As Wes Anderson moves into the middle period of his career, two particular films stand out for addressing the unorthodox emotional impact of an underrepresented source of trauma in cinema. While Rushmore and The Darjeeling Limited dealt with the archetypal trauma associated with the death of a parent and the process of mourning, The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) are noteworthy for examining the effects of parents who are very much present, but who fail miserably in their duties. The defining characteristics of the Andersonian father, such as Herman Blume (Bill Murray) or Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is not altruism or personal sacrifice for the good of their children, but vanity, immaturity and the inclination to act out of self-serving interests. These fictional fathers are the very antithesis of the selfless parent, and these texts provide two of the finest examples in Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) and Steve Zissou (Bill Murray). Yet again, Anderson’s characters rail against the classical protagonist, having more in common with the modernist anti-hero. Like The Darjeeling Limited’s Patricia Whitman (Anjelica Houston), this refusal to conform to societal norms of parenthood can be enormously appealing, yet it is undoubtedly another narrative disruptor and obstacle in viewer empathy. Both films share a tension that “simultaneously venerates the patriarch while also exposing the psychic traumas that result from men’s desire to perform […] entitled masculinity” (Robé, 102). This chapter will examine the performance of paternal masculinity in these two flawed characters,and the manner in which these performances actively discourage spectator empathy on an initial viewing.It will also examine the intentional trauma inflicted by the Andersonian father on his children, and how emotional damage suffered during childhood affects the adult.
When The Royal Tenenbaums was released in October 2001, the images of Al Quaida’s terrorist attacks on American soil were still being reviewed and deliberated ad nauseam in the media. The trauma was still fresh, and negotiating this collective trauma is a process that is still being negotiated today. Although these events could have had no possible bearing on Anderson’s development of the story, it is difficult to look at the film now without reading into the extra-textual themes of grief and mourning. At the time of its release, Kent Jones attempted to articulate the city’s mood. He noted that the desire for a return to normalcy was combined with a need to assign guilt. “We need to mourn. Before we start measuring our culpability in the attack, we need to mourn.” (21). In this context the film’s themes of loss, guilt and forgiveness are particularly prescient.
“The Royal Tenenbaums” writes Matt Zoller Seitz, “starts with a bomb going off. The rest of the story takes place in the wreckage” (The Wes Anderson Collection, 109). This metaphorical explosion is the dissolution of Royal and Etheline (Anjelica Houston) Tenenbaum’s marriage. The fallout is twenty-two years of emotional trauma inflicted on their siblings – Chas (Ben Stiller), Richie (Luke Wilson) and their adopted daughter, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow). Each child adopts different mechanisms to cope with their parents’ separation, but none have effectively processed the emotional trauma of absence and abandonment. An exposition-heavy prologue (narrated by Alec Baldwin) acquaints the audience with all the narrative information needed to understand the troubled Tenenbaum clan. In their youth the Tenenbaum siblings had achieved a prodigious level of success in the fields of sport (Richie), commerce (Chas) and the arts (Margot) – achievements proudly chronicled in Etheline’s parenting book, entitled “Family of Geniuses.” But in spite of their early success, the lustre of the Tenenbaum dynasty has been obliterated by “two decades of betrayal, failure and disaster.”
When emotional trauma (or a wound of the mind) is suffered too early – such as in the Tenenbaums childhood – or unexpectedly to be known and owned, this trauma “is therefore not available to consciousness until it imposes itself again, repeatedly, in the nightmares and repetitive actions of the survivor” (Caruth, 4). Recovery from emotional trauma is therefore dependent on processing and assimilating the experience. When Etheline’s accountant, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), proposes marriage, Royal resolves to cheat his way back into his family’s good grace under the pretence of a fictional cancer diagnosis. The catalyst for this subterfuge is not the threat of miscegenation, guilt for his past transgressions or regret over time lost with his family, but is simply the desire to keep Etheline in a state of solitary misery. However, the sudden reappearance of the cause of childhood trauma provides the Tenenbaums with a cathartic opportunity to readdress their unprocessed wounds.
As the film proper begins, we are introduced to the three adult Tenenbaums, each in a state of paralysis. Richie is literally at sea, having spent a year travelling the world on an ocean liner. His appearance suggests a form of depressive withdrawal (dark glasses, vacant expression) which is confirmed in a communique to his childhood friend Eli Cash (Owen Wilson). He writes, “I’m in the middle of the ocean. I haven’t left my room in four days. I’ve never been more lonely in my life and I think I’m in love with Margot.” Richie has retired from a successful career in professional tennis after suffering a very public breakdown (caused by his sister’s engagement). In the intervening period Richie has removed himself from his family and friends and deliberately alienated himself in the process. Margot is also found in a state of depression. She passes her days smoking and watching trashy television in the bath, and has not produced any work in seven years. Chas’ trauma is more tangible, having recently lost his wife in a plane crash. His survivor’s guilt is compounded by the newfound pressure of raising his two sons alone.
A childhood spent a grown-up world has left the adult Tenenbaums in a state of regression, essentially mourning the youth they never had. Margot and Richie’s emotional development appears to have ended with the dissolution of their parents’ marriage twenty-two years earlier. The fact that they have both clung onto the wardrobe associated with their child-like identities is a clear signifier of stagnation and paralysis. The willingness with which all three Tenenbaums leave their exterior adult arenas and eagerly return to the safe environment of their childhood, or Richie’s indoor campout surrounded by artefacts of his youth, is demonstrative of this immaturity. Chas, however, has significantly altered his identity from the preppy tweed blazer and crested tie of his childhood. His unprocessed grief is obscured by an obsession with the safety of his children. Since the death of his wife, Ari (Grant Rosenmeyer) and Uzi (Jonah Meyerson) have become the loci for their father’s obsessive behaviour. This obsession manifests in their identical uniforms of crimson red tracksuits and fire safety drills carried out in the middle of the night. Chas’ trauma is not merely the proximity to death, but the ongoing pain of having survived the experience. He is trapped between what Cathy Caruth refers to as “the oscillation between a crisis of death and the correlative crisis of life” (7). Instead of drawing his children closer, this behaviour pushes Ari and Uzi further away. Chas’ failed performance of paternal masculinity leaves his two sons receptive to Royal’s charismatic manipulation, and he wastes no time in usurping his son’s paternal authority. The irresponsible, hedonistic activities that Royal encourages Ari and Uzi to partake in (illegal dog fights, petty theft) are the same activities that used to be the sole reserve for Royal’s favourite son, Richie. As a child, Chas had been excluded from these outings and thus becomes doubly rejected by his father. He is the sibling hurt most by Royal’s selfishness. He harbours the most resentment, with the most cause. Chas is the first to see through Royal’s subterfuge, and is the least receptive to his father’s return. He considers Royal’s act of the dying patriarch to be as absurd as his performance as reformed father.
Royal is a child’s oedipal nightmare made manifest, and has instilled a sense of dread in his offspring from a young age. When his children ask if they are somehow responsible for his separation from Etheline, he responds, “We made certain sacrifices as a result of having children” instead of reassuring them and mitigating their anxiety. He turns an innocent childhood game into a lesson in cutthroat ambition. After shooting Chas with an air rifle he justifies this action by reasoning, “there are no teams.” Shooting his son is the closest one can get to realising the anxiety of castration without the act, and Royal and draws immense pleasure from reminding the adult Chas of the traumatic incident.
The Tenenbaums’ coping mechanisms are demonstrative of Kirby Farrell’s mode of post-traumatic themes. “Numbness or depression may constrict feeling, or hyperalertness may produce impulses to aggression, startle responses, panic reactions, and a feeling of loss and control” (6). Farrell’s three modes of coping with these post-traumatic themes are “social adaption and relearning, depressive withdrawal or numbing, and impulsive force (berzerking)” (7). Both Richie and Margot have obviously surrendered to depressive withdrawals from the exterior world, and Chas is making an unsuccessful attempt at relearning and adaption in the aftermath of his wife’s death. When he cannot control a given situation – for instance, when Eli’s drug-fuelled assault on the Tenenbaum house threatens the lives of his children – Chas is prone to bouts of impulsive force. Richie’s berzerking is directed inwards, however. When he discovers that Margot is having an affair, he becomes aggressive and puts his hand through a glass window. Moreover, when the full details of Margot’s sexual past are laid bare, Richie acts out the ultimate form of self-harm and attempts to end his own life.
Richie’s attempted suicide is undoubtedly one of the main narrative disruptors in The Royal Tenenbaums. The dramatic shift between this mid-film sequence and the melancomic tone which both precedes and follows it is jarring for the viewer. This extended scene draws on many European art cinema tropes, including close-ups and intertextual montage, and employs verfremdungseffekt techniques to alienate the audience. The disruption is all the more disturbing as it is first time that Richie drops his metaphoric safeguards and is seen without his emotional armour. Facing the mirror, Richie stares down the camera and whispers, “I’m going to kill myself tomorrow” (Fig. 5). A rapid montage of quick-cut images of Royal, Etheline and Margot is used to convey Richie’s thoughts at the moment of departure, and to place the viewer inside the psyche if this troubled character. Thomas Elsaesser explains the function of the screen mirror in disrupting the act of suture in comparison with the classical mode. “If Hollywood made sure you could enter the world of a film through a metaphoric window or door, the mirror construction was meant to block this passage, rendering the relationship of spectator to screen more complicated (and complicit), especially when it came to deciding what was ‘out there’ and ‘for real’ and what was ‘inside’ and ‘subjective’” (Elsaesser). Richie’s direct address to camera places a degree of distance between the audience’s emotional engagement, and by breaking the fourth wall the spectator’s trance is broken and they become aware of the scene’s artificiality. Therefore, this scene both alienates and implicates the viewer at once, leaving the audience utterly confused by a vacillating tonal register.
Fig. 5 – Richie’s suicide attempt employs various techniques to simultaneously alienate and implicate the viewer
This problematic characterisation of Royal is another Andersonian disruptor. Rather than seeking happiness for his wife and children, he seeks only happiness for himself. Although he is the narrative’s primary source of mirth and the closest that the text comes to providing a classical protagonist, he is also the direct source of the family’s extended ripples of trauma. We are tied to the pursuit of Royal’s goals, even if they are to prolong the misery of his family. On Margot’s eleventh birthday, Royal criticises his daughter’s first attempt at playwriting for a lack of characterisation and credibility rather than encouraging her nascent creative endeavours. After Richie’s professional implosion, Royal abandons his son instead of supporting him. Royal abused Chas’ prodigious gift for financial acumen. He was a child entrepreneur with a sizeable real estate portfolio. Royal abused his position as primary signatory of his childrens’ bank accounts and embezzled funds from Chas’ various companies and stole bonds from his son’s safety deposit box. Instead of allaying his children’s anxieties of displacement, he actively encourages favouritism and engenders a sense of competition between his children, in contrast with Etheline who showers her siblings with equal love and attention. He is the agent of his family’s heartache, yet remains oblivious to the carnage left in his path. These are not the actions of a sympathetic protagonist, and yet for the majority of the film, Royal is the closest thing to a relatable character the audience gets. He is the direct and indirect cause of hurt for every other character, and yet is the person that the spectator is encouraged to identify with.
While the Tenenbaum’s waves of trauma are the result of their father’s absence, The Life Aquatic… demonstrates the emotional advantages of keeping the bad father at a distance, and the consequences of seeking him out in adulthood. Steve Zissou is every bit as arrogant and self-centred as Royal Tenenbaum, but his hubris has been tempered by a prolonged period of professional and personal decline. Steve is an oceanographic explorer and documentarian in the vein of Jacques Cousteau, but his glory days are long past and his professional reputation is waning. Finance for his projects is drying up and his wife, Eleanor (Anjelica Houston) is on the verge of leaving him. As the film begins, two significant events transpire to compound the crisis in Steve’s existence. The first is the death of his friend and mentor, Esteban du Plantier (Seymour Cassel), and the second is the sudden appearance of Ned Plimpton (Owen Wlison), who may or may not be Steve’s son. Either of these events could be considered as seminal, but occurring together provoke an existential crisis in identity, confidence and self-worth. The presence of journalist Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) is a further burden, and ultimately gives Steve cause to reassess his reputation and legacy.
The framing device of presenting The Royal Tenenbaums as a novel conveys a slight impression of artificiality and disrupts verisimilitude for the viewer. However, the movie-in-a-movie conceit of The Life Aquatic… raises constant questions on what is genuine and what is performance. The audience is never quite sure if Steve’s actions and emotions are genuine, or a well-rehearsed performance for the camera. These reflective strategies “call attention to performance as performance [and] self-consciously foreground the film and performance as a constructed image (Peberdy, 52). Steve’s entire career is based upon the construction of the illusion of reality. This fabrication is extended to his private sphere, where he has built a carefully controlled, hermetically sealed environment. He has surrounded himself with a team of predominantly male sycophants who function to maintain this deception. As one of Steve’s disciples reminds the interfering Ned, “It’s the ‘Steve Zissou’ Show… Not the ‘Ned’ Show.” Steve’s control over this carefully fabricated illusion is equally illusory. As his professional reputation weakens and his personal sphere is rife with crises, his tenuous grasp on control is slowly eroded.
Fig. 6 – “Let me tell you about my boat:” The staged artificiality of The Belafonte
Steve’s projected image of a self-sufficient lifestyle is also a fabrication. His public performance of masculinity is at odds with the reality of his private arena, where his wife’s influence can be felt. Eleanor is pragmatic and intelligent with a head for business. She is the brains behind “Team Zissou,” not the egotistical Steve. His private island retreat was paid for with her parents’ money, and when Ned offers to fund his latest film with $275,000 of his inheritance, Steve does not hesitate to take it. This façade of self-sufficiency is encapsulated in the scene where Steve takes the spectator on a tour of his ship, the Belafonte. Anderson shoots the scene in an elaborate planimetric tracking shot, moving through set-like cutaway walls. The distinctly unreal environment includes a laboratory, research library, a fully functioning post-production suite and a sauna (Fig. 6). The overtly set-like appearance of the ship and the inherent unreality of the scene could be read as a cheeky acknowledgement of Anderson’s “doll house” critics, but also demonstrates Steve’s predilection for artistic fakery.
Steve’s obsession with avenging Esteban’s death is both a performance of masculine stoicism to mask his grief, and a barrier that keeps him from forging a meaningful relationship with his possible son. As soon as Ned attempts to form any emotional bond with his father, Steve begins to integrate him into his band of acolytes. He encourages Ned to become a member of his artificial, controlled family unit, but rebuffs any attempts to form a deeper father/son relationship. He starts with replacing Ned’s pre-Steve pilot’s uniform with a “Team Zissou” tracksuit and branded footwear. But Ned’s transformation does not stop with his appearance, as Steve utterly changes his son’s identity. He erases his Ned’s birth name and replaces it with the name “Kingsley Zissou” – the name that Steve would have chosen had he been given the choice. Once “Kingsley” is entrenched in his crew, Steve is able to fall back into the familiar patterns of control and Ned blends away into another element of Steve’s public performance.
Ned’s desire to reconnect with his possible father is the product of his mother’s recent death. Unlike Steve, Ned has opened himself to the grief and successfully processed these painful emotions. When Jane asks how his mother died, he is able to speak of her passing in a pragmatic manner; “She had ovarian cancer that spread to her stomach and liver, then she took her own life.” Donna Peberdy reads Wilson’s delivery in this scene as flat, and opines that it is evidence of “emotional blocking, implying that he has not yet started to mourn the death of his mother” (58). However, his honest and open assessment of events could equally be viewed as evidence that he has successfully grieved for his mother and can now move on to reconnecting with his father. These events happened, but they are now past. Chris Robé calls this a “mourning that abandons a façade of masculine stoicism for an ability to speak about the significance of one’s losses” (110).
In contrast, Steve has buried his guilt and remorse under a thirst for vengeance. In the course of filming Steve’s latest documentary, Esteban is consumed by a shark. Yet instead of mourning his mentor and expressing any guilt over the part he played in Esteban’s death, Steve sets his mind to revenge. “entitled masculinity forecloses any possibility for men to adequately grieve loss, since it forces them to repress the very emotions that are required for mourning to take place. As a result, melancholia – the inability to acknowledge the significance of the lost object and psychologically move beyond its trauma – substitutes for mourning. The ego, unable to detach the libido from the lost object, instead unconsciously incorporates it and becomes redefined by that very loss” (Robé, 102). His friend’s death was a by-product of his role as Steve’s right-hand man. Had he not been carrying out his duties as part of Steve’s crew, it is probable that he would never have been put in danger. Therefore, Steve carries a degree of culpability for his death. His insistence of travelling through uncharted waters to save time and fuel results in a pirate attack, demonstrating a pattern of putting those around him in danger. But instead of accepting any responsibility, he blocks his grief with a hypermasculine quest for vengeance, thus deferring his grief and postponing the urgency to process this trauma. The mysterious “jaguar shark” could be read as an allegory for death itself. By setting himself the quixotic goal of hunting and killing it, he attempts to achieve the impossible, as he is essentially attempting to tame death itself.
Ned’s death scene bears many similarities with Richie’s suicide attempt in The Royal Tenenbaums. Again, Anderson employs some Nouvelle Vague techniques, including a montage of quick-cut images, and a flashback to Ned and Steve’s first meeting. As a point-of-view shot shows Ned’s helicopter about to crash into the ocean, Anderson cuts the diegetic sound and leaves only silence in its place. The complete absence of sound provokes a sense of vulnerability in the viewer, leaving them exposed to emotions hitherto dulled by disquiet. However, in contrast to Richie’s attempted suicide, this scene is placed at the denouement. It transpires after Steve has embarked on the road to redemption. Jane’s exposé article is an act of one documentarian revealing the fakery of another, and debunks the myth behind the man. Steve acquiesces with her assessment that “the Zissou of my childhood represents all the dreams I’ve come to regret,” and gradually realises that he is “a washed up old man with no friends, no distribution deal, wife on the rocks, people laughing at him, feeling sorry for himself.” As this artificial façade of masculine bravura is dismantled, the pressure of maintaining the performance is removed and he is allowed access to emotions of grief and shame hitherto buried in vengeance and bravura. This development also allows to communicate with Ned on a meaningful level. “I’m sorry I never acknowledged your existence all those years […] I want to communicate my feeling to you, but I think I may start to cry.”
Fig. 7 – The unambiguous redemption of Royal Tenenbaum…
Fig. 8 – …And Steve Zissou
By foregrounding the unconventional patriarch as prime protagonist, the trauma of the supporting characters is somewhat relegated to a lower tier. However, Anderson diffuses this empathic obstacle by resolving the narrative with the realisation of misdeeds and ultimate forgiveness. The problematic tone is resolved by demonstrating the redemption of these classically unappealing characters with an unequivocal demonstration of forgiveness from those that they have wronged. In Royal’s case this is illustrated by Chas’ emotional farewell to his father (Fig. 7), but Steve’s atonement requires the support of the entire surviving cast (Fig. 8).
The raw emotion of Chas conceding, “I’ve had a rough year, Dad,” to Royal, or Steve’s bittersweet, “I wonder if he remembers me?” is exemplary of the inherent humanity of Anderson’s texts. However, this sentiment is often occluded by intentional narrative disruptors. These examples are demonstrative of Anderson’s rejection of irony and a capacity for compassion often apparent only on reflection. Tone will often shift from one scene to the next, and narrative beats rarely occur in the tradition of the classical mode. “The common mixtures of comic registers means that we can simultaneously regard a film’s fictional world as partly unbelievable, laugh at its flat treatment of melodramatic situations and still be invited to be moved by characters’ misadventures” (MacDowall, Tone and the Quirky Sensibility, 10). As Kent Jones observes, “Anderson has given his audience just enough to get by. If you blink, you may miss a gesture or a line or a detail that alludes to a critical aspect of his characters’ emotional lives and the core dilemma that they’re hiding for fear of being exposed and embarrassed before the world” (Jones, A Family Romance, 20). However, Anderson never fails to treat his damaged characters with dignity, and always allows them the opportunity of redemption.