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Grace-Infused: Notes on Director Wes Anderson's Working Relationship with Actor Jason Schwartzman

There’s a bit in Wes Anderson’s recent "Castello Cavalcanti" that’s particularly revealing of the director’s artistic personality. A racecar driver played by Jason Schwartzman has just crashed into a Christ statue, which stands in the center of a nearly deserted Italian village that appears to have sprouted up from every film lover’s dreams of the country as a mystery realm of wise old codgers, beautiful local women, and red wine and spaghetti. The driver has just embarrassed himself, obviously, and he feels the need to assert his authority in a land he doesn’t appear to know. So, puffing up his body as he strides away from the accident toward a group of old men playing cards, he asks for some of the local booze in a fashion that attempts to snatch confidence from the jaws of ignorance. "Hooch" is the sturdiest note of regional specificity the driver can apparently muster, and he proceeds to sound that note with an arrogance that only underlines his feelings of vulnerability.

This is a moment that stems from Anderson’s great concern with the revelations that spring from our attempts to control the uncontrollable. It’s also a trademark Schwartzman moment. The actor delivers the line in a manner that feels precise yet tossed-off. This seeming contradiction that goes a long way toward describing the specificity of Schwartzman’s persona, particularly when he’s working with Anderson.

It’s little wonder, then, that this director and actor have worked together so frequently. They’re both comic poets of the humanizing buffoonery of emotional subterfuge. They’ve established one of those great cinema rapports in which the actor appears to be capable of directly tapping into the private motivations that spur the director to approach the project at hand. This is a pair that has earned a right to a common (and often carelessly applied) longtime legendary actor-director short-hand association: Jason Schwartzman is the Robert De Niro to Wes Anderson’s Martin Scorsese.

This is not an incidental comparison. There are exceptions, of course, but more often than not, De Niro has functioned as Scorsese's onscreen avatar. Sometimes De Niro embodied Scorsese as we see him in interviews—an earnestly kinetic talker and thinker, perhaps a little locked up in his own head (as illustrated in parts of "Taxi Driver" and in "New York, New York"). Other times he played the dark fantasy of the Scorsese the director has sometimes suggested that he might have turned into, had the arts not redeemed him. Every Scorsese-DeNiro picture with gangsters in it puts DeNiro in such a role (including "Raging Bull"), and there are aspects in Scorsese's "Cape Fear" remake, which stars DeNiro as a monstrous id figure. Occasionally, De Niro seemed to assume all of the elements of every present and potential Scorsese at once, such as in the flawed, magnificent "Casino." Of the many great actors to appear in Scorsese’s films, De Niro is the one most in sync with Scorsese's presiding preoccupation with a man's attempts to corral and refine his passions—in particular, his fury.

Considering Anderson's similar thematic obsessions, it seems no surprise that the two filmmakers would admire each other's work. Schwartzman seems to fulfill a De Niro like function in Anderson's films. He is the actor who most directly expresses Anderson's governing theme of the lop-sided grace that a hero achieves, accidentally, after failing to exert great, pretentious control.

The notion of Schwartzman as Anderson's avatar is most obvious and explicit in "Rushmore," their first collaboration and the film that counts as a "breakout" for both of them. Schwartzman plays Max Fischer, an emotionally wayward teen. He's one of cinema's most lovable ego-maniacal tyrants: a budding artist who might be growing into a film director possessing an Andersonian level of precision, especially regarding actors' line deliveries and the composition of the frame.

Like De Niro's Johnny Boy in Scorsese's own breakthrough, "Mean Streets," Max could be reasonably assumed to represent Anderson's dream of both the best and worst possible versions of himself. Max is a disaster, given to attempting personal manipulations that are unforgivable. But he's a glorious disaster with the kind of stature that a shy boy (and/or filmmaker) might always dream of achieving: a boy with enough presence of mind to embed his embarrassments with a running existential commentary. Most of us would be red-faced and dreadfully typical if we got loaded at a post-show dinner and threw a jealous fit, but Max still has the remarkable ability to turn himself into what might be a teen's half-formed parody of a Noël Coward character.

There's a snappish physicality to the way the actor embodies Max that directly corresponds to Anderson's sensibility, right down to his films' distinct, elegantly jagged editing rhythms. Max reveals himself fleetingly in curt, sharp gestures that resist outward sentiment while simultaneously pleading for it inwardly. One of the most revealing moments of the film is so brief that it initially feels like a tossed-off illustration of Max's insensitivity. Having finally elected to include his lovestruck admirer Margaret Yang in one of his plays, Max nips a rehearsal just as the scene is to about to call for their respective characters to kiss. Max's obnoxious myopia is funny, at first, but the moment becomes something else as you consider it on the rebound. It's a subtle, tender affirmation of Max's obvious and overwhelming fear of romantic love, which he's gotten tangled up with the guilt surrounding his unseen mother's death, which has also manifested itself as a consciously doomed romantic infatuation with an older woman. Anderson and Schwartzman give you all that in a few pared gestures, particularly in the way Max throws away the line about the characters then having to kiss, which is followed with his immediate, too sudden rise from his position on the stage to a place and posture that's presumably emotionally neutral.

If Max ultimately stood for youthful idealism commenting on the fear of its own evaporation, then the characters that Schwartzman played in "The Darjeeling Limited," its curtain-raising short film "Hotel Chevalier," and now "Castello Cavalcanti" represent the inevitable dawning of the realization of that fear. These films are notably darker than Anderson's earlier works; they're invested with the kind of disappointment that most of us encounter as we move out of our twenties into our thirties and forties.

Specifically, there's a moment in "The Darjeeling Limited" that has never left me: the way the Schwartzman character spits on his palm so as to lubricate a partner before a quick sexual interlude on the train of the title. The character spits on his hand almost contemptuously, in a gesture that echoes back to Max's curt theatricality—the showy snappish-ness. It would be off-putting if Schwartzman didn't allow us to see that this man isn't being callous, but making a show of contriving to be callous. In the face of confusion and longing, he's trying to win grace, or perhaps coolness (though young people think they want the latter when they really mean the former), and spin the straw of emotional oblivion into the transformative gold of art. Wes Anderson and Jason Schwartzman create art that achieves that kind of grace.

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