Monday, November 16, 2009

Thoughts before Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox

The (Potential) Religious Overtones of Wes Anderson movies – or – How I Can Suddenly Twist One of my Main Sources of Joy into Something Repellently Churchy


Wes Anderson’s nasally Texas-tinged voice came over the radio this morning. The Rushmore director was giving an interview for his sixth film, the forthcoming Fantastic Mr. Fox. And it got me thinking – cliché as it is for a white, middle-class, thrift-shopping, NPR-listening, dry-wit-revering, hipster-in-denial, to be a cheerleader/drunk-on-the-kool-aid for Wes Anderson movies – it moved me to start heavily unpacking the themes that revolve, however subtly, throughout each of his films – regardless if it’s a masturbatory act from a purely cinestete perspective.

Anderson’s films are often given admiring brushes by the media (or blurbed critical quotes) centering around the quirkiness; on a surface level, one can enjoy the quirky comedic impact of Bill Murray in a suit, swatting a basketball away from grade schoolers while talking on a cell phone, or the uncomfortable conversation shared between the Wilson brothers while cuts back and forth reveal disturbing, yet somehow funny paintings of four-wheeler marauders, or the juvenile slap-filled wrestling match between grown men on a train as they somehow profess love for each other while also attacking each other with mace.

But look deeper, as I dorkily have…and one of the biggest things you’ll take away from Anderson’s stories is that the recently turned 40 screenwriter, producer and director seems to have some deep daddy issues.

As Steve Zissou puts it, bluntly, to his possible-son, Ned, “…I hate fathers and I never wanted to be one.”


But while it’s not my intention to root around Anderson’s personal life in a gossipy manner (as I see no suggestion that he came from a broken home) – I’d instead like to posit, especially considering the strong influence of Hinduism on his most recent release, the Darjeeling Limited, that these recurrent “father figure” themes stand as an overarching religious implication – sort of a Christ-like path – not in the sense of a healer, or a preacher, but…at the end of the day, a confused son, looking up to the heavens for guidance, for comfort, for encouragement, for answers. (Who has more nuanced daddy-issues, at the end of the day, that Jeezy Creezy). In our youth, where or who do we direct all of our questions, be it how electricity works, or why the sky is blue or why leaves fall or whatever… It is always to our parents.

As Palahniuk opined through Fight Club, to paraphrase, Christian American males see their fathers as a model for god.

Let’s take a look at the father situation throughout his films.

We can start with Dignan, from Bottle Rocket; most of the trouble that Dignan gets himself (and his friend Anthony) into are caused by his risky (and heavily naïve) relationship to Mr. Henry. While both Anthony and Bob can see that this guy may be okay on the surface, they still don’t seem to be as enamored with him as Dignan – perhaps because their friend sees the shifty elder as an idyllic father figure – continually providing the encouragement and arm around the shoulder support that perhaps was lacking in his life, while also balancing it with a charade of good natured joking around (that can also fill in as an older-brother replacement). Mr. Henry is eventually revealed to be a clever criminal specializing in grand larceny, who has taken advantage of the clearly disturbed and malleable will of Dignan.

It’s also interesting to note that there are no parents present in Bottle Rocket, even though they are sporadically referenced. We see scenes of these mid-20 something characters apparently acknowledging that they should be acting like grown-ups, be it through Bob’s attempted assertiveness towards his brother Future Man or from Anthony trying to embrace his older-brother role to his grade-school sister to no avail. While a parent-less movie would go unnoticed otherwise, there are references – Anthony and Dignan “practice” their burglary on Anthony’s absent parent’s house; Bob constantly refers to his “folks” and how they are away, and Dignan, in turn, never brings up his family. All we have to look to, is Mr. Henry – the epitome of deception, or a lesson-learned.

Rushmore tells the tale of an over-stretched, over-achieving, tactless young playwright prodigy who parades about like a 30-something haughty literati lobbing vocabulary he may not be yet equipped to use and finding out that even he is not immune to the youthful trance of puppy love. It is also about a boy who hasn’t yet come to terms with his feelings about his own father, who has been raising him for sometime as a widower: a lower-middle class, blue collar barber, wrinkled and silvertopped, using old colloquialisms and shows an endearing, cute goofiness –

What Max may not be ready to admit is that he is embarrassed by his father (he lies about his profession) and that he is drawn to another father figure – Herman Blume, a joyless, fatalistic millionaire who may not garner any affection, specifically, from Max, but may send confusing signals to the boy that he belongs with a more upper class influence for a father, however bitter the rich man may be…

Royal Tenenbaums
is the dysfunctional family named for the central character and patriarch – so the daddy thing is pretty obvious.

This is a redemption story and revolves around the three siblings and their personal regards for their father: Chaz was often treated coldly, however unintentionally by Royal, piquing in a never-forgiven bee-bee gun-shot wound, so the highly stressed, overzealous widower and father of two embraces a retaliatory cold-shoulder stance, purposely showing no emotion when Royal announces his “terminal” illness. Margot, as Royal constantly notes upon her introduction, is adopted, and thus has, similarly, a colder relationship to him but not intentionally; they are more like strangers, or more so, like co-workers who don’t know quite what to say to each other – their sharing of affection is strained by awkwardness – and so, just like her romantic feelings for her adopted brother Richie, she is confused about how to react to Royal’s looming death. Richie is, essentially, the favorite son (he is the only one invited to the dog fights), and represents not only Royal’s best hope for redemption (he is the only one who holds hope for the ol’ cad, “pops”) but also assumes an heroic role for just keeping the family together – he is more delicate to his mother than Chaz and also extends relentless unconditional love to his track-suited bro. (Perhaps a foreboding commentary on hope, if this character does in fact represent it, is that he attempts suicide…but survives). The trio each represent a range of emotions often felt from offspring to father, from anger, to indifference/confusion, to undying dedication, two extreme poles and the middle ground.

The Life Aquatic
is equally father-focused as Tenenbaums, focusing on the perfect strangers relationship of once-renowned/but-recently-fallen celebrity/oceanographer Steve Zissou to Air Kentucky co-pilot Ned Plimpton, the 30-year-old offspring of a woman Zissou had relations with…30-and-a-half-years ago, give or take… This is where we enter the thematic realm of reincarnation (which plays a big role in Darjeeling later). Steve is the captain of the Belafonte research vessel and star/leader of a documentary film “crew” or “pack of strays” who have been making films for more than a dozen years (but flopping for nine consecutive) and we open when they seem to hit rock bottom – Zissou’s best friend is eaten by a mysterious new species during filming – leading him to opportunistically title this tragedy “part one” as a teaser cliff-hanger so that he can better sell/build-up his next project, however uninspired he may be to write it and however-deranged his intentions of killing the beast as a means of venting/exorcising what he knows deep down is the onset of, more than mid-life crisis, a considerable depression.

Now, to be fair – this script was co-written with Noah Baumbach, a talent with considerably darker visions and gut-wrenchingly blunt dialogue later scraped out in Squid & the Whale… (and to take in that almost orchestral arrangement of awkward silences and shouting matches seems to indicate who took the wheel during most spats between Zissou and wife Eleanor). When Zissou admits later that “11 ½” was his favorite age – it’s telling that he may not have come to terms with his age. When asked if this is his last mission, he says, “I’m only 52…” and he attempts flirting (and even reaching in for a kiss) with a woman 20-years younger. This may explain his quiet panic at the arrival of Ned, a human bullet he’s been dodging for 20 years, from his boiler-plate cold response to prepubescent Ned’s letter making mention of his mother, to the out-of-sight-out-of-mind treatment of “an article about” him that also referenced Ned, to the quick escape he makes after finally meeting Ned up to the highest part of the ship to smoke a joint.

His defense mechanism seems to be recruitment; get him a red-cap, a speedo and correspondence documents and bring him on Team Zissou – then the quicker Steve can treat him in a more friend/brother manner – simultaneously avoiding fatherly responsibilities or having to talk about never acknowledging Ned’s existence. He goes from warning against making him look bad in front of a reporter, to outright decrying fatherhood, to offering him complimentary Zissou paraphernalia in a span of two minutes – seeming to be so thick and insensitive to the needs of Ned – who would give anything just for a father-son chat, a sharing of emotions. Ned, in turn, offers his inheritance to help his “possible” father, quickly dreams up a contribution/revamping of the Zissou insignia and, with good-intentions, offers suggestions for the ship’s course to his daydream-johnny father figure. It doesn’t help that Zissou is wasting his time with Ned by, almost deplorably, competing (in a very biting manner) with his son, for the affections of the reporter, Jane – who is, symbolically, pregnant.

The humbling of Steve is a five-step process: 1 - Eleanor agrees to help him only after he essentially begs her – winding up with the delusional/immature old man asking, in a tone of childish defeat/wonderment, “am I ever going to be good again? 2 – Ned’s punch to his mouth, during a heated, uncomfortable fight between “father” and “son.” 3- his falling down the stairs during a lightning-strike rescue mission, where he finally admits his age and pathos. 4-ultimately losing Ned’s inheritance to pirates. 5 – Ned urging him “to lead” …only leading to Ned’s death.

The key is step 3 – where Ned helps him off the floor, so that Zissou can admit, “for me to meet a guy like you…at this time in my life…” And he stops himself before crying (as it seems tears are ready to shake out at any point in the film…and finally do when they find the shark). But it finally becomes irrelevant whether or not Ned is his son – all that matters is that he met Ned, that Ned is a force that changed Zissou’s life – bringing the old man to admit at the end, “this is an adventure…” that, life itself, is an adventure enough.

Now, Jane is pregnant – and conveniently gives birth to a boy soon after Ned’s death – with the baby wearing Ned’s signature traffic-light-patched red cap. Connect the dots for reincarnation theme. That it is also revealed that Zissou “shoots blanks” in the virility department, lightly hints at an immaculate conception and thus Christ figure (Ned is also sacrificed) but that is probably reaching. As noted before – if there are religious implications, it is less a Christ-figure schematic in the traditional sense and more of a son-to-father inquisition – as a means of guidance to the answers of universal questions.


The Darjeeling Limited
finds three brothers, Francis, Peter and Jack, reunited for the first time in a year, having last seen each other at the hectic funeral for their father. Their rivalry/adversarial stances toward each other is evident in the way two will gossip/scheme about the other if one walks away from the group for even thirty seconds. The unspoken acknowledgement between the three of them seems to be that if they can find their wayward mother (now a nun in a mountain-set mission in India), rekindle their bond and get closure with her – that they can finally put their father to rest.

There is a subtle grudge match waging between the two older brothers, Francis and Peter, as heirs for stewardship of the family. Jack is tagged by Francis as “the lone wolf” and the youngest expresses his familial preferences during a fight, demanding “stop including me.” Not that he wants to abandon his family, per se, but he’d rather be left alone. Francis, who is scared, bruised and bandaged from an attempted suicide, seems rejuvenated with deluded sanctimony, tactlessly and awkwardly asking aloud, “did I…raise us?” which reveals his view of things – he is the leader, and he will take over fatherly duties. His obstacle is Peter – who throws two sticks in Francis’ craw by wearing “dad’s glasses” and then claiming that he (Peter) “was dad’s favorite.”

While Francis tries to baby his two brothers (even by ordering food for them), Peter is more preoccupied from fully engaging Francis, with thoughts of “real” fatherhood – with his pregnant wife back home. The 21st century (and very Andersonian) view/presentation of parenthood is expressed through Peter, when he admits that, with the way “our parents” were, he almost betted on he and his wife splitting before babies.

Death (their father’s) unites them on the train, but it takes the death of a young Indian boy to actually unite them as brothers. They leap into a river to rescue a (mirroring) trio of boys, each grabbing one. Peter, unknowingly seeing it as a test or competition, seems equally upset that one boy dies but that he is unable to rescue the one unofficially appointed as his responsibility. The funeral sends all three to reflect on the breakdown they had during their father’s funeral – where they hoard luggage, clothing and try to recover a dead car – all possessions (and somehow symbols of comfort) of their father.

Not long after the funeral of the Indian boy – Peter’s wife gives birth to a son back home. Connect the dots. Well, speaking of dots – it should be noted that when they board their second train in the final scenes of the film and are welcomed to their room by their stewardess, Peter has already mindfully applied to bindi-resembling red dot to his forehead (while the stewardess has to apply it to Jack and Francis) which could signify Peter’s enlightenment – and perhaps, one hopes, a sense of dedication to fatherhood, newly inspired by reflections on his father and the renewed bonds forged with his brothers.


So that leads us into The Fantastic Mr. Fox, which – is it a surprise, focuses on the relationship between a father and a son. While it should be noted that this is not Anderson’s story idea – my whole point is to keep all the ramblings above in mind when watching – and see what you can find in the portrayal of the familial relationship. Even if it is Roald Dahl’s book, it is still going to be Anderson’s interpretation.

Parenthood isn’t easy – that’s the first, and most obvious message acknowledged through Anderson’s relationships – but mostly, it is difficult to master. You are not your children’s friend, you are not their enemy, you are not their task master, you are not their guide, you are not their critic, you are not their inspiration, you are not the provider of answers and you are not the frustrated one who shrugs and admits that you don’t have the answers…

Well, you are not one or two of these things, you are not solely one…, you are all of these things. Anderson’s fathers seem trapped in maintaining maybe two or three of these roles.

For some parents, it is possible, that, through the tribulations of whatever life one has lead, you actually never get to know your children. And when they are 15 like Max or they are in their mid-30’s like Chazz, it can be a painful learning curve to try to get to know them, so late in the game. Some give up, like the mother in Darjeeling or some brought it on themselves like Zissou. For the child – it is a search for closure or a questioning of how to live – and they often look to their parents, however flawed they are –

As Zissou asks Ned, “Are you finding what you were looking for, out here with me?” Ironically, Zissou himself is the answer to the question in Ned’s case.

Sometimes what these children are looking for is just the parent’s presence, or as simple as Tenenbaum’s tear-jerking pat onto Chazz’s back at Tenenbaums’ end. For others, like the Darjeeling brothers, or the bereaved Zissou, the road will be harder. But the search will likely continue – throughout Anderson films to come…


(Ed. If you artsy, vehemently agnostic literate types out there are bugged out by me bringing religion into your Wes Anderson movie-lovin' – take heart in this: if we follow the “our fathers are our models for god” idea, then consider that when we read Zissou saying “I hate fathers…” Another weird bit of food for thought – Ned empathizes with Jane, because he was raised by a single mother – which risks projecting his mother upon her –and that gets really weird when Ned and Steve start essentially competing for her…)

More info on Fantastic Mr. Fox

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