Each Wes Anderson film thus far (with the exception of his debut, Bottle Rocket) has been, in its own way, presented from the perspective of an 11 year old. Rushmore’s protagonist, Max, is in the throes of adolescence. The Royal Tenenbaums live in a suspended state, frozen in the aftermath of their adolescent glory. The Life Aquatic is the film with the most complicated relationship to childhood, taking as it does potential parenthood as much of its subject. However, its strange mix of cartoony violence, obviously fake on-screen documentary filmmaking, and animated inserts of invented wildlife is authorized by a child’s perspective. It is as if the childhood Ned—the little boy who idolizes Steve Zissou and has heard whispering that he may be his father—is imagining this whole thing from his room, having just received Steve’s reply to his letter.
Wes Anderson remembers what few others do: childhood itself, besides being the subject of lifelong nostalgia, is the site of much nostalgia. Many children, even while feigning sophistication and cynicism, are aware of the continuing death of their own innocence. The Tenenbaums, in the midst of their adolescent glories, already have the gleam of sadness in their eyes. Margot, in particular, is hardened as a child, and Chas is already caught up in the adult world of successful business. Max, in Rushmore, is well aware that his childhood is long since gone, but that doesn’t stop him from spending much of his energy on attempting its preservation. He believes that he has, like Chas Tenenbaum, already found in adolescence the thing he loves and he plans on doing it for the rest of his life. However, unlike Chas (who is the only one of the Tenenbaums to retain his “preternatural instincts” into adulthood), the thing he loves to do is an extraordinarily unrealistic proposition: in order to hold onto his childhood, he wants to go to Rushmore forever.
This declaration of Max’s is a profound mourning call for a dying adolescence. So much of Max’s being is haunted by the death of his mother, which occurred shortly after he arrived at Rushmore at elementary school age. His mother was the impetus for his admission, and after her death—and the symbolic passing of his childhood into adolescence—Max filled the hole where his mother had been with Rushmore. Leaving it means admitting that phase of life, too, is over. The character of Max Fischer made me realize that when Holden Caulfield cleans graffiti off of the school near the end of Catcher in the Rye, he’s doing it not only to protect the children’s eyes from the word “fuck,” but to protect his own eyes as well.
Of course, Salinger references are often thrown around when one discusses Wes Anderson. But, like most things that eventually pass into cliché, it’s because there is much truth in it. It’s not just that Anthony cleaning off his little sister’s lip in Bottle Rocket smacks of Holden secretly visiting Phoebe’s room late one night, or the oft-cited resemblance of the Tenenbaums to the Glass family. It’s that Wes shares with J.D. Salinger that rare skill of being able to describe what it feels like to be a child, or accurately depict a child’s thoughts and emotions. I don’t know about your childhood, but mine seemed like a surreal comic book, and horribly tragic at the same time.
I’ve heard Anderson accused of wanting to have his cake and eat it, tone-wise. That he wants to be able to decide, on a moment-to-moment basis whether something will play as comedy or tragedy. The people who make such arguments probably do not enjoy his films very much. Every event in an Anderson film is always both comic and tragic: funnier because it’s so sad and more tragic because it’s so funny. It’s laugh-out loud funny when Bill Murray as Steve Zissou is screaming, “Esteban! Esteban!” repeatedly, howling out for his lost friend, as he bobs in the water in scuba gear. There is real pain in his voice and eyes, and in my stomach, and yet I’m still laughing. Cliché: comedy is tragedy plus time. But here, apparently, even open wounds are hilarious.
Wes has never stopped telling the story from the child’s perspective, even when the kids are grown up. The reason Rushmore is still the film the mainstream holds up as his best is because it is the one where this adolescent P.O.V. is given overt textual relevance. Max is fifteen, his best friend is 11, and he wears a blazer with his school’s crest. The fact of the film’s tone is given easy credence in the personage of its protagonist. The Royal Tenenbaums introduces all its characters as children and leaves them to live in the shadow of that world for the rest of the film. As Jonathon Lethem’s main character in Fortress of Solitude puts it: “My childhood is the only part of my life that wasn’t, uh, overwhelmed by my childhood.”
The collective nostalgia of the Tenenbaums is so great is seems to warp the very reality of the world around them—and thus the film. The opening sequence, with all of the characters appearing as children, serves as a frame narrative, authorizing the adolescent point-of-view. In Life Aquatic, however, no such direct textual explanation can be offered. It isn’t until almost the very end of the film, when the entire cast gathers together in that yellow submarine and goes down to see if the Jaguar Shark is really down there, that we realize why the whole film has been played through this strange lense. Why it has been acted out in a world that is sometimes obviously a set standing in for an ocean liner, and why it has been populated with fanciful cartoon creatures. Jane says, of her unborn child, “In twelve years, he’ll be eleven and a half.” And Steve, tears welling up behind his eyes, replies, “That was my favorite age.”
Some images courtesy of RushmoreAcademy.com