I’m the hero of this story, I don’t need to be saved

Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman in Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

There’s a lot in Moonrise Kingdom that I could choose to write about, but there is one scene in particular that has lingered in my mind over the past few weeks. During one of Sam and Suzy’s wilderness heart-to-hearts, they’re talking about the loss of Sam’s parents. Suzy reveals a secret dream. “I’ve always wanted to be an orphan”, she announces with naïve sincerity. “Most of my favourite characters are. I think your lives are more special.” Sam regards her gravely through his dark-rimmed glasses. “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

This has got to be one of the greatest exchanges that Wes Anderson has ever written. On the surface, it has all the wry humor and endearing bluntness that characterizes much of his dialogue. But like the best of his writing, it is also very revealing on an emotional level. Sam knows that real orphanhood is lonely and painful, but in her innocence, Suzy has been beguiled by an overused fictional trope – the glamorous independence of the orphan girls in her young-adult fantasy library books.

The tendency that Suzy reveals in this exchange is one that is easy to identify in literally all of Wes Anderson’s previous work. Since the late nineties, he has specialized in portraying precocious, alienated children and the melancholy, maladjusted adults they become. These characters in his films are all extremely self-aware. This trait can take the form of deadpan pontificating á la Max Fischer (“Yes, but I’ve been at sea for a long time…”), or of a painful knowledge of their own emotional states. This self-awareness also extends to the stories they’re in – or rather, to the stories they aspire to live.

Suzy’s longing for orphanhood places her in the good company of virtually all of Wes Anderson’s previous protagonists. They share a desire for the adventurous, special, fantastical – they desperately long to transcend the mundane, to be the sort of person that books are written about.  Wes Anderson’s characters are players in the elaborately constructed tableaus that the filmmaker has designed. But on a diagetic level, they are also more than pieces. They’re sentient – they feel as though they’re without a story, without grander characteristics, and so they must take the initiative to place themselves into narratives that, within the world of the film, are very much of their own construction.

(It’s interesting to note that Suzy is by far the youngest to exhibit what I like to call Storybook Hero Syndrome. The majority of the culprits are well into adulthood. But this isn’t surprising – Wes Anderson’s grownups are frequently far more childish than his children.)

Owen Wilson in Bottle Rocket (1996)

It’s fitting that the first example of this can be found in Wes Anderson’s first film. In Bottle Rocket, a young-ish man named Dignan convinces his friends Anthony and Bob to join him in an elaborate plan to become robbers. From the film’s first scene, he’s completely committed to the fantastic narrative he’s molding his life around – for instance, although Anthony is free to leave the hospital he’s checked himself into at any time, he has to depart through the window and climb down the sheets he’s tied together to play along with Dignan’s elaborate escape plan. It’s also very telling that Anthony is in the hospital because he has been driven to the point of anxiety and “exhaustion” by the simple choices presented to him in his mundane life. The guys try to become criminals in an attempt to assuage their 90’s suburban ennui.

In Rushmore, the Storybook Hero Syndrome is a little less obvious, but definitely present. Max Fischer is a boy who has embraced the role he’s constructed for himself to the fullest, but his commitment to “putting on plays and starting up clubs”, to being the leader and mastermind behind every conceivable extra-curricular, has the unforeseen consequence of alienating those nearest to him. His illusions of grandeur in the form of a giant aquarium get him expelled from his beloved school. And in his relationship/one-sided romance with the kind, widowed teacher Rosemary, he’s fighting for an imagined goal that has to remain vague and undefined even to himself in order to maintain the illusion.

He’s an imaginative and sometimes slightly delusional fifteen-year-old, but his (mel0)dramatization of the situations in his life to grant himself a sense of self-importance is somehow understandable. This could be said about all the characters I’m discussing, but there’s something about Max that makes him endearing and his delusional foibles sweet even in his most stubborn moments. (Maybe that’s just my very emotionally biased opinion, though – Rushmore isn’t just my favourite of Wes’s films, it’s the movie that’s closest to my heart and probably my favourite of all time, were it even possible to pick such a thing.) At any rate, there’s one image from the film in particular that sums up for me how Max fits into this pattern I’m seeking to identify:

Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore (1998)

He’s just been arrested, and as the stoic policemen escort him through the station, he grimaces and sneers with the defiance of a hardened criminal. In reality, he’s a just kid (“5’2, brown hair, oval face”) who’s been reported for cutting the brake lines on his rival’s car. It’s a hilarious image, but it rings true because it’s evident that Max takes the war of sabotage he’s engaged in and these legal consequences – as he does everything in his life -very, very seriously.

His worst fault  – one that he in many ways overcomes – is that he’s too self-aware and not sensitive enough to others, and his worst mistake is failing to put his role and world at Rushmore and his relationship with Rosemary in the proper perspective. But the narrative he aspires to is perhaps the most achievable of any on his list – he is a genuinely gifted, talented kid withnatural leadership skills. And he does eventually build that aquarium.

In The Royal Tenenbaums, the self-created narrative in question can be distilled to the three words that grace the cover of Etheline Tenenbaum’s memoir. But the character who longs for specialness, for his own story, isn’t sitting at that table facing the reporters. In this case, our would-be Storybook Hero is drug-addicted author Eli Cash (played by Owen Wilson), their neighbour and Richie’s best friend from childhood. This “family of geniuses” is a myth that is constructed and polished by the Tenenbaums during the siblings’ youth, yet still wholeheartedly believed by Eli as an adult, even after the three child geniuses have become depressed and disillusioned adults who’ve apparently wasted their “potential”.

“The crickets and the rust-beetles scuttled among the nettles of the sage thicket. “Vámonos, amigos,” he whispered, and threw the busted leather flintcraw over the loose weave of the saddlecock. And they rode on in the friscalating dusklight.”

Eli exhibits additional willful confusion about reality in the film. He dresses like a character from one of his ridiculous Western novels and is seldom seen without a ten-gallon cowboy hat. Near the end of the film, when he takes mescaline and ends up killing the faithful dog Buckley, he’s adorned himself in an approximation of Native American warpaint. “I need help”, he murmurs as he gazes up at the sky, flat on his back beside the fuming Chas. It’s a sad moment and a sincere one – Eli’s self-awareness has finally taken the form of an admission of what he really needs. What he wants for his entire life – “to be a Tenenbaum” – is something that even the family’s patriarch admits to having never felt.

Bill Murray and Anjelica Huston in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)

In The Life Aquatic, the protagonist’s efforts to place himself at the centre of an extraordinary narrative is the primary theme of the film. Steve Zissou is an oceanographer who stars in self-produced and directed documentary adventures about his work. He’s a meticulous creative dictator who expends much effort in ensuring his own cult following. The whimsical details of his research vessel, the matching red knit caps and pale blue outfits of his crew – everything’s been orchestrated and carefully arranged to create a distinctive image. Zissou has become so consumed by his own created persona that audiences question his sincerity in even his most real and painful moments: the film opens with the presentation of his latest documentary, which concludes with a tragic death-by-leopard-shark of his best friend and creative/research partner Esteban. The audience is so accustomed to the clearly staged mannerisms of his films that they question whether the death is real or merely a stunt for dramatic flare. (In the film in question, Zissou does pause his shouting to ask his cameraman if he’s rolling before breaking the terrible news.)

“I dropped my camera… why are they laughing?”

The emotional heart of this movie is the strained and strange relationship between Steve Zissou and Kingsley, his long-lost son. When Zissou allows Kingsley to join the crew for the revenge mission to find the shark, it’s questionable whether he really wants to bond with the man who may be his biological child, or whether he wants to add some personal interest to the adventure for the cameras. At one point, his treatment of Kingsley causes him to exclaim “You don’t know me, you don’t want to know me… I’m just a character in your stupid film!” Further evidence of Zissou’s detrimental commitment to his manufactured persona and story can be seen in his interactions with Cate Blanchett’s pregnant British journalist. At first, he fights with her as she works on her piece, angry at how she’s representin him. But near the end of the film, he reaches a sort of acceptance that his image has to be accurate to his real character: “I mean, obviously people are going to think I’m a showboat, and a little bit of a prick. But then I thought… that’s me. I said those things, I did those things. I can live with that.”

Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman in The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

The Darjeeling Limited gives us a character who, like Steve Zissou, has taken an extra step to place himself within a narrative. Jack Whitman, the youngest of three brothers on a train trip across India, writes short stories directly based on his own life experiences. (But whenever he shows his siblings what he’s written, he’s quick to insist that “all the characters are fictional!”) Out of all the character I mention in this essay, the Whitman brothers are perhaps the most self-aware. They’re constantly analyzing the trust and communication (or lack thereof) displayed in their relationships with each other. Their stated, completely unironic purpose for the trip is a “spiritual journey of self-discovery”. Francis is particular demonstrates a stubborn commitment to his own travel itinerary and idealistic goals for the trip, which definitely equates him with the other lovers of self-made narratives in Wes Anderson’s other films.

“I guess I’ve still got a lot of healing to do.”

Of course, all these fantasies that this array of characters long to live in and the narratives that they attempt to place themselves into come with a full share of hurt and confusion. But in Wes Anderson’s worldview, healing and contentment can be found not through a fictitious narrative, but through the real individuals who populate it. Dignan’s criminal aspirations may be the naïvete he needs to cope with his imprisonment, but Anthony is far more at ease when he’s fallen in love with a Peruvian hotel maid than he’s felt in his life hitherto.  Max’s elaborate plans, clubs, organizations, activities, and creative exploits come to fruition at the end of Rushmore when he works to heal his friends rather than impress them. When the myth of the Family of Geniuses has been erased by “two decades of betrayal, failure, and disaster”, all that’s left of the Tenenbaums are a group of talented and troubled people who have to find catharsis through their relationships with each other. And Eli doesn’t need to be part of their famous and troubled clan, he needs to get his own life together. Zissou doesn’t destroy the shark, with dynamite or otherwise – it turns out that a (tragically brief) relationship with his abandoned son and a nonviolent, Sigur-Ros-accompanied sighting of the beast is what he really needed to reach a kind of acceptance of what happened to poor Esteban. The Whitman brothers stop feeling sorry for themselves (“It’s not very attractive”) and manage to move forward once they abandon their laminated itinerary and stop hauling around their dead father’s (literal) baggage. Sam and Suzy are happiest once the complications of their adventure as star-crossed lovers-on-the-run have been resolved. Suzy doesn’t need to lose her family and become “special”, Sam needs to gain a family.

(Side note: Bonding in Wes’ films is almost always achieved through shared trauma or mutual emotional issues: Max’s “I guess we both have dead people in our families” to Rosemary, Chas Tenenbaum’s “I’m widower myself” to his mother’s new husband Henry, the Whitman brothers’ mourning over their father and anger over their mother’s abandonment. Sam and Suzy’s closeness is perhaps the ultimate realization of this tendency – their connection is so electric because they share a pubescent wanderlust, but also because they’re both lonely children who’ve been deemed “emotionally disturbed” by their guardians and peers.)

At twelve and twelve, they’re the youngest of Wes Anderson’s protagonists to date, and their catharsis at the end of the film is the most purely hopeful. Yet their attitude towards nostalgia is also far more mature than that exhibited by any of the adults in the Anderson canon. Their private cove in which they spend an idyllic day and night together is wiped off the map by the film’s climactic storm, but it’s not implied that they’ll spend their next few years mourning  over the narrative they were once the heros of, or pining for the elusive glory days they’ve left behind. They’ll treasure the memory of Moonrise Kingdom, immortalized in Sam’s painting, and all that it represents for them. But they live in the present, and treasure their time together – after all, that’s what made the secret cove special in the first place.

The accusation of insincerity and detachment that’s frequently leveled at Wes Anderson is one that makes little sense to me. It’s true that his films are so impeccably composed and obsessively detailed that it’s easy to get lost in the color and texture of the set pieces and background. But it’s also very apparent to me that, while he evidently loves the music and the wallpaper and the family portraits and the punctuality badges and the belt buckles and the stuffed javelinas, he loves the people he understands and the characters he creates even more. This repeated theme of relationships over narrative as the source of catharsis is evidence of what I love the most about these movies. The catalogue of distinctive stylism doesn’t distract from the emotional core. ( And “contrived” as a criticism loses its weight when the characters of the film in question are constantly, intentionally contriving.) Such complete immersion into the precisely paletted, symmetrically framed world that the characters live in aids us in our understanding of who they are. The aesthetics, whimsy, and self-aware plotting of a Wes Anderson film convey its beating heart.