The Royal Tenenbaums

The Royal Tenenbaums

The Commodification of Memory

Let us sell you your memories.


In 1994 I was seventeen and nostalgic. I concluded the usual tortured adolescence and made attempts at finding a durable and contemporary personal culture by watching eighties movies, listening to eighties music, and marveling at the fading aesthetic left by politically oriented California punk, effeminate British drollery, and the Freaks-versus-Preps dynamic of eighties Hollywood teeny-world.

By the time I was twenty-one I had wised up. I was no longer nostalgic for the decade that, culturally, I only caught the tail-end of. Along with my peers, I had found the philosopher’s stone of aesthetics, the magic lens: the mid- to late-seventies.

the realization

The answers to my cultural dilemma were hidden in family albums, dusty portals to the past. In childhood photos I struck a pose on the steps of the Unitarian preschool sporting mustard-yellow corduroys and a multi-striped Izod golf shirt with an oversized collar. My mom hadn’t yet cropped her coiffure in favor of the no-nonsense comfort of the contemporary woman, and her loving gaze was synonymous with those amber blue-blockers she wore pushed up on her forehead. My dad looked like Eric Clapton looked then, instead of how Eric Clapton looks now. Corners were softer. Colors were brighter. Even the lighting had a certain quality to it . . . spun gold.

Photographs can’t play music but it didn’t take long to figure out the sounds and rhythms synonymous with that carefree era. A later Beatles song probably played in the background as my parents and their friends crowded around the fondue pot; Bob Dylan sang while I ran meaningless circles around the flowering cherry in the backyard. And what about the older kids across the street who skateboarded barefoot and smoked clove cigarettes? Probably the Clash, Devo. Maybe even the Ramones. Why not go all the way?

In 1998 something clicked. I don’t know whether it was me or the advertisers who thought of it first. I could have the good feeling, the gilded memory, the tingling down my spine—only for real this time. I could own it and control it. I could drive it. I could style my hair with it. I could eat Thai food in it. I could fulfill the age-old dream of reliving my life from childhood again . . . only with the mind of an adult.

a documentary of memory

The Royal Tenenbaums examines memory in a way every young American can understand, by marketing it to us. The Tenenbaum children act out commercials for their own lives, trade marking the pathos and beauty and futility of everyday existence and dispensing it in music-video-length clips, in sixty-second tantrums, and in wistful poses. We recognize them because we are like them, encouraged to become depressed caricatures of our childhood selves by the people who market spun gold, that post-natal feeling of mother-chest and sippy-cups. We understand the futility of such a life enough to find it mildly amusing. We hope that the ten bucks we paid to get into the theater will guarantee a redemptive ending.

The Tenenbaum children were all prodigies. And what upper-middle-class child nurtured in the soft glow of seventies educational positivism wasn’t? We built flying cars, freehand, with our erector sets and were our mothers’ little geniuses. At school we wrote short stories about our neurotic cats or clever orphans and got promoted to “enrichment” classes. Anyone who exhibited moderate comprehension of academic concepts was lifted out of the muck of the public education ghetto and placed on the shining pedestal of “giftedness.” We were the glamorous future of our advanced society before we even knew when the Hundred Years War was fought or where Outer Mongolia was.

It is no wonder that, like Margot Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow), dubious playwright, or Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), half-baked author of bestselling westerns, our self-aggrandizement was inlayed with doubt and the knowledge that our great lives were overblown fictions. We grew older and our pedestals lost their statuary, or at least their stature. Even if, like Cash, we achieved commercial success, there were always critics and detractors. In adulthood, no one loved us quite as irrationally as our mothers or our third grade science teachers.

purchasing a self-mythology

Faced with death, losses in love, and the difficulties of parenthood we long for the mythology of our childhoods and to recapture that golden egg in which we were thought of as little Chekhovs, Mendelssohns, and Renoirs. A return to true childlikeness and innocence, however, would leave us vulnerable again to disappointment. So we set out capture the world of our imagined past and control it as adults. The market is our friend in this endeavor.

Thanks to the market, the Rolling Stones CD that our rock and roll parents may or may not have played on our third birthday is now in its fifth printing. Thanks to gyms and diet drugs and cutesy clothing stores, the women we pursue are able to look like the little girls who hung upside down on the jungle gym when we were eight. And men, bent on personal success, have the mentality of the eight-year-old boys who chased little girls on the playground and skinned their knees. Even our vehicles resemble the space-age toys of our youth—and are huge enough to make us feel like children again behind the wheel.

Like Richie (Luke Wilson), who nurses a lifelong obsession with his adopted sister, Margot (Paltrow), we cling to the people, music, and design that evoke the same yearning as our childhood crushes. One by one, the Tenenbaum children return to their mother’s house dressed as bigger versions of their childhood selves. Although the kids have been through changes over the years, life’s setbacks, primarily attributed to their father, Royal (Gene Hackman), have returned each Tenenbaum to a caricature of the past.

invented nostalgia

Wes Anderson’s cinematic direction, sometimes criticized as wooden and disjointed, is actually a perfect replica of human memory. He frames scenes in disconnected isolation, just as we remember isolated objects, smells, and vignettes rather than sequences of hours, days, or years. He relies heavily on visual structure provided by two recognizable forms, the children’s book and the photo album, to compress time and create a collection of moments rather than motion. It is as if we are watching the memory of a movie in which the less picturesque parts, along with the plot development, have been weeded out. We are left with an aesthetic collage of invented nostalgia. The feeling is much the same as sitting at your kitchen table and peeling the shrink-wrap off the final Nick Drake import that will complete your collection. You pop open the jewel case. You smell the printed paper. You’re high even before you press “play.”

It is not surprising that the film is largely driven by the official music of nostalgia . . . and marketing, rock and roll. The soundtrack is so grandiose that many of the more popular songs couldn’t be published on the CD or royalties would have eaten up profits. Even the original soundtrack composer, Mark Mothersbaugh, was once a member of Devo, a band I was nostalgic for the first time I heard them in high school.

Of course, the market has abetted the evolution of memory to its current form. Our own commercial instincts have taught us the art of distillation. We can distill an event, a person, or a complicated period in history to a perceived essence that we can hold in our hand, purchase, and consume. In a way it is a very autoerogenous process: We buy our own childhoods. Over all that was once wild and nubile and frightening and innocent we now exercise the control of gods.

epicenter of the cycle of nostalgia

It is natural that this world of fragmented memories would have as its epicenter parental separation (Royal and Etheline Tenenbaum are not technically divorced). Separation tends to have the effect on children of making nostalgia permanent and paramount. After all, nostalgia can only exist when the past has artificially been cut off from the present, whether it is by family hardship, the advance of technology, dramatic social change. Nostalgia has only become part of daily life and commerce since the World War I and the cycle of nostalgia has increased in frequency ever since. Born in 1976, I am part of the first generation to be nostalgic even before legal adulthood.

In The Royal Tenenbaums, no attempt is made to have us believe that the severed connections between the children’s expectant past and dismal present can be repaired through nostalgia or even simple homecoming. The pang of loss is not disguised. Nostalgia is always accompanied by a feeling of futility. We mourn the fact that our lives have not flowed like rivers from one stage to the next, that each generation breaks irreparably with the one before and that history has become obscured. The family reunion is appropriately touching and some attempts are made to come to grips with past wrongs, but ultimately, nothing is resolved.

the twentieth-century artifice

Much of our inability to feel continuity with our own childhoods, and our subsequent desire to purchase them, comes from that twentieth-century artifice, adolescence. During adolescence we have some of the trappings of adulthood, the money and oftentimes the wheels, but are ultimately set apart and degraded by a society and a market that malnourish us on corny youth culture and decaying public institutions. It is not a mistake that adolescence is a period of life left completely blank in the Royal T’s except through the character of Dudley (Stephen Lea Sheppard) a boy/guinea pig who cannot read or tell time. Margot’s husband (Bill Murray) has even written a book entirely devoted to the boy’s inadequacies entitled Dudley’s World. Dudley has no apparent family and no schooling: His entire life is an examination of malfunction. What better poster child is there for the life we have designed for our fourteen- to eighteen-year-olds?

Fashion is just fashion, I tell myself when I see a pair of perfectly redesigned 1979 track shoes go by on the feet of a mop-topped twentysomething who could have been my dad at that age. But why the little tug on my heart . . . not to mention my wallet? Did I miss something in the real 1979? Did my mother wean me too early? Are we repressing some group molestation in the collective unconscious?

More likely we are trying to contextualize the twenty- or thirty- or forty-odd year span of our lives. We are retracing that personal history again and again as we seek a universal one. Everywhere we look, we are denied, discouraged, warned about how crappy the past really was. You are the future, we are told. You have what it takes, they say. But we aren’t even satisfied by our own footwear design.

Fortunately, forgetting is not an option. We are unable to lop off the public, universal, and historic parts of ourselves. As humans, we are designed to have a cultural and universal identity that spans thousands of years. No wonder we continue to try, with increasing futility, to anchor ourselves in recent history: Memory isn’t a word; it’s a sentence.

posted by editor ::: June 19, 2002 ::: philms :::