The Fantastic Mr. Tolstoy.

The following quote showed up in my Twitter feed a few days ago:

“Happy couples all look different; it's the unhappy couples that look the same." ~Howard Markman

I don't know if that is actually a comment on unhappy couples, though. I think it's more of a comment on the viewer than it is on the subject: they *look* the same, because that's the limitation of our perspective. We all understand our own misery well enough that we can see it in others, but we can't identify with people who find their bliss doing something unusual. I don't know if that's what Howard Markman was getting at, but I find that interesting.

What I found more interesting, though, is how it was a near-opposite of the opening words to Anna Karenina:

"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." ~Leo Tolstoy

In a way, that increases my respect for Howard Markman. Neither of these sentences are demonstrably true; they just sound clever. Just because Tolstoy is more famous and came first doesn't make his version any truer. Still, they both stimulate the imagination, and force the audience to ask themselves what they consider essential to a happy relationship.

And naturally, when I think of happy relationships, I think of The Royal Tenenbaums.


Really, they're the case study of a family that's unhappy in its own way. And yet, it's a family comprised of people who aren't really jolly souls in the best of circumstances. If they seem unhappy, is it because of their family, or is it something else, or are they actually not all that displeased?

And what's Anna Karenina about, anyway? I must have missed the class where it was discussed... to the internet, then!

Wow. First of all, I'm happy to say that Anna Karenina is one of the few things on the Internet I can safely search without tripping over creepy fan art... not that there weren't a few surprises.

Anyway, after a quick investigation of the Coles Notes edition, it seems like there's more in common between the two works than I thought. A large cast of a prosperous extended family, and the conflicts between them as they try to fit in and stand apart simultaneously. But not just prosperous... aristocracy. It's harder to portray aristocracy in modern culture nowadays, so rather than focus on extravagant riches, the Tenenbaum Family display their status through their absolutely dizzying array of hobbies and pursuits. In the days of the Russian Aristocracy, the archaeologists and explorers and authors and falconers were nobility, simply because they were the only ones with enough free time to allow such things. Similarly, many characters in Anna Karenina are authors and thinkers, making use of the time their station affords them.

So, they're both about royalty. Excellent deductive work, Denton -- you've managed to read the title of the movie. Are there any other similarities, then?

Despite being much more familiar with TRT than AK, I find it much harder to identify what it's "about", as a creator's statement - either it's too new to have been analysed sufficiently, or I enjoy it too much to think it needs analysis. So let's look at AK instead. Its central theme is adultery, but specifically its consequences in society. To that effect, the novel illustrates the double standard which exists to this day: a man who cheats is a charming rogue, and forgiven for his indiscretions. A woman who cheats is an untrustworthy slut, and suffers greatly in her social standing, if she isn't simply exiled.

Are there any double standards which exist in TRT? Perhaps. Gene Hackman's character, Royal Tenenbaum himself, certainly assumes the position of infallible nobility (once again, the name gives it away). He is dismissive and abusive of his children, and indeed goes so far as to usurp their own roles as parents by uncharacteristically spoiling his grandchildren. Indeed, it's rather simple to compare Royal to Anna's husband, Karenin, or possibly her brother Stiva. These are men of power, accustomed to their own whims being accommodated at the expense of all others.

Yet despite the similarities in his actions and demeanour, Royal Tenenbaum is not nobility. He has no true power within society, save for a single manservant and that power which he wields over his own children.

So, is that the connection? Is the movie truly dedicated to the double standards not of class or gender, but of generations? Does it mock the cliché of the wise elder, and point out the black horror which results when the children decide to mistreat their parents and each other? If so, it's an interesting way to look at the generation gap, which has indeed narrowed while society has gone on to help people live longer, more productive lives. That's a good thing, of course, but it does mean that the family dynamic is more complicated now, as parents end up as rivals to their children longer and more frequently.

It's a tricky theory to argue, since there's certainly no shortage of other growing-up themes in literature. (Indeed, that's most of them.) And also, the term "double-standard" isn't quite proper, since there's obviously a significant relationship that will always prevent you from looking at the two sides as being perfectly equal.

But the similarities between the two works exist nonetheless. There's an act of suicide in both of them as well, as well as a tragic accident which affects one of the major character's livelihood. And really, if you're not sure if Wes Anderson was thinking of the need for adult children to rebel against their parents, I'd suggest that you watch The Darjeeling Limited and witness the least subtle metaphor ever presented on the subject.

But now that we've mentioned another of his films, the question expands. Do all of his films echo the same theme as Anna Karenina (i.e. Rushmore, which is an even starker competition between youth and age)? Or is there a different parallel between these and other masterpieces of Russian literature?

I'm hoping for the latter, myself. But only because I'd love to see his version of Solaris someday.

1 comment:

Stefanos said...

How did you get to be so awesome?

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Canadian explorer. Chemist by training, biologist by nature. Long-time supporter and participant in National Novel Writing Month. Known as "Aquadeo" in most Internet circles. Also known as "that guy with the pants" to people who have seen me in certain pants.