Scott Walker, “30 Century Man”
Scott 3, 1969
With the looming release of Moonrise Kingdom, it’s a given that we’ll soon find ourselves awash in reviews that, predictably, betray their authors’ confusion at what it is Wes Anderson — in a word — does.
Not so much what Wes Anderson does with a particular film itself, but what Wes Anderson does as a film maker working today. Reviews often seem to want to discuss all of his films at once, and make grand dismissive statements about wooden characterization, a complete lack of emotion, and the impossibility of any human being relating to the feelings or motivations of his characters.
In response I issue this…a list of what I feel are ten thoroughly, genuinely, painfully affecting moments in his films. Anderson might not handle emotion the way most American filmmakers handle emotion (read: tears, strings and rain), but the films of Wes Anderson provide a clued-in audience with some of the most sincerely (and strangely) moving moments, which haunt and linger far longer than those of his contemporaries. So read on, share, and enjoy.
Oh, and before anyone asks…no. I did not forget about Bottle Rocket or Fantastic Mr. Fox.
The Royal Tenenbaums is segmented into chapters, like a novel, or possibly a biography. But one scene stands outside of the film’s literary organization: between Chapter Three and Chapter Four, we have a lengthy installment entitled Maddox Hill Cemetery. It’s here that various characters pair off — and re-pair off — for the sake, yes, of plot development, but also for some of the film’s most truly painful Tenenbaum interaction.
From Royal shaking a few flowers free of his own bouquet for the grave of Chas’ wife to Richie giving his signature silent greeting to a passerby who recognizes him from his glory days, Neither Anderson nor his actors nor his original score composer, stumble at all. Everything is here, either spoken or unspoken. We see exactly why the Tenenbaums, on some level, yearn to operate together as a family, and also — more apparently — why they never can.
It’s appropriate that Maddox Hill Cemetery stands without a chapter number…it exists, moreso than any other sequence in the film, during several time periods, with each of the Tenenbaum children having a flashback that explains at least partly the gap between their glorious childhood and their tormented adult lives.
Composer Mark Mothersbaugh understands this scene on some level far beyond the structural and even the emotional. He understands what fuels the world in which The Royal Tenenbaums exists, and his score for this scene ranks high among his absolutely strongest work. His score here is beautiful, bashful, and aware of its own limitations. This is the music you would hear if you dropped a phonograph needle onto Richie Tenenbaum’s heart, and it stirs that rare, perfect emotion that can only be felt when a brilliant director, a brilliant cast and a brilliant composer work off of each other in profound harmony.
One of Max Fischer’s crimes against himself — perhaps his cardinal offense — is his habit of fixing his gaze on objects beyond his reach, and missing out on everything that’s right by his side, just waiting for him to come back around.
He seems to come to this realization himself toward the end of Rushmore, when classmate Margaret Yang stumbles upon him flying a kite. Margaret forces him to face the fact that his self-important social climb has emotional consequences as well. “You’re a real jerk to me,” she says. “You know that?” And we know that her words have taken root, because he actually apologizes — a defining moment for a very-much-changed Max.
He is sorry, because by this point in the film it’s clear his pursuit of Miss Cross has come to nothing…and a young woman who’s given him sympathy and support has been actively hurt by his callous inattention.
There’s more than a little caution — however unintentional — present in the little story she tells him as well: her science fair project was a lie. She faked the results. Max understands the gravity of what she has said here, and it stings. In fact, it’s why, immediately afterward, he decides to atone for his own falsified data by introducing Mr. Blume to his father…the barber.
One very interesting thing about The Darjeeling Limited is that its two most affecting scenes are intertwined with one another (structurally, this one is sandwiched between two halves of the other), so that all of the film’s most brutal emotion comes in one continuous hit. Typically Anderson spreads it thin, leaving lines and gestures stranded in places sometimes very far removed from the previous or next display of emotion…not so here.
But that’s not to say he does it any less adequately in Darjeeling. In fact, this particular scene, in which the three Whitman brothers attempt without success to drive their father’s car to his funeral, is among Anderson’s finest achievements, hands down. (In fact, I’d venture to say that it would work better as a short film than Hotel Chevalier did.)
The entire scene is a display of thoroughly misplaced attention, as it’s more important to the Whitmans to drive to their father’s funeral in a symbolic vehicle than it is for them to make it on time, and they end up, it’s suggested, missing the event entirely for all their fussing. It’s symptomatic of the problems they must have faced as a family all along: it’s not that they can’t work together, it’s that when they do work together, they’re pulling in the wrong direction.
But it’s still touching, and more than a little painful, when they try their best to do what they feel must be done, and this manic several minutes, deliberately plucked from a very different place and time in their lives, is highlighted by the most impressive display of brotherhood we ever see from the Whitmans when they threaten and stare down a tow-truck driver who nearly crashes into them. Was the tow-truck driver in the wrong? Of course he wasn’t. But even when the Whitmans manage to pull together, they’re pulling in the wrong direction.
Dr. Guggenheim’s stroke brings Max Fischer and Herman Blume together again for a brief ride in an elevator that somehow, without really saying anything, says absolutely everything anyone needs to know about these characters.
There’s not so much an obvious awkwardness between the two as there is an unspoken yearning to reconnect. They miss each other. Serious topics are touched upon (Blume’s divorce, Miss Cross’ whereabouts) but neither man is able to say anything much of substance. They bat a few banalities back, and forth and ultimately refuse eye contact.
But there is a love there…that love that rides a mutual respect, and can never quite be killed. Blume’s initial “Hey, amigo,” is a clear linguistic nod to the fact that he would still love to consider Max a friend, but cannot actually bring himself to use the word. And Max’s final line upon Blume’s departure (“Hey, is everything okay?”) is helplessly genuine. Blume’s confession of loneliness is made all the more painful by the logistical fact that, as he says it, he only allows Max a few of the back of his head. As much as they need each other, and even as they reach, they can’t yet let each other in.
When I first put together this list, five long years ago, this was one moment that I considered, and ultimately put aside. Today, I can’t account for that decision, as it’s sincerely one of the most touching things in a movie bursting with emotional merit.
As Royal Tenenbaum attempts to reconnect with his family, he meets with varying degrees of success from each of them. Without any question, however, the most difficult obstacle he has to face is Chas. Chas has been both robbed and shot by his father during the course of his childhood, but what stings most for him is the fact that his dad let the family fail. When his parents separated the children were never the same, and Chas’ channeled his frustration at his parents into shaping his own family unit, providing for them a secure and stable environment that was ultimately ripped away from him by the plane crash that took his wife.
Chas did indeed have a rough year, but that’s not what makes the moment so important. It’s not the confession, but who he’s confessing it to. As much as Chas kept his emotions to himself, it’s ultimately the father who hurt hum so much that gives him the comfort he needs. The tears he cries when Royal buys his boys a new dog to replace the recently departed Buckley are real, and he sees a sincere selflessness in the gesture…one that’s superficially small, but relatively enormous.
Chas lets his father back in, but Royal is not long for this world, and he himself dies not much later. In a twist neither man could have seen coming, Chas is the one who spends Royal’s dying moments with him. It’s a profoundly emotional coda to the most openly antagonistic relationship in a film rife with them, and it’s all elevated by the genuinely moving portrayal of Chas by Ben Stiller. Proof positive that Wes Anderson can work wonders with just about anyone, and a moment as deserving of a spot on this list as any other.
We know very little of Ned’s life before he joined up with Team Zissou, and, as far as the interests of the film are concerned, that’s a good thing. It makes his last moments on board the Belafonte that much more significant.
Had we been granted a more comprehensive view of his life, Team Zissou would represent only a small portion of all those he came to know. With our much narrower perspective, the ship’s crew represents everybody we’ve seen him interact with, and their turnout to wave farewell before his final flight is almost overpowering in its significance. None of these characters suspects that they will never see him alive again, and yet they’re all there…seeing him off. It’s just one of those many morbid coincidences that none of these characters would really understand.
Most touching is Klaus’ farewell, which includes, importantly, an olive-branch by way of salute. He wants Ned to know how much it means to him that he worked a K — for Klaus — onto the redesigned Team Zissou insignia, but more importantly he wants him to know that he’s at last ready to accept him as a fellow member of the crew. (And, in terms of the de-facto Zissou family, a brother.)
Steve is the only one who does not get the chance to say goodbye to Ned, though he is present for his final moments, and it is he who pulls his body to shore. It’s more than a little telling, as well, that the sharp cuts in Steve’s “death vision” sequence are so similar in style to those of Richie Tenenbaum. The difference, of course, is that Richie lived a full emotional life with much to reflect upon…while Steve’s visions are nothing more than flat colors, bubbles rushing to the surface, and one fleeting, final glimpse of Ned, who financed the voyage monetarily, and then, with more than a little symbolism, paid for it with his life. Steve falling to his knees on shore with the body of the man who was — for all intents and purposes — his son is a beautifully framed, hauntingly understated moment of silent, unforgettable sorrow. But Ned’s not the only one to come to an early, watery end…
The turning-point for Peter Whitman (and arguably for the film itself) comes when the three brothers see three young Indian boys fall helplessly into a dangerous river. That’s one boy for each brother, right? And because they’re well-to-do Americans they get to play automatic heroes. There’s nothing at all at stake when the Whitmans dive in after the boys. Mathematically, everything is going to be just fine.
Imagine, then, the shock to Peter Whitman when he fails to save one of the children. He emerges from the river bloodied and bruised, carrying a lifeless body, and he’s so far beyond emotion that he can’t do anything but mutter flat, impotent confessions. “I didn’t save mine.” “He’s dead.” “The rocks killed him.” The audience might believe, initially, that Peter’s blow to the head left him stammering, but it’s clear before long that the real damage was wrought more deeply. His entire sense of life and possibility has been thrown for a loop–he was not the hero he expected himself to be. In fact, he was a failure. He ends up carrying a dead child to a grieving father, in a land he does not know or understand, and though Peter does not cry, it’s not because he feels nothing; it’s because he feels a sorrow too large to convey.
The Whitman brothers spend a good deal of time in this village, and Peter may never be able to atone for what’s happened, but he does come out of the experience with a much matured view of his own impending fatherhood, which now holds an unexpected meaning for him. He may not be a completely changed man but, after this incident, he is no longer the man he was just a few days earlier, when he openly considered leaving his wife before his child was born.
Adrien Brody, as of this film, is a newcomer to Anderson’s menagerie of reliable actors, and as of this precise moment, when he emerges from the river stuttering helplessly about the child whose life he could not save, he establishes himself as a perfect fit. (Also, for the record, Brody wins the Saddest Eyes award for The Darjeeling Limited, which is always a serious achievement in a Wes Anderson film.)
There’s no greater change wrought in Max throughout the course of Rushmore than the one so clearly on display when he humbly introduces Mr. Blume to his father. He is letting Blume see a side of him that very few people have been invited to see, but also he is showing it to himself, letting himself, for once, be reflected in his own eyes.
One great thing about this scene that can easily go unnoticed is that the two adults are each aware of more than they’re actually saying. Mr. Blume had earlier been led to believe that Max’s father was a neurosurgeon, and it’s safe to assume that Mr. Fischer is aware that his meager occupation has probably been kept a careful secret by his enterprising son…and yet neither of them speak of it. Blume’s heart breaks, and you can see it in Bill Murray’s supremely expressive eyes, not just because he’s been allowed a glimpse behind Max’s carefully constructed shell, but also because he feels acutely the distance between father and son, preventing both parties from connecting the way they’d each like to — and need to — connect.
“I don’t know, Burt,” says Blume, apropos of nothing, and it’s one of the most honest lines in the film. Something real is being revealed to him here, and he’s incapable of coping with it. Some silent lesson is being preached, and he’s aware that its moral will be at least somewhat lost to him. He envies the simplicity of the barber’s life, and at the same time understands precisely, guiltily, the reason Max aches to rise above it.
When Steve Zissou finally comes face to face with the Jaguar Shark, there’s very little he can do but ponder the wisdom of his journey, and reflect — wordlessly — upon everything his crew has had to endure in pursuit of his purely selfish, short-sighted revenge.
The submarine (aptly named Deep Search) contains what remains of his crew and his family…along with a business partner, a reporter, an intern, and a representative of the bond company, all of whom have suffered in some tangible way for the advancement of Steve’s goal. And yet, when he finally reaches that goal, he breaks down. He cries openly, for the first and only time in the film. He gains — a long, long way into his life and career — some perspective of the greater world around him, and he sees, at last, how little right he had to so carelessly jeopardize other people’s lives.
The real weight in the scene is the non-presence of Ned, who died in pursuit of the beast, and we suspect that the death of his previous crewmate Esteban sits heavy on Steve’s conscience as well. His emotion is coming from the fact that it took him too long to realize the price of his revenge, and that what’s lost is really lost forever. There’s no way to go back and undo the very real damage he’s done along the way.
He is forgiven, however, in the midst of his wordless reflection, by those along for the ride on Deep Search. One by one, his remaining companions each lay a comforting hand on him. There are no accusations, and there is no anger. They find themselves in a submarine with a captain who has at last become fragile and human, and, one hand at a time, they do their part to hold him together.
There’s very little that can be said of a scene that says everything itself so well. Relied upon — and used — by so many others as the most level-headed and caring of the Tenenbaum family, the viewer is more aware than any of the characters how much suffering he internalizes. And so, when at last he learns more about his adopted sister than he was ever prepared to know, and he walks slowly and quietly out the door without saying a word, we know that something is about to happen, and it’s not going to be good.
Elliott Smith’s terrifying “Needle in the Hay” starts up, and Anderson does something very clever by starting it over an unrelated scene, in which Royal converses hopefully with a hotel manager about a job. A first-time viewer would never catch it, but upon each subsequent viewing those dark, razor-sharp chords bring a very vivid image to mind, and throughout a comic scene we are inescapably aware of a parallel tragedy.
The entire sequence with Richie in the bathroom is cut brutally, hastily…it doesn’t flow; it’s been hacked to pieces. This serves to echo not only the immediate content of the scene, but also the end to which it builds. His cutting away at hair, his beard, and then, desparately, his wrists.
It’s Anderson at his most fearless; he’s triggering emotions, but not allowing anyone to get caught up in them. There is no moment during which any characters take pause to weep. The score is not touching — it’s tough and tightly-squared. It’s played blue and emotionless, which is, of course, why it works so well. We are not asked to align ourselves with anybody else’s emotions…we are supposed to view what is happening from the perspective of an outsider. We are meant to feel growing concern as Richie removes his headband, his hair, his beard, his glasses…as he exposes himself at last to the world he sought so strongly to shut out. Layer by layer he is shaving himself down, becoming more vulnerable. And when he sees what’s beneath — that young man who, at one point, could have had absolutely anything — he attempts to destroy it.
We are allowed brief dips into his thought process by means of abrupt, almost subliminal flashes of film we’ve already seen, and it’s not so much meant to represent a dying man’s last glance backward as it is meant to highlight the agony of a man who can no longer stand to be alive.
Richie Tenenbaum still stands as Anderson’s most tragic character, and certainly the least deserving of his own pain. And that’s precisely what makes him so real.
In preparation for Moonrise Kingdom, I thought it might be interesting to compile some brief words about each of Wes Anderson’s previous films into a short primer, in the hopes that it might interest some folks who have never experienced his work to check him out. Hopefully this will function as a nice starting point for newcomers, or maybe those who felt left out because they started with the wrong film. Or, perhaps, it’ll just be an excuse to relive the great stuff (and Fantastic Mr. Fox) that Anderson’s done in the past. I hope you enjoy.
Overview: There’s really no more diplomatic way to put this: Bottle Rocket is the work of somebody who would become a great artist, before he was either great or an artist. The story of three friends who turn to high-reward heists as a way of financing their meticulously planned futures — or, rather, the story of one friend who does that and the two others who go along with him — contains precious little of Anderson’s magic, style or cleverness. It’s not devoid of value — both of the major heist sequences are all-time highlights — but it fails to build any serious momentum, and derails entirely about halfway through. Luke Wilson falls for a maid played by Lumi Cavazos, and his romantic overtures are nothing short of predatory. That can be handled well, but it doesn’t seem as though either Anderson or his actors are aware of it, causing the romance to work out in a way that neither justifies itself nor feels like a natural evolution of the dynamic between those characters. It’s a creepy and utterly misguided plot development that interferes with the better aspects of the film — Owen Wilson portrays manic depression here quite well, and Robert Musgrave is one of Anderson’s great one-offs — and gives no indication whatsoever of how well Anderson would deal with similarly mismatched pairings in the future. There’s also a notable lack of visual panache, and none of the action or dialogue feels as meticulously constructed as it does in Anderson’s later films. But no worry…Bottle Rocket taught Anderson a lot, and only two years later he would make this:
Overview: I don’t know who made Bottle Rocket, because Rushmore is in just about every way the real Wes Anderson’s debut. Every one of his hallmarks is not only on display here, but operating in full and confident force: father issues, brilliant shot composition, inventively reappropriated pop-songs, a clearly artificial but deeply moving world, and an unwavering devotion to tearing down his characters’ conceits. It also marks Anderson’s first collaboration with both Bill Murray and Mark Mothersbaugh — though Mothersbaugh did step in after the fact to provide a score for Bottle Rocket — both of whom would shape immediately what comes to mind when we think about the concept of “a Wes Anderson film.” Rushmore is the story of Max, an over-reaching and under-achieving 15 year old, who harbors so many aspirations that there’s no way he can focus clearly on any of them. Until he meets Miss Cross that is, a teacher at Rushmore Academy with whom he attempts to begin an affair. At heart, though, it’s a story about growing up, as are all of Anderson’s, and it’s a story about friendship, both with a steel mogul played by Bill Murray and his dedicated lackey played by Mason Gamble. It’s essentially a story about appreciating what you already have, which, as Max comes to learn, is never as much as you think it is, but always what you need.
Overview: It would be impossible — simply impossible — to heap too much praise upon The Royal Tenenbaums. To date, this is clearly Anderson’s masterpiece, and that’s some high praise indeed. Absolutely nothing about this film is wrong. There is no detail overlooked, no line of dialogue that doesn’t both amuse and hurt, and no actor who is anything but perfect for his part. Even Ben Stiller turns in a performance he’ll never top — not that he ever tries — and the soundtrack is absolutely stellar. Gene Hackman plays Royal Tenenbaum, patriarch of the formerly well-respected Tenenbaum family, though now the children have all moved on…and down. It’s a story of dissolution, of consequence, and of maybe, sometimes, just possibly, righting wrongs that have sat painful and unaddressed for decades. In Royal’s case, he does this by pretending to have cancer in order to keep his wife from marrying a black man, but it’s not where you start that matters…it’s where you finish. The Royal Tenenbaums is Anderson’s most overtly affecting film, flush with raw and frustrated emotion, and brimming with what’s probably his darkest comedy yet. Hackman brings a selfish and charming energy to the role that pervades even scenes he’s not in, and his gradual awakening to the damage he’s done — even as he’s in the midst of doing more of it — is expertly handled with the careful and attentive touch of a brilliant director working at the absolute top of his game.
Overview: The Royal Tenenbaums might be Anderson’s best film, but The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou is my favorite. And I don’t just mean it’s my favorite of Anderson’s…I mean it’s my absolutely favorite film period. Attempting to justify my adoration for this movie could only leave me unsatisfied by what I’ve said, so I don’t think I can actually even try. What I can say is that Anderson has built a deeper, more profound and more magical world with The Life Aquatic than he could ever build elsewhere. The plot follows celebrity oceanographer Steve Zissou as he seeks mortal revenge on the mythical sea creature that killed his partner, but that’s really just the impetus for what the film’s actually about: Steve learning about who he is…and, more importantly, who he’s not. Along with him on this fateful voyage is Kentucky Air pilot Ned Plimpton, who may be his son. Ned’s unexpected appearance is only the first of many things that force Steve to explore inward for once, and his rotating, conflicting emotions manifest themselves in some brutal ways throughout the course of the film, culminating in a display of ultimate humanity…long after it can do him any good. It’s flawed, and it’s unfocused, but then again so is everybody. The Royal Tenenbaums gets my vote for the only perfect film ever made, but The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou hits me in ways even that one can’t, and that’s why it immediately became — and remains — my favorite film of all time.
Overview: A noticeably quieter film follows The Life Aquatic, with a far tighter focus on a much smaller cast, and an adventure that takes three isolated, entitled American brothers and strand them during their soul-seeking train ride through India. In actuality, though, the trip they take is interpersonal, and the souls they seek very quickly turn out to be each other’s. The Darjeeling Limited feels a little less deliberately constructed than Anderson’s previous three films, and that’s clearly deliberate. Rather than thrusting the audience into one of Anderson’s worlds, Anderson’s taken three of his characters out of an Anderson world and thrust them into our own. The characters in India are less affected, less prone to staring coldly into the middle distance, and don’t rely on the snipes and jabs of the Whitman brothers to get their point across. It’s an experience in personal growth for them, as they realize that they don’t at all need to be damaged and conflicted adults they’ve become. Mark Mothersbaugh did not return as original score composer for this film, nor for anything beyond The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. His absence is felt, and Bill Murray’s relegation to a cameo contributes to this not feeling quite the way we now expect an Anderson film to feel. But, again, it works to separate the adventure within The Darjeeling Limited from what’s come before, just as the movie itself feels separate. The brothers Whitman have a lot to work on, after all, and they don’t need you bringing all that old baggage along.
Overview: A strict structuralist like Anderson would no doubt appreciate the fact that we’ve both begun and ended on disappointment. (In fact, as a disappointment fetishist, he’d doubly appreciate it.) Fantastic Mr. Fox had a lot of people asking questions when it was announced, and it’s pretty safe to say that it didn’t satisfactorily address them when it arrived. It almost seems silly to say this, but Anderson’s so gifted at manipulating human behavior, treating his characters like dress-up dolls brought to life and thrust into complex social situations without practice, is lost on a film where that’s what he’s doing to literal dress-up dolls. He’s assembled an excellent voice cast, and his newcomer brother Eric Chase Anderson shockingly blows the rest of the seasoned actors away, but his curious expansion on a minor Roald Dahl story just doesn’t come together the way it needs to. As could be expected he sprinkled the experience with great songs, which might well turn young children on to music they might not have experienced otherwise, but it’s doubtful that it’s turned many children — or anyone for that matter — on to the films of Wes Anderson. Moonrise Kingdom is on the horizon, however, and if the small amount of footage I’ve seen is any indication, Fantastic Mr. Fox is less a catastrophe than just the forgettable lull before a glorious upswing.
As of this writing (April 22) the released footage from Moonrise Kingdom amounts to no more than a trailer, and three exclusive clips drizzled around the internet. Each of the clips are under a minute long and don’t really demonstrate much beyond the fact that Wes Anderson is absolutely at his most Wes Andersony…and that it’s still a beautiful thing. We’ll touch on those below, but only in passing, as this is a look at the official trailer for the film.
If you are interested in seeing the clips, you can watch them here, here and here. No spoilers, apart from what we already know from the trailer, but, as always, watch at your own risk. And please link me if you know of any other footage I missed.
It looks lovely, brilliantly dreary and evocatively sad, with a late summertime feel, just before all that wonderful freedom falls away and it’s time to get back to school. There’s also no strong clue as to the film’s reappropriated pop songs (at least not to me…can anyone identify the French song in the trailer?), so that should make for a nice surprise, but it does sound like the soundtrack is pulling toward a sort of classical Gothic dirge. With this, I am both fine and in love.
Our only look at Jason Schwartzman in this trailer, but my goodness is it a great one. There’s so much I’d like to say about this single frame, but I won’t do it. I’d cheapen it. Just look at it yourself. Just take a moment — a full minute — to stare at it, to study every detail, and to just immerse yourself in how absolutely fantastic this image is. Let your eyes see everything. Let yourself appreciate it. Because this is a fucking artist at work. Whatever misgivings I might have about what I’m about to see, this is the kind of still frame that makes all of my apprehensions disappear.
Bring on May 25.