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Wes Anderson’s Tragic Comedy

Wes Anderson’s Tragic Comedy

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Feature by: Rumsey Taylor

Posted on: 17 July 2004

Early in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore Mr. Blume, rich yet emotionally bankrupt, sits apart from the crowd at his twin sons’ birthday party, chucking golf balls into a pool. He climbs the high-dive, downs a swig of whiskey and cannonballs into the water below. The remaining guests notice briefly, and resume their peripheral bicker.

Blume cowers at the bottom of the pool, frozen in cannonball form as a boy swims past him awkwardly, as if he is fighting a larger current for a moment. He stares at Blume. Blume opens his eyes and stares back as if he were interrupted. The boy swims past.

The scene exists as a microcosmic synopsis of Anderson’s entire catalogue. It is symbolic of the optimism of youth interacting with the cynicism of adulthood. Because it occurs at the bottom of a pool, Blume’s quiet desperation is cloaked by a peculiar humor.

To date Anderson has made three enormously idiosyncratic films (each co-written by Owen Wilson). Each is discernibly related to the others by possessing characters whose flaws are both noticeable and upheld as traits that define rather than defect. Anderson’s characters and their quirks are thus captured with an apparent sympathy.

Anderson’s debut was 1996’s Bottle Rocket. It is essentially about the relationship between two friends: Dignan, an amateur criminal, and Anthony, his reluctant cohort. Dignan has scripted a 50-year plan to get the two rich by becoming successful criminals. They practice by robbing Anthony’s parents’ house, and discuss the successes and criticisms of this preparatory heist. The scene plays like two kids critiquing fabricated stories before lying to their parents.

In a decade in which the more exploitative (and violent) aspects of crime were resurrected in film, Bottle Rocket is ironically distinguished for its thieves. Dignan, the mastermind behind every botched heist, is so captivated by the allure of crime that it prohibits him from improving the craft required to be successful at it. Anthony recognizes Dignan’s blind ambition, and is involved only to appease his friend’s inviting interest. Neither is really interested of enriching himself by becoming involved in this lifestyle.

Their failure to earn the sort of notoriety required to secure fame is due to their innocence. In an early scene the two (along with Bob, included because he is the only one with a car, and is thus the group’s getaway driver) meet in a rural field to fire guns. A brilliant detail jumps out — they take markers and fashion targets. Dignan scribes a bull’s-eye, and Anthony draws a running figure. Neither manage to penetrate their targets with a single bullet, nor do any of them look really intimidating when holding a gun.

Anderson’s Rushmore is anchored by a character, Max Fischer, whose ambition is directly similar to Dignan’s. The film’s title derives from the name of the private school Max attends. He is both its most extracurricular and academically poorest student.

Max’s obsessive drive is illustrated in the film’s opening minutes, in a “yearbook montage” tracing organizations Max has founded. Few (if any) of Max’s peers share his widespread interests. It is the adults he interacts with that recognize and, perhaps, are impressed by his achievements.

Anderson’s present film, The Royal Tenenbaums, capitalizes on the director’s regard for wounded family relations, and it may stem from Rushmore’s Herman Blume who never succeeds in securing his familial role (at the end of Rushmore he is being sued for divorce).

Royal Tenenbaum, aptly, is the father of three prodigal geniuses: Chas, a stockbroker, Richie, a former tennis star, and Margot, an adopted playwright. In a scene similar to Rushmore’s “yearbook montage” the children’s histories are traced. Of noticeable peculiarity in this scene is that the three each look exactly as they will in the future. Each has the same haircut, dress, and frown (this detail is similarly depicted on the film’s poster).

One underlying link in these films is Anderson’s regard for age. His youths each embody a feverish ambition characteristic of youth. Likewise, Anderson’s adults often bear some countenance suggesting dissatisfaction; each seems to be experiencing the brunt of a midlife crisis.

Though each film in Anderson’s catalogue bears a similar approach to this topic — age and its progressive emotion — when viewed in the context of a trilogy, each thematically depending upon the films it is linked to, the literal progression of age may be seen. Simply put, the three films trace the growth of an ambitious child to a cynical adult.

According to this claim Anderson’s films were released out of succession; as a trilogy Rushmore occurs first, tracing the dynamic fervor of youth; Bottle Rocket covers middle age; subsequently, Tenenbaums traces fleeting adulthood (appropriately, it ends with a death). When grouped as a trilogy, this transgression, or growth, is apparent.

Each child in Anderson’s films speaks with noticeable maturity, from Bottle Rocket’s Grace (Anthony’s little sister) to Chas’ children in Tenenbaums. Even stronger parallels exist. Midway through Rushmore an immature rivalry develops between Max and Blume. The two share a feverish crush on Rosemary Cross, a kindergarten teacher at the school. This fact poisons their mutual trust. Max hears of Blume’s affair with Ms. Cross and unleashes a swarm of bees in Blume’s hotel room. Blume responds by running over Max’s bike with a Bentley. A simple conversation is too logical and unrealistic for these characters. In the words of Ms. Cross, who observes this behavior, to Max, “You and Herman deserve each other. You’re both little children.”

Royal’s attempt to mend family relations, for example, exists singularly as the crux of the film. However, when viewed as a “sequel” to Bottle Rocket, deeper implications may be seen in The Royal Tenenbaums and in the actions of its characters. Bottle Rocket contains no primary adult characters aside from James Caan’s Mr. Henry, who only distantly resembles a father figure. The trio of twentysomethings at the center of the film make up the film’s family, albeit only in figurative terms. Literally, however, little mention is made of the group’s actual families. Bob’s (the getaway driver) parents are said to be traveling around the world, perhaps fleeing their familial obligations. Gathered from the manner in which Bob discusses his parents, it is understood that bitterness has replaced love.

This growth of bitterness secondarily evidences the progression of age in Anderson’s films. Max’s father in Rushmore is a barber. This fact would only damage Max’s ambitious behavior (whose “safety” is said to be Harvard); he tells those who inquire that his father is a neurosurgeon. In this manner, if Rushmore introduces the breakup of family (in the form of Max’s embarrassment for his father’s profession) then Tenenbaums operates as an attempt to mend it.

Other parallel traits may be drawn between the films, such as Max’s obsessive devotion to Ms. Cross, Richie Tenenbaum’s secret love for his adopted sister, and Dignan’s obsession with being a crime boss. Each, in turn, pays for their feverish obsession: Max is expelled from Rushmore, Richie suffers a meltdown in a crucial tennis match, and Dignan is put in jail.

This argument lends an air of tragedy to Anderson’s work, and admittedly, it doesn’t seem apt. His films are largely described as comedies by default. Despite their humor, comedy is employed to obscure a desperation at the heart of Anderson’s films. That is: according to a Latin idiom embraced by Max, “Sic Transit Gloria.”

Glory fades. So does youth.

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