[23 March 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Wes Anderson should have been an author. Though he works in film, he remains a true man of letters at his core. There is a cinematic literacy to almost every movie he makes, an attention to detail that only the writer has the luxury to explore. From the quirky heist hedonism of Bottle Rocket to his recent reinvention of Raold Dahl’s kid classic, The Fantastic Mr. Fox (now available of DVD and Blu-ray from Fox), he’s invested his motion picture oeuvre with a depth and complexity of vision usually reserved for the vaunted print artform. He builds layers into his characters, universal truths topped with abject idiosyncrasies to create fictional individuals who are both wildly entertaining and aesthetically symbolic. By the time he’s done putting the finishing touches on a film, such flourishes mesh into a clever combination of old school storytelling and the Great American novel.
Perhaps most interestingly, his focus is almost always on family, be it the unintentional bond between bratty Max Fisher and substitute father figure, industrialist Herman Blume or the actual biology of the bumbling, brilliant Tenenbaums. Equally intriguing is how diverse and yet similar they all seem, dysfunctional on their surface (and occasionally, in situation) while warm, wise, and soulful inside. This is also true of the stop-motion members of the Fox clan - Father (voiced by George Clooney), Mother (Meryl Streep), son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) and interloping cousin Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson). Toss in the ancillary clans of badgers, rats, and the villainous farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, and it seems everything centers around close interpersonal connections and the comedy/cruelty that can come from same.
It’s with this in mind that we will examine the extraordinary broods at the center of Anderson’s most successful films - the aforementioned Tenenbaums, Steve Zissou and his Life Aquatic gang, globe-trotting brothers Francis, Peter, and Jack Whitman as the travel on the Darjeeling Limited, and those fascinating, fantastic Foxes. Each group has their own unique perspective on personal angst, and there’s almost never a dull opr meaningless moment. Drawn together, they prove why Anderson is one of the most accomplish artists working today and why any genre he tackles comes up talented and trumps. Let’s begin with the strangest cohabiting conglomeration of them all:
Troubled doesn’t begin to describe this group of disgruntled elitist vagabonds. Lawyer father Royal even has to use the ruse of terminal disease to get his angry wife and distant children to pay attention to him. Among his grown offspring are the suicidal Margot, entrepreneurial Chas, and tired tennis prodigy Ritchie. There’s also a couple of sheltered grandchildren and the family accountant who has eyes for Mrs. Tenenbaum. As would soon become his signature, Anderson sets up the members of his creative company with their own explanatory vignettes, celluloid “chapters” if you will which tell us the particulars of their problems and how their various dealings and defense mechanisms have sent us spiraling toward this particular stress point. While loosely based on the Glass Family from the famed JD Salinger short stories, there are a myriad of other influences, from Anderson’s own mother to the Velvet Underground. Narratively, the Tenenbaums are looking for closure in a collective that doesn’t even understand itself yet. It will be a theme carried through much of Anderson’s onscreen musings.
Steve Zissou and His Crew
As with many of Anderson’s beginnings, The Life Aquatic is centered in tragedy. Disgraced oceanographer and explorer Steve Zissou is obsessed with the giant ‘jaguar shark’ which he claims killed his best friend Esteban du Plantier. He then uses that fixation to force a kind of cracked paternalistic reign over his ship of misfits. He’s like a more laid back Ahab, with a seemingly imaginary creature the center of his unusual fish fetish. The issue of actual fatherhood does come up with it is suggested that newest crewmember Ned might actually be Zissou’s son. Of course, nothing is ever what it seems and love slides in and out of the relationships like squid ink off the side of a dock. Once again, the full family flaw handbook is present. We have estranged spouses, interloping carnal carpetbaggers, various levels of drug-dependent psychosis, and a wonderful sense of high seas (and high stress) adventure. And yet, through it all, Zissou and his team become bonded in a way that invests them all in each others failure - and celebrate any semblance of success.
The Whitman Boys
Sibling rivalry hasn’t been quite as sad as the state of the Whitman boys’ deteriorating adult relationship. Held together by an odd affinity for their late father’s fancy luggage and a mutual need to reconnect with their absent mother, these aging adolescents take a train trip through India hoping the spiritual journey will cleanse their cluttered souls. Unfortunately, it just brings more bad memories to the surface. Ironically enough, for this telling railway therapy session, Anderson decides to keep things moving. The characters never really get a chance to settle down and take in the experience - or the consequences. It’s as if, their whole life, they’ve been running from something and need to now accelerate the process, locomotive-ly. In the end, they Whitman’s learn that the ‘baggage’ they have hung onto for all these years is really meaningless. Instead, it’s the value (or lack thereof) of what’s inside that counts. Life may never be as structured as a laminated itinerary, but it can be as revealing.
In some ways, Anderson’s animated clique is his most solid, centered and reasonable. Sure, Dad can’t quite stop being the late night poultry bandit his instincts demand, and overlooked son Ash feels small and inadequate in his parents’ eyes. Of course, it doesn’t help that he wears a cape and hopes to be something special someday. Still, Mom sees the value in their mutual appreciation and strives daily to make sure no member of her group is given over to their horribly self-indulgent streaks. For the most part, The Fantastic Mr. Fox centers on the discovering of emotion equilibrium, of building a balance between ourselves and our relationships. Granted, it’s all given a goofy cartoon gleam, a suggestion that what’s here is silly and not subtle or substantive. But buried inside all the action and antics, funny faces and farcical slapstick, is a real human heart. The Fantastic Mr. Fox represents Anderson at his most assured and sentimental. It’s almost as if he’s let the fairytale-esque format uncover his true cinematic intentions.