The Substance of Style, Pt 4

Examining the Wes Anderson–J.D. Salinger connection
by Matt Zoller Seitz  posted April 9, 2009
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This is the fourth in a five-part series of video essays analyzing the key influences on Wes Anderson’s style. Part 1 covers Bill Melendez, Orson Welles, and François Truffaut. Part 2 covers Martin Scorsese, Richard Lester, and Mike Nichols. Part 3 covers Hal Ashby. Part 5 is an annotated version of the prologue to The Royal Tenenbaums.

One of Wes Anderson’s strongest influences is not cinematic but literary: J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye, Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, and other touchstones.

The filmmaker’s Salinger jones was apparent before his feature-filmmaking career had even properly begun. When I interviewed L.M. “Kit” Carson about the production of Anderson’s first feature, Bottle Rocket, he told me that when he read the script for the first time, he felt as though he were reading “The Catcher in the Rye as written by Holden Caulfield.” Like Holden, Bottle Rocket’s hero, Anthony, has undergone a period of institutionalization and dotes on his kid sister.

Anderson’s privileged milieus and his naive, gregarious, but often maladjusted characters are Salingeresque. With its prep-school setting and prematurely jaded man-boy hero, Rushmore often plays like The Catcher in the Rye by way of Peanuts, minus the sense—so keenly felt in both Charles Schulz’s and Salinger’s work—that there’s a vast difference between how characters see themselves and how the world sees them. The film’s protagonist, Max Fischer, could be Holden reimagined as a Type A personality. He’s as much a self-aggrandizing lost soul, a tortured adolescent whose abrasiveness seems partly traceable to the death of a beloved family member (Holden’s brother, Max’s mother). But unlike Holden, Max manages to grow up a bit, look beyond himself, and find some measure of peace, and Anderson, unlike Salinger, openly invites us to root for the hero.

The neurotic, depressive, hyperachieving Tenenbaums of The Royal Tenenbaums are reminiscent of Salinger’s Glass family. Anderson and his co-writer, Owen Wilson—who also collaborated with the director on Bottle Rocket and Rushmore—acknowledge the story’s lineage in the film’s very title. The Glasses are a family populated by child geniuses, one of whom, Boo-Boo, gets married and takes a new last name: Tannenbaum. And Richie Tenenbaum’s attempted suicide, which almost single-handedly darkens the film's previously lighthearted tone, recalls the shocking suicide that ends Salinger’s short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”

Beyond lifting certain events and situations, Anderson shows an affinity for Salinger in his tone and style. Like Salinger's fiction, Anderson's films have a crisp directness and bouncy energy that can initially be mistaken for escapist until the artist springs a grim surprise or brings an undercurrent of dissatisfaction or despair to the surface. Anderson's films, like Salinger's stories, are filled with loquacious, combative, often hyperachieving individuals who seem fully formed and secure in their identities but who reveal themselves as deeply damaged—by class anxiety, social expectations, and family dysfunction. They are too smart by half, and both artists let us know that their characters’ intelligence affords no insurance against despair or death.

An unnamable malaise once paralyzed Bottle Rocket’s Anthony, a rich boy who, according to his sister, never worked a day in his life. The raging grief of a motherless boy drove Rushmore’s young Max Fischer to become a control-freak artist-showman. The absurd domestic entanglements of The Royal Tenenbaums are propelled by the family patriarch’s self-concocted, thoroughly phony death sentence, which is obliterated by Richie’s own real, self-willed near-death, which in turn is supplanted by Royal’s actual death. Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic is a middle-aged Max Fischer, desperately trying to defeat death with art: his new film is a record of his attempt to hunt down and destroy the leopard shark that murdered his best friend. On the journey, he encounters Ned Plimpton, a young man who purports to be Steve’s son, accepts him, fathers him, renames him Kingsley Zissou, and then watches him die in a random, senseless helicopter accident. The film intertwines Zissou’s interior journey from rejection of mortality to acceptance of it with a subplot about the pregnancy of Jane Winslett-Richardson, who becomes both the love interest and surrogate mother of the orphaned Kingsley. And of course, the pampered, hyperverbal Whitman brothers of The Darjeeling Limited are haunted by their dad’s funeral, literally carry their dead father’s baggage around with them, and are unnerved throughout the film’s second half by the threat of a man-eating tiger, this film’s equivalent of Aquatic’s jaguar shark. Anderson’s films are light in much the same way as Salinger’s fiction—which is to say, they’re not.

Beyond their compatible tones and themes, though, Salinger’s and Anderson's work display a similar approach to characterization—a kind of ornamental realism that suggests Gustave Flaubert's journalistic romanticism, with its obsessive worrying over the rightness of each word and phrase, only updated and pushed to the brink of caricature, sometimes beyond. The style is rooted in the notion that character can be signified, revealed, perhaps even distilled, through observable details.

Consider Holden Caulfield preening over his hunting cap or Franny fretting over her handkerchief and her gold swizzle stick:

“I don't know why I carry that crazy gold swizzle stick around," she said. "A very corny boy gave it to me when I was a sophomore, for my birthday. He thought it was such a beautiful and inspired gift, and he kept watching my face while I opened the package.”

Or Franny’s boyfriend Lane spotting her at the train station and being delighted that she’s wearing her sheared-raccoon coat:

Franny was among the first of the girls to get off the train, from a car at the far, northern end of the platform. Lane spotted her immediately, and despite whatever it was he was trying to do with his face, his arm that shot up into the air was the whole truth. Franny saw it, and him, and waved extravagantly back. She was wearing a sheared-raccoon coat, and Lane, walking toward her quickly but with a slow face, reasoned to himself, with suppressed excitement, that he was the only one on the platform who really knew Franny's coat. He remembered that once, in a borrowed car, after kissing Franny for a half hour or so, he had kissed her coat lapel, as though it were a perfectly desirable, organic extension of the person herself.

There’s a similarly observant moment in The Royal Tenenbaums in the scene where Richie Tenenbaum watches Margot disembark from a bus. As Margot emerges into daylight, the moment shifts into slow motion, the better to appreciate the vivid details of wardrobe and grooming that delineate the characters’ personalities and histories: Richie with his tennis headband and a pair of sunglasses that look like something Steve McQueen might have worn while yachting; Margot’s stylish short haircut, “Leave me alone” eyeliner, and (yes indeed) fur coat.

Detractors say Anderson’s dense production design (courtesy of regular collaborator David Wasco) overwhelms his stories and characters. This complaint presumes that in real life our grooming and style choices aren’t a kind of uniform—visual shorthand for who we are or who we want others to think we are. This is a key strength of both Anderson and Salinger’s work. Both artists have a knack for what might be called “material synecdoche”—showcasing objects, locations, or articles of clothing that define whole personalities, relationships, or conflicts.

In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden reminisces about his brother Allie’s catcher’s mitt, which had snippets of poetry scrawled all over it in green ink. Early in “Zooey” is a description of the title character’s boyfriend in “a Burberry raincoat that apparently had a wool liner buttoned into it,” his “ungloved hands in his coat pockets,” his maroon cashmere muffler “hiked up on his neck, giving him no protection against the cold.” Likewise, Tenenbaums showcases Eli Cash's cowboy hat and Custer haircut and buckskin jacket (the wardrobe equivalent of his “obsolete vernacular” prose style); Henry Sherman’s blue blazer and bow tie (as conservative and controlled as he is); Royal Tenenbaum’s Nixon-era glasses, cap, and brown tweed sport coat (indicators that he’s out of sync with the times); and the Tenenbaum family’s long-dormant game closet (suggesting the innocent hopes that the family, in its despair, has packed away). In both Salinger and Anderson, you really are what you own and what you wear. Yet the conviction seems not despairing, merely observant—playful too. 

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Courtesy The Criterion Collection
Gwyneth Paltrow in The Royal Tenenbaums

KEYWORDS

video essay  |  Wes Anderson  |  J.D. Salinger  |  Owen Wilson

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THE AUTHOR

Matt Zoller Seitz is a writer and filmmaker whose debut feature, the romantic comedy Home, is available through Netflix and Amazon. His writing on film and television has appeared in The New York Times, New York Press, and The Star Ledger, among other places. He is also the founder of The House Next Door, a movie and TV criticism website.

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Author's Website: The House Next Door