Shedding Tears for Royal Tenenbaum: A Liturgical Approach

Tears for Royal Tenenbaum

It was strange to cry watching The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), embarrassing. It is not the sort of movie to make a grown person cry; that was not my reaction countless other times I watched the film. I did not anticipate it. For me, the films of Wes Anderson had always offered merely a playful, nerdy indulgence, a sideshow from the serious. But that obviously changed for me at some point. This movie at least, perhaps his best, had now done something different to me, evinced by unexpected tears.

To re-experience a film registers change. What had been to me for so long simply quirky kitsch was now something more earnest. The movie did not change, I changed. Which, among other things, is what movies, of course, can do: reveal change. But, it was still strange that the movies that would register change for me would turn out to be the movies of Wes Anderson. How is it that these, of all the more sobering films made, would show me something about myself and my faith, and how each had developed, than other more explicitly religious or philosophical films?

I first discovered Wes Anderson, alongside so many of my demographic, watching his second feature, Rushmore (1998). The awkwardly adolescent Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), pining for a maturity still beyond him, disturbingly puerile and misogynistic yet still twee and cool: barely beyond my teens when it came out, I admired and identified with Max, ignorant of the destructiveness of his untamed drives. Because I was, of course, still quite ignorant of my own. Oblivious to the darker suggestions of the film, the morality of a mourning woman stalked by both man and boy, for me, not yet genuinely grownup, Max Fischer simply exemplified an unpopular alternative cool. His delusions of grandeur mirrored my own. My initial take was plainly shallow, adolescently sexist, the cheap consumption of what I considered accessibly hip.

Not until my early forties did I discover what one critic termed the “melancomic” quality of Anderson’s films.[1] Played by Gene Hackman, Royal, a character in The Royal Tenenbaums eerily resembles my late grandfather in both looks and character. My grandfather, like Royal, was estranged but never divorced from my grandmother. He too had two sons and a daughter (my mother). He was a failed actor who only allowed his grandchildren to call him by his surname (we could only call him “Drake”), but he was always in our lives—hard but lovable nonetheless. He was an outlier, an odd man, but he never abandoned us.

Royal is a caricature of my grandfather, how I imagine him were he more successful. Grown now, I realize the influence Drake had on me. He remains the archetypal father in my psychology. It belongs to the brilliance of the film, that such outlandish characters are so identifiable. “We are all Tenenbaums,” Matt Zoller Seitz wrote.[2] For me, this is especially hauntingly true, because in Drake I had already met Royal Tenenbaum. This is why, I am certain, why of all of Anderson’s oeuvre, this film was the first to have such a profound effect upon me.

What moved me to tears was the scene near the end of the movie when Royal colorfully admits his irascible character to Mr. Sherman, personally accepting what everyone had known for decades. “I’ve been considered an asshole for about as long as I can remember. That’s just my style,” Royal says. A few minutes later in the film, he says to his son, “Sorry I let you down, Chas. All of you.” He gives his son Chas (Ben Stiller) a new dog. The old dog, Buckley, was run over and lay dead, unseen in the background of the shot. The new dog, a dalmatian, resembles the mice the earlier wunderkind Chas genetically modified. In this scene father is rebound to son—a moment strangely sacrificial. “Had a rough year, dad,” Stiller’s character says, as Royal touches his head to comfort him. The scene is the heart of this film about the trauma of divorce: the healing of that unique sort of family fracture or at least the desire for healing.

That is what I did not see the first time I watched The Royal Tenenbaums, what I saw only in my forties, now a married father of five and decades removed from my own parents’ divorce and my grandfather’s odd estranged existence. I had gone underneath the uniquely beautiful aesthetic of Wes Anderson’s films and discovered their psychology. What critic Devin Orgeron argued—that “Anderson’s films are all about family structure, its absence, its dissolution, its rebirth”—took me two decades of watching the film to learn.[3] I simply could not see this in my twenties, only in my forties. As I said, movies do not change, we do.

As Sophie Monks Kaufman beautifully describes her own experience watching the film, only an older me could slide into the “unrestrained melancholy of the film.” “I cried and I cried. It felt amazing,” she wrote.[4] Such is exactly the strange experience Anderson’s films offer—beautiful melancholic self-examination, like play therapy. As Kathryn Reklis put it, “Anderson offers the viewer an experience of authentic self-discovery through artifice and craft.”[5] For me, this self-discovery came the hundredth time I watched The Royal Tenenbaums. It was the beginning of a re-imagining of myself, of film, life, and even faith.

But first came Wes Anderson fandom. Bottle Rocket (1996), Anderson’s first feature, which most fans do not see first, was filmed in my hometown of Dallas. The greatest movie ever shot in Dallas, Zoller Seitz once wrote, a large portion of it was filmed just a few miles from my home: at St. Mark’s School of Texas and Frank Lloyd Wright’s John Gillin residence just down the road.[6] And so, like any good fan, I hunted these places down simply to see them. Yet it was the film itself that pushed me into even more serious reflection on the films of Wes Anderson. Bottle Rocket both aesthetically and characteristically captures what is still often morally true of Dallas, my rather affluent part of Dallas especially.

Dignan (Owen Wilson) and Anthony (Luke Wilson) are privileged and aimless. They are both distant from their family, they pathetically and comedically seek out criminal adventures and also the comforts of a criminal family in Mr. Henry’s gang. It is a quest that goes nowhere, only from fantasy to prison to fantasy again. Bottle Rocket is a parable of the spiritual poverty of privileged suburban wasteslands. “But I never wanted to answer another water-sports question or see any of these people again for the rest of my life,” Luke Wilson’s character, Anthony, says, explaining why he checked himself into a mental health facility. It is a movie literally and spiritually close to home, a comedy more probing than it first appears.

The Faithful and the Cinema

These, undoubtedly, are mere ordinary reflections and ordinary experience: to be moved by particular films, by a certain director, and to be made a fan. Yet, as undoubtedly, they are reflections provoking deeper consideration, incitement films have always offered. The screened image “criticizes life,” Paul Valéry suggested.[7] That has always been the case. For Gilles Deleuze, the “theory of cinema” was a philosophical practice independent of cinema itself.[8]

Movies have, since their inception, caused an enormous and varied range of reaction and theoretical reflection both popular and elite. Likewise, such reflection occasionally borders on the spiritual or even the theological. The lines are often blurred between cinematic reflection and theological reflection. Again, Valéry said his soul lived on the “all powerful and animated screen.”[9] Not at all a fan’s hyperbole, he was making a philosophical and ultimately theological claim.

Thinking seriously, and even philosophically, about cinema is as old as the medium itself. And equally old is the explicitly Christian thought about it. Christians have been interested in movies since the beginning and indeed have played a role in the development of the industry.[10] Likewise, the creators of cinema have never been able to rid themselves entirely of religious fascination: from the Lumière Brothers’ The Passion (1898) to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), from DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927) through Ingmar Bergman’s religious films to Kevin Smith to Terence Malik, the sacred remains a subject of film, and often profitably.

Even films not explicitly religious provoke religious discussion. Film studies conducted from within particular religious commitments, Robert K. Johnston asserts, is a “relatively new discipline,” a way of thinking theologically about film as such, patently religious films and films of all kinds.[11] Yet, as I said, thinking about movies from a religious standpoint is as old as movies themselves, at least ever since the Reverend Herbert A. Jump wrote “The Religious Possibilities of the Motion Picture” in 1910, likening movies to the parables of Jesus.[12]

Christian engagement has throughout the history of cinema varied from openness and enthusiasm to resistance and hostility. For either a certain film, a director, or actor, Christians have often been simultaneously both enamored and anxious. From Will Hays to the Catholic Legion of Decency to today’s cancellers of the allegedly immoral. Cecil B. DeMille, for example, with his sometimes fleshy religious films, inspired both faith and fear (especially of impurity) and also confusion among religious viewers, Protestants often offended at one turn, Catholics at another.[13] Parodied in the Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar! (2016), in a funny scene where faith leaders in a focus group conducted by Josh Brolin’s character, Eddie Mannix, squabble mostly with each other, in real life, confusion, caution, and infatuation have long marked religious viewers’ experience of cinema—and it still does.

Clearly, however, “dialogue and interaction are a better response.”[14] Such is the attitude, one assumes, of the majority of Christians today, those who think about film and those who simply watch movies. Their viewing habits, the data suggests, are basically indistinct from secular spectators.[15] As Saint John Paul II said, cinema is a “place of reflection,” a tool for bringing diverse people together.[16] Engagement and conversation, therefore, are better than disengagement and boycott. Hence the welcome rise and maturation of genuinely religious film studies. Cinema belongs to the modern agora. Christians, thus, belong there too.

But what is it to think religiously, or from within religious commitments, about cinema? Or, what is it to think about cinema, considering faith and religion? For many, it is to examine filmmakers themselves, their religious influences. Kathryn Reklis, for example, thinks the mise-en-scènes characteristic of Wes Anderson’s films suggests “his own Catholic upbringing.”[17] Pauline Kael, on the other hand, saw in directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, and Robert Altman what she took to be a Catholic sense of “macabre humor.”[18] The Jesuit film critic and historian, Richard A. Blake, calls this the “afterimage,” evidence of the influence upon some filmmakers of shared Catholic beliefs and practices, giving each in different ways a still discernible “characteristically Catholic view of the world.”[19]

Another way to think religiously about cinema is to note the ways in which films sometimes frame the sacred, and also the conventional, often in humorous or satirical ways, tempering thereby cultural and religious pretensions. This, André Bazin suggested, is what Charlie Chaplin achieved in so many of his movies, like The Pilgrim (1923) in which he plays an escaped convict pretending to be a preacher.[20] This absurdist framing of the sacred is present in Anderson’s films, for instance in The Darjeeling Limited (2007) when the Whitman brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrian Brody, Jason Schwartzman) ignorantly and ridiculously appropriate Hindu ritual and in the wedding scenes in Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and The Royal Tenenbaums.

Also, for many critics, to think religiously about cinema is to read and interpret films religiously. Robert K. Johnston, Craig Detweiler, and Kutter Callaway, for instance, put forward lectio divina and the quadriga as a models for reading and interpreting films of all kinds.[21] Peter Fraser, on the other hand, looks for what he calls the “sacramental mode” in some films, the cinematic retelling of the Passion, patterned after Christian liturgy, showing how the divine interrupts and changes narrative.[22] Still for others, it is to consider the spiritual effect of the medium itself. Paul Schrader’s “transcendental style” exemplifies this kind of spiritual criticism, really a kind of Zen criticism. Schrader argues for cinema’s ability to slow the viewer down, inviting her to reconsider and ultimately reintegrate the ordinary portrayed on screen.[23]

Is this, though, the limit of religious film criticism or theory? What more has Hollywood to do with Jerusalem? Is it merely an apologetic discipline, an exercise fundamentally Pauline, seeking on screens, without cease, the invisible attributes of the eternal power (Rom 1:20)? Is it only to evoke profane poets in order to preach and name the “unknown god” (Acts 17:22-28)? This seems insufficient. Religious film criticism is not mere homiletics, the mining of cinematic texts, eisegesis and exegesis. Rather, religious film studies must explore how not only religions influence cinema but also the converse. That is, what does cinema do to religion and religious experience?

Cinema as Liturgy

The question, aside from religion, is as old the medium itself: how do movies affect people? That they do affect viewers, and deeply, was perceived immediately and viscerally. Reacting to the Lumière Brothers’ The Arrival of a Train (1896), spectators jumped out of the way and others fainted at the sight of a locomotive seemingly barreling towards them on the screen.[24] It is, of course, a question repeatedly posed to all technology and media. From Stefan Zweig’s disgust of the radio or Gabriel Marcel’s fear of “techniques of degradation” wrought by all our many “gadgets” to Jacques Ellul’s contention that movies provided only false asceticism, an escape to an “artificial paradise” and to current fears of “techno-social engineering,” questions asking how our technologies and media shape users, consumers, or viewers have never gone away, nor will they likely go away any time in the future.[25]

Asking these questions of cinema, metaphors abound. Cinema is at times window or frame, mirror, eye, and more.[26] Lev Kuleshov and Sergei Eisenstein’s pioneering use of montage (“Soviet montage”), for instance, was significantly, if not primarily, a practice serving revolutionary ideology; disparate images or sounds juxtaposed, or “framed,” to incite a certain reaction or to overlay particular concepts rendered cinema an art of political manipulation, a development, some argue, only later seen in the West with the proliferation of television.             

André Bazin’s idea of “pure cinema,” by contrast, is more, in theory, like a window; in pure cinema the auteur disappears, editing is minimal or invisible, achieving “the perfect aesthetic illusion of reality,” so much the film itself seems to disappear, the only reality projected being what the camera itself captures.[27]

Such cinema allegedly invites interrogation or reassessment of reality, which, in turn, does not leave viewers untouched. This is what Deleuze said differentiated cinema from older forms of art, that cinema reproduced “instants,” that by the “accumulation of banalities” cinema offered a new dialectic.[28] Similarly, as mirror, film is understood to reflect, with unforgiving clarity, the self, the other, or life in situ, yet at a distance allowing recognition and reflection.[29]

Jean-Louis Baudry’s apparatus theory, not without criticism, builds on this idea of cinema as mirror. Baudry argues that seeing a film forms the spectator as subject rendering her a voyeur, her gaze made the camera’s gaze.[30] Such a theory, of course, suffers today less from feminist criticism (i.e., that the voyeur’s gaze is fundamentally a male gaze) than from changes in the medium itself. If viewers were formed at all as subjects within the apparatus of cinema, today such formation is radically different. Screens now no longer merely reflect or reveal reality or propose fantasy. Instead, more and more, by their ubiquitous and personal presence, they constitute reality or render fantasy as reality.[31]

It is what these metaphors attempt to capture about how cinema affects viewers that is also often articulated in religious terms. What Baudry described of the experience of cinema, Martin Scorsese described religiously: for him, entering the theatre was “entering a magical world . . . much the same in my mind as entering a church.”[32] For many, as for Bazin, “cinema is the ‘new’ secular religion or spiritual lingua franca of our times.”[33] That is, the experience of cinema is often like the experience of religion. Not simply is the religious value of cinema, therefore, the resonance sometimes found between sacred and cinematic texts or sacred and cinematic experiences. Rather, in some instances cinema is itself religious experience, particularly liturgical experience.

Peter Fraser’s notion of the “sacramental mode” of some films begins to suggest this, that movies are at times liturgical insofar as cinematography follows “liturgical methods.”[34] But the liturgical aspect of cinema is broader, I think. All movies are liturgical. Such is made clear in the work of Edgar Morin, particularly his 1956 The Cinema, or The Imaginary Man. Morin begins where Bazin did: the ontology of the image. The “impassive lens” delivers its object stripped of “spiritual dust and grime,” portrayed “in all its virginal purity.” What is given in the photographic image is the object bare. Art does not imitate nature nor nature art; rather, in the photographic image nature imitates the artist.[35] That is, what is seen is what the artist sees, what is given nakedly by the camera.

Yet, what holds the viewer’s attention Morin calls “photogénie,” the sensed fascination that in an imaged object both its presence and absence are represented. And, in turn, reflecting on the represented image, the viewer encounters her “double,” her alter ego.[36] This is to enter the magical world of the image, rendered pure in cinema, into what Morin calls the “projection-identification complex.” Upon the image presented, the viewer projects herself—her fears, desires, obsessions, aspirations—and on reflection identifies herself with that image, seeing herself in either the heroine of the villain, or even in material things, or even the cosmos. This process of projection-identification Morin calls “affective participation.” And it is by this process that the viewer is transported from the realm of personal dreams to the magical vision of the cinema, magic conjured up by the auteur.[37]

Now, before reflecting on what Morin said were the effects of “affective participation” in cinema, it should be easy to recognize how similar Morin’s schema is to the Church’s understanding of the liturgy. The liturgy of the Church is the “work of our redemption,” the actio in which we participate; this, as Joseph Ratzinger notes is the correct understanding of participatio actuosa, to unite oneself deeply to the what the liturgy presents, namely the person of Christ and the Paschal Mystery.[38] To participate in the Eucharistic liturgy, for instance, is to enter into the Triduum in a “mysterious ‘oneness in time’” which in turn is to be “immersed in the ineffable unity of the three divine persons.”[39]

Cinematically, this is to enter into what Morin calls the “imaginary,” the world recast within a magical vision created first on screen but then reflected back, like a mirror, upon the psychic world of the viewer. To be modern is to prize practical perception “decanted” of all primitive magical vision; cinema, Morin suggests, “effects a kind of resurrection of the archaic vision of the world in rediscovering the almost exact superimposition of practical perception and magical vision…It summons, allows, tolerates the fantastic and inscribes it in the real.”[40] Such is what the Church’s liturgy achieves, something similar to John’s vision, caught up as he was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” (Rev 1:10).

Again, to follow Ratzinger, liturgy “gives us a share in heaven’s mode of existence, in the world of God, and allows light to fall from that divine world into ours.”[41] Cinema strives for analogous ends. What is different, however, in cinematic liturgy is that gospels become screenplay and direction and editing become rubrics and sacred music. The mechanics and feel of liturgy and cinema are, though, the same, both offering rites of initiation while inscribing the real.

The effect of cinema upon the viewer is analogous too; however, from the believer’s perspective, it is also quite problematic, ambiguous at best. The effect of the Church’s liturgy is ultimately redemption by means of sacramental sanctification. That is, the liturgy should, simply put, make us saints. For Morin, by contrast, cinema’s effect upon the viewer is psychologically more devastating. For him, as should be clear by now, cinema is a Lacanian mirror.[42] In cinema, two psyches unite; yet before the screen, he argues further, the viewer is rendered an “imaginary man.”[43]

Morin does not believe in the soul; for him soul is fabricated and animated by media, by contemporary instruments of the imaginary, particularly by theatre, by cinema.[44] Cinema, for Morin, is the “mother-machine, genetrix of the imaginary.” Experiencing cinema, “man’s inner essence is introduced into the machine, where, reciprocally, the machine envelops and determines the essence of man—better still, realizes it.”[45] To the Christian believer, of course, this is deeply problematic. If theology and its Object are real, better appreciated should be those ancient fears, or at least the detailed spiritual concern, our ancestors had for all images. For if the images of cinema, like liturgy, constitute, or at least profoundly form, the subject, then what we gaze upon matters. Because images seem to gaze back.

Cinema and Religion

But still, there is the question of cinema’s effect upon religion itself. If cinematic liturgies are capable of profoundly shaping, if not constituting, the subject, then what effect might they also have on religion? That is, does the principle lex orandi, lex credendi apply to cinematic liturgies?

Sebastian Selvén’s recent book, Liturgy and Biblical Interpretation, exploring liturgical and exegetical interplay in theology, helps us think through ways cinematic liturgies may influence religion. Liturgy, Selvén argues, is “an experienced biblical interpretation.”[46] In liturgies “the text morphs and undergoes permutations that influence our interpretations, sometimes even our emendations of it.” Liturgy “both opens certain aspects of the text and closes down others.”[47]

Illustrating his claim, Selvén details how, over the centuries, both the Qedushah and the Sanctus influenced interpretations of Isaiah 6:3. It is not clear, for instance, “whether Isaiah 6:3 is a warning, a hymn, a description, or something else entirely.”[48] Unclear also is the setting: is Isaiah 6:3 spoken in heaven, in the temple, or somewhere else?[49] And what exactly are seraphim?[50] Answering these questions, Selvén argues “biblical scholars seem to follow Jewish and Christian liturgical uses closely.” Selvén continues:

It could be argued that their own ears are attuned to the potential liturgical nature of its language by their own liturgical experiences, where Isaiah 6:3 is a prominent part and one of the determinants of what liturgical language should sound like! It may be the case that we hear something liturgical in Isaiah 6:3 because Isaiah 6:3 has shaped what we expect liturgical language to sound like.[51]

Selvén even tracks the effect of Reformation iconoclasm on angelology and biblical interpretation. “When angels literally disappeared from sight, and the elaborate choir music of the Middle Ages was simplified with pedagogical concerns in mind, the experience of the words altered.”[52] That is, the aesthetics of liturgy and architecture are not merely products of theology, theology is also the product of aesthetics. When angels largely disappeared from sight, so too did seriously angelology. The effect Selvén notes is similar to what Caroline Walker Bynum describes in terms of “materiality,” articulating the profound influence “living holy matter” had upon medieval thought and spirituality. The materiality of medieval Christian piety, she argues, caused not only the reactions of the Reformation but also contributed to emerging spiritualities of interiority and even conceptions of sacred place.[53]

That the liturgical and aesthetic shapes theology, even at the level of biblical interpretation, seems clear. It is, therefore, possible to conceive not only of the liturgical reception of biblical texts, as Selvén does, but also the cinematic reception of such texts. That is, both the Church’s liturgies and cinematic liturgies in some measure not only cause theological reflection, they can also shape religion. That such is possible, we should not be too high-minded to dismiss. Of course, the kind of influence, the formative power, ascribed to things like cinematic liturgies should not be overstated; that cinematic liturgies touch doctrines de fide is not being suggested.

However, the value of cinema to religion is akin, I would suggest, to the value Slavoj Žižek ascribes to cinema and popular culture for Lacanian theory. Popular culture does not merely illustrate “high theory,” it also “renders visible aspects that would otherwise remain unnoticed.”[54] Žižek argues this is a Hegelian strategy, more so, it is Bergsonian. For Bergson, the whole purpose of art is at once to veil and reveal the nature of things; “if we could enter into immediate communication with things and with ourselves, I think that art would be pointless.”[55] For Bergson art works “retroactively.” Only with the rise of Romanticism, for instance, were the romantic aspects of classicism made visible.[56]

But it is not simply that art reveals something that in the past was hidden; rather, in Bergsonian terms, a new work of art reveals that what was not previously possible was, in fact, possible. As Matisse said of his art—“I can never tell what a work will reveal to me.”—so too of cinema: it has the capacity at once to veil and reveal the nature of things.[57] Cinema has the capacity to reveal what was previously not thought possible. Thus, if aesthetics is fundamentally kerygmatic, and if, as Morin notes, cinema is the “broadest aesthetic ever possible,” then it is plausible to suggest cinematic liturgies also work upon religion, and not just religious experience, as do other forms of art.[58] The only question being: work of what kind?

This brings us back to consider the liturgies of Wes Anderson. If cinema is liturgy, then the filmography of Wes Anderson is rite. What catches the eye and imagination first are the vibrant sets of his films, the diegetic world of each movie carefully constructed, as Anderson says, “five degrees removed from reality.”[59] The sets he creates in his films work, as Morin says, to “enhance or debase the reality they present to our view.”[60]

That is, the aesthetic of Anderson’s films rehearses the real world in a unique idiom, functioning for daily life, as liturgical language does for heaven, as Liturgiam autheticam theorizes, like a “sacred style” faithful to “dogmatic reality,” speaking with the “authentic voice of the Church of God.”[61] And it is in these styles, in the unique registers of his constructed worlds, that Anderson repeatedly asks enduring human questions.

As Donna Kornhaber and many others note, “Anderson’s films are always about characters who have in some way become separated from one collective group seeking to find or construct their way back into another.”[62] That is, his movies are about the elusive mystery of family sought, nonetheless, amid the many tragedies of family. Whether it is Dignan (Owen Wilson) in Bottle Rocket seeking entry into Mr. Henry’s crime family, dragging Anthony (Luke Wilson) along with him (Anthony’s family is notably absent while Dignan’s is tellingly broken), or Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) in Moonrise Kingdom seeking to run away and start a new family (again, Sam’s family is gone and Suzy’s is profoundly broken), or Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) and Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) in The Life Aquatic (2004) seeking to preserve or discover the family each once had or never had, or Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) and Herman Blume (Bill Murray) in Rushmore seeking a new family by stalking the widow Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), or the Whitman brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrian Brody, Jason Schwartzman) in The Darjeeling Limited trying to rebuild their family while traveling across India in search of their mother (who does not want to be found), or Mr. Fox (George Clooney) in Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) rediscovering his, or the Tenenbaums in The Royal Tenenbaums healing and reconfiguring theirs, or Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and Zero (Tony Revolori) in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) finding each other in the family of the hotel, or the strange family of journalists of The French Dispatch (2021): families of one sort or another, broken or reconstructed relationships, families healed or forever fractured, are the enduring themes in all Anderson’s work.

How families may be replaced or rebuilt, salvaged or saved, are the questions repeatedly asked in the unique cinematic vernacular of Anderson’s movies. And, following Morin, by this vernacular these related familial themes are either enhanced or debased, ushering viewers into an affective complex in which our relationships, and our notions of relationship, are reconsidered.

And when reflected back upon relationships described in the New Testament, and also upon the relationships sacramentally inscribed upon believers, Anderson’s cinematic liturgies offer an enhanced vernacular not only to read relationships found in the Bible, they also offer the believer/viewer an unusual, but nonetheless quite creative, idiom by which to redescribe her own strained or broken or even healthy relationships. To meditate with an Andersonian imagination, for instance, upon, Mark 3:20-35, in which Jesus reconstructs his family (his conventional family saying he was “beside himself”) according to the “will of God,” is to reconsider, in ways Christians once did more readily, the possibility that contemporary, culturally-overdetermined relationships ought to be subordinated to the strange and creative relationships determined by friendships of grace. Philemon re-imagining his relationship to Onesimus, the wealthy of Corinth re-imagining their relationship to the poor of Corinth, Mary’s relationship to John reconfigured at the foot of the Cross: reconsidering these relationships in the cinematic vernacular of Wes Anderson help us reimagine what may have been previously thought impossible about our own.

Such may the liturgies of Wes Anderson offer. As Royal Tenenbaum found a way at once to let go of his family and receive it back differently, being initiated into the aesthetics and vernacular of Wes Anderson’s films may help us discover the disjointed graces of loving our neighbors even though things such as ideologies, theologies, habits, and politics do not, and may never, fit together. This is something, as both an ordinary Christian and as a pastor of a diverse parish, I know we must urgently do—to remember how to love, nonetheless, strangely in a disjointed world. How do we love those dramatically unlike ourselves? How do I love, for example, the LGBTQ+ brother or sister? How do I love those who do not love them? How do I love the progressive, the Trumper, the “trad”?

These are urgent questions invoking faith and religion, worship and Scripture. But, clearly, these are not the only resources forming our judgments; liturgies both sacred and secular form us. We are, no matter how little we may admit it, made by our media. This is why I think the films of Wes Anderson are meaningful for Christians, working on us as they do, as cinematic liturgies, showing us charity some think impossible. Because, quite simply, they are movies that can help us remember the strangeness and strange beauty of the family of God.

[1] Donna Kornhaber, Wes Anderson, 8.

[2] Matt Zoller Seitz, The Wes Anderson Collection, 111.

[3] Wes Anderson, 6.

[4] Sophie Monks Kaufman, Wes Anderson, 27.

[5] Kathryn Reklis, “Aesthetics of the ‘Made’: Exuberant Authenticity in the Films of Wes Anderson,” Dreams, Doubt, and Dread, 153.

[6] Matt Zoller Seitz, “Why Bottle Rocket Is the Greatest Movie Ever Shot in Dallas,” D Magazine, February 2016.

[7] Edgar Morin, The Cinema, or The Imaginary Man, 41.

[8]  Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2, 280.

[9] The Cinema, or The Imaginary Man, 115.

[10] William D. Romanowski, Cinematic Faith, 3.

[11] Dreams, Doubt, and Dread, xvii.

[12] Robert K. Johnston, Craig Detweiler, and Kutter Callaway, Deep Focus, 135.

[13] Simon Louvish, Cecil B. DeMille, 263.

[14] Deep Focus, 34.

[15] Cinematic Faith, 5.

[16] Deep Focus, 35.

[17] “Aesthetics of the ‘Made’: Exuberant Authenticity in the Films of Wes Anderson,” 160.

[18] Pauline Kael, “Notes on Evolving Heroes, Morals, Audiences,” The Age of Movies, 542.

[19] Richard A. Blake, Afterimage, xiv.

[20] André Bazin, What is Cinema? Vol. 1, 152-153.

[21] Deep Focus, 127.

[22] Peter Fraser, Images of the Passion, 11.

[23] Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film, 67-81.

[24] The Cinema, or The Imaginary Man, 92.

[25] Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday, xv, 427. Gabriel Marcel, Man Against Mass Society, 41. Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, 377-378. Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger, Re-Engineering Humanity.

[26] Thomas Elsaesser and Malte Hagener, Film Theory.

[27] André Bazin, What is Cinema? Vol. 2, 60. Angela Dalle Vacche, André Bazin’s Film Theory, 25-29.

[28] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1, 6.

[29] Film Theory, 69-72.

[30] Cinema Studies, 22-23.

[31] Film Theory, 198.

[32] Deep Focus, 17.

[33] André Bazin’s Film Theory, 101.

[34] Images of the Passion, 6.

[35] What is Cinema? Vol. 1, 15. André Bazin’s Film Theory, 142-143.

[36] The Cinema, or the Imaginary Man, 15-22.

[37] Ibid., 86-90

[38] Joseph Ratzinger, The Feast of Faith, 149; Sacrosanctum Concilium 7; Catechism of the Catholic Church 1104

[39] John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia 5, 50

[41] Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 21.

[42] The Cinema, or The Imaginary Man, 40.

[43] Ibid., 201.

[44] Ibid., 109.

[45] Ibid., 213.

[46] Sebastian Selvén, Liturgy and Biblical Interpretation, 2.

[47] Ibid., 123, 127.

[48] Ibid., 79.

[49] Ibid., 91.

[50] Ibid., 57-62.

[51] Ibid., 79.

[52] Ibid., 53.

[53] Caroline Walker Bynum, Christian Materiality, 20, 269, 278.

[54] Slavoj Žižek, Looking Awry, 3.

[55] Mark Sinclair, Bergson, 179.

[56] Ibid., 193.

[57] Bergson and the Art of Immanence, 7.

[58] The Cinema, or The Imaginary Man, 169.

[59] Wes Anderson, 24.

[60] The Cinema, or The Imaginary Man, 29.

[61] Liturgiam authenticam 27, 7, 80.

[62] Wes Anderson, 12.

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Joshua Whitfield

Fr. Joshua J. Whitfield is the Pastoral Administrator of St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas, Texas. He is a frequent contributor to The Dallas Morning News and the author of The Crisis of Bad Preaching: Redeeming the Heart and Way of the Catholic Preacher.

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