By Joshua Hollmann and Honor Students of Concordia College New York
Wes Anderson is a designer of cinematic worlds of meaning. I recently taught the seminar “The Movies and Meanings of Wes Anderson” for the Fellows Honor Program at Concordia College New York. The course is related to my forthcoming book Theology and Wes Anderson for the Theology and Pop Culture series from Lexington Books and Fortress Academic. Over the course of the seminar, we recognized adulting and the search for authenticity as recurring themes in Wes Anderson’s work. Søren Kierkegaard’s Stages on Life’s Way speaks of three spheres of human existence: the aesthetical, the ethical, and the religious, or how to live a life of significance. Chapter three of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible meditates on the seasons of life and finding happiness and enjoyment in the times of every matter under heaven. What Ecclesiastes perceives as seasons, Kierkegaard identifies as three modes of existing, or what we might term today, adulting and the search for meaning and personal authenticity in all aspects of life. Here is the wisdom of Concordia College New York honor students on the films of Wes Anderson and a time for everything from growing up to dealing with bad dads and making the best out of the oddities of life.
“‘Times’ for Familial Relationships,” by Katherine Suss
Family dynamics come in many forms in Wes Anderson’s films. Many involve “traditional” familial relationships: Max and his father (Rushmore), Steve and his wife (Life Aquatic), The Fox Family (Fantastic Mr. Fox), the Whitman brothers (Darjeeling Limited), et cetera. However, relationships often go beyond nuclear families, expressing on screen the complexity of blood and spousal relationships, as well as special people who become family. These varied families are comparable to the “times for everything” explained in Ecclesiastes chapter three. Just as we experience different aspects of life, there are different family units that each fit in a particular “time” or space—families that also have these universal experiences or “times for everything” despite their structural differences.
These chosen families include Sam and Suzy (Moonrise Kingdom), whose love flourishes despite societal and, ya know . . . legal obstacles, as well as the crew of the Belafonte, who often seem to work as a cohesive unit a lot better than many nuclear family units, and M. Gustave and Zero (The Grand Budapest Hotel), whose own lack of blood relatives serves as a catalyst for their own adventures as a team. Anderson films also present estranged family members (Royal Tenenbaum; again, the Whitman brothers), and long-lost family members like Steve and Ned and even Atari and Spots (Isle of Dogs), whose bond illustrates once again the power of chosen family members.
In the way he illustrates the ups and downs of these relationships, it is ultimately impossible to tell which types of relationships, or qualities within them, Anderson himself values the most. Perhaps this is the point—there is no such thing as a “perfect family”, and we are all just floundering around trying to find people who will love and support us (and vice versa), whether we choose them, reject them, or they are gifted to us from the start. Perhaps there is space for all of these things, and that they are all inevitable parts of family, just as life, death, mourning, weeping, dancing, and any number of other aspects are woven into our own lives. Certainly, the different characters experience these life events, even as they vary in family structure and life experience. Many of the characters in these films also tend to harm more than help the others, at least for the majority of the movies. The fact that they manage to patch things up—they often do, at least to an extent—is a testament to Anderson’s tendency to wrap up his movies in a particular way. Usually, the characters are ultimately the same people at the end of the films, but changed by those around them and the experiences they have had. They have managed to find some way to live civilly, if not happily, in each other’s company. Maybe this is his way of asserting that all familial relationships, no matter the source, are salvageable—or maybe it’s just more satisfying filmmaking.
“Wes Anderson’s Characters Living Life to the Fullest,” by Irene Pirn
The steady theme of authenticity permeates the lives of Wes Anderson’s central characters. From the passionate schoolboy ambitions of Max Fisher to the raw, adult-like relationship between Sam and Suzy in Moonrise Kingdom, the genuine personalities of these characters flow against the rush of society. At the same time, many of Anderson’s characters turn out to not simply exist, but to live their lives to the fullest. The Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard describes three spheres of existence: aesthetical, ethical, and religious. Many of Anderson’s characters tend to exhibit lives where they exist in all three of these spheres simultaneously.
Often in Anderson’s films, the children act like adults and the adults act like children. For example, In Moonrise Kingdom, Captain Sharp says to Sam, “Look, let’s face it, you’re probably a much more intelligent person than I am. In fact, I guarantee it,” and then proceeds to offer Sam a beer. This authenticity on Captain Sharp’s part highlights the unique character of Sam himself who is afraid of pursuing the life he dreamed with the girl he loves.
We are often afraid to be true to ourselves. Anderson rewrites that script by featuring authentic individuals. In Rushmore, Max Fisher once said that, “you find something you love a nd do it for the rest of your life.” For Max, that thing was following his passions at Rushmore, whether it be through Latin, badminton, or theater. Throughout the film, he refused to let his guard down and was resilient in all his efforts especially with the first grade teacher Ms. Cross. Max goes so far as to fake an injury in order to acquire her love and affection. Max experienced Kierkegaard’s spheres through his love for Ms. Cross (aesthetical), coping with the past death of his mother (ethical), and crazy confidence to do everything he loved at school while not caring what other people thought, as well as cunningly pursuing Ms. Cross (religious).
In Moonrise Kingdom, Sam Shakusky is unafraid to live life to the fullest. Even though Sam is a twelve-year-old boy, he exists through all three spheres of existence in his love for Suzy (aesthetical), getting married (ethical), and taking a leap of faith by running off with Suzy (religious) on their grand adventure with some cub scout skills, a few belongings, and no adults. These are just a few of Anderson’s young characters who desire to have all they have ever desired – going for it with all their heart – which makes them unique, authentic, and extraordinarily mature individuals.
“To Adult or Not To Adult in the Films of Wes Anderson,” by Ava Perez
In Wes Anderson films, I often get the sense that I’m watching the inner workings of a child’s mind, one that’s too creative and neurotic for its own good. Wes Anderson’s characters, whether they’re an adult, child, or animal, share a dynamic of transformation and maturity or what it means to become an adult. The theme of adulting appears in Wes Anderson’s prominent characters: Royal Tenenbaum in the Royal Tenenbaums, Mr. Fox in Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic. Royal, initially a neglectful father who was faking a slow death
in order to trick his family, eventually reunited his family and cultivated a better relationship with his children by placing their needs before his own. Mr. Fox, who was obsessed with his wild side and put his community in harm’s way by stealing from the humans, learned to compromise his wild nature with his responsibility to his family and their safety. Steve Zissou was failing in his career and had no qualms about taking advantage of his newfound son Ned’s resources to fund his next expedition. Yet he matured into a man willing to save his son and crew’s lives from pirates.
Each of these characters grapple with their self-identities, who they are vs. what’s expected of them vs. who they want to be. They first consider who they are: at the beginning this is usually an immature, unrealized version of themselves. Then, they encounter the dilemma of who they’re expected to be. The call for them to “adult.” Lastly, it is who they want to be, which is who they actually become. The persons they become at the end is who they truly wanted to be all along, or at the very least, who they were meant to be all along. At that point, they have finally learned to “adult.”
Søren Kierkegaard describes three spheres of existence or becoming and being an adult: the Aesthetical (Love, Desire, Boredom), Ethical (Family, Marriage, Order, Loyalty), and Religious (Faith, Trust in the Unknown, Finding Meaning in Life). In The Royal Tenenbaums, Royal Tenenbaum went through the Ethical and Religious spheres in reuniting his divided family, all the while coming to terms with who he truly was as a man. Sam and Suzy from Moonrise Kingdom seem to have passed through the Aesthetical sphere, falling in love with each other and making that love work in the face of adversity. Max Fischer in Rushmore exists in all of three spheres: he faces love and rejection, he deals with a broken family and forges friendships, and through writing and directing plays he discovers a purpose that makes life meaningful. With a little interpretive help from Kierkegaard, Wes Anderson’s characters beckon viewers to think about what kind of adults they want to truly be.
“Wes Anderson’s Immature Adults,” by Morganne Cartee
Being an adult typically entails making mature, trustworthy, responsible, and well-thought-out decisions. However, the adult characters in the world of Wes Anderson exhibit few if any of those qualities. Anderson makes his young adult/child characters exhibit these adult-like qualities more often than the adults themselves. For example, Rushmore includes a game of revenge between an adult, Mr. Bloom, and a twelve-year-old boy, Max Fisher. While Max looked up to Mr. Bloom and Mrs. Cross, they nonetheless continually showed him how immature they were. They acted like high schoolers. Max proved to be as mature as both adult characters. In Moonrise Kingdom, two twelve-year-old characters decide to marry, and the adult who was the “minister” reminded them that they were embarking on a long journey. In this “marriage” Wes Anderson may be suggesting that if two people “love” each other no one should hold them back from the long journey of life together even if it looks and sounds absurd especially to adults. This aligns with Kierkegaard’s Stages on Life’s Way. Taking a leap of faith into the absurd may actually make you understand the absurd more. Indeed, taking a leap of love may actually end up changing your life in the best way possible no matter what your age.
“Are Bad Dads Necessary?” By Rebecca Garloch
Wes Anderson’s films examine relationships within families. The most common familial relationship that appears within his films is father son/daughter relationships, and more often than not, the father in question is a bad dad. This theme is explored in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The Royal Tenenbaums. These films depict how a father’s relationship with his children can drastically impact adulting.
Having a bad dad in The Life Aquatic negatively impacted Ned’s life. Ned grew up with extreme trust and abandonment issues. Ned was so desperate to gain a father that he gave his lackluster father thousands of dollars and even sacrificed his own life for his father in an attempt to help his father find a shark. In Fantastic Mr. Fox, Mr. Fox makes his son feel lesser then his cousin. He preferred Kristofferson over his own son. Mr. Fox also subjected his son to living underground in sewers after their home is destroyed due to his own selfishness. In The Royal Tenenbaums, Royal did not treat his children equally. This treatment directly affected how his children grew up and the people they became. Margot ended up in an unhappy marriage and living most of her life in secret. Chas became overly invested in his sons’ lives and made them miserable. Richie was favored by his father but still left with intimacy issues all because his bad dad left the family.
In real life we often see good and bad dads who try and fail. Movies often lack depictions of bad dads. Ecclesiastes chapter three tells of a time for everything under the heavens. A time to dance, cry, morn, rejoice, and to be a bad parent. It happens. We need to see bad dads because they normalize imperfection instead of glorifying unattainable perfection. Bad dads reveal that life is messy and far from perfect.
“Children as Adults,” by Stephanie Taylor
Wes Anderson’s films are characterized by children who take on adult roles while adults struggle to act their age. Take Moonrise Kingdom, when Suzie and Sam propose to be “married” the scoutmaster says to them, “You can’t enter this lightly. Look into my eyes. Do you love each other?” They respond immediately, “Yes we do.” Two twelve-year-olds so deeply in love testifies to the intense and effortless way in which children act on their desires and dreams.
Isle of Dogs is also a prime example of children behaving like adults. Twelve-year-old Atari sets off alone to Trash Island to rescue his dog Spots after an executive order made by the adults at the top exiled all the dogs from Megasaki City. While the adults play politics and devise evil ways to get what they want, the dogs and children succeed in reversing the decree. Perhaps Wes Anderson gives leading roles to children to show that adulting is not something that adults have mastered.
Life does not have to be lived in a particular order or conform to societal norms. Ecclesiastes, chapter three reads, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” There is no reference to any particular order in which these seasons arise. In the same way, Wes Anderson alludes to the reality that “adulting” can also be attributed to children who reveal that wisdom transcends time.
“A Kierkegaardian View of Gustave, The Order in Redemption, and Rushmore’s Rejection of the Seasons of Life,” by Alesha Attry
In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Gustave dwells for most of the movie in what Kierkegaard labels the Aesthetic stage. His desire is demonstrated through his affairs with the rich, blond, and elderly guests of the hotel. Gustave is attracted to these women because they remind him of himself: lonely, blonde, and aging. His desire to spice up his ordered life proves to vain and vapid. Even so, throughout the film, Gustave possesses faint hope for humanity in a world gone mad.
Royal Tenenbaum (The Royal Tenenbaums) functions as a bad dad who experiences order through repentance and forgiveness. Royal longs for a return to normalcy and order, which entails ending his separation with Ethelene and taking a more active role in his children and grandchildren’s lives. Order only occurs when Royal accepts his own mistakes. Royal learns the hard way that growth and unity can only happen by putting the needs of his family first. This means divorcing instead of ongoing separation, and helping his children address their brokenness and his culpability. Royal realizes he is a terrible father. Forgiveness is possible even for bad dads.
In Rushmore, Max Fischer rejects the message of Ecclesiastes chapter three, which emphasizes the importance of beginning and ending seasons in one’s life. Max is stuck. After he is expelled from Rushmore, he continues his Rushmore private school routine at his new public school. In addition, Ms. Cross has a hard time moving from mourning to dancing due to the immature rivalry of Max and Mr. Bloom. For everything there is a season, yet for Max, Ms. Cross, and Mr. Bloom time stands still. Even so, as Ecclesiastes promises, there is beauty in everything in its time, or at least, as Wes Anderson muses, humor in the stuck seasons of life.
“For the Sojourners,” by Emma Chapman
Wes Anderson’s films are a joy to watch. Through a hyper stylized and comedic form, Anderson’s films convey the complexity of the seasons of life: the spectacular, the mundane, the beauty in small things and fine details. In popular film, there is often some neat and tidy resolution at the close of the film where everyone has changed and the heroes have triumphed. But in real life change doesn’t come so easy. Anderson doesn’t feature perfect people with happy endings and easy plots. The overarching commonality of Anderson’s films is how authentically he captures the feeling and experiences of what it is to be human. While Anderson captures meticulous shots, his films are not ‘quirky’ or unrelatable. He captures the melancholy of life, family trauma, toxic relationships, absent parents, young love, oppressive societies, the corruption of greed, and what it feels like to be different, everyday tragedies that you and I face throughout the course of our lives. Anderson’s films are fantastical, but they are also honest and relatable. Much like real life, distressed characters remain troubled, but they do learn just a little and come to a point of relational reconciliation. Amidst the brokenness of life, there is nothing better than to be happy together (Ecclesiastes 3:12). For Anderson’s characters, at the end of the day, happiness comes down to the family that they chose. Even though life is challenging and brutal, we can find support and meaning in comradery with other poor sojourners we meet along the way.