By Catherine DiMercurio
Most people who know me are aware that I’m an introverted homebody type. I prize coziness. After a long week it takes a lot of motivation for me to get excited about going out, at night, among people. But when your daughter—who within months will be moving to campus—says hey, we should do this Wes Anderson costume party thing, you get motivated. My daughter, my son, and I all enjoy evenings at home spent watching movies, reading, and hanging out together. The fact that my almost-sixteen-year-old son, my eighteen-year-old daughter, and I truly enjoy each other’s company is a source of continual joy for me. I know going through the divorce, as hard as it was on all of us, brought us even closer together in a new way. Oddly, we are sometimes gifted with healthy, joyous by-products of trauma, like superheroes who come by their powers via spider bites or extreme exposure to gamma radiation.
My first Wes Anderson film was Rushmore. I remember watching it in my living room and thinking about how much it reminded me of two of my favorite films, The Graduate and Harold and Maude. I was hooked. My daughter was thirteen when Moonrise Kingdom came out on DVD and I let her watch it after she repeatedly asked if she could see it. My son sat in on subsequent viewings and they both responded to Wes Anderson’s quirky storytelling, his spot-on casting, and pretty much everything about his cinematography, even though they didn’t articulate their enjoyment in those terms. Over the years, they got caught up on his body of work and Wes became a shared obsession.
A Recipe for Wes Anderson-Level Awkwardness?
When my daughter suggested that we attend the Wes Anderson party, it was her idea that we invite my boyfriend, who is also an avid fan, as well. The party was an all-ages theme night at a local bar, and my son was on the fence about whether or not he wanted to go. He eventually declined, though he would have made an excellent Max Fischer. A few days before the event, after all costume-related items had been procured, I wondered about the potential awkwardness of the evening. There was the generalized social anxiety I typically experience before going out. And there was the more focused anxiety about heading to such an event with both my boyfriend and my daughter. This was new. The four of us—my kids, my boyfriend, and I—have spent time together as a group on a number of occasions, but we’ve explored this territory cautiously over the past year and a half, a strategy that has worked to our advantage. Nothing has felt rushed or forced. So, though I had no reason to believe that our interaction for the evening would be anything less than relaxed and enjoyable, I let the idea of it, the labels, get in my way. Me, boyfriend, teenage daughter. This might seem weird to people. Was it weird? Surely this mix went awry for lots of people. But, he wasn’t some random guy, and she wasn’t simply a stereotype of a teenage daughter. And even if it was weird that the three of us would socially interact in this way, as a friend of mine pointed out: this would be the way Wes would want it.
The Way We Connect to Character and Theme
This comment opened things up for me, and in particular, got me thinking about the costumes we had chosen. The Facebook event page exhorted us to dress up as our favorite Wes Anderson character. My daughter chose Suzy Bishop from Moonrise Kingdom, a teenage girl whose parents seem like they are on the verge of divorce. Suzy follows her heart and embarks on a wilderness adventure with the boy of her dreams, her record player, and her cat. My boyfriend, one of three brothers, chose Francis Whitman, one of three brothers, from Darjeeling Limited. Francis is organized and focused and attempts to re-bond with his brothers after the death of their father.
Throughout the film, Francis sports a bandaged and bruised face and walks with a limp, these injuries having resulted from an accident brought on by the deep grief he experiences after his father’s death. And I chose Felicity Fox, from Fantastic Mr. Fox. Felicity is strong and tenacious, loving and realistic. At one point, she tells Mr. Fox “I love you, but I shouldn’t have married you.” She rightly bristles at being lied to by her husband, and lashes out after his dismissive comment that he is, after all, a wild animal. She points out that he is also a husband and father. A fierce and protective mother, Mrs. Fox is perhaps most deeply hurt by Mr. Fox’s deceit because it has put their son, as well as their nephew, in danger. This gives you a sense of Wes, who is able to develop nuance and emotional depth even in a stop motion animation film based on a Roald Dahl children’s story.
Wes returns again and again to themes related to absent or deeply flawed fathers, troubled relationships between siblings, and mothers that are present and protective but in many ways distant, or alternately, decidedly unavailable. Despite the recurring nature of these themes, the characters rarely become monochromatic archetypes. Even when Wes’s settings seems outlandish or far away—a fox hole or a train rattling through India—the way his characters relate to one another with regard to family dynamics is, I believe, what draws people into his stories.
So a Teenage Girl, a Fox, and a Bandaged Man with a Cane Walk into a Bar . . .
. . . and had a relaxed and enjoyable time. We sat and talked about our favorite Wes Anderson films and moments, we struck up conversations with those around us about Wes and other directors, other films. We people-watched, admired others’ costumes, laughed together, and congratulated ourselves on leaving the house and being social. We were home just after 10 pm.
Later in the weekend, I happened upon a Facebook conversation about Lady Bird, a film I have not yet seen. Whether or not it was well liked by the people discussing it, the film clearly sparked introspection about parent-child relationships, perhaps in the same way that Wes Anderson films do, a little through humor, and a little through darkness. We come at these stories through our experiences as children, parents, and siblings. Sometimes the portrayal of families in film resonates with us in a profound way and sometimes it leaves us feeling disconnected, almost as if we are being left out of a private joke.
This left me thinking about Max Fischer, in Rushmore, and his desire to tell stories through theater. In the end, Max’s theatrical endeavors aren’t about the subject matter of the plays he writes, but really, about the fact that he writes plays as a way to remain connected with his mother, who died when he was young. It was his mother who supported his art, who gave him his typewriter after he wrote the play that got him admitted to Rushmore as a child. In fact, it was his mother’s act of submitting the play to Rushmore that got the young Max into the private school. Max’s connection to his deceased mother is at the heart of his relationship to Rushmore Academy and to his art as a playwright. And throughout the film, we see Max searching for connections and meaning, undoubtedly as a way of coping with this deep sense of loss.
This is why writer’s write, why movies are made, and why people seek art, whether it be on film, in print, on canvas, or molded out of clay. We all have concrete or ambiguous losses, pain that shifts in form and intensity as we get older. Whether we make art or consume it or both, the art-person relationship is as much about mitigating loss and seeking connection or empathy as it is about entertainment. These desires are also at the root of our often very strong reactions to film or books: I loved that book. I hated that film. It spoke to me. It left me feeling disappointed.
I talk about “the road” a lot, as it is a metaphor that endures in its ability to help me make sense of life. And I think attempting to make sense of it all is what we are called to do as artists and what we seek as consumers of art. We simply want to make sense of this often confusing and painful journey and to feel a little less alone, to be in on the joke.
Enjoy the road. Love, Cath