“Is your green army jacket the only thing keeping you warm tonight?”

I don’t know about you, but as cinema steadily extends its tendrils into every aspect of my life, I find myself looking to movies for fashion inspiration more and more. A lot of my favourite clothing – or, let’s be honest, the clothing I’d wear if I had unlimited money with which to pay for it – reminds me of my favourite films. I know a lot more about film than I do about fashion, but to me, fashion seems to be an art that’s constantly drawing inspiration from various sources, and cross-referencing, collaging, combining, and re-inventing. And clothing in movies is more exciting and inspiring for me than clothing seen on the street or in a magazine. Maybe it’s because the films I love and why I love them are such an important part of my life and identity, or maybe it’s because film is an art form populated by individuals with inner conflicts and attitudes and personal narratives…

Take, for instance, one of my personal favourite wardrobe staples, the striped sweater. When you look to art and pop culture for style inspiration, it’s not just a striped sweater… it could be a 1960’s Parisian enchantress – Jean Seberg in À bout de souffle or Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim, or it could be Freddy Krueger, or Bob Dylan circa 1965, or perhaps Bert and Ernie. It’s a piece of clothing that looks cool on you, but also comes with a history, a catalogue of moods and stories for you to draw from, if you wish.

Fashion icons, definitely.

It’s not about transforming into someone else, at an entertainment convention or the midnight release of the next Harry Potter or on Halloween or any other time you might put together a precise and elaborate costume. And it’s not the same as referencing something you love with your clothing, as is the case with my brother’s Los Pollos Hermanos t-shirt or the Gonzo pin on my backpack. When you look to the movies or television for style inspiration and pick out pieces with a character in mind, you’re taking whatever it is that attracts you to that story or that individual – whether it’s the facets of their character or narrative that you relate to or find compelling, your nostalgic or specific attatchment to the work itself and the circumstances you saw it in, or a purely aesthetic enjoyment of the look and its connotations – and genuinely making it your own.

Rookie Mag has a delightful recurring column called “Secret Style Icon”, in which they take musicians or vintage celebrities or girls from Terrence Malick films, and talk about how their outfits have influenced their own fashion choices, complete with handy guides for where to start accumulating similar pieces yourself. (Quite a few of their other fashion-related articles reference movies, too, since these girls totally understand me.) There’s a key word here that I think is especially important when it comes to this habit of emulating cinema in your clothing – secret. You’re not walking down the street announcing that you watch such-and-such a television show or relate to such-such-a-character the way you might at a costume party. The inspiration you’ve drawn and the specific icon you’re emulating is a private affair, something you can smile to yourself about or an aesthetic or attitude you can feel connected to throughout the day. If you dress a bit like Enid Coleslaw, the average passer-by won’t see a girl who likes Daniel Clowes/Terry Zwigoff/youthful idealism crushed by disillusionment. They’ll just see a girl in a collared shirt and Doc Martens, whatever that might mean to them. In these days in which it’s become customary to share every minutiae about yourself through technology and social networking, I really appreciate the idea that what you love is part of you, whether other people know it or not.

Thora Birch in Ghost World (2001)

Alright, my spiel is over. The specific reason I wanted to write this post is because this week, I finally bought an authentic Vietnam army jacket at a surplus store. It was a pretty exciting day, let me tell you. I’ve long been entranced with the the re-appropriation military garments in a peaceful and slightly rebellious context. (I know, it’s 2012, and various subcultures have been doing this for decades and decades. That doesn’t mean I can’t still appreciate the idea!) I’ll readily admit that the primary reason I like this look is the influence various movies have had over me. And so here are my favourite green-jacketed misfits, outcasts, and upstarts of pop culture…

5. Mathilda

Natalie Portman in Léon/The Professional (1994)

This is one of my favourite, FAVOURITE movies ever and if you want to be my best friend you should probably get yourself to the video store (or Netflix? or the pirating website of your choice?) and watch it. It’s a modern fairy-tale set in 90’s New York City, about the reluctant partnership-turned-unconventional-yet-deeply touching friendship of a lonely and sweet-natured Italian hit-man named Leon and a lonely and precocious 12-year-old orphan named Mathilda. When her family is killed by a pill-popping, crooked cop – played by Gary Oldman at his most completely deranged and utterly fabulous – she enlists the help of this reclusive neighbor to teach her his trade so she can get revenge. The story might be over-the-top, but the bond between these two odd people is very believable. I think what makes The Professional work so well is this juxtaposition of shocking violence and uncomfortable themes with unabashed sentimentality. It all somehow balances out to create a touching and amusing story which still has an edge to it. The blood might be the right colour and the apartment interiors might feature an aesthetic of natural light and chipped plaster, but you’re not really supposed to examine the real-world implications of what’s happening on-screen It’s just a movie, in the fullest sense of the phrase, and I love it with my whole heart for that very reason.

But I’m rambling a bit, as I often do when I begin writing about my favourite films. Little Mathilda wears one of the coolest and most memorable wardrobes I’ve seen. Her striped v-neck, leather boots, floral skirt, and white crocheted cardigan that she wears on a cycle throughout the movie all look like items a kid like her would legitimately pick up at a Salvation Army and wear on the street. What really makes her clothing so distinctive is how she carries herself in them – this strange and somehow adorable mix of aggression, aloofness and naivete. (I have a homemade black smiling-sun choker that I wear sometimes when I want to channel her.) Her green army jacket is actually the bomber style, but it’s close enough to what I’m talking about – and as a character, she’s important enough to me – that I think she deserves a place on this list.

4. Tyrone “Mr. Clean” Miller

Laurence Fishburne in Apocalypse Now (1979), dir. Francis Ford Coppola

I wanted to include a character from one film actually set in the Vietnam war, and I was torn between Joker from Full Metal Jacket and Tyrone. In the end, despite Joker’s sardonic commentary on the horrors he’s surrounded by and the terrible actions that he himself is implicated in, despite his fascination with the Jungian duality of man represented by the peace symbol on his jacket and “born to kill” on his helmet… I had to pick Tyrone.

He’s far more a boy than a man, a constant reminder of how the lumbering, merciless machine of war picks up and crushes everything in its path. War takes youth and innocence and corrupts before destroying. Tyrone’s only seventeen, my age. (In an oddly fitting instance of life imitating art, Laurence Fishburne was only fourteen when he got the part – he had to lie about how old he was to Coppola the way Tyrone would have had to lie to be sent overseas.) He wears dark glasses and a bandana tied around his forehead, he’s cocky and eager to prove himself, and he reads letters from his mother in the Bronx. I’m getting upset just thinking about it. He’s shot down on the boat by an enemy on shore that we can’t even see. It’s interesting that we’re reminded of just how young he is when he takes off the green and is bare-chested – in the jacket, he’s just another expendable soldier.

3. Ramona Flowers

Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010), dir. Edgar Wright

I’m including Ramona because of the combination of the coat she’s wearing at the party where Scott meets her in the flesh, and the olive-green dress she wears to the Clash at Demonhead show, at Pizza Pizza, and at the after-party where she fights Roxie. (No, I didn’t need to look any of that up. Yes, I’ve seen the movie more than eight times. What of it?) Ramona’s interesting because, from Scott’s perspective, we’re supposed to think of her as so cool, yet we’re also given more even-handed and mature insight into her own experiences as a person. You get the sense that she doesn’t really perceive herself to be as hip as everyone seems to think she is. Her shifting hair-color is a reflection of her mood and her fickleness more than an attempt at drawing eyes. She seems far more perturbed and confused than flattered when Knives imitates her style. To Scott, she’s literally the girl of his dreams, a prize worth fighting for (again… and again… and again…) But to herself, she’s an outsider, she has as much trouble making relationships work as she does in finding legitimately nice/not evil partners, who’s “dabbled in being a bitch”and who seems to cause hurt feelings and violent conflict wherever she goes. She’s such a cool girl, but she’s an insecure and self-deprecating cool girl. She’s a great character – I love that Bryan Lee O’Malley (and Edgar Wright, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead) managed to create a central love interest that acknowledges and then rejects the incredibly annoying and reductive Manic Pixie Dreamgirl trope. Plus, her tough-girl fashion style is fantastic – hence her placement on this list.

2. Lindsay Weir

Linda Cardellini in Freaks and Geeks (1999), created by Judd Appatow

The only way I could be more similar to Lindsay is if I was born in 1964, or perhaps if I got to be best friends with James Franco, Jason Segel, and Seth Rogen. The green army jacket she always has draped around her petite sixteen-year-old represents quite a bit, to her personally and in the context of the show. It’s a kind of armor against both the neatly organized suburban world of her parents and the clique-ish and false world of her high-school peers that she’s finding increasingly frustrating. It’s her angst, a symbol of her decidedly changed identity, and also a way for an insecure and self-conscious girl to fit in with her new slacker-burnout friends. Lindsay owns her dad’s old jacket and makes it an extension of herself. I love Lindsay – Freaks and Geeks is one of the most honest fictional depictions of high school ever made, and a lot of that is due to how a real a person she comes across as. She approaches almost everything with a kind of reluctance and uncertainty, she’s angry and awkward but also intelligent and genuinely good-hearted. When I wear my jacket and look like her, it’s not so much an emulation as it is an admission of our kinship.

1. Travis Bickle

Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (1976), dir. Martin Scorsese

Undoubtedly the most iconic owner of a green army jacket in cinema history. (I can actually trace my own desire to get one directly to the day I first saw this film.) Taxi Driver is a film about many things, but an important subtext is how war can destroy a human psyche. It was made and set in New York city directly after the Vietnam war. The war weighs heavily on the consciousness of the film’s protagonist, and is thus inevitably on the mind of the viewer.

Travis is a young veteran, a former U.S. Marine who’s back home on honourable discharge. He can’t sleep, he’s taking various pills constantly, and he’s unable to reintegrate into society or to empathize with other people on a basic, normal level. He’s weighed down by  the ugliness he sees in the streets he drives through, and a rejection caused by his caustic cluelessness and maladjustment leads him to elect himself for a higher purpose. (I find it fascinating that he recruits himself to eliminate a very visible evil close to home, when in the past he was presumably recruited to fight unseen enemy forces far away. Interesting implied parallelism, Mr. Schrader.) He wears his jacket at nighttime on his route, as he sits alone in seedy theatres, as he walks the streets, as he attempts assassination. The only scenes in which he’s seen without it, as far as I can remember, are when he’s training in his apartment… and when he’s trying to woo the angelic Betsy as an ordinary man in a blazer and pleat-front khakis.

There’s very little verbal or otherwise direct discussion of his military past or the source of his PTSD and violent urges in the film – instead, his green jacket serves as an external indicator of the man within. The badges and patches on his arm and chest and the “BICKLE” stencilled on his back are a silent reminder of where Travis has come from, while the weapons concealed beneath the jacket and inside the heavy boots tell us what he’s capable of.

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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.