Friday, February 07, 2003

the royal tenenbaums: understated composition

the first thing I thought of when I got The Royal Tenenbaums from the public library was Paul Thomas Anderson. Sadly, they aren't related. Why sadly? Well, because of several reasons. One, this DVD set (part of The Criterion Collection, normally associated with classics) is packaged just like P T Anderson's Boogie Nights (which I caught last year). Two, both display the trademark signs of a new generation of smart postmodern filmmakers who are a little too aware of their craft and its past, and seem bent on making cerebral movies which ostensibly appear mainstream (trying to emulate Hitchcock, who, in my humble opinion, was the only director who effectively married cinematic style and technique with populist taste to produce a stunning ouevre of enduring masterpieces). Despite all the attention lavished on these "brothers", I don't really want to start the confetti and hosannas yet. My reactions to The Royal Tenenbaums seem to collide with Roger Ebert's effusive outpourings. Stephanie Zacharek
observes that "Wes Anderson is more interested in his own precocity than he is in his characters". I am inclined to agree. While (especially) Gene Hackman and Anjelica Houston turn in great performances, the story and the characters are overwhelmed by, and surrender to, the film's extreme understated tone and all we have is a large collection of wonderfully framed and composed moments that never quite make it above the surface (to wit: Wes Anderson apparently has been raising the number of people he sends underwater, with 3 being the number for this film. On the subject of 3: that vignette has several hints to the number -- the book chapter that it represents, the number of sardines that Richie feeds Mordecai and the book that Richie is reading ["Three Plays" by his sister Margot]). While the deadpan tone works for some of the moments in the film, it overstays its welcome and becomes, just like the intended setting, a nothing device in a film set in a "nowhere in particular". As for the post-modern nods, in addition to that numerological bit before, there's also the opening of the film with narration and an introduction of the characters (Alec Baldwin) which recalls Orson Welles' butchered classic The Magnificent Ambersons, the comic book look of the whole film, directorial trademarks so early on in one's career (which include the underwater motif, the use of favourite actors -- Kumar Pallana for Wes Anderson, while P T Anderson had his own coterie)... usw. Clever filmmaking, but the soul's taken a vacation. Despite the great little nuggets in the film, it's still a collection of jokes what don't amuse you, but give you a hard whack on the head, demanding attention. This is the new generation of filmmaking: conscious control of creative output at every level, accidents of pure genius are no longer welcome on the shooting lot.

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