Criterion Files #157: Ten Years After ‘Tenenbaums’

By  · Published on November 23rd, 2011

Part of me is in complete disbelief that the release date of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums will have been a decade ago next month. It doesn’t feel so long ago that I was sixteen years old, seeing it for the first time in a movie theater and spending my subsequent Christmas with The Ramones, Elliot Smith, and Nico playing on repeat in my car (two years later, after hearing of Smith’s death, my friends and I gathered together and watched Richie Tenenbaums’s (Luke Wilson) attempted suicide with new, disturbing poignancy). And ten years on, even after having seen it at least a dozen times, and armed with the annoying ability to know every beat and predict every line, something about Tenenbaums feels ageless and fresh at the same time.

But when you look at the movie culture that came after Tenenbaums, the film’s age begins to take on its inevitable weight. Tenenbaums was Anderson’s first (and arguably only) real financial success. Previously, Anderson was perceived as an overlooked critical darling following Rushmore, a promising director that a great deal of Hollywood talent wanted to work with (which explains Tenenbaums’ excellent cast and, probably, its corresponding financial success). With this degree of mass exposure, other filmmakers followed suit, establishing what has since been known as the “Wes Anderson style,” which permeated critical and casual assessment of mainstream indies for the following decade and established a visual approach that’s been echoed in anything from Napoleon Dynamite to Garden State to less direct connections in indies like Wild Tigers I Have Known. The Royal Tenenbaums may not feel like it’s ten years old, but its influence certainly does.

“Why would a review make the point of saying someone’s “not” a genius? Do you especially think I’m not a genius? …You didn’t even have to think about it, did you?”

Had Anderson released Tenenbaums today, it would probably be seen as the ultimate Anderson cliché. The wonderful “Hey Jude”-accompanied, Alec Baldwin-led prologue would read as the simple rattling off of a series of quirks rather than the establishment of characteristics between family members that would either be referenced later of prove consequential in the film’s narrative. By the time the comparably massive Life Aquatic was released three years later, Anderson’s would be regarded as having mostly peaked, his films falling victim to their own stylistic eccentricities (though this is a common criticism of the filmmaker’s career trajectory that I don’t necessarily agree with, as I consider his fifth feature, The Darjeeling Limited, to be one of his best works).

It’s interesting, then, both in hindsight and in consideration of Anderson’s post-Rushmore career moment, that the filmmaker chose to make his highly anticipated third effort about the conditional and fleeting myth of genius. Anderson’s narrative and stylistic influences – ranging from the likes of Orson Welles, J.D. Salinger, mid-sixties Godard, Charles M. Schulz, and Mike Nichols – might benefit from retroactively adding the ideas behind Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers to its cinematic stew. Tenenbaums is not a film about talent wasted or potential unrealized, or about the tragedy that can result from young fame and privilege, but rather it is a film about the tenuous conditions of success when it is superficially defined. Nearly all the Tenenbaums and those who interact with them are published or have been published about, yet only Eli Cash (co-screenwriter Owen Wilson) has found adult success through the written word – not through the “quality” of his writing (he is not afforded the term “genius,” unlike the prodigious younger Tenenbaums) – but because of an inexplicable mass appeal. And isn’t that how “significant” work typically permeates in culture – by way of random, arbitrary recognition rather than creating genuine works of brilliance or somehow forging a clear connection with mass culture?

While Anderson’s star has certainly not fallen to the degree of the adult Tenenbaums, one can take The Royal Tenenbaums as predictive of Anderson’s career (though he remains a promising director far more talented than his imitators, who may be able to copy his visual style but can’t reproduce his unique wit). The filmmaker’s early praise was often credited in relation to his relative youth, and he quickly moved in the early-mid 2000s from rising star to once-was-promising. Yet as Tenenbaums shows, such a narrative is far too simplified, as makes the mistake of seeing success and realization of talent as totally conditional on the ability of the person themselves to continue an unmitigated manifestation of ‘genius’ within a vacuum that cancels out any notion of causality and conditionality. Tenenbaums reveals the genius myth to be incompatible with the complexity of understanding what it means to be human. Jealousy, hatred, apathy, depression, and grudges didn’t “ruin” the potential of the three Tenenbaum children. They simply grew up.

“Where’s my javelina?”

One oft-mimicked stylistic trope inherited from Anderson’s work is the repeated employment of an anachronistic style, especially coming-of-age films like (most recently) Richard Ayoade’s Submarine. The style, which has in many ways become a cliché, can easily be dismissed as superficial postmodern nostalgia. However, the style was certainly quite original in Anderson’s initial employments of it, and in Tenenbaums anachronism remains quite charming and appropriate, perhaps the major stylistic contribution the film’s aura of timelessness.

Tenenbaums presents a New York City that seems to exist somewhere between the early 2000s and the mid-1970s (and since its trelease followed three months after September 2001, an indiscernably “old” New York was probably comforting for many audiences). Henry Sherman (Danny Glover) at one point refers to the hospital that Royal (Gene Hackman) claims to get care through as having closed in 1974, but other than that, no specific date is ever referenced. While Anderson depicts the tragedies of growing up and, along the way, inevitably not living up to what one’s perfect life should be, the film’s nostalgia is rather warm and appealing without ever being cheap. Anderson’s world is one where laptops don’t exist, where people relax by reading old hardbound books, where its not unusual for hospitals to provide at-home care, and where all the important information of the world can be surmised through print resources, as the film’s expository inserts often remind us.

The film’s entire anachronistic approach is reflective of the house where the family resides, which itself exists in a vague space between past and present. Baldwin’s voiceover at the film’s opening doesn’t simply serve as a survey of quirky incidents incurred by the Tenenbaum family, but makes space for the accumulation of details that ultimately shape every aspect of the Tenenbaums’ lives. Their house is a survey of their past through objects, and the interaction that each particular Tenenbaum has with it provides the means by which they navigate meaning for their lives as lived through, and beyond, their residence in the house. The Royal Tenenbaums is ultimately a rumination on nostalgia without ever becoming emotionally manipulated by nostalgia’s potential fictions. It literalizes the nostalgic experience, positing a world that exists between decades but never comfortably or definitively in any one, but along the way deals quite frankly with the harsh disappointments of the present that motivate a nostalgic experience. Home may be a rich and meaningful place, but you really can’t ever go back.

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