23 April 2010

Captain Neato

Wes Anderson and the Problem with Hipsters; Or, What Happens When a Generation Refuses to Grow Up

  • The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Dir. Wes Anderson. 2005.

What will the hipsters be remembered for? The last few months I have raised this question in Brooklyn, on the sagging couches of its Brownstones and over the din of the glowing jukeboxes in its dives. The most common answer is “Nothing.” New York Rock? So much retread. The hipsters’ championing of vintage clothing? Sorry, you can’t be remembered for remembering. The embrace of white-trash chic—trucker hats and so on? Interesting but evil. Though not authentically evil. The hippies had Charles Manson, one friend noted. “We haven’t even produced a decent serial killer.”

So the youth culture of the moment believes itself doomed to historical insignificance. But wait, what’s that on the horizon? It’s a dayglow yellow helicopter. Who’s piloting that whirlybird, the man in the pom-pom-topped orange knit cap, the sky-blue jumpsuit with royal-blue trim, the brown corduroy blazer, and the glasses with clear-plastic frames? Why, it’s Wes Anderson. For a brief half decade or so, he seemed the voice of our generation, the hipster messiah. He took the ethos of the subculture and made it the governing principle in his films’ every detail—their sets, costumes, characters, and neato conceits (one might even say, their metaphysics). “You know, when things are going bad, like at work, or if I get home and my girlfriend doesn’t want to talk to me, I just stick The Royal Tenenbaums in the DVD player, and I’m in that Wes Anderson world.” That’s how one guy answered my straw poll, and everyone around the table agreed with him.


Wes Anderson makes parodies that aim to transcend mockery and produce the emotional affects of the genres they spoof. Bottle Rocket is a heist movie, Rushmore a romantic comedy, The Royal Tenenbaums an epic about a disgraced family’s redemption. The Life Aquatic is part-Cousteau Odyssey, part-Star Trek. All Anderson’s movies share one overriding theme: the fundamentally disappointing quality of adulthood. It’s summed up in the new film when, as the cast confronts the (animated) jaguar shark they’ve nominally been questing after for two hours, the pregnant Cate Blanchett, apropos of not much, points out that in twelve years her unborn child will be eleven and a half. “That was my favorite age,” says Zissou (Bill Murray), and the rest stare at the animated shark in silent assent. No wonder. They are, after all, watching a cartoon.

So Anderson and his characters wish they were still children. And what could be more childlike than to spend a couple of hours playing with toys? As a whole, The Life Aquatic has the feel of being produced by an inordinately creative child playing with action figures that happen to resemble a tastefully selected cast of Hollywood actors. One of the pleasures, I recall, of playing with what my parents called “your Star Wars guys” derived from the fact that on my living room floor Luke and Han were not restricted by the demands of plot that bound them to their narrow roles on the screen. Anderson has the same kind of fun. Then there are all manner of animated “fishes.” They are pretty neat indeed, and they seem to pop up whenever a scene is dragging, to distract the players and us. Much attention, too, is paid to the Belafonte, Zissou and company’s rickety craft. We tour several cramped cabins, a library stocked with first-edition Zissou oceanographic publications, a hot tub and sauna, workshops full of rusting sonar gadgets and video gear, and a kitchen with “some of the most technologically advanced equipment we have on board.” It’s a souped-up New York apartment afloat and, sure enough, Zissou can’t make the rent.

Surely there must be a trust fund, or at least a platinum card, in sight. In this case help arrives in the form of Owen Wilson’s inheritance. Money is a funny thing with hipsters. They exist in a state of perpetual luxuriant slumming. They drink blue-collar beers but hold white-collar jobs. Or vice versa. Whether he comes from above or below, the hipster takes care never to appear to be striving. Class anxiety isn’t hip. There’s something utopian about the trucker hat. But of course the hipster couldn’t afford to dress down if there weren’t a taut social safety net in place. Debt relief from mom or dad might be just a phone call away. Then there’s that steady freelancing gig that’s always there when you need it, no matter how distasteful it might be to proofread ad copy or put on that catering uniform. And let’s not forget that guy you can count on. His star always burned a bit dimmer than yours, but it never burns out. Perhaps he wears glasses, but without irony. There’s something weird about his apartment—it’s nice, not squalid. You may not talk to him much anymore—he’s not in your crowd, not hip enough, I guess, but loyal, and responsible, still holding down the same basically shitty job. He’ll always bail you out or put you up.


For Royal Tenenbaum, when his money runs out and he gets the boot from his penthouse, that guy is Pagoda. As his absurd name indicates, he is an Indian, played by longtime Anderson hand Kumar Pallana. He works as a butler in the Tenenbaum mansion, essentially a caricature coolie. In other words, he’s a walking ethnic joke, pretty much bereft of any individuality except for the moment when he stabs his friend in the gut, after being loyal to Royal costs him his job. A casual racism pervades Anderson’s movies—it’s there in the infamous scene in Tenenbaums when Gene Hackman calls Danny Glover “Coltrane” and challenges him to a jive-off and in Rushmore in the figure of Margaret Yang, the stereotypical Asian-American striver whose devotion to her extracurriculars morphs into eros for Max Fisher. He has this in common with fellow hipster auteur Sofia Coppola. Her Lost in Translation succeeded mostly as a sustained mood piece—Williamsburg goes to Tokyo, holes up in a fancy hotel, feels sorry for itself, hangs around in its underwear, then bumps into Bill Murray drinking himself to sleep at the bar. The dialogue was an exercise in inanity, except in a couple of hilarious scenes when Murray comes up against those wacky Japanese people who can’t tell their r’s from their l’s. Even funnier, the sequence in Aquatic when the Belefonte is attacked by a boat of Filipino pirates. Tied to the aft deckrail Zissou, clad only in a speedo, breaks his bonds, grabs a gun, and kills one of the diminutive marauders. Murray’s gut jiggles, the pirates squeak in Tagalog dismay. It was the only moment, at the screening I saw, when the sell-out crowd really let go and laughed.

But come on, Anderson and hipsters are too self-conscious, too postmodern, to be racist. Hipsters, though they may be mostly white (and rich), welcome minorities to their ranks. In fact they get worried if their aren’t enough colors on the social palette; you could hear something genuinely troubling when the Moldy Peaches used to sing, “I’m running out of ethnic friends.” This all seems resonant with a theory I have heard spouted (though never read) by and about young people today—that growing up in “diverse communities” with friends of every color and creed, they are “postracial.” It follows that they make racist jokes without malice, as a way of rebelling against the tyranny of political correctness. Perhaps this is true, and maybe it’s not even such a bad thing: racism isn’t racism anymore it’s just breaking of taboo. We can poke a little fun at Filipinos and Sikhs and Arabs and Germans and people from Kentucky, and then all listen together to the ebony-skinned Brazilian man on the deck of the Belafonte singing “Ziggy Stardust” in Portuguese.


There’s another problem with the pirate attack. It robs the movie of its plot. Anderson needs plot. It’s what kept Rushmore and Tenenbaums honest, saved them from being precious versions of the Naked Gun movies. Without tugging insistently at plot’s emotional strings, he can’t keep us coming back for more. Hipsters, at the end of the day, are still people. Hearts do beat under our faded t-shirts. At a bar the day after I saw Aquatic I bumped into a guy who’d sunk into a mild melancholy after seeing the film. “Wes Anderson was the one guy I thought I could count on,” he said, “and he really let me down.”

The problem is not laziness—Anderson is nothing if not meticulous—and the hipsters are a different animal from their older brothers, the slackers. Nor is it simply a lapse into mediocrity. It is closer to a determined hostility to storytelling, conscious rejection of an art the auteur had almost mastered. Anderson has succumbed to the same Salinger syndrome that plagued the Tenenbaum kids. He proved himself a boy genius, and now he doesn’t want to grow up, and probably doesn’t know how. Perhaps he sensed that there is an artistic limit to the parody and decided that he’d rather cruise the high seas animating jellyfish than remove the faux from his earnestness.

Hipsterism is a fluid thing, though, and it will survive the likes of Wes Anderson. The failure of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou may just be a sign—along with last year’s dud Belle and Sebastian album—that the Age of Twee is finally over in hipsterdom. Come to think of it, I’ve been seeing a new breed of male around Brooklyn lately. He’s put on some weight, gotten burlier, more menacing, and grown a beard. He drinks harder and he’s been stealing the pretty girls from the effete indie boys. The trucker hat is gone, and his hair’s starting to thin. He looks, well, sort of like Charles Manson.

Image: Screengrabs of The Life Aquatic uploaded under "fair use" conditions for review and discussion. Copyright remains with the original owner.

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