Notables. The Bibliophilia Of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums.

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References toward the world of literature fill the films of Wes Anderson. From the MacGuffin of a dedication in Rushmore, to the suitcase of books carried by the young protagonists of Moonrise Kingdom, the bound form of the written word has been a mainstay of Anderson’s aesthetic repertoire. This sense of debt reached it’s apex relatively early on in Anderson’s career, with the director’s 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums, in which almost every character with a speaking role is published in some way.

What does it mean to be published?  A note of record. Even now in the age of the digital the perceived value of print remains (as any writer with parents will tell you).  For the characters of The Royal Tenenbaums the books fizzled up when the downfall came, yet the structural conventions of the novel remain (the film is punctuated by chapters, opens with a prologue, and closes with an epilogue). One might say that the films treats the book from with a fetishistic eye, as some might accuse Anderson of treating cinema (and as some might accuse fans of Anderson  of treating his work). This sense continues beyond the frame too. When released on DVD in 2002, The Royal Tenenbaums came bound in it’s own book form, the tropes of the slipcover and spine replicated verbatim. See also. The meticulously illustrated accompanying ephemera included with the Criterion DVD releases of Anderson’s film.

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Diving For Sunken Treasure, by Jacques Cousteau, is the one which started this whole thing, and a title which would prove prescient in itself in light of the release of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. Coveted by Max Fischer in Rushmore, who, upon the discovery of a handwritten notation (“When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself” rings the quote) inadvertently sets out on a path in keeping with the line that’s been left behind. In The Royal Tenenbaums this literal paper trail is brought to the fore, with the achievements of the family of former over-achievers turned burnt out has-beens captured forever in book form.

Puns, so often criticised as being too low brow, in-spite of the fondness with which figures as diverse as Shakespeare and Godard were drawn to such wordplay, run amok when it comes to the titling of the books Anderson created for his film. Though only on-screen for seconds if not frames, each one helps to further illustrate the world around them.

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Magazines feature too. The fall of Richie Tenenbaum is charted by the cover of a Sports Illustrated-type publication, the otherwise fictional Sporting Press Magazine, while the rise of Eli Cash, Richie’s best friend and emotional counterpart too is illustrated most succinctly on the cover of a magazine, with his aggressive form of bourgeoisie-attractive pop-lit captured perfectly in the single image of him standing topless, apparently having torn a snake in two,  and above the headline “Where The Wild Things Are“. It is on the same cover that Cash is given note-perfect moniker of “the James Joyce of the West“.

It’s in Helen Scott, a pseudonym adopted by Margot Tenenbaum in which the world of Anderson The Bibliophile comes crashing in to that of Anderson The Cinephile. Scott, the person who acted as translator between Truffaut and Hitchcock on the former’s book-length interview with the latter, with her input deemed so valuable to that project that Truffaut himself argued in favour of her giving her shared credit It’s difficult to understate the importance of the nod to Helen Scott: In paying homage to a figure associated with one of the most highly regarded works that bridges the written with the filmed, it enshrines precisely where the developing Anderson The Filmmaker stood at the time.

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  1. Carl Copeland 08/03/2014 — 8:22 pm

    Great article. I’ll be honest I found Grand Budapest a bit convoluted at times. It really tried too hard to do what Anderson does so naturally with his deadpan humour. Whilst emotionally it was a tacked on, unlike Moonrise Kingdom which was so heartfelt and enchanting. It did have moments of excellence and the comparisons to La Reglè da Jeu are certainly apt when thinking about the absurdity of upper class. I think the striking visuals and wonderful components of the mise-en-scene are its biggest coup. Fiennes is great in the central role, the rest float in and out with minor laughs but no lasting impact.

  2. Finally, got around to reading this and so glad I did. I never got the Helen Scott allusion before, great observation. Thanks for the slide show of the Tenebaum-related publications, it was a gas to see them all in one place. Will have to break out my Criterion DVD of what is still my favorite WA film. rick

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