In the winding-down period of the third season of Hit Me with Your Best Shot, our host Nathaniel R has gotten somewhat stuck in a rather nice place: notoriously good-looking movies that don’t have signature shots so much as a continuous stretch of awfully pretty things to look at. Two weeks ago, it was the almost pointlessly beautiful Road to Perdition, last week the candy-colored underground queer fantasia Pink Narcissus, now it’s The Royal Tenenbaums, the third feature made by Wes Anderson, one of the most visually precise directors currently working in American cinema.
And not just that, it’s possibly the most perfect Wes Anderson film, aesthetically: the first two being much looser and less-controlled, the next two being so accurate and deliberate as to be choked and suffocating. Leaving us with a movie in which nearly every single shot is visually linked to the whole, which in turn makes it tricky to pick just one as the “best”.
This is a film that I have mostly committed to memory, or at any rate, as soon as its name came up in the schedule, I immediately jumped to around 15 images that were going to be on my shortlist, but one of those obviously suggested itself as the clear choice, given what I wanted to say about the film’s narrative and themes. The problem was that this shot was also, perhaps, one of the most prominent shots from the entire film (hint: a fire truck figures into it), and after picking what was, in retrospect, an exceedingly obvious shot from Road to Perdition, I didn’t want to go there a second time so soon. So what follows is, in honesty, my second-favorite shot, but it does what I need it to do, and that’s all that matters.
If you haven’t seen it (and you probably should), the film is about the Tenenbaum family, which produced three great children in the 1970s and has since decayed, particular with the paterfamilias Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) having largely evaporated from the lives of all his relatives. The bulk of the plot concerns Royal’s attempts to lie his way back into the family, and that brings me to my shot, which occurs during a musical montage (this being a Wes Anderson film, a significant percentage of shots take place during a musical montage), in which Royal is taking his two grandsons out to have fun in New York, far from their domineering father.I present three frames demonstrating roughly the full span of this shot’s duration.
I would first draw your attention to the marvelous use of depth: Royal foregrounded, and the third generation Tenenbaums in the middle and far distance. But that, while nice, is not why I picked the shot.
As I see it, two important things are going on, the more important of which is that this shot – and the other shots in the same montage – represent just about the first influx of unbridled joy into the movie; it is the moment at which Royal ceases to be on the outside of his family and starts to work his way back in, bringing with him a spirit of playfulness and happiness to combat the strained emotional disconnect the Tenenbaums have suffered from all these years. And this tone is helped along considerably by the use of Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” on the soundtrack, but even just as three stills, you can see in Hackman’s expressions and posture how pleased he is in this moment.
The other, and more important thing, which is only somewhat obvious from these frames, I fear, is that this shot, like the others in the montage but to a greater degree, breaks from Anderson’s tightly controlled visual style: if nothing else, the composition is heavily imbalanced to the right, a rarity in a directorial career dominated by centered compositions. What you cannot tell here is that this shot is handheld, and tracking backwards at a tremendous speed, meaning that it’s rather loose and jittery; and part of the reason I included all three of those stills was to show how the lighting changes over the course of the shot, culminating with Hackman being blown right out in my last frame.
It is, all in all, an exceedingly “messy”, untamed shot – for an Anderson film, of course, we’re not in Dardennes territory or anything like that – and I take it to be the director’s admission that his immaculate style is, when all is said and done, a cage: it traps the characters in rigidly defined roles and places, and in the case of the Tenenbaums, this is clearly a bad thing. Royal promises to shake-up his grandsons in this sequence, but he shakes up the film as well: introducing a brief spasm of off-the-cuff filmmaking that briefly interrupts the precision of the overall style for just long enough that the characters can get out of their ruts and start to better themselves. In a film that will always stand as the great argument that Anderson is more than just an over-fussy stylist, this moment is one of the great proofs that he knows exactly what he’s doing and why.