small blue flowers


You made a cuckold of me

People take away many things from bad dates: a chip on your shoulder, a wallet that has hemorrhaged 40 bucks (if you’re lucky), perhaps even a case of herpes. The worst date I was ever on, I took away some stuff too: resentment, a wasted long-distance bill, and a film that I would cherish despite the amazingly awkward circumstances that accompanied it.

The Royal Tenenbaums
was released in the tail end of 2001, and made its way to my then home of Pittsburgh, PA early in 2002. I saw it in a packed theatre, replete with Dolby Digital sound, buttery popcorn, and a girl who made that winter hell. But, this isn’t about the girl; it’s about the Dolby Digital sound.

Usually films like The Lord of the Rings or Titanic are best viewed in a theatre with a quality sound system, as they are lauded for their use of sound effects (on another bad date, albeit one with a lovely woman, I saw Titanic and marveled to myself at the sound of the boat actually cracking in half). Tenenbaums is certainly not going to win any awards for its sound design, but when within the first minute of the film, as the book opens and that music begins, I was taken aback.

Could it really be “Hey Jude?”

As Alec Baldwin gives the audience a brief history of the Tenenbaum family up until modern day, we hear the song chugging along; a song that was written for a child of parents in the process of a messy divorce plays under the tale of wasted potential, both giving a nod to what could have been versus the sad reality of how life really is for both Jude and Royal: disappointing.

I don’t know why it blew my mind that Mark Mothersbaugh had covered a Beatles song – people do it every day. I think what shocked me is that covering “Hey Jude” and opening a film with it is asking anyone with even a passing interest in modern music to take pause. It is asking us, as viewers, not to forget everything we have attached to that song, but to add to it this story as well.

“Hey Jude” is not the only time we are asked to do this either; there are songs throughout the film that are generally well known (Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the School Yard,” The Ramones’ “Judy is a Punk,” the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday”) that take on totally new meaning in the light of the visuals.

The most vivid example of this is the inclusion of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here,” famously written for the timeless TV special “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Tenenbaums is not a Christmas movie by any stretch of the imagination, and is used not to represent Christmas, or childhood, but sadness. Just as Charlie Brown was disillusioned during the Christmas season of the commercialization of that sacred day, Margot is depressed over how her genius life has unfolded: no longer a sought-after playwright, she now smokes alone, is in a loveless marriage and doesn’t know where to go. Eventually, she goes home.

This song, like “Hey Jude,” is such an undeniable piece of western culture that it gets an almost audible crowd response when heard in the film. We all get it – she’s sad. This was used again in the late, great television program Arrested Development, to show the lonely George Michael Bluth walking around, shoulders slumped and hanging his head (in fact, in one scene, he walks past a Beagle lying on top of a red dog house).

However, the most striking piece of music is one that is not quite as well known by the general populous from soccer moms to Ivy League intellectuals, but is still a famous piece of music.

Nico’s “These Days,” written by a pre-spousal abuse Jackson Browne, is one of the great all-time sad songs. If an emo band wants a natural song to cover, here ya go Taking Back Sunday. Here, it accompanies a slow-mo shot of Margot, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, walking towards Richie, played by Luke Wilson, and you can see the love and pain between them like a haze on the screen.

“I go out walking/I don’t do too much talking these days/These days/ These days I seem to think a lot about the things that I forgot to do/And all the times I had a chance to.”

One by one, the Tenenbaum kids return home to where their lives started, stunted and eventually, crumbled. Chas has lost a wife and gained paranoia, Richie’s career is over and has been love struck for the better part of thirty years, Margot just isn’t happy.

“Please don’t confront me with my failures/I have not forgotten them.”

Ultimately, none of our lives are how we pictured them. No parent holds a newborn child in their arms and dreams of their heartbreak. No child ever thinks of his or her eventual layoff. And that is why The Royal Tenenbaums and its soundtrack speak to me. I’m a generally happy person, but I look back on parts of my life (like the aforementioned bad dates) and wonder how things came to pass. I think that is a pretty universal feeling. And that being said, I honestly don’t know how the theatres around the country didn’t erupt in a loud chorus of “Na na na nanana na”s when Mordecai takes flight.


"Hey Jude" - The Mutato Muzika Orchestra

"Christmas Time Is Here" - The Vince Guaraldi Trio

"These Days" - Nico


Purchase the Royal Tenenbaums Criterion Collection DVD

Purchase the Royal Tenenbaums CD Soundtrack


Blogger erin said...

Are you saying sitting next to my history teacher qualifies as a bad date?

But seriously good job...

1:53 am  

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