2001: Searching for Rockin and Royal Imperfection

I’ve written before about being adopted. Honestly, it is not all that interesting. My life is pretty much the same as most biologically-born kids. I’ve only ever known one set of parents, it has always been a very open thing in my family, and it isn’t really weird at all. However, the things that do make it weird are my pet peeves about how people discuss and depict adoption.

For example, I am patient when someone asks if I would like the find my “real parents”, explaining how they are the people who raised me and the descriptor they are looking for is “biological”, but it doesn’t change the fact I find the statement extremely ignorant and insensitive. I also laugh and roll my eyes when some suggest I can date my cousins or relatives because it is just the DNA, not the fact we’re related that makes things weird.

That is why The Royal Tenenbaums is a nearly-perfect movie to me. It came out the fall of my freshman year of college. I was in the midst of learning about the basic tenants of cinema at the best film school in the country, each week seeing some other new movie that redefined my ideas of what cinema was capable of. Then came this wonderful, quirky gem of a film from Wes Anderson, with its beautiful symmetry, exceptional soundtrack, and insane attention to every detail of the set design and costume design. This movie had me from the first appearance of the Futura font.

This story of a father trying to win back his estranged and troubled family was the kind of movie that made me unspeakably excited about movies. It told a simple story really, just an effed up family trying to get by, but the way Anderson told it only enhanced the emotion and the experience. You see, I am not a big fan of movies that are more about doing something interesting with form rather than using form to make the story more interesting. Take, for example, the Matrix movies, which had a glut of effects, very few of which really did much to make Neo’s story all that much more compelling in my opinion.

This movie though, appealed to those of us who loved effects and interesting camera angles and tracking shots and those of us who valued character and story first and foremost. Anderson is the great unifier of film school students, managing to be visually interesting and stylized while still focusing on interesting and unique stories.

There is but one problem though, one thing that keeps this movie out of my top ten, and it is the relationship between siblings Richie and Margot, who are secretly in love with one another. This is justified by the fact that Margot was adopted when she was two, so they aren’t really siblings.

I suppose it is possible this is how the family raised them, as they make a point of showing that the father Royal (Gene Hackman who was robbed of an Academy Award nomination that year) always referred to Margot as his “adopted” daughter, but I just can’t seem to get past it. In my head, I just can’t reason that the difference instilled by their dad outweighed years of family vacations and car rides and others treating them like siblings, so this relationship rings so completely false to me I cannot possibly take it seriously. The fact I hate this plotline so much and still treasure this movie as one of the best of that decade tells you just how incredible this movie is. It is almost perfect. It has but one flaw.

As much as I hate this one flaw, I have grown to love the movie more for its imperfection than I think I would if I found the movie flawless. Since this story is so much about learning to accept people for who they are, understanding they can change a little, but that they will fundamentally be the same at the core on the things that matter most. In a meta way, the flaw thematically drives home the need to stand by the ones you love, flaws and all, and you will be rewarded. I did, and last year I was rewarded with a genuinely perfect Anderson product: The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Sticking with something isn’t easy, let’s make that perfectly clear. With a movie, nostalgia helps you remember the good times more than the bad. If you watch it only periodically, your tolerance for the flaw is at its peak. TV shows though, those are more serious relationships, the kinds you grind week in and week out, often for the better part of a decade. Such is the case with Gilmore Girls, the charming story of a young mom in her early 30s and her teenage daughter living in the quaintest damned town you ever did see.

For years, the rapid-fire dialogue, the incredible pop culture references, and the core mother-daughter relationship had me hook, line, and sinker. Even as the show progressed and did some oddball stuff, like to pair Rory with bad boy Jess (Team Dean for life kids) or have the mother Lorelai inexplicably run away from a great guy at the altar, I stood by it. They weren’t the decisions I would make, but I appreciated and respected them.

Something terrible happened during the seventh and final season though. The studio dismissed the show’s creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino. They effectively ripped out the heart of the show, leaving us with a strange zombie version with a formerly sensible Rory making all sorts of irrational decisions, Lorelai finally getting the relationship she deserved only to have the equivalent of Cousin Oliver jammed into her existence when her boyfriend learned he was a father of a rather unendearing and precocious child. Yet, for reasons I can’t quite explain, I kept watching. While it was a betrayal to Palladino to keep tuning in, this was a relationship I was deeply invested in and loved flaws and all. That last season though, like the last season of Buffy and any season of West Wing past Season 5, has been erased from my memory.

Over time, you look back on your best relationships trying to remember the good more than the bad. In order for me to keep my Gilmore Girls relationship a cherished part of my life, I had to eradicate that awful ending, the televisual equivalent of an ugly, ugly break up, from my memory. I learned to love Tenenbaums for its flaw, but with television, there is just too much time and room to veer past the point of no return. In Royal Tenenbaums, there is really only 15 minutes or so that bother me. On Gilmore Gilrs, that final season shifted the entire universe of Stars Hollow in a direction I didn’t want it to go. It wasn’t just one tiny misstep, it was a series of decisions that fundamentally shifted the previous six years of something I had invested in.

Really, every movie and TV show has their flaws and missteps. It is far more likely to encounter a perfect pop song, and at the start of the millennium, pop groups were churning them out left and right. Then came the backlash of heavy metal rock bands composed of predominantly white people singing about their pain in what most would consider to be a rather privileged life.

Enter Ben Folds stage left with Rockin the Suburbs, which lays down the law with its opening lyric: “Let me tell y’all what it’s like, being male, middle class, and white.” Folds proceeds to eviscerate the music acts of the era by mocking those trying to find fault with a perfectly good life. Unlike Tenenbaums or Gilmore Girls, who accidentally started stumbling, these musical acts were trying to commodify the alleged imperfections in their own lives, and Folds can’t help but poke a little fun at them.

That is what is amazing about Ben Folds, if you haven’t listened to much of his stuff. He is able to acknowledge that there are many things and comforts the suburbs offer and tap into the frustrations without the anger of the heavy metal bands like Limp Bizkit. The single is the title track off an album that feels like a throwback to the story songs of Billy Joel, except instead of Brenda and Eddie, you have Zak and Sara, a young couple in love, but Sara suffers from some mental illness. There are songs about how fatherhood changes everything, how growing up sucks, and how we were all carrying Cathy, but she couldn’t find it in her to carry herself. In other words, it is at times a very sad, not angry, album about the imperfections of middle class life. And Ben Folds takes them, wraps them into beautiful pop song bundles, and has delivered a perfect album which pretty much everyone in my freshman year dorm listened to on repeat, all the way through, for years and years.

Pretty much everything is going to end up less than perfect, especially when it comes to pop culture. Sometimes it is the imperfections which make the thing great. Sometimes they are just too flawed to be ignored. And in the best of times, someone can take the imperfections in their lives and turn them into something wonderful beyond reproach.

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