Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Royal Tenenbaums

Somewhere along the way of film history, violence, gore and bizarreness has been mistaken for break-through, originality and visionary. Just think of films that are popularly considered landmarks in past few decades: “Reservoir dogs”; “Pulp fiction”; “Lock, stock and two smoking barrels”, “Se7en”, “Fargo”, “Sin city”, “Old boy”, “Fight club”... All primarily oriented to breaking limits in violence, and only after that in actual filmmaking. Sometimes, even, the whole overstepping the gore level is enough to grant otherwise mediocre film a high place, if at least for a while (“Hostel”, “Slither”, “Hills have eyes”). Marketing campaigns are nowadays being oriented around the excess of violence in films, hinting that, therefore, those films might be “the new big thing”. And frankly, though I admire some of these films, I’m sick of it.
Of course, making of history is closely attached to excess, ever since first horror films and “Andalusian dog”, through “Taxi driver” to “Blue velvet”. But one gets to wonder whether there is something nicer going on. Are there also nice, small, emotive films being made, and whether some of those films are just as important, influential and, let’s say, cult, as those more violent.
I suggest a young director Wes Anderson. His first film, “Rushmore”, has been frequently found on lists of cult films, which means that this story about a young student, loser of his kind and, then again, a victor of some other kind, found a strong niche in people ready to dedicate themselves to this films. “Royal Tenenbaums”, his second film, has proven consistency in Anderson’s approach, and that he already has a style, he doesn’t need to search for it, just has to, perhaps, iron it a bit. Third, recent film, “The life aquatic with Steve Zissou” is a film that you cannot put your mind around, you cannot really figure out whether it’s underwater fantasy (with imagined underwater creatures animated by veteran animator, director of “Nightmare before Christmas”, Henry Selick) or an unresolved family relations drama, as film unsurely tries to balance between the two.
Anderson usually shares script credits with the actor Owen Wilson; his brother Luke and friend Ben Stiller almost come in the package. But Anderson’s favourite actor is Bill Murray, who is a master in acting by not saying anything, in subtle vibrations that he emits while seemingly doing nothing. And that’s the perfect kind of actor for Anderson’s films, as we will see in the next paragraph.
Wes Anderson seemed to have a formed vision that he intends to follow through ever since his first film. I made the intro the way I did because this vision is so different from what is usually offered: excess, aggressive approach, in-your-face, sharp objects flying across the screen as if they are there to amuse a baby in the cradle, not to entertain a grown up person. Anderson’s films are quiet, deadpan, even slow. His soundtrack is always consisting of acoustic music, slow, atmospheric numbers, mood music. His characters talk quiet and the importance is given to what they say and the viewer is left to interpret the meaning and motives of what they say – if they want, of course. Camera is most often static, with a lot of establishing shots, sometimes even subtly lensed to get the panoramic effect - staying away from the characters and not giving any speed or additional cinematic emotion to what is going on in the frame. Details are allowed to sneak into the frame and stay there. To that, Anderson often adds other element that increase deadpan tone of the films: detached narration, explanatory segments that look like some kind of tutorial in “Life aquatic” or excerpts from film’s script in “The Royal Tenenbaums”. This approach gives Anderson’s films unseen tone, the light care for his characters, unwillingness to mix into their lives, to try to analyze them or no intrude them in any other way. Anderson’s works are like picture books of lives, letting stories tell themselves and not telling audience what to think or how to feel, except, perhaps, for persisting melancholy. Cult films are the ones that somehow stand out in the bunch, that can’t really be compared with the rest of cinema, and in those terms Anderson’s films really have a potential for cult status; The achievement is, they get it not by being too weird, aggressive, outrageous, but by being everything the opposite. That’s why I think that, though still rough around the edges, Anderson is one day going to be big, and how.
Now, when I say “rough around the edges” I mean that even though stylish on their own terms and unique, his films don’t always quite fit together as a whole. I didn’t really like “Rushmore” all that much, as I felt it sort of lacked substance. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what the film was all about, what the point was, why the director sat down to tell the story. I had the same impression with “Life aquatic”, again, but this time instead of having no ideas, I had one idea too many. I believe, for all the pieces to fit in place, you do have to know, when exiting the cinema hall, what is it that the director wanted to do, and whether he did it. The second question answers to whether the film was good or bad, but when I’m not certain what it was that director wanted to do, the film is just confusing. It creates an uneasy feeling with me, and I’m not even sure of my own opinion about the film. Sometimes, as in case of Anderson, in the end I get the feeling that the author was simply rambling about the things that interest him, that the film didn’t hit any aim because it was wandering around aimlessly, from character to character, from one plot arc to another, in the end, not scoring with either of those characters or plot arcs. Wes Anderson, perhaps, before all, needs more classic drama structuring, or perhaps he and Wilson need more discipline when writing the script. In any case, he’s still able to get over those faults.
As “Royal Tenenbaums” show. “Royal Tenenbaums” is a story about a family, once filled with individuals each successful in their fields, nowadays shattered, each by their own frustrations, depression, lack of communication. Even though the word “Royal” is there to suggest the image of a family tree, it is actually a name of the head of the family Royal (Gene Hackman) who’s been living out of the family for two decades, ever since the divorce with Etheline (stone-faced Angelica Huston), mother of the family. Olders son Chas (Ben Stiller), once a genius for business, is nowadays suffering from the recent death of his wife, this suffering materializing in fear that he’ll lost his two sons prematurely too, in any kind of accident; this fear of everyday accidents descends into phobia. Daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), once a successful playwright, is deep in depression which might have something to do with the fact that she was adopted and that she always felt neglected. Youngest son Ritchie (Luke Wilson), once a successful tennis player, is secretly in love with Margot, letting this unspoken love ruin his career (the scene in which he drops a racket and simply gives up on his terminal match, after he’s heard Margot has married, might be one of the most touching in film). To add to this, nowadays top list cast, is Ely Cash (Owen Wilson), neighbour and friend since childhood, very profitable author of pulp fiction; his complex is that he always wanted to be Tenenbaum; he looked up to that family; he regularly sends letters to Etheline, as if she was his own mother and lived far away; Yet the family has been consistently rejecting him, no surprise as they’ve been rejecting each others as well. Danny Glover plays Etheline’s long time coworker Henry Sherman, who she considers marrying, and Bill Murray plays a small role of Raleigh St. Clair, Margot’s confused husband.
This mish-mash of troubled characters works in a certain way like a squeaky machine, where everyone is unhappy, but that’s ok since noone knows the others are unhappy; At the beginning of the film, Royal is forced to ask Etheline for forgiveness and, driven to the idea of belatedly getting back close to his children, he fakes a deadly cancer. His move drives other characters to move and try to change something, as Chas and Margot move back into the family house and Ritchie returns from a long adventurous trip. And that’s basically the setup, bunch of screwed up characters in a relatively small space, trying to work out old unresolved issues, mostly failing and, despite that, doing quite well. There is no heart-ripping drama here, no big fights, no theatrical acting, everything is so laid back that we have a feeling of watching the entire house and all characters at once, as if the front wall is missing and we’re watching from the street at those funny tiny characters, mostly estranged but sometimes weirdly moved.
The key scene of the film happens near the end, just before Etheline’s wedding. In drug-induced euphoria, Ely Cash arrives and crashes into the front wall of Tenenbaums house. Keeping the desired pacing, Anderson prefers to show Margot’s detached observation “Ely just crashed his car in front of our house” rather than the actual crash. Chas arrives at the place of the crash scattered with papers flying around, to find out that Royal moved his two sons (but not their dog) out of the way at the last moment. Ely peaks through the window from the room he fled in to say “Did I hit anyone”, but seeing expression Chas’s face, just starts to run. What follows is a chase through narrow hallways of Tenenbaums house, ending with Chas hitting Ely against the wall of the backyard; he only calms down after taking the fight over the wall, into a small Chinese garden. Lying next to each other on a pebble ground; Ely says “Did I hit the dog?” “Yeah”, Chas replies. “Is he dead?” “Yeah?” “I need help.” “So do I.”
What follows is a long pan over the accident scene, with all characters in the film involved; While Ely is being listened by policemen, Henry Sherman and his son are calculating a possible tax reduce on the house and Royal is finally starting to communicate with Chas again. Chas says “I had a rough year, dad.” Royal replies “I know, son.” Simple words, but you can feel that there’s a whole world of feelings that these characters can’t find words for. Again, film works because of all the things that aren’t said, but still exist there, and you can feel them as well.
So with this scene you can see many things falling back to pieces. In the end, none of characters are any better than they began, but now they are communicating with each other, and they all realize that others aren’t just selfish bastards they thought but just simple people with all good and bad sides that go with them. From the beginning, in prosperous careers that are described, in official tone of narrator and inserted strip clips, in tone, there is an underlying potential greatness, but then, they are all still just people.
This is a loveable little film, both touching and very easy to watch. It could also one day turn out to be a piece of film history, an overlooked landmark film. There are a lot of reasons to pick it from DVD shelf rather than most of “new big things” that we’ve already forgotten about.


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