“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.“
— Mark Twain
Wes Anderson is a hard case.
As a director whose indebtedness to past cinematic masters is matched only by his influence on current indie filmmakers,
And yet, intentionally or no, he is a divider, not a uniter.
Anderson’s films tend to hide an intriguing (often helpful) message amid a sea of problematic mannerisms. The artificiality of his settings and the peculiarity of his tone are often attributed to insincerity; the callow, modish style — as tangible as any of his characters — to conceit; and the disquieting brokenness of his characters to meanness. Unconscionable behavior and unappealing, fantastically quirky characters litter his films, and it is small wonder that those darker details can often overshadow the insights at the root of his works. While it is impossible to ignore these quirks in his films, it would be a mistake to ignore the message beneath them.
A closer review of the six films in his cinematic portfolio reveals a number of interesting themes — themes which, in the best auteur tradition, crop up repeatedly throughout his filmography. Most of his works feature a conflict between two male leads, taboo love stories, and often an older, mysterious femme fatale that serves as a catalyst for important thematic events. There are, however, a pair of intricately connected topics that serve as the most intriguing — and redemptive — elements to be found in his works: the gradual, essential growth of self-awareness and self-understanding, and the profound importance of fatherhood (as well as the profound damage inflicted by broken father figures in our society).
In Bottle Rocket,
Unfortunately, their early successes prove to be the
For teenaged Max, this probably comes as no great surprise; but for Herman Bloom, whose two sons attend Rushmore, it is a true revelation. Quite simply, Bloom wants to be a child; he is unwilling (and, at the beginning of the film, unable) to give up his childish ways. But his adulthood and, therefore, his fatherhood are inescapable, and it is only once he realizes that he is living selfishly — a realization that embracing his role as father would have made clear many years before — that he can begin to salvage his badly damaged relationships with others.
The Darjeeling Limited, the story of three brothers and their quest to find “spiritual enlightenment” set against the exotic and unfamiliar setting of modern-day
But it is in The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou that Anderson most directly addresses the role of fatherhood and the dangers of refusing to accept that role. Not coincidentally, these are also the only two films in
In Tenenbaums, an aging patriarch, Royal, battles to win back his family — a battle made necessary by his previous refusal to treat his children as anything other than amusing accessories. Royal must first recognize the many ways he has damaged his children through his failures as a father, and atone for them as best he can. And while he tries a number of easier (and funnier) approaches to the problem of his family, it is only once he begins to act like a true father — once he begins to love unconditionally — that the family can begin to heal. (As an aside, Fantastic Mr. Fox seems like a true oddity among
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is, in many ways, the culmination of
As he prepares to set out on an Ahab-like voyage of vengeance, he suddenly finds himself confronted by an unknown son. But rather than accept his new role as father, Zissou holds the young man at bay, including him in the filmmaking operations but refusing to acknowledge his own paternity. In one of the film’s expository moments, a pregnant magazine reporter accompanying Team Zissou on their journey remarks that she “needs to find a baby for this father.” Zissou understands her to have misspoken, but her “mistake” is absolutely correct when applied to Zissou himself. Many of the tribulations plaguing his declining years are brought into focus through the rejection of his paternal role; the solution to his struggles is directly before him, but his selfishness prevents him from seeing what is so clear to everyone else. Once again, it is an unusual moment of violence that precipitates Zissou’s change of heart; and while Zissou’s refusal to accept his role until it’s too late is truly tragic, the fact that he accepts it at last cannot be overlooked.
The important thing about both Royal and Zissou is not just that they are broken but that they know it. Both realize that their selfishness and lack of interest in those they hold dear has cost them much, but both ultimately set out to mend their ways. For Royal, his reformation is rewarded by living out his old age in happiness. For Zissou, his change of heart comes too late to salvage his relationship with his son, but it clearly influences the way he will act henceforth: He is a man who has clearly learned his lesson and has resolved to amend his ways.
Royal and Zissou are both clearly altered by their experiences, and it is that very change — and their subsequent galvanization into action — that is so essential when trying to understand
The question of whether that message is sufficient to justify
Note: Anderson’s films are populated by pervasive language, mature themes, and occasional sexual material — except for Fantastic Mr. Fox, which features nothing more objectionable than pervasive Roald Dahlism.