Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) wasn’t the last movie my father and I saw together before he died – in fact, we actually saw quite a few movies together over the New Year's holiday in January 2002 at my grandmother’s house in Hallsville, Texas. I vividly recall the night of January fourth – my dad was extremely excited to take me to see the weekend’s new movie, Imposter (2002; Gary Fleder) that night in Longview. The movie was merely okay, but his joy and excitement – to go out for pizza with his boy and then head to the Longview movie theater – was endearing.
It was only a few weeks earlier in Austin that I had first seen The Royal Tenenbaums at the Arbor cinema with my mother, my good friend Manny Munoz and his mother Beverly. At eleven years old, I was already claiming that I had seen “the best film of the year.” As it turns out, I was right.
While staying at my grandmother’s house that January, I wanted more than anything else for my father to see The Royal Tenenbaums with me. I knew he would love the movie and appreciate its dry sense of humor. Alas, the nearest theater showing The Royal Tenenbaums was over an hour away – in Shreveport, Louisiana. But my father – sharing my love for movies and, more than anything, wanting his son to have a good time – decided to make a road trip out of the situation. And so one morning we drove out of Hallsville and stopped in Marshall on the way, and he bought a cassette tape of the Bryan Adams album So Far So Good at the Marshall mall, and I bought a cassette tape of Bruce Willis and his band performing live (my father’s car still only played cassette tapes – and his two favorite tapes, bar none, were the Adams recording and the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?).
When we arrived in Shreveport, we bought tickets to The Royal Tenenbaums, and then my father drove me around the city and showed me the casinos of Shreveport. Eventually, we got to the theater and watched the movie. I can’t really recall exactly what he thought of it – I’d love to say that my dad loved Anderson’s movie as much as I did, but I really don’t know. All I remember is that he never laughed as hard as I did at the movie’s dark humor.
My father and I would see a few other movies together in January, including The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001; Peter Jackson), In the Bedroom (2001; Todd Field), The Shipping News (2001; Lasse Hallstrom) and Black Hawk Down (2001; Ridley Scott) along with my mother in Austin, but it’s The Royal Tenenbaums that provides the most powerful and interesting memories. I wish, more than anything, I could be back in that Shreveport movie theater and watch the movie all over again with my dad.
Only in the years since my father’s death have I truly been able to appreciate The Royal Tenenbaums on an entirely different level. When I was eleven years old, I believe I was drawn to the movie because of its incredible cast and its note-perfect melancholic balance between absurd comedy and devastating tragedy. I don’t think I need to mention the incredible style of the film – it goes without saying that Anderson is the finest example of a modern-day auteur filmmaker, and every one of his films are exquisitely shot.
But after watching Anderson’s story of an eccentric New York family countless times in the past decade, I can’t help but look at the character of Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) without thinking of my father. No, my father was certainly not estranged from the rest of his family, nor did he fake having stomach cancer in order to get back into the good graces of his family. But the humor, the wit, the possibilities of redemption, the reconnection between father and son, the reuniting of a family of oddballs, and the lasting impressions made before death – these are the aspects of Royal Tenenbaum that speak to how I remember my father.
The Royal Tenenbaums is a very funny movie, and it is also a very sad movie. When I was eleven, I was enamored by the droll and heartfelt performances from Hackman, Angelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Luke Wilson and Danny Glover. I immediately bought a copy of the film’s soundtrack, one of the hallmarks of any Wes Anderson movie – Tenenbaums alone brilliantly uses Ruby Tuesday by The Rolling Stones, These Days by Nico, Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard by Paul Simon, Judy is a Punk by The Ramones and a cover of Hey Jude in joyous and cathartic ways that only Wes Anderson can achieve. But I believe I was aware and appreciative of the tragic themes in The Royal Tenenbaums without ever being able to relate to them on a personal level until after my father's death.
I wonder if perhaps my dad didn’t laugh as much as I did at the movie because he recognized the sadness of the film, the melancholy of Royal Tenenbaum and his desperate efforts to make his family love him again before he dies. Neither my father nor I could possibly know that in four months, John Kyser would be dead. But only after my father died and my perception of the movie changed dramatically was I truly able to start wondering what he may have seen in the movie - as a father - that has taken years of repeated viewings for me to understand. My only regret is that in order to understand The Royal Tenenbaums on a deeper, more personal level, I had to lose my father.