These fellas really mean business

Three young auteurs are riding high in Hollywood. They've joined the club, but have they sold their souls to do it? By Ben Thompson
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The Independent Culture

There's a scene in Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums... Well, there are a lot of scenes in Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums (by one expert's calculation, upwards of 240, where the average barnstorming meditation on familial dysfunction and unfulfilled promise barely scrapes into three figures). And just about any one of them will reserve you a seat on a train of thought heading somewhere you've never been before.

In this particular scene, though, Eli Cash, a volatile novelist of the Old West, is involved in a significant exchange of words with his childhood friend, the former US national tennis champion Richie Tenenbaum. The two actors – Owen Wilson (who also has a co-writer's credit, not to mention the distinction of having co-starred with Jennifer Lopez and Ice Cube in Anaconda) and his real-life brother Luke – speak in a deadpan manner. The former confesses that he is high on mescalin, the latter that he is in love with his adopted sister, Margot.

As the camera switches from one man to another, the audience's gaze can't help but drift to two strange paintings on the walls behind them. One depicts a gang of menacing, masked individuals on quad bikes, the other some form of violent assault. Somehow these lurid and compelling artworks seem to dramatise the characters' inner turmoil better than any emotional outburst ever could.

Anderson bought one of the pictures – by a Mexico City artist called Miguel Calderon, who originally staged its grisly tableaux as a photo-shoot – from a gallery in New York, knowing that it was far too scary for him ever actually to put on a wall in his house, but sure that it might one day find a home on celluloid. If asked whether he claimed the price as a production expense, he will answer, with a hint of regret, "At a certain point, where you're trying to get a lot of extra things in a movie, that's not the time to make them pay to a hire a painting that you already own."

Like the Texan writer-director's previous film – 1998's riotously cerebral high-school comedy RushmoreThe Royal Tenenbaums establishes a unique form of syncopation between dialogue and visual wit. The screenplay is a whirlpool of intellectual energy, and Anderson pulls you from one scene to the next with the infectious joy of a child who has decided to share with you the whereabouts of a secret camp.

The age of innocence that the film seems to hark back to is not so much childhood itself (the 12-year-old versions of the characters played by Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller and the Wilson brothers seem more fully formed than the adult ones) as a time when it was possible to experience culture by means other than the mains. Why else should such an aura of recklessness surround Margot Tenenbaum's penchant for watching TV in the bath?

For all The Royal Tenenbaums' unapologetically literary atmosphere – this is a film that is designed like a book, in which almost every character seems to have written one – Anderson insists he's no Luddite. "Though if you were going to write a paper to that effect," he concedes drily, "there would be evidence to support it in the way the film is actually made. Nothing is done digitally, there are no special effects and I didn't use a Steadicam in the entire movie, even if that meant building 40ft of dolly tracks and stepping round rocks."

The fact that almost every shot in The Royal Tenenbaums feels like it wants to be a still is not just a happy accident. That stylistic distinction turns out to be attributable to the director's determination to stick with his trusty wide, 40mm lens and move the camera for close-ups, rather than leaving the camera in the same place and swapping the lens, as is the current Hollywood custom.

Confronted by such old-fashioned craftsmanship and attention to detail, it's no wonder that those trying to explain what is so special about Anderson reach back in time to Preston Sturges, or even – in Peter Bogdanovich's introduction to the Faber edition of The Royal Tenenbaums' screenplay – Orson Welles. But the really interesting thing about Anderson is how he fits into the contemporary cinematic landscape: in one sense as a complete one-off, in another as part of a gang.

The only other two films (Rushmore excepted) that offer audiences the same kind of thrill as The Royal Tenenbaums are also both of recent vintage, and someone with an overactive imagination might even see it as a response to them. This could be the work of a film-maker trying (and somehow managing) to sustain the breakneck creative pace of the first five minutes of Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia (before the Quiz Kid comes in, when you're still thinking "This is so great that no film ever made in the future can possibly fail to take account of it") for the length of a whole picture. Or someone hell-bent on applying the extraordinary prismatic lens of Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich to a landscape of imagined, rather than real, celebrity.

Of course there's much more to it that that, and it would be a mistake to celebrate the advent of a supremely individual celluloid voice by trying to turn it into a chorus. But is there any reason why Jonze and the two Andersons shouldn't end up being thought of as a great cinematic generation, in the same way that Scorsese and Coppola, or Lucas and Spielberg, or Jarmusch and Lee have been?

All three are putting things on the screen that haven't been there before. All three are in their early thirties, white and middle class – even what Whit Stillman would called haut bourgeois – with successful paternal role models (Wes's dad has his own advertising company in Austin, Texas, Paul's was the well-known actor and voiceover artist Ernie Anderson, and Spike's is international health-care consulting mogul Art Spiegel III). Perhaps in defiance of the expectations that these upbringings must have placed upon them, all three prefer to wear their hair in the style known as "bedhead".

There's something else this gifted trio also share, and that's a special kind of confidence: the kind that enables young directors to persuade major stars to do things no one would have thought possible. Think of Tom Cruise's magnetically self-lacerating performance in Magnolia, or Spike Jonze upbraiding the eponymous star of Being John Malkovich with the immortal words "John Malkovich wouldn't do it that way."

It will be fascinating to see if the directors concerned can maintain this happy knack – you might call it icon-wrangling – throughout the next phase of their careers (Jonze's second film, Adaptation, stars the ferociously impermeable duo of Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep, while Paul Thomas Anderson promises a "$25m Adam Sandler art-house movie").

In Wes Anderson's case, the situation is slightly more complex. Some people who loved what Rushmore did for Bill Murray (and vice versa) will see the illustrious cast list for The Royal Tenenbaums and start thinking this is going to be one of those awful moments where old Hollywood crowds round a new talent and sucks the life out of it with a series of those performances that say, "Look how good I can be when the material is up to my standard."

In a sense, that is exactly what the star- turns in The Royal Tenenbaums are trying to do, but the truly miraculous thing about the film is the way the director turns that impulse to his advantage, and uses it to create a glittering set of cinematic icons. Cinematic icons who celebrate film as a gateway to the flirtatious interplay of other art forms, not an escape from it. Cinematic icons over whom the grim shadow of Quentin Tarantino falls in no way at all.

'The Royal Tenenbaums' is released on 15 March