Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Murmur of the Heart--it's a title both literal and metaphorical. Laurent Chevalier (Benoit Ferreux), the fifteen-year-old main character in Louis Malle's semi-autobiographical 1971 movie, has a an actual heart murmur, a health issue that at first derails his young life but then manages to put him on track for the third act of his teen years. At the same time, the idea of this palpitation means so much more. It's the flutter he feels in the blush of romance, the emotion he has for his mother, and an indication of mom's description of him as her sensitive child.

Set in 1954, Murmur of the Heart shows a Paris in the midst of social transformation. Still ahead of the protest and student revolution that was to come, there are inklings of change everywhere. Laurent and his friend start the movie walking the streets, collecting money for the Salvation Army to send to the wounded in Indochina. France's involvement there is already proving disastrous for them, and it's become a divisive issue. Socialist-minded youngsters take exception to the colonialist policies of the older generation. Granted, for a fifteen-year-old, such talk is probably as much of a precocious pose as it is a thoroughly considered conviction, but Laurent is intellectually adventurous for his age. He loves avant-garde jazz enough to shoplift the latest Charlie Parker (his exasperated declaration that “It's not dance music!” is a particularly well-observed moment of adolescent misfitry), and he voraciously reads everything from Camus to Story of O.

Benoit Ferreux is a marvelous discovery. I imagine Louis Malle had his own little heart flip when the boy crossed his path. The young actor is a gawky teen himself, his arms too long and his shoulders hunched, his teeth growing too big for his otherwise cute face; he doesn't have to fake the physicality. He's in that totally awkward stage where he's clumsy in both movement and in personal interactions. He's impulsively emotional, and not nearly as funny as he thinks he is. Laurent is also an observer, and Malle regularly inserts shots of the boy just watching, blank faced, not sure whether to go with the flow or throw a tantrum. We will see him do both.

Laurent is in a perpetual in-between state, a kind of limbo. His two goony older brothers, Marc (Marc Winocourt) and Thomas (Fabien Ferreux), are obnoxious cretins who think they have the world figured out and go about trying to have their way with it. In a way, Laurent wants to be just like them. It's only his sensitivity and his smarts that get in his way. For instance, he doesn't understand yet why you would kiss with your tongue, and when the older boys take him to a brothel so he can lose his virginity, he is reluctant. The prank they play on him makes the divide more obvious, even if it's not pointed out. This contrasts with the very next scene where, on a camping trip with the French equivalent of the boy scouts, Laurent portrays a caring father in a minimalist production of a Goethe play. The temptations the play details are calling him in real life, and Malle seems to suggest that it's up to him to protect himself the way he protects the young boy playing his son. No one else is going to do it.

I'm tempted to call the world of Murmur of the Heart a hyper-sexualized one, but really, I think it goes beyond that. All earthly passions are ignited--art, food, drink, smoking, sex--Laurent is tasting them all for the first time. Even politics and religion, though the former is less immediate for him and the latter something he is beginning to reject. They are more adult topics, and his relationship with adults is strained. The priest who looks after him at school, Father Henri (Michael Lonsdale), is not trustworthy. He demands Laurent confess his sins, but halts the confession to make overtures at molesting the boy. Another priest uses mass to praise the war efforts and encourage his students to serve, a clash of ideals that seems out of place in a progressive world.

Laurent's relationship with his biological father (Daniel Gelin) is not very good, either. The boy has no real affection for the old man, probably because he sees him as someone who lacks passion, who may claim to enjoy the finer things in life but talks of them in ways that sound false and ignorant (not being able to identify a forged painting, for instance). Charles Chevalier is a gynecologist, reducing the holy of holies, a woman's private area, to something to be poked, prodded, and studied, but not loved. Laurent can't believe his dad ever rode a bicycle, nor does it make sense that this boring guy would have any kind of real relationship with Laurent's mother.

Oh, Laurent's mother! Clara is one of the greatest screen mothers of all time. As played by the beautiful Lea Massari, she is an older woman who has maintained her looks and an appetite to go with them. An Italian immigrant who fled Florence when her father got in trouble with the fascists, she ended up with Charles more out of convenience than any great desire. He won her hand simply by breaking through the language barrier. She is kind of the cliché Italian mother, overly protective and overly affectionate to her baby. She dotes on Laurent, spoiling him and covering him in kisses. He likes it, too, even taking her side against his brothers. In one scene, after Laurent's illness is discovered and he has to study at home, Father Henri witnesses her behavior and suggests that she treat her son like an adult, a notion she laughs off. Little does she know how essential this will be.

The discovery of Laurent's heart murmur is also connected to, and possibly even brought on by, the moment where his image of his mother starts to lose some of its illusory luster. The boy witnesses Clara getting in the car of another man, and it's obvious he is her lover. Here he throws one of his tantrums, tearing up her clothes. It's a childish reaction, but given what we see of how older men behave when competing for Clara's attention, male jealousy is always childish. Laurent's conflicted feelings about his mother's sex life are all tangled up in his own emergent sexuality. Malle is drawing a delicate line between all these various confusions--pedophilic priests, distant dads, mothering whores, and whoring mothers. Should Laurent gallantly defend his mother or rebuke her?

The two leave Paris for a country spa where Laurent is to receive a treatment for his heart condition, and it ends up being where he is cured of his childish notions and starts to step toward manhood, as well. The mini-vacation has shades of a lover's getaway, with mother and son alone to indulge their mutual adoration. Laurent is both the jealous son who is realizing that his mother is admired by the rest of the world in ways not as pure as his own admiration and the jealous lover who realizes he is just as dirty as everyone else. A cocky young boy (Francois Werner), who also happens to be a royalist (gasp!), makes no bones about his intentions with Clara, and later, her secret lover also comes and sweeps the woman away, only to break her heart.

Amidst this, and amidst his own realization that girls his age are beginning to notice him, Laurent must come to grips with his own image of women and how his mother's place in his life has informed it. Malle has concocted a couple of potent yet potentially scandalous scenarios for this. When Clara is in the room, Laurent spies on her in the bath; when she is gone, he is left alone with her underthings. He builds an effigy of her, starting with panties and bra and building up from there. He even wears her dress and her make-up, a roleplay foreshadowed earlier when his brother Marc dresses as Clara to tease him. What must it be like to be her? Is she more than just the woman who gave him birth?

Surprisingly, yes, Clara is humanized by this drag act. When she returns, Laurent becomes her confidante. Though they always spoke candidly, there was a familial barrier between them. Now they speak as friends, with Laurent not even questioning that his mother has a lover. He also becomes her protector, escorting her from drunken soldiers, and she accepts his position as such, herself growing past her early frustrations over his objections to Hubert, the boy at the spa. The intimate scenes that follow could easily be mischaracterized, but a sensitive viewing of what passes between them reveals that it is not really sexual, but something more of a rite of passage, of the mother ushering her son into manhood by removing the mystery that has so enraptured him. It finalizes the lesson that she, too, is a woman like any other and should not be his be all and end all. The fact that Laurent immediately goes out and asserts his newfound manhood shows that the hold has been broken. It's one of those situations where, by lifting the taboo, the parent has made the allure the child has for the forbidden object take on a more realistic proportion.

All of this is conveyed with Malle's usual commanding yet unpretentious storytelling. The more I see of his movies, the more humanist his point of view strikes me as being. Murmur of the Heart treads territory that could be salacious or troublesome, but he handles all of it with a light, careful touch. Any sex is framed tightly, focusing on faces rather than bodies, reminding us that it's not about the physical details but the exchange of experience and emotion. He and cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich keep the lighting low and the colors neurtral so as not to overly dramatize or sensationalize. In a way, the atmosphere is cold in the city, much darker hues, more browns and beiges, and the environment becomes warm and natural in the country, the film blossoming with Laurent. Simultaneously, the director treats Clara with tenderness once he has gotten her out of the Chevalier home, making her more real, taking away some of her make-up and her fancier clothes (she is brighter, more green, a splash of pizzazz back in the city), and revealing her as the mature and, really, down-to-earth woman she is, not the urban housewife she plays for everyone else.

As coming-of-age tales go, Murmur of the Heart is uniquely frank and, like Louis Malle's Au revoir les enfants, uniquely the writer/director's own. Though we might be able to say individual scenes are like other movies about young boys getting lost in a morally confusing landscape and finding their way to the other side, none are really quite the same. Both films could have easily been remade as more sensational, sentimental, grandiose, and generic Hollywood pictures, but thankfully, so far no one has tried. Some might say that the subject matter is just too hot to handle, but I like to think it's Malle's insightful writing that really makes it too daunting for the big machine to tackle. Such personal expression exposes anything less personal for being false just by standing so true.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Words like "notorious" and "infamous" come to mind when initially grappling with how to approach In the Realm of the Senses, Nagisa Oshima's 1976 sexual allegory. It's a movie with a reputation, and not one that it has come by unfairly, I might add. Senses is an extremely dirty movie. It's hardcore erotica and explicit enough that if Jerry and George were passing it in the locker room on Seinfeld, they'd use a copy of Tropic of Cancer to cover it up. Yes, Henry Miller is the less salacious of the two evils.

Based on a true incident from 1936, In the Realm of the Senses is the story of two lovers obsessed with each other's bodies and the eventual darkness the pursuit of this obsession leads them into. Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda) is a serving girl at a local inn who falls into an affair with the married owner, Kichizo (Tatsuya Fuji). A virile man with a voracious appetite, Kichizo has sex with his wife every morning before going to work, but he also "drinks outside the home" when more is required. Though this euphemism does entail actual drinking, the implication is that Kichizo may be ordering more than sake at these other inns. Intrigued by Sada's past history--she was once a prostitute, and she is currently working as a waitress because her husband (whom we never meet) had a business fail--Kichizo instigates an affair with her, one that quickly turns from sneaky encounters in shadowy rooms to a full-blown 24-7 orgy.

No, I'm not exaggerating. It is literally a 24-7 orgy. The pair move to a different inn where they have a marriage ceremony performed by the geisha there, and then they proceed to ravish each other non-stop for days on end, barely pausing to eat and, as far as Sada is concerned, even going to the bathroom is too much time apart. The rare exception out of the home is for her to go visit one of her old clients, a high school principal, who provides them with added money to live on. A brief respite where Kichizo returns to his wife inspires jealousy and rage from Sada, and a night out on the town turns into exhibitionism.

In the Realm of the Senses is pure erotica, which in some eyes is, yes, just a fancy way to say the "p-word." The difference between the two is a debate unto itself, though I would say the difference between erotica and its less-respected sibling is that in erotica, the performers never resort to debasing themselves for the mere purpose of titillation. Though there is sex in just about every scene of this movie, Oshima is adding a subtext to his story of these insatiably perverse partners. Like most erotica, In the Realm of the Senses eventually slips into rather disturbing territory. Sada's need for constant pleasure--she has allegedly been diagnosed by a doctor as "acutely sensitive" and thus she not only needs nonstop action but she also feels it to an exceptional degree--eventually consumes Kichizo, and the pair keep active whether their bodies can handle the stress or not. A pattern of submission and domination is created, and the roles switch quite regularly. The sex play eventually begins to involve food, voyeurism, and violence both consensual and very real. Sada is a disturbed woman prone to fits of rage, but Kichizo is no better despite his even keel. His regular acceptance of Sada's latest idea, as well as his own nasty inventions, and the way he laughs at the kinks can be more unsettling than her pulling a knife on someone or stalking him. Make no mistake, either; in case you're not getting this, In the Realm of the Senses is a very explicit movie, and every act performed is seen in unflinching detail. As the performers challenge each other to go even farther, you will be challenged to go with them. Some may find it hard to keep watching.

Those same performers are also the main reason to keep watching, despite what shocking things they might do. Eiko Matsuda and Tatsuya Fuji bring an astounding level of craft to roles that could have seen them acting as mere toys for Oshima to bend and pose into his bedroom scenarios. They both manage an impressive level of naturalism in their work, all the more impressive since Oshima is creating an unnatural world around them. Not so much physically--the art direction is fantastic, with a great attention to detail and beautiful colors that look dazzling in this sumptuous new transfer--but more in the broader sense that In the Realm of the Senses is, as the title suggests, meant to be a story that takes place in its own pocket dimension, one where boundaries of social mores and common physical experience are no longer applicable. Regardless of its basis in fact, Oshima takes the story more toward fantasy. The new world he creates is a completely sexualized dimension where everyone is seemingly as horny as Sada and Kichizo deep down, they are just waiting for someone to activate their desires. Everywhere they go, someone is either talking about sex, thinking about sex, or having sex, and if they aren't going to join in, they are content to watch.

There are more specific and detailed readings to be made of In the Realm of the Senses. Those who are more informed of Japanese history and the social structure can find political meanings in the movie that are, honestly, lost on me--though many of the extras on this DVD do lead the way to understanding more about what Nagisa Oshima intended to do with this taboo-breaking picture. Sure, there are some shots featuring soldiers, a sign of Japan's militaristic leanings in the 1930s, but not much indication beyond that of what kind of tide the pair may be working against. I'm not a completely unintelligent guy, so one does have to question why a film more than thirty years old continues to travel the world and intrigue viewers despite the fact that one of its main subtexts is not immediately discernible to what I would guess would be the bulk of the viewership. Is this maybe the function of erotica, to provide us with a viable argument for looking at smut? "I don't surf the internet to get my jollies, I look at Art"?

The question also remains of how to process said smut. If we are to accept that most highbrow erotica drifts into skeevy territory, delving into fetishes and more extreme thrills, then how to reconcile the titillation we may or may not feel? This is not like browsing the shelves at the adult bookstore to find that one DVD that suits a particular pleasure, this is a film director laying out a smorgasbord of kinky treats and saying that if you are going to partake of one, then you will partake of all. The downward slide is not an indicator of a moral message, either; Oshima is not warning us that if we give in to our carnal nature, we will end up like Sada and Kichizo. Even so, I find myself in agreement with the witnesses who eventually turn away from his characters in the movie. In due course, the outsiders who are initially eager to watch the copulating drift away from the lovers, repulsed by their lack of control and their refusal to even pause to clean themselves. The principal rejects Sada because she smells, the geisha stop coming to entertain the couple out of fear of what they might do, and when it came down to it, I found myself turning away, too. What was it all for? Am I merely meant to see there are consequences to all human behavior? To question the nature of voyeurism, that to accept one behavior as worth spying on, I must take my peeping the whole way? Or is Oshima flipping the script, turning the dominance theme on the viewer? At the beginning, I felt I was in charge, but by the end of In the Realm of the Senses, it was in charge of me.

Perhaps this is the insurmountable hurdle of all controversial films, that they may maintain their ability to shock while losing whatever social significance made them seem relevant in the first place. Or maybe it's that the initial scandal was so overpowering, it obscured that there wasn't more movie underneath. That's certainly how I felt when recently watching La Grande Bouffe, or even upon viewing Salo. Both left me feeling like I got what they were saying but they failed to explain why it should matter. (Then again, maybe it's not a matter of time and just a fault of the genre, as Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's recent comic book foray into the erotic, Lost Girls, inspired much the same reaction.) In the Realm of the Senses, no matter how well-made from an aesthetic standpoint, no matter how gorgeously photographed and expertly acted, still only has the flimsiest of stories, its plot no better than the clichés of XXX skinflicks about randy co-eds getting it on with the pizza man or bored housewives getting some extra chlorination from the pool boy. Perhaps it's just a problem with me and my own puritanical upbringing rearing its judgmental head, but I can't help think that despite the considerable amount of fuss, In the Realm of the Senses is not about very much.

For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Since the Wes Anderson debate is still in full swing around the internet, I'm going to keep it going by finally taking some time with that Bottle Rocket DVD that has been sitting on my shelf unwatched. Given that my initial mission statement for this blog was to try to chronicle my personal journey through the Criterion discs, it seemed like the next logical step, particularly as something I put forward in my review of The Life Aquatic has as much application to me in this case as it does to that film's detractors. I noted that in any actual discussion with people who weren't fans of The Life Aquatic, I often found that they had only tried the movie once and could be said to hold the picture accountable for not being the other Wes Anderson movies. Both of these apply to my first reaction to Bottle Rocket; perhaps doubly so for that last part. If the Wes Anderson films that followed his 1996 debut were specialty omelets, I was dismissing Bottle Rocket for being an old fashioned plate of eggs.

I probably saw Bottle Rocket the first time in 2005 or 2006. I remembered it having come out ten years prior, and I had continued to avoid it for the same reasons I did on its first release (crap, I even remember that the movie played in Portland at the Hollywood Theatre--why do I remember that?!). When Bottle Rocket was being promoted during that run, it had the faint whiff of mid-90s Sundance, an aesthetic I had already grown weary of. It seemed like there were a lot of debut films at the time, including many post-Tarantino copycats, that relied on bungled heists by a bunch of half-witted wannabes, often made by those selfsame half-witted wannabes, and despite a personal attraction to crime films, I had begun to draw a stubborn line in the sand.

So, instead of getting in on the ground floor and following Wes Anderson piece by piece, I had essentially read the body of his book without taking the time with the developmental prologue. How could the fumbling first time ever compare to the fully realized features that followed? It's like discovering David Bowie made music prior to Space Oddity. There's some good stuff there, but the failings are all the more shocking for being so earthbound.

Don't worry. I am not going to come around now and revise history and declare Bottle Rocket to be an unfairly dismissed masterpiece. I can't say that I would have been in the Anderson camp any earlier had I gotten past myself and gone to this movie in 1996. I'd probably have reviled it the way I once held Steven Soderberg's The Underneath in contempt or even still do with the films of Hal Hartley. I am, however, prepared to be more kind to it now that the initial shock has worn off.

To begin this time around, I started with the second disc in the Criterion DVD. I figured if I was going to look at Bottle Rocket in terms of its status as one of the building blocks in Wes Anderson's self-actualization, then I should look at the building blocks of the building blocks. These include a short film from 1978 called "Murita Cycles," directed by Barry Braverman, who also put together the retrospective "making of" for this set. Braverman's film is said to have had an impact on Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson, and it's pretty easy to see how a character like Braverman's father, who is profiled in "Murita Cycles," would have held a certain appeal for them. The old bicycle repairman who has adopted a solitary lifestyle devoted to the accumulation of junk, declaring each discard as a new treasure, not only reflects the clutter to come in the Tenenbaum house or even Steve Zissou's boat, but also the clutter of Anderson's mind. Is it a stretch to imagine the young director imagining himself in such a state in forty years time? Despite his personal attachment to the subject, Braverman also maintains a visual distance, creating a simultaneous feeling of empathy and voyeuristic pity that I think one can also find in Anderson's portrayals of his characters. They aren't just interested in the good stuff, but also in how their failings make these characters tick. (Ironic of me to note, given The Man from Porlock blog's recent essay regarding the failure of modern critics to admit a movie's failings, which includes some fair-handed criticisms of aspects of my writing style; perhaps I can learn more from Wes Anderson, after all.) Given that the elder Braverman succumbed to his more obsessive tendencies after his wife passed away definitely foreshadows how tragedy and loss would similarly affect many in the Anderson canon.

The other interesting short on DVD 2 is the original black-and-white Bottle Rocket film made in 1994, featuring many of the same actors and a lot of scenes that went on to be part of the full feature. Much is made of Martin Scorsese's passing of the torch to Anderson, and I know I've seen the full-length Bottle Rocket compared to Mean Streets in terms of its energy, but this 1994 short calls to mind Scorsese's black-and-white debut Who's That Knocking at My Door?, as well as that of the man Scorsese emulated, John Cassavetes. Though not in the same league, the stark photography and the of-the-moment immediacy of the short Bottle Rocket made me think of Cassavetes' Shadows. I know it's going to be seen by some as sacrilege, but I think I probably prefer the clipped early version of Bottle Rocket to the full-blown picture. It goes beyond the simple fact that the thirteen-minute movie doesn't have the time to meander the way the ninety-minute version does. There is an innocence to the '94 version that is more authentic, almost a self-reflexive element of the would-be gang trying to figure out how to commit crimes being the same gang of friends trying to figure out how to make movies. (And, indeed, given how I would find both Owen and Luke Wilson to grow increasingly less sincere on screen over the years, there may be something to that.)

Anyway, long story not needing to be longer, these earlier pieces served as effective appetizers to get me in the mood to partake of the main course.

For those who haven't seen Bottle Rocket, the quick plot rundown: childhood pals Anthony (Luke Wilson) and Dignan (Owen Wilson) enlist their friend Bob (Robert Musgrave) in order to rob a bookstore and carry out Dignan's plan to prove themselves as a criminal crew worthy of joining the more seasoned outfit run by Dignan's former boss, Mr. Henry (James Caan). After the caper, the guys go on the lam, holing up in an out-of-the-way hotel. There, Anthony, who has just left a mental hospital where he has been rehabilitating for nervous exhaustion, falls for the immigrant hotel maid, Inez (Lumix Cavazos). This is one of many factors that leads to the dissolution of the gang and the boys going their separate ways--despite Anthony seemingly having sacrificed romance for the sake of male bonding. Eventually, they come back together after Dignan resurfaces, this time already in the employ of Mr. Henry. The old gangster is letting his neophyte underling show his stuff in a brand new heist, but as we shall soon see, the gang that couldn't shoot straight before is never going to shoot straight.

Two scenes stand out to me as fundamentally important to not just Bottle Rocket, but to all of Wes Anderson's films. The first comes at the beginning of the picture, when Anthony's doctor reminds him that he can't save everybody, seemingly a warning of how to avoid returning to the hospital. (Though, the little we learn of why Anthony committed himself doesn't really jibe with a savior complex; but whatever...) The second is the very last scene. Dignan has just been joking around in his eternally optimistic way, and then a highlighted over-the-shoulder glance suggests the joke is just a cover, that there is more going on.

In the case of the Anthony moment, it puts what would become the reoccurring Luke Wilson character in place. In Rushmore, he plays the bit part of a doctor, a profession that is all about taking care of people. In The Royal Tenenbaums, Richie is the troubled tennis pro who eventually tries to commit suicide. Like Anthony, he has lost his ability to cope with the world, and much of his problem stems from life around him not being the way it is supposed to be. One could say that both Richie and Anthony are not caught up with saving people so much as they are with preserving a kind of purity, to stave off growing up or the loss of innocence that comes with taking one's place in the modern world. Luke Wilson's doe-eyed blankness serves these characters well; in their way, they are meant to suffer for everyone else's sins, and they live by denying their own, with only love prompting them to greater action. When Dignan first tries to get Anthony to rejoin his criminal enterprise, Anthony refuses, and he only changes his mind after Bob's older brother, the oddly nicknamed Future Man (Andrew Wilson, the eldest of the real-life brother), makes fun of Dignan. Anthony agrees in order to repair the bruised ego his friend has suffered at the bully's hands.

Dignan also serves as the prototype for what would eventually be the Owen Wilson character--the schemer whose bravado masks insecurity and hurts. Here again the casting works, because Owen Wilson is well suited to the unrelenting optimism that his characters often represent, the refusal to admit when things go wrong and the will to force it, whereas Luke's emptiness often means he is just buffeted along by outer forces. If you consider the arc of the Luke characters, Anthony is the guy who hasn't really done anything but is trying to sort out his purpose and open himself to love, the doctor is successful in his career but the verdict is still out on his personal life, and Richie has had tastes of career and romance and has lost them both. The Owen type progresses more slowly, more a variation on a theme, though his rock bottom seems to get a little harsher each time. Dignan's prison sentence, at least, is less dramatic than Eli Cash crashing his car and flying through the Tenenbaum's front window, and Francis has put himself through hell prior to the start of The Darjeeling Limited.*

The moment at the end of the film that I mentioned is the first of what would be many similar moments in all of the Wes Anderson movies. When Dignan casts a look back at his buddies, who are on one side of the fence as he is on the other, returning to his jail cell, the look on his face says that no matter the brave smile he can put on top of the circumstances, he knows things will never be the same again. For all of his fighting to have life correspond to his childish pipe dreams, he has been forced to realize this is not possible. Consider Dignan as representative of Anderson's general Peter Pan concerns. He wants to form a gang, a version of the secret club we all have as children, complete with code names and mischief making that, despite its increased seriousness, doesn't really inspire any increased fear of the consequences. Running from the law is a game not dissimilar to the b.s. attempts most kids make at running away from home. No lesson is gleaned from the early failure. In fact, Dignan only gets more insistent, taking to wearing jump suits (a uniform or costume, of sorts) and riding a minibike (one that, tellingly, doesn't really work). Future Man's mocking of him is even for his being so childish (is he called that because he represents the crushing future that awaits anyone who can't escape assimilation?**), and Dignan's need to please Mr. Henry is the son wanting to please the father, with the father here being the most disappointing of any of the others to come.

If you think I'm making a good case for these thematic elements, then thank you, you're too kind. If you think I'm maybe giving Bottle Rocket a little too much credit, then I actually agree. The ideas above are mere sketches within the film itself, and had Anderson never made another movie after Bottle Rocket, these elements of both the Anthony and Dignan character arcs would not have any real resonance. Bottle Rocket is a good movie and surprisingly easy to watch even a second time around, but it's a mere confection, the first draft of what was to come. The plot is meandering with a pretty clear division down the middle of the story. The relationship between Anthony and Inez has no real payoff. It's not an epiphany that leads him back to her, but a garbled message finally being cleared up. Mr. Henry takes Inez's place in the second half, and James Caan seems like they shipped him in from another movie, the one consolation made to make the film more appealing to distributors. I suppose if I wanted to push the notion that this is a crime movie molded into a metaphor for wanting to make movies, then Sonny Corleone's presence makes sense in terms of representing the level of craft Anderson aspires to and the blessing her yearns for the 1970s generation to bestow on him. This doesn't help Caan’s scenes to be less out of place, however, it only makes them appear more so. Just take a look at that party scene where Mr. Henry is wearing a kimono and a samurai topknot. It's a rookie cheat to make your bad guy have eccentric affectations rather than just have faith in his badness.

That same scene also contains a clumsily staged shot of Mr. Henry and Dignan together on a divan, being watched by a stuffed wild cat of some kind (an ocelot?). This stands as an early indication of Anderson's trademark straight-ahead framing and obsessive attention to oddball detail, but it sticks out from the rest. It's as if Young Wes Anderson peered into the future to see what Old Wes Anderson was up to and lifted a shot from himself the way he is known to lift shots from the heroes that preceded him. Accepting that and setting the snark aside, however, there are signs of the style that is developing, though it is very much in development. The use of music to drive a scene (in this case, not just Anderson's first Stones song but also an underappreciated use of two numbers by Love), long takes, Eric Anderson's art, some impressive compositions (the back-and-forth between Anthony and Dignan in the diner comes to mind)--these are all the seeds of what is to come. Some of why these seeds haven't yet blossomed comes down to budget; more real locations, less ability to falsify the environment. It's also a question of self-assurance. Though Anderson does show enough confidence to appear largely in command of his picture, he may not yet know exactly what he wants or how to get it. In the behind-the-scenes documentary, Polly Platt talks about arguing with the first-time director about having more standard cutaway shots, and when he knew how he wanted to the scene to play (not cutting away to see Dignan's POV when he discovers Bob has taken the car), he stuck to his guns; yet, many of the other anecdotes about making the movie cover the long process of first editing a way-too-long script and then editing a way-too-long movie. It was a journey worthy of the characters it portrayed, and just like Antony and the rest, Wes Anderson still had a lot of things to figure out.

* In The Life Aquatic, Ned Plimpton is actually a lot more like the Luke Wilson role than the Owen Wilson role: a straight-shooter and a caretaker who sacrifices himself. Owen’s more assured and present acting style, as well as the accent he adopts, lends the character a different dignity, that of a Southern gentleman, than his brother might have given him.
** Actually, the name is explained in one of the deleted scenes on disc 2. Anthony says they call him that because he looks like he’s from the future, and Dignan suggests he is like some out-of-time soldier an army scientist might create for desert warfare.

Thursday, April 9, 2009


Moving Image Source is in the middle of posting Matt Zoller Seitz's remarkable five-part dissection of Wes Anderson and his influences, "The Substance of Style," and I'm reminded that you can always judge a good piece of film criticism by how much it makes you want to watch the movie (or in this case, movies) it's talking about. The ironic thing for me is that it also makes me a little wary of writing about the movie myself. Why should you listen to me when you can go watch Seitz's awesome video essay full of fantastic insights and groovy clips?

Still, I have space to fill, and any excuse to rewatch a Wes Anderson film is a good one as far as I'm concerned. Having already covered Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums for this blog, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou seemed like the next logical choice. Those three films form the core of Anderson's output up until now, and they will likely be considered the main triumvirate of his early work, the essential Wes Anderson Mark I. His only feature-length since the 2004 release of The Life Aquatic has been The Darjeeling Limited, and that film serves as a summation of the films that preceded it and the beginning of Anderson's break from his own conventions. I wouldn't call Darjeeling the epilogue so much as the eulogy for all that has come before, and in relation, The Life Aquatic is the little red cap on this portion of Anderson's filmography. When at the very end of the picture, Bill Murray, playing Zissou, says, "This is an adventure," he is basically providing a coda for everyone previously introduced in the Wes Anderson world--the boys of Bottle Rocket, Max Fischer, and the Tenenbaum clan.

That said, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou always seems to be the most maligned of these core films. Invariably, when talking about the movies with others, there is almost a knee-jerk need to claim that it is not as good as its siblings. It's a comment that is so predictable and automatic, it has become one I no longer trust, at least without some further qualification. More often than not, it's a movie that its detractors have seen once and never revisited, and whether they realize it or not, their main problem is an inability to forgive it for not being either Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums--which, of course, is absurd and also misses how amorphous the auteur really is. When you think about it, though one can draw a connector between those other films, that Rushmore is about the singular experience of the lone outcast and Tenenbaums is the collective experience of a family of outcasts (and one that Max Fischer might not have necessarily thrived in), they are also quite different. For as much as is made out of Anderson's signature style, the creator is not as singular as even his ardent fans make him out to be. Though his is a rarefied world, a kind of shared universe where any of these stories could exist side by side in terms of creating a larger whole, each movie is distinctly different. They may have variations on similar themes, the way that, say, Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, and King Lear all mine relatable veins of love both romantic and familial, but they distinguish themselves as separate entities; in tone and setting, the Wes Anderson oeuvre is as vast as those three Shakespeare plays.

The one theme that is common in all of Anderson's early films is that of strained relationships between fathers and sons (and sometimes daughters). In Rushmore, Max turns to Bill Murray's character as a surrogate dad, whereas Royal Tenenbaum is trying to reconnect with the children he has become estranged from. In Max's case, he has a solid father figure, but he's looking for a kind of pal in Herman Blume, and in turn Herman is using their friendship as a way to recapture his youth. This is, of course, analogous to Royal's biggest problem, he's been a much goofier goof-off than his offspring have ever been allowed to be. The only guy who has him beat for being an overgrown child is Steve Zissou.

The Life Aquatic has another son in search of dad. Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) believes the famous oceanographer, Steve Zissou, to be his father. He's always suspected, but his mother's recent deathbed confession has prompted him to touch base with Zissou at long last. Though the adventurer accepts Ned, the young man has also come to him at the worst time. Now past 50, the films of his oceanic adventures are no longer in vogue, and his best friend (Seymour Cassel) may have been eaten by a creature that may or may not exist. Though the devouring is inarguable, there is some debate over what the attacker was. Zissou believes it to be a previously uncatalogued creature, a spotted Jaguar Shark.

Where Anderson is flipping the script on the standard father-son relationship story is that Ned's seeking out of Steve Zissou ends up being less about Ned discovering who Ned really is and more about him making Zissou look at himself. The quest isn't to find the father, but to make Zissou into one. Steve resists, even saying it's "Because I hate fathers, and I never wanted to be one." To be a father is to accept responsibility, to let the adult world that Zissou has held at bay take hold. The Zissou crew, which their captain describes as a group of strays, is like the Little Rascals had they never grown up, split up the gang, and gotten real jobs. Or, in the Anderson parlance, the Peanuts gang now under the command of Snoopy and constantly chasing Red Barons. They are grown men in silly hats and matching outfits traveling the oceans and making up adventures for themselves.

Real life has come along whether Steve Zissou likes it or not. The death of his cohort has made it inevitable that he must face up to reality. As they say, it's always fun until someone gets hurt. One man's mortality sheds light on the mortality of the rest of them, and on Zissou in particular, having been along for the fatal swim and unable to do anything about it. He even comes to the surface with "crazy eyes," Anderson making the notion that Zissou will now see everything differently a literal thing. Zissou is broke and unable to secure new funding, he is estranged from his wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), and the game clock is running down. The snapshot of childhood that he has been trying to preserve, the nostalgic yearning for days when boys could grow up to be explorers that Anderson is so enamored with, is starting to show signs of decay. The submarine that was once the height of technology is now passé, its weary engines as old as Zissou's weary bones. The tools he uses for his trade are as outmoded as his values.*

Ned, then, serves as a second chance. Not only does he come with a pile of money that he can sink into dad's latest film, but he also represents a possible legacy. Anderson is actually creating a multi-tiered look at family here. In addition to the older generation (Steve) and the younger one that has followed it (Ned), an even younger generation is represented in the child currently growing in the belly of the reporter tagging along for the ride. Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) joins the mission to find the Jaguar Shark so she can write a portrait of Team Zissou for an oceanography magazine. Her unborn child is the product of an illicit affair with her editor, a married man, and her going out to sea is both a running away from that situation and an act of revenge. Not unlike Zissou's desire to find and kill the Jaguar Shark, Jane wants to write a hatchet piece on Steve. He has become a symbol of how men have failed her, the idealized image of the gentleman scientist that she saw in Zissou as a girl translating into the untrustworthy, live-for-the-moment kind of guy that has now abandoned her to the life of a single mom. The "official" picture of him pointing at an unseen horizon that Jane said she had on her wall as a young girl apparently was pointing her in the wrong direction; or maybe it was telling her to go away ("No Girls Allowed!" "He-Man Woman Hater's Club!"). Is it any surprise, then, that she gets in between Steve and Ned as an object of romantic interest? The abandoned child and the father who abandoned him locked in a war for the possession of the next kid down the line. Which one will he turn out to be?

Jane utters an interesting Freudian slip in relation to this: "I need to find a baby for this father." When she says it, she's speaking to Zissou, and the man noticeably reacts. Like all Freudian slips, the mistake--here, switching the roles--is meant to serve as a message to what is really going on. Again, Steve Zissou needs to become the father he was always meant to be. This is not just in relation to Ned, but also in re-establishing his leadership. When crisis hits and pirates attack Team Zissou, Steve begins to reclaim his role as captain, even if it is going to have to get a little worse (a mini mutiny, injury and even death) before it gets better. His selfish ways have lead the gang toward ruin, and his vengeful tunnel vision is going to finish them off. In a weird way, for all the risks Zissou has apparently taken in his many filmic adventures, he's an expert at playing it safe. It's easier to act only for yourself and not let others hurt you. Consider that this is a man whose view of love involves one crab ripping off the arm of another. No wonder Eleanor has lost the will to keep trying--and little does he know how much she has helped foster the illusions of his arrested development, as noted in her secret confession to Jane.

Once again, the battle comes down to a battle between youth and old age, between the fantasies of a child and the legacy of an accomplished man. Following tragedy, in a quiet moment of self-reflection, Jane notes that twelve years from now, her unborn child will be 11 1/2. "That was my favorite age," Steve wistfully replies, and it's the age he's been trying to keep from growing out of. Compare this with his response when he sees the Jaguar Shark again: "I wonder if it remembers me." This is real change. His development no longer arrested, Steve Zissou has stopped thinking about the transitory pleasures of childhood and started to think about the last impression of adulthood.

Ironically, Zissou comes to this realization by rediscovering his youth. Or, at least, the wonder he saw in the world that made him want to be the man he is in the first place. The Jaguar Shark, the monster that snatched away his delusions, the object of his intended vengeance, turns out to be a beautiful creature that should be admired rather than destroyed. The goal of scientists and explorers alike is to see a world that is bigger than they are, to find what has previously been left undiscovered. The message has been there all along. Wes Anderson's decision to have the sea creatures Zissou repeatedly encounters animated by Henry Selick, the visionary director of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline, was no mere whim, but an important part of the movie. It's meant to be disconnected, meant to be wondrous, and we're supposed to notice it far more than Zissou does. Anderson wants us to ask how he can fail to appreciate this. That's why little Werner** (Leonardo Giovannelli) gives him the seahorse at the beginning of the movie, to remind Zissou of the wonder he himself has inspired, and why it's then so fitting that one of the final shots of the movie is of Zissou carrying Werner on his shoulders, triumphantly returning to the fray as a creature as unique and inspirational as the Jaguar Shark and the many other wondrous things to be found in the life aquatic.

It is here, then, that character and creator meld, where Steve Zissou stops being a vehicle of expression and becomes more a true avatar for Wes Anderson. Like him, the director will put away childish things and in doing so, has already begun his quest for more mature themes in his stories. Yet, he has done so without sacrificing any of that personal style that Seitz has spent so much time dissecting. He is still interested in finding the humor in the greatest tragedies and the anarchy that arises when one attempts to impose order. He is still interested in how people get along, and how personal perception distorts one's chosen environment. Anderson sees the world in his own way--with his own crazy eyes, as it were--and the promise inherent in the transformation of Steve Zissou is that the man will never stop peering at the world in this way. The true artist as well as the true adventurer can grow up, but he doesn't have to grow completely out of it, not as long as he's willing to keep looking for new passions and wonderment.

* In this goal, Wes Anderson is aided by his brother Eric, the artist who provides the drawings for the movies and their DVD covers. Eric's child-like aesthetic not only looks as if it were drawn by a younger hand, but it also looks antiquated, like the memory album of an elementary school student circa the mid-20th century. Don't just preserve the moment, but preserve how one saw it at that age. This, of course, is used to the best effect int the wall of portraits in The Royal Tenenbaums.

** Is it possible that Werner is named for Werner Herzog, whose own cinematic mission, particularly in the recent documentaries made in the years since Anderson's movie, is to chronicle the wonders of this crazy world we live in?