The Substance of Style, Pt 3

Examining the Wes Anderson–Hal Ashby connection
by Matt Zoller Seitz   posted Apr 6, 2009

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I wouldn't say that the non-white characters are clownish. Kumar, yes, but definitely not Henry, who I think is imbued with a great deal of dignity. After all, he is everything that Royal is not. Royal is the clownish one. Plus, what about other love interests like Margaret Yang and Inez? Kumar's son in Bottle Rocket and Rushmore also had small parts in which his Indian background was totally incidental.
Diggindignan   posted 17.12.09

My bad. I didn't notice the video link before and just read the text. I'll be sure to check it out!
Eric   posted 14.04.09

Actually, I did give "Harold and Maude" prominent play in the video essay version of this piece (which you can watch by clicking the "video" icon in the right-hand column of this page). One of the peculiarities (or distinguishing features) of the video essay format is that you can say or show things with pictures that don't necessarily translate into text. Part 3 of this series begins and ends with a "Harold and Maude" clip and includes other bits from the film within the context of the piece -- but it was difficult to translate the content of those clips into print form without simply transcribing the dialogue and camera directions, an exercise that seemed kind of beside the point to me. Anyway, watch the video -- I think your complaints will be at least partly answered.
Matthew Seitz   posted 14.04.09

I'm surprised that there's no mention of "Harold & Maude" as that's the Ashby film that seems to be the most direct influence on Anderson's work and many of his trademarks (quirky but melancholy characters, '60/'70s Britpop music, a dry comic sensibility) all seem drawn from this film. Certainly it's no coincidence that two Cat Stevens songs appear on the soundtrack to "Rushmore" and that Bud Cort has a prominent role in "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou". A bit of an odd oversight in an otherwise well-written article.
Eric   posted 13.04.09

That's a great set of observations, Dozing -- I really appreciate your taking the time to make them. I agree that there is an acknowledgment of class difference in Anderson's movies, but for the most part it doesn't really play into the dynamics of the plot (even in "Rushmore," where Max and Herman Blume seem to be connected partly by their non-rich origins -- yet they behave with all the privilege of born-rich people, and the movie doesn't really comment on this or make it integral to the story). I gather that your observations about Royal's origins come from personal inference -- I don't think there's much evidence in the film itself to validate that reading, though I agree that Royal seems a bit rougher than the rest of his family; of course, whether this was inherent in the screenplay or Gene Hackman naturally brought that quality to the role is a question that probably only Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson can answer. Oddly, though, I think you misread my opinion of "Darjeeling," which I think is Anderson's most surprising and real-world-connected movie, for some of the same reasons you allude to. I do think he's critiquing, even indicting, the obliviousness of his characters, not simply because they're rich, but because they're American (the two being synonymous in the eyes of poor people in the nations that folks like the Whitman brothers visit).
Matthew Seitz   posted 08.04.09

I've enjoyed these posts to this point, but feel you've made a rather large oversight in terms of the way class works in the films. Specifically, the whole F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jay Gatsby/James Gatz idiom. In fact, it could be argued most of Anderson's work usually involves someone in the working class looking in on the upper class, and the subsequent feelings of alienation: Max Fisher, of course is the prime example and the one whose class envy is the most obvious. Herman Blume, infantry Vietnam vet and self-made man's first appearance has him admonishing wealthy children for their ease in life and advising the scholarship children to take 'dead aim' at the rich ones. Then there's Royal Tenenbaum, who I felt in the context of the film was probably raised in, if not working class atmosphere, then at least certainly took a step up class-wise after his marriage to Etheline (and subsequent poverty after their separation). Steve Zissou, another case in point, similar to Royal in that his marriage(s) provided financial gain he was not prepared for. In fact all members of his crew were described as various wage-slave misfits (specifics escape me off-hand, but I do remember Klaus was a bus driver). There are always tensions in these films that can be attributed to issues of class, especially since they often deal with men (Max, Herman, Royal, Steve) who enter into relationships with or are otherwise in conflict with women (Ms. Cross, Margaret, Etheline, Eleanor) from higher income brackets. Yes, I'd say your assumption that Anderson blithely glosses over issues of class and privilege was largely coloured by the Darjeeling Limited. Except not. Interestingly, it seemed to me that this film acted as the inverse of the three previous: instead of the poor looking in, it involved the rich looking out at the actual world. This was pushed to its extreme by the mother forsaking her family in particular and the Occident in general by becoming a nun. And true, the earlier parts of the film tend to play as a shopping trip for bored rich kids (mace, snakes) whilst harping over basic possessions (shoes, belts) that somehow manage to cost thousands of dollars. But I don't think Anderson was giving us a 'we're all human with human problems' message with that film, as you seem to propose. Rather, I think he posited these three brothers as straw-men for the entire lifestyle Anderson seems to have been obsessed with for his entire career, and invites us to join in ridiculing their oblivious, self-involved nature. But life does tend to happen, even in movies, and though their awakenings are rather fumbling and limited (and really, what more could one expect?) the shedding of their father's baggage at the end of the film could also be seen as Anderson shedding off his obsession with class. Perhaps he finally read about that exchange between Fitzgerald and Hemingway: Fitzgerald: The rich are different from you and I. Hemingway: Yes. They have more money.
Dozing   posted 06.04.09


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Courtesy Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation
Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and Adrien Brody in The Darjeeling Limited, directed by Wes Anderson


video essay  |  Hal Ashby  |  Wes Anderson  |  social classes


The Substance of Style, Pt 1 by Matt Zoller Seitz
The Substance of Style, Pt 2 by Matt Zoller Seitz
Let It Loose by Rob Nelson
The Substance of Style, Pt 4 by Matt Zoller Seitz
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Matt Zoller Seitz is a writer and filmmaker whose debut feature, the romantic comedy Home, is available through Netflix and Amazon. His writing on film and television has appeared in The New York Times, New York Press, and The Star Ledger, among other places. He is also the founder of The House Next Door, a movie and TV criticism website.

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Author's Website: The House Next Door