The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents November 2012 Return to Table of Contents
The Master
Presidents Desk
Short Takes
DVD Playback
Eating Raoul
The Game
The Royal Tenenbaums
ASC Close-Up
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Blu-ray Edition
2.40:1 (High Definition 1080p)
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
The Criterion Collection, $39.95

Robert Yeoman, ASC, was already an established director of photography when he first teamed with director Wes Anderson on Anderson’s debut feature, Bottle Rocket, but it is safe to say his work reached a new artistic peak in collaboration with the young filmmaker. Since making that picture, the pair has also collaborated on Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited and Moonrise Kingdom.

Perhaps their most poignant collaboration so far is The Royal Tenenbaums. Gene Hackman stars as Royal Tenenbaum, the estranged father of a trio of geniuses (played by Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson) whose early promise has been demolished by personal and professional failures. When Royal learns his wife (Anjelica Huston) is marrying another man (Danny Glover), he reinserts himself into the family’s life and attempts to reconcile with them — a reconciliation complicated by his habitual lying.

Tonally, Tenenbaums is Anderson’s most audacious and difficult film, an offbeat, occasionally broad comedy with deep undercurrents of sadness. Yeoman solves the problem of maintaining this emotional balance via an effective use of wide-angle lenses and high-key lighting, which work well for comedy, but also emphasize the pressures on the characters by burying them in details from their former glory. The “geniuses” are surrounded by mementoes of better days, and the crisp depth-of-field and lack of shadows give them no escape. Yet this makes the film sound gloomier than it is; Yeoman’s reliance on bright colors and Anderson’s deep empathy for his characters counterbalance the film’s darker elements to make it an uplifting experience in the end.    

The Royal Tenenbaums is the latest of Anderson’s features to be released on Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection. In keeping with Criterion policy, the director supervised the transfer, but the flesh tones appear excessively orange, and the highlights are slightly blown out at times. On the plus side, the sense of depth and clarity is extraordinary, particularly in the movie’s emotionally charged close-ups. The anamorphic frame is filled with rich details that reward repeat viewings, and the crisp image, while not up to Criterion’s usual standard, is solid and vibrant. The 5.1 surround mix is flawless, with evocative but unobtrusive separation across the channels, powerful effects in the film’s occasional action scenes, and razor-sharp clarity in the dialogue tracks.

All extra features are carried over from Criterion’s previous DVD and are consistent with Anderson’s penchant for supplement-laden special editions. The on-set interviews with actors rise above the usual public-relations fluff, with a half-hour collection of conversations in which all the members of the principal cast discuss the production and their process. A hilarious “episode” of “The Peter Bradley Show,” the fictional talk show featured in the film, in which the host (played by Larry Pine) interviews several bit players from The Royal Tenenbaums, is included. Although the episode is essentially a comic stunt (and a very entertaining one), it provides some actual insights into Anderson’s process along with the laughs.

Anderson’s commentary track is accompanied by a half-hour, behind-the-scenes featurette that shows him, Yeoman and other collaborators on set. Also included are two brief deleted scenes and a radio program about artist Miguel Calderon, whose paintings are featured in the film. Galleries of artwork used in and related to the movie are included as well, along with theatrical trailers.

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