My Friend Wes (The 2,008-Word Essay)

The Wes Anderson Collection

The first thing I notice about the book is its weight. The Wes Anderson Collection by Matt Zoller Seitz is almost a square foot large and weighs over 4.5 pounds. I think, as I hoist the solid book, the bright cover wrapped with intricate drawings by Max Dalton: this is a good deal for forty bucks. The book has the feel of a photo album—dense with decades of memories—and I open it with a similar reverence, because there they are: all my old friends.

***

I saw The Royal Tenenbaums in theatres with both of my parents, sometime in the winter 2002, when I was in eighth grade. Oh, a movie with Bill Murray, we said. We love Bill Murray! Off we went. But this would be no ordinary movie-viewing experience for me. This was not giggling in the back row with my friends during Harry Potter or being the target of a sloppy, off-mark kiss, courtesy of my middle-school boyfriend in Spider-Man. I sat between my parents, and as Margot Tenenbaum disembarked from the Green Line Bus to greet her adopted brother and true love Richie Tenenbaum, my life changed. There is a beat of silence as they see each other, the action slows, and the film takes a deep breath as the soundtrack slips into the soulful opening of Nico’s “These Days.” Something split and surged below my collarbone. I fell in love.

On our way home from the movie, I demanded my parents stop at Barnes & Noble to see if they had The Royal Tenenbaums soundtrack in stock. They didn’t. I ordered it, and when the CD arrived, I listened to it continuously. This was not unusual—I am obsessive with music. I play an album, artist, or one song on repeat for a week, month, half a year, until I find something new. I sensed, though, that this attachment to the Tenenbaums soundtrack was not a phase. The CD was full of artists who would become favorite musicians—Nico, Paul Simon, The Velvet Underground—but I was smitten with the entire aesthetic of the movie. I imagined Alec Baldwin narrating my life. I loved the overhead and straight-on shots, the flat light, the faded colors and serious faces like in an old photograph, the on-screen labeling of characters and objects, the meticulously detailed sets. It felt similar to a Polaroid I had my mother take of me the summer before. I orchestrated the shot myself: I sat cross-legged in the grass, my terrier to my left, my pet tortoise straight in front, all centered in the frame as I stared straight into the lens and did not smile. I thought Wes—yes, in my head we were on a first-name basis—would approve.

Fig. A: A Polaroid from summer 2001

Fig. A: A Polaroid from summer 2001

Seitz’s book came out on October 8, and I owned it days later. A friend said he was planning to buy it for me for Christmas, but I couldn’t wait. When I open The Wes Anderson Collection, I go straight for the section on The Royal Tenenbaums. Seitz’s book is divided into seven sections, plus an introduction and a preface. One section for each film to date, in chronological order: Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), and Moonrise Kingdom (2012). Besides hundreds of photographs, notes, drawings, movie stills, and pictures of Wes himself in his charmingly thick glasses giving direction, each section has an essay by Seitz and an interview with Wes. Each is pleasingly subtitled with its own word-count (“The 1,082-Word Essay” or “The 5,213-Word Interview”), which feels very Wes—everything organized, everything labeled.

I start with the Tenenbaums, because you never get over your first. In 2004, I saw The Life Aquatic with my high school boyfriend. While I adored the Bowie-saturated soundtrack and Bill Murray as the lead—We love Bill Murray!—I wasn’t immediately taken. I loved Wes’s version of New York—“the Big Apple as dreamed by a young person who has never been there and only knows it secondhand, through literary and cinematic and musical sources,” as Seitz says—but I was uneasy with the stylized ocean world. Actually, I think I just missed Margot and Richie. By this point, Margot was my default Halloween costume. I already had the hair and the eyeliner, all I added was a fake fur, a polo dress, a barrette, a cigarette, and the illusion of a wooden finger. Easy.

Fig. B1: The author as Margot Tenenbaum for Halloween in 2004

Fig. B2: The author as Margot Tenenbaum for Halloween in 2007

Fig. B: The author as Margot Tenenbaum for Halloween in 2004 and 2007

I wanted to be Margot every day. She is a playwright. She lives in New York. She is brilliant, mysterious, beautiful, and dark. She is a secret smoker. I wrote a play in high school. I wanted to go to college in New York (and was rejected). At Wellesley, I snuck cigarettes so I could have a secret of my own. I borrowed Bottle Rocket and Rushmore from a friend. I saw The Darjeeling Limited and Fantastic Mr. Fox as soon as they came out. Wes has been influenced by many of my favorite authors, as Seitz confirms: Dahl, Nabokov, Salinger, and Koningsburg’s From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I have trouble keeping up with television or remembering to see movies, but Wes became the exception. I mark release dates on my calendar. I buy tickets ahead of time. I own all his DVDs. Wes describes his first viewing of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows: “Not only did I just enjoy this experience, now I think I would like to model my future on this somehow.” That’s how I feel about Wes.

I loved his attention to detail—from book covers to stationery letterhead to Dalmatian mice to needlepoints of his sets in his sets. I loved his God’s-eye view—“it’s as if the scene has taken a brief time-out to let the viewer admire objects that define people,” writes Seitz. Every time I rewatched a Wes, I found something new; I started to flood my own writing and photographs with details. Wes loves the analog. He prefers Kodak, Technicolor, Panavision, miniatures and stop-motion. I spent hours in my college darkroom, manipulating silver gelatin by hand, shooting 4×5” negatives with a giant old camera. My images were of people staring unsmiling into the lens: a Wes signature.

Then there is the music. Wes is rivaled only by Scorsese in his flawless matching of music and motion. As a visual person, songs stick to me when I have a scene to match them with, and Wes knows how to get me. Over a decade later, Margot stepping off the bus to Nico still gives me chills. I saw Sigur Rós in concert and cried when they played “Starálfur,” the song that swells when Zissou finds the Jaguar Shark. In college, I joined the Wellesley radio station, WZLY, and had my own show—Soundtrack System. An excuse to play my favorite Wes soundtracks on air.

Fig. C1

Fig. C: Advertisements for the author's radio show, Soundtrack System, circa 2007

Fig. C: Advertisements for the author’s radio show, Soundtrack System, circa 2007

***

I first met Richie Corrado one snowy night in the winter of 2012. I was two years out of Wellesley and teaching at an all-girls middle school in Boston. I spent the day in my apartment—editing sixth graders’ essays and affixing stickers to vocab quizzes. I took a break to make nachos and watch The Life Aquatic with my roommate. Finally, when I couldn’t stand being inside any longer and the snow had lightened, I met two friends at a South Boston bar. There I was introduced to Richie, a childhood friend of one of my friends. We started to talk: about our old cars, about our dead dogs, about our chronic sinus problems. I was charmed by the conversation but also by his name. Here was a real life scruffy, shaggy, dark-haired Richie. He listened to records. I could picture him in a sweatband and aviators. Maybe he had a pet falcon.

Richie and I started to see each other. When he revealed he wanted to study marine biology—you know, like Steve Zissou—I was smitten. The Life Aquatic was his favorite Wes, and it seemed like fate. In May 2012, we saw Moonrise Kingdom together. I saw the movie in theatres three times—once with Richie, once with my mom and grandfather (“Well, pal,” my grandfather had said afterward, “That was… different.”), and once with both of my parents, à la the first Royal Tenenbaums viewing. During the movie, Richie and I held hands but we did not kiss. In our mid-twenties, we no longer needed the darkness of a theatre for intimacy. Besides, we were engrossed. I felt a personal attachment to Moonrise Kingdom. The story takes place on a fictitious New England island called New Penzance, but the map is based on Fishers Island, New York—a nine-mile-long landmass wedged between Long and Block Islands, where my family has rented a house every summer of my life. When my mom saw the film, she was convinced that it was partially filmed on Fishers. The idea that Wes himself might have been on my beloved summertime island was too much to handle.

Fig. D1

Fig. D: Comparison of New Penzance and Fishers Island, NY

Fig. D: Comparison of New Penzance and Fishers Island, NY

Seitz, too, connects to Wes through the personal. When Seitz first saw The Royal Tenenbaums at a film critics’ screening, he realized a shot included his house in Brooklyn: “Any pretense of cool professionalism vanished, and I jabbed my finger at the screen like a straw-hatted yokel from an old movie and blurted, ‘Hey! That’s my house!’” Seitz adds that for a long time he had trouble watching The Royal Tenenbaums because it stung too close to his own parents’ divorce: “It opened up scars and made them wounds again.”

As the lights went up on Moonrise Kingdom, I told Richie that I might have a new favorite Wes. Let’s compare, he said. We spent that summer rewatching and discussing all six other movies. We agreed that the older we got, the more we could acutely relate to the feelings of loss, confusion, failure, and faded glory present in almost all of Wes’s characters. We discussed the dollhouse-like sets, how he scales down the world to a more manageable size. Michael Chabon writes the introduction for Seitz’s book, and he describes this as putting the world in a box: inside, “you see something dark and glittering, an orderly mess of shards, refuse, bits of junk and feather and butterfly wing, tokens and totems of memory, maps of exile, documentation of loss. And you say, leaning in, ‘The world!’”

Wes movies became something Richie and I did together. He excitedly introduced me to his friend with an elaborate tattoo of a Jaguar Shark around his right bicep; for Richie’s birthday, I bought him a set of Zissou button-pins. We laughed over Saturday Night Live’s Wes parody, The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders. By watching Wes’s filmography together, I felt that I was sharing something personal with Richie. There is a part of me that doesn’t make sense until you’ve seen all of Wes’s movies. Richie had seen them all. He understood.

But many people understand. Wes has become a cult leader. Browsing on Etsy.com, I fell into a black hole when I discovered Wes-inspired crafts: Sam and Suzy earrings, a Zissou Society ring, a custom-made Margot polo dress. The end of Seitz’s book has two pages of fan tattoos and art. It’s a cult, a club, a family. Whenever someone credits Wes with a film that is not his—He did I Heart Huckabees too, right?—I am defensive. No, I say, too strongly. You don’t understand, I think. Not like I do, or like Richie does, or like Seitz—who has been following Wes’s career since 1993.

***

Save the date, I texted Richie recently, March 7, 2014—the day that Wes’s next film, Grand Budapest Hotel, is released. I wait impatiently, but until then, I am comforted by Seitz’s book. I curl up, flipping through the glossy photos of familiar faces: Steve looking at the ocean, Suzy with her binoculars, Max writing on a chalkboard, and Margot stepping off the bus.

– E.B. Bartels is a native of the Boston area, currently living in New York City. Her nonfiction has appeared in Agave MagazineVitamin W, The Wellesley Review, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35. She is a regular contributor to Wellesley Underground, and her piece “Just a Trim” was a nonfiction honorable mention in New Millennium Writings 36th Competition. www.ebbartels.com

1 Comment

Filed under Hooray Fiction!

One Response to My Friend Wes (The 2,008-Word Essay)

  1. Pingback: My Friend Wes (The 2,008-Word Essay) | E.B. Bartels

Leave a Reply