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

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.

Broken Flowers Era Murray

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.

White male masculinity is like a warm gun

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.

What about Tenenbaums? Ritchie Tenenbaum’s attempted suicide over his unrequited love for his adopted sister Margot seems at once like teenage desperation and adult depression, a kind of awkward mix of Anderson and Wilson’s vision.  Some critics took exception to Anderson’s emotional depth in Tenebaums. Scott provided a sharp tongued critique, accusing Anderson of a certain literary inertness.  “The actors are asked to convey real and complex human emotions, but the characters are paper dolls,” he noted.

Four years later, Anderson and Noah Baumbach emerged with Life Aquatic. Slate’s Maloney worried that Baumbach wouldn’t be able to pull the material far enough away from the Anderson’s pubescent vision, describing the film as “an adolescent never-never land where everyone wears Lacoste, colorful and quirky toys abound, and a vintage emo soundtrack gets piped in whenever a little poignancy is required—a Michael Jackson ranch for the Salinger set.” The troubling Michael Jackson reference aside, Maloney seemed only to see the cartoonish background sets of Life Aquatic, missing the aforementioned Murray’s sadness and sexual remoteness.

Considering Baumbach’s own take on sexuality, one might argue the balance remains. Baumbach’s The Squid and Whale reads like a dark inverse of Andersen’s self-contained universe.  A toxic sexuality pervades the film as 16 year old Walt Berkman (Jessie Eisenberg — does anyone do confused, gifted but awkward teenage boys better?  See Adventureland, Roger Dodger, The Social Network for more evidence) watches the marriage of his parents, Joan (Laura Linney) and Bernard (Jeff Daniels), dissolve in acrimony.  In its own way, 1980s Park Slope Brooklyn functions as the cynical counterpoint to Anderson’s Salinger tinged New York; here, Baumbach lets the disillusion of the 1970s bleed into its successor pressing the period’s ennui to its limits.  Infidelity, professional jealousy, and condescension drive the couple toward divorce, and his parents’ toxicity infects the entire family.  Bernard’s grating pretentiousness projects onto Walt who treats his love interest with the same defensive contempt his father lobs at Joan and Charles Dicken’s “lesser novels.”   The humor derived from the mix of adult sexual indulgence and fumbling teenage sexuality creates a far different reality from that seen in Anderson films.

Similarly, sex in Baumbach’s 2010 Greenberg seems masochistic and alienating. Ben Stiller’s 40 year old self obsessed musician/carpenter, Roger Greenberg, functions as a sign of the failed masculinity of a generation of men raised on indie rock dreams but lacking the intestinal fortitude or maturity to make them real.  As Cat Power sings on her new album Sun, “real life is ordinary … sometimes you gotta do what you don’t want to do to get away with an unordinary life.”

This is not the stuff of Anderson dreams but rather nightmares. Both men draw on French film in similar ways but with decisively different results: Andersen’s cutely innocent if idealized sexual awareness and Baumbach’s more cynical jaded reality.  Scott may have seen Greenberg as a romantic comedy wrapped in mid-life crisis clothing but even he admitted some viewers would be unable to overcome Greenberg’s sometimes cruel slights toward love interest Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig). Greenberg’s quirks–writing obsessive letters of complaint and spouting off psycho babble “Hurt people hurt people”–can seem pathological rather than idiosyncratic: a key distinction between Anderson and Baumbach and one that appears balanced in the Life Aquatic.  In their second effort together The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) appears devoted to his wife and family but also exudes a “ethical ambiguousness” uncommon in children’s feature films.  This probably stems more from the source: Roald Dahl.  As evidenced by works like James and the Giant Peach, Dahl had no problem relating the darker but creative and imaginative forces of childhood.  Anderson even makes a sly reference to Fox in Moonrise Kingdom as the now “married” Sam and Suzy hide from authorities by donning two fox outfits, sitting amongst their pursuers in open camouflage like a live action version of the loving but troubled Mr. and Mrs. Fox.

Then again considering Baumbach’s own idealized leanings, a fair amount of room for disagreement exists. Critics often peg Baumbach as a disciple of the Walt Stillman school of filmmaking. One can rightly point out the congruity in combining two highly stylized East Coast, preppy coated parallel worldviews.  Though more “whimsical” than Stillman, Anderson shares a certain predilection for describing the world in very specific terms dictated by a certain pace of language, sentence structure and word choice. In Stillman films like Metropolitan and most visibly in Baumbach’s own Kicking and Screaming, the characters’ sexuality feels remote, a very real fact of life for some people; perhaps Anderson’s warmer view of the issue and generally more playful nature buffer these realities.  When Laura Bishop (Frances McDormand) hazily confesses her infidelity to her husband, it feels honest in its own way even if evasive. When Walt asks what things she’s apologizing for, Laura replies, “whichever ones still hurt.” Nor do Anderson and Roman Coppolla allow Walt to escape his marital failures.  “I hope the roof gets ripped off and I get sucked into space” he laments, only to be informed by Laura half of his pain is self inflicted and that self pity won’t do the trick.

And what about women in Anderson films? True, Lumi Cavazos did more with Inez than Bottle Rocket scripted, but female characters are hardly repressed. Margot’s youthful exploits and affair with Eli Cash, Ms. Cross’ struggles over the memory of her dead husband, Eleanor Zissou/Etheline Tenenbaum’s ever-patient and enduring significant others still capable of accepting new suitors in the absence of their husbands, and Laura’s extra marital escapades with the local police captain–all demonstrate female characters with their own sense of agency. Though Margot’s youthful sexual adventures and affair exact a toll on her fiancé (Murray) and adoptive brother, it says more about their ideas of female sexuality than hers.

Suzy and Sam appear much like equals in Moonrise Kingdom, and Suzy occupies the role of violent protector more so than Sam.  Her “symbolic deflowering” as described by Scott is by turns cute and comical, but also direct.  Though largely chaste in intent and deed, Suzy exhibits very little trepidation sexually and seems more comfortable with her adolescent self than most children, let alone girls her age.  Now some have argued the scene borders on or is the equivalent of child porn. Perhaps not as egregious as the 1990s pseudo child molester Calvin Klein campaign that was all fake wood panel basements and jail bait models, Suzy and Sam, according to some observers, represent a twisted view of youthful sexuality. Obviously, this writer disagrees. Though Suzy appears at ease, she discusses her body with the “enthusiasm of a PGA tour announcer.”  “The scene is an admirable meditation on the fact that kids fumble to come to terms with their sexual desires long before parents or bodies would like them to,” wrote . “It plays less like a spicy loss of innocence, and more like a frequently overlooked extension of it.” Considering the literary nature of Anderson’s work and Suzy and Sam’s own reading habits, this culminating vision of intimacy probably stems as much from what they’ve absorbed from literature  and the hormonal impulses that bedevil teenagers as anything.

With all this said, Anderson’s movies remain firmly entrenched in hetereosexuality.  All romantic ideas revolve around rather established rituals of courtship.  His male leads and their female counterparts display numerous odd quirks but they reside in the most traditional of romantic settings.  No intimation of homosexuality can be located in any of Anderson’s films. Even if he did so in an arguably homophobic manner, J.D. Salinger at least acknowledged its existence in Catcher in the Rye. Moreover, debates about Holden Caulfield’s sexuality and whether or not his homophobia is actually a manifestation of his own repression abound.

In the end, Anderson’s embrace of Salinger/Charles Schultz/Roald Dahl universe need not exclude adult realities.  In a recent backlash against the backlash, NYC Poet Austin Allen argued that critucs have developed a formula for dismissing Anderson’s work.  Throw around the word “twee,” “dollhouse” or any derivation thereof, add a bit of “arrested development” and a dash of retromania and instantly you’ve encompassed the rhetorical structure for Anderson film criticism. Yet, as Allen points out, “whimsy” need not mean flimsy.  The best moments, he argues, happen when “adult reality snaps us out of childlike fantasy.”  Anderson never avoids these problems but with the help of contributing actors and writers, he is able to weave them into the composition with an understanding that exceeds immature visions of marriage and fidelity.  Anderson is not “the girl with the dollhouse [who] doesn’t understand what Mommy and Daddy do in the bedroom.” Sure, as one ToM editor related, wouldn’t it be great if Anderson broke from his “aesthetic” to make a movie about adults and not family and childhood dysfunction, perhaps a return to Bottle Rocket but more expansive? Agreed, but for now, while he could do much more to think outside heteronormative frames, Anderson’s gender and sexual politics may lean toward the boyish, but do so in ways that acknowledge the adults in every one of us and our own idealized vision of childhood.

Comments

  1. “No intimation of homosexuality can be located in any of Anderson’s films.”

    Not totally true. In a montage, Margot Tenenbaum is shown to have had a lesbian relationship.

    • M. Rolen says:

      Also Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum) referred to himself as being “part gay”

      • Ryan Reft says:

        M. Rolen and Peter,
        you both make good points. I would note that in reference to Margot, the “lesbian relationship” is part of a montage of her “youthful indiscretions” so it seemed like a stage or phase rather than a real identity or sexuality. Hennessey’s a bit different, I don’t think we ever see or get an idea of what it means to be “half gay” but he def. does describe himself that way. Still, in general Andersen’s not really taking that sort of sexuality seriously or exploring it so much as throwing it out there randomly via characters like Hennessey and Margot. Thanks for the comments guys, good stuff.

  2. Reblogged this on CAS 110 – ZZ and commented:
    this is an interesting read as a fan of wes anderson movies

  3. Tara Lyman says:

    The conversation between Walt and Laura Bishop went slightly differently than you described, it is Walt who acknowledges that “half of those wounds are self-inflicted”

    Laura Bishop: I’m sorry Walt.
    Walt Bishop: It’s not your fault… Which injuries are you apologizing for? Specifically.
    Laura Bishop: Specifically? Whichever ones still hurt.
    Walt Bishop: Half of those were self-inflicted… I hope the roof flies off, and I get sucked up into space. You’ll be better off without me.
    Laura Bishop: Stop feeling sorry for yourself.
    Walt Bishop: Why?
    Laura Bishop: We’re all they’ve got, Walt.
    Walt Bishop: That’s not enough.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] filmmakers have made being cuckolded seem both so adorable and so tragic. Interested? Check it out here. Reft [...]

  2. [...] Read more @ http://tropicsofmeta.wordpress.com/2012/09/24/the-sexuality-of-whimsy-gender-and-sex-in-the-films-of… [...]

  3. [...] Read more @ http://tropicsofmeta.wordpress.com/2012/09/24/the-sexuality-of-whimsy-gender-and-sex-in-the-films-of… [...]

  4. […] his films might be full of twee and perhaps they occupy worlds that are equal parts fancy and J.D. Salinger […]

  5. […] seem both adorable and tragic” the way he does, Ryan Reft points out in his scholarly article “The Sexuality of ‘Whimsy’: Gender and Sex in the Films of Wes Anderson.” If you are a boy in an Anderson movie, you can expect to end up somewhere between disappointed […]

  6. […] seem both adorable and tragic” the way he does, Ryan Reft points out in his scholarly article “The Sexuality of ‘Whimsy’: Gender and Sex in the Films of Wes Anderson.” If you are a boy in an Anderson movie, you can expect to end up somewhere between disappointed […]

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