Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Royal Tenenbaums - scene breakdown

[I wrote this for a critical studies class in 2006. It's longer than what I've posted before, due to the required length. I believe the assignment was just to break down any scene in a film, without citing any outside work.]

The sequence during The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001) wherein Richie attempts suicide illustrates the power of matching style and substance together. The scene is effective dramatically not only because its tone and approach capture the unique reality of the moment, but also because its structure is strikingly different from that of the rest of the film. This abrupt break in style (particularly of editing) lends a super-natural quality to the event, which of course fits the emotional content of the character’s action as well as marks a critical shifting of the plot. Close analysis of this dynamic technique will reveal the method in which structure adds to the meaning of the scene.

The scene begins when Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson) closes the door to the bathroom at the residence of Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), the writer and neurologist husband of his adopted sister Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), after both men have learned that Margot – for whom Richie has a life-long, taboo unrequited love – has had several affairs, including her current strange relationship with Tenenbaum wannabe and Richie’s confidant, Eli Cash (Owen Wilson). A relevant lead-in is the music, the Elliott Smith song “Needle In the Hay,” a hushed, plaintive number about longing and failure, played on solo acoustic guitar, which is cued just prior to the scene. On the Criterion Collection DVD commentary, Anderson notes that the song (from Smith’s eponymous 1995 debut) is “probably the most recently recorded song in any of the movies that I’ve done.” 

The scene is also immediately different visually than others in the film, due to the subdued, anesthetic tones – Anderson commenting again that during “the whole movie, the color timing is extremely warm and kind of yellow and a little extra red… here we go as cold as it could be and it’s blue.”  The sequence begins with a medium close-up on Richie, who looks directly into the camera. He has a full beard and shoulder-length hair, and is wearing his trademark headband and large sunglasses. These features serve a dual purpose in linking Richie to the past, in that they still identify him as the once great tennis phenomenon (“The Baumer”) that he was, but also serve to somewhat mask his appearance, as he now lives a life of relative obscurity, much like the other Tenenbaums.

Through eighteen progressive jump cuts, Richie removes for the first time his Fila wristbands and headband (worn even during the introductory sequence which focused on the Tenenbaum children in their youth), cuts his hair nearly down to the scalp, and cuts his beard down to stubble. The determined manner in which Richie shears himself, combined with the fairly quick pacing of the jump cuts, gives a ritualistic quality to the action. He has made an important change, altering his appearance so drastically – it as if he is trying to literally shed his image and the stigma of failure that he has lived with since his very public failure at a U.S. Nationals tennis match the day after Margot and Raleigh wed. After he is finished with the scissors, Richie takes off his sunglasses and looks into “the camera” for a moment. It is of course realized that he is in fact looking into the bathroom mirror. Positioning the cinematic apparatus as the “mirror” allows the character to confront both himself and the audience – there is a call to attention on both sides.

Then the scene cuts to an over-the-shoulder shot of Richie, and we see his reflection as he looks in the mirror. He turns on the light above and begins to apply shaving cream. Next is a full close-up – he brings the razor to his face and makes one slow pass at his beard. Looking straight into the camera/mirror, he whispers “I’m going to kill myself tomorrow.”  There is a jump cut to a brief image of Richie at the start of the sequence, when he still had long hair and his beard, then an insert shot of his hands as he removes the blade from the razor. Up to this point, only one minute and eighteen seconds has passed. What follows in the next six seconds is the most dynamic shift within the sequence itself, and what sets the overall sequence apart from the rest of the film. There is a rapid montage of eighteen images – the same quantity as that of the jump cuts from the start of the scene – all taken from earlier in the film. There is now also an additional audio track to be heard by the careful listener, that of a faint, atonal hum, which plays throughout the rapid montage. Anderson comments on the DVD’s separate audio track that this montage was a “flashback in [Richie’s] mind, kind of an electrical thing.

The first image in the montage is of Mordecai, Richie’s falcon, with its blinder on, looking to its left. This cuts back to Richie in the present moment as he looks down and to his left. Then a shot of Mordecai turning his head to the right, followed by Richie in the bathroom looking down and to his right. There is another shot of Mordecai, but this time without his blinder, and then a final shot of Richie in the present moment. These first few images of the montage establish that Richie has cut his wrists (Anderson using the matching action of the falcon and Richie turning their heads to reveal this without actually showing it), as well as set up that some of the reasoning behind this act is to follow in the rest of the montage. The images subsequent to Richie cutting his wrists can be argued to be of things which both drove him to do it but also of things which he loves – it is their loss which lives with him as his failures, for he does not flashback to his defeat at the U.S. Nationals.

Within the quick montage, the first image is of course of Margot, in this instance a medium shot of her exiting the Greenline bus, from when she comes to meet Richie at the shipyard upon his return to America in the first act of the film. Originally the shot was in slow motion, set to Nico’s cover of James Taylor’s “These Days.”  Here it is only a flash, almost subliminal, while the Elliott Smith song still plays and the “hum” mentioned above continues. The next brief image is a long shot of Mordecai, approaching from afar, against a blank sky. Then there is a long shot of a younger Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) sitting at the end of a table, from the moment in the introduction when he informs the children that he and their mother are separating. The next image is a continuation of Margot getting off the bus, then there is another continuation, this of Mordecai in flight. The “hum” is still present at this point, but it has not changed from its quiet monotone. A medium shot of a smiling young Richie, standing in front of a school bus, is next, this taken from the introduction, when he and Margot ran away to live in the city public archives. The present-day Margot is shown again in her walk from the bus, then Mordecai again, getting closer. A wide shot of the young Margot follows, she is standing on the steps of the public archives and taking a picture, again taken from the introduction. Then the present day Margot leaving the bus still, Mordecai closer again, and then the next image is of young Margot and Richie in a sleeping bag, hiding under a bench in the African wing of the public archives. The present day Margot is shown next in her departure from the bus, then a shot of Mordecai as he flies overhead follows. At this point the “hum” builds in volume and turns into more of a burning sound, which matches the next image, that of Richie’s mother Etheline (Anjelica Huston) holding a cake with lit candles at Margot’s eleventh birthday, the night of her debut as a playwright, the last time Royal was invited over. Finally, the last image of the six-second sequence is of Margot again, the longest take (at one full second) of her leaving the bus. This shot, part of the slow-motion take from earlier in the film, is revisited the most in the sequence, and therefore resonates the most with Richie, no doubt because it was one of the first images he saw upon his return home. Margot is a paradox to Richie, representing both the possibility of true love and the curse of a forbidden desire. Though he attempts suicide largely because of her – Raleigh telling Margot in the hospital “you nearly killed your poor brother” – it is through this act, and the counsel of his father (during which Mordecai returns, Richie having set him free when he first came home, thus tying together the main images from the montage), that he later acts on his emotions and confesses to Margot.

After the montage, there is a POV shot of Richie’s hands draped over the sink (which is covered with the remnants of the act: his hair, wristbands and headbands, the scissors, razor and can of shaving cream).  Blood starts to run down his hands into the sink. This shot, and the last part of the prior montage, occurs during the bridge of the Smith song, so that only the acoustic guitar can be heard. The scene next cuts to a medium profile shot of Richie as he’s bent over the sink – he looks up at the mirror, turns towards the camera, and leans against the wall. His arms are covered with blood, making his shorn hair stick to them. As he slumps down along the wall to the floor, about to pass out, the camera lowers as well, and the volume of the song builds, which is something that was changed for the film, to add greater weight to the moment. Along this stylistic decision, the music and all ambient sound (such as the water running) then cuts out in the next image, which starts with an empty screen – a close up of the bathroom door, which serves to separate the actual suicide attempt from the next few scenes, as well as provide a brief respite for the viewer. At this point Dudley Heinsbergen (Stephen Lea Sheppard), Raleigh’s young test subject, opens the door and enters the room. He is framed in a close-up, which pans down to the floor as he discovers Richie, now lying in a pool of blood, and this same hand-held shot widens out to include all of Richie and Dudley, who is screaming, but the scene plays M.O.S., so nothing is heard. This is the first time in the film that the camera has not been on a stable apparatus, everything heretofore appearing smooth and carefully controlled. It is of course fitting that Anderson saves the change in camerawork for this scene, which is dramatically different from the rest of the film. It serves as a bridge from the fairly calm, ritualistic action of the suicide, even given the major change in editing, to the hurried nature of the camerawork in the next few images, as family members are shown hearing the news and rushing to the hospital. During these shots, immediately after Dudley finds Richie, the Smith songs starts up again, the acoustic guitar building to a crescendo until it stops abruptly when Margot arrives at the hospital and asks Dudley where Richie is. This event is what truly starts to bring the family together (albeit in a necessarily strained process), even though Royal had attempted to connect to everyone while he was staying there, under the guise of his phony “stomach cancer” but real eviction. With Richie’s attempted suicide, Anderson uses noticeably different style changes to capture the moment, and the reason and effect are both twofold.

One reason why the editing is so quick and somewhat abstract in the scene is that not only does it fit the pacing of the event – the immediate yet jumbled visceral sensation of the experience, but in pure filmic terms it is set apart in editing style because it is a unique occurrence given the rest of the film. In other words, the choice of rapid imagery, all jump-cuts and flashbacks, not only captures the “no, no, this isn't happening… and yet this is my entire reality at this moment” feeling, but it also lends more dramatic effect because of the complete breakdown of any previously established editing style in the film. The other reason for the change is to mark the start of the family truly opening up to each other – by showing a highly personal moment of Richie’s to the audience, and then having the characters deal with its consequences, Anderson allows a shift in tone so that the characters are viewed in a more intimate light with each other. The style up to that point had been heavily, classically structured, every detail precisely calculated – though the film may have looked “warm” in terms of color tones, the family was cut off from each other. As stated by the narrator (Alec Baldwin) at the end of the introduction, “virtually all memory of the brilliance of the young Tenenbaums was subsequently erased by two decades of betrayal, failure, and disaster.”  In approaching this one critical scene quite differently, stylistically, a transition is laid out for the rest of the film, which has a looser, faster-paced tone to it, befitting the bottled-up motivations of the characters finally being acted upon. The end of the film is about letting go of the past, both internally, of the characters’ failures and expectations in the fictional realm, and creatively, of the established “style” or “look” of the film – more dynamic choices are made in the last act in both cases.

This particular stylistic choice which was analyzed, the breakdown of the editing system by a rapid montage of abstract and flashback imagery, is realized particularly as a new “device” for a burgeoning auteur, for Anderson employed the same technique in a similarly charged emotional scene in his next and most recent film, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004). It is creative decisions like these that identify a young director who has already found methods with which to infuse his already meaningful stories with more depth and nuance, by using filmic techniques to match the emotional and historical context of his characters’ experiences.


  1. Where did you find your quotes from Wes Anderson?

  2. What scene you were referring to from The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou that is similar to this one?