Daring, Uncynical Wunderkind Wes Anderson; Demy’s Bay of Angels Examines What Love Really Is

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.


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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