Erik Jaccard returns to 10YA to give Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums its due.

The Royal Tenenbaums
Dir. Wes Anderson

It’s taken me ten years to realize that there is a due date on The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson’s 2001 homage to faded genius, family dysfunction, pastel palettes, and a year that looks suspiciously like 1975 (but feels suspiciously like 1995). I’ve a number of reasons for making this claim, not the least of which is the one most relevant to us here at 10 Years Ago, the notion that I was due to revisit this film consciously at some point, and to adapt or revise my opinions of it, both sentimental and intellectual. But there’s more to it than that. It’s an interesting word, ‘due,’ encapsulating time and anticipation (that which is due), but also obligation and justice (to pay your dues; to give someone his or her due). Movies have due dates, as do library books, foodstuffs, beer, babies, some friends, some fashions, and, thankfully, some emotions. As the ambivalent signification of the word implies, however, these ‘due dates’ are about more than turning your DVDs in on time or polishing off that milk before it goes bad. No, there’s a kind of portent to the connotations of comeuppance and reckoning implied by the word ‘due,’ something dark and ancient, something mythical. Faust learned that the devil will get his due, as would Faust himself, as would Achilles, Oedipus, and Antigone. I’ll make my invocation of these weighty myths more relevant in a minute, but first I want to start off by saying that stories, too, must sometimes get their due. By this I mean both those we hold out at arms length as somehow different from our own, and those we tell daily about ourselves, whether in our own heads or as part of a larger composition. Stories come round, often simply as motifs, themes, and resonances, but sometimes in the form of people, behavior, and choices. The past will come around, this I can assure you. To quote a line from another auteur’s film, ‘the book says that we may be done with the past, but the past is never done with us.’

I’ve decided to break this review up into 4 parts, for the entirely arbitrary reason that I simply like parts. I think it’s also because I’ve not been able to decide on an agreeable format, only knowing that I want to do something different from the other reviews I’ve written throughout the year. Some of these parts are devoted to the notion that it’s high time I give this film — a film I’ve unselfconsciously adored for far too long — its due diligence. The rest are a potpourri of intellectual interest, critical inquiry, and random musings (and there’s plenty more of them at the end, to boot). Anyway, here we go:

1. The patriarch, the myth, and the meltdown

As we see in the opening credit sequence, Tenenbaums is, or will at some point be, due, back to the library, that is. In the first of his many auteur-ish constructions, Anderson goes out of his way to let us know that what we’re watching is a tale, a story, like one you’d check out from the local public library and lose yourself in for a few hours. At the same time, the regality of the decoration and the magical/mythical/mysterious tone of the score during this sequence tell us we’re not entering any old mundane slice of family life. No, underneath this tale’s shiny dust jacket, with its tableaux-meets-dinner invitation aesthetic and its warm candlelit table setting, we’re actually opening a dusty old tome of mythical family lore. One would assume we’d get a chronicle of the rise and fall of the Tenenbaums, a story which began under the most auspicious of pretenses and, was finally ‘erased by two decades of betrayal, failure, and disaster.’

This parade of failure, it would seem, revolves around the emotional and literal abandonment of the three Tenenbaum Children, Richie (Luke Wilson), Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), and Chas (Ben Stiller), by their self-serving, rambunctious, and devilishly amusing father Royal (Gene Hackman). Richie, Royal’s favorite, has crumbled and faded from view, largely due to his forbidden love for the adopted Margot. Margot, made constantly aware of her ‘adopted’ status by Royal, withdraws and detaches from the family, seeking ephemeral comfort in a web of petty deception that includes things like hiding her smoking from the family and engaging in a blazing string of affairs. Chas, the most practically minded of the group, feels unloved and underappreciated by Royal, whose attention to Richie does not go unnoticed. He has also recently lost his wife, who, it would seem, had provided him with kind of solidity his family story had always lacked. The action of the story, then, is the mythic reversal of this litany of failure. It hinges on the turn between the tragedy that opens the story (told as prologue) and the comedy we’ll all experience as we watch the characters finally begin to change, grow, and work into the adults they’ve never been able to become. The film even ends with a wedding. It’s all very Shakespearean.

At the same time, though, there are mythical elements working on two levels here, and they don’t always work in concert. Anderson’s aesthetic, developed over a sequence of films ranging most specifically from Rushmore, through Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and The Darjeeling Limited, has a way of enclosing your viewing experience inside a very detailed, and very claustrophobic bubble. While this feeling of being stuck inside one of Anderson’s childhood dreams comes and goes in most of the other films, it is exceedingly difficult to get outside of it in Tenenbaums. While the inside of the Tenenbaum home seems exceedingly, ironically vibrant in its colors and decoration (a testament, one would think, to Etheline’s unwavering stewardship of the family in Royal’s absence), the New York City which lies outside seems entirely washed of color in many cases. All cabs are battered, desultory ‘Gypsy Cabs,’ all buses ‘Green Line’ buses, and all décor straight from the ‘70s. Certain moments seem to be not narrative action, but resuscitated memories (particularly Margot’s arrival on the Green Line Bus). Richie’s suicide wants to be as tragic as Quentin Compson’s or Seymour Glass’s (see point #4), but, while tragic, it mostly just seems sad and mundane. While the town and the story which unfolds within it seems increasingly old (as do the characters), the feeling is, ironically, exactly the opposite. The Tenenbaum family is stuck in a vacuum, a time warp which revolves, somewhat absurdly around Royal’s betrayal and their inability to get past it.

When taken in conjunction with the mythical presentation of the narrative, the epically stylized appearance of the micro-world of the Tenenbaums, and the emotionally regressive characters, this vacuum presents the audience with a bit of a conundrum. It is, on the one hand, all something to be overcome. While it’s awfully cute to see them all wearing grown-up versions of their adolescent outerwear, very few would agree that remaining trapped in the past (look up ‘nostalgia’ in the dictionary and you’ll see the poster from this film) is emotionally healthy, and it seems that at least part of the film’s denouement turns on this idea that you can get past the myths and the timelessness family often projects onto its own subject participants. At the same time, the film is obsessed with its own stylization, so much so that what seems at least partially liberating is oftentimes the very thing that brings people (myself included) back to the film again and again — and keeps them there. It’s the same reason the Tenenbaums keep coming back as well, because it’s intimate, but intimate in a solipsistic way.  The film, its myth, and even its emotional tragedies, are all very cloistered, very particular, but they nonetheless demand to be treated as some kind of universal embodiment of familial meltdown. The problem with this is that real families aren’t myths. They may contain a number of people who change and reevaluate themselves on a regular basis; they may also contain some stalwarts who refuse to ever examine the ways they’ve clung unhealthily to ideal types established long ago — even hurtful ones, no, especially hurtful ones. This all brings me to my next point.

2. Family’s not a word, it’s a sentence: family as cloister

It’s difficult to make generalizations about families, a point of order which makes endeavors like Tenenbaums troublesome from the very start. While there’s certainly a kind of generic sameness you can observe across spectrums of race, religion, geographical particularity, occupation and income distribution, families are otherwise notoriously difficult to pin down. Even the most ‘normal’ of families is bound to be hiding a skeleton or two jangling in the closet and a handful of notable eccentricities. The paradox then becomes that we are all universally unique in our familial troubles, yet all uniquely universal in the fact that we have them. This contradiction has produced a wonderfully creative tension when engaged with imaginatively: All families have problems, but problems that can only be dealt with in, and by, those families. Tenenbaums, on the other hand, seems to show us an ironic, increasingly contrapuntal take on how either side of that tension can become frozen and rigid.

On the one hand, the family is mired entirely in the wake of its own, very particular atrophy. The unit is unproductively centered on a man who, from his chauvinistic attitude to his bizarrely neo-feudal language of patrilineage, must always play the role of the patriarch in opposition to his family’s assorted minor roles (wife, children, servant, etc). It’s difficult not to see this as somewhat sui generis as families go, or at least as too heavily stylized a creation to make sense. Nevertheless, when you strip away the residual aura of uptown glam and hyperintellectualism, we are essentially just looking at a family trying to negotiate the transition from a rather immature version of itself to a more adult manifestation which takes all parts of the unit as equally as important. Royal does it at first by trying to play patriarch, as though you would a character in a play or as the centerpiece in a family portrait — Still Life with Tenenbaums. Predictably, the kids fall in line around this idea — family — as though they were being told to line up and crack a smile by some fading, penniless Velasquez. The myth, the music, the timelessness of it all has a curiously detached ring, reinforced by Royal’s incessant need to call the children (especially the boys) ‘son’ or ‘my darlings,’ words which feign emotion, but also convey an idea of people as interchangeable and ahistorical pawns in his epic life story.

On the other, the Tenenbaums’ problems seem rather ordinary. The film shows us a family stuck inside a snow globe, ostensibly because they are unable to move on.  This is hardly novel.  In fact, it’s about as mundane as drama gets.  The tag line I quote at the beginning — ‘Family’s not a word, its sentence’ — even seems so banal it could have graced any number of ‘dysfunctional family’ films. But the more I think about this phrase, the more interesting it becomes.  Ok, so ‘family’ is not simply an inert ‘word’ we can take for granted, but rather something that drags us into its clutches and detains us, like a prison ‘sentence.’  This superficial meaning, meant to be amusing, one would think, captures the mythical, cloistered sense of the word ‘family,’ the sense that would have the universal idea take precedent over the social, dynamic and unique identity of what is otherwise a fluid concept. Of course, the sentence can be read another way entirely, which is to say that ‘family,’ the ideal, the word, and the actual thing, only makes sense as part of a sentence, a larger unit with multiple interlocking parts/words, few of which make sense outside the stabilizing influence of each other.

Tenenbaums wants us to believe that it ultimately comes down on the side of the latter, that Chas gets over his bitter resentment and lets go of his past, that Margot writing a new play (that ‘ran for just under two weeks and received mixed reviews’) will signal her emergence from the bathtub in her mind, and that Richie’s anguished confession of love for Margot will free him of his demons. We are obviously meant to read Royal’s transition from egotistical deadbeat dad to loveable, caring ‘Papi’ Tenenbaum as the decision that can break the mythical cycle and reinstitute the family’s stunted growth. At the same time, I constantly wonder about what happens in the world outside mythical Tenenbaum land, where fathers don’t always do the right thing and siblings can’t always overcome their own insular views on each other, where people can’t always wait around for the fairy tale to finish out its happy ending. This is not to say that I reject the film’s ‘happy’ ending (I don’t, or I don’t want to), but more that I recognize how, by setting up this mythical ‘family as sentence’ motif, it can really go either way. The cloister/myth can be an easy place to set up shop.  It’s easy to live there, because we, as individuals, control all the rules. We can limit our engagements with those who make us feel bad, we can control the way others interact with us (to a degree) and can construct our own micro-myths about our relation to the larger unit. The problem, though, is that this makes it hard to see people as living, changing, social beings, especially parents (much of whose change, by the time you’re old enough to see it as an child-adult, is behind them). You can latch onto these frozen, timeless self-creations because they’re easier than their living counterparts, easier to apply, easier to resent, easier to mock. But to take this route is to undoubtedly lose part of the meaning of the sentence in both of its possible definitions. The only way to possibly see ourselves clearly enough to make positive change in our own lives is to see with double vision, through the lens of our own experience as subjects, but also from the vantage point provided by those who have lived with, and for us — those other parts of the sentence (who are sentenced to you just as surely as you are sentenced to them).

3. Looking up and looking in: Anderson’s Carnival of Outsiders

I once read a review of this film (probably around the time of its release) wherein the reviewer compared it to Anderson’s previous work in terms of its treatment of the figure of the outsider. This is the person, who, like Bottle Rocket’s Dignan, Rushmore’s Max, and Tenenbaums’ Eli, is always looking in at more fortunate people from lower down on a ladder (if you prefer the vertical analogy) or from the outside in. If you can move yourself past the family drama for a moment, I think it’s easy to see that this thesis has a lot of merit, and, ten years on, I want to give it its due. I’m firmly convinced that it is Eli and Henry Sherman, the characters who seem to fit least comfortably into the Tenenbaum mythos, who are the most interesting characters in the film. This is precisely because they do not fit into the familial tableaux vivant and resulting emotional stasis of the Tenenbaum family. Henry, whose confessions of love for Etheline provide the film with some of its more underappreciated and tender moments, wishes to join the family, but must always play second fiddle to the exiled Royal. His intentions and motives seem worthy and, as Royal himself points out, he’s everything that Royal isn’t — honest, loyal, loving, and kind. Whether or not Chas, Margot, and Ritchie will give him his due remains to be seen, though I’ve always read Chas’s late shared recognition of their mutual status as widowers gestures towards long-awaited developments for the both of them.  It’s one of a few tender moments near the end of the film when the seemingly impenetrable emotional fortifications built around Tenenbaum manor seem ready to crumble and let in some daylight.

Henry’s seemingly genuine concern for the family acts as a foil to Eli, the orphan neighbor friend of Richie’s, who ‘always wanted to be a Tenenbaum’ and now exists in a state of hybrid disingenuousness, clinging on to a dream of grandeur the Tenenbaum children themselves have abandoned. It’s meant to be most apt and meaningful that Eli admits this to Royal, who replies ‘me, too,’ as though he’s been systematically denied admittance on the basis of brains or class in the same way Eli has. Eli sends his press clippings to Etheline Tenenbaum, his surrogate mother, and enters into an affair with Margot, most likely in an attempt to feel at least a modicum of the connection he has always witnessed between her and Richie. Eli believes in the Tenenbaum myth so completely that his own obsessive nostalgia for the eclipsed period of family greatness comes to define his existence. Most problematically, Eli tends to be — like any other outsider — part of the Tenenbaums’ problem. By involving himself so whole-heartedly in the family mystique, he ratifies and legitimizes it, on the one hand participating in its slow, cyclical procession and, on the other, by the way in which he participates, ensuring its eventual dissolution.

Anderson’s Heart of ‘Glass’

My initial intention with this review was to fashion it along the lines of a fun meta-commentary on the film at the hands of American Literature’s most famous 20th century family of geniuses, J.D. Salinger’s Glass family. It was meant to be a way of bringing an inspiration for the film back for a self-reflexive comment on the film itself, to give the Glass family their due, as it were. The Glass mythos provides a number of key sub-textual reference points for understanding the Tenenbaums. Like the Tenenbaums, the Glass family is captained by a Jewish mother and Irish Catholic father, former vaudevillians whose savant children have provided them with a large measure of notoriety, fame, and wealth. The narrative presentation of the Glass family as a kind of modern mythical clan resonates more or less cleanly with Tenenbaums, as does the way the narrative action plays out as a long sequence of short or novella-esque ‘moments,’ rather like a chronicle (as opposed to a ‘history’). Etheline and Henry’s wedding loosely parallels that of Seymour and Muriel Glass; Margot’s day-long soaks in the tub are obviously meant to evoke Franny Glass’s nervous breakdown and subsequent parking of herself in the tub; Richie’s suicide, which immediately brings to mind Seymour Glass’s, is actually a composite of Seymour’s death wish and Zooey Glass’s shaving scene from Franny and Zooey. The Glass family narrative also provides us with our setting (NYC, and particularly the Upper East Side) and a story that, while certainly developing more than Tenenbaums, nonetheless draws on the spiritual and cultural zeitgeist of the American midcentury. Finally, and in terms of character development, the Glass stories also, in many ways, revolve around an often absent center, in this case Seymour.

However, one of the reasons I ultimately abandoned this clever little conceit is that I realized this is where the interesting comparisons stop. Transmuted into Glass family dialogue, the movie would almost necessarily have been ripped to shreds, and not simply because the film’s liberties with the Glass mythology are mostly superficial (they are), but also because it is precisely this superficiality, this overabundance of style in the absence of spirituality, emotion, or depth, that would have set the Glass family members off like fireworks. At first, I admit that the idea of Zooey Glass pontificating on the demerits of the film while standing in front of a mirror, half-shaven and exceedingly handsome, appealed to me. But then I realized that this appealed to me not because it allowed me to say anything particularly unique or interesting about the film, but rather because, like so many of the Glass-Tenenbaum hangers-on, I had let myself get sucked into the Glass family nostalgia. I wanted to yank them out of their musty and perfectly reasonable resting pages and force them to talk about a movie I was pretty sure they wouldn’t appreciate. I could hear the backlash: these kids aren’t geniuses, but what some phony kind of outsider would THINK  a genius was; there is no heart to the film, no spiritual journey, no questing after the bodhi; the plot is altogether too linear, makes too much goddamned sense…we’re supposed to be put together in pieces and chunks; and what about the quiz show? What, was he scared to take it on because Paul Thomas Anderson already did it? And on and on. In the end, it would have been a monument to Erik’s infatuation with both families rather than a fair testament to their relative strengths and weaknesses.

Loose Ends, Random Thoughts, and various minutiae

Bill Murray does about as much as he can with his character, ‘the neurologist Raleigh St. Clair,’ but it’s a pretty wasted performance for him. .

Hackman is excellent in this film.  On the DVD extras (I watched the Criterion Edition) it’s stated more than once that Anderson wrote the role of Royal specifically for Hackman, and that the latter very nearly turned it down precisely for that reason.  Thank goodness for the rest of us he didn’t.

Though I realize you can say this about nearly every Wes Anderson movie, we really ought to give an enthusiastic high five to Karen Patch, the costume designer (who also worked on Bottle Rocket and Rushmore). I’m sure she had a fair amount of input from Anderson, who drew a lot of these characters himself, but she makes the costumes a consistent (ly ridiculous) reminder of that emotionally claustrophobic coal mine they live in.

The magic of the diorama pervades the film. The ‘house on Archer Avenue’ is composed entirely of disjunctive set pieces, each of which possesses its own childish authenticity. You can almost smell the adhesive drying on the backs of each piece of toy furniture.

Best line of the entire film:  [Royal to Ari and Uzi] “I’m sorry for your loss; your mother was a terribly attractive woman.”

Second best line of the entire film: [Eli on why his first novel, Wildcat, was not a success] “Well, Wildcat was written in a kind of obsolete vernacular. WildcatWild…cat!. Wooooo. I’m gonna go. I’m going.” I guess that one kind of needs the visual.

Seeing that they’re both Texans, I’ve always wondered if Anderson and Wilson, what, with their unabashed literary sensibilities, aren’t having a go at Texan transplant Cormac McCarthy via Eli Cash’s associate literature professor-cum-budding ‘Western’ novelist.  I mean, listen to this: The crickets and the rust-beetles scuttled among the nettles of the sage thicket. “Vámonos, amigos,” he whispered, and threw the busted leather flintcraw over the loose weave of the saddlecock. And they rode on in the friscalating dusklight. The stuffy, pedantic attention to detail (flintcraw! saddlecock!) and mestizo border diction are first indicators, that and the fact that the sentence sounds like someone channeling Faulkner through Davy Crockett. We should also consider, though, that this could be a dig at McCarthy-esque wannabes staking a claim on terrain hundreds of novelists have claimed for their own (most with significantly less success than ol’ Cormac), and which an academic would know better than to imitate (one hopes).

Elliott Smith had not yet stabbed himself to death in the chest when this film was released. It’s impossible to ignore Richie’s death scene and all the more impossible to forget because of its connection to Smith’s “Needle in the Hay,” one of the more memorable tracks from his self-titled debut. I’m not sure exactly what I’m feeling just now. I think it’s some color of sad.  Yup, it’s sad.

I have to admit that I’ve always loved ex-Devo member Mark Mothersbaugh’s score: baroque cello and harpsichord, jingling bells, tinkling piano, classical guitar and snapping fingers. With, you know, the random odd Reggae interlude (in accord with plot flashbacks, naturally).

Etheline Tenenbaum’s former suitors are The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen!

I’d never really found much to like about Nico until I saw this movie. In fact, I may still not really hold a place in my life for Nico’s music. But I find the use of ‘These Days’ and ‘The Fairest of the Seasons’ quite apt in this film at least. There’s a reason why they bookend the soundtrack (excepting Mothersbaugh’s instrumental  ‘11 Archer Avenue,’ which technically leads things off) and I like to think the leaden ambivalence of the first tends to unwind throughout until we get to a much more ethereal, but positive and open ‘Do I stay or Do I go’ moment with the latter song.

It’s never mentioned out loud in the film, but the art on Eli’s walls is awesome, if awesome for you is men with tribal masks atop four wheel ATVs.  Maybe awesome isn’t the right word. Perhaps what I’m looking for is ‘appropriately surreal.’ What if that were the real world and the Tenenbaum’s world was just a dreamWhoa, dude…whoa.