The Beginner’s Guide: Wes Anderson, Director
One of the true auteurs of cinema working today, Wes Anderson has become distinguished for his uniquely visual, quirky character-driven films.
“I feel I get criticized for style over substance, and for details that get in the way of the characters. But every decision I make is how to bring those characters forward.” – Wes Anderson
Eclectic, eccentric, maybe even considered an acquired taste in some cinematic circles, there can be no doubt that few filmmakers of their generation have made quite as large a cultural impact as Wes Anderson. Born in Houston, Texas in 1969, Anderson’s work is a patchwork quilt of the bittersweet, unpredictable nature of life, married to an aesthetic so distinct that his work has coined its own suffix.
Colourful, chaotic, yet at times remarkably mature and delicate, Anderson has blazed a trail that has seem him critically praised, garnered with awards, and adored by an audience of hipsters, bohemians, and warm-blooded cinephiles. He has even had a burlesque tribute act dedicated to him, surely the true sign that you have seeped into every nook of popular culture.
The word ‘cult’ is often thrown into the mix, yet Anderson’s work runs deeper than most. Not interested in exploitation, his films deal, primarily, with family bonds, with a Norman Rockwell idea of America, beautifully juxtaposed against a modern cinematic eye for detail, part Hal Ashby, part Mike Nichols and a dash of French New Wave Truffaut.
The subject of this beginner’s guide has said that;
“Usually when I’m making a movie, what I have in mind first, for the visuals, is how we can stage the scenes to bring them more to life in the most interesting way, and then how we can make a world for the story that the audience hasn’t quite been in before.”
No quote better represents the Wes Anderson aesthetic in its purest of forms, character-based comedy drama that can’t help but stop to admire the view.
Bottle Rocket (1996)
Released in the midst of the great American Indie renaissance that took place during the ’90s, at a time when filmmakers such as Soderbergh, Smith and Tarantino were changing the way films were made, not to mention sold, Anderson’s debut, on the face of it, seems positively laid back. A crime caper, in which the crime takes a backseat to the fractured strains of friendship and rivalry, Bottle Rocket is a fascinating genesis, based in part on a short film that Anderson worked on with co-writer (and future superstar) Owen Wilson. Given budget constraints, the visual style isn’t quite as eye-popping as it would become in later pictures, and yet many of the themes and tropes of Anderson’s oeuvre make their mark here: relationships with actors who would go on to appear in many, if not all, of his later work, the use of slow motion, deliberately stagey composition, and an art design that utilizes a subdued color palette.
As a debut, it certainly makes an impact. There are few crime films, particularly in the wake of the Tarantino generation, post Pulp Fiction, that would grind to a halt to allow a character to romance a motel maid. Wes Anderson, however, is not a director who has ever adhered to genre in any traditional sense. Bottle Rocket, like every film he has made since, is about character interaction, and his gift for a snappy one liner or character defining motto is already evident, particularly in Owen Wilson’s ideas man, Dignan.
“Are you in the army?”
“No, I just have short hair.”
Although a box office failure upon its release, Bottle Rocket was an attention grabber, making it onto Martin Scorsese’s list of best films of the 1990s (no mean feat), as well as capturing the imagination of Bill Murray, who would become, perhaps, the most important supporting player in Wes Anderson’s future.
As sophomore projects go, Rushmore is a home run. Pitched somewhere between The Graduate and The 400 Blows, Wes Anderson’s follow up to Bottle Rocket was the first of his works to display his unique sensibility. Frames are beautifully composed. Indeed, along with the Coens’ Raising Arizona, this is one of those rare comedies in which the film garners laughs through composition and camera movement.
Bathed in an Autumnal glow for much of its running time, the film concerns Max Fischer (Jason Schwarzman), a gifted, yet troubled student, attending the posh private school of Rushmore Academy. Max is something of a progeny, intensely creative, curious, and almost oblivious to the fact that he is, in high school film terms at least, a geek. Striking up an unlikely friendship with a local industrialist, Herman Blume (Bill Murray), Max’s life is turned upside down when he falls for a beautiful first grade teacher, Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams). Matters are further complicated by Herman’s romantic interests in Rosemary, not to mention Max’s appalling grades at Rushmore, which see him put on academic probation, with threat of expulsion.
“I saved Latin. What did you ever do?”
Embedded within the story, Wes Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson pepper their world with secondary characters so memorable that you almost forget, at times, that there is a narrative at all. The Max Fischer Players, in particular, bring forth moments of resplendent surreal humour, with their theatre adaptations of Serpico or the
“little one act about Watergate.”
But the real revelation here is Murray, channeling his usual comedic sensibilities into a character that feels far more real than anything he has played before. There are flashes of that spontaneous comedic brilliance (just watch for the moment he breaks into a sprint away from the camera for no apparent reason), but he also reigns it in. Blume is a rich loser, successful in business, but lousy with relationships. It’s almost ironic, given that Murray’s collaborations with Anderson has managed to bring forth the best work the actor has ever done. But more on that later.
Rushmore is certainly the film in which Wes Anderson comes of age, his interest in symmetrical imagery becomes more prominent, as does his eclectic use of music, mostly British bands from the ’60s, like The Who and The Kinks. And while the film is, at its base level, about a nerd, it never panders to cliché, making the film, much like its Graduate influences, unassailably cool.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
The Royal Tenenbaums is a dysfunctional family drama masquerading as a comedy. Arguably Wes Anderson’s most serious piece, up to this point, the story revolves around the Tenenbaum children, three gifted prodigies who grew up and fell apart. In an attempt to put all the pieces back together again, all three move back into their childhood home, unfortunately coinciding with the return of their estranged father Royal (Gene Hackman), who is playing on their sympathies by feigning terminal cancer. He is, in reality, terminally broke, with nowhere else to go, and only seems to have a passing interest in reconnecting with his children. However, as the story evolves, and the true cost of his reckless behavior over the years begins to dawn on him, his attempts to bring the fractured family back together, including his ex-wife Ethel (Anjelica Huston), become more sincere.
Given the heady subject matter, it’s surprising just how much humor Anderson, again writing with Owen Wilson, manages to wring from the situation. With a large cast of many, multi-layered characters, it’s all handled with supreme confidence, and with the inclusion of star names in Ben Stiller and Gwyneth Paltrow, along with veterans Hackman and Huston (not to mention Danny Glover), the ambition, and budget, have grown along with the subject matter.
“I think we’re just going to have to be secretly in love with each other and leave it at that.”
That said, Anderson’s focus never slackens. We can see his visual style beginning to evolve, an almost toy box aesthetic, filled with retro touches: vinyl players, old film cameras, an almost complete lack of computer technology, or mobile phones. It all feels as though the film could have been made in the 1970s, and not just because of its older actors.
Indeed, the Hal Ashby comparisons continue, even tipping the hat to Harold and Maude in the film’s treatment of a particularly nasty suicide attempt. It’s also one of Anderson‘s most emotional pieces, the film’s final montages loaded with bittersweet voice-over and exquisite imagery that suggests the end of an era, and the hope of a new generation.
Interestingly, this is the first of Wes Anderson‘s work to include a narrator, but certainly not the last, as both Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel would also utilize, and often subvert, the way in which the story would be told. For all Anderson’s retro-centric qualities, he has always been innovative when it came to structure.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was made as an ode to the late oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. From the red hats that adorn the heads of the crew of the battered ship Belafonte, to Bill Murray’s loveable, though unravelling, leading character Steve Zissou, the notion of ocean exploration makes for a charming backdrop to what could best be described as yet another of Wes Anderson‘s domestic dramas.
In many ways a companion piece to The Royal Tenenbaums, the story, written by Wes Anderson with another indie stalwart, known for films about dysfunction, Noah Baumbach, sees Zissou embark on one final mission, aided by a devoted, if weary crew of misfits. The fly in the ointment comes in the shape of Ned (Owen Wilson), who may, or may not be Zissou’s illegitimate son.
Once again, an ensemble made up of the cream of acting talent, from both the past and the present, bring their a-game, and yet this is arguably the finest role Murray has ever played, completely dominating the picture with a criminally overlooked master class in neuroses. His Zissou is a wheelhouse of tics and grimaces, genuinely unnerving at moments when his outbursts threaten to turn things nasty.
“I hate fathers and I never wanted to be one.”
Creating a juxtaposed tone between concept and character, the film is bold, but never over the top, employing Anderson’s by now signature aesthetic of a manufactured, dollhouse-like world, here given a bold new dimension in the use of stop motion animated puppets to represent the underwater creatures, clearly a prefigure of the work later explored in Fantastic Mr. Fox.
It’s also Wes Anderson’s most mature picture, a trait not exactly evident upon your first viewing. And yet, diving beneath the surface, the currents of narrative pull you into a character study, a story about fathers and sons and the last voyage of a curmudgeonly patriarch who is not beyond redemption.
Above all, though, The Life Aquatic is as rare as the elusive jaguar shark that provides the plot’s momentum. A wholly original picture, genuinely surprising, at times laugh out loud funny and admirably, unapologetically weird; I doubt even Cousteau would’ve been able to categorize it.
The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
Often considered the forgotten film in Anderson’s canon, The Darjeeling Limited shines with the afterglow of the films of Satyajit Ray (even going as far as to steal many of the music cues from his works), but has, at its heart, a Cassavete-type melodrama to tell. Once again, Anderson is focused on family, three brothers (regulars Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson, joined by Oscar winner Adrian Brody), brought together for the first time in years, following a tragedy. They are on a pilgrimage to find themselves, each other, their mother, and whatever else the laminated itinerary, that oldest brother Francis has in his possession, can offer.
It’s far more off kilter than many of Wes Anderson’s works, and in the brotherly trio we have, perhaps, the least likeable group of characters he has ever created.
“I love you too, but I’m gonna’ mace you in the face!”
The film was co-written by Anderson, with Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, with a tone not too distant to that of The Life Aquatic. There is an underbelly of violence, and the potential for violence, occasionally, and shockingly, boiling over. It’s worth noting that anytime blood is shed in an Anderson picture, you’re meant to feel it. There is nothing ironic about the death of a child, nor the aftermath of flying face first into the side of a hill from a motorbike.
Like Aquatic, when a character dies, it’s painful, and within the framework of the story, given where the brothers end up in India, the story makes fascinating observations about how westerners perceive grief, loss, and death, spiritual or literal.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Adaptation comes with its own set of problems: faithfulness to the source being the biggest for many audiences. When it comes to an author as beloved as Roald Dahl, there is certainly no exception. Fantastic Mr. Fox is a tough film to pigeonhole. It’s too eccentric and existential to be considered a kid’s film, yet it’s an animated retelling of one of the most beloved of Dahl’s children’s books, and thus has to appeal to ankle-biters as much as the Anderson regulars. It also had to satisfy their filmmaker’s own obsessions and desires, his own quirks and tics. In short, it had to be a Wes Anderson film.
“If what I think is happening, is happening….it’d better not be.”
That Fantastic Mr. Fox manages to be all these things and more, is just one of its many remarkable achievements. Utilizing animation that recalls not only the Rankin/Bass classics of American childhood, but also the charm of the Cosgrove Hall productions that came out of the UK in the ’70s and ’80s, the spine and soul of Dahl’s work remains intact, but there can be no denying that this is an Anderson picture, through and through.
The attention to detail in the art direction is breathtaking, while the character designs manage to capture that rare mischievous quality that allows the audience to look past the fact that they are ever so slightly creepy. There is something in the eyes that suggests that, while they may walk and talk, wear funny human clothes, and sound like George Clooney, they are still, very much, animals. Wes Anderson’s penchant for shocking violence remains also, which surprises the most.
When Fox kills a chicken, he really kills a chicken. When Fox eats, his human mannerisms fall away to let his animal come forth and tear his food to shreds. That, coupled with dialogue that will go over the little ones’ heads (there’s a lot of talk about property investment in this one), makes the film sound as though it flounders.
On the contrary. It triumphs.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Moonrise Kingdom is a tribute to the spirit of the French New Wave, a sweet-natured, though typically off kilter love story about two young kids who run away together, on an island just off the coast of New England, called New Penzance. With a huge storm on the horizon and half the population of the island in pursuit, one would expect something a little more fast-paced from the narrative.
But this is an Anderson picture, and instead, the film takes its time to develop the relationship between the two kids, which starts through a number of letters, developing from a crush, to love, to potential matrimony, not to mention virginity loss. Montages of the two at play have a Truffaut quality, recalling the joyous moments of Jules Et Jim.
“What kind of bird are you?”
The kids are damaged goods, to be sure, finding comfort in comparing each other’s stranger qualities and painting a surprisingly accurate metaphor of America how it likes to think it is, with the truth, of course, smacking headlong into the plot by the third act. Interestingly, the ensemble that surround so many of Anderson’s main characters has grown considerably here, almost as if he was getting in practice for The Grand Budapest Hotel, yet the film never seems overcrowded.
There are few filmmakers as capable of handling so many characters within a picture that clocks in at under 2 hours. And yet they each get their moment to shine, none more so than Bruce Willis, who gives certainly the least masculine performance of his life, a sad sack of regret and loneliness.
The themes are present and correct, as ever: the impact of broken family upon children, strong female characters of all ages, the inevitability of doomed young love, portable vinyl record players and eccentric soundtrack choices; while visually the film enjoys revealing detail through the use of long zooms, often POV from a pair of vintage binoculars, a telescope, or simply a character’s narrowing eye line. All is immaculately presented within a quaint, small town setting, where breaking a cub scout vow means painful expulsion from a tree house, and piercing your ear with a fish hook is never a great idea.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
If The Grand Budapest Hotel had turned out to be Wes Anderson’s final film, it would certainly have made a lot of sense. Over the course of his other pictures, it suddenly all seems to click into place. Every obsession, every attention to detail, every camera movement, is so carefully considered, that the film is stylistically flawless, and yet, at the heart of this huge, ambitious, and at times downright epic story, is a deceptively simple, shaggy dog tale of loyalty, family, and love.
As with any Wes Anderson picture, there is a standout performance, and in this instance, it goes to Ralph Fiennes as Gustave H., the head concierge of the hotel, the plot’s driving force, and ultimately, the story’s true hero, even if he has a cruel streak that tends to articulate itself in rage and profanity, and a sex drive that would rival Casanova (although Gustave prefers the older ladies).
Fiennes has always seemed as though he was aching to play the humor of any situation. Even Schindler’s List had shades of comic timing (particularly a sequence in which his Nazi Commander can’t get his gun to fire into the back of a worker’s head, forcing him to scream like a petulant child). But in Gustave, Fiennes seems to have found his man, a perfect comic creation, part romantic, part bittersweet loser.
“If there’s one thing we’ve learned from penny dreadfuls, it’s that when you find yourself in a place like this, you must never be a candy ass.”
Wes Anderson’s canvas expands greatly here, with snowy mountains and gorgeous European architecture, but the real joy, as ever with his work, is in the details, personified best in the Grand Budapest’s interiors. All reds and purples, it would look downright garish if it wasn’t so vibrant, so alive, and so populated with characters every bit as colorful.
Camera movement is vital to the telling of the story. Long, uninterrupted tracking shots, symmetrical mise-en-scène, zooms and quick focus, the visual style evolves as the story develops: beginning very classical, assured and almost painterly, before rapidly descending into lunacy, as if the frame itself was bursting at the seams, and the characters were about to spill out into reality.
“That’s the kind of movie that I like to make, where there is an invented reality and the audience is going to go someplace where hopefully they’ve never been before. The details, that’s what the world is made of.”
The Grand Budapest Hotel was inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig, a writer who had fled Austria in the 1930s. Anderson’s story shares many of the tropes of Zweig’s work, particularly when it came to nuance of character and how important environment was to them. It’s a perfect fit, when you consider that most of Anderson’s filmmaking is contained within its own world, its own manufactured environment and yet, ironically, for such a seemingly artificial reality, the work seems completely freewheeling, the opposite of the totalitarianism from which much of the director’s literary influences have grown.
Soaked in Wes Anderson’s own childhood, and fashioned in his own style, be it a nice tweed jacket, a library book with well worn pages, or a vintage bicycle as means of transportation, it is just such tropes that mark him out as one of the very few true auteurs working in cinema today.
Awards and accolades may have eventually beckoned, but really, the biggest triumph of any, and all, Wes Anderson pictures, is that he didn’t compromise his vision to find an audience. It’s a huge mark of this remarkable filmmaker’s work, maybe because his vision is so distinct, and that to pick at it, or remove one element, would be detrimental. A cinematic house of cards, if you will.
As it stands, Wes Anderson has yet to make a bad film, or at least a film about which we can’t say there isn’t something admirable. Many of his films tend to grow on you, multiple viewings bringing forth pleasures and details you hadn’t noticed before, be it the glorious use of the whip pan (perfect to either amuse or shock the audience), a well placed needle drop (Margot’s slow motion exit from a bus, to the fragile voice of Nico), or a perfectly symmetrical environment in which Bill Murray can throw his weight around.
There is an aching quality to the work, but it never feels like self-pity. Any hardships pull no punches, while redemption has to be earned. There is a constant, circular nature to the structure of his screenplays, the characters often back in the same spot they were when we first met them, but with a world of optimism to head towards. And yet, there is no badly judged sentimentality to be found, either. Just a bittersweet knowledge that, yes, things got better, but disaster is always lurking round the corner.
Anderson is that rarest of birds (or Jaguar Sharks, if you prefer), a director who utilizes the medium in which he works, who shows us why we are watching a piece of cinema. A builder of worlds, like Ridley Scott, but with less grandiose aspirations, he crafts a world just off kilter enough to be both comic and naturalistic.
If you look back on the history of film over the past 30 years, there are really only a handful of filmmakers whose work you recognize immediately: Paul Thomas Anderson, Terry Gilliam, Danny Boyle, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Michel Gondry, Quentin Tarantino. Illustrious company, indeed.
Wes Anderson is that good.
What is your personal favorite amongst Wes Anderson’s filmography? And are you looking forward to his new animated picture Isle Of Dogs?
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