Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Anderson Brothers (Part 1)

This is the inaugural article of A Blogwork Orange's 'Paul Thomas Anderson Appreciation Month'. Please check in for more through out the coming weeks. Oh, and forgive the length of this piece. They won't all be this long. #PTAAM

Every generation of film students have their collection of contemporary filmmakers that are generally appreciated and celebrated more than most. From my crop, it's the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher, Danny Boyle, and to an extent Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan. Basically, filmmakers whose flourish began in the '90s, shaping the minds of future film nuts during that time, creeping into the term papers read by numerous film professors during the mid-to-late 00's. But amongst this group, there are two filmmakers that have always been connected in a strange, omnipresent way that's always been hard to explain. I'm speaking about Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson.
There's always someone somewhere placing those two names in some form of cinematic argument, usually in an attempt to prop one up while slamming the other down. It's easy to do, considering the drastic gulf between the two's heavy styles. ("Hey well, at least P.T.A. doesn't have dopey mat sets and 60's music." or "Well, at least Wes doesn't have it rain frogs at the end." etc.) In the end, there is always a the declarative statement of which one is better, which seems particularly silly when you consider just how different stylistically these two are. They differ visually (P.T.A. is a schizo cameraman, mixing winding track shots and staccato handhelds; W.A. is more methodical and intent) and tonally (W.A. a master of dry subtlety, with dark tones only arising when need be; P.T.A. loves big, chewy drama shown off in rambling monologues and swelling emotions). Even their influences seem on the opposite ends of the map - P.T.A. showing much love to the Altman/Scorsese/Lumet group from the 70's, while W.A. prefers the Woody Allen/Hal Ashby variety from the same time.

So why are these two always mentioned together? There are shallow, uninteresting reasons. Both had their first feature released in 1996, both hold a devoted - sometimes rabid - fan base, and both were christened with the birth name 'Anderson' (but that seems almost too obvious to mention). Wes is generally considered more prolific, though by the end of this year, he will have released seven features to P.T.A.'s six. Both tend to focus their stories on the privileged, with few moments of attention on the working class. In really internally discussing the question of their constant comparison, I've realized how many overlapping themes these two actually have. And even though they seem to do it in opposite ways, these are two Andersons who have been telling the same story about family, aging, crime and love. Here's a breakdown...


Both filmmakers involve the family concept quite a bit in several of their films. Wes Anderson sees families as dysfunctional and imperfect, but generally warm and generous in times of great need. In Wes' one true masterpiece, The Royal Tenenbaums, family is the story's main theme - specifically, a family's estranged relationship with their selfish, irresponsible patriarch, Royal (played with career-capping brilliance by Gene Hackman). Royal's basic disregard for his family has lead to some serious emotional issues with his three formerly brilliant children, but his tale of redemption is treated with sweet, humorous irony as he does his best to win back the hearts of those he once abandoned. It's a theme he tackled once again in his very next film, 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, where the title character Steve (Bill Murray) is disrupted by the arrival of Ned (Owen Wilson), who claims to be his son. Steve was aware of Ned's existence, but did a good job of burying him into the dark corners of his memory because, quote "I hate fathers and I never wanted to be one."

So, here are two fathers, pretty harmful in their neglect. Then there's the absent father of 2007's The Darjeeling Limited, whose unseen presence hangs heavy on the three brothers who are the film's main focus (though, to be fair, they're also burdened by the actions of a rather distracted mother as well). I know little of Wes Anderson's personal life, but I hope he has a better father than the ones he's created for the screen. That being said, these men are always presented with redemption, whether it be beyond the grave or not. Wes seems particularly pleased with allowing these flawed papas to redeem themselves. This is actually referenced late in Tenenbaums when Royal has a conversation with his disgruntled daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) and tells her, "Can't someone be a shit their whole lives and try to repair the damage? I think people want to hear that." I'm not sure how much people want to hear it, but I know that Wes certainly does. His basic thesis seems to be: if you can't count on your family, who can you count on?

P.T.A. is far less willing to give redemption to any flawed family members. Magnolia - his sprawling epic of San Fernando Valley miscreants - there are two very flawed fathers. Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) left his wife when she got cancer and left his teenage son, Frank Mackey (played as an adult by an electric Tom Cruise) to take care of her, while Jimmy Gator (Phillip Baker Hall) cheated on his wife several times and (probably) sexually assaulted his daughter Claudia (Melora Walters). Neither men is really given a shot at redemption, but P.T.A. does inflict both with a terminal case of cancer. But even in their depreciated state, they are still loathed by the children they afflicted with their actions. There is no forgiveness on the death bed. The pain that family inflicts in P.T.A. films are damaging and leave lingering effects. This is shown in Punch-Drunk Love, where the sisters of the protagonist Barry (Adam Sandler) do absolutely nothing to help his antisocial behavior, leading to this and this.

But this is not to say that P.T.A.'s films refutes Wes's essential point that "no matter what, family is all you got". If anything, P.T.A. seems to point out that these characters could have turned out a whole lot better had their family lives been more stable, and characters are forever punished if they ever turn their back on family. That being said, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of happy families in his films. Whether it be the numerous unhappy ones in Magnolia or the demoralizing mother of Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights. Its as if its a foreign concept to him. The happiest family we see is the collection of pornographers that support each other like a family in Boogie Nights (remember the scene between Rollergirl and Amber Waves, where Rollergirl basically implores Amber, in a cocaine-induced euphoria, to be her mother). In There Will Be Blood, Daniel Plainview's greedy scheming is tolerated plenty throughout. It isn't until Daniel abandons his adopted son, H.W., and dismisses him from his life, that P.T.A. sends Daniel full-tilt toward his eventual downfall and spiral into insanity.

Growing Up/ Growing Older

Children play important roles in an inordinate amount in the films of both Wes and P.T.A. People getting old do as well. In Magnolia, we see Stanley Specter (Jeremy Blackman), a game show genius, basically ignored by his father except for his TV appearances. And then we see Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), the original game show boy wonder - on the same game show, no less - who was also treated poorly by his parents and now lives as a socially inept loser in an electronics store.We see the past in Stanley, and the future in Donnie. If that's our only sample, we would say that P.T.A. doesn't necessarily think things get easier with age. In the end, there's a large nostalgia for the past but there's also a stain that no one can escape. This is most present in P.T.A.'s first film, Hard Eight, where the protagonist, Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) faces his past of criminal violence for the first time in years when he's forced to help out young friend, John (John C. Reilly) in a very serious situation.

Now, there is no filmmaker who is more awash in nostalgia of the past than Wes Anderson. The films themselves are chock filled with songs from the British Invasion and painted with characters whose styles seem stuck in the 1960's. Childhood is shown through rose-colored glasses in Wes' world. Sure, there is pain in childhood, but we never actually see it. Even in Wes' latest film, Moonrise Kingdom - the story of a young boy and girl (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward) whose own alienation led to them falling in love and attempting to run away - the inner torment of the children is only shown in passing, and most of the focus is placed on the euphoric time that they spend together, AKA the good times. We believe that they're alienated, though, because of the behavior of the adults and their dissatisfaction with growing older. Like in most Anderson films, the adults in Moonrise Kingdom act more childish than the children - adultery, jealousy, even reducing themselves to heaving shoes at one another, at points. 

So, for Wes Anderson, growing up is shown inversely, with all the adults acting like kids and all the children acting like adults. There's a perfect example of this in The Royal Tenenbaums, when the Royal takes his grandsons through a series of dangerous events to "brew some recklessness into them" (scored wonderfully to the tunes of Paul Simon). Royal obviously enjoys this behavior more than the boys do, but the two kids are having the time of their lives. Now, these same boys, we learn early in the film, suffered a tragedy when they lost their mother in a plane crash. Their father, Chas (Ben Stiller), still hasn't gotten over it. This is obviously something that effects them now and will effect them as they grow, but we do not see that. We just see their playful spirit as they jump into a pool and run in front of cars with their grandfather.

Where Wes looks to avoid visually showing the damage of childhood tragedy, P.T.A. likes to dwell in it. For the few children that have passed through his films, not a one of them has a smile on their face. Stanley Specter is constantly melancholy because of the behavior of his egomaniacal father, and reaches his breaking point when he's not even allowed to go to the bathroom, lest he might compromise the ultimate prize his genius might bring to the two of them. We can almost see the angry adult being morphed by the emotional abuse. We see the same through the character of H.W. Plainview (Dillon Freasier) in There Will Be Blood, whose unbreakable allegiance to his father only begins to shred when a horrible accident leaves him without his hearing, and Daniel sends him away since he can no longer capitalize on the young, fresh face to help him buy land. There is no perfect childhood in either Wes or P.T.A.'s films, but where Wes enjoys showing the bright glimmers between the darkness, P.T.A. always prefers seeing just how those scars were formed.

This is the end of Part 1. The second and final part is coming Friday!

No comments: