"‘The Wes Anderson Collection’ And Anderson’s Answer To The Manic Pixie Dream Girl"
It’s fascinating to me that books are increasingly being sold with elaborate trailers, because I am, to a certain extent, a young fogey (though I know it makes sense to put things in front of YouTube videos, etc.), but in the case of the forthcoming The Wes Anderson Collection, a deep dive into the director’s thought process and visual style, it makes an awful lot of sense:
Matt Zoller Seitz*, who’s worked on the book intensively for three years, spends a lot of the trailer talking about the visual treats therein, and I am not going to lie, I’m pretty excited for the pictures from the Rushmore yearbook. But I’m actually most looking forward to the extended interview with Anderson at the center of the book. I’ve spent so much time living in the worlds Anderson’s created that it’ll be fascinating to spend that sort of time in his head.
In particular, I’m hoping the two talk about women. I think it would be very, very easy for many of Anderson’s female characters to be Manic Pixie Dream Girls if they were the creations of any other director. But one of the things I love so dearly about Anderson’s work is that much of it exists as a rebuke to the idea that women exist solely to change the lives of the men who adore them for the better, or even that women need to reciprocate the love of men who are obsessed with them at all.
In Rushmore, for example, Max Fischer sets out to win over Rosemary Cross the way he does everyone else, with sheer persistence, and the force of his enthusiasm. Max doesn’t particularly care that it’s inappropriate for him to be chasing a widowed teacher at her school, and he’s too young to sense that his bragging about fictional sexual encounters between them will get back to her. When Rosemary finds out the way Max has been talking about her, the movie is respectful of her anger. Even though Max is our protagonist and our hero in the sense that we root for him, Rosemary isn’t a villain for telling Max that he’s behaving inappropriately both as a student, and as a man trying to gain her affections when he throws tantrums over her relationships with Dr. Peter Flynn and Herman Blume. When the two eventually find their way to a friendship in the finale sequence in the movie, their dance together to “Ooh La La” is moving precisely because of what Max has learned “of women’s ways,” and what he knows now that he didn’t know when he first decided he was entitled to Rosemary’s affections. Instead of ending up in a relationship with Rosemary, Max ends up with Margaret Yang, who’s pursued him with a similar patience, and who ends up providing not the wildly romantic and transformative experience Max thought he was looking for, but the anchor to a school he actually needs.
Similarly, in The Royal Tenenbaums, Royal Tenenbaum’s pursuit of his former wife Etheline is based entirely in entitlement, given what a wreck of a husband he’s been. He manipulates her by pretending to be dying of cancer, insinuates himself into his grandson’s lives, and generally crash-lands back in a family that was fractured by his behavior already. The two of them are only able to have a functional relationship only once Royal lets Etheline go, releasing her from the suffocating demands of his affection, and giving her a divorce. It’s the moment when we can give in and like Royal in a full, uncompromised way, rather than feeling like we’re sneaking our fondness for him like a stole ride on the back of a garbage truck.
The relationship between Richie and Margot Tenenbaum is more ambiguous, but it still sounds some of the same themes. Richie’s love for Margot is so overpowering, and so disengaged with her as a real person that it ruins his life, ending his tennis career, and driving him to a serious suicide attempt. It’s only once the two of them can discuss their love for each other, and the circumstances under which it can proceed without ruining their family (Margot is adopted) that they’re able to both move forward. And once again, it’s not that Margot is some sort of magical sprite who transforms Richie’s life–he’s living on a large enough scale that he’s playing professional tennis or taking to the sea, while she has her own relationship with her adopted family, her first husband, and her writer’s block. It’s that their love for each other is an anchor: Royal may have “[d]ied tragically rescuing his family from the wreckage of a destroyed sinking battleship,” as his tombstone puts it, but Margo and Richie find an actual port in the storm of life in each other.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou does something else entirely in its portrait of a sea explorer who’s achieved fame but wrecks his personal life. It makes Steve’s long-lost son Ned (Owen Wilson) something of an inverse manic pixie dream boy, a relatively bland young man who inspires his father to face up to both of his emotions and responsibilities. Ned’s experience is so subordinate to the lives of the people he affects that he actually dies at the end of the movie. But in any case, his role is a trickier one than the general manic pixie dream effect, grounding a man who’s literally out to sea.
And in Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson’s most recent feature, Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) may allow herself, to a certain extent, to be taken care of by Sam (Jared Gilman), with whom she runs away. But these young children are preternaturally adult. And while Sam may pick Suzy out in the chorus of a church pageant, he’s interested in knowing her inner person. Rather than worshipping her from afar, they write letters while they’re separated. Their decision to take off into the woods and try to live a happier life than the one Suzy has with her parents or Sam has in foster care shows an unusual degree of commitment. The movie treats their intentions to marry as somewhat comic, but with respect, because that’s part of the point: Sam doesn’t want to extract experiences from Suzy and move on when her anger gets too uncontrollable or scary, or her suitcase full of books or record player get too heavy. He’s in there for the long haul, literally and metaphorically.
Moonrise Kingdom is a lovely movie, one I’ve returned to again and again, and it’s powerful because of the convictions of its young lovers, not in spite of them. As in so many of Anderson’s movies, it takes a woman to turn a boy–no matter how old he is–into a man, just not in the ways so many men-children and manic pixie dream girls tell us that it does.
*Disclosure: Matt and I are friends and have worked together.