Reading too deeply into these things since 1981

The Fault in Our Stars

I saw The Fault in Our Stars a couple of weeks ago. Somebody asked me to go, so I did, knowing nothing about it. The film was a manipulative mess, but I’m pretty sure any cancer movie has to be at least somewhat manipulative. And while it seemed to work for most people — I’m honestly not sure I’ve ever heard such a large crowd of people sobbing that heavily before — I came out of it thinking, “Well, that was fuckin’ awful.” (People don’t ask me to go to the movies often.)

But the movie’s got an 8.5 out of 10 rating on IMDB, and an 80% “fresh” rating from Rotten Tomatoes, so it can’t just be an exceptional room of blubbering idiots that enjoyed this thing. In fact, seeing what a positive reception it’s gotten more or less across the board has made me think more critically about the film, and why I’d argue it doesn’t quite work.


The Fault in Our Stars is a romance about two young characters who fall in love while dying of cancer. I don’t know their names, and I’m not going to look them up. Again, this is a recipe for audience manipulation, but I guess you can’t blame the movie for that. It’s kind of baked into the idea of any character with cancer. My problem is that everybody with cancer in this movie is beautiful.

I don’t have cancer. I’ve never died of cancer. Fortunately I’ve also never known anyone who has died of cancer. And yet I feel reasonably sure that the slow, painful, withering death from inside wouldn’t leave a corpse that looks like it belongs on the cover of Teen Vogue.

This is more than a logical inconsistency. That much I’d be okay with. This is downright cruel.

Why do these cancer patients have to look gorgeous? Wouldn’t that just make actual people suffering from cancer feel worse that they haven’t maintained their looks? The main guy in this movie had some kind of cancer that took his leg, which is very fortunate because they just need to keep him in long pants the whole time and his cancer hinders the audience in no way from fawning over his loveliness. The main girl wheels around an oxygen tank which, yeah, that’s not innately attractive, but they went out of their way to cast somebody who manages to look cute even with a tube up her nose. You can’t tell me they didn’t search long and hard for that; it’s not exactly a luxury everybody has.

This would have been a great story to tell with actors who aren’t conventionally attractive. Or, dare I say it, actors who aren’t attractive and look like they are dying.

After all, what’s the point of the cancer? To tug on the heartstrings, and that’s it. Two hot young people falling in love and porking for a while isn’t a touching story. It’s just what happens, and the fact that one or both of them may die soon is eclipsed by the fact that these are two hot young people porking, so it’s pretty hard to feel sorry for them. Fuck, that’s pretty much living the dream.

A much better story would have been about two young people who can’t rely on their looks because they’re at death’s door, having lost their sense of self-worth and their confidence, finding love with each other. Actual love that isn’t predicated on mere sexual attraction, that is, which might as well be what happened here.

One of the minor characters has eyeball cancer and so he loses his eyeballs, which conveniently allows him to wear sunglasses for the rest of the movie, and, once again, the cancer is out of sight and the character gets to look perfect. God forbid dying people don’t look dashing.

Why is a movie about kids dying of cancer so eager to hide the cancer?

It’s telling that the one character in the film who has an “unattractive” form of cancer is treated as a punch-line. He’s the leader of a support group, and it’s funny because he had to have a testicle removed. The sexy cancer kids all laugh at him, and we never get a sense that we aren’t supposed to be laughing along.

What an idiot! Why didn’t he get the smokin’ hot kind of cancer like the rest of us?

This movie sucks.


There’s a scene in this movie wherein the main cancer girl is told she can’t do something, but then she does it. Hooray, everybody’s inspired now.

…or, almost everybody. I wasn’t inspired at all. I was actually kind of horrified, because they picked a pretty disastrous thing to have her overcome.

What would you expect a scene like this to be? Maybe she spends the night in a hospital, and the next day the nurse hands some documents over to her mother to sign, because the cancer girl is too weak to sign them. But the cancer girl protests and then takes the pen and signs them and makes a sassy face at the nurse. (Who is obviously black and fat.)

You’ve seen shitty things like that in movies before, but there’s at least a kind of logic to it. The “weak” character is seen as weaker than he or she really is, and the fact that the weak character is dismissed on account of that weakness is what inspires him / her to overcome it. Cool, right?

Sure. But in this movie, that scene is massively problematic. For one, it takes place in the Anne Frank house.

Just let that sink in, please. This movie about sexy cancer kids sets their inspiring scene in the Anne Frank house.


But anyway, they are heading up to the attic to see where some uglier kid actually endured some really awful shit, and the main cancer girl has trouble climbing the stairs. She has a serious and clear shortness of breath. The crowd of people waits behind her because she can barely move as she lugs her oxygen tank up one step at a time.

Then she gets to the final ladder, and people tell her not to climb, because she’s pretty clearly going to fucking die. But she ignores them all and lugs the oxygen tank up into the attic and everybody claps.

This is a tremendously irresponsible scene. For starters, the cancer girl’s doctor explicitly told her she wasn’t well enough to make the trip overseas in the first place. She ignores this professional medical opinion that’s cost her family hundreds of thousands of dollars, with her family’s idiotic support.

Then, when she’s there, her body is giving her every sign that what she’s doing is stupid. She’s not proving some fat nurse wrong…she’s trying to prove her body wrong. Her body. Remember, that thing that’s dying? Like, right now? She won’t even let anyone hold the oxygen tank for her as she literally collapses against walls.

Is this really the thing to frame as an inspirational moment? You might as well have had her jump out of a window and walk away feeling proud that she didn’t break her spine. The fact that you survived doesn’t mean that what you just did wasn’t inordinately stupid.

Oh well. At least it leads to a crowd of people happily applauding in the attic of the Anne Frank house and FUCK I JUST REALIZED HOW AWFUL THAT IS CHRIST.

This movie sucks.


So that kid with the eyeball cancer? He has a girlfriend at the start of the movie, and then she breaks up with him. Man, that poor kid with eyeball cancer! Can you imagine anyone with a worse life?

Yes. His girlfriend. The movie doesn’t seem to realize that, though.

Early in the film they’re declaring their love for each other, but then the eyeball cancer advances to the point that the eyeball cancer doctor has to take his eyeballs out in order to get rid of the eyeball cancer. After this, his girlfriend leaves him, because she can’t handle being with a man who can’t see.

Is that kind of shallow and shitty?

Well…yeah. Sure. Of course. But what’s the alternative? If she really doesn’t love him anymore, what good does it do either of them to stay together? She told the truth. She didn’t sleep with someone else or lie about going to live with her dad or some shit…she told him what the actual problem was, even though it would make her sound superficial and like kind of a bitch. There’s an admirable bit of self-awareness there.

To me there is, anyway. The movie seems to think that this makes her a villain. The big moment of triumph in this plot thread is that the main cancer guy and the main cancer girl and the eyeball cancer guy all go to this girl’s house and throw eggs at her car. Her mom comes out to tell them to stop, the main cancer guy tells her to go fuck herself, and they keep throwing eggs at the car.

Why? Get a life, you assholes. You’re dying and you’re spending whatever hours you have left throwing eggs at the car of some girl who did nothing but exercise her right to end a relationship she was no longer happy in? If this is really eyeball cancer man’s idea of closure, then can you blame her for leaving him?

It’s very much worth noting that we hear his side of the story…and never hers. She vanishes from the film and everything we’re told about the breakup comes from him. If we’d heard her badmouthing him or making fun of him to her friends then maybe we’d see her as a bitch deserving an eggy car. As it stands, though, it’s just some girl who wanted to move on and this pack of assholes who won’t let her.

It’s problematic that, by default, we are expected to take the man’s side, even though we have no reason to believe the girl did anything out of line. It’s even more problematic that when we meet the girl, the guy is grabbing her and squeezing her tits in the parking lot. The main cancer girl even comments that she must be in pain with the way he’s groping her. And the movie sees this as a joke.

That’s a punchline. This guy is squeezing his girlfriend’s breasts so hard that she’s in physical pain in public, and that’s supposed to be funny. Yet when she leaves him because she admittedly was not mature enough to be in a relationship with somebody who has a disability, she becomes the villain.

That’s an extraordinary double-standard. Casual sexual abuse is fine. Leaving a man because you no longer love him is not.

This movie sucks.


I hate the main cancer guy. Mainly I hate how taken everyone is by his depth and intelligence. He’s not smart; he’s some dumb, pretentious teen. Which is fine…there are plenty of dumb pretentious teens out there. Hell, I’ve been one for 30 years. The problem is that everyone else reacts to him like he’s Confucius H. Christ.

He’s not smart; he’s just annoying. His “thing,” I guess, is to walk around with an unlit cigarette in his mouth, so that somebody can ask him why he’s smoking when he has cancer, and he can point out that it isn’t lit, and then explain that what he’s really doing is putting the symbol of his own death between his lips but not giving it the power to kill him or some kind of fuck you man just fucking, fuck you.

The film treats this like it’s some kind of incredible insight and wisdom. All it does is remind me of Orr from Catch-22, who walked around with crab apples in his cheeks and rubber balls in his hands. He also gave ridiculous explanations as to why he did this. But — surprise, surprise — nobody in that book saw it as insightful or wise. They just kicked his ass for being annoying.

This guy needs his ass kicked. In addition to driving like an idiot — something else the film treats as a punchline, because I guess it’s funny that one asshole that’s dying is also endangering the lives of everyone else on the road? — and being passively domineering to just about everyone he meets…which the film sees as charm, of course…he even makes his friends throw a funeral for him while he’s still alive.

See, he wants to hear them talk about how awesome he is. And they do. And then he’s like, “Yeah, I am pretty awesome.” And then they’re all, “Yeah, I know, I just talked for a while about how awesome you were and I only wish I said you were even awesomer, because you are.”

There’s no irony here at all. I can imagine a film doing some kind of shit like this, but wouldn’t it be more meaningful if the friends decided to host the living-funeral so that they could say all the things they want to say to him before he goes? It loses a lot of meaning when dickball here just tells them to do it.

The whole character of the main cancer guy is problematic. This is exactly the kind of guy that your dying high school cancer daughter should be kept away from at all costs…and yet, she isn’t. Not only that, but everyone’s life is enriched by the fact that she isn’t, because he’s magical cancer Jesus Batman.

But, see, it’s also really sad because cancer took his leg. Which, well, I guess you really can’t tell because he’s wearing long pants and walking without a limp, but, trust us, it’s like, super tragic.

This movie sucks.


I guess it’s worth pointing out that I didn’t read the book this movie is based on. Maybe the book is great. Maybe it’s more nuanced and less fucking stupid all the damn time. So when I say “THE FUCKING AUTHOR” I don’t mean the author of the book…I mean the author in the movie.

He’s played by Willem Dafoe, who is literally the only watchable thing in the whole terrible film. The character he plays, though, is lousy.

He’s this alcoholic author that the main cancer girl loves, because he wrote some shitty book that ends in the middle of a sentence which is so profound you guys he’s a literary marvel. This hollow bullshit gimmick drives the Kancer Kidzz nuts, so they write to him, and then they go visit him, which is why they end up at the Anne Frank house, because this movie is a pile of shit and I guess he’s Anne Frank’s ghost’s neighbor.

That’s all fine and good. But Cancer Jack and Cancer Jill go to visit him so they can ask what happens to the shitty characters in that shitty book after that shitty ending.

And he…oh yes…he has the audacity to say that the book is the book, and anything they’d like to know about the characters is in there.

The movie and the characters both treat this as an affront of the highest order. Really, though, you won’t find many authors worth their salt who are going to verbally regale unwanted visitors with The Further Adventures of That Character From That Thing What I Wrote.

I can’t imagine tracking Thomas Pynchon down to ask him what happened to Oedipa after the estate auction.

Actually, yes I can. He’d punch me in the dick.

I don’t know. I get frustrated when authors are portrayed this way. That isn’t how writing works, and we’re not rude for being unable or unwilling to answer questions like that. We don’t walk around with a kind of literary Toon Town in our heads. We write when we have something to say, and then we obsess over finding the perfect way to say it.

By the time a manuscript of any length leaves our hands, we’re exhausted. We’re beat. Why? Because we put everything we had into that work. Everything. So, no, some unexpected visitors from a foreign country trivializing the work we did by asking nonsensical questions that seek to turn characters we cared about into adventure-seriel archetypes probably aren’t going to be indulged in their idiocy. In fact, they probably do need to learn how to read more closely if they’re finishing books and having to track down authors because they can’t comprehend anything they just fucking read.

Willem Dasalinger even shows up at the man cancer guy’s funeral to atone for being a big ol’ meany head and offers to tell the cancer girl whatever she wants to know about the characters, but she tells him to fuck off and drives away, because what kind of asshole is he to fly halfway around the world to give her an answer to her dumbass question?

You go girl! Speed away and make him look like an idiot.

This movie sucks.

Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

March 14th, 2014 | Posted by Philip J Reed in film | review - (8 Comments)

The Grand Budapest Hotel, Review

Surprising no-one, I love the new Wes Anderson film. I’m going to get that out of the way right now. And I honestly believe this has every potential to be his masterpiece. (Of course, the man’s made at least three strong contenders for “his masterpiece” by now, so I’m positive this is a question that can’t be seriously discussed for another few decades.)

I expected to like it. The trailers looked great, it’s full of fantastic actors, and it was the first full-length screenplay that Anderson wrote solo. Those are all very promising components, and I didn’t expect they’d disappoint.

The surprise, however, came with just how good this movie turned out to be. It’s a moving, rollicking, tragicomic juggernaut of a film, and I haven’t been this deeply affected by a movie-going experience since…well…The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.

The plot of The Grand Budapest Hotel is so layered, so dense with momentum, so quick to evolve and so vast in the span of time it covers that I could fill this entire review with the most basic of summaries. There’s a reason the trailer seemed so schizophrenic; the movie doesn’t stay put.

As such, I won’t be saying much about the plot of this film, so don’t fear spoilers. I’m going to talk a lot about what I got from the film, but not necessarily much about what was visually on the screen.

Suffice it to say, however, that the core of the film is the relationship between Zero — a young, penniless immigrant who becomes employed as The Grand Budapest’s lobby boy — and his boss, the concierge M. Gustave. The two get wrapped up in a caper, a mystery, a scandal, and a creeping international conflict, all of which sets the stage for expected comedy, and unexpected profundity.

The Grand Budapest Hotel, Review

Ralph Fiennes plays Gustave with an impeccably charming air of self-importance, and at first he seems to be a classic Anderson dick in the tradition of Royal Tenenbaum or Steve Zissou, and his terse, meticulous demands of perfection seem to channel both Max Fischer and Francis Whitman. However Gustave reveals himself before long as something much more complex; he’s a dick for a noble purpose. He’s a dick because that’s the only way he knows to bring comfort to those around him. And it works.

Under Gustave’s supervision, The Grand Budapest flourishes. He might be condescending and overbearing to his staff, but it’s because Gustave knows one of humanity’s saddest secrets: societal order is not achieved…it is imposed. And if you don’t impose the order as firmly as possible, it’s a matter of time before somebody else will impose theirs upon you.

With The Grand Budapest, Gustave has imposed rigid order upon an isolated society of his own making. (It’s not just visual quirk that sets the palatial hotel upon a largely inaccessible mountaintop.) Gustave is, thematically speaking, a dictator…but he dictates benevolence.

A darkness intrudes, however, and it intrudes on multiple levels. From a creeping war — which first claimed Zero’s family and threatens to claim the fictional Republic of Zubrowka, in which this film is set — to the more personal tragedy of the murder of Gustave’s elderly lover.

There’s a brilliant moment early in film during which Gustave learns the news from the morning paper, letting his eyes roll past the massive headline announcing the invading army down to the photograph of his now deceased ladyfriend, announcing her death. It’s a perfect illustration of the way our personal tragedies, though relatively small, will always hit us harder than the larger, impersonal ones…even if it’s the larger, impersonal ones that should be demanding our attention.

It’s also a nested tragedy — one murder within the boundaries of large-scale war atrocity — which contributes to one of the movie’s main themes: layering. It’s not uncommon for Anderson’s work to see gestures, statements and plot points operating on multiple planes, but it’s never been brought to the fore in quite this way.

The opening scene of The Grand Budapest Hotel sees a young girl in a graveyard, reading from a book. That book contains the action of our film, so the young girl reading it is layer one. Layer two is the book itself, which is narrated by its author and purports, at least, to be non-fiction. The author recounts meeting a much older Zero, who tells him the story in conversation, which makes that conversation layer three. The flashbacks themselves are layer four, which is where we spend most of the film: watching the events play out. And any scene in which Zero is not present must have been relayed to him second hand, at a later point, giving us an ultimate story that’s at least five layers deep, and potentially subject to false memory or self-censorship at any one of those levels.

The Grand Budapest Hotel, Review

In evidence of that claim, the film has the older Zero admit that he’s not comfortable discussing Agatha, as it’s too painful. This would be very fair if he were speaking only about an old, lost love, but as she’s an integral part of the story we are hearing / reading / seeing, it’s a potentially problematic omission. We catch glimpses only of the less painful moments he spends with her, and, of course, the ones necessary to our understanding of the plot. The rest — including what must be the most painful moment to him — is either left unspoken or referenced so briefly and obliquely that the words do not coalesce into a visual portrait for us…it’s the conversational equivalent of something happening off-camera, and so that’s exactly what it does.

This deliberate obfuscation of the love story may be a response to Anderson’s previous film, Moonrise Kingdom, in which the love story was front and center, and which we witnessed unfold with unblinking eyes, sparing us nothing, just as the couple in question was spared nothing.

It wouldn’t be the first time Anderson directly replied to the themes of one film with the themes of his next. Rushmore was about a young boy reaching beyond his lowly station in life, with a father who loved and supported him in his ambitions to a fault. That was followed by The Royal Tenenbaums, which followed grown children who had tumbled from their higher stations in life, with a father who did not support them and whose love was debatable. Then The Life Aquatic, which had a father-son relationship as its very core and as the driving force behind every event in the film, was followed by The Darjeeling Limited, wherein the never-seen father died before the movie began, leaving the brothers Whitman to limp along in their own ways without him. (The Darjeeling Limited also begins with the father figure from the previous film, Bill Murray, being left behind by the train that bears this film’s title. It’s not the most subtle thing in the world, but it does what it needs to do.)

In fact, much of The Grand Budapest Hotel feels like a response to Anderson’s previous films, with moments of bleak darkness, unexpected violence and genuinely chilling suspense working their way into a movie by a director who is by and large pretty life-affirming.

The darkness in Grand Budapest hits twice as hard because it’s also Anderson’s most overtly comic film. Sight-gags abound — all of them perfect — and Gustave is nothing if not a fountain of caustic one-liners. There’s a cartoony set-piece that kicks off the final third of the film (arguably two cartoony set-pieces), but all of this feels like the film’s own coping mechanism for the darkness it has to face. It’s a world coming apart, and it’s already as good as gone. The film has a sense of humor about its own internal tragedies, because, if it didn’t, what would it be? It’s humanity’s way of keeping the terror at bay. It’s necessary. And it’s heartbreaking.

Moments of broad comedy give way to tragedy, which then evolves into horror…and is then joined by another moment of comedy. There’s no better encapsulation of this than Gustave provides himself, while behind bars: he tells Zero of a fellow inmate named Pinky who ridiculed him, which grew into a fistfight, which itself ended with both men seriously battered…but since then he’s come to consider Pinky a dear friend. Comedy, tragedy, horror, comedy. It’s a cycle that recurs throughout the film, and it keeps us from ever feeling confident in the balance.

And is there really any balance? The stalled cable car creaks emptily to the pulse of the soundtrack, which is lovely, but what’s to keep it from just…letting go?

The Grand Budapest Hotel, Review

It’s all cycles and layers. Layered cycles, and cycled layering. Poor Zero begins his apprenticeship having lost everything, and though he rises — in more ways than you might expect — we know from the way other things have worked in the film that he will come full circle. In fact, his very name is emblematic of a circle, and is synonymous with nothingness. And the film knows it.

Humanity is an agreement. That might be the main theme of The Grand Budapest Hotel. We create the world, even if we don’t. Everything we do and everything we don’t do is responsible for the society in which we live, whether that society is an isolated hotel, a fictional republic, a war-torn continent, or an era rapidly approaching antiquity.

We see The Grand Budapest Hotel at the height of its glorious austerity. We see The Grand Budapest as a crumbling shell that once housed greatness. We see Zubrowka as a still-bright outpost in dreary world, and we see Zubrowka fall to the hands of its conquerors.

The Grand Budapest Hotel was Gustave’s gift to humanity, but it couldn’t last. An older Zero observes that Gustave’s world was gone before Gustave even entered it. There’s a reason he enjoys romancing elderly ladies so much: it’s not just the attention — though undoubtedly he does like that — but it’s the desperate clinging to a fast-fading past. It’s a chance to hold with both arms the dwindling numbers that can still recall a brighter day.

And there’s a reason that the death of his lover is what sets the entire plot into motion, and thus the entire nested crumbling that constitutes the whole of the film. It’s an intrusion of reality, a blunt reminder that humanity is an agreement, and it only takes one person to act in violation of that agreement for everything to come falling down.

While Gustave is traveling with Zero to see his lover for one last time before she’s buried, the train is stopped and boarded by military policemen. A problem with Zero’s papers results in a rough moment of brutality, but it is stopped by one of the MPs, who recognizes Gustave as a good man who had shown him much kindness when he was a boy.

The train pulls away, and Gustave, nose bloodied and hair disheveled, begins to use this as a teachable moment. He lectures Zero about the importance and magnitude of these small flickers of humanity…but quickly abandons the lesson in favor of a defeated, heartbreaking, “Fuck it.”

There is a lesson to be learned from what happened there, but, unfortunately, it isn’t the lesson Gustave wishes it to be.

Reality encroaches. Agreements are honored, but more rarely, and only this time. Not everybody who imposes order does it for the good of others.

Gustave’s world was not only gone before he entered it, but before we entered it. By the time it’s printed in the book being read by a young girl in a cemetery, The Grand Budapest is already demolished. It no longer exists. Whatever order applied there at whatever time is no longer relevant.

At least, not unless its own faint flicker of humanity inspires another.

We create the world in which we live. Everything we do, and everything we don’t do.

Flappy Bird

Some of you might have heard about Flappy Bird, a very simple iOS game that saw an unexpected spike in popularity over the course of the past week or so. If you’re not interested in that game, don’t worry; I’m not going to talk about it, beyond using it to provide some context.

What I am going to talk about is the importance of maintaining the distance between artist and audience, and that’s something that Flappy Bird unwittingly illustrated quite well.

The simple game wasn’t exactly a critical success, but it found a large and appreciative audience all at once. To play you’d tap the screen. That was really it, but the cumbersome nature of the titular bird meant that it was downright miraculous if you made it any further than a few seconds into the game before failing. One tap equals one flap, but the physics complicated things; avoiding obstacles meant maintaining steady flight, which was quite hard to do when your bird was front-loaded and tended toward a natural face-plant.

That was the game, but that’s not why I’m talking about it. Why I’m talking about it is the fact that its developer, Dong Nguyen, has removed it as of yesterday from the App Store. His reasoning was both vague and clear; the game turned his life into a nightmare. Or, rather, those who played the game turned his life into a nightmare.

The kinds of messages Nguyen was receiving through Twitter and other media were absolutely out of line, but they were nothing compared to what happened after he announced the unavailability of his game: his life was threatened, the lives of his family and loved ones were threatened, and many in addition to that threatened to kill themselves. Whatever you might think of Nguyen’s decision to remove it from the App Store, the subsequent behavior of those who ostensibly enjoyed his game retroactively justifies his move. Why should he worry about disappointing people who would threaten homicide upon a man they’d never met?

Presumably Nguyen had fun designing the game. Presumably he also made the decision to monetize it. (It was available as a free download, but ads were shown in game.) What happened was that the fun was over, and the threats to his life and those he cared about were not worth the money. His audience, in a very direct way, killed what they loved.

This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, and the Flappy Bird debacle is just the most recent instance. While there has always been some amount of interplay between artist and audience, for the most part this flowed in entirely one direction: downhill. The artist composes upon the mountaintop, the audience waits below.

Of course there wasn’t a perfect break between them. Artists still have (and have always had) families and friends. Agents, managers, publishers. There is always somebody around who will have a chance to provide their opinions and guidance to those doing the creating. But they made up a very small portion of the audience. They were necessary exceptions.

Now with Twitter, Facebook, email, forums, Reddit and the like, artists engage with fans much more directly. Rather than a handful of close friends, artists field feedback — and demands, and threats — from hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands of members of their audience constantly. It gets overwhelming, I’m positive, and when issues do arise, things are compounded by the fact that the audience member providing feedback has the option of remaining anonymous. The artist has no such luxury.

While that’s a topic worthy of discussion — it really is, though that discussion should probably be started by somebody other than myself — what really baffles me is why such a large number of people choose to employ this unprecedented level of communication for destructive purposes.

Why the threats? Why the insults? Why the demands? When artists came down from the mountaintop with their paintings, their sculptures, their novels, their poems, their double-albums in illustrated gatefolds, that’s all the audience got. They could enjoy it and appraise it at their own pace in their own way, and only in very rare exceptions would they have a one-on-one audience with the artist during which they could register their opinions.

That was a good thing, because their opinions didn’t matter. Artists unappreciated in their time have gone on to become legends, precisely because they did not take advice. They worked the way they must work; that is to say, they remained true to themselves, and to their vision. They weren’t wrong to shut out the world…they were absolutely right, because it’s very often the world that has some catching up to do.

Now very few artists could achieve any kind of following at all without some kind of public presence, and a public presence today carries with it availability. Artists shouldn’t be personal entertainers, and yet we insist that they are. We don’t want to wait, we don’t want to be teased, and we don’t want to be disappointed. We hold artists personally accountable, and when we disagree with something, we tear them to shreds. It’s still the world that has the catching up to do, but we’re quick to destroy, and by the time we do catch up, that entire universe of artistic potential has been crushed or derailed.

Even when we do like something we tend toward destruction. Quentin Tarantino recently shelved The Hateful Eight, which was to have been his next movie project, because somebody saw it fit to leak the script. Not because they hated it…but because they could. We seek, and we destroy. We take a level of direct openness and transparency with our favorite artists that fans generations ago would have killed for, and we use it to kill anyway.

I do think there’s a debate to be had upon the merits of engaging with an audience. Certainly in some cases it seems to have worked out well…the DMX / George Zimmerman fight cancellation being a recent example of public outcry seeming to have turned a despicable publicity stunt into a rare moment of humble apology. There’s also The Venture Bros., whose pair of writers not only monitor online discussion but have openly spoken about ditching plotlines and resolutions that fans saw coming. While this level of organic response frustrates me, the fact is that the show is great, and for all we know it never would have achieved the highs that it has had the writers stuck to their original (apparently easily guessable) plans. Then, of course, there’s Ezra Pound, whose edits could well be the only reason we know T.S. Eliot today.

But, overall, I find it hard to believe that it’s constructive, or conducive to creating great art. Fans don’t know what they want; fans are fickle and reactionary on the whole. For everyone who quietly appreciates, fifty loudly rage.

Why? There’s certainly an awful lot of art that I don’t enjoy, and a lot of artists I make a point of avoiding, but I wouldn’t see the benefit in attacking them, in obstructing their plans, or of vocally detracting. The world is large. The world is varied. If an artist makes a choice you don’t agree with, the odds are good that there’s another artist making the opposite choice that you do agree with. There’s enough out there. It is no artist’s responsibility to appease his or her audience, regardless of what the modern culture of constant interconnectivity seems to suggest; it’s the audience’s job to follow the artists that they enjoy.

In the past, if an artist read negative reviews of his or her work and got upset, the onus was at least partially upon the artists. After all, you don’t need to read those. You can, but you realize you’re making a choice to do so.

Now it’s different. An artist wakes up to more messages from strangers than he or she does to messages from friends. That’s a scary imbalance, and it’s something I wouldn’t know how to address. Online, accessible socialization is increasingly mandatory for up-and-comers. Without it, how could you amass a fanbase today? But with it, won’t it get pretty tiresome trying to do the art you love when thousands of people you’ve never met are insisting you’re doing it wrong?

We lost Flappy Bird. To many people, that will mean nothing, and that’s okay. But that’s only one example; there’s no telling how much else we’ve lost, are losing, and will continue to lose by insistently stifling creativity. The Hateful Eight. Fez II. Whatever phantom episodes of The Venture Bros. never made it to production. All those unmade seasons of Chappelle’s Show. All those concerts Ryan Adams walked out of rather than deal with hecklers. That inconceivably long initial draft of The Waste Land.

Art is the one thing that makes this world tolerable. Well, that and love. Some would argue — and I’d be one — that they’re very similar concepts, and they’re both easy to destroy in the same way.

Let them be. If you don’t like it, move along to something you do like. Killing it gets you nowhere, and it just leaves the quiet, contemplative fans that much poorer for the loss.

Fantastic Mr. Fox, Revisited

December 14th, 2013 | Posted by Philip J Reed in film - (0 Comments)

Fantastic Mr. Fox

I have a blind spot in the Wes Anderson filmography, and it’s a deliberate one. It’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, though I’d have a hard time telling you why.

I saw it upon release, in theaters, and it left me cold. That’s a perfectly fair reason, I think, but the fact is that all of Anderson’s films left me at least relatively cold the first time through. The first time I saw Bottle Rocket I was bored out of my mind. While I still don’t like it very much today, subsequent viewings have revealed an awful lot of gorgeous moments and a subtle thematic resonance that I overlooked completely the first time.

The first time I saw Rushmore I slept through almost the whole thing, but when I revisited it several years later, I was in genuine awe of the sheer mastery that went into composing the film. I also slept through part of The Royal Tenenbaums the first time…but I must have been genuinely exhausted then because I went out and bought the film the next day so that I could experience it properly.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is my favorite film of all time…but I remember leaving the theater after the first time thinking it felt a little light. Now I’m writing essays about every scene for Steve Zissou Saturdays, so you can probably see clearly enough that my stance on that has changed as well.

Then there was The Darjeeling Limited, which similarly felt light to me the first time I saw it, and while it’s no Life Aquatic it sure as heck grew in my estimation. The second time I watched it I cried like baby through the entire thing.

Then there’s Moonrise Kingdom, which I admittedly liked quite a lot when I first saw it, and yet it only gets better with each new viewing, and every time it surfaces in my memory I find myself responding to and being moved by more and different things.

But then there’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. While I’ve revisted Anderson’s other films multiple times, and have felt every one of them grow on me to at least some extent, I’ve more or less written off Fantastic Mr. Fox as a failure. I didn’t buy the DVD. I never really thought about it again. In fact, when I analyzed the trailer for the upcoming Grand Budapest Hotel, I suggested that that might be Anderson’s first out-and-out comedy.

…but it’s won’t be. That’s Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Why I’ve never revisted it, I don’t know. I think I was just afraid that I’d sit down to watch it, and find it to be even worse than I remembered. Maybe I thought it reflected poorly on Anderson as an artist, whereas my previous disappointments reflected more on me as a viewer. I really can’t say.

But I watched it again recently. I watched it again because of how much so many other people seemed to like it. Because of the great defense of the film that my friend David Black wrote for this very site. Because of the conversations in The Wes Anderson Collection* that made me wonder if I’d overlooked what this film really had to offer.

And you know what? It takes a lot for a big bully like me to say this, but…I did.

I did overlook what this film had to offer.

And I’m the one who was poorer for it. Because while this might never stand up to Anderson’s best works in my estimation, it absolutely does belong in their company. It’s a good movie.

One thing reading The Wes Anderson Collection made clear to me was just how much of Anderson himself was in the film. For whatever reason, I had overlooked that completely. I couldn’t tell you why…maybe I was caught up on the fact that, as Royal Tenenbaum himself might have said, it was just a bunch of animals. I doubt it, considering there are at least two childrens’ films that I would put on my list of all-time favorites, but who knows?

The fact is that what I saw in the theater wasn’t what I saw at home a few nights ago. Or, rather, it is, but I saw it in a very different way.

I appreciated the little artistic flourishes that have characterized Anderson’s films…the whip-arounds, the long horizontal pans, the distant action that utilizes dialogue to guide our eyes rather than the motion of the camera. And thanks to reading Anderson’s interview in the book, I realized how much harder it was to do that with entirely artificial sets than it would have been in live action.

I don’t know why, but Fantastic Mr. Fox seemed careless to me when I first saw it. And now I see that it’s not. It’s a bit more upbeat than most of Anderson’s films, but that’s just due to its silliness. When you look at it, Mr. Fox follows the same trajectory of Anderson’s best characters. He has something, isn’t satisfied with it, believes he’s capable of more, and ends up losing nearly everything he had to begin with. Then he gets something back, learns a little more about who he is, and ends the film in a state of relative triumph that is still beneath where he started.

Don’t ask me how I missed all that, but I did. I remembered the dancing. The snarling. The silly music that played while they tunneled around like cartoon characters. I think I wanted Anderson to do for stop-motion what he did for live action, which is filter it through his incredible, inimitable artistic voice. Instead, he made a stop-motion film that just happened to have been composed by Wes Anderson.

That’s not a bad thing. And because I was seeing it as a bad thing, I missed out.

I missed out on the small moments. I missed out on that scene between Mr. and Mrs. Fox in front of the underground waterfall. I missed out on the melancholy personal journey of poor Ash. I missed out on the glorious scene with the distant wolf.

And I missed out on the humanity. These are still characters. There a moments when tears well up, but then don’t fall. There are sounds of life and a larger universe in the background of almost every scene. There’s a strange, warped camaraderie that grows between Mr. Fox and Kylie.

This time, watching it again, I was open to that. I went into it knowing more of what to expect. And because I knew what to expect, I was primed to look for things around the margins. To not get hung up on the fact that I was watching a fox in corduroy dancing around a hen house. I was prepared, instead, to engage the film for what it was, and not for what I wanted it to be.

I was wrong. It is a good movie. It’s not the movie I would have made, but that doesn’t matter, because I didn’t make it. And the fact that I didn’t frees me to appreciate what it actually is.

There’s no better feeling in the world than realizing that as wrong as you were, that particular work of art won’t hold it against you. It’s yours to have, and to appreciate, and to let yourself understand.

* By the way, if you do have a Wes Anderson fan on your Christmas list, this is a brilliant, wonderful, fantastic book. It’s absolutely gorgeous. I’ll be reviewing it at some point…but in the meantime, I’ll just say right now that there’s no Wes Anderson fan in the world that could possibly be disappointed by this. It’s a thing of beauty in itself.

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.

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