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.