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Best Shot: "The Royal Tenenbaums"

In the Hit Me With Your Best Shot series anything with a webspace is invited to join us in choosing a single "best" shot from pre-selected films.

When I first saw The Royal Tenenbaums in 2001, I loved it but wondered quietly if it didn't lose a little steam as it went. That'd be a bittersweet but fitting artistic fate for a movie that's about a family of child prodigies who can't escape the long shadows of their early promise and exist in a kind of static bewilderment at their present emotional state(s). As it turns out The Royal Tenenbaums, unlike the Tenenbaum children, only improves with age. It's looking more and more like Wes Anderson's indisputable masterpiece.

Still, it's easy to see where my initial feeling sprang from. The movie opens so well, with unimproveable voiceover work by Alec Baldwin (clinically observant but never unfeeling) detailing the overachieving childhoods of Chas (Ben Stiller), Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Richie (Luke Wilson), followed by endearingly deadpan "22 years later" character cards that it just has to be downhill from there? 

Not so.

The movie keeps reintroducing us this eccentric troubled clan. I don't normally choose iconic familiar shots as "best" both out of fear of cliché and out of the archaeological instincts of the cinephile -- always looking for new things to admire in a beloved film. But I give up here. Whenever I think of The Royal Tenenbaums, I think of Margot and the greenline bus.

We've already met Margot twice: Once as a precocious unhappy child playwright. Then as a beautiful miserable adult in a brilliant two-part scene wherein Anderson invites us to compare the omniscient narrator's observations about Margot with her detached relationship to her husband (Bill Murray, besotted and baffled and hilarious) and her instant regression with her endlessly supportive mother Etheline (Anjelica Huston, perfect throughout). "Why does he get to do that?" Margot whines about her brother moving back home.

This, my choice for Best Shot is our third major introduction.

With each introduction Anderson gives us not just more character details, but reenforcing self-referential humor (how great is the "no smoking" sign on the bus in a scene that at first feels devoid of the usual cluttered wit of the Anderson frame?), and fresh ways of thinking about these indelible characters. In our third introduction, though we're already as baffled by her as Raleigh and as worried for her as Etheline, we're suddenly seeing her through Richie's eyes; her sad-eyed beauty is intact but she's lit up by sunshine and meant to be loved obsessively... or even incestuoustly. Who can blame Richie? 

The movie's obsessive accumulation of introductions, its front loaded feeling, are a gorgeous almost spiritual mirror to the Tenenbaums own experience, continual promise trapped in static adolescent pain. It takes something as jarring as weddings and deaths to nudge them forward.

These are the other two shots I considered, both of them because of Margot. In truth when I'm watching the movie it feels perfectly balanced as an ensemble piece (and I love every character... especially Pagoda and Etheline) but outside of the actual experience of watching it, Margot tends to absorb my imagination.

Wes Anderson understands, as too few modern directors do, that two, three, four and even five-shots can sometimes give you more information about a single character than a closeup of that same character can; you need to see how they fit into the world they live in. Margot internalizes her otherness as the adopted child and the movie beautifully finds its way in to this girl's notoriously secretive headspace.

This view of Margot apart from her family is repeated in the hospital scene where she leans against a door while the other characters huddle near Richie's bed, barraging him with questions about his suicide attempt. She's inside the "Recovery Room" but she's not healing.

Of course it's dark, it's a suicide note."


This time Wes Anderson and his cinematographer Robert Yeoman move the camera in for a heartbreak closeup. Margot is further away from Richie than anyone in the room but she's the closest to him. They're just going to have to be secretly in love with each other and leave it at that.

Armchair Audience [Best Shot First Timer. Welcome!]
For Your Speculation [Best Shot First Timer. Welcome !]
Intifada "died tragically rescuing his family..."
Serious Film "wounded zebra"
Antagony & Ecstasy "in all honesty, my second favorite shot"
Low Resolution "...well, it can't be very good for your eyes anyway"
Okinawa Assault
Film Actually [Royal Tenenbaums Virgin!]
Pussy Goes Grrr "Wes Anderson never wastes a frame." 
Movies Kick Ass "group hug"
Against the Hype [Welcome him back!]  
Encore Entertainment ...

Final 4 of "Hit Me" Season 3 (Join us!)
August 1st How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
August 8th Sherlock Jr (1924)... only 44 minutes long and available on Netflix Instant Watch. 
August 15th Singin in the Rain (1952) for Gene Kelly's centennial month!
August 22nd Dog Day Afternoon (SEASON 3 FINALE - 40 years ago this very day the events in the film take place)

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Reader Comments (20)

Margot has to be one of my top 5 favorite fictional characters in books or film.

July 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBia

Great movie choice. Love the shots. I enjoyed "Moonrise Kingdom," but I don't think Anderson is ever going to top this movie.

July 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

I posted mine! It's short and it's my first time (!) but I wanted to make sure it was included. :)

July 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBigTed

I'm a huge fan of Tenenbaums, so I'm glad it came up for "Best Shot." My post is here:

Can't wait to see the shots that you and everybody else chose!

July 25, 2012 | Registered CommenterAndreas

my shot:

July 26, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterremy

a better link:

July 26, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterremy

remy -- i almost chose that. that's like #4 for me. hee

July 26, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

My favorite shot as well. It's just that well done. It's a perfect moment in film.

One of those scenes that when you're at a party someone yells to 'Shut the fuck up!' and everyone, dazed and confused, watches silently with pupils as large as the moon, and soak in the kindness that Wes, Paltrow and Nico combine to give them.

July 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBeau

MARGOT!!!! We all love her! YAY.

I hate that my article essentially came down to a "Gwyneth is lovely" post, but that's where my feelings ultimately settle regarding the film - even as it depends on the goodness of the entire ensemble. (The best Stiller has ever worked for me, for example, and - dare I say it - even Hackman? At least post 80s.)

(Grrr, no Kate H. film for the final few weeks? I'll deal.)

July 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

Gorovaias' performance really stand out for me. My favorite shot would be the one where young Chas asked his mother for money, right at that moment Margot looked away from her book to something off-screen. That look kills me every time.

July 26, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertombeet

The second shot I would choose is the deadpan-look of all doctors(especially Bill Murray)while pushing Richie to the emergency room right after he committed suicide. The music made it even more humorous.

July 26, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertombeet

Andrew K.: I'd fully agree with that. I mean, I enjoyed his Unforgiven work, but 1992 wound up not having many spectacuarly good OR spectacularly bad male supporting performances, to the point that Danny DeVito's Penguin work got nominated for a supporting Actor Razzie. That performance is OTT, yes, but 1, It's a LEAD role (pleasantly surprisingly for a Batman movie, if there's a plum supporting role, it's actually Batman), 2. It's a comic book movie, so OF COURSE an actor is going to indulge their hammiest instincts and 3. They passed over Keanu's TERRIBLE British accent from Bram Stoker's Dracula to cite it.

July 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I REALLY wanted to do this one but just didn't have time. Ah, well. Here's a short version of what I would have written.

I was either 16 or 17 when I saw The Royal Tenenbaums upon its first release, and I just didn't get it. Something about the tone, I think, which is very tricky throughout the film (Wes Anderson's films are much more complex than people give them credit for), just didn't sit right with me at the time. It also probably didn't help that I saw it with my parents and they didn't like the film at all. But, for some reason, the film stuck with me in ways that only really great films do. In college, we watched it as part of my film studies class in my junior year, when I was 21, and it was like I was seeing the film for the first time. The film really spoke to me, on just about every level, but especially with its dark, dark, "quirky" (GOD I hate that word, but it applies) humor.

I feel like there about four shots that scream out "BEST SHOT!" here: That iconic shot of Margot getting off the bus; Richie's arms at the sink after he's slit his wrists; Royal, Chas, and the two boys on the garbage truck; and that game closet, which is arranged so perfectly I could just spit. For me, the "Needle in the Hay" sequence has always been the standout sequence of the film, the piece that haunted me most after I saw it. The best shot, though, isn't Richie standing in front of the mirror, or his arms over the sink as the blook trickles down, but the shot immediately after he does it - where the sound cuts out and Dudley enters and the camera quickly pans down to Richie and back up to Dudley, who silently screams. It's such a harrowing shot, mostly because the quick camera movements, which Anderson uses so sparingly, are mostly used for comic effect prior to this, and this one feels so different.

But my favorite shot(s) are the ones that make me laugh inappropriately loudly whenever I watch the film: The repeated tracking shots of two people walking and talking, until one drops out of the frame. The first is when Royal tells Ethel he's dying, and she keeps walking out of the frame, then comes back. Anjelica Huston's timing is so fucking perfect - you can actually feel her stop, turn around, and walk back OFF SCREEN, without any visual or aural cues. The second is between Ethel and Henry at the dig site, when he falls into a hole as she keeps walking and talking to him. Again, the timing of the shot is so perfect. So few directors use long takes anymore that it makes me unbelievably happy when someone like Wes Anderson so clearly loves them, and knows how to use them.

July 26, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

There's something willowy and almost inhuman, in a broken sense, about Margot, Paltrow holds onto the melancholic expression from her eyes. It's as if flashing out a character who denies her own happiness, which is sad no matter what quirky spin Anderson puts in to her on the surface.

And for a quirky director Anderson doesn't shy away from borderline taboo sexual topics and from the moment Etheline hangs Ritchie's painting of Margot I could see how Anderson classily handles their relationship, much more sensitively done than in Rushmore.

July 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo

Great pieces everyone! I'm so upset I didn't get my piece on this done in time; Dog Day or bust.

July 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Z

denny -- can i just say i love you for writing a whole essay in the comments? this series is so rewarding when there's feedback and different angles to consider.

also the long take without cuts, everyone knows I cherish these, so i'm glad other movie lovers do. I'm mystified that it's only ever auteurs that use them. You'd think even hacks would try them now and then ;)

July 26, 2012 | Unregistered Commenternathanielr

Here's one part that didn't make it to final version, but read it and see how rich of details this part is. Wes Anderson, like Tarantino, is one of the few directors who really care for every single moment of the movie.

Right after Margot leaves the tent

"Richie picks up the stack of books off the table next to his cot. The book on top is Family of Geniuses. Then there are Margot’s books, Raleigh’s book, Henry’s book and Eli’s book. He spreads them out on the floor among his Matchbox cars and tennis trophies. A dalmation mouse appears and crawls among them. The record ends."

July 26, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertombeet


You absolutely can! :-)

And seriously, you would think that hacks would at least attempt one long take per film, wouldn't you? It pisses me off that modern movie-makers don't seem to appreciate their value. But then, often when people do attempt them, they get slammed for it (to my memory, Joe Wright got criticised and praised in equal measure for that stunning Dunkirk sequence in Atonement). Long takes are not equal to shouting out "LOOK AT ME!" They're just another tool in the filmmaker's toolbox.

July 27, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

What a great choice for "Best Shot". I've really enjoyed looking at the contributor's choices. I need to watch this movie again. My favorite shot was always the crying on the tennis court, but there's obviously so much in terms of composition that I didn't see. Thanks for doing this Best Shot before I see Moonrise Kingdom.

July 27, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteradri

denny: I think the issue is the "hacks" want to entertain people and long cuts are associated with "self consciously artistic." In the extreme cases, (Russian cinema in particular with those long shots that are silent and sumptuous), I see where the studio hacks are coming from by avoiding overly long shots. However, take the recent Prince of Persia movie. Cuts every two seconds like clockwork (dramatic scenes and action scenes) for the ENTIRE MOVIE, without fail. Moulin Rouge settled into slower editing! CRANK 2 has moments of respite! Nolan's first two Batman films were only like that in their action scenes! (Haven't seen the third.)

July 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia
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