August 15, 2008

Five Anjelica Huston Movies You Should See

2: The Royal Tenenbaums / The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

The number two position came to a tie. The films - despite both starring Anjelica Huston, Bill Murray, and Owen Wilson and being directed by Wes Anderson - couldn't be more different. How then couldn't I choose between them? Is indecision the new black for vampires? I mean coupled with the fact that it's been a month since I wrote about the number three pick of Prizzi's Honor, I'm now dividing the second position between two disparate films. I have an argument defending my choice, though. And because I'm the goddess of this blog I'm going to post said argument in full.

The Films:
The Royal Tenenbaums is, depending upon your views on Wes Anderson's special brand of artistically quirky emotion, pretty much universally beloved. And its follow-up, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, more or less embodies universal disappointment. For everyone who loved Tenenbaums it seems apparent that it was hoped that Life Aquatic would be another version of Tenenbaums only with a bigger budget and more Bill Murray and when it wasn't that, when it was decidedly something else, the film-going world collectively sighed and mourned the loss of Wes Anderson's genius. This is, in a word, ridiculous. The Royal Tenenbaums is one of those rare jewels of a film that works on all levels from cast to story to execution. It is simultaneously hilarious and wrenching. It is charming and poignant in ways that combine into a truly original experience. It's unique. It's beautiful. And it's unforgettable. To imagine that The Life Aquatic needed to re-combine all those precise same elements only in a new way to present a startling similar-but-different film is just ignorant. Wes Anderson made The Royal Tenenbaums and it was, not unlike creation, good and he saw that it was good. And so he wisely let it be its own entity. Rather than trying to duplicate it, he made an entirely different film with The Life Aquatic. The Wes Anderson touch is still evident and he still utilized highly artistic and stylized sets along with notably quirky dialogue and characters but the overall story arc was simultaneously more ambitious and somehow more simplistic. The film contained far different sensibilities and worked through an entirely new narrative. Now whether or not you believe that it worked is a separate argument from saying that it's inferior to The Royal Tenenbaums. It isn't a sequel to Tenenbaums. It doesn't actually have anything whatsoever to do with Tenenbaums. So while it's entirely fair to prefer one film over the other, judging The Life Aquatic because it didn't resonate on the exact same frequency as The Royal Tenenbaums is unfair. I love Life Aquatic exactly as much as I love Tenenbaums but for entirely disparate reasons. They couldn't be more different. Life Aquatic is slightly colder in feel and it has a lot more action that somehow doesn't feel like action when it's happening. It's a strange little film with a big budget and a small focus and it is beautiful. The performances are wonderful, bizarre, and a lot of fun. Everyone works together. Not everyone's character is immediately charming but everyone is in the same film for the same purpose. It's cohesive. I love the totality of the world in which Steve Zissou operates. Reality, such as it exists outside of his boat and island, doesn't so much affect him as he absorbs it and bends it to his own rules. It's very funny and at times very isolating. It's also visually gorgeous. So the films exist as separate entities and should be approached as such.

The Performances:

In keeping with the disparate-but-Anderson-unique nature of the films, Anjelica Huston's performances in each are totally and utterly different. It is fair to say that her performances embody the spirit of each film on a small scale.

In Tenenbaums she plays Etheline Tenenbaum, matriarch of the once lauded Tenenbaum family of child geniuses who have since fallen on hard times. Each of the children, so promising in youth, has been shaped through tragedy and (as noted by narrator Alec Baldwin) "disappointment" into dysfunctional adults. Their father Royal has been out of the picture since their childhood and their mother Etheline more or less devoted her whole life to their upbringing. Though the grown children are scattered and reclusive in the present when we meet them, Etheline remains a dedicated and steady presence in their lives. As Etheline Anjelica possesses an unaffected strength that nonetheless gives way to genuine vulnerability at unpredictable moments. She is not arch or particularly glamorous, in a departure for the roles usually handed to Anjelica, but instead is grounded and touchingly real. Etheline Tenenbaum is essentially the straight character – she is the one all her troubled children (ably played by Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson, and Ben Stiller) eventually return to and she is the character endowed with the fewest personal quirks and most innate strength. But because all the other characters operate in such wildly unique and often bizarre ways, instead of being a thankless role Etheline becomes the glue that keeps not only the family but the narrative together. Quietly supportive but forcefully present in every scene she's in, her interactions with each of her children and with ebullient estranged husband Royal (wonderfully played by Gene Hackman) feel genuine and sweet in a very understated way. Anjelica wisely infuses Etheline with a lot of inner reserve and a decided lack of caginess that allows her to be very immediate and approachable. She is a formidable but warm woman with a lovely underlying fragility who simply wants her family (and herself) to find a measure of joy again.

In Life Aquatic Anjelica plays Eleanor Zissou who, it is frequently noted, is "the brains of Team Zissou", the Cousteau-like aquatic exploration society founded by her husband Steve Zissou (the fabulous Bill Murray). Eleanor Zissou comes from a rich family and has a strained relationship with current husband Steve and an amiable relationship with former husband and Zissou rival Alistair Hennessey (perfectly captured by Jeff Goldblum). Eleanor is certainly the sanity of Life Aquatic. She does ably function as the brains of Team Zissou as well as a financial backer in times of dire need and as the voice of reason. But for all these attributes and her necessary applied logic in the frequently insane world of Steve Zissou, Eleanor is not at all a warm character. She is independent, brutally direct, and intolerant of being ignored on key issues. Eleanor and Steve do not behave at all like a loving couple but they do operate beautifully as strong and opposing partners. For his every unplanned creative impulse, she has a rational and measured plan of execution. Her interactions with the other characters lack in any sort of camaraderie save for a notable affection for ex-love Hennessey. She is not one of the boys but maintains an aloof and studied distance from the barely-organized chaos of Team Zissou. One gets the impression that Eleanor tolerates the mayhem partly to keep Steve busy and partly to fuel her love of research (she describes herself as a scientist) but doesn't have any aspirations to be considered part of the madcap family. Anjelica endows Eleanor with all of her considerable presence and air of glamorous intelligence. In her hands Eleanor is haughty, decisive, and curiously involved in an unseen capacity. She makes Eleanor just sympathetic enough that it matters when she leaves and that her eventual and hard-won admissions of vulnerability resonate deeply. But she clearly also has fun with Eleanor's aloof privileged background and tendency towards casual cutting remarks. It is a performance that showcases, especially when considered alongside her warm portrayal of Etheline Tenenbaum, the truly impressive range of her talent.

Argument for the Defense:
So why couldn't I select one or other between the two to occupy the number two spot? The roles are so different, the characters couldn't be more individual, and yet when examined they strangely inhabit similar functions in the narratives of each film. If Etheline is the straight character, the quiet and supportive glue that holds the madness together, then Eleanor is the logical character, the largely indifferent intelligence that keeps the insanity on course. In both films Wes Anderson gives Anjelica Huston the daunting task of being the keynote female that enables the narrative to find ultimate conclusion frequently without being part of the individual events that comprise the whole. In this way Etheline and Eleanor - though so different in characterization and execution and therefore striking evidence of Anjelica's scope as a performer - can be seen as companion pieces, bookends of a sort. Additionally, the roles are truly supporting ones. Though Etheline Tenenbaum is the matriarch of the Tenenbaum clan, it is largely Royal Tenenbaum's story and that of his children's redemption. Etheline has memorable scenes but is not one of the major players in most of the unfolding dramas. Likewise, Eleanor Zissou occupies a background position not only in the world of Team Zissou where Steve is the public face and star but in the film as well. Eleanor has even less screen time than Etheline and though she makes no less of an impression, the role is definitely a supporting one. If you combine the two you have nearly enough film to comprise a single lead role. So I chose to highlight them both.

You should see them both, too. Separately. And without carrying the expectations of one into the viewing of the other. See them for all the beautiful and wondrous things Wes Anderson accomplishes with original characters and a singular vision. See them for how talented and amusing the casts are. And of course see them because Anjelica Huston is a revelation in each.

August 12, 2008

Your Weekly Catherine

Week Thirty-One

This week's Catherine post is brought to you by the letters G, A, M, and E. As in 'another game probably only I will play'.

There are three Catherine quotes and three CSI photos. Match the sassy Catherine quip to the CSI she said it to. Easy peasy.

1. Catherine: [looking at surveillance of a teenage boy] You crack this kid's head open, all that would come out would be T&A.
??: I think you said that about me once.
Catherine: Actually, more than once.

2. Catherine: Hey, look at that. Your six-legged soul mate.

3. Catherine: Whatever you say, Superfly.

A. Warrick Brown

B. Greg Sanders

C. Gil Grissom

Happy matching!