Monday, April 1, 2013

Ryan Reft -- The Sexuality of “Whimsy”: Gender and Sex in the Films of Wes Anderson

The Sexuality of “Whimsy”: Gender and Sex in the Films of Wes Anderson
by Ryan Reft
Tropics of Meta

Writing about Wes Andersen’s latest production, Moonrise Kingdom, New York Times critic A.O. Scott summarized the symbolic consummation between the film’s adolescent protagonists Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward): “There, with a tent, a French pop song and unembarrassed honesty (Sam warns Suzy that he may wet the bed), they consummate, metaphorically, an enchanted, chaste affair capped with a hilariously symbolic deflowering.” While academics, critics, and others have long discussed dominant Anderson motifs such as loving but dysfunctional families, unreliable patriarchs, and the aesthetic particulars associated with the now-veteran director, far fewer have examined the underlying sexuality and gendered aspects of his films. Sure, you have the precocious teenage obsession of Rushmore, a nod to Andersen’s “childlike” vision, but his movies also display an undercurrent of sexual intimacy and betrayal that seem at odds with the settings of his films but at the same time align with the general disappointment of adulthood, particularly for those troublesome gifted children like Rushmore’s Max Fischer. The childhood Bonnie and Clyde – Sam and Suzy - represent a similar if younger example. Yet Anderson’s collaborations with actors, screenwriters, and directors have helped to balance out his proclivities toward an all consuming nostalgia that might have infantilized the sexual lives of his male and female characters.

Few filmmakers have made being cuckolded seem both adorable and tragic. However, one could argue Anderson’s ability to do this has been greatly enhanced by his associations with older actors, most famously, Bill Murray. Murray endures romantic betrayal in no less than four Anderson films: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Moonrise Kingdom. Granted in two of those films, Murray exhibits a certain philandering nature, but in both, Murray’s character suffers knowingly that his wife has been seeing other men. In the Life Aquatic, Murray’s Jacques Cousteau-like Steve Zissou chases Cate Blanchett’s reporter, placing him in competition with his possibly illegitimate son (played by Owen Wilson) in the process, but also reacting to his wife’s apparent attraction to her ex-husband Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum). Rushmore’s industrialist Herman Blume struggles to gain the affection of first grade teacher Rosemary Cross, which also entangles him in a comical series of conflicts with rival suitor Fischer — all while his wife openly courts younger, noticeably buffer men at his twin sons’ birthday party.

Outside the Anderson universe and during the last two decades, Murray has capitalized on similar roles. The remote Bob Harris in Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and sad Don Johnston of Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers (a movie that also delves into issues regarding illegitimate children and absent parents in arrested development) gave Murray a second (maybe even third?) act in American film. Like a comedic Clint Eastwood (considering the August GOP convention one notes an intentionally comedic Eastwood), through these characters Murray’s career gained new meaning and gravitas. Through his own tales of masculinity, Eastwood’s Dirty Harry and silent Western killers took back seats to Gran Torino’s Walt Kowalski and Million Dollar Baby’s Frankie Dunn, dutiful but very flawed men whose patriarchy represents a certain authority. In his newest film (in which he performs under the eye of long time assistant and collaborator Robert Lorenz) Trouble with the Curve, Eastwood illustrates a very Anderson-like tendency to remain moored to the past. “Eastwood may well be making movies about America, but they’re not exactly about this America, the 2012 one that we live in,” notes Zach Baron. “They are about war and boxing and Detroit, about tragedy and apartheid and J. Edgar Hoover. He’s telling us stories about how we became who we are. But his grip on who exactly we are, in 2012, can feel shaky.” Unlike Anderson, Eastwood’s settings may look much like America today, but the kind of masculinity he promotes in Gran Torino (see the barbershop scene) looks much like that of the 1970s – rife with self conscious ethnic jokes and complaints about overbearing girlfriends.

As much as Eastwood’s celluloid history influences modern interpretations of his work, Murray’s presence stabilizes the very busy scenery of Anderson’s movies. Anderson films are more like “head on compositions stuffed with beguiling details,” notes Scott. In this way, Murray’s “comic minimalism,” his passive aggressive sighs and downcast expressions, contrast with the constant movement of color and activity. “Like Gene Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum,” Scott wrote in 2005, “Mr. Murray’s Steve Zissou is a flawed, solipsistic patriarch, though his defining emotion is not intemperate anger but a vague, wistful tristesse.” Of course, Sean Fennessey argued that while Anderson’s latest, Moonrise Kingdom ultimately proved successful, retiring Bill Murray as a “depressive partriarch” would be best for all involved.

If Murray acts as a perfect conduit for this kind of flawed male sexuality, then Anderson’s writing partners certainly deserve some attention. Anderson has collaborated with several notable figures: Owen Wilson (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums) Noah Baumbach (The Life Aquatic, The Fantastic Mr. Fox) and Roman Coppola (The Darjeeling Limited and Moonrise Kingdom). When working with Wilson, the desperate reality of the real world impinges on romantic idealization. In Bottle Rocket, the relationship between protagonist Anthony Adams’s (Luke Wilson) and motel maid and non-English speaking Inez, stumbles due to its dependence on third parties for translations that often go awry. In Rushmore, Ms. Cross rebuffs Max’s limited understanding of male–female relations in a frequently quoted exchange:

Ms. Cross: Do you think we’re going to have sex?

Max: That’s kinda a cheap way to put it.

Ms. Cross: Not if you ever fucked before, it isn’t.

Critic Field Maloney points to Wilson’s DVD commentary as evidence of his influence in crafting the awkward sexuality of Anderson’s precocious adolescents. “This scene has a cringe factor to it because the movie has an innocent feel and this sort of breaks through that,” Wilson reflects. “It makes you uncomfortable, which is appropriate because it has to puncture Max’s make-believe world.” For Maloney, this demonstrated the checks and balances at the heart of Bottle Rocket and The Royal Tenenbaums: Wilson functioned as a counter weight to the boyish sexual nature of the director, imbuing startling realities into worlds filled with a child’s understanding of adulthood.

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