Wes Anderson, Fear, and Fathers Day

I love Wes Anderson films.  I’m captivated by the fantastical worlds he creates, the quirky characters, and the incomparable soundtracks.

I’ve always been slightly puzzled by this, however, since a troubled father-son relationship drives each of his narratives.

In Rushmore, Max Fischer is ashamed of his father and so adopts Herman Blume as a sort of replacement.  For his part, Blume has alienated his wife and twin sons.  Fischer and Blume then compete ferociously for the love of Rosemary Cross.

In The Royal Tenenbaums, Royal attempts to win back the love of his family whose lives he’s ruined through neglect and staggering selfishness.  The dysfunctions that have derailed his genius children’s lives are due to his abandonment.

The Darjeeling Limited sees three brothers struggling to come to grips with their lives after their father’s death and their mother’s bizarre choices.  They each carry “baggage” from their father (literally, his luggage) on a frustrating journey of spiritual discovery.

Steve Zissou is the messed up father in my absolute favorite, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.  The main character’s pettiness, selfishness, and hunger for glory keep him from genuine connection with family and community.

The lack of mutual understanding between Mr. Fox and his son, Ash, drives the plot of the animated Fantastic Mr. Fox.  Fox is so consumed by his self-destructive pursuits that he fails to appreciate his son, whom he labels as being “different.”

Why, then,  the intense identification with these films?  What is odd is that, just as with Anderson himself, I have a great relationship with my dad.  My father has been a mentor to me and a model for me in countless ways.

A few recent conversations with friends were helpful.  I think I resonate with these films not because of any unexplored damage due to my upbringing, but from fear of my failure as a father.

My kids are now 16, 15, and 12 years of age.  Things are getting more complicated.  I felt super-competent as a father of babies and small children.  I may have romanticized the past, but it just seemed easier back then.  Fathering consisted of doing extremely goofy things to make the kids laugh, wrestling with them on the living-room floor, and body-slamming them on the couch.  The major requirement was merely the stamina to do these things over and over until bed-time.

I feel anything but competent these days.  When I consider the father figures in Anderson’s films, I see myself.  Will my personal failings lead to my children’s inability to develop healthy relationships?  Do they secretly long for me to truly understand them?  Are they (gulp) embarrassed of me like Max Fischer so that they need to seek out a replacement?

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of these films is the sweet redemption that concludes each of them.  Redemption is not found in any dramatic achievement, but in the most mundane of ways—the characters learn to receive one another as gifts.

The scene that always chokes me up is the conclusion to The Royal Tenenbaums.  Royal saves Chaz’s sons from the car crash that kills their dog, Buckley.  The crash, along with Royal’s quick-thinking heroism, startles Chaz and pulls him out of his anger.  He finally receives a gift from his father and is able, in turn, to share himself with Royal.  For the first time in the film, Royal is speechless.

I find this so beautifully and wonderfully hopeful for family relationships.  We can’t fix each other, but we can discover how we are all deep reservoirs of richness as people.  Learning to receive one another as gifts is the way of redemption.

And a good soundtrack.

5 thoughts on “Wes Anderson, Fear, and Fathers Day

  1. Steve W

    Reading this post was a great start to my Father’s Day. I am also awestruck at the layered dimensions of fatherhood presented in Anderson films. I remember watching The Life Aquatic with my father and one scene really hit me. Steve Zissou made a comment about why he never wanted to be a father–ironic on its own terms since he “shoots blanks”–“Because I hate fathers and I never wanted to be one.” My dad sighed deeply at that line. My dad’s father was an alcoholic who ran a lucrative business into the ground and drove my father and his sister into an orphanage. The sheer potentiality of what a father is capable of comes through so well in Anderson’s films. Something Eugene Peterson wrote stuck with me (in “Like Dew Your Youth”–excellent BTW). Referring to the tumultuous teen years, he says that adolescents are “…God’s gift to parents who are in danger of being arrested in their own growth.” I think Anderson’s films are perfect proverbs for today–warnings to fathers about their struggles with control and pride, usually about the time they think they’ve figured out this world.

  2. Pingback: Flotsam and jetsam (6/20) « scientia et sapientia

  3. greekUNorthodox

    TIm –

    A great post. I’m also a fan of Anderson (Tenenbaums is my favorite) and even more so of fathers.

    I really connect with your fear about falling short as a dad. For me, I think (hope) I’m in the opposite position as far as at what age group that occurs in. In the back of my mind I have the old adage “they are at 50 the way they were at 5”. In other words, those first five years are the most formative. Having 3 under 7, I’m a nervous wreck that I don’t screw them up. I’m hoping that pressure will subside over time as I realize the damage has already been done…now all I can do is play catch up.

    What really stops me in my tracks is the (mostly) universal fact that Fathers represent the man a son grows up to become and husband a daughter grows up to marry (the reverse is true for Mom’s). Kinda brings some veracity to the biblical idea that sins travel down the generations…but also that faithful walking with God transcends generations as well. Look at your own family tree and you’ll see lots of evidence of that notion!

    I wouldn’t worry though, Tim. You and Sarah are GREAT parents and I’m thankful for the way you model parenthood. I remember visiting about 6 years ago, and hearing Sarah say “we’re a family that hugs” while grabbing a very willing Jake in her arms. I thought “I can’t believe at his age that he’s still willing to snuggle his momma like that!” The point…you model unconditional love for your kids, and the fact that you might mess up sometimes can’t diminish the impact of that love. You two have set a standard the we all hope to live up to.

  4. thebareden

    I guess I’m thinking too far ahead, because I’m already feeling some of this and I’m still just in the couch-slamming phase…

    There’s a weird process that goes on in adolescent minds, where you notice parental failures and grasp them too tightly. Mostly because you think that once you become an adult, you have everything figured out and know how to refrain from mistake-making. I think this ends up being a blessing though. The things I held onto as a teenager were then readily accessible when my mind was developed enough to understand grace a little better. And instead of holding my parents failures against them, they became a pretty wonderful picture of how it’s okay to fail.

    So regardless of what your kids do in response to your failures in the short-term, I’m pretty confident that like all of us, they’ll shortly grow into adults who appreciate parents who loved them through failures, and showed them how to graciously handle being imperfect. Maybe it’s just me, but it always meant more to be loved when I felt embarrassingly inadequate than it did to be praised for doing something right…

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