The Criterion Collection: A Retrospective in Five Films

 

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Please read the previous five reviews on my blog for: Harold & Maude, Persona, The Darjeeling Limited, Dazed and Confused, and Sisters. These five film reviews are the supporting components for this essay.

 

The Criterion Collection has dedicated itself to gathering the most influential pieces of cinema ever made. Updating their collection monthly they remain on the cutting edge of cinema, adding classic and modern cinema to their repertoire to keep a constantly updated collection of influential movies. Ranging across a wide range of genres, the Criterion Collection has collected films that have been revered by critics, have gained cult status, or are seen as influential within the world of cinema and its creation.  I originally started with five different films than the one’s I ended up watching. This just speaks to the sheer volume that the Criterion Collection is made up of. Regardless if a film is currently in rotation or not, it’s still considered a part of the collection. I also learned that the only thing standing in the way of a lot of films getting added to the collection is disputes over distribution rights, which is why viewers don’t get as many animated films as people would like.

In my analysis, I viewed the films Dazed and Confused directed by Richard Linklater, Harold & Maude directed by Hal Ashby, Persona directed by Ingmar Bergman, The Darjeeling Limited directed by Wes Anderson, and Sisters directed by Brian De Palma. These films make up only a sliver of the massive catalog that Criterion has in their stock. These films offer a wide range of what the collection has to offer from cult classics to art-house thrillers to outright horror. I picked a range of films from different genres and decades to get a view of what makes the Criterion Collection classify as a critically important film in the canon of cinema.

Let’s start with the cult classic Harold & Maude, which is a heart-warming film. It’s inclusion in the Criterion Collection is without question upon viewing, however it at first seems to be an odd choice. Criterion is not one to take things upon first glance, by putting it in the collection they must’ve seen something important in it. This low-budget dramedy has some incredible shots, has a fantastic script, and best of all it’s funny. Criterion clearly defines cult classics as influential cinema due to their word-of-mouth hype, which can often be more powerful and accurate than any critic. This film being added to the collection is a testament to all independent filmmakers that just because no one has heard of your film, doesn’t mean it’s a failure.

The next thing I decided to tackle was a strict genre film. So I watched a film entitled Sisters. I chose this film as it fit into the genre of horror, and as it’s a genre that often lacks respect from most movie goers, I was curious at to why it would be in the collection. I quickly found out when my screen split into two. Criterion keeps an eye out for radical cinematic techniques. The split-screen effect in Sisters is clearly the main draw to the film (as well as generally being well made) and it’s wildly successful in execution. The Criterion Collection doesn’t discriminate against genres, it’s definitely an organization that just looks for talent and creativity.

Criterion also continuously adds films to its repertoire for example The Darjeeling Limited was released in 2007 but is still a part of the collection. This is due to the absolutely stunning color palette of the film. While I personally find the film to be appropriative of Indian culture, it doesn’t change the fact that movie is fantastic to look at. The importance of the film lies in its technique rather than its content in this particular example.

I had to do a double-take when I was scrolling through the list of the movies in the collection when I saw Dazed and Confused. I thought it was it just another high school movie. I was incredibly, stupidly wrong. The movie is a testament to youth, growing up, and leaving your hometown. It’s funny and most of all it’s poignant monologs  always give you something to think about and above all else, it feels realistic. This movie deserves its place in the collection because it is astoundingly good for its genre and content. It’s further proof that the Criterion Collection doesn’t care what your movie is about, it only cares if the movie is good, well made, or brings something new to the table.

I chose a classic for the last film to view; Persona. Ingmar Bergman’s film is a fabulous romp through two different realities and personalities. It’s a mind-bender of a thriller and its tense until the very last scene. My theory as to why it’s in the collection is due to its editing and controversial nature. The film was very controversial upon its initial release due to its explicit description of a woman having intercourse with a young boy. It’s a disturbing scene that’s for sure, but once you look past this tidbit you see a film that edits you into the reality of the film. You as a viewer are a conscious part of the movie, as Bergman continuously references that these characters are within a movie.

The Criterion Collection does not care what your movie is about, it doesn’t care if everyone hated your movie, it doesn’t care if everyone loved your movie. Your movie could have made millions of dollars, one every award, and it still might not end up in the collection. However, if your film brings something new to the table, something that takes viewers aback, then maybe your film is worthy of being included. All of the films I watched to figure out what Criterion describes as a good film point to one thing: uniqueness. There is something individual about each film that I watched that I’ll never forget. The burning out of the celluloid in Persona, the doll house like train compartment scene in The Darjeeling Limited, the split-screen technique in Sisters, the cemetery shot in Harold & Maude, and finally the characters in Dazed and Confused. The Criterion Collection looks for films that you will remember, films that bring new things to the table, and films that flawlessly execute their technique.

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Dazed, Confused, and a little bit worried about the future

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Dazed and Confused is a touching letter to small town life, growing up, and starting your own journey. It’s a story of learning the rules and learning when to break them, a tale about finding out how to love yourself. Richard Linklater’s famous film tackles many subjects, and seemingly defies genre by being comedic in the best and most natural ways, but maintaining it’s dramatic side without taking itself too seriously. This film is a precursor to many of the movies that Linklater would make later on like Boyhood, and Slacker in which, to be honest, nothing happens. The characters exist as we do, trying to make the best of what they’ve got. What we see is life, there’s no plot to it, rather there is a certain amount of common philosophy and debate. Linklater explores the dumb stuff that comes off as meaningful only in context, in other words, he explores the conversations we have with our friends.

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What Dazed and Confused excels at is its believable dialogue, all of these conversations about stupid stuff like whether or not George Washington smoked weed, if going to parties is worth it, the relevancy of your generation. All of these topics are explored by a huge ensemble of fully fleshed out characters. Even though there is almost no ground work to go off of in the beginning of the film, by the end you know each and every character and what they’re like. Most films would crumble under the sheer amount of characters but Linklater balances his cast of characters by having them all be unique in who they are and how they interact. So that when certain characters are discussing if the 70s will be culturally important in one corner of the party you know who’s talking about it because it fits their aesthetic. It works remarkably well, especially when the party is so large that there’s another group of character’s at the kegger talking about whether or not George Washington’s wife had a bowl packed and waiting for him at the end of every night.

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Normally, any film that tried to have this much-extended dialogue filled with useless philosophizing and general babble about life would fall apart chronologically. Due to the uniqueness of each ‘crew’ of characters though the movie becomes completely believable as being in one night. Linklater gives the viewer a large view of an entire small town, and then gives us tiny vignettes of different groups and friends within the town, then widens the view again back to the entirety of the school at a party. We as viewers know and understand that when we’re witnessing the nerdy seniors getting burgers, that the jocks are still at the bar shooting pool. We know that all of these stories and events are happening at the same time, some people are just taking a bit longer to find the party. The viewer knows this because we’ve been catching up with all the characters the entire movies, we’ve seen them at the bar or at the burger joint and we’ve been following everyone from the jocks to the popular girls to the stoners. Linklater makes sure that we always have the upper hand in knowing what’s going on and where everyone is going.

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Dazed and Confused is a perfectly balanced film and a hysterically entertaining watch, it’s bold amount of characters and endless memorable conversations make it a movie that’s surely a cult classic. It’s a great look at how detailed and memorable any type of film can be as usually coming-of-age films fall into a stoically typical type of plot-line. With Dazed and Confused however we’re entertained from the ending of the school day at the beginning to the kegger that ends it all.

Unhappiness is a waste of time: Harold & Maude

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The 1971 film Harold and Maude directed by Hal Ashby is a heartfelt tale about the balance of life and death told through the relationship between Maude (Ruth Gordon) and Harold (Bud Cort). An unlikely romantic relationship forms between the septuagenarian and the young teenager as Maude shows Harold how to live wholly and for one’s self. Maude above all else stands as a ray of sunshine amongst people who are obsessed with saving up their money and collecting things around them, only to forego on the experience factor of life. Harold and Maude may be one of the most enjoyable and faith restoring films ever made. The film offers commentary on the pessimistic and greedy society in which we all live, it’s a commentary on being ignored, feeling insignificant and generally being marginalized. Maude has an outlook on life from the margins, she collects things for herself that remind her of the beauty of a life well lived. Both characters are wholly unique in opposite ways, Harold has an obsession with dying while Maude has an obsession with living. They meet somewhere in between life and death; at a funeral.

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The dichotomy of age between Harold and Maude is the most intelligent character device in the film. It sets up an appreciation of both view-points, someone who is just entering adulthood versus someone who has lived their entire life. They both see each other as moments in time that they have or will experience. The difference in their subsequent obsessions of life and death also sets them as opposites. For all intents and purposes, these people should not be good friends, but they understand one another. Harold’s obsession with death lends him to a friendship with an older more experienced person while Maude’s penchant for living fits her friendship with someone who is just beginning to appreciate life.

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One of the most incredible shots in the film is a slow zoom out from a picnic Harold and Maude are having, as it zooms out it is revealed they are in a cemetery, and it keeps zooming out to reveal that the cemetery is rows and rows of unmarked white graves. This shot is the most striking and upsetting moments in the film when paired with what has just come before it. Where Harold and Maude were talking about the fact that many people allow themselves to only be treated as a number rather than as a fully fledged human being with needs and wants. There is a phenomenal bit of dialogue where Maude tells Harold about the differences between each individual flower in a field, showing how at first glance everyone appears the same, but on closer inspection there’s something special about everyone. This analogy being paired up with the imagery of the anonymous tombstones is deeply depressing, slapping you in the face and saying don’t let yourself be anonymous, don’t let yourself be treated that way.

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This movie is in my personal opinion, refreshing for the soul. It makes you think about the relationships in your life, it makes you question what you surround yourself with and what it’s really for. It’s above all a love song to life, to living and appreciating, to breathing fresh air and to sleeping next to someone you love. Harold and Maude is a good film because it is about being happy, it’s about collecting all of the moments that make you most elated and bringing them together to make them your life. It yells at you to go take an adventure, bring back a story, and then go live some more. Ashby wants his viewers to know that the secret to being happy is doing what makes you happy, a statement that gets complicated a lot these days.

 

The Questions We Don’t Ask

 It starts with a circus. A clown car drives into view and announces the greatest show. Nothing strange appears to be here, this could easily be a circus that we would be attending with our younger brother, or on a family trip from someone’s childhood memory. A converging point between children and adults, both seeking to be entertained by daring acts, bright colors, and humorous Three Stooges type comedy. Slowly things begin to turn sinister as Detective Kogawa Toshimi (Akio Ôtsuka) is shown to be looking for a criminal of some sort. With a sudden change a spotlight appears on him and he is transported into a cage right in the middle of the circus ring. By this point I’d realized that Paprika was a film that would be playing with my sense of reality, bringing me into settings that are overtaken by the surreal, often times within reality itself.

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         While adults view the show for a brief stunt away from reality, the children are there for the pure enjoyment of the spectacle. It’s the meeting point between the acceptance of absurdity in dreams and the skepticism that adult’s approach dreams with. This battle is reflected later in the film with the confrontation between the film’s villain and Dr. Chiba Atsuko (Megumi Hayashibara) as they discuss the parameters and dynamics of dream investigation, and it’s effect on the purpose of dreams.

         Dreams provide the answers to the questions we didn’t know we were asking. In Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, a sensual and surreal look at the nature of dreams and how they interact in correspondence with reality. While watching the film I was explicitly drawn to how absurd and strange the settings were, and how they seemed to flow together, rather than have strict dimensional lines. Somewhere between the colorful innocence of a children’s picture book and the dark motivations of corporate ambitions lies the masterful anime Paprika. Kon’s 2006 tale of dream investigation is at its simplest a police crime procedural and at its most complex a Philip K. Dick-style science fiction tale. Paprika delves into the furthest reaches of the mind where humans are the most vulnerable. Satoshi Kon translates the unintelligible nature of dreams in a way that induces receptivity to the ideas behind the film’s reality and its relationship with dreams.

         Paprika dives head first into analyzing how people interact with their dreams as something to decipher when the ridiculousness of dreams is meant to be left at bay, more of as a mild reflection on one’s troubles and hopes. Alternatively, as something to be seen as an internal monolog for guidance rather than something to be torn apart in the analytical terms of real life. Kon brings another science fiction opinion piece into his already mind-bending filmography that includes such revered animated films as Perfect Blue (1997), Millennium Actress (2001), and Tokyo Godfathers (2003). Paprika fits tightly into the canon of culturally significant and prolific anime films, such as Akira, or Spirited Away. Paprika additionally has a huge cultural influence in cinema, with Christopher Nolan’s Inception owing many of its plot points and techniques to the animated feature. The movie pushes the limits of what modern animation can accomplish, taking it from the realm of children’s stories to mature audience oriented films with sinister plot lines, disturbing ideals, and questionable morals.

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         Kon’s anime accomplishes bringing together the surrealistic quality of dreams and reality by deliberately blurring the lines between what is dream and what is real. Paprika (Dr. Chiba’s pixie-cut donning dream-persona) frequently infiltrates the real world rather than just existing in dreams. The DC Mini being stolen acts as the main object that pulls the narrative forward, allowing the world to shift uncontrollably between dreams and reality, merging the two with often terrifying and gruesome results such as suicides through hallucinations. Even Dr. Chiba is affected at one point where she believes herself to be hopping a fence, only to have the scene ripped from in front of her like a sheet to reveal that she is actually about to leap over the banister of a high rise apartment deck. The dangers of tampering with the purely personal world of dreams has drastic effects on the city and people around them, as their dreams slowly become collective rather than personal narratives.

         In one particular scene the strangeness and fluidity of dreams is explored in a flawless romp through various dreamscapes. After Dr. Chiba (Megumi Hayashibara) confronts the unexpected culprit of the crimes being committed, the viewer gets taken on a surreal chase scene which demonstrates Kon’s masterful balance between mind boggling, David Lynch-esque surreality and modern action in an animated format. The scene shifts fluidly by throwing it’s own setting and power dynamics into question in instantaneous moments like: Paprika jumping into a painting, then diving into an oceans cape within said painting. Paprika matches action perfectly, without there being a single doubt that any of Paprika’s actions had happened, none of her actions are confusing as she’s always where she’s supposed to be in the frame. This is due to the wondrous work of the film’s editor: Takeshi Seyama.

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         Paprika’s intention is to bring critical attention to humanity’s relationship with the realm of dreams in respect to the world they live in, and it completely succeeds in this ambition. Dreams as a way of interpreting troubles in life, what this discusses is the idea that delving too deep into one’s dreams affects one’s reality. The idea being that dreams are a private reflection period rather than something to be poked apart by trained physicians, especially when they are not naturally part of the dreamer’s mind, or lives.

         I was utterly unprepared for the spectacle of Paprika. It’s bright color palette and beautiful imagery solidify the movie as one of the greatest animated films in recent memory. By dealing with mature ideas and bringing an adult film to the anime format. While watching it, I was blown away by it’s cultural relevancy, as it clearly inspired the blockbuster film Inception. It is an utterly gorgeous film to look at with a touching narrative and creating a lush and gorgeous film that is a feast for the eyes as well as the mind.

 

“The Third Man” & Harsh Lighting: Beyond Tropes

Carol Reed’s The Third Man is a perfect example of the pristine understanding film noir directors had of cinematic technique. Film noir employs the tropes of its genre to create a successful formulaic film. Various other film noir’s that came out in the genre’s heyday use the same formula that allows them to have a choke-hold on success in the movie box office. The narrative appeal of intrigue, mystery, conflict and peril, along with the films having a consistent cast of characters. The Third Man uses the tropes of its genre to its advantage in telling its story of lies, heartbreak, and morally challenging effects of ‘the third man’, Harry Lime (Orson Welles).

img_current_30_118     Taught editing and controlled camera work create a classic addition to the film noir library, with lighting that affirm the character’s ambitions by low-key lighting that cut characters in half with shadow by the hard light. Solidifying it as a demonstration of how technical prowess and proper use of technique makes the difference between a good and bad film. The Third Man relies on the tropes of film noir, which requires the film to be technically flawless in order to make it’s plot stand out more from the countless film noir (ex.The Maltese Falcon, Touch of Evil, The Big Sleep, M, e.t.c.) that were being released during this time.

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The harsh lighting is used to perfection when main character Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) is a victim of mob mentality when a small boy points out that he was in the recently murdered informant’s apartment the previous day. The femme fatale Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) is also present at the mob and is originally seen as split between light and shadow, shifting into the light as she goes to Holly’s side. The harsh lighting of film noir, especially in The Third Man, demonstrates the fluidity of the line between good and evil. It highlights how people constantly traverse over this moral line between good and bad intentions in their interactions with each other. The Third Man brings this line to the forefront of the character’s actions and interactions with each other, like how Holly and Anna consistently clash on the moral disposition of their shared acquaintance Harry Lime. The two end up on either side of the harsh lighting with Anna’s character figuratively showing her opposite views by being draped in darkness. In direct contrast to Holly who is lit to highlight his concern with the effects of Lime’s crimes. The lighting of the film The Third Man highlights what makes its characters different from the tropes in the film noir canon. It brings attention to Anna’s conflict as she finds out terrible truths about the love of her life, and shows how Holly faces the moral dilemma of being involved with the crime to bring justice to a terrible racketeering scheme. The film noir genre has many classics that demonstrate how technical proficiency is key to a good looking and stand out movie.

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The film noir genre has many classics that demonstrate how technical proficiency is key to a good looking and stand out film. The Third Man effectively uses harsh lighting that brings attention to the characters and how they differ from their prescribed tropes, while also still existing in them to maintain the genre

Replications Don’t Tell Lies: “Ex Machina” and doubles

Alex Garland’s debut feature as a director is the unsettling sci-fi film Ex Machina, a meditative climb into the ethics behind the creation of artificial intelligence. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a prize to meet the C.E.O. of BlueBook: Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Upon arrival, he’s issued an identification card and is locked into a remote research facility where he meets Ava (Alicia Vikander). Ava is no typical houseguest, she’s an advanced and developed A.I. created by Nathan in secret, with the intention of having Caleb test her to see if she can pass for human, otherwise known as the famous Turing Test. It quickly becomes apparent in the film that things are not what they seem. The minimalist styling may give the impression of an open book: but there are many doors that remain closed, and who to trust quickly becomes the only question that matters. Ex Machina is a taught, well put together, thought-provoking science fiction thriller that has more to say about humanity’s morals than most cinematic fare.

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(Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb, arriving at Nathan’s home)

The necessary aspect to unlocking the secrets and narrative of Ex Machina lies in its reflections, or rather the appearance of doubles. Towards the very beginning of the film when Caleb encounters Nathan the screen splits into two, one Caleb faces towards Nathan, with his reverse image seen on the window pane behind him drenched in shadow. These shots repeat themselves throughout Ex Machina as an intelligent framing choice by the film’s cinematographer Rob Hardy. An imperative double appears when Caleb exits his bedroom to see Nathan’s shadow reflected in the door, again drenched in shadow. These two examples provide a glimpse at how drastically Caleb’s situation changes. The reflections at first just set a general town of uneasiness to the film presented as a general look at Caleb’s mindset reflecting his at first seemingly harmless visit. For example, the replicating effect is at first used to infer to Caleb being generally nervous around Nathan, being afraid due to the intimidating nature of his intelligence and demeanor. However, as soon as Nathan’s creation Ava begins to talk to Caleb during oddly frequent power failures his increasing understanding of the situation at hand cause the reflections to change into more sinister duplicates. Caleb’s duplicates soon become more suspicious in their nature, becoming the only true glimpse at any character’s mindset and goals in the film.

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(Nathan greets Caleb in the morning)

Appearances of doubles also feature a key role as a way of visualizing humanity’s obsession with vanity. By bringing something to life in our image we bring our power structure to a whole new high. Newspapers would be splashed with headlines that would read “MAN BECOMES GOD”, questions of ethics would come into play as we would have created something that we can control in our own image. These shadows and reflections quickly become a question of is it human or machine, the difference being shown through indistinguishable reflections and shadows. Ex Machina is an incredibly made film that explores the dynamics behind how humans view creation as the ultimate act of power. When we cannot tell the difference between a machine or a human, when our image is something that has acquired a peak natural intelligence, that is when God’s are forsaken and begin to fall.

“The Royal Tenenbaums” is Wes Anderson’s best film

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(The Royal Tenenbaums, cast of characters)

            The Royal Tenenbaums is one of my absolute favorite films. It is the movie that inspired me to write about film and to pursue a career in screenwriting. In my mind it is one of the most beautiful and expertly made films of recent memory. It is built up of gorgeously composed shots, a beautifully pastel color pallet, supreme performances by it’s cast, as well as a narrative that is both unorthodox and touching. The movie is a prolific piece in Wes Anderson’s career before his less successful (and mildly appropriative) The Darjeeling Limited (2007) as well as the creative but critically divisive film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). After these two slumps he returned to form with Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), all of which we’re critically acclaimed and audience favorites. Anderson co-wrote the script with Owen Wilson (who also has a part in the film as Eli Cash) who is a frequent collaborator on Anderson’s projects. The fact that most of Anderson’s film are written by himself or with a collaborator speaks volumes to how carefully constructed his movies are. He has control from conception to finish and is involved with every process which allows him to bring his artistic vision to fruition in a wholly original fashion.

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(The Tenenbaum Children: Margot, Chas, and Richie)

What separates The Royal Tenenbaums from Anderson’s other titles is the sheer volume of characters it deals with, all with completely different problems and lives. The Royal Tenenbaums follows the Tenenbaum family: Royal (Gene Hackman), Etheline (Anjelica Huston), Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), Richie (Luke Wilson), and Chas (Ben Stiller) as they fight through differences and old feuds. The film takes a family dynamic and dissects it down to the intricacies with which family members actually interact. By tearing down the secrets and thoughts of each individual character Anderson shows the various viewpoints that familial life is made up of. A family unit is never just one point of view, it takes everyone’s opinions and views of one another to paint an accurate picture of a family. How one sibling can hate his father and the other can feel sympathy, how one may feel ostracized while the other is completely accepted.

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(from left to right; Ben Stiller as Chas Tenenbaum, Danny Glover as Henry Sherman, Gwenyth Paltrow as Margot Tenenbaum, and Anjelica Huston as Etheline Tenenbaum)

My personal favorite scene from The Royal Tenenbaums  is for character development and in terms of cinematic styles is the first interaction between Richie and Margot Tenenbaum after a number of years. Proving his true writing talent through his deliberate setup of the reunion scene between two people. The entire scene is built up around the tension and loss of tension within the few moments Richie and Margot make eye contact with each other after what could be considered a life time. When Richie takes his seat we see a green-line bus park in a line of other buses, with a wide angled fisheye shot, and then everything changes into slow motion. Margot steps off the bus in a medium close up so that we can only see her from the chest up. Her hair wisps about in the wind moving out of the way to show the way a moment can feel like decades as she slowly approaches him to Nico’s “These Days”. The audience see her truly smile for the first time in the film. This is interposed with shots of Richie’s face as she slowly starts to walk towards him, the relief is evident on his face as he sees her as she has both changed and remained the same. The scene continues with slow motion and a medium wide shot of Richie that slowly zooms in to his face, mimicking Margot’s walking. The way that the two look at each other in this scene, the acting, and the camera work come together to tell a story with no words. There is a slow panning shot upwards as the camera moves to catch the moment of reconciliation between Anderson’s character’s as they finally reunite. The shot reverse shots as the characters discuss between themselves, in no words except for Margot’s lines, the emotions that both felt in the absence of each others company. Margot saying “Stand up straight so I can get a look at you… well it’s nice to see you too…” with a smile and a deeply romantic hug the camera moves forward into a medium close up shot of the two. The viewer sees the first step towards a family that may be able to become whole again through the reunion of two siblings.

In my opinion, The Royal Tenenbaums is the film that nails down the intricacies, awkwardness, and terror of family life. Much like Little Miss Sunshine (2006, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris) it embraces the bad and infuriating things that families do to one another, and how rather than dividing, these things bring families together. Anderson’s film is remniscant of what makes a family, a family. It’s not just the good times: it’s the bad times, the heartfelt moments, the arguments at the dinner table, the fight with your brother, the hug from your parents when you’ve had a bad year. Family is not just a word, as the film’s tagline says, it’s a sentence.

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(Margot and Richie at the end of the film)