Friday, April 8, 2022

Film Club Featurette: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) 1:50:00

Tomorrow (Saturday, 9 April) at 6:31pm, the Phnom Penh Film Club snuggles down for a cozy evening of warm-hearted whimsy, woebegone wanderlust, and wistful wunderkinds, *The Royal Tenenbaums*, directed by Wes Anderson and starring just about everybody. 

Inspired at least in part by Orson Welles, J.D. Salinger, Louis Malle, E.L. Koningsburg, and Anderson's own childhood experience of parental divorce, the film's multi-layered concept and elaborate screenplay alone required over two years of Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson's lives to complete, with Touchstone Pictures repeatedly and credibly threatening to cancel its support. And that wasn't even the steepest or most existential challenge, either: Throughout this poorly-kept secret saga, Gene Hackman, who'd been explicitly intended for the eponymous leading role, continually refused to be cast for it, steadfastly and on the record -- only relenting at the last moment when his agent and lifelong friend asked him to do it as a favour. Throw in Huston's repeated objections to the parallels between her character and Anderson's mother, plus a fevered genius' commitment to the dry photographic joke of filming in New York without a single definitive visual cue or landmark, and really it's no small wonder that all this coffee-shop-indie melodrama ended up taking the shape of a finished motion picture whatsoever. 

Patience doesn't always pay, despite what any of us may have heard, but this time the end result of all of this pre-production intrigue wasn't just a remarkably refined and detail-conscious cinematic tour de force. Instead the drama that had stirred itself into all of that waiting also served to imbue the stresses on the page with a sort of accidental method -- rendering the crucial atmosphere of refined upper-crust family antagonisms and gently acerbic badinage all the easier to act, by having first been lived through by everyone involved. 

Ostensibly a family comedy-drama (not completely uninspired by Welle's 1942 masterpiece *The Magnificant Ambersons*), the finished movie manages somehow to resist genre-classification without actually suggesting anything to take its place. Tenenbaums isn't a comedy, and it isn't a drama, and it isn't a romance. It's not about a divorce, a deceitful lie to cover up an ugly truth, or young adults struggling to define their futures in the aftermath of unfulfilled child-prodigy accolades. It's not about overly devoted autumn-spring husbands or overly intriguing adopted siblings. It's not about mothers struggling to enjoy their empty-nest years, or about wives taken from us much too young in plane crashes. It's not about over-protecting one's children and it's not about shooting them with BB-guns.

What it *is* about, then, is resonances. It's about that peculiar and often improbably enviable imprimatur that a cohesive family in a big house can so often so effortlessly exude for all of us to see and love and talk about. Not all of the Tenenbaums are good people. Not all of them know how to quit when they're ahead, and few of them know how to ask for help when they're behind. They aren't all noble and they aren't all even all that interesting, at least without the antagonism of another Tenenbaum to force them into it. But they are, all, Tenenbaums. At a glance, and even more decidedly after the first few moments of listening to them talk. Heck, even the next-door-neighbour across the street is a Tenenbaum -- and not just because he's been sending his press clippings to the house for its august mother's recognition and esteem. 

Many, many, many fictional properties in both written media and film have built their narratives on the stud-wall frames of larger than life families, to be sure. But to create from scratch a completely fictional extended family with this kind of cohesion -- almost a trademark-branding, really -- and to have our experience of noticing it feel so familiar to us all, is one of the rarest and most laudable accomplishments in all of storycraft. Ask yourself how many big fictional families in your own recollection weren't just related, and relatable, but literally identifiable like this, and you'll quickly have to agree that more often than not it's the audience's suspended disbelief that blushes away the clashing nuances of persons whose nuances probably wouldn't clash if they were real. And that, that is what makes this movie such a spectacular achievement. 

Many people talk about Tenenbaums as the moment that Wes Anderson found his Auteur's voicing through the assorted bag-of-tricks visual affectations on which he's relied so heavily ever since. And it won't be a popular thing to say, probably, but honestly those directorial seasonings have never mattered less, anywhere throughout the Anderson cinematic oeuvre than they do here. And that's a good thing for all of us. *The Royal Tenenbaums* may not be Anderson's most rollicking movie, or his most poignant, or his most distinctive, or professional, or even the most well-acted. But it is, by a country mile, his most artistically complete. It is The Mona Lisa of the Anderson filmography. It is his Dubliners. His Rumours album. His Guggenheim-Bilbao. It simply demands to be watched. 

I hope everyone will plan to join us at 6:31pm on Saturday, 9 April, for this timeless modern classic in small-bore drama, quirky laughs, and the big-house-big-family company of an ensemble who wouldn't surprise you if they broke the scene to burrow in the fridge. This isn't true even of every picture we've chosen for our screenings in this venture, but it's true of this one: No one who comes to see this movie will regret it. No one. 

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