THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001) directed by WES ANDERSON is about the reunion of a dysfunctional wealthy New York family. ROYAL TENENBAUM played by GENE HACKMAN, a former successful attorney now bankrupt, returns to his family after a 20-year residence in a luxury hotel. ROYAL has three children with his wife ETHELINE played by ANJELICA HUSTON, an archaeologist. The Tenenbaum children were all child prodigies gone emotionally and psychologically unstable. CHAS played by BEN STILLER became a corporate investor when he was in elementary school; RICHI played by LUKE WILSON was a U.S. Nationals tennis winner; MARGOT played by GWYNETH PALTROW was Braverman Grant awarded playwright in ninth grade; she is also adopted. ROYAL leaves his family when the children are young; his betrayal ruined their success and wounded the family for two decades. When he suddenly returns, their past resentment remains rigid even when he claims to have only six weeks to live. Although his contention of a stomach cancer is a lie, his desire to reconnect with his family is sincere and has a life-shifting effect on the Tenenbaums, each of whom are in the midst of coping with dissatisfied hopes and relationships. RICHIE’S love for MARGOT, whose unhappy marriage to RALEIGH ST. CLAIR played by BILL MURRAY is told alongside ETHELINE’S unconventional engagement to HENRY SHERMAN played by DANNY GLOVER, all of which overshadows CHAS’ mourning his dead wife and over-zealous pursuit to ensure the physical safety of his two boys. With narration by ALEC BALDWIN, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS also co-stars OWEN WILSON who plays ELI CASH, the Tenenbaum children’s childhood friend and love affair of MARGOT.
Formally, WES ANDERON’S consistent use of “Futura Bold” font on title cards, frequently in yellow, is referential to the 1960s and 1970s, when type face was popularized; (while “Helvetica” spearheaded in 1957 as a departure from “Futura Bold”, the font became well-known by artists featured in MoMA during the Pop and Conceptual Art movements, growing to this day to be the most commonly used lettering in corporate advertisement, especially those with aesthetic priorities). Through excessive use of his renowned center framed, ceiling down, above shot, ANDERSON captures an iconic interpretation of mundane objects like record players, plates of food, envelopes, books, newspapers, suitcases, index cards, and most famously, hands. It is the flatness of the image, which confers the object as iconic. There is an old photographic quality to the frame—what feels kind of like an antiquated means of archiving. Todd McCarthy of Variety called the film “As richly conceived as the novel it pretends to be,” which I consider another trait of the film’s nostalgic essence: its title cards breaking the film up into chapters coupled by BALDWIN’S narration renders the film much like a book. The art direction of the Tenenbaum house is a highly stylized, seemingly random consortium of furniture, art, and tchotchkes, all of which appear to be antiques; while a significant number of them are modernized, the combination fills the scene with a quirky sensibility. The eccentric design appears homemade even arts-and-crafts-like, characteristic of ANDERSON’S films, specifically in THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001), it justifies the materialistic as nostalgic, paralleled emotionally: the characters are reliving the past when they reunite in their home that has remained a museum of their happier life.
In the second clip, RICHIE TENENBAUM played by LUKE WILSON is returning from the hospital after an attempted suicide. As he walks into his childhood bedroom, he first contemplates a wall-full of portraits he drew of his sister MARGO TENENBAUM played by GWYENTH PALTROW when he was a boy. The wall of portraits is organized in a sort of fetishized homage to his incestual love for her. WILSON finds PALTROW sitting inside his boyhood tent listening to records and smoking a cigarette. While the scene is bittersweet, both a confession of their mutual love and a recognition that it is forbidden, in terms of nostalgia, it is also a reminder, how gone are the days of yore, when being a kid felt like a term-less realm of infinite possibilities and here to stay is the harsh reality of heartache and unfair adulthood. The scene ends with a crescendo of the chorus from Ruby Tuesday by the Rollingstones, a song that thematically conveys the uncertainty yet inevitably of missing the memory of a free-spirited woman.
With his use of memorabilia-type objects that wouldn’t necessarily be of any exceptional use in the time the film takes place (as there obviously have been technological innovations since that would replace their function or aesthetic), but whose presence in this society are imbued with not only history but this particular aesthetic nostalgia, ANDERSON creates a world that reverberates with the audience as our romanticized artistic or intellectual life. ANDERSON crafts a reality that invokes us to feel more like the poet, musician, painter, or philosopher we often pretend to be. And by connecting us to things past, things with aesthetic associations of various eras glamorized, we channel a sense of reminiscence.
In HOLLIS FRAMPTON’S essay, On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters, his description of his time spent photographing, told in a nostalgic manner, specifically documents his symbolic portrayal of the crucifixion of Christ using materials found in a bathroom, a four month series of a plate of pasta, among other conceptual approaches to eradicating signifiers while still trying to establish an idea—as well as abstracting formally while not departing from common subject matter. His essay understates, photographically, compositional strategies to convey content he has found dissatisfying. He concludes, “When I came to print the negative, an odd thing struck my eye. Something standing in the cross street and invisible to me, was reflected in a factory window, and then reflected once more in the rear-view mirror attached to the truck door. It was only a tiny detail. Since then, I have enlarged this small section of my negative enormously. The grain of the film all but obliterates the features of the image. It is obscure: by any possible reckoning it is hopelessly ambiguous.” Inherent in his tone, is also apparent in ANDERSON’S film as well, the attraction to what has been obscured or made ambiguous over time or over numerous re-focusing, I would assert is the allure to something lost. Just as FRAMPTON idealizes the potential clarity of the blurred negative, does ANDERSON idealize the old days of record players, books, and novelty household items? Perhaps it is the overally aestheticized-social-participant’s perspective that philosophizes the significance of such a point of view.