Senex and SensibilityBoys to men in Wes Anderson's film oeuvre

From the machismo of Arnold Schwarz­enegger and Sylvester Stal­lone to Woody Allen’s nebbishes and the teenage fantasies of the Porky’s and American Pie franchises, manhood in all its flavors is a staple of the silver screen. Writer-director Wes Anderson is clearly fascinated by the subject too, yet over the course of his four films he has turned his lens on one specific aspect of masculinity: the balance between boyish and manly behavior necessary for the health of not only the individual male but also the culture he embodies.

A few reviewers have acknowledged this by mentioning, if only in passing, Anderson’s penchant for father-son or mentor-protégé relationships, and Anderson himself has confirmed it. In a 2001 Los Angeles Times interview, he credited director James L. Brooks—who helped him find the funding to turn a short film into his 1996 debut feature, Bottle Rocket—with inspiring his filmic exploration of mentors. Each of Ander­son’s four features involves a relationship between a young man and either his father or a man who is old enough to be his father: wannabe thief Dignan and crime boss Mr. Henry in Bottle Rocket; 10th-grader Max Fischer and his industrialist friend/rival Mr. Blume in 1998’s Rushmore; favored child Richie Tenen­baum and his irresponsible father Royal in 2001’s The Royal Tenen­baums; and airline pilot Ned Plimpton and the titular marine-life documentarian he suspects is his father in 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Those simplified labels, however, are inadequate to describe the mutual give-and-take of the pairs.

A mentor-protégé relationship implies that only one of the two will be inspired to grow, but—with the possible exception of Bottle Rocket—this isn’t the case in Anderson’s films. The excesses of Max Fischer’s boyishness, for instance, are tempered somewhat by his relationship with Mr. Blume, but the latter’s staid, successful-adult-male life is brightened by traits he picks up from Max. Even Royal Tenenbaum, the one true father among Anderson’s many protagonists, is hardly the epitome of male parenthood; after all, his eldest son, Chas, acts more like a grown-up than Royal does. Nearly all of Ander­son’s characters, not just the inevitable young man–old man pairs, represent the struggle between boyish and manly traits that forms the core of each of his films—a struggle that’s evident not only in the plots, but in everything from set design to soundtracks.

Each of Anderson’s films follows the exploits of a character who acts from within the framework of a preadolescent boy. At that age, kids play around in a kind of trial-and-error fashion with adult roles, both with peers and in their fantasies. As if they are frozen in this ­growing-up phase, Anderson’s protagonists are a boy’s patchwork approximation of what it means to be a man. Since being a good husband or father is not considered exotic or important, those roles are shunned in favor of masculine personas that connote adventure (the criminal, the deep-sea explorer, etc.) and the accoutrements of such personas: hand-drawn maps, uniforms, birdcalls, secret nicknames, and insider jargon.

A pen and ink drawing of Jason Schwartzman's character Max Fischer from Rushmore

Unlike older teenage boys, Anderson’s four key protagonists—Dignan, Max, Royal, and Steve—aren’t obsessed with girls; when they do on occasion turn their attention to females, their courtship is aggressive and maladroit. Their thoughts center less on romantic relationships than on how they might become men in the eyes of other men. This boyish atmosphere so suffuses Anderson’s films that some critics have accused him of being precious. But it’s worth arguing that, by so evenly matching the yearning to be a real man with extreme examples of actual grown men, like oil and vinegar shaken together, he creates a more piquant aesthetic than either extreme could provide on its own.

At the risk of getting too heady, one way to look at Anderson’s work is to see it as the depiction, over and over again, of the reconciliation of two Jungian opposites that are halves of a healthy whole, on both an individual and a societal level. On the one hand, there is the puer archetype, which is linked with boyishness and youth and is characterized by a self-absorbed yet visionary playfulness. On the other hand, there is the senex, or old-man, archetype, whose devotion to tradition, structure, and organization can be both a positive, cohesive force and an unyielding obstacle to necessary change.

It’s clear that Anderson favors the former archetype: One clue is that his films deliberately resemble children’s stories, both visually and narratively. On both the Rushmore and Royal Tenenbaums DVDs, Anderson cites the goal of a fable or storybook feel as influencing his use of a wide lens and his removal of references to contemporary pop culture, events, and the real cities in which he films. (Or, in the case of New York, where The Royal Ten­en­baums is set, the elimination of familiar landmarks and the creation of new ones, like the 375th St. Y, to facilitate the sense that it takes place in both this world and another.) This feeling of childlike simplicity is enhanced by Anderson’s narratives and cinematography. Each film is a chain of perfectly centered shots that culminates in a slow-motion ending featuring nearly all of its key ­players.

Anderson clearly values the trappings through which children first learn about themselves and the world. That he’s using them in films for adults reveals his bias toward youth. One of the most pervasive yet subtle themes in his films is the illustration of the difference between the concepts “play” and “game” in a way that makes the former far more attractive. Young children partake in imaginative activities to acclimate themselves—at their own, experimental pace—to the adult-controlled world around them. Since it’s self-directed, play among children subjects each to the others’ whims. (In a flashback in The Royal Tenenbaums, the childlike Royal is shown shooting his young son Chas in the hand with a BB gun during a hunting game, despite the fact that they’re on the same team.) But games, to which children shift as they get older, involve externally imposed rules and goals; they’re training for the competitive, structured world of adult interaction. Many of the funniest moments in Anderson’s films involve characters who seem to be stuck between these two developmental phases bickering over the proper rules to a social game—think of Ned and Klaus, Steve Zissou’s first mate, having trouble agreeing when their gentlemanly tiff has ended. While he shows the pros and cons of both play and games, Anderson’s sympathy obviously lies with the former, for not only do his protagonists engage the world playfully, he himself treats filmmaking as a game whose rules he can make and break at will.

The very first scene in Bottle Rocket (cowritten, along with Anderson’s following two films, with star Owen Wilson) introduces Anderson’s signature man-boy iconography: Twentysomething Dignan crouches behind a bush and signals to his friend Anthony with hoots and a handheld mirror. Anthony, with his doctor’s permission, uses roped-together sheets to “escape” from a mental hospital where he’s been staying voluntarily to deal with exhaustion. What had made him so tired, we later learn, is the prospect of leading the predictable life of leisure his middle-class affluence allows. A third friend, Bob, is so well off he’s resorted to growing a marijuana crop in his backyard to experience the thrill of risk (or so we presume, since we never see him getting high).

Although they owe their economic positions to their parents, Anthony and Bob can be seen as symbols of the trade-off entailed in making it as an adult male: the accumulation of material wealth for a numb, conformist existence. By hanging out with Dignan (whose lower class status is sketched out in two lines: “You know there’s nothing to steal from my mom” and “How’s an asshole like Bob get such a nice kitchen?”), they’re not slumming, but rather reconnecting with their youth, when their future as men seemed full of possibilities. (The rigidity of what manhood really turns out to be is personified by Bob’s violent, condescending brother John, aptly nicknamed Futureman.)

Mr. Henry, the savvy criminal and mentor to whom Dignan eventually leads his friends, dresses down Futureman when he mocks his brother’s childlike activities. Declaring “The world needs dreamers,” Mr. Henry defends the friends’ boyish actions and anticipates the future roles of Max, Royal, and Steve. This canny older man has his protégés pegged; they, however, misunderstand his attentions, lost as they are in their fantasy that he’s elevating them to the status of real men. Mr. Henry, who’s more criminal than their preadolescent mind-sets can allow, robs Bob’s house while the trio are off bungling a robbery of their own. Dignan, who ends up in jail as a consequence, forgives Mr. Henry, in the offhand manner of a boy whose emotional connection to a shared pursuit dissolves as soon as it mutates into something new.

While his idol schemed, Dignan had planned as he thought a grown man would, with 5-, 25-, and 50-year plans for himself and Anthony that are comically idealistic. After rising up the crime ladder, he anticipates things like “Going legitimate with Mr. Henry,” “Establish goodwill in the community,” and “[Make] anonymous donations.” Eventually, he writes, “Keep working, keep developing, no more crime,” then follows up with the telling warning “Remain flexible.” By the end of the film, this flexibility still defines Dignan, while Mr. Henry hasn’t deviated from his one-note adult nature.

a pen and ink drawing of Wes Anderson

Picking up where Anthony and Bob left off, Rushmore’s Mr. Blume further fleshes out the idea that adult masculinity leads inevitably to ennui. The millionaire is introduced telling the prep-school boys at Rushmore, his alma mater, to “take dead aim on the rich boys. Get them in your crosshairs and take them down.”

His own money has certainly not bought him happiness, and in an early scene he’s shown cannonballing into the swimming pool at his sons’ birthday party, then holding his breath at the bottom. Mr. Blume’s young friend Max, for his part, has grown more mature by the end of Rushmore—but for the only youth symbol in Anderson’s films who actually is a boy, it’s a natural progression.

In Rushmore, Anderson paints in clear, bold strokes the idea he’d sketched out in Bottle Rocket; by contrast, The Royal Tenenbaums shuffles the pieces to create a cubist exception that proves the rule. Though Royal Tenenbaum’s personal journey seems like a background motif in the film, the character functions like a detective in a house of games, bringing to the attention of both his children and the audience the oppressive nature of adult structures and rules. It’s significant, for example, that Royal begins to break through to Chas, his son and the film’s resident senex character, in the family game closet, and equally significant that the time he spends with his young grandsons involves gambling, shoplifting, and racing.

With Margot Tenenbaum, though, Anderson remixes his own formula. She’s the first female main character in an oeuvre that includes very little casting of women and girls at all—even for background roles, like bookstore and hotel employees, whose gender wouldn’t seem to make a difference. It would ruin Anderson’s aesthetic to emphasize a female character in the same manner he does his men, so Margot is characterized as an outsider—she’s Royal’s adopted daughter. Margot allows Anderson to suggest that his young man–old man theme is applicable across genders. (To a lesser extent, so does the journalist Jane Winslett-Richardson in The Life Aquatic , whose arc from fluster and disillusionment to a stronger sense of autonomy parallels her changing attitude toward Steve’s boyishness.) Everyone can relate to the struggle to balance conflicting parts of themselves, especially the urge to play around with roles and rules as one chooses, and to uphold them and reap their rewards.

With The Life Aquatic (cowritten by Noah Baumbach), Anderson leans harder than ever on the idea of play: Not only is his filmmaking style more playful than before, but, for the first time. Anderson’s protagonist actually acknowledges his boyish condition. This occurs at the film’s climax, after Steve has watched the long-sought jaguar shark pass by his submarine. Though he had planned to harm the shark to avenge the death of his friend, he begins to cry. One by one, each of the boat’s other occupants reaches out a hand to touch him. He then places one of his own hands on Jane’s pregnant belly. Until now, Steve has only spoken flippantly of her pregnancy, so this gesture almost seems like a non sequitur. The two lines of dialogue that follow seem just as random, but they intend to address the heart of the matter: “In 12 years, he’ll be 11 and a half,” says Jane. Twelve was the age at which Ned, who just a few scenes earlier died in Steve’s arms, had written him a fan letter, essentially saying Steve was his role model for growing from a boy to a man. When they met as adults, however, Ned was in many ways more of a “man” than Steve. Thus the film resolves itself symmetrically, when Steve replies to Jane, “That was my favorite age.”

The Life Aquatic ends with Steve sitting beside his first mate Klaus’s young nephew Werner outside the theater where his documentary is screening. He tells Werner, “This is an adventure,” lifts the boy to his shoulders, and walks down the stairs to his ship, leaving behind the fish-shaped award by which grown-ups have validated his boyish pursuits.

Anderson’s projects, as meticulously yet playfully constructed as they are, seem to urge viewers to come to terms with our unacknowledged opposites, especially the aspects of ourselves that can best rework the world. The filmmaker may be moving on (his next project—a stop-action adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book The Fantastic Mr. Fox —still straddles childhood and adulthood but will, if it sticks close to the source material, grapple far less with how men reconcile these worlds), but we can always follow his example, employing youthful tactics to subvert the ossified old-man elements in both ourselves and the world around us.

Jim Burlingame, a boyish man, is writing a book on aesthetics and his life in Olympia, Wash.

This article was published in Masculinity Issue #28 | Spring 2005

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1 Comment Has Been Posted

Praise, and The Darjeeling Limited.

I read this essay a week or so ago, having only watched The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic, and was so interested in the discussion of the overarching themes of Andersons work that i went off and watched Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, and really enjoyed watching them with an eye to this play-off between the Senex and Puer archetypes. I was wondering, if anyone reads this, if the same kind of themes could be discussed in 'The Darjeeling Limited', the film that came between The Life Aquatic and Fantastic Mr Fox, particularly with reference to the idea of crossing genders, because the story in that film, of three bothers seeking reconciliation with their mother, does not include the male mentor figure, and seems to contradict the idea of the old learning from the young, as the abandonment by the mother at the end shows that the purpose of their trip, to try and rekindle a lost childhood relationship, was a failure.

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