SVA MA Design Research

SVA MA Design Research, Writing & Criticism1 is a one-year graduate program2
devoted to the study of design, its contexts & consequences.
Our graduates have gone on to pursue research-related careers in publishing, education, museums, institutes, design practice, entrepreneurship, & more.3

  1. Formerly known as D-Crit
  2. About the program
  3. Applications accepted on a rolling basis. All successful candidates awarded a significant scholarship!
SVA MA Design Research

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Two Decades Of Failure, Betrayal & Disaster: The Production Design of Wes Anderson’s Films as it Relates to the Family Dynamic – SVA MA Design Research

Kathryn Henderson

Two Decades Of Failure, Betrayal & Disaster: The Production Design of Wes Anderson’s Films as it Relates to the Family Dynamic

Wes Anderson is a contemporary director whose quirky films have gained a cult following and been embraced by the pop culture cognoscenti. Anderson is well known for his uncommonly design-intensive approach to filmmaking. Yet, there has been almost no analysis of his meticulous production design.

This research examines Anderson’s use of color, object, architecture, and costume design to externalize his characters’ internal states of being.  The thesis reviews five of Anderson’s live action films—Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited—with additional commentary on the recently released, animated film, The Fantastic Mr. Fox.  


He’s Your Dad Too: Parent/Child Relationships In The Royal Tenenbaums

Margot is the middle Tenenbaum child. She was a successful playwright by the time she was in ninth grade, and during the film her brother, Richie, is frequently seen reading collections of her plays. Margot was adopted, and her father seizes every opportunity to tell people this fact. This continuously reinforces the hierarchy within the children. Despite this, Margot never fully denies Royal as her father, and throughout the film she struggles with the issues that arise from this constant emotional turmoil. As Royal is being evicted from the Tenenbaum house, Margot is seen standing with Henry Sherman, her mother’s fiancé.  Royal calls to her, “He’s not your father,” to which she replies, “Neither are you.”  Although she makes this statement, she betrays her obvious attachment to her father by means of the subconscious cues that she broadcasts through her choice of clothing and personal effects.

Margot has the most outwardly recognizable father issues of the three siblings. Although she is reserved and secretive, she wears her heart on her sleeve—or, more accurately, her dress. Margot fluctuates between two versions of the same striped Lacoste dress, one blue and one red.. It seems when Margot is detached or apathetic about her relationship with her father, she wears her blue dress. But when she is trying to win her father’s affection or is feeling too close to him, she wears her red dress. Alas, even when she is content with their relationship, Royal’s insensitivity causes this feeling to be short lived.

Some of Margot’s accessories are pink—the family color—possibly symbolizing her yearning for praise from her parents. Her room is decorated mostly in reds and pinks with African masks, similar to the ones in her mother, Etheline’s, study. This illustrates Margot’s desire to connect to her mother. When she practices ballet, she wears the traditional light pink leotard with matching pink tights and a fringed skirt. By dressing Margot in all pink, Anderson is underscoring her attempts to succeed at a task in order to win her family’s approval and esteem.

Anderson demonstrates Margot’s yearning for acceptance and her struggle achieving it during the flashback scene in which she puts on a play for her birthday. When Richie asks Royal if he liked the characters in the play, Royal replies, “What characters? There’s a bunch of little kids dressed up in animal costumes.”  Upon hearing this, Margot collects her presents from the pile, removes Royal’s, which is wrapped in white-and-pink striped wrapping paper and tied with a red bow, and places a round object in front of him (although we never find out what the object is). She then walks out of the room just as her mother is entering with her birthday cake.

Margot’s cross to bear is her wooden finger, a symbolic representation of parental conflicts. The audience is introduced to Margot’s misfortune with a still shot at a desk strewn with sewing paraphernalia. In the middle of the desk is a single pink glove with the ring finger cut off just above the second knuckle.  She lost her finger while she was visiting her “real” family (as Richie refers to them). Margot’s biological father, a poor farmer, cut her finger off while demonstrating to his children how to chop firewood. The fake finger—made of wood and held in place with a piece of white tape—and the pink winter glove that Margot alters to fit her disfigured hand, are both symbols of her fractured patriarchal relationship. Anderson’s choice to cut off Margot’s ring finger appears to be deliberately symbolic as that finger is associated with the marriage bond.. The choice of wood as a prosthetic device is a blatant reference to her biological father’s horrific act.

During the family visit, Margot doesn’t wear the blue or red versions of her Lacoste dresses, but rather chooses an all-black version of the dress. She dyes her light blonde hair black to match.  In preparation for meeting her “real” family, this all-black ensemble signals her desire to distance herself from the Tenenbaums.

Heartbroken because her quest to find her biological father was ultimately a disaster, Margot returns to her adoptive family to find acceptance. By altering the pink glove to suit her damaged appendage, she’s broadcasting that she was wrong to look for another family. As Margot gets older, she distances herself from family conflicts, wearing only her blue dress, indicating that she is removing herself from directly feeling the disapproval of her father. When she leaves her husband and returns to her childhood home with Chas and Richie, their father tells them he is dying. Margot begins to wear the red dress again, rekindling her struggle with her father’s feelings towards her.

Richie is the youngest child and Royal’s favorite. He is the sibling with the fewest parent/child issues and consequently displays the least fluctuation in his dress.  In his prime, Richie was a professional tennis player. He still outfits himself in the same white polo shirt with red and blue details, a tan wool suit and wears a sweatband around his head and his wrists. According to Karen Patch, Richie’s style is an exaggerated and simplified version of 1970s tennis players, and specifically, a nod to Björn Borg. Richie is the only character to keep a constant visage throughout the film: same long hair, same tennis clothing and the same sensitive but slightly manipulative demeanor. Richie even continues to carry his Fila tennis bags as luggage. His unchanging outfit symbolizes independence from his father, but betrays an inability to let go of his once impressive life. Because he is Royal’s favorite, he doesn’t develop the same issues as Margot and Chas. His obsessions are his preoccupation and yearning for Margot and keeping the family together at any risk. Richie is also the observer and communicator of the family. His bedroom walls are covered with sketches of the family and one of his hobbies is H.A.M. Radio, suggesting the need to reach out.

Richie cuts his hair and shaves his face before using the razor to attempt suicide. The director has purposely chosen a double-bladed razor rather than an electric one because it can cut as well as shave. Might this be a symbolic double castration before the planned final exit from the family?  But Richie envisions suicide as an act of martyrdom that will bring his family back together after Royal has been expelled from the house. This razor, then, has the ironic ability to cut and bind the family at the same time.

(…)

Dad’s Bags Aren’t Going To Make It: Parent/Child Relationships In The Darjeeling Limited

Like Margot Tenenbaum, Peter Whitman uses objects to comfort and assuage his anxiety about his loss. Peter collects his deceased father’s belongings to deny the reality of his death and keep his own sadness at bay. The middle child of the Whitman family, Peter is the only brother who outwardly displays his inability to cope with his father’s passing. Although the brothers equally share their father’s luggage, Peter feels the need to possess more. He confiscates his father’s personal effects—his prescription sunglasses, a double-edged safety razor and car keys—without telling anyone else.  His attempts to emulate his father are similar to Max in Rushmore and Ned in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, although it is enacted through the use of objects instead of clothing.

Peter wears his father’s sunglasses every day despite the fact that the prescription is too strong for him (or any of the brothers). He may be attempting to see the world as his father saw it, or perhaps it is wishful thinking that the objects will imbue him with his father’s strength or knowledge. But, because the prescription is incorrect, they only distort the real world. This is another example of Anderson’s technique of conferring a common, everyday device with an added magical or totemic function.

As the brothers travel through India, Peter continually carries his father’s car keys, almost as a totem in his pocket.  The keys manifest a dual nature; they symbolize his dead father and embody mystical properties that can transfer his father’s power. They also, in a very real sense, convey ownership of the car, a Porsche, to him.  Peter’s anxiety about the car begins at his father’s funeral. Traveling with his brothers and wife in a limo en route to the burial, Peter insists on a detour to a mechanic’s shop where his father’s car is being worked on.  He wants to take possession of the car even before his father is buried. Upon arriving and being told that the car is not ready, Peter becomes furious, yelling at the staff and trying to make the car run by himself. His impotence in obtaining the car seems to upset him more than his father’s death, although this may well be mis-projected feelings of loss. During the train ride on the Darjeeling Limited, Pete uses his dead father’s very personal effects as a way to physically hold on to his father’s memory and to reconstruct the relationship they once had. The objects that Peter chooses to use are highly symbolic of father/son relationship milestones: Learning to shave and learning to drive. Is Peter hoarding these particular items as a cry for help? The razor and car keys may help him reminisce about how his father helped him handle those important “boy to man” transitions. Perhaps in those memories Peter hopes to find the strength to help him cope with his father’s death, and with the uncertainty of becoming a father himself.

The act of shaving is a highly personal activity, one often viewed as a masculine endeavor.  Peter shaves his face with his dead father’s razor, reenacting a ritual that he must have observed many times. Does this imitation bring him closer to his father, or does it assist in severing the painful ties?  Again, similar to The Royal Tenenbaums, the director’s choice of this particular manual razor enables the viewer to reflect on the conflicts within the character