"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, Anderson is a crossroads unto himself: Often imitated; never duplicated. His films – idiosyncratic, dead-pan, uncomfortably self-aware – are brightly colored, oddly paced slices of life that seemingly exist in an alternate reality: an abstract, non-existent America that is instantly recognizable despite its artificiality. His sly, sarcastic, trademark humor is a peculiar hybrid of knowing winks and unexpected innocence. His hip, urbane stories and emotionally distant characters, combined with an incredibly high ratio of cinematic references per square inch, have made him a favorite with film scholars and cinephiles everywhere. He is the uncrowned (yet unquestioned) king of the musical montage, an auteur whose style rises very nearly to the level of content – and he makes a mean American Express ad.
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, Anderson's first feature film, self-understanding plays a key role in the story of three friends who attempt to escape their mundane mid-20s lives by becoming famous and successful thieves. Dignan, their ringleader, lives in a sort of alternate reality – a reality formed by watching too many heist films. When their first several capers prove unsurprisingly successful – how hard can it be to rob one's own mother, or a Barnes & Noble-esque bookstore? – Dignan decides to go on the lam, not so much to avoid capture but because "that's what thieves do."
Unfortunately, their early successes prove to be the high point of their thievery, as reality sets in with alarming suddenness. In spite of their increasingly gloomy predicament, however, Dignan persists in his fantasies. Finally, after a series of bizarre (and slapstick) encounters, the big job they have been planning since the film's opening goes badly wrong, and events take a truly sobering turn. As a result, Dignan realizes the folly of his visions, leaving him a sadder (but wiser) young man.
Rushmore, Anderson's second film, once again deals with themes of self-understanding – but it also introduces the young director's thoughts on the role of fatherhood and the dangers of its absence. Max Fisher, a bright but troubled teenager, forges an unexpected friendship with the rich but troubled benefactor responsible for funding Rushmore, the prep school he attends. Unfortunately for the two friends, a beautiful, widowed Rushmore professor becomes the object of their competing affections, and in the ensuing chaos, they are both revealed to be increasingly unlikeable. Exasperated by their juvenile behavior, the professor denounces them with the most crushing insult she can imagine: "You're both children."
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 India, deals less with an actual father figure than with the carnage left behind by an absent one. Gradually, as the three struggle to understand both what they have lost and how to avoid visiting the same mistakes they have experienced upon their loved ones, the true meaning of fatherhood comes into sharper focus. (Interestingly, it is one of the rare violent moments in an Anderson film that serves to hasten their understanding, as an incidental character's response to his family's tragedy underscores what it is they have been seeking all along.)
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 Anderson's filmography named after specific individuals – in both cases, the father figure. But the similarities between the two stories run far deeper.
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 Anderson's films, until one realizes that it can be best understood as "the Royal Tenenbaums for Children.")
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is, in many ways, the culmination of Anderson's artistic style and philosophical content. It is a film about a film, which is always a bit mind-bending; but more importantly, it is a film about one man's lifelong attempts to escape from fatherhood, and about his eventual acceptance of that very role. Zissou, a world-renowned oceanographer and documentary filmmaker, has lost his touch: His films are boring and scripted, and he grows increasingly unpleasant and unapproachable.
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 Anderson's world. Self-knowledge is not without merit, but acting on that knowledge is vital to his characters' redemption. Contrition is not simply a matter of identification; it is an embracing of the command to "go forth, and sin no more." That understanding of self and willingness to change is the ultimate message of Anderson's films.
The question of whether that message is sufficient to justify Anderson's mode remains a difficult one. No matter the answer, however, there is something encouraging in his repeated efforts to grapple with the need for redemption, particularly as it relates to modern paternity. Highlighting our society's troubling failures in the realm of fatherhood might be a worthwhile (if depressing) enterprise in itself; but recognizing not only that we have failed, but that we can, in fact, atone for our failures is not just worthwhile, it's fundamentally and profoundly hopeful.
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.