In the traditional family, each member conveys specific roles and placement within the home. These roles in the family are based on their traits, personality, and talents, which greatly contribute to the overall family structure. The relationships between the characters in the film have many common ideals and norms that are displayed in most families. In The Royal Tenenbaums the questioning of “traditional” family structure and roles is heavily emphasized in the specific formal properties of film. During the prologue the theme of the movie is evident through literary and visual design, cinematography, editing, and sound.
The first property of film displayed in the prologue consists of elements of literary design, which will focus on the title and dialogue. The Royal Tenenbaums is titled this way so it may allow the viewer to assume the story is going to be centralized around one particular family. Through the dialogue of the narrator the audience immediately knows each of the character’s personality, profession and strengths. The narrator helps to foreshadow how the family, throughout the rest of the movie, will reflect to the beginning sequence. In the prologue sequence, through dialogue among the characters, show the viewer that Richie and Royal have a closer bond than the other Tenenbaum children. During Margot’s play Royal asks the young Eli Cash why he is in pajamas. Richie was the only Tenenbaum child to answer his father’s question. The audience may also notice the distant bond that Margot and Royal possess, when Royal explains to his guests at a dinner party that Margot is his adopted daughter. The narrator also emphasizes this during his dialogue to the viewer when he states that Royal did this every time when he introduced her. Through the dialogue, given by the narrator, he informs that the family is going to be split up by the separation of the parents. The film expresses the roles children may express when the issue of divorce arises. Margot, like many children, automatically asks if it is their fault. She speaks with a very passive and soft voice, which emphasizes on the timid attitude she may feel towards her father. Chas, in a very direct and stern voice, constantly asks questions of why the divorce is happening. He seems very displeased with his father, and through the dialogue the audience is easily able to assume that Chas is not favorable to his father. In the same scene Richie speaks to his father in a very comfortable and relaxed tone. He simply just asks his father a question, unlike Chas or Margo who had two separate extremes when talking to him. Through literary design the viewer is given a since in understanding the theme of the film; however, through visual design many other elements contribute to create the same effect. As the story of the prologue unfolds the visual shots move along with the narrator’s descriptions.
Once the story begins to be told the camera shows the flag with a capital “T’ on the top of the Tenenbaum home. The “T” on the flag shows symbolic meaning to stress that the movie is about a certain family. The film uses costumes to show the relationships between the characters in the movie. In one scene outside of the house, Royal is on the left side of the shot walking up the steps of the home dressed in a tan jacket and pants. Off to the right side of the same shot Richie is also wearing a tan jacket. Through the customs of both these characters the audience is able to make the assumption that these two people have a positive bond with each other. Through other elements of visual design the audience can see the distance the children have with Royal, opposed to the relationship they have with their mother. When Royal is explaining the formalities of he and his wife’s separation all three children are at one end of the table and the father is on the opposite end. At the table the blocking of characters help create meaning to show the distance between the father and the children. In the next scene with their mother we see a couple of shots that show the close bond the children have with her. During one shot all the three kids and the mother are centralized around the phone booth. During the table scene once again the viewer may notice the positioning of the children to show their discomfort they may feel around their father. Margot on the far left keeps her head down low, opposed to Chas, which is the complete opposite. He has a firm posture and keeps his arms folded at the table. These two characters show that they are not comfortable being around their father. Richie, who is the only child that shows any form of a closer bond to Royal, sits in a relaxed and comfortable position. Through these visual elements the “traditional” roles and structures of a family is clearly evident; moreover, cinematography also expresses these thematic structures.
Through camera movement and focusing the theme is conveyed to tell the story of this one family. The camera begins filming the very top of the house and pans down to the bottom to emphasize that the story is about The Tenenbaum family. The panning down gives the viewer an understanding that this is where the story takes place and the importance of this home. While the camera pans down it also gives the audience a brief look at the three children that later will be the main focus of the theme. When the narrator tells us that Ethylene kept the house, the camera pans down the stairs and then focuses in on her and the children. The panning helps to create a smooth story telling effect to explain the mother’s position in the family. The camera stops and creates an establishing shot of her and the kids, and then gets a closer shot of the Richie on her knee. By focusing on Ethylene and Richie it helps the audience understand that the mother plays a more significant role in the children’s life than the father. Throughout the movie the audience receives a series of angles, zooms, and shoot levels to help keep the movie focusing on the theme. The camera shoots at the eye level of Richie and Royal playing in the street for money to help the viewer understand the relationship between these two family members. The film also uses a high angle shot to show the distant bond that Margot and Chas share with their father. When Richie and Royal get home from spending the day together the camera angles down from Margot and Chas’s window to Richie and Royal emphasizing their desire to have the same bond that Richie shares with their father.
Another important aspect that is clearly seen in the film is the art of editing all these shots together. In the beginning of the prologue the audience receives a series of shot/reverse shots between the three children and Royal. The shot/reverse shot is used to show the distant bond among the characters. In contrast, this scene is followed by a shot of the mother and her children, all within the same frame to aid in the portrayal, the idea that the mother and the children have a very close relationship with one another. When the narrator first introduces a character there is a series of shots cut together to give a quick, yet thorough explanation of who these children are and what roles they play in their family. This form of editing is a great way to show the audience everything they need to know when it comes to understanding the theme. The prologue of the film mainly uses straight cuts because it is telling a brief introduction to the characters, which we will soon meet in more depth later in the film. By editing, with several straight and brief cuts, it creates excitement for the viewer to see what is yet to come. Editing is an important element when creating thematic structures within a film; however, sound is another key element in producing meaning.
Sound in film also greatly contributes to the overall theme that the filmmaker tries to make evident in his/her movie. The narrator’s voice contains a soft yet strong quality that allows the viewer to be sutured into the film. The sound of his voice helps the audience to believe that the narrator is a trustworthy source of the information that is provided. He tells the story in a non-biased manner, which allows the audience to make their own interpretations of the characters. “Hey Jude” by the Beatles plays in the background during the entire prologue sequence. Originally the song contained lyrics, however the film only uses the music aspect of it so the song does not take the attention away from the narrator or action of the characters. The music progresses in volume after each introduction of the character and their accomplishments. “Hey Jude “works as a sound bridge throughout the entire prologue sequence. This helps to create a storytelling effect among each member of the family and how it all relates together.
Through the five formal properties of film the theme is successful in following the thematic structure of traditional family structure and roles. In the typical family each member contributes a variety of characteristics that all serve the completeness of a family. Even though The Royal Tenenbaums is an exaggerated and fabricated story the structure and roles of a traditional family is clearly evident. The elements of literary and visual design, cinematography, editing, and sound are all the tools needed to express this thematic structure.
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