kottke.org posts about mattbucher

The Royal Tenenbaums and Infinite JestApr 14 2009

[Ed note: This is a piece by Matt Bucher, written a few years ago for the now-defunct andbutso.com. Reprinted with permission.]

The Royal Tenenbaums (RT) opens with a shot of a book, titled The Royal Tenenbaums, and immediately a narrator (Alec Baldwin) begins to read the opening paragraph of the book. Throughout the film, we are led to believe that this narrator is reading us the story of the book The Royal Tenenbaums. While that prose-form screenplay serves as the narration, I believe that another book, Infinite Jest (IJ), manages to influence the film in a number of general and specific parallels. In no way could I substantiate the claim that Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson have read Infinite Jest or that they are in any way aware of the specific connections between their film and Wallace's book (or even that Anderson and Wilson are the exclusive authors of the RT screenplay). {However, Anderson and Wilson are natives of Austin, TX and DFW wrote in a postcard to Rachel Andre [2001] that he loves Austin -- "especially the bat caves at sunset".} Taken piece-by-piece, it seems clear that any correlation between IJ and RT is coincidental at best. However, considered as a whole, the resemblances between the two reach the heights of the uncanny.

Rather than provide a close reading of all 1,079 pages of Infinite Jest, I will look here only at those sections pertaining to the mirror-image of the Tenenbaum family, mostly the Incandenza family.

"The Royal Tenenbaums" is the story of a family, and, as the movie opens, we are introduced to its members. The children -- all prodigies in their own right -- are Margot, the adopted, but award-winning playwright; Richie, the tennis champion; and Chas, the real-estate and business tycoon. The patriarch of the family, Royal, and his wife, Etheline, separated immediately after the children were born and two decades of betrayal, deceit, and failure, erased the brilliance of the young Tenenbaums.

In IJ, the parallel family of the Tenenbaums is the Incandenzas. When we meet the Incandenza family we learn matriarch and patriarch are no longer married, but unlike Royal and Etheline, who split for obvious personality differences, James O. Incandenza (JOI) and Avril M. Incandenza (AMI) are no longer married because JOI is dead. Like the Tenenbaums, the Incandenzas produced three offspring: Orin, the womanizing tennis-prodigy turned football punter; Hal, eidetic tennis prodigy; and Mario, kind-hearted, bradykinetic, homodontic dwarf. There are qualities of each Incandenza that correspond to qualities and traits found in the Tenenbaums, but also the correspondence falls outside of the two families to the extended families of in-laws and friends (Eli Cash, Dudley, Raleigh St. Claire, Pagoda, etc.). Here is a quick run-down.

Marlon Bain is a regular fixture at the Incandenza residence as a child, just as Eli Cash, as a child, is a regular fixture at the Tenenbaum residence. Eli admits that he always wanted to be a Tenenbaum, but one gets the feeling that Marlon Bain got away from the Incandenzas as soon as possible. Eli sleeps with Margot (Richie's sister and object of Richie's affections), but in IJ, Orin sleeps with Bain's sister (without there being any apparent affection involved -- witnessed by Orin's classification of her as just another "Subject"). Eli is eccentric at the very least, but Bain suffered from "the kind of OCD you need treatment for" (similar to Avril's compulsions).

Margot Tenenbaum loses a finger to an axe, just as Trevor Axford loses a finger (or two) to a fireworks incident.

Margot Tenenbaum is a long-term smoker, who hides this from everyone, just as Hal Incandenza is a regular pot smoker who hides this fact from almost everyone.

Richie Tenenbaum is a tennis prodigy, just as Hal and Orin Incandenza were; and Richie's on-court breakdown could be compared to Hal's near loss to Stice or Pemulis's dosing of his opponent or pretty much any other breakdown in the book.

One child in each family produces a drama: Margot Tenenbaum and Mario Incandenza.

The suicide attempt of Richie Tenenbaum seems reminiscent of Joelle Van Dyne's, as both take place alone in a bathroom.

Both JOI and Royal Tenenbaum have rival suitors (Tavis, for one, and Mr. Henry for Etheline) and both patriarchs die in the course of the book / movie.

Eli Cash is a drug addict of the highest type, much like Gately, Hal, and the varied addicts of IJ. Eli is nonchalant about his drug use, but also feels the need to hide it from those closest to him.

The Incandenzas have a dog loved primarily by a family member (S. Johnson and Avril) as do the Tenenbaums (Buckley by Ari and Uzi). Both dogs die.

Chas subjects Ari and Uzi to Schtitt-like physical-education routines. The sight of Ari and Uzi in their jogging suits, doing endless calisthenics, brings to mind the ETA students pushed to their limits during star drills.

There is incest (Richie and Margot Tennenbaum; Avril and Tavis). Although Royal would be quick to point out that Richie and Margot are not technically blood related since Margot is adopted, Richie feels the incest taboo. Avril's taboo is more Gertrude than Margot, one gets the feeling that Avril would find Etheline Tenenbaum to be a kindred spirit. Avril's misdeeds with John NR Wayne (off-screen except one illicit interruption) seem similar to Margot's being caught with Eli Cash in her bedroom. Although Avril isn't Wayne's teacher, Anderson did address that subject in "Rushmore."

The first article to address the relationship between The Royal Tenenbaums and IJ is this one. While Sidney Moody plays up some of the basic similarities, I take issue with his/her assumption that Avril "fends off many suitors after Dr. Incandenza's death" (and there is little evidence that Royal Tenenbaum was a "once-brilliant litigator"). Moody also equates Eli Cash to Don Gately because they both have drug problems and Cash's friends try to force him into rehab, but I see a closer comparison to be Eli Cash and Marlon Bain, despite Bain not having as prominent of a role in IJ as Cash does in RT.

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