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Wes Anderson Must Write Old Custer
To Honor Cormac McCarthy
Does any movie contain as many fictitious books as The Royal Tenenbaums? Let’s count them. Etheline (Anjelica Huston) chronicles of her children’s early success with Family of Geniuses; Margot’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) three plays—Nakedness Tonight, Erotic Transference, and Static Electricity—are collected as Three Plays; her husband, writer and neurologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), has written The Peculiar Neurodegenerative Inhabitants of the Kazawa Atoll and by the end of the film publishes Dudley’s World; even Etheline’s fiancé Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), a humble accountant, has written Accounting for Everything: A Guide to Personal Finance. And of course the film itself is presented as a library book.
The movie exists in an enchanted reality where cultural ephemera simply cannot help but spring up around people (see also their overloaded boardgame closet). It also, incidentally, provides one of the chief dichotomies between the characters, as we can split them into the cultural producers listed above and the business brains of Chas (Ben Stiller) and Royal (Gene Hackman). Ritchie (Luke Wilson), as an athlete with his magazine covers, is caught in the no-man’s-land in between, which perhaps explains his arc.
And then there’s Eli. Played by Owen Wilson, Eli Cash is the boy from across the street who always yearned to be a Tenenbaum. He’s an assistant professor of English literature recently thrust into the limelight by his second novel, Old Custer. In a film full of great lines, none sticks in my head like his logline for the story, delivered with such confidence: “Well everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn. What this book presupposes is: “Maybe he didn’t?”
I don’t think I’m blowing any minds when I note that, with his cowboy hat and leather fringe jacket and his magazine cover heralding him as “the James Joyce of the West,” he’s clearly intended as a Cormac McCarthy parody. Anderson hammers this home with the snippet of Old Custer we hear him read aloud, which goes, “The crickets and the rust beetles scuttled among the nettles in the sage thicket. Vamonos amigos he whispered and threw the busted leather flintcraw over the loose weave of the saddlecock and they rode on in the friscalating dusklight.” Does Anderson like McCarthy’s writing or does he find his whole schtick, which Tom Scocca described as swinging “from cowboy terseness to scriptural rococo,” laughable?
I’ll come back to the McCarthy comparison but just for fun let’s establish the other two writers I see undercurrents of in Eli. He is interviewed on tv later and asked about his first book, Wildcat, which the interviewer bluntly calls “not a success.” Eli begins explaining that it was written in an “obsolete vernacular,” which calls to mind something like Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, before trailing off, muttering “wildcat” and snarling. At this point he’s in the depths of a mescaline binge that culminates in painting his face and crashing his car into the Tenenbaum house. For me, mescaline and reckless driving mean one thing: Hunter S. Thompson, baby!. The paintings in Eli’s house, of men in animal masks beating each other to death, are also exactly what I imagine Thompson hung in his living room. But maybe that’s still a stretch. Better just to say he tried being Pynchon before swerving to McCarthy.
We’re in the midst of a minor boom of filmmaker fiction. Quentin Tarantino released his novelization of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in 2021. Last year gave us Michael Mann’s Heat 2, which, I’m sorry, is clearly a joke that escaped containment from the 30 Rock universe. John Waters released Liarmouth last year as well and Werner Herzog published The Twilight World, a mostly true account of a Japanese soldier who held out alone on an island for nearly 30 years after World War II ended.
Look, everyone knows Wes Anderson is not going to write Old Custer; what this essay presupposes is: Maybe he would? The time is right, Wes! Not only is everybody doing it, the position of James Joyce of the West recently opened up. It’s seriously a win-win proposition for Anderson—if the book is good, well great; if the book is bad, it was a joke to begin with. The book isn’t even supposed to be good within the fiction of the film. Eli says to Margot, “You never gave me the time of day until I started getting good reviews.” Margot says, “Your reviews aren’t that good.” Eli says, “But the sales are.”
Owen Wilson is from Texas but Eli Cash has never lived outside New York City. The cowboy hat and fringe are a put-on, of presumably recent origin. McCarthy really lived it. He grew up in Tennessee—his father was a lawyer with the TVA—and set his first several books there. After he won a MacArthur Fellowship for Suttree he toured the Southwest, visiting Hueco Tanks and many of the other locations that would appear in Blood Meridian. He moved to Santa Fe and lived in New Mexico until he died this week. Nearly all his books are displaced in time—some by twenty years, some fifty, Blood Meridian by more than one hundred—but he knew intimately the places he was writing about and paid as much attention to the landscape as he did the people and oftentimes more.
I intended this essay to be a jokey, inconsequential post. I sat down Tuesday to watch The Royal Tenenbaums and later that day the news broke that McCarthy had died. He was 89. He wrote twelve novels, which range from genuine masterpieces to frustrating but still incredibly written. He devoted himself to his craft and languished in obscurity for decades before the public caught up. By all accounts he was a personable, if intensely private, man. He was the real deal.
Twenty years on, I like to think Wes Anderson could see the issue from the other side. No filmmaker’s style has been parodied and derided over the last two decades half as much as his has. The symmetry, the wooden affect, the color choices—it’s all low hanging fruit and people have certainly found it ripe for the picking. McCarthy’s prose is not too different. But Anderson’s movies, for all their familiar tics, retain that essential power to please and to move me to tears and to astound me with their artistry. They can be parodied but they can’t be imitated.
If Anderson were to write Old Custer, the obvious problem, and why Old Custer is so funny in the first place, is Custer. It’s been a while since I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee but I remember well enough that Custer sucks mondo ass. He was arrogant and unprofessional and was an enthusiastic leader in genocide. When he meets his end at Little Bighorn it feels like justice. Presupposing he didn’t die that day, what do you do with him as a character? Does he stay in the army and continue slaughtering Native Americans? Also Custer was only 36 when he died in 1876—how old are we talking for Old Custer? He would only be 60 in the year 1900, which is so weird to think about.
Actually, okay, now we’re talking. Here’s my idea: send Custer to World War I. Were there Civil War veterans in WWI? Seems like a potent symbol of the passing from one epoch to another to me. This guy spends a lifetime riding the plains on horseback, scouting and riding and watching the buffalo diminish, only to end his career—and life—down in the muck in the trenches of Europe, afraid of breathing in mustard gas.
Wes! Are you reading this buddy? This thing practically writes itself. And you already have the one passage from the movie. Maybe we do a flashback structure and we see him cooling his heels in Mexico after Little Bighorn interspersed with the World War I stuff. Maybe he cools his heels so long he ends up participating in the Mexican Revolution. The possibilities are endless. Even if the reviews aren’t that good, the sales will be.
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