The Royal Tenenbaums
n the exhausting effort to keep ahead of the tides, young friends, Stylus has a new column to offer you. We’re calling it A Kiss after Supper, and in it we’ll be tracing the expert use of pop music through some of the more music-friendly films of the past thirty years. With directors like Spike Jonze, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson using their robust appreciation for music in novel ways to document their stories through music as well as cinema, soundtracking is perhaps more critical to a film’s emotional tone than it’s ever been. As such, we thought it about time we wrote a little something on the issue...
What a sad and luckless straw we’ve all drawn, huh? Pop culture fiends all of us. I can see the needle marks in our furor for all things Charlie Kauffman, our willful suspension of intellect for the Unicorns, hell even our ever-widening embrace of the split-end decade, the eighties. We’re stupefied by the labyrinthine tapestry of all things kitsch. We’re buoyed by weightless musical minutiae. We’re monomaniacal fiends with a boundless taste for pop culture, good, bad and don’t-tell-my-friends ugly. Low art, high art. It’s all a wash. Pile them high and sandwich them between Da Vinci Code allusions.
Well, fortunately for us all, we’ve come up with the ideal fix. As more and more directors are perfecting an art that Mike Nichols (The Graduate), John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy), Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude), and of course the inimitable John Hughes (The Breakfast Club) all helped to shape, it seems film directors are returning to the truths all pop music devotees have long tattoed to their heart: the collision of medium and man matters not, if it don’t sound good. In a recurring series tracing the links between movies and the pop music scores to which they owe so much, we’ll look at Wes Anderson’s ultra-stylized The Royal Tenenbaums and its mastery of the perfect pop music score. Film and cinema. Consider it a two-fer and settle in nice and close.
Really, The Royal Tenenbaums is the ideal starting point. Pop culture fans tend to be self-mythologizers, building an odd nest out of the twigs and scraps of the movies and albums around them and claiming a place beyond themselves from the miasma that evolves. We force the arts into defining elements of ourselves, and copy and paste the way we might live up to them. Wes Anderson’s film is a masterwork of just this self-mythologizing. The grandiose characters—part cartoon-script and part Shakesperean tragedy—, the exaggerated costumes—from Mr. Sherman’s almost neon-blue jacket to Chas’s funereal black Adidas jumpsuit—and even Anderson’s Hitchcockian auteurism and its use of the same actors in widely-divergent roles (Kumar Pallana in all three of his films; Seymour Cassel in Rushmore and TRT) links each movie to a larger awareness than any single film can lay claim to. Hints are given and fingers are pointed, but the links are there for the audience to follow at their choosing. Anderson rubs things smooth with his hyperstylized sets and costumes, but ultimately the film depends on pop music to connect itself to a world beyond its own colorful walls, and thus to blend the myth with the movie until there’s no longer any differentiating between the two.
Ultimately, Anderson manages this self-largesse in several ways. The first is through the use of instantly recognized bands as motifs for scenes or characters. These are dropped quickly, and combine with a scene to emblazon characters with the willful tone of their musical doppelgangers. For Richie’s lifelong friend and Margot’s flamboyant lover, Eli Cash, Anderson pairs him with the pummeling party-crashing of The Clash. In his roadster as he and Margot discuss Richie’s return from abroad, “Police and Thieves” forces its scar-tissued-reggae between alternate words and flexes its muscle with Eli’s peculiar brand of machismo. Full of testy swagger and larger-than-life bollocks, The Clash is the perfect accoutrement for Eli, the neo-cowpunk with his dreadful Western artwork and creative reworkings of Custer’s last stand. Later, when he’s sitting around with his doper pals, “Rock the Casbah” reaches up from the stereo and reminds you of Anderson’s earlier use of “Police and Thieves.” In this momentary glimpse, we see how deeply Anderson is working here to provide the works of the Clash as a combined Eli’s Theme.
Aside from this thematic linkage between song and character, Anderson deepens the viewer’s emotional understanding of certain scenes through his use of precisely-chosen songs. Following the death of his wife in an airplane crash, which both he and his sons survived, Chas is rigid with fear about how to protect his family. He schedules phony fire alarms to test his sons’ midnight tenacity, and soon understands the only place to find such solace is in his parents’ house. As he works towards this conclusion, in the after-math of another failed phony fire alarm, dim and distant in the background, almost as if played on the family’s tinny alarm clock radio, we hear John Lennon’s naked-and-bleeding “Look at Me” from his primal scream debut, The Plastic Ono Band. A man terrified of love and its own forsaking, something that appears forever bound up with it as a possible outcome, Lennon’s song finds perfect expression in this darkly comedic scene and gives it a poignancy that silence would be hard-pressed to match.
Perhaps even better is Anderson’s masterful suicide scene. In the wake of their discovery of Margot’s infidelities, Richie shuts the bathroom door and leaves Raleigh St. Clair lying prostrate on the couch. He steps into the surrealistic, marine-colored bathroom and takes off his headband. Slowly, you hear the delicate strum of Elliot Smith’s “Needle in the Hay,” a song of such desolate beauty that you know Richie’s intent before he takes out the razor. Instantly, the scene takes on the presaged dimness of a morphine-dream. As the blood courses down his arms and he tries to sit, the song stops abruptly before starting up again as he’s rushed to the hospital. The guitar, and the way it’s cut to such a brief stop and restart, belies the insurgence and hostility underneath his desperation. This is an act of defiance as much as frustration. The song becomes inseparable from the gloomy hospital lighting and the irritating tactile sense of feverishly-chopped hair sticking to the skin and scratching at your back. They combine to form one of the film’s most harrowing passages.
Another indication of Anderson’s keen musical ear is the way he cites songs that bring instant identification and viewer recall to enliven a scene with the separate memories of an entire audience. The trick is to use songs that every single audience member most likely associates with unshared moments of their own, be they hazy or distinct. Almost every viewer has admired the simplistic wonder of “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” at some point in their life. Anderson drops it loud and fat as Royal is showing Ari and Uzi the glories of the childhood malcontent: stealing chocolate milk, throwing water balloons at passing cars, and riding garbage trucks one-handed. It’s the classic cut-loose track, the shove-those-papers-off-the-desk-and-shred-that-shirt call to arms for permanent adolescence. Broken nostalgia and scattered memories are on instant-recall the moment you hear the first summery strums of acoustic guitar, the deep stabs of stand-up bass, and Simon’s rollocking whistling.
Later, as Richie and Margot are huddled underneath his banana-colored tent trying to find their way around to the unmentionable, the Stones’ lesser-known but cripplingly comforting “She Smiled Sweetly” gives way to the instantly recognizable strings of “Ruby Tuesday.” (No need to mince words: Between the Buttons was one of the Stones’ greatest moments.) The awareness of their mutual affection drains into the prohibitive fact of their familial bond, and the juxtaposition of these two songs pounds this impossibility home. Having decided that they will have to love each other without acting on it, Margot begins to back out the tent to the Stones’ bittersweet song of unattainable love. Its mournful strings and tear-soaked piano is almost too perfect for the scene, cloyingly serene and out of reach. The line “She Comes and Goes” begins just as the tent flaps close behind Margot, and the music is turned up instantly to scatter the silence in the tent. Again, the song claims recollections on the part of the viewer, and those sentiments are engrained in the scene’s hushed, determined pacing to give an already forceful scene the redemptive resonation of myth.
In the end, The Royal Tenenbaums enlarges its own life by playing on those of its audience, and thus engulfs itself in the wonder of the wanderer’s campfire tale. The film’s vivid storytelling refracts through its heart-on-sleeve affection for pop music to blind us poor pop fiends in an orgasmic multimedia onslaught. Anderson’s tickling our bric-a-brac popular heritage, my friends, and by God I, for one, am gonna squeal with delight and hope he doesn’t see I’ve pissed myself. Finally, a payoff for those countless hours of cultural scrutiny...