All of which leads me to believe even more strongly that Anderson’s hallmarks are not just hallmarks, but appropriate showcases for his characters, and respectful echoes of who they wish to be. Rushmore itself is structured like a play, with act breaks and a curtain call, a framing device that draws even greater attention to Max’s careful manipulation of the world around him. He constructs literal scenes on stage, but sees the world around him with a similar directorial eye. Anderson’s shots and soundtrack may have been carefully chosen, but it’s pretty fair to say that he is being true to Max, who would have chosen the same ones. Had Bert Fischer been the central character, we would instead have seen a diminished level of attention, a softer and more optimistic viewpoint, and — if the music in his barber shop is any indication — a soundtrack of cool and unobtrusive jazz.

It’s clear, I think, that Anderson’s characters need this sort of careful composition if they can ever feel at home, and he chooses locations that are conducive to such isolated structuring, whether it’s The Rushmore Academy, 111 Archer Ave. or the Belafonte research vessel. These are the worlds Anderson has created, yes, but they’re also the worlds his characters have created, plying their own layers of history and detail into every room and onto every shelf, whether it’s a massive collection of board games in the closet or a set of out-of-production action figures flanking the television, some method of keeping reality at bay…some protection against a harsh world that has already moved on, and continues to move on, without you.

I don’t think Anderson’s hallmarks serve as barricades, and they won’t as long as he continues to find new ways to apply them, and interesting directions with which he might explore his themes. I think they instead spotlight the self-inflicted trappings of his main characters, and the walls within which they remain their own prisoners. Anderson simply revels in exploring the smallness of the worlds around his characters, and mapping the boundaries that hem them in.

As an artist, he’s revealing character…albeit in an off-putting, defensive, oblique way. And what better way to be true to characters that work so hard to do the same?

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