Sunday, September 9, 2007
UNDERCLASS OVERACHIEVER/WEARY FORMER SUCCESS: Character Types in the Films of Wes Anderson
The two lead characters in Wes Anderson’s first film, Bottle Rocket (1996), Anthony and Dignan, established two main character types that have been articulated through the remainder of his films. Dignan, played by Owen Wilson, represents the Underclass Overachiever, and Anthony, played by his brother Luke Wilson, represents the Weary Former Success. Depth of character and variety of experience has made for a stunning series of characters throughout Anderons's films, culminating in Steve Zissou, who is a synthesis of the two main types and is, in many ways, presaged by Royal Tenenbaum.
Neither character type was fully fleshed out in the debut work. Dignan certainly fit the Underclass half of the bill. The film makes a point of highlighting the way that Dignan operates within an upperclass community without being of it. As Bob’s older brother Futureman likes to mention, he used to mow the Mapplethorpe’s lawn, and Mr. Henry’s chief interest in Dignan is that he knows Bob, “the rich kid.” Additionally, he’s the only one in “the gang” who doesn’t have a trust fund to fall back on. Anthony isn’t as rich as Bob, but he can afford to spend the summer in a hospital for “exhaustion,” and his little sister goes to a private school. Dignan says the practice heist has to be at Anthony’s house because, “You know there’s nothing to steal from my mom and Craig,” alluding to a stepfather and a whole potential world of unexplored problems.
So Dignan is certainly Underclass, but he falls just short of being the Overachiever. That is, in fact, a major defining characteristic of his personality: he’s a big dreamer but often a failure. The type—with the Overachieving and the failure both on high volume—was pretty much personified as Max Fischer, played by Jason Schwartzman, in Rushmore (1999) (although one could certainly argue that Dignan and Max are equals in the success/failure categories.) Similarly, Anthony is Weary, but he doesn’t have much Former Success to give weight to his character. One line of thinking goes that what made the characters in Bottle Rocket interesting was their status as twenty-somethings with nothing really going on in their lives that would justify how seriously they are taking themselves. When the later films flesh out these two character types, giving several variations on backstory to lend credence to the character’s behavior, it has been said by some, the characters conversely got less interesting. I’m not that big of a fan of the style of academic writing that sets up an argument the author doesn’t agree with just so he can refute it. However, it would appear that is precisely what I have just done.
Rushmore pushed forward not just the Underclass Overachiever type in Max, but also the Weary Former Success type, with Bill Murray’s Mr. Blume. Unlike his predecessor Anthony, Blume has plenty to be weary from. He has a successful business, has worked hard to make a way for himself in the world. Blume is coded as underclass too, from the first time we see him, giving a speech about how the scholarship kids should “take dead aim on the rich boys.” That look of dawning recognition on Blume’s face when he meets Max’s father and realizes he’s the son of a barber, not a brain doctor, is not only ‘of course he’s poor,’ but ‘I knew I recognized myself in this kid.’ Blume is a success, but he’s tired and he takes no pleasure in it. Also, his wife is sleeping around on him—although he is much less the cuckold than Murray’s Raleigh St. Clair in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), another man who is exasperated by the family he’s made for himself and no longer taking joy in his work.
In my essay last week, WES ANDERSON, NOSTALGIA AND THE 11 YEAR OLD POINT OF VIEW, I wrote about how Chas Tenenbaum is similar to Max Fischer. They are both prodigies, and both incredibly driven as children—but Chas has the means and is successful. Chas is also like Max in that his whole life is in the shadow of a death. In Chas’s case, it is his wife, and in Max’s it's his mother. Another character in Rushmore, Miss Cross, is similarly afflicted by the loss of a spouse. The Royal Tenenbaums pushes forward the Underclass Overachiever in the form of Eli Cash: Luke Wilson playing a Dignan who grew up across the street from the family of geniuses and “always wanted to be a Tenenbaum.” When Royal responds to Eli’s yearning, “Me too,” he is identifying himself as underclass as well; Royal is another self-made businessman. I’ll return to this moment just a bit later and discuss a different significance of Royal’s line.
While the Underclass Overachiever lineage is continued through Eli Cash, The Royal Tenenbaums is much more interested in pursuing the Weary Former Success. Richie and Margot Tenenbaum are both pretty much in the same boat: they peaked extremely early, nose-dived careerwise, and feel they are shells of their former selves. Luke Wilson’s performance as Richie feels much like a stylized version of his role in Bottle Rocket, as does Owen Wilson’s. Interestingly, not only does The Royal Tenenbaums present an alternative version of Max with Chas and double the Anthony/Mr. Blume type with Margot and Richie, but it also offers a first attempt at combining both of the types into one character.
In a lot of ways what The Royal Tenenbaums is about is the feeling of wanting to be a Tenenbaum. That’s why Eli Cash is an important figure in the film. He’s the outside point of view that says yes, the Tenenbaums were a brilliant family, that’s not just in their own minds. Eli says it out loud in that scene I mentioned above: “I always wanted to be a Tenenbaum,” he says, and Royal says, “Me too.” By identifying with Eli Cash in that moment—whom he had earlier called a “bloodsucker” and an “asshole”—he’s not only reminding us of his underclass background, but he’s aligning himself with that other character type, too, the one that this film can’t seem to get away from, the Weary Former Success.
At the beginning of the film, Royal has lost his career, he’s broke, he’s being kicked out of his hotel— they’re even taking his encyclopedias. He wants, more than anything else—just as Richie and Margot do—to return to that time when they were a family, when they were the Royal Tenenbaums, even if it never really existed the way they remember it. Royal is the underclass, and underhanded, huckster, just as Dignan and Max are. Royal’s pretending to die, props included, is just one step up from Max’s staged bicycle accident outside Miss Cross’s house. And Steve Zissou is like a Royal who believes his own bullshit. It’s as if he lives forever in that moment outside the house when Royal is telling Richie that his brush with death has made him embrace life. Richie says, “But Dad, you were never dying,” and Royal responds, “But I’m gonna live!”
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) presents, as its title character, a man who is an even more perfect synthesis of the two character types running through Anderson’s films. (He is furthermore a continuation of Royal’s character in another way: he ran out on his children and obligatons, and now wants back something he gave up.) Steve is like what Dignan would be if he became an artist—or if Max decided to start making documentaries instead of plays—and then pissed it away by being that same asshole, prone to perceived failure of self and massive amounts of regret. Steve is the perpetual dreamer, and failure. In fact, after the screening of his movie, who is told the same thing that Max is after a performance of one of his plays: “Well, I just don’t think they got it.” The vision of a Steve, a Max or a Dignan is always much grander than what they can actually achieve. But what more could you ask of a dreamer than to dream so big no one could achieve it?
The thing is though, the reason why The Life Aquatic is such a beautiful culmination of what may turn out to be the first grand phase of Anderson’s career—Steve succeeds. He finds what he was looking for and he wins the award and learns to live with all of the pain and regret of life and remember that “This is an adventure.” He is the Underclass Overachiever who achieves the grandest success. (Dignan at the end of Bottle Rocket, even while in handcuffs and a prison jumpsuit says, “We did it,” and Max learns to grow up, quit fixating on a mother-figure replacement and be happy with the girl his own age, Eli Cash decides to stop doing drugs and being in love with Margot—so all of them get success in their own ways, but I believe Steve’s to be the most spectacular.) And not only is he the Underclass Overachiever who has the greatest success, but he is the Weary Former Success who is able to push through and win big again. Richie picks up the racket again, but only to teach. Margot starts writing again, but no one pays attention. Steve, though, finds the shark that ate his best friend and forgives it. And then he finishes his film.