How does Wes Andeson represent fatherhood? Georgia Smithies tells us in this lovely and perceptive video essay. That ‘an Andersonian father, if he´s ruined his child´s life, must also be able to fix it in some way, dead or alive,´ is but one of the many insights offered in this enjoyable video.
Wes Anderson and Fathers – Author’s Statement
Wes Anderson is critically revered for his visual style, with his auteur status hanging on elements such as his use of symmetry, colour and, of course, the Futura font. Often overlooked however are ‘Anderson’s themes – While his films could be regarded as shallow and pretentious, the honesty and emotion with which Anderson and his collaborators write their familial dynamics should also be held with great consideration. Anderson’s fathers in particular stand out as key elements of his works, and are a continuous and repeated feature, with all nine of his films including some kind of element of fatherhood or paternity.
The Andersonian father, as argued in this video essay, is generally either a ‘surrogate’ or ‘absentee’ father, with almost all of his paternal characters fitting into either or both of these categories. A ‘surrogate father’ is a character who is not biologically related to their ‘child’, but forms a familial type bond with them, whereas an ‘absentee father’ is a character who is biologically related to their child, but is absent from their life either physically or emotionally. In both categories, fathers tend to be somewhat aloof, and are all invariably flawed, but are not difficult to like. A key aspect of Anderson’s narratives of fatherhood is that the fathers and/or their children grow as a result of their familial relationship.
Anderson also frequently touches on Oedipal themes, with both The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Rushmore giving centrality to a complex love triangle between a father, his ‘son’ and the woman they both love. Joshua Gooch discusses Anderson’s Oedipal narratives, including his tendency towards ‘paternal castration’, however he also claims that these ‘paternal plots’ can be considered limiting to ‘what his characters – and films – can do.’
Anderson’s daughters could perhaps be suggested to be somewhat represented, which is here explored through Suzie Bishop in Moonrise Kingdom and, more primarily, Margot Tenenbaum in The Royal Tenenbaums. Both women lack a sense of identity, tied in various ways to their strained relationships with their fathers. In particular, Margot’s loss of her fingertip – a representation of her sense of identity – while seeking out a family, is reflective of her inability to slot comfortably into any family she seeks out, with both her adoptive, biological, and marital families seeming unsatisfactory for her.
The establishing of an ‘intertextual fatherhood’ is key to Anderson’s films, as we recognise certain actors as performing specific roles – namely that of fatherhood for actors like Bill Murray. Murry is the most essential example of Andersonian fatherhood, as he plays a father character in at least four of the eight Wes Anderson films he appears in, and thus becomes emblematic of the paternal figure in Anderson’s work. This plays a significant role in The Darjeeling Limited, where fatherhood is a vital element of the plot – while the Whitman brothers’ father does not appear physically, he is ever present in the brothers’ hints of mourning for him. Murray, who appears only briefly in the film, is abandoned on a train platform by Peter Whitman in the film’s opening sequence, and according to Kim Wilkins ‘shadows the thematic presence of the Whitmans’ deceased father.’ This is illustrated through a comparison between the first and final scenes of The Darjeeling Limited. He thus eventually represents an abandonment of Anderson’s usual patriarchal characters when the Whitman brothers abandon their father’s suitcases on another train platform. Peter Whitman must abandon the influence of his own father in order to become one himself, his wife due to give birth to a son.
Anderson’s focus on fatherhood should thus not be overlooked when discussing his films as it often plays a vital role. While his visual style is one of the main draws of his films, Anderson’s narratives are capable of being deeply effective, owed in part to the attention he draws to fathers and their complexity17.
Kunze, Peter C. (ed.), The Films of Wes Anderson: Critical Essays on an Indiewood Icon, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)
Gooch, Joshua, ‘Objects/Desire/Oedipus: Wes Anderson as Late-Capitalist Auteur’, in Kunze (ed.) The Films of Wes Anderson, pp. 181-199.
Wilkins, Kim, ‘Cast of Characters: Wes Anderson and Pure Cinematic Characterisation’, in Kunze (ed.) The Films of Wes Anderson, pp. 25-39.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Dir. Wes Anderson, Prod. Touchstone Pictures
American Empirical Pictures, (2004).
Rushmore. Dir. Anderson, Prod. Touchstone Pictures, American Empirical Pictures, (1998).
Moonrise Kingdom. Dir. Anderson, Prod. American Empirical Pictures, Indian Paintbrush, (2012).
The Royal Tenenbaums. Dir. Anderson, Prod. Touchstone Pictures, American Empirical Pictures, (2001)
The Darjeeling Limited. Dir. Anderson, Prod. Fox Searchlight Pictures, Collage Cinematographique, American Empirical Pictures, Dune Entertainment, Cine Mosaic, Indian Paintbrush, Scott Rudin Productions, (2007)
 Joshua Gooch, ‘Objects/Desire/Oedipus: Wes Anderson as Late-Capitalist Auteur’, in Kunze (ed.) The Films of Wes Anderson, pp.181, 183
 Kim Wilkins, ‘Cast of characters: Wes Anderson and Pure Cinematic Characterisation,’ in Kunze (ed.) The Films of Wes Anderson, p. 33.