Post Millennial Malaise 04: The Royal Tenenbaums

In Which This Review Presupposes

When you talk about American film in the 90’s you have to talk about the indie boom. How studios like Miramax and directors like Tarantino, Linklater, and Kevin Smith radically shifted what was seen as expected and cool to put on film. But for every obvious success found in this fruitful period there was a deluge of poor imitators, people riding what was now seen as the ethos of production during an expected era. So for a good while the indie film scene (and even a few studio works) were flooded with cheap copies of the more successful artists. For every Pulp Fiction there was a Things to Do in Denver When your Dead. For each Dazed and Confused, an Empire Records, and so on and so on.

Alas trends never last forever, and things began to shift around as time moved on, and different people stepped into the fold. One of those people was Texas based director Wes Anderson, a mild mannered individual with an intense and singular vision of what movies could look and sound like. Though his features are never one to shy away from a shock of violence or an expletive laced joke, his mannered style was quite the shift from the loose stylings of Smith or epic violence and speechifying of Tarantino.

With the warm critical response to both Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, Anderson was bound to get closer to mainstream success. He found it with 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums, a movie that fully codified his aesthetic and thematic interests while bring his work to the biggest audience yet. It also is arguably the movie that shifted what the indie aesthetic would look like. For most of the 90’s people were chasing the Tarantino and Smith vibe. But once the century turned it was the tonality of Anderson that became the dominant voice.

What was the reason for this shift? Tarantino was fairly prolific in the 2000’s (four movies, compared to three on either end), Linklater turned out his first major hit, and even Soderbergh got propelled to the big leagues with an Oscar win and multiple blockbuster films. Well I think it’s because The Royal Tenenbaums hit at the exact right moment to become the attitudinal opposition for the mid 00’s. For as the years after 9/11 progressed the general culture got more aggro and in your face, the “not your daddy”-ification of pop culture. So it makes sense that the counter would be something wistful, melancholic, astute, and finely tuned. It seems appropriate that this is the same era where indie rock as well turned more and more to the baroque, as groups like The Decemberists and Arcade Fire took off.

The Royal Tenenbaums itself serves as a sort of counter to the immediate aftermath of 9/11 as well. Filmed before the events of that day, buy keying in on and underlying warmth and despair that permeated the mood of the city. It’s a New York story in the mold of Salinger, but scrubbed of the traditional signifiers of New York. No Statue of Liberty, no bridges, and no skyline. It’s a film that can serve as both a warm blanket and depressive cut to the heart at the same time, and its success allowed for more and more films to adapt the twee sensibility all on their own. The carefully constructed scenes, people and places both whimsical and mundane, and an oh so ever carefully selected soundtrack that plays both to the vinyl diver and current interests.

The film concerns the life and times of a large and dysfunctional family headed by Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) and Etheline (Anjelica Huston). They have three kids Chas (Ben Stiller), Richie (Luke Wilson), and adopted Margot (Gwenyth Paltrow). After a youth of being prodigies in one field or another the family fell apart after Royal left them, and now, as Etheline plans to remarry to Henry Sherman (Danny Glover) Royal reappears to make amends before he passes on.

The structure and character of the film shows that Anderson has a key awareness of a strain of American pop culture that hadn’t been fully mined into the contemporary consciousness yet. The story calls upon the aforementioned Salinger, but also Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons and the works of Hal Ashby (particularly Harold and Maude and Being There). There’s a calm assuredness to the direction that keeps even the winking references and flashy filmmaking techniques together. The world that Anderson constructs is both completely out of time and wholly a part of it. These may be characters set to exist in a lavishly art directed world, but they aren’t freed from the sincere emotional distress.

Anderson has been an artist accused of pursuing his particular stylistic peccadilloes over the narrative and character work that the medium of film provides. While there are cases in his career to make this argument, I think Tenebaums serves as one of the most effective counterpoints. All of the affected stylization representing the shells of trauma that each of our characters has constructed to protect themselves. For every whip pan, dolly shot, and carefully composed frame, there’s a yearning for something different that pulses beneath. That the weird tics these particular characters engage with are just another defense from the harshness that their life included.

This technique, of mining pathos from obvious affectation, has long been a hallmark of indie sensibility. Ashby is a prime example, but you can find it everywhere, from the tuneful music of groups like Belle and Sebastion to the aggressive detail of comics. Here I think the impact is highlighted by the time of its release. For the Andersonian touches in The Royal Tenenbaums does two seemingly opposing things that causes the work to hit harder. It distances itself from reality by creating a New York in an out of time bubble, on removed from the world as we no it and safe recent tragedy, but it also aggressively leans into the sadness and uncertainty of the story. So even in the storybook world of the film death haunts every corner.

So what you have is a film where a viewer is able to process grief and loss through an abstracted prism. A fanciful reality with eccentric families and go-kart races, but one where the feeling still sting. It’s why scenes like Ritchie’s suicide attempt is gutting, the air of a romantic world can be punctured in a moment, no matter the set design and camera moves.

So when the film winds it’s way to the conclusion of its story there’s a potent catharsis in Chas telling Royal that it’s been a hard year. In the movie it’s referring to the difficulty Chas has had while adjusting to the life of being widow and struggling to reconnect to his father, but it also speaks to the moment that the film was released. Who wouldn’t want to turn to Gene Hackman, stalwart of American cinema in one of his last roles, and try to find comfort and reconciliation.

These aspects speak to why the movie was a hit when it entered theaters in December of 2001, and it also reveals a bit of the game plan for how independent cinema would operate in the coming years. Boring down harder on the twee touchstones, and the popping that bubble for pathos. The problem is that it’s a tricky thing to replicate. Indeed Anderson even struggled to find the right balance again for nearly a decade. But his influence is felt, strongly, over the next ten years of films, as to revolt against Bush era conformity might involve carefully arranged images, exhaustively curated soundtracks, and a sense of yearning for a life beyond the world of affected ideas that existed on the silver screen.

Odds and Ends

  • Many props to Owen Wilson in this movie for creating one of the eternal phrases in, “but this book presupposes, maybe he didn’t.”
  • Best needle drop still has to be Nico’s “These Days,” perfectly capturing the aching feeling between the characters. “Judy is a Punk” or “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” or both a close second.
  • It’s interesting that Anderson was never able to fulfill the promise of this movie for nearly the rest of the decade. Maybe people were sick of the twee wave he was a part of and wanted to nip it in the bud. He’s acquitted himself quite well since Fantastic Mr. Fox.
  • This was supposed to be Hackman’s final film role, but he popped up in the atrocious Welcome to Mooseport a few years later.
  • One tic that is super noticeable that Anderson eventually ditched is ending movies with a slow motion shot.
  • It’s interesting that Owen Wilson was the other main driver of Anderson’s first three films, even if he isn’t on screen in all of them, he is credited as co-writer for each.

As always, twitterletterboxd, and I Chews You (the podcast about cooking and eating Pokemon).

Next Week: Listen to life changing music and yell at garbage as we go back to Garden State.