As often as my pocketbook and homework allow, I go to New York City to the movies. I come from Kentucky, a place that neither can nor does sate my appetite for cinema. There are no festivals, no repertory theatres, no arthouses; there are only blockbusters, and great movies can’t be seen but on the small screen in my basement. This is not to say I neglect to watch them; quite the contrary. Yet one thing the best of films make clear to me is that they were made for the dark theatre, an audience and a big screen.
The story of any passion is like the story of a life. There are fathers, mothers, friends—there is a sort of narrative. There are anxieties about origins and destinations—directions. Every passion is born out of something, some encounter, and I can place my cinephile’s birth around the time I saw Rushmore. It was not as if I’d never seen a good movie before, nor loved a movie before; the difference was that seeing this movie connected me to the rest of cinema. Suddenly the rich past of cinema was opened up to me. Perhaps it was a matter of right place, right time; regardless, Rushmore, as no other movie had done before, made me realize how a film could be a piece of creative art, and that the cinema as art had a past worth exploring. I sought out the rest of the films of Wes Anderson, a curious new idol, the man who made Rushmore. I became obsessed with discovering the directors who had influenced him, and this quest was my cinematic self-education.
I watched the French New Wave, the Golden Age of Hollywood; I obsessed over auteur theory; and each time a new director struck me as much as (or more than) Wes Anderson had, I tried to chart out exactly where he had come from cinema-wise, what movies he had watched to make him who he was. I found a lot of wonderful things, but the discovery that was perhaps more important for me than any other was of a Frenchman, Jean-Luc Godard. Godard’s importance, both for cinema and for the appreciation thereof, cannot be understated. Apart from the films he made, which revitalized international cinema and are still great to watch, he and a group of cinema-loving friends changed the way we look at the history of cinema. They glorified classic Hollywood directors like Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and John Ford, men who were not seen as artists but as artisans. For most of my youth and adolescence, I was obsessed with these two figures, Jean-Luc Godard and Wes Anderson.
Those two are my cinematic fathers, and they shaped the course of my encounter with the cinema at large. And, being fathers, I eventually began to struggle against them. Having seen their films repeatedly, they became old hat. I have aspirations to work in film, but the influence of these two is so overwhelming that my aspiration proves my anxiety; if I can’t top them, imitate them, fail to imitate them, should I even have pretensions to the cinema? How can I say anything that hasn’t been said before? Not that they have said everything there is to be said; they just happen to say things, and say them in a certain way, that seems so close to me that it is almost too much to bear. Then, whenever I’m leaning towards greater idol-worship of any given director, I wonder how I can like someone like any other director whom I’ve held dear; if I like Godard today, is Anderson even cinema? Whenever I am captivated by something, be it a poem, a piece of music, a film, it demands that I imitate; yet its own perfection makes imitation worse than meaningless.
So, on Thursday, I went to Film Forum and saw Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend, then hurried uptown to see a repertory screening of The Royal Tenenbaums at the Lincoln Center, after which the director and cast discussed the film and their recollections surrounding it.
Weekend is nothing if not a peculiar film. It starts out in the film noir mode, as both a man and woman, married, plot with their respective lovers to kill their spouse after the wife’s father has died and they collect the inheritance. The husband and wife set off on a road trip to kill her father. They travel through a post-industrial capitalist wasteland, the highways strewn with crashed cars and their bloody victims. A famous sequence (but not really) shows the couple traveling along the highway through a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam in a ten-minute tracking shot, broken only once by a brief intertitle. The narrative (which is given less emphasis than I gave it above) gives way to a series of discursive episodes criticizing capitalist society; not surprisingly, this was the last film Godard made within the French film industry before forsaking the commercial cinema for about ten years. It is a difficult film to watch by design. It’s Brecht-like aesthetic seeks to alienate the viewer; the petit-bourgeois mechanism of identification and engrossment in a story precludes the possibility of actively engaging with and considering the ideas of a story, so identification and engrossment are forsaken by Godard in favor of an alienation that facilitates engagement with ideas.
The Royal Tenenbaums operates in an entirely different mode. It’s a delightful, engaging comedy about the failure of all the members of a once-promising family and their ultimate reconciliation. It’s even framed as a novel, as the first shot shows the book “The Royal Tenenbaums” being checked out of a library.
To see each movie on the big screen—having only previously seen either on a TV or computer screen—in 35mm prints, in dark theatres with an audience (and in the case of The Royal Tenenbaums, a full house), was wonderful. Trite as it may sound, it occasioned my reflection on the utter subjectivity and individuality with which anyone approaches art.
As I was watching Weekend, near the end where the husband is murdered by a band of cannibals who recruit the wife (the movie ends with her nonchalantly eating his flesh, asking for seconds), someone onscreen made what I can only assume to be a reference to events contemporaneous with the film’s release. A woman in the row behind me let out a vulgar guffaw, unsolicited (to the best of my knowledge; maybe I missed the joke, although I suspect its absence) by the actual film. I got to thinking. Why did she laugh? There is always the possibility that a joke was made—I doubt it. Was she trying to impress the rest of the audience with her knowledge of obscure reference? Anyway, even if there was a joke, was it really that hilarious? Everyone gets something different out of the movies.
Likewise, I was surprised by the experience of seeing The Royal Tenenbaums with a group of people. I’d only ever seen it alone. Thursday, I got to watch, not only the film, but also everyone in the packed concert hall at the Lincoln Center, reacting to the movie. To judge from their incessant laughter, the movie I saw was a ridiculous comedy, maybe something like Animal House. A few people even laughed while one of the characters was committing (attempting) suicide. Incongruous. Everyone in the room is watching a different movie, and isn’t that wonderful?
Then, after the screening ended, the director, Wes Anderson, and members of the cast, including Bill Murray (Bill Murray), Anjelica Huston and Gwyneth Paltrow, sat onstage and reminisced about the experience of making the film. Apparently, Anjelica Huston has a glass of red wine and smokes a cigarette after every day of a shoot in her hair and makeup trailer. Gwyneth Paltrow recalled going bowling with Paul McCartney in the hope of getting the rights to a Beatles song for the film, only to discover that he has no control over those issues. Bill Murray is really funny in real life. In the original script, a part had been written for Jason Schwartzman; he was to play a young man, Mordecai, who lived across the street from the main characters. In the end, Mordecai was just the name for one character’s pet hawk. Wes Anderson is a very tall man.
It was almost like a reconciliation to see both those films back-to-back. I can love both movies without compromising any aesthetic ideals. Anyway, I’m only seeing either movie my own way on any given viewing, and there are infinite ways of looking. Overall, the day was a success. Antonio Monda, the moderator of the post-screening discussion, asked a question about the influence of JD Salinger on The Royal Tenenbaums. Magnificently, Mr. Anderson replied “I don’t have anything new to say about that.”