Saturday, April 14, 2018

Wes Anderson films as iterations of "boys not growing up" over at The New Republic--a few thoughts on Generation X growing up with the puzzle of how to play with the trademarked toys our parents bought for us

As fusillades indicting a class of white males for not growing up go, it would be remiss to assume that the only people who go on such rants are men such as Mark Driscoll or Jordan Peterson or people ostensibly or observably associated with the "right".  There's room at places like The New Republic for bromides about how certain types of art and entertainment somehow depict or catalyze a stratum of males "not growing up."

The new Wes Anderson film Isle of Dogs can be taken as a case in point. Now I've seen, I think, exactly one Wes Anderson film but rather than get to that I'll proceed to large swaths of this review.
From the start, Anderson’s characters have been cursed with a delusional nostalgia. It’s easy to look at Bottle Rocket and see just another 1990s comedy about slackers. Until the gang of amateur thieves put on yellow jumpsuits to rob a warehouse, they dress like typical overgrown suburban preppies without fashion sense. But there’s a reason Martin Scorsese cited the film when he told Esquire in 2000 that Anderson was the next Scorsese. Dignan, the twentysomething fuck-up played by Owen Wilson who leads his friends into this folly, fancies himself a gangster out of a ’70s heist flick. It’s a parody Scorsese movie—complete with a classic rock soundtrack, which for two decades would be an Anderson hallmark—about men who never had the chance to become gangsters.
Nostalgic delusion would afflict Max Fischer, who longs to embody the fading traditions of the prep school that expels him. The Tenenbaum children are haunted by the glories of their lost days as child geniuses. Everybody in The Life Aquatic wants to return to a state of being eleven and a half, what Zissou calls “my favorite age.” The Whitman brothers in The Darjeeling Limited fetishize the luggage they inherited from their dead father. Mr. Fox, having gone straight and become a newspaper columnist, wants to return to a life of stealing food from farms. The narrative of The Grand Budapest Hotel is presented through the frame of a memoir by a dead author who, decades earlier at a dilapidated resort, encountered an aging former lobby boy who told him the story of its glory days. It can’t be said that Zero the lobby boy is deluded; he’s filled with sadness because he lost everyone he loved after the arrival of shock troops who look a lot like the Nazis.
Bottle Rocket introduced another recurring character type: the flawed, or malignant, middle-aged mentor, James Caan’s Mr. Henry. As the bad father figure, who double-crosses Dignan, Caan says his lines as if his character from The Godfather, Sonny Corleone, hadn’t been shot up by the Tattaglias but had moved to Dallas to become a landscaper and small-time crook. Rushmore would cast Bill Murray as Herman Blume, who sees something of himself in Max Fischer, because it’s the nature of a midlife crisis to turn a man back into a boy. As Blume, Murray embodied a louche, fiftysomething wreck in need of redemption. The quest of saving the aging man falls to the boy, who surrenders his crush on the schoolteacher, Miss Cross, and instead plays matchmaker between the two adults.
Though Murray has made a second career of it, a cigarette or two dangling from his mouth, it was Gene Hackman who perfected this persona for Anderson as Royal Tenenbaum. He’s a failed parent, a cheating husband, a bankrupted rich man, a casual racist, a liar: a decadent portrait of the charismatic, urbane, and decadent white American male born in the 1930s. He’s redeemed by having his fraud exposed (he’s been faking cancer to get his wife and adult children to let him live with them), being stabbed by his servant, taking a day job as an elevator operator, accepting that a black man will marry his ex-wife and most likely prove to be a more loving husband than he was, and dying of a heart attack.
We'll interrupt the review at this point.  I saw The Royal Tenenbaums.  One of the punchlines, of course, is in the title. These people aren't royalty.  If they're not titled aristocrats in the explicit sense deployed in lines from Whit Stillman's Metropolitan (who has been explicitly making films about American aristocracy pretty much his whole career) they could be construed as non-titled aristocrats.  Each of his children is some child prodigy who fails to live up to cultural and familial expectations of greatness.  To use one of the phrases cycling through internet discourse, each of these children (Margot included) could be christened a "failson".  there's a type of character enervation that spans generations in this film.  Royal isn't so much redeemed as he confesses. 

If there's a problem rampant in American story-telling indicated by all this complaint at TNR about "redemption" it may just be that in American parlance, and here it's far more potent in the indie/arthouse realm than in blockbusters, confession is often conflated with repentance and conflated with redemption.  Now in lowbrow blockbuster fare "redemption" generally looks like a person confesses he/she has been on the wrong side, repents of being on that side, joins a different team and because the messiah for that team.  That's what we see in James Cameron's Avatar, for instance. While the indie/arthouse form of "redemption" is more psychologically plausible only in the sense that people confess before they become a hero/soldier for a new team, and in the sense that repentance may precede confession or follow it in non-soteriological terms, this kind of cinematic "redemption" is no more "real" in the highbrow or middlebrow than it is in the lowbrow.  The basic arc of "redemption/savior" is the same in Spielberg's The Post as it is in Cameron's Avatar or even Favreau's Iron Man.  Now, let's get to Royal's kids.

The redemption of his children, who have to go on living, is a trickier matter. They are a set of three failed prodigies whose early brilliance in business, sport, and theater has been betrayed by their parents’ divorce. We meet them as depressed adults. There’s a grizzly suicide attempt at the film’s climax by the former tennis star, Richie Tenenbaum, when he perceives that his love for his adopted sister, Margot, is doomed. The episode is a preposterous black hole in the middle of the comedy, a grasping at gravitas. Anderson modeled the Tenenbaums on J.D. Salinger’s Glass family—who appeared in a series of his short stories—but the incest plot doesn’t match the war trauma that haunts Salinger’s fiction. The film tips into the maudlin and quickly scoots back to the twee. Similar moves would mar Anderson’s next films—such as the accidental deaths of Zissou’s son in a helicopter crash in The Life Aquatic and of an Indian boy drowned in a river in The Darjeeling Limited.
... on the order of "it would take a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell?"

The Royal Tenenbaums was a commercial success and aligned with the late–Gen X zeitgeist that went by the name hipster. [last I checked the majority of Gen X hasn't died off yet] For the rest of the decade, it was impossible to go out in Brooklyn on Halloween without seeing a couple dressed as Margot and Richie Tenenbaum. The thrift-store aesthetic of the costume design, the shabby-chic gestalt, and the theme of dissipated childhood promise connected with the back end of a generation whose achievements did not match its sense of entitlement and so compensated with nostalgia and an aesthetic of reclamation. But Anderson had reached the culmination of his youthful phase. It would be some time before he would again link his eccentricity and cinephilia so neatly to a popular American myth.
It is here that I would interject that this seems substantially the same as a Mark Driscoll lament about a "Pussified Nation".  He spent years complaining about how lazy and entitled a generation of men was.  At least now we know that a Gen X indictment of this kind can be construed as able to emerge from either a left or right origin point, or perhaps we could deploy the term neoliberalism.  The failure of Generation X is construed in terms of entitlement, failed promise and nostalgia. 

But what is that nostalgia for, exactly?  Are we entirely sure that the depiction of Royal doesn't shift that narrative in a direction that the nostalgia in question is a kind of class nostalgia for which Royal's children are given a chance to see that the class role as exemplified by their father was a nasty racist fraud?  "Redemption" in a twee/maudlin cinematic sense for the children of Royal is that they are given to understand that they don't have to live up to Royal's fraud.  It's still kind of mean as "redemption" goes, they get to find out they're better people than their old man but what generation of Americans hasn't thought that over the last, well, century?

Wes Anderson can be thought of as a kind of funhouse mirror variation of Whit Stillman.  Stillman is more conservative and direct in proposing that the American aristocratic classes are losing and have lost their role in society.  They are starting to face downward economic and class mobility whether they recognize it or not.  But by making his films more explicitly about class up front Stillman's films hold up better, at least as a Generation X sort who has seen a couple of Stillman films and Anderson films.  Stillman's films, as I understand them, riff on the idea that the bourgeois is doomed but it also deserves its fate.  We can eel some pity for them because they fail to recognize their own moral failures and ignorance while not feeling bad for them out of any sense that they are materially deprived.  To put things more in the idiom of current internet discourse, Stillman characters may not recognize their privilege but Stillman does, whereas in Anderson's films the characters may not recognize their privilege and it's not always clear from an Anderson film that Anderson is entirely clear that he's making films about a kind of American aristocracy, if of a non-titled kind.

As for Andersonian nostalgia ...

Like Isle of Dogs, Anderson’s 2009 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox was a stop-motion animation feature that built to a finale of military violence between talking animals (with American accents) and humans (with British accents). The daddy issues—Mr. Fox’s son Ash wants to get his father’s attention and a role as his accomplice—are explored within a functional nuclear family, albeit one that’s being hunted. There’s an emotionally superfluous mid-film funeral for a rat, and the classic rock soundtrack tilts away from the Kinks and David Bowie toward the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones. It was proof that there wasn’t much distance between a Wes Anderson movie and a commercially viable children’s movie. Eliminate the swearing and the sexual innuendo, and you’re mostly there.

At this point I'd say there's more to be said in favor of children's entertainment than a lot of what passes for grown-up now. If there's an implication that kid stories are less grown up than "adult" entertainment and that those who make films primarily for children that's a bias I have seen recurring in Anglo-American film criticism.  I don't get the sense that Hayao Miyazaki's films, nearly all made with children as the intended audience, are signs that Miyazaki has not grown up.  I don't think Wes Anderson has it in him to make a film like The Wind Rises on the one hand or like My Neighbor Totoro on the other.

We might have to back up a bit and establish what we mean by Generation X.  If all it means is that someone was born after the Baby Boom generation but before the Millenials then how do we define that date range?  We could try to say that Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan could be construed as Generation X.  Whit Stillman was born in the 1950s so he may be Baby Boom as long as the Baby Boom ran for a decade after the end of the war.

If there's a cinematic generation primed to have an anxiety of influence in Anglo-American cinema Generation X might be that generation.  We've grown up with all of classic Hollywood from the studio era up through the 1970s auteur and blockbuster stuff.  The entire idiom of film and all its genres have been laid out before us.  There's nothing to innovate. We can refine and consolidate but innovation in the medium is harder to achieve.  James Cameron may really believe his own hype but he can't revolutionize film. 

But let me get back to Wes Anderson and Joss Whedon because I propose there's a point of commonality with these two.  They're arch, they're self-aware, they're steeped in cinema as an art form in a way that suggests multigenerational engagement and debt (Whedon's a third generation of a family that has been in the entertainment industry for some time).  What some regard as a Gen X refusal to grow up can be interpreted, from within the context of Generation X itself (hint) as an anxiety about American culture and class.  We of Generation X seem like the first generation since the Baby Boom who will have less than what the Baby Boom generation had.  Perhaps no show explicitly explores this sense of failure than a show like The Venture Bros.  Rusty Venture is a terrible, self-absorbed man who can't live up to the greatness of his super-scientist father.  He's a failure as a "hero" but in a moment when given a chance to realize his full potential (as a supervillain) he can't bring himself to be that, either.  His self-designated archnemesis The Monarch is a trust fund kid with delusions of grandeur who jokes that how he gets anything cool done is by squandering his inheritance that he got from his dad.  Generation X exists within a self-aware moment in American culture and global culture in which it's clear that "we" can't solve the problems bequeathed to us by the Baby Boom generation or The Greatest Generation and that "we" can't live up to the potential of the generations before us ... but as more history is unfolded it may be that the kinds of great men who make history are such self-aggrandizing assholes settling for a lesser "legacy" may be the better trade-off than trying to equal or exceed the glories of earlier generations as recounted to us through popular culture and history.

That's kind of an aside, what I was meaning to get to about guys like Anderson and Whedon is that they are so arch and so self-aware, so depending on witty patter (if that's what we have to call it, all the time) that the quips come so fast and furious that when the time comes for an Anderson or a Whedon to go for what's supposed to be a heart-rending moment the whole thing fails.  Anderson and Whedon can have moments where they want to go for what's colloquially known as "the feels" but they don't have it in them. 

A friend of mine who likes Whedon's work but has granted that in the end he is, as I've been saying, a one trick pony, told me that he's noticed Whedon has a preferred trick.  When it works it works really well but when it fails it fails completely--something terrible happens at the start of an episode and after that emotional moment has its beat we're jumping to "18 hours earlier".  There's an eagerness to build up to some moment of expectation and then pull the rug out from under the viewer or, to borrow a gruesome phrase a friend of mine from college had about soprano repertoire, "This is one of those `rip your heart out and stomp on it' songs." Whedon's quippiness and archness gets in the way of his capacity for emotional viability. Anderson, I would suggest, can have a similar problem.  In someone whose whole career has been slapstick and horror, like Rumiko Takahashi, an insistence on jokes defusing emotionally vulnerable moments between characters is expected.  But Anderson and Whedon are not making slapstick or horror even if Whedon ostentatiously traffics in genre trappings. 

Generation X may have spent so much time using wit and arch genre awareness to emotionally insulate itself from the reality that we can't possibly live up to the American Dream as handed down to us by the Baby Boomers (who changed everything!) and the Greatest Generation (who saved the world!) that our jaded consideration of how both of those narratives turned out to be grand lies (if, at the time, seemingly necessary ones, and on this score I'd suggest that among blockbuster film-makers Nolan is one of the directors of Generation X.  His stories are about men who deceive themselves (sometimes knowingly and more often not) into believing that what they're doing is the right thing when it may not be; his characters tell lies or believe lies that are considered necessary for "society" to continue or to change it.  But Nolan's men deceive themselves so well they don't understand what they have done (the exception to this pattern, by necessity, was Batman).  The way the death of a child in Dunkirk is transformed into "heroic sacrifice" when the boy was really killed by a shell-shocked soldier is easy to skip over but it's one of the central motifs in Nolan's film-making.  We tell ourselves we're heroes because if we just admit we're in a panicked, desperate effort to survive and that in order to survive we do horrifying things to other people, well, we can't have a heroic narrative based on that! 
Dogs on movie screens either bite or they’re adorable. Anderson’s dogs are the latter, and there’s something inherently corny about them. There’s also something stunted about Anderson’s eternal regress to age twelve. If blockbuster American cinema, now bleeding into the prestige category, weren’t already so dominated by superhero movies, it might be easier to stomach an art-house auteur bent on concocting ever more sophisticated and exotic ways not to grow up.

Yes, well, Mark Driscoll can still talk about how so many people are finding more sophisticated and exotic ways not to grow up, too.  There's a point at which, freely admitting to being someone within Generation X, there's little inspiration to buy into the mythologies of the Baby Boomer generation or the Greatest Generation on the one hand and even less reason to buy into Millenial optimism.  Generation X has had moments in which people felt inspired to make the world a better place, after all.  It's not like nobody thought to move fast and break things in order to innovate.  Some of us were even part of something that was billed as not selling out to the American Dream and not making the same mistakes as earlier generations did.  What was that around here in Puget Sound?  Ah, right ... Mars Hill ...  it was in the July 1998 issue of Mother Jones ...

So what on earth can you do if you reach the point where you can't sign on for the mythologies of your ancestors because of the legacy of destruction and self-regard they produced, yet you also have become cautious about monomythic tendencies in popular culture and are skeptical about the possibility for real innovation or revolutionary change that doesn't devolve into cults of personality?  You're kind of stuck.  My skepticism about Millenials is not that they're lazy or entitled or whatever, it's that they want a new mythology in which righteous Americans save the world and I can't sign on for that because I don't believe that. 

Anderson's films are arch enough to be self-aware and quippy enough to seem witty but the problem isn't the "not growing up" stuff it's more like Anderson's nostalgia is a nostalgia for an unfulfilled promise, a promise of a generational capacity for greatness he may realize isn't capable of fulfillment in the real world but that he nevertheless can't bring himself to actually repudiate.  He doesn't have it in him to admit there are myths of greatness that are in some way necessary lies that are the foundation of any society, which is pretty much every Christopher Nolan movie.  If society is predicated on a lie why do we keep fighting to save a society or a narrative based on a lie? Because we can't say "no" to the lives of flesh and blood people.  Even Selina Kyle, cynical as she is, ultimately comes back to help Batman keep Gotham from being incinerated.  Love of neighbor does not have to be mythic or self-mythologizing all the time. 

Nolan's films may have choppy action sequences, stentorian moods and po-faced seriousness but so what?  Nolan's films, among those made by Generation X, may go over as well as they do because compared to other Generation X filmmakers on the big or small screen ranging from Joss Whedon to Michael Bay to Zack Snyder within the big franchise Nolan's moral seriousness may seem like absurd moralizing to the Richard Brodys of film criticism but he is not, along the way, defusing what emotional content his films have with a river of snark that only gives way long enough for "the feels" to show up when they're supposed to.  A comparision between Christopher Nolan and Wes Anderson may be instructive here because what Nolan's films lack in "art" as tentpole productions in comparison to an Andersonian sense of set design they also lack in a realm that Anderson or Whedon have in abundance, snark.

 Snark may embody what people find wrong with Generation X, its snide and condescending know-it-all tone replete with an inability to demonstrate that for all our snarkiness we can do any better than the mythmaking of the Baby Boomers or the Greatest Generation.  All we can manage to do is either subvert those mythologies and optimisms in the idioms of Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, Archer, Mystery Science Theater 3000, Ricky and Morty or The Simpsons or attempt to find some way to plausibly reinvent and recontextualize the existing mythologies in a way that is perhaps easiest to see in the superhero scene.  I've proposed that Generation X is the Mystery Science 3000 generation before.   In that context I was reflecting upon Mark Driscoll's previous shtick about how our generation wouldn't fall sway to the materialism of the American Dream and yet here we were in 2015 with Mark Driscoll as a Richard Nixon of megachurch pastors.  It seemed that Generation X had the ability to snarkily put down the efforts and dreams of previous generations without being able to come up with anything better themselves.  A snarky distance from earlier myths may be one of the defining traits of Generation X, however broadly we define it.

And yet ... obviously ... another strand of Generation X reinvents myths within contemporary contexts.  Superhero films from Christopher Nolan, Patty Jenkins, Brian Favreau and others won't appeal to those people who have decided in advance what "kid stuff" is and what by definition can't be art.  In a similar way Brad Bird and John Lasseter and the Pixar founding generation won't rise to the level of art for those who have already assumed animation is moralizing kiddy stuff.  For those who want to make what you embrace as an artist an indication  of whether or not you're really a "grown up" the class foundations of such a judgment might be worth escavating. 

Virtually no one I've read in arts criticism seems at all interested in considering the changes to trademark and copyright laws that happened during the period in which Generation X was born and we were all raised playing with the toys and hearing the stories our parents bought for us and gave to us.  Coming into an adulthood in which the glory days of indie and studio film were all in the past; and raised with pre-packaged mythologies from preceding generations but with a new expanded practical regime of intellectual property laws, what lazy film critics imputing adultescence to Generation X can forget is that our generation, Generation X, has shown a persistent pattern of ..

we've spent our lives trying to figure out what we can actually do with the toys our parents bought for us.  Some of us decided to make Archer and some of us decided to make Skyfall.  Some of us made Isle of Dogs but ever since Joseph Campbell branded the monomyth Generation X was raised with the teaching that there was nothing new we could actually invent.  We had no choice but to play with the toys we were given.  Is it altogether surprising that a generation raised with that "imaginary" might take solace in snark?  If you can't invent new toys and everything is the monomyth you either have to try to reinvent the game in a way that makes it fun to play or you resort to snark to show that you won't play with the toys in the way you're expected to based on the marketing on the boxes.

I won't call it anxiety of influence, I'll say that Generation X was force-fed nostalgic Camelot mythologies tethered to the JFK/LBJ and Reagan administrations; we grew up with the mythologies and playing with the toys that were given to us; we were also introduced to the possibility of artistic mythologies from Asian contexts (anime, obviously)   It's no surprise at all if Generation X remakes Star Trek and Star Wars and Robocop and keeps the Terminator franchise alive.  Nor is it a surprise if we keep retooling James Bond and Batman. 

If in our contemporary era of intellectual property, licensing and trademark you can hardly invent new toys, or new stories because Joseph Campbell distilled the entire human experience down to one American imperial monomyth the best you can hope for is that if you can't snarkily subvert things the rest of your life you find a way to refine the existing rules of play into something that you hope can work, even if you know there's a lot of dubious elements to the pre-packaged mythos.  That, arguably, is why sincere efforts by Sam Raimi, Christopher Nolan and Patty Jenkins to get Spiderman, Batman and Wonder Woman to come across on screen have worked.  Anime was a breath of fresh air for those of us on the Pacific coast who got exposure to it because whatever it was it was not some post-Campbell monomyth in the Star Wars variety.  It turned out that exposure to Asian folklore and ancient near eastern literature unmediated by an East Coast Anglo-American idiom revealed that the monomyth was a myth, and a particularly pernicious one. 

I'd say the artistic crisis Generation X has had to face down is not that there are no new ideas, it's that we've grown up in a trademarked and licensed era in which we were told implicitly and explicitly up front what the available options were and had to figure out how to make do with that.  We we're sold and given the range of options that were available.  We're a generation that was told there's a monomyth and that all our favorite stories and characters from our childhood are trademarked and licensed.  The central creative crisis Generation X has faced isn't whether or not to grow up but how to make something of the toys we were given in our childhood.  It's in that sense of trademark and copyright that a film like Toy Story can be thought of as a quintessential film for Generation X for those of us who saw the movie back in the mid-1990s.  It's also why for some of us in Generation X Batman: the animated series is a cultural touchstone, and the associated DCAU.  Whether it's a Christopher Nolan Batman film or a cartoon like Archer's riffs on the James Bond idiom Generation X has been given the toys and the toy box and our central creative challenge has been, "Okay, this is what we've got so what can we do with this?" 

Our ... cultural appropriation of borrowing toys from Japan isn't even new or something that should be imputed to Wes Anderson Vice style as though he's a bad person for it.  It's not so much a defense of Generation X as an observation to say that when we were given Transformers toys we were given cultural appropriation in the form of rebranded toys from Japan that were given American narratives..  Hasbro pulled that stunt of cultural reappropriation and invention back when Generation X was too young to even know what trademarking was. 

If Millenials and Baby Boomers on either side of this rather momentous legal divide can't appreciate the ways in which Generation X has attempted to figure out how to play with the toys in the toy box, having grown up without the resources or the legal permissions and market sympathies to really invent new ones or think of them, that's understandable.  But speaking from within Generation X I would suggest that people try to have some idea of the practical impact of intellectual property laws on a generation that was force-fed the idea of a monomyth on the one hand and given a pre-packaged set of utopian political narratives with DNC and GOP fables a la JFK and Reagan.  We could play with the toys as instructed on the toy boxes or we could do something snarky but the toys themselves were in every possible sense of the term, a given.  It's not surprising to me here in middle-age to look back on what Generation X has done and see that it has frequently bracketed into sincere or snarky engagement of the toys in the toy box our parents gave us. 

But as I get older I suspect that this at times desperate at times playful at times engaging struggle to make do with the toys we were given can be read by some cultural pundits on the putative left and right as a sign that the ways Generation X has figured out how to make do with that has been labeled "a refusal to grow up".  A similar ploy is apt to be made about Millenials, too. Not everyone rejected the nostalgia implicit in accepting some of the cultural mythologies and stories, to be sure, but reflecting on how we can't live up to a now discredited myth that had a lot of skeletons in its closet isn't quite the same as "not growing up". 

And just what, exactly, is growing up?  The cultural script of "growing up" mediated by Woody Allen films?  Or Bill Cosby's notion of growing up? As more tales of the lurid and predatory behavior of the men who made "grown up" film in the 1970s keeps emerging it's hard to take seriously the idea that people who have worked in artistic idioms known as "kid stuff" are necessarily less grown up. 


Gently recalibrating known, existing elements doesn't always turn out badly.  The Incredibles was pretty fun.  The Incredibles 2 could be fun. But the take-away for superhero films is that if any of the Fantastic Four films was even a fifth as fun as The Incredibles was the property wouldn't be a punchline in this day and age when, half a century ago, The Fantastic Four was considered a daring and innovative take on the superhero genre.  There are times when extracting the essential idea or core set of relational dynamics and dispensing with the rest is called for.  There are times when archly subverting the tropes to show that you know what the tropes are works, and at other times it can work out better to tweak the tropes a bit to show why the old tropes became tropes.

So, yeah, I like Brad Bird better than Wes Anderson. Longtime readers of the blog could have guessed that. 

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