Saturday, September 1, 2007

WES ANDERSON, NOSTALGIA & THE 11 YEAR OLD POINT-OF-VIEW

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

7 comments:

Gerry Canavan said...

Good post to start off the month. Building off your post I take a moderately different take on Anderson here. It seems to me that for it's not so much that Anderson is very good at capturing the memory of childhood (though he is) so much as for the characters in his movies adult life is merely an extension of these same childhood fears and longings. Or as I say in the blog post:

It's not that Wes Anderson chooses to shoot things from the perspective of an eleven-year-old because he's hung up on childhood, but rather that (at least for the characters he's focused on thus far, Bottle Rocket definitely included) there simply is no other perspective from which to film. For Anderson, the same tragicomic feelings of surreality, anxiety, and time-is-running-out impermanence that characterize childhood characterize the entirety of all our lives; the differences between the two states are differences in content, not form.

This is to say that, for Anderson, childhood is the form adult life takes. We never grow up. We can't. There's nothing to grow up into.

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

Gerry: Thank you for your kind words.

I agree with you that Anderson's films take this point-of-view because "for the characters he's focused on thus far... there simply is no other perspective from which to film" and that, "for Anderson, childhood is the form adult like takes." Those of us that love--and recognize ourselves in--Anderson's movies, are not necessarily obsessed with our childhoods so much as we see no difference between childhood and adulthood. I've been told I was a crotchety old curmudgeon since I was a child, and now, as an adult, I'm often referred to as child-like. This is an element of the Salinger association that I considered bringing up but left out for fluidity's sake. In Salinger, all of the kids act like grown-ups and all of the adults act like children. Think of "Rushmore"'s Dirk Calloway and Mr. Blume.

But, for me, when things start to get really profound is in "Tenenbaums" when these twin impulses are merged into single bodies: each of the Tenenbaum children is a prodigy, the very definition of a precocious child. As an adult, though, each of them is in stasis, and therefore child-like. By the fact of exhibiting the same behavior that once read as "adult," they are now childish.

The, as you say, "tragicomic feelings of surreality, anxiety and time-is-running out impermanence" are constant states that have more to do with the fact of being alive than being in a particular stage of life.

Gerry Canavan said...

That curmudgeonly child/childlike adult thing is really very right, at least in terms of my own life. I almost wonder whether that's the common denominator between all Wes Anderson fanboys.

Scarecrow said...

I would say Bottle Rocket definitely takes place in a childhood universe. I've read somewhere that they would specifically use wardrobe that would replicate the kind of stuff Owen, Luke and Wes would wear when they were 10, 12 years old. The whole point of the movie, to my mind, is the conflict and pain of leaving that world behind and face the actual, adult consequences of your actions. Which is what Dignan probably both wants and doesn't want. That final scene in prison is so layered I could spend days and days thinking about its meaning.

Anyway, just my two cents...

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

Scarecrow: There's no way for me to disagree with you there. Honestly, the omission of "Bottle Rocket" from this piece was much more about creating a fluid essay than it was about that particular film's connection to the thesis.

Dignan says, in the prison scene you mention, "We did it, though, didn't we?" As a teenager, when I first saw the film, I laughed at the line, finding revelations about Dignan's absurd character within it. But now the line is much more poignant to me. The thing they accomplished through this whole thing, was to grow up.

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

This was posted on the comments over at the link to this piece on Gerry Caravan's blog. I liked it, so I thought I'd share it:

"And who among us can forget the sound of the stylus hitting the vinyl at the end of Rushmore as The Faces' "Ooh La La" begins to play. For me, that moment is the most acute, almost painful distillation in his movies of what you've been identifying so lucidly here.
Abe | 09.03.07 - 12:31 pm |"

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