Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Royal Tenenbaums and The Magnificent Ambersons: Wes, Welles and Literary Cinema

Posted By on Thu, May 17, 2012 at 10:04 AM

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Beginning this weekend, the Museum of the Moving Image presents the compleat feature films of Wes Anderson. Each will be preceded by a new video introduction from the man himself, as will Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), which screens as part of the series.

Here we have two families, and two films. Their productions are separated by exactly sixty years, their settings by several hundred geographic miles. (The former is based in an Indianapolis suburb at the turn of the 20th century, the latter in a fantastically timeless uptown Manhattan.) The opening scenes of both depict large manors with spires at their right. The Magnificent Ambersons ends with a dramatis personae roll call, The Royal Tenenbaums begins with one. Then there is the titular similarity— an adjective, plus surname—and it's an equally brief journey from patriarch to patriarch. Major Amberson (Richard Bennett), business tycoon, becomes Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), ignominious ex-lawyer.

In so far as the films are about families—in so far as they are families, in facsimile—they are indices of variable fortune and disgrace. Both clans struggle with wealth and talent in surfeit and in deficit. Both are undone, arguably, by l'amour fou—just as unrequited love between Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello) and Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) leads to the spoiling of the former's son, George (Tim Holt), the broken-home template established by Royal and Etheline (Anjelica Huston) Tenenbaum instills a feverish insecurity within their offspring. The cameras that behold this dynamism also mimic it; both movies were made by twenty-somethings with a penchant for tracking shots and for blasting the audience with recognizable music. (Welles reportedly exacted this prank in his stage productions.)

But the preceding observations are a mere game of connect-the-dots. Juxtaposing these somewhat superficial attributes may get us somewhere—at the very least, we can excavate from both films a subtextual anxiety over filial relationships that appears symbolic of social change. (The Ambersons' decline in stature mirrors the rise of the automobile, for example, while the Tenenbaum children simply cannot improve upon their youthful achievements managed in the womb-like mansion on Archer Avenue.) Yet we sense that these similarities are meant to be gleaned from the surface rather than decoded—Anderson nods to Welles compulsively, but not always significantly.

There is, however, one connection here that might prove essential—both Welles and Anderson interact intimately with literary traditions. The intimacy is often biographical: The Magnificent Ambersons is an adaptation of a novel written by Booth Tarkington in 1918, at which time Orson Welles was an affluent three-year-old, and a midwestern terror. Tarkington condensed the massive shifts our national industry had recently undergone, and the related human difficulties, into the arrogance and eventual comeuppance of a single downwardly mobile rich boy, George Amberson-Minafer—whom many have claimed bears a resemblance to the toddler Welles.

Tarkington won a Pulitzer Prize. Welles intended to one-up him, surely, by adapting the book as baroquely photographed radio. After the virtuosic fluidity of the film's famous ballroom scene, the camera calms down. The long, hyper-composed takes become more actor-oriented, as though helping to absorb the shock of the domestic strife observed. And the film remains true to its source material while ribbing it, as the spoken word has the power to dash hopes while the written word attempts to redeem them. (Consider the last, futile love letter that Eugene Morgan writes to Isabel Amberson, and George's petulant dominating of it with a single tantrum.)

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The Royal Tenenbaums, by contrast, is an original screenplay. But the product of that script is a kind of animated pop-up book. The film opens with an unseen library patron checking out a novel, also entitled The Royal Tenenbaums. Frequent chapter stops are marked by pages that fill the screen with fragmentary, present tense prose. The characters often speak with arcanely bookish verve ("You've made me a cuckold many times over"). This is a film where Futura text abounds as captions and placards that nearly ensconce the action.

But it is also a film where honest words are rare, where husbands hire private detectives to discover that their wives smoke, where affection that should be obligatory remains unspoken for years between siblings, fathers and daughters. It is a film where the most perfidious and drug-friendly characters—the adopted Margot Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow) and her frequent fuckbuddy Eli Cash (Owen Wilson)—are professional writers.

Anderson's acknowledgement of the slipperiness of language's ability to communicate is complicated, and cemented, by his considerable debt to 20th century letters. The cascade of literary influences leading from Booth Tarkington's punctured idyll to Wes Anderson's cute vortex of betrayal represents, in one way, the tradition of nocuous words we can't help but hear or read. The most obvious pitstop between the two is J.D. Salinger, whose cynical, litotic short stories often revolve around strange, insulting conversations that provoke epiphany. Anderson's appropriation simply forestalls the epiphany. And we can work backwards from Salinger as well: His Seymour Glass was a wunderkind who became a radio celebrity and then collapsed under the pressure of his own aesthetic and spiritual ambitions. (He was, in other words, a more eastern-minded Orson Welles.)

A filmic middle ground may be located in the hyper-literate French director Eric Rohmer, whose essay "For a Talking Cinema" praises the vitality of Ambersons's dialogue, and whose own films find their subtle drama in the friction between intelligent street talk and cowardly inaction. Rohmer's piece discusses the plot-relevant histrionics of a kitchen scene between Tim Holt and Agnes Moorhead (who plays his spinster aunt), where she scolds him for eating too quickly and he teases her for her longstanding crush on the town widower. As in Rohmer's own La Collectioneuse, the characters reveal themselves at great expense; there are no words that are not deeply felt, and the emotional exposition is corrosive.

By the time we reach Tenenbaums, youngest son Richie (Luke Wilson) attempts suicide because of attractions that have come to light through indiscreet conversation. Words are to The Royal Tenenbaums what the horse and carriage are to The Magnificent Ambersons—not entirely useless, but gawkily atavistic, and often more harmful than helpful. Anderson implies, as Welles would never, that growth is capable after this shock of violence brought about by words, but the healing process is largely non-verbal. There are Rolling Stones LPs and yellow pup tents, and montages of Manhattan shenanigans set to Paul Simon. Where Welles was content to let his narratives stew in the hell of meaningless language they'd created for themselves—think of Kane's dying words—Anderson provides relief. His answer to literature is pop culture.

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