“You dropped some cigarettes.”
The Royal Tenenbaums directed by Wes Anderson
“You dropped some cigarettes.”
The Royal Tenenbaums directed by Wes Anderson
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.
A beautiful Wes Anderson film, perfectly made, incredible to look at it, and sadly appropriative of India. Wes Anderson is my absolute favorite director so it really hurts me to write this article acknowledging his misstep. The Darjeeling Limited, the director’s 2007 effort follows three brothers; Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody), and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) as they go on a spiritual journey across India in order to reconnect after their Mother’s disappearance, and their Father’s death. The use of India as a back-drop for the reconnection of some spiritually displaced white men is an insult to the rich history, colors, and culture of India. The movie uses the setting to its advantage as the film is absolutely gorgeous to look at it, as with any Anderson film. However, all of that beauty is underlined by the fact that it’s only the background and is marginalized for the benefit of Anderson’s characters. In one of the first stops on a long train
In one of the first stops on a long train journey, the brothers make a trip to a Hindu temple in order to meditate and pray. For what? That’s unclear, however, they clearly seem to think praying at this temple, to a God not of their religion, they’ll somehow be friendly to one another again. Again, while it makes for beautiful imagery to look at, all meaning is lost as it’s not applicable to it’s three white main characters. None of these visuals have any clear cut meaning because it’s all being interpreted through a visitor’s eyes. It’s all being appropriated for the sake of a dramatic back drop for this family drama to unfold.
In another key part of the film, Jason Schwartzman’s Jack and Adrien Brody’s Peter cause a bunch of problems on The Darjeeling Limited. Peter brings a known poisonous snake onto the train which accidently escapes and endangers the entire cabin and Jack has sex with Rita the train attendant. Both of these things turn lives upside down and carelessly endanger others. The brothers treat India throughout the film as something that can be played around in, where the rules don’t apply to them. Jack turns an entire girl’s life upside down because he’s heartbroken over another girl he knew in France while Peter endangers an entire train car of people and by extension the job of the train conductor. By interrupting the fragile ecosystem of the train the three brothers further prove themselves to be intrusions upon the culture and life of India.
Another point in the story that speaks volumes to the erasure of Indian culture is when all of the brothers meet up on the train for the first time, and all possess new medicines that are available over the counter here. The three brothers arrive in India and proceed to misuse the culture around them and treat it all as their own to romp around in. India is used as a playground for the three brothers and try and become brothers again, creating an image of a magical place that all white people can go and visit to solve their problems.
The Darjeeling Limited sadly contains all the hallmarks of an Anderson film and is unmistakably his. The problem with this is that I can’t ignore it as part of his filmography through selective omission. Anderson has written a fabulous and well thought out story, all of the characters are well developed and it’s entertaining. What’s inexcusable is his blatant misuse of Indian culture and locales in order to further his character’s emotional development. It’s the fact that the story hinges so much on its background that it would be indistinguishable without it. This makes the film inherently an appropriative one, as it uses India as a background and a background only, there’s no real reason for it be there except to further the experience of Anderson’s characters.
A video essay exploring the settings and their consequent effects on character development in a handful of Wes Anderson films, including; The Darjeeling Limited, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Moonrise Kingdom.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(Margot and Richie at the end of the film)