Daring, Uncynical Wunderkind Wes Anderson; Demy's Bay of Angels Examines What Love Really Is
Anointed by none other than Martin Scorsese in a 2000 Esquire article, Wes Anderson (whose comedies are the temperamental antithesis of Scorsese's films) has become a movie culture phenom. He's many a film geek's pet of the moment and the focus of "Wesworld," a tribute this Friday at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Never before has a filmmaker's modest output (an obscure debut feature, 1998's cult hit Rushmore and a new release next month) received such aggrandizing acclaim. (Critics' worship of Cameron Crowe was just a warmup.) Although his 1996 Bottle Rocket, a sweet-natured story of small-town would-be rebels, went nowhere commercially, Rushmore seemed to come out of nowhere?a film equivalent to those 80s Minneapolis indie bands who displayed the emergent generation's savvy (what the French call "nous"). His characters' choice of an alienated, rebellious pose indeed shows a new attitude, expressing American prerogative and chuffed with itself. Rushmore felt like an un-grungy underground film financed?sanctioned?by a major studio. If Anderson's newest film The Royal Tenenbaums had a less illustrious cast than Paltrow, Hackman, Stiller et al., it might seem less culturally preening, yet this wannabeness is crucial to Anderson's appeal. By evoking the particular dissatisfaction of people who want to be included too much to actually engage alienation or revolt, Anderson's arrival takes on a sense of occasion.
Privilege is Anderson's real theme?observed with the particular poignance of a man who's won it and knows it. Rushmore's prick-protagonist Max Fischer (Jonathan Schwartzman) was affecting because of the attention he craved, wanting the privilege of attending a prep school. Max struck a chord among the generation of young Americans who have no political incentive yet take every advantage in life as their right; his petulance was funny and annoying, an authentic smart-ass callowness. Yes, a new era's Holden Caulfield. In The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson appropriates J.D. Salinger by fashioning a rich and talented family reminiscent of Franny and Zooey?a houseful of Max Fischers. These prodigies?realtor Chas (Ben Stiller), tennis pro Richie (Luke Wilson) and playwright Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow)?emulate/ inherit the eccentricities of their 5th Ave. parents Royal (Gene Hackman) and Etheline (Anjelica Huston). Anderson doesn't exactly take their privilege for granted; he fantasizes about it, pondering the distress and confusion that wealth and comfort cannot avoid. He highlights the foolish things people do?egotistically?before unveiling their need for love.
Hackman's anxious patriarch seems derived from Dabney Coleman's role in Where the Heart Is, John Boorman's astute 1990 take on urban privilege. But Boorman challenged the 80s economic mood while Anderson is in sync with universal celebrityhood?the commonplace delusion of feeling rich, famous and misunderstood. Anderson's own privilege (courage) includes creating a social-climbing talk show host Peter Bradley (Larry Pine) in a parody of Charlie Rose ("Your last novel. Not a success. Why?"). That's something no one else in showbiz?from Chris Rock to Jonathan Franzen?would dare. Anderson's outsider's audacity gives his otherwise elitist humor special depth, a yearning for decency. Comparisons to Preston Sturges are inapt. Anderson's not driven toward satire; rather, his characters are buoyed by sheer idiosyncrasy?a sentimental view Anderson inherited from a culture of effrontery. Tenenbaum's evocation of The New Yorker magazine's old toniness is cute but befuddling. Anderson should not be praised for this parvenu weakness (like his references to Eric Fischl, it may be simply wayward, like the funny, pointless movie parodies in Rushmore). It's the pop music subtext that reveals Anderson's essence. His penchant for the Rolling Stones' "I Am Waiting," "She Smiles Sweetly," "Ruby Tuesday" and especially the Beatles' "I'm Looking Through You" shows a connection to 60s pop that is tasteful but essentially poignant. Less ostentatious than Paul Thomas Anderson, not cynical-hip like Tarantino, Wes Anderson is the first movie wunderkind to convincingly promote our innocence.
Bay of Angels
Directed by Jacques Demy
By Anderson's own New York Times account, Pauline Kael responded to Rushmore, telling him, "I genuinely don't know what to make of your movie." Shrewd boy, setting himself up as a nearly indescribable talent. Anderson probably possesses the most idiosyncratic sensibility since Jacques Demy, whose 1963 Bay of Angels (revived this week at Film Forum) shows the second step in Demy's development of modern romantic consciousness. Akin to Anderson's feel for trenchant 60s pop music, Demy brought to movies a still-unique appreciation of life as pop sensation.
In Bay of Angels Jeanne Moreau plays Jacqueline Demaistre, a gambling addict whose whirlwind behavior so contrasts the buttoned-up habits of banker Jean Fournier (Claude Mann) that she seems to have stepped out of a movie. This character is a continuation of Anouk Aimee's unattainable love object in Demy's Lola. It may be Moreau's most dazzling performance?an immediate confirmation of why she was an emblematic 60s European actress (her Catherine was an intrinsic part of Jules and Jim's concept, but Jacky is a beacon of every imaginative, sexual hope of that era; its Helen of Troy, its La Gioconda, its Roxanne Roxanne). Bay of Angels follows Jean's infatuation with Jacky, but love between a man and woman is not all that gets dramatized here?despite the movieish fade-out. Demy examines what love really, always, is: the compulsion of a person to an ideal.
Exploring a way of life, Demy uses gambling as a perfect metaphor. Jean, at first, fears risk and experimentation ("It's like drugs, I'd be lost") but the excitement of gambling and cars and jazz?New Wave affections like American movies?becomes his preoccupation and the film's substance. Against his watchmaker father's advice, Jean shares secretive confidences with Caron (Paul Guers), a male coworker, and visits a casino in Nice. He enters passing a series of mirrors reflecting new changes in himself, and through this image (like flipbook pages) the film takes on a complex sense of wonder?about Jean's strange new world and Demy's enthralled discovery of his perceptive medium. Bay of Angels is not a sinister gambling flick; it contrasts Mike Hodges' fine Croupier?and the nihilism of our day?with Demy's serious optimism.
Bryan Ferry expressed this view succinctly in Roxy Music's "Editions of You": "They say love's a gamble/Hard to win/Easy lose/And while sun shines you better make hay/So if life is your table/And fate is the wheel/Then let the chips fall where they may." Demy's own romantic existentialism escapes some people because it derives from the opulence?and pleasure?normally found in American movies or pulp novels. It's not widely understood that Tarantino's refusal to hold his movie characters to real-life standards insults the moral awareness of the French New Wave. Demy's movies are important today because they reassert the connection between our fantasy lives and real-world complications. Jacky and Jean's relationship isn't swamped in mushy eroticism; their attraction to each other is complex, dangerous. Moreau's platinum-blonde flash is, appropriately, a little tawdry. "I'm passionate," she tells Jean. Smoking Lucky Strikes, wearing white fingernail polish and drinking Black & White scotch, she's actually rapacious. (When Jacky thinks of going to Monte Carlo, her watch stops?she's not bound to order like Jean's father.) Jacky offers two bits of advice, "You must never let luck pass you by" and "What does it mean to know a person?" Bedeviling, almost anti-romantic life lessons. But because Jacky is more vibrant than anything Jean knows, his fascination becomes complicated by sex and envy.
Permit this helpful extrapolation: Claude Mann's sensitively modeled face makes Jean's hesitance and thoughtfulness plain to see, while Jacky, in her white satin corset and black boa, is a glamorous harbinger of a more completely lived life?a sex dream, and a gay icon, too. She explains, "When I'm happy, it makes me versatile..." then pauses to correct herself, "'Voluble,' is that the word?" There's amplitude to Jacky and Jean's relationship, a sensibility that didn't need to be called gay in 1963. And today it's still marvelous to behold for its knowing humanism and especially its painfully accurate depiction of love, feeling, passion?movie romanticism filtered through recognizable, contemporary behavior. When Jean disapproves Jacky's wantonness at the gambling table he calls her "slut." Demy repeats a visual etude previously used for Jean's interaction with Caron?dissolving from Jacky's face to Jean's with chips passing between them. Each expression shows ambivalence, affection then repulsion, until Jacky rises to leave and Jean insists she stay.
For Demy, this coming together of two souls was love, yet it creates ambivalence. Outside the casinos, Jacky and Jean lounge on a harsh, stony beach or share his claustral hotel room. Every movement and wager has its distinct rhythm. The gambling casinos present life as vibrant spectacle. "The first time I entered a casino it was like church," Jacky says. (Critic Daryl Chin has pointed out Demy's similar confession in the documentary Jacquot de Nantes, switching "cinema" for "casino.") Note the way Demy equates gambling-to-life-to-movies when Jacky runs toward Jean, her image flickering across a wall of mirrors like a ball in a roulette wheel or an image in a zoetrope. If you think this masterstroke goes too fast to perceive, remember the Pet Shop Boys song: "Love Comes Quickly."
Behind Enemy Lines
Directed by John Moore
Owen Wilson's a mischiefmaker, whether as a comic actor or Wes Anderson's writing partner. In the new war movie Behind Enemy Lines, Wilson acts Lt. Chris Burnett, a naval pilot whose F-18 Superhornet gets shot down in Bosnia. It's Wilson's most daring role, transferring his Bottle Rocket troublemaker to serious international conflict and the movie's basic theme: nascent patriotism. "At least give me a fight I can understand!" Burnett gripes, not politically but from sheer petulance, ticking off Adm. Reigart (Gene Hackman). Wilson makes it a more interesting characterization than Tom Cruise or Harrison Ford could; he's temperamentally linked to the same sulky privilege one can identify in the youth who remain unaroused about joining the military after 9/11.
Sure, Burnett becomes gung-ho, but the complex pleasure of Behind Enemy Lines comes from watching his transformation. How do you highlight disillusionment in an apathetic age? Through this Pixies-meets-Nirvana score and director John Moore's spectacular provocation to politically disengaged audiences. He gets visceral drama from military toys?satellite surveillance, radar reconnaissance, homing devices in ejector seats and a bravura air chase flown by Burnett and his copilot, ending with a closeup of that crashed F-18 and its stenciled motto "Made in U.S.A." Since Desert Storm the switch had to come when someone finally made sense of youth's casual relationship to militarism. (Three Kings was first and best.) The Hawks and Doves argument no longer applies. Wilson?and Moore?appeals to contemporary innocence. Parachuting over Bosnia, Wilson passes a 40-foot statue of an angel; it has his same large forehead, alert eyes and broken-prow nose until he circles round and sees its right half smashed, blown away. This strong poetic image?a desecration of beauty, hope, innocence?inspires outrage that shocks Burnett/Wilson out of his petulance. (Moore's several nearly Peckinpah-esque action sequences show real talent, not empty flash like Tony Scott's Spy Game.) Why this war movie resonates isn't just a matter of good/bad timing.
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