bill murray week

The 19th Annual Mark Twain prize for American Humor goes to Bill Murray. I was immensely honored and humbled to take on this quick project for The Washington Post. I wanted to go weirder with this but the AD had a very simplistic and specific vision in mind. So here we are.

Bill Murray | for The Washington post
Digital media; Wacom tablet + Photoshop CS5

Full article below:

BILL MURRAY WEEK: Lost in Translation (2003)

by Erica C.

I’ve been thinking lately that travel and love are two of the most connecting forces we can know.

Both can create a sense of boundless intimacy—can weave together a two-person community and a set of experiences that the outside world will never really understand.

And both can be profoundly lonely.

Once, I traveled three days by train over the Chinese mainland, through the valleys sunk like an extraction and the fields, raised as a scar. For those 72 hours, I saw no other foreigner, no one with skin as watery and untested as mine. My berth held six bunk beds triple stacked in a tiny cabin less than ten feet tall and ten feet wide. At night, I’d lie in the top bunk, too close to the ceiling to do anything but recline and listen to the quiet Mandarin chiming and gonging below me and the rattle and sway of the tracks below that.

At dusk, I’d leave the berth and walk out to stretch my legs. Past the families filling their Styrofoam noodle bowls at the hot water spigot and the old men playing games at the small round tables in the narrow train hallways. When they’d let me, I’d take an empty seat and watch the countryside pour by like old film, stained in sea tones and unraveling.

At the top of the mountains watching over the valley, workers lit oil fires in caves. Settling bank on their haunches and elbows for the night, their nests glowed like jack-o-lanterns in the slate cliffs over the lush wet banks over the river near the tracks. No one had told me China would be so beautiful and, somehow, I’d never decided to create that expectation for myself. I hadn’t expected the train station to be so English-free, or so hot, stuffed as a pierogi with a million Chinese headed to familial homes for the festival weekend. I hadn’t expected the train ride to be so endless, or to feel so overwhelmingly alone for every one of its hours.

This is just one card in a deck full of isolating and lonesome travel experiences, each of which I would choose to do all over again. But you need to understand what you’re getting into.

Lost in Translation was the last time I was ever really able to tolerate Scarlett Johansson in a movie. It’s probably not her fault; If God made you a Samuyed, it’s a hard campaign to get cast as a Beagle, you know? But back then, she was still sort of a beagle. Her Charlotte is brunette and smart and a little frumpy in her sensible shoes. Snarky and bookish and suspicious of a certain kind of woman, like we are.

Charlotte has joined her photographer husband of two years—an ADHD man named Tom (Giovanni Ribisi)—on some vague assignment in Tokyo. Young Tom is a little star struck and increasingly affected by the euro-trash bands and brash blonde starlets he shoots. Charlotte is sweet and petty, grounded and increasingly lost.

Yet even in this most relatable role, there are times when I just want to smack Charlotte for all her whining and self-pitying and huffing. For sealing herself up in her ivory hotel tower and being so focused on not being her husband’s focus that she nearly misses an entire city waiting to court her.

Until we meet Bill Murray’s Bob. An aging famous actor, Bob has come back to Tokyo for easy capitalization on his past, mid-level fame. Two days filming a sort of degrading, sort of ego-boosting whiskey commercial. Sitting for a photo shoot in which the artist begs him for More Mystery, More Intensity, A Little More James Bond, and a hefty check is his for the taking.

At night, in between these obligations, he lingers in the hotel bar, listening to the horrifyingly earnest and self-adoring cover songs sung by a red-headed lounge singer in a slinky dress. A pretty embarrassment of a woman that he’s too good for, but later beds anyway, making us hate him a little.

Between his nights getting half drunk and his days reading passive aggressive faxes from his never-seen American wife, Bob waits out his life like a teeth cleaning.

Until he meets Charlotte.

These two need each other—that much we get from the start. In their own ways, both Bob and Charlotte are so Lost, each with varying degrees of self-awareness and understanding around how this came to be. Lost and lonely and then, hark, here comes a lighthouse and here comes a ship. One to shine upon the other, and one to be shone upon.

I am far more afraid of being lonely right beside someone than I am of being lonely and all alone.

It’s a dupe, you know?

Being alone, you steel yourself. There is no expectation but for self-perseverance. and at least you’re allowed that thrill of pride. But if you set down your independence and let down your draw bridge and then it doesn’t work? Then you find yourself—or them—still impenetrable? Who can survive that?

You’ve been there, too. Those quiet doubting long drive homes. Those shut out, wordless, withholding trips beside a partner who’s closing down. Or maybe it’s you that has shut down this time, stuck enduring the nearly unbearable wait for them to simply notice.

Charlotte still loves her husband (or some version of him), but she is losing him. At least what she needs of him – his worshipful focus, his rapt attention, his down-to-earthiness, his agreement to sit out the whole big superficial ride with her. And to suddenly be denied the security of such a tether and pact is a scary place in which to find one’s self. Whatever she used to be, before she was his, has grown timid as a casted arm.

And Bob still loves his wife, probably. It’s hard to know who or what they actually are outside all their machinations, but there seems to be at least a similar promise of partnership here. too. Or at least the fossil of some kind of loyal intimacy. They’re older than Charlotte and Tom and so their routines are a little more acerbic, a little less elaborate. They’ve learned the shortcuts to really wounding each other.

But they’ve also developed the fortitude to cope. Bob’s wife hides behind the royal duties of child rearing and interior design and stays home. Sends carpet samples to prove her martyred service to Bob in lieu of tenderness. And Bob stays on the road. Sends home his paycheck and halfhearted romantic overtures in lieu of responsibility.

I saw Lost in Translation once, years ago, and really loved it. Loved it in the quiet, deep sort of way you love books you only read once. at a very particular time in your life. and don’t really think or speak of much ever again.

Re-watching it now, though, I find myself less forgiving of it, at least initially. Irritated that Charlotte and Bob need this dalliance, which is far less innocent than I remembered it being. What I had once cataloged in my memory as nuanced, wanting looks that went forever unacted upon were. in actuality. elevator kisses and sultry karaoke songs sung to each other, with pointed meaning and drunken swaying hips.

But then again, it isn’t much more than that—not much more than a teenage caper formed to pass a few echoey days in an electric city one million miles from home. And so I forgive them, Bob and Charlotte. I forgive them again this time and then already again for the next time I watch it, in another decade or so. Because we have been there too.

What I mostly loved about Lost in Translation the first time around, I think, was the gaps. It is a movie defined by what is missing. The quiet spaces and the unspoken words and even the now-classic final scene. The whispered farewell between Bob and Charlotte that we’re not asked or allowed to hear.

Do you remember this? There are entire websites devoted to analyzing and breaking down what Bob says to Charlotte in the film’s final moments, his aging cheek pressed to hers – soft and taut and flawless as a whole lifetime left before you.

I really love that Sofia Coppola never told us. I want something in all this to remain pure. If it must be a secret, then so be it.

And that’s the beauty of the entire movie, really – its sort of Japanese elegance. What it invites and never forces. The line that it toes.

I am a person who could never not say what is in my guts, my overactive mind, my thumping chest. And here is this whole entire poised world. This Asian fairy tale told in elaborate gift-giving greetings and techno club dances, the subtleties of marital jousting and the choreography of old black-and-white movies amidst an insomniac’s midnight panic. The drunk-making mystery of friendship with just slightly too much more.

Give in to where you are. This might be my best travel advice and my greatest travel challenge. There is so much for a human being to fear. Not in hiking through Malian outback alone, not in forging the medinas and the subways and the canals. It’s the connection. Understanding how to insert yourself into the stream of human connection when there is so much potential for misstep. The rapids you misunderstand and the pace to which you are unaccustomed. The depth for which you are unprepared. And ultimately, the possibility that you will be rejected – heaved back out upon the shore.

Approaching a stranger on a train or online is not just that thing; It is everything. It is risking it all – gambling against rejection, wagering love that may spend itself down to the loneliest fibers. Risking that despite it all, knowing we may end up alone.

And that’s why you can forgive Bob and Charlotte.

Because in a wild city that doesn’t belong to you, a million literal or figurative miles from your partner, you might change. It might take something different than you think to keep on keeping on. And even if you, like Charlotte and Bob, hold on to your promises and moral fiber, you still might need to surrender to the moment. Find someone’s hand to hold and run the streets with them until you forget everything. Until you can make yourself go home again.

Finishing this essay took too long for no particular (and a hundred insignificant) reasons. Sitting on an airplane drinking gin and tonics and wondering about quinine and procrastinating it, I read this quote and finally pulled it all together:

“First of all, love is a joint experience between two persons — but the fact that it is a joint experience does not mean that it is a similar experience to the two people involved. There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries. Often the beloved is only a stimulus for all the stored-up love which had lain quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto. And somehow every lover knows this. He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing. He comes to know a new, strange loneliness and it is this knowledge which makes him suffer. So there is only one thing for the lover to do. He must house his love within himself as best he can; he must create for himself a whole new inward world — a world intense and strange, complete in himself.”

- Carson McCullers, “The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Stories”

And I thought: that’s it, exactly, and yet still only a part of it. Just like travel, we often enter into love for far different reasons than we choose to remain in that country. We change, they change. What we want changes. We learn them too well, the illusion burns off, they stop needing us, we let them down.

Somehow, we drift apart and there is an incredible loneliness in the indecision over whether we’ll choose to paddle after each other or not.

Sometimes it takes work to love a country. Most times, it’s never what you thought it would be and you have to decide if you can just let it be what it is, and love it fiercely anyway.

Erica C. is a writer living in Los Angeles, with her husband and their adorable cat. She works, writes and regrets watching favorite movies that are probably best left to memory.


A short film by Wes Anderson’s brother, Eric, documenting the making of Rushmore.


BILL MURRAY WEEK: Moonrise Kingdom (2012)


by Brianna Ashby

After seeing Moonrise Kingdom, my brother-in-law wrote to say that Suzy Bishop reminded him of the way he imagined me as a young lady. I was flattered that anyone would ever conceive of me as a possible part of Wes Anderson’s world—and thrilled by the idea that, as an adult, I’ve come to embody the sort of child that I always wished I had been. Unfortunately, I lacked the confidence and the sense of purpose that it takes to embrace your own particular weirdness: It took me years to recognize that the things that separated me from most of my peers were the things that defined who I was—and it took me even longer to believe that someday someone else would actually love me for those very same quirks.

And then it happened. I began to come into my own once I saw so much of myself mirrored in someone else, but at the same time, I wanted to keep it all a secret, afraid that somehow it would tarnish if it was left exposed. I finally felt that I had found someone I could build a world around. Together we collected old photographs and postcards—bits of other people’s histories—and tried to replicate them with grainy polaroids and love notes in loopy cursive that helped to inject a sense of nostalgia into the slowly budding narrative we were busy creating together because, to us, it felt like it had already been written years ago.

When Sam Shakusky meets Suzy Bishop in the summer of 1965, it is the reintroduction of two old souls, a continuation of a story that had begun long before. Their instant connection, the strength of their bond, and their resolve to be together against all odds defies their tender ages, but their courage and defiance in plotting an escape from the world belies the sort of innocent and untainted hope only a twelve year old could ever truly possess. Watching the film, I did see some of myself in Suzy, not as a young girl, but as a young woman who found hope for herself and for the future in the face of a young man. Moonrise Kingdom is a restorative film: unabashedly uplifting, and so very, very alive, breathing fresh air into our dusty old hearts and reminding us what it is like to love with the absolute conviction and utter abandon of the young.

I still have a shoebox full of crumbling sepia photographs that serve as the last vestiges of that formative relationship. Sometimes we need something tangible to jog our memories so we can revisit places and times that have long since gone by. We all primarily use the same means of storing our pasts, and the same tools for recollecting them, and in Moonrise, Wes Anderson ingeniously plays off of this intimate commonality, giving the film a recognizable context, making Sam and Suzy’s love story feel like our love story. Lingering shots of unruly sea grass and weathered lighthouses, threadbare braided rugs thrown over sandy hardwood floors and ancient bike paths read like snapshots from a family vacation; someone’s attempt to capture on film what it feels like when the salty breeze tosses your hair around while you squeeze your eyes shut and see the fiery specter of the sun behind your eyelids.

The brief image of Suzy, binoculars in hand, all white and coral against that impossibly blue sky, is stunning in both its beauty and its simplicity. You get the feeling that if you plucked any moment off of the screen, you would find yourself holding an old Polaroid, marveling at both the sudden pang of nostalgia and the masterful hand of the photographer. The graininess of the “film” and the mostly bleached color palette lend an undeniable home movie quality that instantly lures you in with its familiarity.

Anderson has once again obsessively and painstakingly created a gloriously detailed and immersive world—this time the fictitious coastal town of New Penzance, somewhere off the coast of New England. Having spent all of my childhood summers in coastal towns in the region, the affectionate portrayal of the tiny hamlet is especially striking, but not at all surprising considering the lengths that Anderson will often go to elevate the setting of a film into an integral character. (Rushmore Academy, The Tenenbaum House, The Belafonte…) We conjure the spirits of the places that have held us like we summon the distant specters of lips that we have once kissed, often recalling a sheet of peeling wallpaper or the feeling of a cold tile floor beneath our feet with more clarity than the touch of another. The settings of our firsts and lasts aren’t merely static backdrops, they live and breathe with us, holding fast to the parts of our lives we experienced within their bounds, even the places and people that we’d like to forget.

And it’s not particularly surprising that the people and places of New Penzance are exactly what Sam and Suzy would like to forget. It is abundantly clear to both of them that the adult exemplars they are meant to follow are, in reality, incredibly lonely people that seem to be irrevocably unhappy. What spirited, dreamy, love-struck child wants to believe that they are destined to a life of bludgeoning mediocrity? That they will never be able to flourish and grow and build? Suzy’s parents, Walt and Laura Bishop, are shining examples of what happens when you close yourself off to wonder and surprise, whimsy and adventure, and, most damaging of all, love. Their marriage is stagnant, their lives quiet, mundane and unrewarding.

The older we get, and the longer our relationships last, the more convoluted they often become—until one day we don’t even really remember what we are fighting for or about. Time continues to pass until we no longer recognize the people we’ve become, but have also forgotten who we ever were to begin with. The Bishops’ struggle and misguided efforts to understand their “troubled” daughter, and her reasons for running away, stem from this difficulty in recalling a time when they were bound together through desire instead of obligation. It is this overwhelming feeling of obligation that binds the adult characters together; the Bishops, Captain Sharp, and Scoutmaster Ward, all obliged and determined to protect Sam and Suzy from the same sad fates that have befallen them at the hands of love. When this motley crew of lonely hearts bands together to find the preteen darlings and rescue them from themselves, it becomes painfully obvious who really needs the saving.

With all of the adults in their lives mired in denial and bogged down by rules and regulations and logistics and responsibilities, it is no wonder that Sam and Suzy, two misfits longing for freedom and acceptance, find the perfect escape in each other. The scenes of Suzy reading aloud from her favorite fantasy stories while Sam listening intently by her side are so charming and so wistful and so right; their casual intimacy is enviable in its purity, their youthful awkwardness making it all the more heart rending. (The flawless addition of a Francoise Hardy 45 doesn’t hurt either.)

Seeing Sam and Suzy on screen, I couldn’t help but think back to the times in my own life when I felt like I could throw everything overboard because all I needed to survive was a single other person, us against the world. It is a selfish mindset, but not necessarily a malicious one. Sometimes you have to leave behind the Sharps and the Bishops and the Wards of the world in order to avoid following in their tragic footsteps. Sometimes you have to take the lead so that they can follow your example.

Moonrise Kingdom ignites the spark of emotional wanderlust that lies dormant in so many of us, and shows us what we could do with even a fraction of our youthful lust for adventure. I want to remember what it was like to play fast and loose with my heart, even when it seems foolish, because so much of value can lie buried underneath words like ‘dangerous’ and 'absurd’. I want to spend more time thinking about what brought my husband and I together instead of what we’re going to have for dinner tonight. I want to feel like I’ve found my place in the world and that it’s exactly where we stand, and every line on every map that does not outline this place is erased by an invisible hand. I want to save myself before I need saving. I want to flip through faded old photographs plucked from moments in my life and feel the sun on my face and the salt from the sea air settle on my skin. I want to find my own Moonrise Kingdom, a place where they will never find us, because maybe, just maybe, there’s still some lightning in me yet.

Brianna Ashby has taken off her shoes and one of her socks and…actually, I think she’s crying.

Carrots, Jaguar Sharks & Beige Lunatics: The Collaborations of Wes Anderson and Bill Murray

by Neil Fox

The mythology of the clown: beneath the perma-smile lies darkness, melancholy. A lifetime expended at the demands to provide others joy leaves a deep stain, a coldness, a loneliness inside that the make-up hides. This mythology has passed from the clown to the comic—despite examples of well-rounded, stable guys and gals making us laugh on stage and screen, we have come to expect tales of addiction, illness and troubled lives in connection with our comic idols. Think of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Andy Kaufman and John Belushi. The last tragic figure on that short list was a friend and collaborator of Bill Murray, a beloved comedian and film star who has remained largely disconnected from this idea that comedians inherently have a Jekyll & Hyde persona.

Despite occasional reports of marital and parental impropriety, I’ve always loved and held to the Bill that is out there on the edge like his old friend Hunter S. Thompson—foiling bank robberies, crashing karaoke parties, calling Mitch Glazer every time Road House is on TV, taking film roles by mistake, drunkenly crashing golf carts. He has a commitment to wild living and mischief that thankfully never boils over into fully-blown mania, so I could largely ignore the signs that have emerged throughout his filmography pointing to a darkness lurking underneath. I took his survival as a signifier that he wasn’t troubled like those others, now departed, that I mention above. But then something happened that I couldn’t ignore any more.

I think in the work of Wes Anderson, a fascinating collaboration that has spanned six films and counting, Murray bares a part of his soul that is exactly in line with this idea of the tragic comic, the downcast clown. Bill is sad. He’s really sad. For me, Wes Anderson is the great contemporary filmic interpreter of sadness. At the heart of his films lies an almost unbearable sadness that completely dispels any criticism that his films lack heart or humanity. His characters are adrift, searching for love, meaning and/or connection. He captures alienation and melancholy as powerfully as Bergman, and in Bill Murray he has the perfect cipher. Bill is a star we expect to make us laugh, and he certainly fulfills that role in Anderson’s films, but there’s more—much more—and it’s hard to watch and it’s hard to take, because we love him and we want him to be okay, to keep on making us laugh. While other films might feed into a serious side of Bill—Lost in Translation or Broken Flowers, say—the Anderson films go deeper, into the potential soul of an enigmatic star.

I’ve been teaching Bill Murray movies for Film Studies a lot this term, and started the year with screenings of Rushmore and Moonrise Kingdom. For the topic of stardom I screened Groundhog Day, and we discussed theorist Christine Geraghty’s categories of “star”: celebrity, performer and professional. According to Geraghty’s categories, Murray could be placed in the ‘celebrity’ camp, as he is a star that we relate to and have a relationship with in terms of his celebrity. His general, common persona is not one we associate with forwarding the craft of acting—which is the criteria for the “performer” category. Often, Murray emulates the “professional,” an actor whose onscreen portrayals viewers believe to be extensions of his or her off-screen life. This definitely holds true for many Murray characters—Peter Venkman, Phil Connors, maybe Ernie McCracken in Kingpin—but the Anderson performances are different; I think these are the yang to the yin of those classic comic roles. I don’t believe we can have one without the other. Of course there are hints of the “Anderson” Murray in other films, and there are films where he plays straight wonderfully. Who could deny the masterpiece that is Groundhog Day, where Murray balances balls-out humour with serious emotional depth? But Phil Connors feels a universe away from the men I’m looking at here, men I truly believe connect us to another side of Bill—these sad, bitterly funny but eerily bitter men, tired and longing for an escape from the life they are trapped in.

I don’t even think it’s a stretch to suggest that Bill’s roles in Wes’s films are all variations of the same character, even his Badger. Bill always plays professionally successful men—businessmen, a lawyer, a writer and neurologist, a famed explorer—all seemingly at different stages of one vast mental breakdown. He imbues them all with the same delicate sadness that makes them human.

‘Havin’ some carrots?’ - Harold Blume (Rushmore)

That line alone, which belongs in the line reading hall of fame, is enough to warrant an essay on Bill and Wes. It’s simultaneously hilarious and utterly depressing in its unease and awkwardness. Much like Harold Blume, I remember the first time I saw Rushmore. It was the first Wes Anderson film I saw, and I knew instantly that he was a director I was going to adore. Furthermore, here was a star I knew so well, doing something I’d never seen him do, even in his more serious turns. He was brazenly uncomfortable, silly and abject, all at once. Bill Murray: fearlessly melancholy, reaching deep into himself for some dark humour and wonderful oddness. It was like seeing Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love, or Jim Carrey in The Truman Show or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—only, not quite. Those feel like one-offs, whereas Rushmore felt like the start of something, the opening of a door, and so it has proved. In an interview with Wes Anderson after the film was released, Bill is incredibly effusive about the writing and the character—it’s clear that he loved and felt committed to the script. He wanted to go all out. Interestingly, Wes wanted Murray for his first film, Bottle Rocket, which would have made it a full house for the pair. I remember feeling incredibly empathetic watching Murray stand, barely, in a hospital lift with Max, disheveled, two cigarettes simultaneously lit, miniature booze bottles being stashed beneath clean towels, delivering an eternal pause before uttering the blackest of lines—‘Ummmm. I’m a little bit lonely these days.’

From there, we go to the imitable Raleigh St. Clair.

'You’ve made a cuckold of me’ —Raleigh St. Clair (The Royal Tenenbaums)

I could watch this movie constantly (and for a while, after it came out, I did). I waded into this film in a big way and I think it’s still my favourite Wes Anderson film. I adore it. So painful, and so funny. So beautiful. It’s also my favourite Murray performance in one of Wes’s films. His Raleigh is utterly adrift. He has one expression and one tone of voice—for work and his utterly awful private life. He is omnipresent, but completely invisible, as a character and as a husband. His is a spectral presence in the film. He is humiliated by his wife, Gwyneth Paltrow’s broken Margot. Even then he cannot leave this family—turning up at the subsequent wedding and funeral. He represents the fascination with these people who are flawed, selfish, broken, pained. His scenes with Dudley, his latest subject, are brilliant comic relief, and it’s here that he shows off his incredible comic delivery. For me, it’s in two moments—when he assesses Dudley’s block building performance, and when he quietly dictates notes on Dudley—that the Murray genius, and the genius of Anderson in casting him, is most clear and joyous to behold.

How does Raleigh fit in with my idea of the sad men? Well, easier than most. This is a man so devastatingly sad that each time he is on screen—usually on the edge of it, in danger of falling completely from view, wearing the same rusty corduroy jacket and purple polo neck combo—I just want to hug him and tell him “it’s going to be okay.” But I know it will do no good. He’s too sad. It’s a more somber sadness than Harold Blume’s, whose grief is aloof—different, too, from Walt Bishop’s sadness, which is bitter. And Raleigh’s not crazy with it, not like the most prominent character he has played for Wes, the mad Steve Zissou.

'I wonder if it remembers me’ —Steve Zissou (The Life Aquatic)

Captain Steve Zissou utters this line at the end of a crazy movie, as the sounds of Staralfur by Sigur Ros rise up from the ocean floor, as he comes face to face with his white whale (in the form of the elusive Jaguar Shark). The sadness is as black as the deepest ocean cavern and almost unbearable.

The Life Aquatic is perhaps Anderson’s most divisive, incoherent and rambunctious work. It’s sprawling and crazed and tangential but for me it’s rich in wonder, ambition and a desire to dive head first into its mission, despite the seeming disaster-laden outcome. I love that he took such a leap when he did, which is why I feel this film has so much in common with Moby Dick, even if there is a lack of refinement in its execution. I said to fellow BWDRer Andrew that I felt the experience of reading this essay may be akin to watching this film—ambitious, sprawling, possibly incoherent but profoundly necessary. I digress.

Lack of refinement? Good I say. Zissou is not a refined character. He is embarking on a selfish mission, dangerous to those he knows worship him, but his rage, sadness and bitterness is all-consuming. That emotional cocktail also means he doesn’t really know what he is doing or where he is going. And so the film follows those messy human character traits. And veers and stalls and squirms and frustrates—but also delights, with its black gallows humour and cinematic ambition. I love it when films do that. It’s alive, driving down towards the blackness, aching, needing to see the shark again, to bring the proof of existence to the surface. More films should be as unrefined. And I feel this way about it mainly because of Bill Murray’s performance in the title role, which is gorgeous and pitch-perfect.

He’s let off the leash here, and in his moments with Seymour Cassel’s departed Esteban particularly, the mischievous and improvisatory Bill is plain for all to see. We also get glimpses of the dark Bill mentioned earlier—marital and patriarchal Bill—and it’s not an easy watch as he attempts to philander, then deny, then control his newly-arrived maybe-son:

“This is probably my son Ned,” he proclaims.

The film is unhinged and unconfined. It’s not safe, and this is how Murray plays it. You are never sure where he is coming from emotionally, but he delivers the reflective moments with such deep poignancy it’s hard to really hate him, despite Murray’s challenges to the contrary:

“What happened to me? Did I lose my talent? Am I ever gonna be good again?” He’s narcissistic, vain and borderline horrid—but he’s also funny, and in his zeal and ambition he echoes great figures of lore. He’s a paradox. Through charm and empathy, Murray wins us over to Zissou—a slim margin of victory, as always in the Wes Anderson universe. Here is a man grappling with his mortality and his legacy. Ten years on from Groundhog Day, the high point of the comic/serious tightrope walk in Murray’s career, and it’s as though Murray is asking the same questions of himself that Zissou asks. His Anderson roles are all variations on this theme: men struggling to understand their place, what they have done, what they really have and will leave behind—all save Badger.

“Demolitions expert. Explosions, flames, burning things.” —Badger (The Fantastic Mr. Fox)

In the Murray-Anderson oeuvre, Badger is the anomaly. He provides the moral conscience of the protagonist, and is head of a loving, close family. He is a lawyer and his wife is a doctor and he is mostly together. In the parallel universes of Wes’s Murrays he is the happiest one, but even here, darkness lurks beneath the surface, not only when he exclaims his adeptness with explosives with barely containable glee, but also in the way he constantly challenges George Clooney’s Foxy, undermining, picking at him. They are good friends but there is a clear rivalry, something just shy of jealousy. Even as a Claymation animal he cannot be without a hint of discontent.

“I’ll be out back. I’m gonna find a tree to chop down.” —Walt Bishop (Moonrise Kingdom)

If Harold Blume and Raleigh St. Clair were sad, they’ve got nothing on the bitterness conjured by Walt Bishop, a man so disconnected from his daughter he is addressed in brackets in a note she leaves for her brother. Bishop wears the most incredible trousers, but throws his shoes at a local scoutmaster. He is a lawyer who has lost the ability to communicate any other way—he sits opposite his entire family and utters legalese, “be advised.” His is the most vocally sad of Wes’s Murrays. There is a scene with his wife, each in their separate beds, that to my mind is one of the most brilliant pieces of writing about fractured matrimonial reflection ever written.

Laura: I’m sorry, Walt.

Walt: It’s not your fault. Which injuries are you apologising for? Specifically.

Laura: Specifically? Whichever ones still hurt.

Walt: Half of those were self-inflicted. (pause) I hope the roof flies off and I get sucked into space. You’ll be better off without me.

Laura: Stop feeling sorry for yourself.

Walt: Why?

Laura: We’re all they’ve got, Walt.

Walt: It’s not enough.

Anyone who has faced the darkness of mental illness, or knows someone who has, can feel the realness in those exchanges, particularly the refusal to leave the darkness. For me, the scene clarifies my earlier claim regarding how perfectly Anderson captures sadness and alienation. Here, Murray again is the voice for that sadness and alienation. His Walt Bishop is married with children, like Badger in Fantastic Mr. Fox, but his lot is not a remotely happy one. Anderson seems to undermine the cherished rom-com categories of marriage and family, suggesting that it’s not enough to aim for those ideals as an end result. They, too, can breed unhappiness. Anderson instead asks us to fight for pure, unadulterated and brilliant love, like that of Sam and Suzy, constantly. If we feel it in the pit of our stomach, we shouldn’t allow it to vanish once marriage licenses are signed and children baptized. It should be stoked and kindled constantly. Even at the end of the film, after Bishop has used his only remaining skill (that of lawyer) to be a half-decent parent, and has returned to something resembling a family man, he is still at a distance, somewhat estranged from his wife and parenting by megaphone. At least they are distanced together. There is hope. If it all seems so unbearably sad, Moonrise Kingdom is further proof of Murray’s ability to plumb the darkest depths, fearlessly, without ego, yet still conjure moments of howling hilarity. The aforementioned shoe throwing, the aimless stumbling around throwing cat food and the canonical moment where he—shirtless (but with amazing trousers) and clutching a half empty bottle of booze—grabs an axe and proclaims to his young male offspring the line that opened this section.

Beyond the inherent sadness in Anderson’s films, his humour is a huge part of why I love them. They never sink into self-pity or navel gazing because there are so many vocal and visual moments of absurdity that lift them into something real and delightful. And this, to my mind, is why Bill Murray is so important to Anderson. This balance of sadness and light is a hard thing to do. It takes a genius. I don’t use that word lightly; the consistent evidence of genius is there in this sublime collaboration. A visionary director has given Murray the tools to conjure masterpiece upon masterpiece of performance, even with limited screen time. And none of his screen time is more limited than the final Anderson film, purposely discussed out of sequence.

The Darjeeling Limited’s Running Businessman

Murray’s appearance in The Darjeeling Limited is small. Out of the context of the collaborative oeuvre, it’s innocuous—kind of like Anderson’s saying, “it’s just cool to have Murray in your film even for a minute or two.” It also reminds me of Seinfeld. On the extra features of the brilliant DVD of the seminal series, Jason Alexander talks about the episode where Jerry and Elaine go to Florida, seemingly leaving no need for George (Alexander’s character) in the episode. Alexander was furious. He claimed that if his character wasn’t needed in every episode, even for one line, he was out. It may have been on the prima donna side at the time, but it created a now legendary legacy of a set of circumstances where you can’t imagine it any other way. You can’t imagine a Seinfeld episode without the masterful foursome all in attendance at some point—and so it is now with Bill Murray and Wes Anderson. He’s so integral to the thematic tone of Anderson’s films that we need to see him, even if he is just desperately chasing down a train and fleetingly glimpsed as one of the lost souls seeking love, meaning or connection.

And yet, when seen in connection with the other characters, this fleeting appearance feels the most unifying and symbolic of all. A clearly successful businessman races desperately to catch a train—first in a taxi where he nervously glances back over his shoulder, then on foot with luggage—and fails. He is trying to hold it all together, but alone, he just can’t. And he is passed by a younger, more athletic man. This aloneness is all-consuming, as evidenced by the other glimpse of Murray’s character, in the sweeping, weeping panoramic shot of the train carriages, real and imagined. He sits alone, adrift, nervously glancing back over his shoulder again, unable to let the past go and without the companionship that could ultimately save Messrs. Blume, St. Clair, Bishop, and Zissou—and has saved Badger. And could save us.

I now find it impossible to think of Murray without imagining his Anderson characters. I devour interviews and images of the pair working together, being interviewed together. It is tempting to see this relationship as the central one in Murray’s life, the one that supports and encourages him to show the world his incredible talent on a constant, consistent basis. The relationship that challenges him more than any other. Maybe he has found that true love, and we are all better off artistically, cinematically and emotionally because of it.

Neil Fox would like to be in Stevesy’s A-Squad and wants to front a garage rock band called The Beige Lunatics. He tumbls here.

We’re taking today off, but we’ll be back tomorrow with a second round of all things Bill Murray.

With upcoming essays on What About Bob?, Moonrise Kingdom, Kingpin, Ed Wood, and Lost in Translation—as well as an announcement regarding some exciting new changes and possibilities for BWDR as a whole—it’s sure to be a week you won’t want to miss!

BILL MURRAY WEEK: Quick Change (1990)

HE WAS ON A BLUFTONI: Brief Thoughts on Bill Murray’s Only Directing Credit

by Christopher Cantwell

The bicycle jousting scene: a seeming non sequitur. The bank robbers we’re following are lost. They decide to ask for directions.

They happen upon an entirely different movie taking place. Two shirtless Latino men joust on bicycles, using common gardening tools as lances. It’s not played for laughs—it’s played straight. The score changes to Spanish guitar. Mournful “canto”-style singing. The men duel. One man catches a garden hoe to the throat… was he killed? We never know. He’s down off his bike in an instant. Then we cut to the cynical face of a woman, impassively watching and smoking in a lawn chair. A barefoot child in ragged clothes rings a church bell. The local Catholic padre inadvertently catches the handlebars of the slain jouster’s runaway bike, then violently tosses them away.

 As if the bike is cursed by God.

“IT’S BAD LUCK JUST SEEIN’ A THING LIKE THAT,” Randy Quaid’s character Loomis shouts next, desperate, sweating, doing a three-point turn getaway out of the bad neighborhood street.

Believe it or not, Quick Change is a comedy starring (and co-directed by) Bill Murray, and clocks in at around 90 minutes.

The premise is interesting, thought-provoking, a light soufflé: New York City (as a stand-in for Western civilized society) is fucking awful—so terrible, in fact, that it may be impossible to escape. Bill Murray, Geena Davis, and Randy Quaid rob a bank in order to have a better life outside of New York City. They perfectly escape the bank, but barely make it out of the city alive. What have these years of human self-degradation and close proximity wrought? How did we get here? How do we get out, or will we be forced to watch our own slow-motion self-destruction, completely powerless? A laugh-a-minute.

(I won’t ruin the bank robbery. It’s brilliant.)

I don’t meant to make Quick Change sound heady. It’s really funny, really quotable, some of the most memorable dialogue I’ve ever heard. The main thrust of the story is great; the “will they or won’t they escape” plays fast and hard until the very last moment. But it does ask these questions. It looks at life. Many times it says, “This is stupid.” Most people didn’t see it when it was released in 1990. Most people will become generally uncomfortable when confronted like this. We find ourselves saying “Wait a minute, I like (my) life. (My) life is great.”

Quick Change grabs you by the hair and forces you to look at a collective reflection in an oil puddle in the street. It shows you the freaks that surround you. It shows you that you are a freak. It is theater of the absurd, in the grand style of Ionesco and Albee (<—— what asshole would ever write a sentence like this? Likely some freak). I watch Quick Change and I laugh at its horror. I’m laughing and I’m thinking, “Jesus, yeah, this is so unflinchingly accurate and the world is often so broken and weird and a lie.”

The best illustrations come in the side scenes, the vignettes.

Phil Hartman shows up and pulls a gun on the bank robbers when he finds them in his new apartment, which used to be Geena Davis’ apartment (her keys still work… because of course landlords are lazy and cheap and don’t change locks quickly). Hartman is already on edge—these people are fucking up his already fucked-up yuppie midlife crisis. He and his wife have been “ripped off in the Village” three times already. He rented this new place in a mad dash for hope. He bought a gun. Bill Murray discovers Hartman used to be a hippie. A hippie who says, “for your information, I was at Woodstock.” And now the hippie has a gun and he’s ready to pull it on anyone who interrupts his desperate search for some peace of mind amidst the lie he discovered in the seventies and bought into in the eighties. Hartman is a man on a ledge ready to kill strangers and he’s only in one scene in the movie.

Bill Murray’s character Grimm is our lens. He experiences these things, is in the midst of trying to reject them. He worries he’s part of them. After all, he just robbed a bank dressed as a clown. What’s more freakish than that? He’s an existential terrorist just like every other citizen in NYC. But he wants out. That’s why he stole all that money. It’s not greed; he’s frantically looking for the door. This is a character who pauses from fleeing a bank robbery to mourn the tearing down of old buildings. In his former job, he worked in city planning. He’s realized a city can’t be planned. Only robbed. And daringly escaped. That is the best it can provide.

Jason Robards, the embittered cop after Bill Murray, pauses from pursuing a bank robber toalso mourn the tearing down of old buildings. Any noble man with a decent compass seems completely lost in this film.

“THIS ISN’T MY NORMAL ROUTE, MY HUSBAND’S IN INTENSIVE CARE,” a woman shouts to Randy Quaid and Geena Davis on a bus in the middle of the night. That’s her only line, and its delivered with bawdy volume, with hints of shame. She’s saying to these strangers, “Don’t judge me for being part of this system. It’s not my choice.” This system that has ruined her mind. A few seats over on the bus, a woman shaves a man’s head.

And then there is Tony Shalhoub. He is the heart of this story. He is the thesis statement. He is a friendly cab driver, an innocent, probably the best-intentioned character to appear throughout the film. But he’s also cursed, because he is ultimately a manifestation of this absurd and fractured world. All he needs to do is drive the bank robbers to the airport. They’ve made it. But he doesn’t speak English. He keeps asking some foreign version of “Where to?” No matter how hard they try, the robbers cannot communicate to him that they must get to the airport—now—if they have any chance of escaping. Shaloub acts like he understands, but he doesn’t understand at all, which is infinitely worse than just saying “I don’t understand.” But that’s what we do, right? As people? Randy Quaid finally responds to all this by angrily leaping from the moving cab. He’s nearly killed.

I can’t tell you how much I identify with this scene

Shalhoub is overcome with guilt for the rest of the movie. He tearfully turns himself into the police. They can’t understand him. They brutally interrogate him. All he can say is the word, “bluftoni.” Through terrified and emotionally-shattered charades, Shalhoub finally conveys to Robards that “bluftoni” means “bus.” The robbers got on a bus.

There is no time to mourn these mistakes. Mourning in this film is shown as a pointless exercise—shouting on an empty street corner,FLORES PARA LOS MUERTOS!”

Flowers for the dead. What use have the dead for flowers?

This movie is a fever dream about normal. Every character is ghoulish and discomfiting. Strangers who offer help with directions and then pull a gun on you. Bus drivers who won’t drive unless you stay behind the yellow line. Hostages who try to bribe you with Rolex watches. Angry airline passengers who yell things like,NOBODY DOES THIS TO RUSS CRANE. NOBODY DOES THIS TO MRS. RUSS CRANE, YOU GLORIFIED STEWARDESS!”

Bank robbers who dress like clowns and say they’re going to send “your thumb out the night depository.”

There is hope in this film. But it’s mostly dark, and insane.

But we’re all secretly insane. Every person you see on the street, every reflection you see in the mirror. Every seemingly normal Stanley Skipowski.

I mean Chipowski.

Christopher Cantwell wasn’t so hot. Looks like they’re gonna have to put that animal Mario back on Skelton. Cantwell is also a screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He tumbls here.

BILL MURRAY WEEK: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

“If you think you’re enlightened go spend a week with your family.” - Ram Dass


by Karina Wolf

When Royal Tenenbaum is found out by his family – when they discover (not a spoiler) that in order to live with them, he’s only pretending to have stomach cancer (while eating cheeseburgers and scoffing Tic Tacs from medicine bottles) – he accepts his eviction and retreats to the 375th Street Y.  There’s something about this hyperbolically placed men’s association which locates the exact artistic terrain of The Royal Tenenbaums.

It correlates with the more modestly numbered streets of Washington Heights where you’ll find a hilly Manhattan full of shambling buildings.  The neighborhood is downtrodden and grand:  a reminder of a time when New York’s greatness was still under construction.  One of my friends, a new New Yorker, moved up there because he thought that’s where he’d find the real city.  Trying to find the real New York, of course, is like trying to live in the real Paris – the Platonic version exists only in novels and films.  The Royal Tenenbaums is, in part, a love letter to this imaginary Manhattan, a fable which lifts liberally from other renditions of the place, a Calvino-esque invention in which the streets extend to infinity.

The Tenenbaums can exist only in this magic periphery.  They are an extended family of oddities:  prodigies, addicts, hustlers, and students (of anthropology, of the Old West, of aberrant neurological disorders).  They come together when, out of financial need and petty jealousy, the patriarch fakes an illness to reclaim his home and his wife.

There is no formula to the Tenenbaums story: Royal’s fakery is a child’s fraud, easily detected and exposed. But his presence is enough to draw the characters together. One by one, the stunted siblings return to their childhood home and confront their troubles with family and maturity. Chas is angry and terrified after losing his wife. Playwright Margot is blocked, unhappily married, and having a secret affair with her childhood neighbor.  Richie has been literally afloat – wandering the seas since a breakdown on the professional tennis circuit. The rest of the story follows the characters falling apart and reconfiguring their lives.

The Tenenbaum’s world is a cinematic picture book.  Probably the greatest strength of Anderson as an artist is his attentiveness.  Each detail hums: the dalmation mice, the kestrel named Mordecai (which was held for ransom during the shooting), the taxidermied capybara, the closet of board games, the tent in the living room with illuminated globe and record player. This hand-drawn, low-fi quality is singular – even important – in a world of Photoshop and Autotune. It offers an ideal of the genuine, as the product of things gleaned and reenvisioned.

Part of the pleasure of Anderson’s productions is recognizing their inspirations:  the French New Wave, the British Invasion, literature for and about children.  Like Bergman, Kubrick and Woody Allen, Anderson even employs a signature font (Futura Bold, in his case). But his works wouldn’t persist if they were only pastiche.

His world reminds me of that line from Borges’ “The Aleph”:  “Each thing…was infinite things, since I distinctly saw it from every angle of the universe.”  The viewer can relax in the contemplation of meticulous construction.  There are things we’ll never know about the narrative – the origins of conflicts and names and visual motifs – but there is an assurance that they have meaning.  Who could ask more from art than that – to impart a kind of Kabbalistic importance to every observation?

Of course, this relentless aestheticizing can raise objections.  One might say it allows Anderson to explore only the shallow end of emotions—or, at best, the depths of adolescence, a state in which many of his characters linger.  But perhaps this is most relevant:  these days the condition of youth can be indefinitely extended (or at least pretended).  Time and shifting perceptions do penetrate this chrysalis; the Tenenbaum children are traumatized in the process.

Anderson describes The Royal Tenenbaums as a film about people who peaked early, whose best years are perhaps past.  In a way, the movie interrogates the implications: childhood and genius are two cherished states in Western art and culture.  Both seem to offer a less fractured sense of self; to allow one to conquer what might otherwise be unbearable; to be celebrated for achievements and indulged in unruly behaviors.

But the Tenenbaums’ genius is more coping mechanism than gift.  Royal is a pathological father – negligent toward Chas and his adopted daughter Margot, doting upon Richie only until his failure on the tennis court.  Royal possesses the same childish vendettas and selfish goals as Rushmore’s Max Fischer.  His wounded children seem to have been formed in reaction, elaborating their own intense interests and abilities to remedy his neglect. What happens when those techniques fail?  The kind of crisis that envelops all these characters.

Anderson gets terrifically glum performances from his actors.  Margot is not just venomously funny; she is affectingly fragile and unable to help herself.  It’s certainly Paltrow’s best role.  As Royal recognizes, she is unfair to her husband and the men who love her.  Royal reproves her by saying, “You were a genius.”   She retorts, “No, I wasn’t.”  We’ll never know– it’s quite likely that her assessment is severe (she graduated valedictorian at age 12).  But maybe her comment reflects a different idea of genius, classifying it as a resident spirit that visits unpredictably.  Or maybe she’s bereft:  Margot’s strength resides in her plays and in her secrets.  Both betray her in adulthood.

Richie is the heart of the film, a silent sufferer, a less active character but one who wrestles with a moral compass. The success of the film is in Richie’s suicide attempt – his dysphoria is real, unmitigated, and without solution. When Richie reveals to Margot the stitches that lace up his veins, there is visceral discomfort.

The characters with the more evident wounds – the grieving, bristling Chas and the drug addled Eli – are the ones who can negotiate a more immediate solution to their problems.  And the wedding ending—even with car crash, dog death and an intervention—are easy fixes to Tenenbaums’ ambiguities.  The more complex characters reflect the impossible contradictions in life.  Margot and Richie’s love can be incestuous and also meaningful and pure; Royal’s narcissism can also yield generosity and nurturing.

I used to have a game: whose family out-Tenenbaumed the other?  The implications are multiple – it’s an avidly individualistic family, united (at least at the start) more by their single-minded pursuit of their own interests than by mutual affection or understanding.  But as Eli Cash, the would-be son, understands, they’re the most compelling group of dysfunctionals around.  Who wouldn’t want to be a Tenenbaum?  It’s emotionally spiky but it’s never dull.

Karina Wolf is a writer living in New York City. She tumbls here.

(Bill Murray and Wes Anderson on the set of The Life Aquatic)

“Every single scene of that movie was funny, but when Wes assembled it, he streamlined and excised the detonation point of the laughter. The idea is you keep it bouncing and never skim the energy off of it. You keep it building in the name of a big emotional payoff—which comes when they’re all in the submarine together and they see the jaguar shark.”

- Bill Murray

BILL MURRAY WEEK: Groundhog Day (1993)


by Edward Montgomery

…So many things have happened. 
You’ve finally become the man
that I had hoped for 
But alas,

I am no longer among the living.

I suppose such is
the way of the world.

— Ugetsu, Kenji Mizoguchi

I had long believed that the brilliance of Groundhog Day was couched in its conniving ability to make me envious.  And, until recently, I thought everyone felt this way.   

I naively assumed that, given the chance, all people would volunteer for Phil’s isolation and solitude in Punxutawney.  The envy that I felt originated with Phil’s gift, and actualization, of what I came to think of as the human conception of immortality and our initial assumptions of what that may entail.  Phil dodges Jonathan Swift’s version of immortal life in “Gulliver’s Travels” (leprous, melting individuals, cursed and shunned from society) and I hated him for it.  Because of this envy, the first two-thirds of the film were irrelevant to me—I watched only in anticipation for the flutter that would come when Phil changed and became a better man, when he finally viewed his condition as opportunity, and thus deserved it.  I held my breath for the days spent reading, learning the piano and foreign languages, celebrating Art and humanity.  My envy was that of an aesthete, and my envy was all I cared to learn from the film.  The film’s magic lay in Phil’s fully blossomed potential.   

Background: When I was in junior high, one of my favorite books was Singularity by William Sleator.  In the book, a pair of identical twins discover a room that somehow is a portal to a black hole’s singularity, and thus all time is affected differently in that room than outside of it.  The narrator of the story, Harry, is the weaker brother and painted as a timid geek.  His brother, Barry, is, of course a popular, athletic jock, and the nightmare of both Harry and the majority of current male Tumblr-owners. Harry eventually grows fed up with his brother and his bullying, and decides to move into the room for what ends up being a year, singularity-time, and which takes place in a single night on earth. 

What I loved about the story was Harry’s routine of diet, exercise, self-education and discipline during the year he spent in the room. When Harry in “Singularity” steps out of the room, he is a year older and a completely different person, finally his own man.  But Harry’s impetus to change was a priori—even without the singularity, he would have become his own man, and this is what made his character interesting.  What made the story interesting was the rapidity with which Harry’s change happens when he does not have to deal with the world, but only with himself in that tiny room.   

What I loved about Groundhog Day was Phil’s finishing act—the polishing and cantilever-snap back toward the glow of life.  But Phil, without his fate thrust upon him, would have remained the same man who chastises a warm innkeeper for not knowing what an espresso is.  He could have become nothing but worse (and, in fact, does for the first two-thirds).  Phil, too, is a boy becoming a man in this movie, but what makes the story one we hold onto and cherish is Rita, ever smiling and subtly writing the script, each and every day Phil is given. Harry gave himself over to the singularity—Phil simply fell into it. 

Tenuous offering of truth:  Happily married people have never experienced Groundhog Day as I once did.  (Or, at least, once they were together).  In a marriage, time apart and without communication equates to time changing without changing together.  It means a Groundhog Day with no Rita waiting for Phil to become the man he was capable of being.  And I had never really paid attention to her.     

Yet, how easy it is to shrug off Rita.  It isn’t that Andie MacDowell isn’t adorable or that Rita isn’t a good character, ’80s haircut and all—it’s just that Bill Murray overshadows her so much, both in the movie itself and in my generation’s collective nostalgia and love.  But I forgot Bill Murray, my nostalgia, my prior convictions, and focused only on the duet between Phil and Rita when one of my closest friends said in a conversation about the film, “…everyone wants to feel like they’re capable of being the person who is right for the person they’re in love with.  They want to feel that if looked at hard enough, they would be everything their lover needed.”   

The cultural instances of self-realization designed to satisfy the whims of a lover overwhelm my feeble attempts at distillation, but the one that immediately comes to mind seems to speak volumes with its own raised hand:  an episode of Tool Time where Brad checks out “David Copperfield” because it is his girlfriend’s favorite book.  (Re: lame childhood tastes.)  Why do I think of Tim the Toolman’s son?  Because Phil, for the first two-thirds of Groundhog Day, is nothing but a teenager railing against the world and trying to get laid.  Little else needs to be said: he memorizes facts about Rita as if she is a safe to be cracked rather a person to love.  He fails. The camera pans up at Phil’s adolescent drama and his view of himself as a god falling, the world collapsing, Aristotelian tragedy caving in with its catharsis—we laugh as Phil dies again and again, if only because deep down we’re happy that someone with such a wasted gift would finally die.  

So here is my personal precipice: When I watch the first two-thirds of Groundhog Day now, I no longer pay attention to the academic questions of the past and personal perfection that it used to symbolize for me.  I wonder if Phil’s growth is different from Harry’s, perhaps even better, because he grew in response to the world around him rather than his own will.  I love that he loves Rita, and I love that he has finally become the man that she deserved, but in my quiet moments I wonder about the film that I thought I was watching all those years. Phil grows beyond all this childishness so that he may end the day a man in the position to grow along with Rita.  Phil and I suffer a tragedy together, I think—he, a man in his mid- to late-thirties, realizes, over the course of however-man-days-you-want-to-believe-it-took (re: every blog post obsessed with counting), that almost the first half of his “real” life was wasted; and I, similarly, wonder whether the change I demand in myself can be attained without a singularity and without Rita.   

No scene in the film is more important than the first time Phil sees Rita, and the camera pauses for the holy moment.  And the miracle is that it does not end as Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu does, Genjuro’s wife speaking from the grave, mourning the loss of what might have been. 

This all stinks like growth.

Edward Montgomery tumbls here.

BILL MURRAY WEEK: Ed Wood (1994)


by Sara Gray

Edward D. Wood, Jr. earned eternal infamy among grade Z film fans with Plan 9 From Outer Space, considered by many to be the worst film ever made. Though Plan 9’s spectacular ineptitude has launched a thousand drinking parties, Wood’s true legacy lies in his networking prowess. He brought together the strangest bunch of has-beens and self-made weirdos in Hollywood history, all for Plan 9. Most notable of course was Bela Lugosi, a screen legend brought low by morphine addiction who found a friend in Wood; Plan 9marked his final film appearance. Pro-wrestler Tor Johnson enjoyed cult stardom—or at least his face did, when it was cast into a popular rubber Halloween mask in the 1980’s. Wood was also host to early TV personalities Criswell and Vampira, both of whom cruised on what little pre-and-post Plan 9 fame they had, branding themselves even unto their graves.

But of all the fabulous freaks who peopled Wood’s opus, none was more mysterious than John Cabell Breckinridge, known as “Bunny” to his friends. Bunny is portrayed by Bill Murray in Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s affectionate homage to Wood and his motley crew. Murray plays him with a restive dignity. He views the antics of his friends with a sympathetic, yet sardonic mien. He’s quick with words of comfort after a bad review—and he’ll even get baptized if it means a bunch of well-heeled churchmen will fund Plan 9. Yet, even upon the brink of rebirth, he’ll roll his eyes and sigh, “Oh, sure,” when the preacher asks after his eternal soul.

He befriends a roving band of mariachis after his boyfriend dies in a car wreck. He scares up a dozen transvestites at a moment’s notice. He is cast as The Ruler (of the universe, apparently) in Plan 9, wherein he sports an outfit that a Sunday LARPer might wear to a disco.

Though Murray’s role in Ed Wood is little more than a cameo, he imbues Bunny with such deft presence that I had to learn more about this eccentric gentleman. Both of the documentaries Flying Saucers Over Hollywood and The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr. featured plenty of candid interviews from Wood’s surviving entourage (circa 1990-1994), especially from folks like Paul Marco, who at the time was making a living appearing at whatever sci-fi convention would have him. But there was no appearance by, nor mention of, Breckinridge. After two weeks’ worth of googling and visiting the library, I could find only a few intriguing tidbits about this person, and even those were qualified as “alleged.” Yet those dribs and drabs hinted at a life worthy of its own feature film. What follows is my summation of Breckinridge’s colorful, crazy life.

Gaze with me, if you will, through the doors opened by “supposedly”…

Breckinridge was born on August 6, 1903 in Paris, France, the son of a long line of blue-blooded Americans: Senator William Sharon, who made a fortune as a financier of the massively lucrative Comstock silver lode, and Vice President John C. Breckinridge (pictured above), who served with President James Buchanan. As befitting a young man with a sterling pedigree, he was (supposedly) educated at Eton and Oxford, the schools of British princelings.

I like to imagine that young Bunny was preternaturally aware of his queenly nature, just like the young Oscar Wilde at the beginning of Velvet Goldmine, only instead of standing before his class and announcing, “I want to be a pop idol,” he archly intoned, “I want to be The Ruler of the Universe.”

Once school was completed, Bunny left England and went to Paris,
which, in the early 1920’s, was perhaps the only place on earth more fabulous than Bunny himself. For six years, he danced and performed in drag revues throughout the city under the name Jacques Solange. His chosen friends were theater folk, including ailing opera composer Giacomo Puccini and playwright Noel Coward. The imagination boggles!

Maybe he smoked opium and checked out hot dudes with Jean Cocteau, or commiserated with fellow trust fund baby Peggy Guggenheim when she was depressed by the jeering of her literati friends. Perhaps, if Woody Allen had done a little more homework into the obscure artists of modernist Paris, Owen Wilson would have shared a magical cab ride with a drawling, ironical Bunny. “What, you’re from the future? Oh darling, you’ll have to try harder than that. Buy me a drink first.”

Bunny dressed flamboyantly wherever he went, often wearing makeup and women’s clothes—even when he wasn’t on stage—and his predilection for men was well known. All that said, however, he actually made a half-hearted attempt at a more conventional life when, in 1927, he married Roselle Dampier. Together, they had a daughter, whom Bunny named Solange (after his drag persona, naturally). His marriage, however, only lasted two years.

Moreover, Paris was losing its luster, and so our playboy packed up his bags and decamped to San Francisco. He lived quietly throughout the 30’s and 40’s—or at least as quietly as an unrepentant party monster can upon the streets of San Francisco, some thirty years before it turned into a flowered land of freak flags flying. Bunny hired some sun-tanned pool boys and personal assistants and went about living the good life, Cali-style.

All of that changed in 1954. when Bunny announced to various local newspapers and tabloid rags that he planned to get a sex change operation so that he could marry his 26-year-old boyfriend. The operation was to be in Denmark, where the recently-transformed Christine Jorgensen had undergone hormonal therapy and surgery. This was no mere midlife crisis; Bunny admitted he had felt a need to change his sex since the age of 15. But litigation—from his blind, elderly mother—scuttled his plans. She sued him for nonpayment of promised support, and the San Francisco court eventually ruled that he had to send $8000 per year to her, in England.

In 1955, Bunny was arrested for “vagrancy,” which was police doublespeak at the time for “hanging out with other homosexual dudes in the hopes of having consensual sex.” This inspired him to attempt a sex change once more, and so he headed to Mexico, boyfriend in tow. This time it was tragedy that struck, in the form of a car accident that injured Bunny and killed his lover (whose name I was never able to track down in any sources whatsoever).

Though he never attempted sexual reassignment again, Bunny’s quest left a ghostly presence upon Californian pop culture for decades to come. In 1968, Gore Vidal penned a satirical novel about a sexually rapacious male-to-female transsexual who used her hungers to dominate “studs” in the back-biting film industry of Los Angeles. The novel was later made into a film which, much like Plan 9, is often referred to as one of the worst films of all time: Myra Breckinridge. Coincidence?

Bunny’s adventures in the late 1950’s are somewhat harder to explain. For one, even though he was an (allegedly) independently wealthy socialite, he moved into his friend Paul Marco’s modest digs in Los Angeles. Marco, whose only claim to fame was playing doofy Kelton the Cop, introduced Bunny to Ed Wood. Bunny put up a little money for Plan 9, which in turn earned him his one and only role in cinematic history, as the aforementioned eye-rolling Ruler of the Universe. Though he never memorized his lines (you can see him dutifully reading from the script itself in his first scene), he did bring an undeniable presence of sorts to even the most expository dialogue: “Oh yes, Plan 9.” Watch for those languorous hand-waves.

Even stranger was an incident that happened in 1958, after Bunny had moved back to San Francisco. As with most things Bunny, the details are a bit sketchy. Bunny had a neighbor who liked her booze, and who was studiously avoiding the Mother of the Year Award. Upon hearing that Bunny was planning a drive to Las Vegas, instead of saying “Cool, you gonna check out Eartha Kitt’s show?,” she cried, “Oh hey, why don’t you take my two pre-adolescent children with you? Mama wants to party at Lake Tahoe!” Thus Bunny found himself on a road trip to Vegas with two boys, ages 10 and 12. I’d like to believe their shenanigans resembled Grandpa Tenenbaum’s when he took out his grandkids, only with gambling and amyl nitrate instead of scooters and shoplifting. Next, he took them to Hollywood, where he allegedly dropped them off at a friend’s—a friend who, coincidentally, was awaiting a child molestation verdict. And thus it came to pass that, once the kids’ dad got wind of it all, Bunny and his usual entourage of well-muscled young men were all arrested for “sex perversion”. Bunny pulled some strings and hired Jerry Giesler, the lawyer who had famously represented Robert Mitchum when he was busted for pot. Giesler managed to wrangle a three month sentence at Atascadero State Hospital for Bunny, instead of jail time.

Thereafter, Bunny contented himself with genteel retirement in Carmel-By-The-Sea. He held court there for decades, ordering martinis with a languid wave of his hand and opening his home to the bright young things growing out their hair, turning on, and tuning out. When he wasn’t dishing about the closeted gay men of golden age Hollywood at parties, he was starring in local theater productions, such as Richard Bailey’s production of Jean Anoujlh’s “The Lark.”

I can think of worse ways to spend one’s dotage.

At the grand old age of 91, Bunny discovered that Tim Burton had made a movie about the exploits of Ed Wood and his friends. He was too frail to attend any of the movie’s festivities, but I hope he did at least get to see it—perhaps when it came out on video. I can picture him now, sitting in his wheelchair at a Monterey nursing home, watching Ed Wood on VHS with his aging fellows. Did he appreciate Bill Murray’s halting speech? Did Murray’s legendarily deliberate sense of timing capture something of the true Bunny? Or did Bunny wince and mutter, “God, that awful white suit. Who did they think I was, Tom Wolfe?”

Two years later, on November 5, 1995, Bunny Breckinridge passed away. He was 93 years old—the longest-lived of all Ed Wood’s entourage.

Bunny often wanted to tell his own story; he passingly mentioned making a film about his sex change called Magic Moment, and had wanted to entitle his memoirs My Shadow as I Pass. Neither project was ever finished. However, near the end of his life, he was quoted as saying, “I was a little bit wild when I was young, darling, but I lived my life grandly.”

I can think of no better way to encapsulate a life lived as a drag queen, genderqueer vanguard, and bizarre Hollywood footnote.

Sara Gray is a writer living in Austin, Texas. She too hopes for a dotage spent on a craggy coastline with hot pool boys and personal assistants. She tumbls here.

BILL MURRAY WEEK: Scrooged (1988)


by Christopher Cantwell

I have a bone to pick with Scrooged. The movie pretty much came and went in 1988, but because of its seasonal connection reappears every year on cable. This is not a bad thing. The film is exceptionally fun. That is, until Bill Murray becomes a nice guy.

Scrooged troubles me. The film is scary, and dark. But that’s not what troubles me. It troubles me that I’m so in love with Frank Cross. Let me be clear, however; I am not in love with the happy, dopey Frank Cross who appears at the end of the movie. I am in love with the awe-inspiring asshole Francis Xavier Cross from the beginning of the film, the Frank Cross that bashes his way through the entire movie until he’s converted in a last minute come-to-Jesus that takes place during a live cremation scene, a scene which still scares the crap out of me.

Now, one can argue that a true telling of this Dickens tale needs to be scary and dark in order to work—Ebenezer must truly face the horrors of what may come should he continue in his ways. Scrooged has no lack of horrors. Up until I saw this movie, the only Christmas Carol I’d seen was Mickey’s Christmas Carol, which is very different. Goofy, in the Jacob Marley role, does not hold Uncle Scrooge out of a skyscraper window by the neck. Uncle Scrooge does not pull the rotting flesh off of Goofy’s arm in a desperate attempt to live just as the bone gives way like wet wood and sends the poor duck plummeting to his death. But we get this gruesome sequence in Scrooged when Frank Cross confronts the corpse of his old boss Lew Hayward. Oh, and did I mention there’s a mouse in Lew’s skull?

The movie is chock full of frightening imagery. An eyeball in a cocktail. A flaming waiter. A frozen body. Foreboding creatures trapped in a ghost’s ribcage. Futuristic psych wards with crooked floors. Carol Kane. These trappings have enough ingredients to scare Frank Cross into being a nicer, better person. But in the end, Scrooged is different from other Christmas Carol retellings, because even the scary parts are funny. And the movie is never funnier than when Frank Cross is at his meanest.

The movie has a caustic wit. The script was penned by Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue, the latter of whom worked as the first head writer of SNL. It’s rumored O’Donoghue based Frank Cross on his old boss Fred Silverman, former network president of NBC. Maybe this is why Frank Cross is so enjoyable to watch. Shouting. Sending towels as holiday gifts. Burping. Tearing apart children’s Christmas drawings.

But he becomes less fun to watch the more his heart thaws. This is where Scrooged fails as a Scrooge story, even if it succeeds on nearly every other level. I like watching Frank Cross more at the beginning than I do at the end. I want him to go back to being a jerk again. It’s more fun.

It’s my best guess that the way Scrooged flatlines into a cast sing-a-long can only be the fault of bad rewrites. The gold of the movie likely comes from remnants of O’Donoghue and Glazer’s script, as well as Bill Murray’s manically mean comic performance (the movie is neutrally directed by Richard Donner as if he is neatly packing an expensive suitcase). Murray’s Frank Cross comes off as more intelligent and complex than everyone around him: Robert Mitchum’s eccentric yet moronic network mogul, Bobcat Goldthwait’s pathetic studio exec, John Glover’s LA scumbag, Alfre Woodard’s down-on-her-luck secretary, Karen Allen’s blithe do-gooder ex-girlfriend. Granted, these character performances are almost as much fun to quote as Frank Cross. Well, mostly just Glover as Brice Cummings—“I’m gonna dine out on this for months.”

Of course Frank is a bastard. He’s a bastard because everybody else seems fairly dumb: from the TV crew, to the network censor, to the homeless people who think he’s Richard Burton. No wonder Frank has a sign in his office that reads “Cross (n.) – a thing you nail people to.” No wonder he’s elated when his TV ad gives an old woman a heart attack.

Yes, Frank’s way is the wrong way to live one’s life. This is why we laugh when Frank goes haywire, suffers a few spectacular falls, and gets his ass kicked by a fairy. But I still don’t want Frank to change. His brother, the one who loves Christmas, is a total dope (ironically, he’s portrayed by Bill Murray’s actual brother, John Murray).

For me, the saddest part of the movie is when Frank interrupts the live TV broadcast at the end. It’s ten, maybe fifteen minutes of Bill Murray riffing desperately as the movie sinks into an egg nog coma. I understand Frank Cross destroying the TV special that he’s sold his very soul to produce. What I don’t understand is how the movie makes this look like a great career move. Frank’s stunt somehow gets his boss to dance with his wife in the living room of their mansion. No.

By the last scene, Frank has joined the land of the dopes. He’s happier, maybe, but to me, he’s missing something. The final shot we see in the film is Frank’s dopey brother James, watching him on television. “My brother, the king of Christmas!” James says.

Eh. It’s at this point that I rewind the film, just to watch Frank shout “THAT ISN’T GOOD ENOUGH!”

Christopher Cantwell is a writer and filmmaker living in Los Angeles. He is currently developing a new television series, Halt & Catch Fire, for AMC.

BILL MURRAY WEEK: Kingpin (1996)


by Bebe Ballroom

I distinctly remember being eleven, en-route to the kitchen to retrieve multiple ice pops, at the exact moment in which the landlady from Kingpin was haunting a rear view mirror on my mother’s boyfriend’s big, boxy television set. I froze as the landlady made obscene gestures between her fingers, wild-eyed, tongue flapping loudly and madly.

This image would never leave my mind.

It seems likely that the plot of Kingpin was born when some random guys drew the following out of a pork pie hat: “church/rec center/dance hall for troubled youths, about to close due to bankruptcy/tax evasion”, “amish jokes”, “inconsequential sport—like bowling”, “90’s babe who finds balding underdogs endearing”, “Randy Quaid in drag”, and “Ladies and Gentlemen, Bill Murray”.

We give into the mythology of Bill Murray so willingly. On-stage and off, as big and looming as Zissou’s Jaguar Shark. We hear stories of him crashing college parties and doing the dishes afterwards, singing karaoke with strangers, bartending at SXSW, his former wife of many years, claiming abuse, alcoholism and infidelity. As with many other artists, it is often difficult to discern the performer from the private self. A lonely aging star, a cuckold, a washed-up oceanographer, another cuckold, recent roles so polarized by the earlier roles that brought him success.

And during Kingpin, Bill Murray added another epic tale to the books: he actually made three consecutive championship-winning strikes, in character, as Ernie McCracken. The reaction of the crowd full of extras heard onscreen is reportedly genuine applause for Mr. Bill Murray. But of course he would be a bowling virtuoso, as everything he does he seems to do with panache.

I dislike bowling, as any overachiever, terrible at bowling, would. For me, it’s a fickle and inconsistent sport. This is a recent thought—a simple one but clear—earned over the span of many social disasters, the kind you attend when someone is inevitably trying to collide their work friends into their school friends.

Most recently, when my brother was in town, he invited everyone to go bowling. And in the eighth frame of the first game, my high school boyfriend and his long-term girlfriend showed up. My brother had invited them and hadn’t thought to mention it to me because my brother lives in a snow globe where there is lots of snow but never any feelings, and everyone approaches each situation in a reasonable fashion.

Sure, it had been nearly a decade since the break-up, and it was kid stuff, but I mainly wished I would have been given a heads up so that I could have practiced speaking casually into a mirror, tried on varying shades of red lipstick or, at the very least, so that I could have worn something other than leggings spotted with house paint and a giant Garfield sleep shirt emblazoned with the words “LASAGNA TIME”.

(I was also once stood up by a clarinet player who daylighted at a bowling alley. We’d met online—his screen name was a sexual innuendo that used bowling terminology—so it’s my own fault really.)

In Kingpin, Roy Munson (played by Woody Harrelson) wins the 1979 Odor Eaters Bowling Championship, with a full head of blonde hair and two biological hands. Young and talented, he’s told he has nothing to lose, that he’s “on a gravy train with biscuit wheels”.

Enter Ernie McCraken, or “Big Ern” as they call him. This is Stripes Bill Murray, this is Bill Murray in Ghostbusters. Smarmy, entitled, feverish one-liner hog, awe-inspiring; a completely endearing rascal.

Murray’s McCracken is the reigning bowling champ, and soon convinces the young Munson to partner with him for a hustle. The money shot involves picking up a 7-10 split, which Munson aces—but all does not end well. Those who were hustled chase after them, and McCracken quickly leaves Munson in the dust. The crowd catches up to Munson and then, in a cruel but festive act, they stick Munson’s hand down that thing that the balls come back up through after the frame. (What is that thing called? I don’t know, it’s just another cryptic mystery of this mysterious sport.)

Seventeen years later, Roy Munson is down and out in Scranton (“The Office”) Pennsylvania. He stages an elaborate exploit to get a free month’s rent, having a friend pretend to rob his landlady, and then arriving to throw coffee in the “burglar’s” face. When the landlady discovers the “burglar” chilling in his apartment later, Roy is forced to resort to another, more tawdry method for rent relief. He spends the next hour literally throwing up, as his unattractive landlady is shown slowly rolling the stockings back up her vein-riddled, noodle-like legs.

As one might expect, Roy spends the remainder of the film careening towards a less self-involved end, as well as towards his nemesis McCracken. Ernie McCracken is the fun kind of despicable. The kind who asks the waitress to do him a solid and wash off her perfume before she comes back to the table. The kind who sponsors a charity for young fatherless boys, just to pick up some vulnerable tail. (“Sometimes when I wake up, Mr. McCracken’s already here!”) His bowling ball is embedded with a red rose in mid-bloom. Munson’s bowling ball lacks such pizazz.

Munson is snapped out of his indulgent pit of misery by the sounds of pins cracking. Ishmael—tall, unassuming, and most of all, Amish—is the pin cracker. He tells Roy that he averages about 270, though Roy finds out later that it’s actually over 15 frames. (“I told you,” Ishmael says, “we Amish work just as hard as you regular people do, plus a half.”)

Roy sees stars and wants to manage the man he comes to call “Ish”, but first has to prove it to him by putting in a hard day’s work on the farm. This leads to many obvious comic opportunities, all of which the Farrelly Brothers (Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, Shallow Hal)  take advantage of, including the worst, which involves a bucket, a bull, and Roy Munson’s mouth.

Imagine every ridiculous scenario involving a rubber hand. Now imagine any obvious comedic opportunity involving the Amish on Rumspringa. You have now seen approximately half of Kingpin. I stopped making tally marks under the heading “Nut Shots” after six. When Ishmael discovers dental floss and the bathroom mirror is splattered with that which used to be between his teeth, I wonder, how can it be that I have seen this exact joke in other movies? How, when one time is already once too often.

The exploitations of Ishmael continue throughout the film, as he appears to be in an extended state of Dumspringa. The gang’s follies include new friend Claudia (shrunken cardigans, Blossom hats—90’s hot) and her bad news eyeliner boyfriend (because all villains wear black eyeliner), which all leads up to a high stakes championship bowling tournament. When Big Ern McCracken reunites with Munson, it’s so good that it almost redeems all the parts of the movie that Bill Murray wasn’t in.

Admittedly, the very room in which I am writing this is equipped with the man’s autograph, and, while the glittering tapered candlesticks on either side of the frame were more of a design choice, it does appear that perhaps his photograph is divinely enshrined, even if just a little.

Bebe Ballroom tumbls here.

“I think we’re all sort of imprisoned by — or at least bound to — the choices we make, and I think everyone in the acting business wants to make the right choices. You want to say no at the right time and you want to say yes more sparingly. I came out of the old Second City in Chicago. Chicago actors are more hard-nosed. They’re tough on themselves and their fellow actors. They’re self-demanding. Saying no was very important. Integrity is probably too grand a word, but if you’re not the voice of Mr. Kool-Aid, then you’re still free. You’re not roped in.”

- Bill Murray