Meet the Tenenbaums, Princes of the City

Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, from a screenplay

by Mr. Anderson and Owen Wilson, emerges as the director’s most ambitious film

to date, with less of the wacky criminality of Bottle Rocket (1996) and even less of the adolescent ego-tripping

of Rushmore (1998). In the

ever-expanding roster of twerp filmmakers, Mr. Anderson is now located

somewhere between Todd Solondz, though not as nasty, and Richard Linklater,

though not as relaxed. The humor is curdled, deadpan Jim Jarmusch, and the

ultimate stylistic and thematic model is the J.D. Salinger of The New Yorker . The Royal Tenenbaums is also the most deliberately unreal Anderson

film to date.

Largely narrated by Alec Baldwin, the story of the Tenenbaum

family is broken into pseudo-literary segments introduced by opening sentences

on a printed page from the chapters of a novel that doesn’t exist. In the early

days, the Tenenbaums boasted three childhood prodigies: young Chas (Aram

Aslanian-Persico), young Margot (Irene Borovaia) and young Richie (Amedeo

Turturro). Chas excels in business, Margot in playwriting, Richie in tennis,

and each is labeled a “genius” in his or her field.

When the patriarch, Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), abandons his

wife Etheline (Anjelica Houston), the rest of the family proceeds to go all to

pieces, with the former geniuses growing up to be very mixed-up adults played

by Ben Stiller (Chas), Gwyneth Paltrow (Margot) and Luke Wilson (Richie).

Margot-who, as it turns out, was adopted-develops a romance with Richie,

despite her marriage to self-caricatured behavioral scientist Raleigh St. Clair

(Bill Murray) and her affair with longtime neighbor and novelist Eli Cash (Owen

Wilson). And Etheline, though not divorced from Royal, is considering marriage

to her rich real-estate employer, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover).

At this point, Royal decides that he misses his family, a decision made easier by his being

broke and about to be thrown out of his hotel. Pretending to be mortally ill,

he worms his way back into the house and schemes to break up Etheline’s romance

with Henry. Have I forgotten anything? Richie attempts suicide, Chas loses his

wife in a plane accident and Eli develops a destructive drug problem.

The eccentricities and neuroses that make up the Tenenbaum cosmos

bounce around an imaginary world that bears little resemblance to New York or

any other city. Gypsy cabs with the words “Gypsy Cab” on the doors can be

summoned with a wave. There is no otherness in the movie to provide any social

restraint on the most outlandish whims of the Tenenbaums and the privileged

members of their circle. The moral, if any, seems to be that family is

ultimately all we have in this life to comfort and console us. The problem here

is similar to the one George Orwell discerned in the novels of Charles Dickens:

Once your characters are endowed with too much color and strangeness, it’s

difficult to make them interact with the other characters in a coherent

narrative. The Tenenbaums and the equally eccentric characters around them work

so hard at being distinctive soloists that they lose contact with the rest of

the ensemble. Mr. Anderson is not lacking in cleverness and ingenuity as a

filmmaker, but it takes something more to produce a dramatically and

emotionally satisfying movie.

In Kandahar :

A Desperate State of Being

Moshen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar , from his own story, screenplay

and improvisations, was actually shot near the Iranian border with Afghanistan

but not in Afghanistan itself, since the Taliban had refused him permission.

Nonetheless, the stream of Afghan refugees to Iran-a large number of them

amputees from 20 years of war and mine fields-provide the director with an

approximation of the misery in Taliban-governed Afghanistan before the recent

upheavals. Mr. Makhmalbaf noted in a recent interview that Afghanistan belonged

to Iran 250 years ago, and that, of the six million Afghans who fled the

Taliban, two and a half million took refuge in Iran.

The story of Kandahar

is centered around Nafas (Nelofer Pazira), an Afghan-born female journalist who

fled the country as a teenager for Canada. Nafas receives a letter from her

sister in Kandahar, who has been maimed by a mine and, in a further state of

despair over the Taliban’s brutal suppression of women, has sworn to commit

suicide at the time of the next solar eclipse. Nafas must race across southern

Afghanistan to rescue her sister, but she must also disguise herself by wearing the Taliban-imposed head-to-toe covering of the burqa.

Along the way, she witnesses

much hunger and suffering as she enlists a series of unreliable or inadequate

guides, including a mercenary desert

urchin, a crafty trader and-most

helpful of all-a black American activist who has mixed in with the population,

false beard and all. We never see Nafas reach Kandahar, but we have been taken

on a colorful and exhilarating trip just the same. The actress who plays Nafas

is re-enacting her own pilgrimage from Canada, but for the sake of a best

friend rather than a sister. There is very little acting in the film, only a

desperate state of being.

Those Lying Eyes

Fatih Akin’s In July , from his own screenplay, plays

out as a helter-skelter road movie with two shaggy-dog stories for the price of

one as it zigzags between Hamburg and Istanbul. The writer-director himself

pitches into the chaotic stew to play a Romanian border guard who encounters a

nerdy physics teacher, Daniel Bannier (Moritz Bleibtreu), in the course of the

latter’s love-driven quest for his Turkish dream girl, Melek (Idil Üner).

Daniel is accompanied most of the way by Juli (Christiane Paul), his

suspiciously dazzling friend, who predicts that Daniel will find his true

love-all the while casting herself in the role.

The romance is always too

close to knockabout farce to allow any variations in the formula. From Ms.

Paul’s first close-up, when she charges up the electricity in her eyes, the

final outcome is preordained. No matter how foolishly Daniel behaves, and how

long he persists in his delusion that Melek is the girl for him, the eyes of

Juli will determine his fate.

The Turkish presence in Germany has seldom been treated so

amiably, and despite all the disasters that befall Daniel as he encounters

hashish and LSD for the first time, when he reaches Istanbul, the city seems to

bathe him in sunlight as it bestows its blessings on his discovery of true love

after a long and grueling search.

Ms. Paul’s mesmerizing eyes remind me of the old saw about actors

on the stage communicating with their voices while actors on the screen

communicate with their eyes. Of course, it’s up to the director to find the

context in which to release the voltage necessary to seal a loved one’s fate.

Budd Boetticher

(1916-2001)

I didn’t know director Budd

Boetticher personally when I paid tribute to his critically neglected westerns

back in the 60’s. I had caught them a short time before in the 42nd Street

grindhouses, during a period when movie research was a much sleazier enterprise

than it is today. I had gotten to know him personally only recently, along with

his lovely wife, Mary Chelde, to whom I send my deepest condolences. Now I’d

like to go down memory lane to describe what I thought about Boetticher’s work

in my salad days:

“Does anyone know where Budd

Boetticher is? The last we heard, our gifted friend was on his way to Mexico to

make a movie on bullfighting, his third. Be that what it may, Boetticher is one

of the most fascinating unrecognized talents in the American cinema. How many

admirers of Peckinpah’s Ride the High

Country recognize this film as an attempted summation of the incredibly

consistent Boetticher-Randolph Scott-Harry Joe Brown series of westerns, which

from 1956 on, established a new style in the genre? Constructed partly as

allegorical odysseys and partly as floating poker games in which every

character took turns at bluffing about his hand or his draw until the final

showdown, Boetticher’s westerns expressed a weary serenity and moral certitude

that was contrary to the more neurotic approaches of other directors in this

neglected genre of the cinema.

“One wonders where directors

like Boetticher find the energy and the inspiration to do such fine work, when

native critics are so fantastically indifferent that they probably couldn’t

tell a Boetticher western apart from a Selander or worse. This unyielding taste

and dedication in relative obscurity is what makes the American Cinema so

exciting, and, at times, so miraculous.

“Whatever his action setting,

be it the corrida, the covered wagon, or the underworld, Boetticher is no

stranger to the nuances of machismo ,

that overwhelming masculine pride that provides a style and a fatal flaw to his

gun-wielding or cape-flourishing characters. Boetticher’s films strip away the

outside world to concentrate on the deadly confrontations of male antagonists.

No audience is required for the final showdown. It is man to man in an empty

arena on a wide screen before a very quiet, elemental camera. Elemental but not

elementary. Boetticher’s timing of action is impeccable. He is not a

writer-director like Burt Kennedy or Sam Peckinpah, but he is a much better

storyteller.”

As you can see, I was more insistently polemical back in those

days, and more presumptuous in calling Boetticher a friend when I had never met

the man. What I do not regret is calling attention to a career otherwise

destined to languish in the shadows.

Goodbye, Budd. I hope that your movies will give future

generations as much pleasure as they gave me. Meet the Tenenbaums, Princes of the City