The Chicken Between the Teeth: Spatial Soliloquy in the Films of Wes Anderson
by David O'Grady — UCLA
December 12, 2014 – 13:47
An early scene in the film Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) finds the titular Mr. Fox (George Clooney) with his friend Kylie the opossum (Wally Wolodarsky) in the bough of a tree, ruminating on the central conflict about to unfold in the film. “Who am I, Kylie?” Mr. Fox asks, a question really directed at himself—and the viewer. “I’m saying this more as like existentialism, you know? Who am I? And how can a fox ever be happy without a, you’ll forgive the expression, a chicken in its teeth?” One hears in this struggle for self-knowledge echoes of Michel de Montaigne, the progenitor of the modern personal essay, whose credo, “What do I know?” is the beating heart of a literary tradition. In the twentieth century, essay writing would become a practice that, along with its companionable philosophical movements, phenomenology and existentialism, would flourish as a necessary response to modernity. The burden of civilization—life’s meaning beyond raw, instinctual survival—begets many of the questions of human conscience and consciousness as explored through the lens of personal essay.
Such questions are not limited to the written word, of course, and the essay (or essayistic, the essay as style) has emerged in the medium of cinema as both a sustained, distinct form (e.g., Marker, Varda, et al.) and as interstitial, flickering moments of introspection in fiction films, often wielded as a hallmark of auteurist aspirations (e.g., Godard, Scorsese, Tarantino, et al.). In this analysis of the essayistic as found in the films of Wes Anderson, I will explore the notion of the visual essay as a form of personal or subjective space—a kind of “spatial soliloquy” that offers a visual navigation of space in excess of plot or exposition. Anderson (among others) uses film’s spatial language to create idiosyncratically manifested spaces of contemplation and reflection—spaces that may not even physically exist or function pragmatically except as a product of a character’s (or director’s) personal, visual reconstruction.
Why the phrase “spatial soliloquy?” Corrigan’s The Essay Film: From Montaigne, After Marker expertly makes the case for an essayistic cinema akin to documentary’s sober discourses and creative actualities, but more personal and subjective in tone—an authorial desire to discover the universal in the personal. Combining the raw ingredients of Corrigan’s definition of the essayistic—the self, one’s experience of the world, and a desire to share with others a fusion of both (thinking out loud in a sense)—accounts for a wide range of scenes in fiction film that enter an essayistic zone with the audience. For the purpose of analyzing some of Anderson’s work, however, I wish to talk about the essayistic in a filmic or visual way (i.e., eschew to some degree the voiceover that often accompanies the essayistic and focus instead on the images), and restore the essayistic, as found in fiction film, to its narrative or dramatic context. Literary theory—more precisely, the theater—has already provided us the terminology to define philosophical self-talk as encountered in fictional work: specifically, the concepts of soliloquy, monologue, and aside. Soliloquy perhaps best describes, in terms of tone and content, the thoughts about self and world as expressed primarily for one’s self (though of course no character is ever alone in the theater—the audience is out there in the dark). Historically reserved for the villain to declaim his contorted motivations (see Cuddon’s definition), the soliloquy was expanded and modernized by Shakespeare—a contemporary of Montaigne. Whether Shakespeare had occasion to read Montaigne remains unclear, but Greenblatt and Platt make the case that Shakespeare’s soliloquies and Montaigne’s personal essay are cut from the same cloth. “Two of the greatest writers of the Renaissance—two of the greatest writers the world has ever known—were at work almost at the same time, reflecting on the human condition and inventing the stylistic means to register their subtlest reflections in language” (xxxii). By stretching the application of the term soliloquy and thinking about it in cinematic terms—as predominately a personal, visual articulation—we can productively assess Anderson’s highly stylized use of space as a particular expression of the essayistic.
Perhaps the most commented-upon soliloquy in Anderson’s oeuvre to date is the “Let me tell you about my boat” sequence in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). Anderson establishes the scene outside of time and place; Zissou (Bill Murray) addresses us directly and then walks out of the frame as a theater curtain reveals his ship, the Belafonte, on a soundstage, cut lengthwise in half (the sequence is a reference to the reflexive production moment in Fellini’s And the Ship Sails On (1983)). Drawing on Manovich’s observations of new media’s databases and navigable spaces—and Kinder’s notions of the database film—we could say Zissou presents us a personal database in visual form. It’s not until the end of the sequence, when an off-screen Ned (Owen Wilson) asks Zissou a question, that we realize the soliloquy also operates as a plot device (i.e., explaining to the new recruit how Team Zissou lives and works). But the space as presented is an essayistic construct—it exists artificially, dollhouse-like, only at the level of thought made visible. Zissou’s tour articulates a personal, subjective space constructed and navigated associatively, in violation of real, architected space. As Bachelard succinctly notes in The Poetics of Space, “Inhabited space transcends geometrical space” (47). Like a ship in a bottle, Zissou’s tour of the Belafonte models his enworlded view; it is the “observation bubble” of his own philosophy. For the viewer, the associative navigation of the ship’s interior offers us a spatial soliloquy of Zissou’s state of mind. At this point in the film, it’s not a good picture.
Fantastic Mr. Fox seems even more well suited for an investigation of the essayistic as found in fiction film, as Mr. Fox himself is by trade a modern-day essayist. (As Mr. Fox deadpans, “I used to steal birds, but now I’m a newspaperman.”) Thematically, the film takes up the tension between the essay as a civilizing, organizing form and the “wildness” of life as truly lived. While Mr. Fox delivers many witty if conventional soliloquies and monologues—only to find his words undone by his own paw—let’s return to idea of the soliloquy as a spatial phenomenon in Anderson’s films, specifically, the game of “Whack-Bat” played by the foxes at school. As with Zissou’s boat tour, the description of Whack-Bat functions nominally as a spectacular set piece to orient the newbie—and by extension, us—to an important feature of the story world. But such an orientation quickly exceeds expository need and becomes something else. In nearly a single breath, Coach Skip (Owen Wilson) plows through the convoluted rules of Whack-Bat for the young Kristofferson (Eric Anderson). Derived from a mash-up of baseball, cricket, and rounders, Whack-Bat is perhaps only understood among the film’s creators by animator Brad Schiff (even Anderson claims, in a Criterion commentary, to not fully comprehend the game). While Coach Skip narrates, the viewer receives an overhead view of the players and play field, as Xs, Os and other symbols diagram the game rules until the screen overflows with impenetrable iconography. Coach Skip’s last instruction—“Finally, at the end you count up however many scoredowns it adds up to and divide by nine”—punctuates the joke; the map is not the terrain, and to understand the game one must actually play it.
The dichotomy between map and terrain—between representation and reality—operates in another register in this scene beyond its quintessentially Anderson-styled visual humor. Again, Coach Skip edifies us, declaring that Mr. Fox “was probably the best Whack-Bat player we ever had at this school.” While Mr. Fox thrived under the quixotic but explicit rules of Whack-Bat as a navigable space—a magic circle—the film chronicles his repeated failure to abide by the more latent, conflicting rules of life. In the extended treatise on Whack-Bat, we receive more than the rules of the game; we experience a spatial soliloquy on the pastime where Mr. Fox’s wild nature could be tamed. Games, much like the essay form itself, provide a unifying, organizing principle—a framework that aims for a perfect (if temporary or conditional) alignment between self, world, and thought. The failure of this alignment in Mr. Fox’s everyday, adult life thwarts him, much as it complicates most of Anderson’s protagonists (see O’Grady for a detailed analysis of art/life conflation in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). One might say the over-arching thesis of Anderson’s work, starting with Bottle Rocket (1996), concerns this very problem: life and art are not the same, and we must somehow learn how to live with the cognitive and emotional dissonance between them. Whack-Bat’s excessive presentation appeals to the notion that, by surrendering to the rules of play, we can temporarily dispel life’s ambiguities and disappointments.
While such provisional thoughts about spatial soliloquies in Anderson’s work may warrant further development, I’m less certain about the lesson here for academics making visual essays about the moving image. To meet the filmic text (to attain it, in Bellour’s parlance) on its own terms is enticing—even essential—and yet the language of analysis and ideas often pulls us away toward extra-screenic or less visual concerns. Perhaps this is the chicken between the teeth for academics experimenting with visual essays—exchanging linguistic, academic training for the unwieldy over-abundance of the image (and the stark absences of the spaces unseen in film production). But a related, extra-screenic challenge also stymies the visual essay: the role of exhibition. The written essay as a genre is defined industrially and culturally by the spaces of its exhibition—The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Best American Essay series, and so on. Spatial soliloquies can be found far and wide in fiction film, but the sustained visual essay—whether in the hands of a filmmaker or scholar—remains relegated to indie cinemas and DVD extras. I’m glad to be a part of [in]Transition, one of the few exhibition spaces available for the extended essay as a visual form. It’s a step toward sharing what we know about the medium—in the medium—we so cherish. Like Mr. Fox, let’s raise our juice boxes to the survival of this still-nascent venue.
• Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.
• Bellour, Raymond. "The Unattainable Text." Analysis of Film. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2000.
• Corrigan, Timothy. The Essay Film: From Montaigne, After Marker. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
• Cuddon, J.A. A Dictonary of Literary Terms. London: Penguin Books, 1979.
• Greenblatt, Stephen and Peter G. Platt. Shakespeare’s Montaigne: The Florio Translation of the Essays. New York: New York Review of Books, 2014.
• Kinder, Marsha. "Hot Spots, Avatars, and Narrative Fields Forever." Film Quarterly 55, no. 4, 2002.
• Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2001.
• Montaigne, Michel de. Selected Essays. Translated by James B. Atkinson and David Sices. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett Publishing Co., 2012.
• O’Grady, David. “This is an Adventure:” The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and the Spectacle of Nature Documentary. New Review of Film and Television Studies 10, no. 1 (March 2012).