Monday, September 25, 2023

Op-Ed: Andersonian Grief: Anger


I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.

In a Wes Anderson film, anger is shocking. There are angry, blustery characters, sure, but there’s real anger, too. This anger often takes the form of violence. It’s primal and lightning quick. Anderson’s characters are full of passion in spite of their dry deliveries and crippling ennui. They lash out when they feel there’s no other choice. In a brilliant montage within Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson pairs audio clips of Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) reading the letters they send back and forth combined with visuals of their home life where they let loose their emotions on the people around them. That’s like a lot of Andersonian protagonists. They may seem to be overly calm and collected, but when pushed they will shove and shove hard.

One of the hardest shovers in the Andersonian oeuvre is Chief (Bryan Cranston), the alpha stray who co-leads a non-traditional pack in Isle of Dogs. Chief fought his entire life. He scraped by on the streets. The human need for dogs to be subservient pushed Chief to militancy. As Chief says to every dog and human he meets, “I bite.” Though, this phrase is used differently each time Chief says it.

Initially, it is a warning. Chief tells them he’s ready to do what’s necessary, always ready to throwdown to protect what’s his. In the first scene we meet him, he and his pack are going toe to toe with another pack and Chief is at the forefront. He’s truly a mad dog. Like all angry beings, Chief is afraid of something. In his case, it’s that if he lets his guard down for one second he’ll be thrown away again. He had a family once, masters who could have been good to him and he lost it. He’s lost everything because he bites.

When he says he bites later on when he tells his story it’s more of an admonishment of his own behavior. He wants a home. He wants to be taken care of, but he bites. He couldn’t let the family be what he needed. He had to do it or they would have found another excuse. He bit. He bit a child and just like that he was back out the door. His anger wouldn’t let him go and he let it overtake him. Instead of trying to be a good dog, he remained a mad dog. The anger is his dominant personality trait. Much like the anger that dominates Steve Zissou (Bill Murray, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou).

Steve Zissou is a clown. He’s a clown in the eyes of his peers, his fans, his crew, and his financial backers both paid and romantic. It’s his furious charisma that keeps his crew close to him. He’ll shower them with affection one moment and verbally tear them apart in another. He’s aggressively homophobic, an inept womanizer, a poor leader, and a lousy scientist who’s been failing upward his entire career thanks to those smarter and more talented than him letting him take centerstage. It’s a wonder he has any allies at all. Though, all of that hides that he’s also in a tremendous amount of pain.

The person that means the most to Steve in the world was torn away from him. Esteban (Seymour Cassel) built Steve up and gave him a home in another person. Steve’s had people come and go from his life, but Esteban was his rock. Esteban may have curbed Steve’s worst impulses, not his bad ones, but his worst ones. It’s clear that when Ned (Owen Wilson) shows up, Steve sees a conduit into being the person Esteban was for him. He could be the mentor figure for Ned, he wants to be the mentor figure for Ned, but he never fully accepts that role because that means Ned could supersede him in the eyes of his crew, his family. 

Steve needs his anger, his machismo. He can’t let some young buck swoop in and charm everyone. Ned’s charm, kindness, and inquisitive nature only push Steve into an angrier place because he’s not Ned, just like he’ll never be Esteban. It takes a second loss for Steve to realize that he has to try and let his anger go, that it won’t heal him the way he wants it to. He tries to compete with Ned, but it’s a losing battle. As much as his crew is loyal to him, for some reason, they would easily follow a more caring leader that has their best interests at heart. Charisma is only good for a few bad ideas, after that the sheen wears off and the people move on.

Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman, Rushmore) is well on his way to becoming Steve Zissou. No, it’s not just their passing interest in oceanography, Max is seething with anger. He lets it out in short, quick bursts here and there. Usually, it’s a sophomoric display of pettiness. When he doesn’t like that his lead actor changes lines in his play or when he senses a challenger for the affections of Ms. Cross (Olivia Williams). It’s only when the only thing he’s ever been good at, being at Rushmore, is taken away, that his anger takes shape. It’s the terrifying calmness of a person who knows exactly what they’re doing and how their actions will affect others.

The loss of Rushmore compounds the grief Max is already suffering from the loss of his mother. She is the person who got him there by believing in his talents. He needs Rushmore to feel like he’s still someone in the world. Without it he’s nobody, like his father. When he and Herman Blume (Bill Murray) enter their prank war, which escalates beyond childishness and into real endangerment, Max is mad that Herman has started an affair with Ms. Cross, sure, but more than that it’s that Max’s inappropriate feelings for Ms. Cross which got him kicked out of Rushmore. If he hadn’t done the inadvisable and foolhardy thing of attempting to build an aquarium amid the baseball field, he would likely have skated by for another few months. Max’s angered grief blinds him to his own hubris in the matter. He lets his anger blind him to who the true mastermind of his own destruction is.

As a selfish teen with sociopathic tendencies, Max takes longer to realize how his actions have affected other people. He’s angry that they can’t see his brilliant vision. His sycophants don’t help him. The enabling adults in his life can’t stop him. It takes him losing even more than he ever thought he could to get him to look down at his shoe to see just how many people he’s stepped on. He sees that his anger bears no fruit. He’s young enough, even though he pretends to be much older, that his crossroads can change him for the better.

The things that set off anger in someone says a lot about them. Some of us will lash out at the drop of a hat, others can take a heap of punishment before reaching a breaking point. Most of Wes Anderson’s characters are bottled up. They have a passion that’s buried deep and most have a short fuse that will surprise viewers if they aren’t ready for it. Their anger is unhealthy and often violent. Their grief doesn’t come in stages, but as a wave, cresting and churning up all the other stages of grief along with it until the wave loses momentum as they reach acceptance. They come out of the wreckage on the other side better than they were. Their catharsis is often that the anger is what’s holding them back. 

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