Let’s Talk About Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson is one of the most recognizable American auteurs of film. When watching one of his films, I never have to wonder or guess who the director is. This is not just the case for cinephiles. My spouse, who by her own admission is “not a movie person,” recognizes a trailer for a Wes Anderson movie in seconds.

This, of course, begs the question:

“What are thirteen telltale signs I am watching a film by Wes Anderson?”

1. Nearly every shot is wide-framed and damn near perfectly symmetrical.

2. Someone always walks off and/or on screen in slow motion.

3. The dialogue is quick, witty, sometimes random, and full of awkward pauses.

4. There are several close-ups of actors’ faces, accentuating their more homely features.

5. The color palette is sumptuous, vibrant, and probably contains pastels.

6. Someone is always dressed like Anderson, himself. In The Royal Tenenbaums it’s Richie (Luke Wilson), in Fantastic Mr. Fox it’s Mr. Fox, in The Darjeeling Limited it’s Peter (Adrien Brody). This includes but is not limited to: a light and/or brown suit, a light dress shirt, a scarf of some kind, long-ish hair, light colored socks, and dress loafers.

7. You can’t always tell if you’re watching a current American film or a French New Wave film from the 60’s or 70’s.

8. Much like the films of Jim Jarmusch, Spike Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson or Lars von Trier, there are white people in every shot! Wes Anderson’s films made it on the list of Stuff White People Like by Christian Lander. There’s a reason.

9. The soundtrack is always an eclectic mix of classic rock n’ roll, Woodstock folk, avant garde, punk rock, jazz, and orchestral whimsy.

10. There is a fabulous blend of old meets new in a universe that exists in our own while at the same time existing completely outside of our own. You may ask the question, “Is Rushmore set in the early 2000’s or in the 1950’s?” The answer is Yes.

11. Anderson capitalizes on the Death of the Patriarch movement in western cinema. Every adult male and/or father figure is depicted as a failure and arrogant blowhard attempting to figure out where he went wrong.

12. Is your hipster sense tingling? Yes? Then you’re watching a Wes Anderson.

13. Bill Murray.

Despite regular and responsible criticism leveled against Anderson (too white, too male, too pretentious, too bougie, etc.), he makes great pieces of art.

Author Michael Chabon says in his introduction to Matt Zoller Seitz’s book The Wes Anderson Collection, “Anderson’s films, like the boxes of Cornell or the novels of Nabakov, understand and demonstrate that the magic of art, which renders beauty out of brokenness, disappointment, failure, decay, even ugliness and violence, is authentic only to the degree that it attempts to conceal neither the bleak facts nor the tricks employed in pulling off the presto change-o. It is honest only to the degree that it builds its precise and inescapable box around its maker’s scale version of the world.”

So, if you’re new to this conversation, you are probably wondering what the films of Wes Anderson are. Here they are, ranked from his worst to his best:*

8. Bottle Rocket (1996)

Description: A 1996 poster once called Bottle Rocket Reservoir Dogs meets Revenge of the Nerds.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. Poor advertising.

Although Anderson had yet to master his signature style, Bottle Rocket demonstrated the strengths of a true prodigy of film. Martin Scorsese himself, upon viewing Bottle Rocket, named Anderson his successor in an interview with Esquire.

Wes Anderson was a young student at the University of Texas when he met Owen Wilson. Together they penned a black and white short film, about three losers who attempt to become master thieves, titled Bottle Rocket which Anderson directed and, although Wilson had zero acting experience, featured him and his younger brother Luke in the starring roles. The short film would go on to the be the foundation for their next piece, a feature film of the same name which would go on to establish Wes and Owen as a potent screenwriting duo (They would go on to pen Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums), Luke and Owen as decent, employable actors, James Caan’s comeback from rehab, and Polly Platt’s (The Last Picture Show) move from semi-retired producer to full on producer again.

Influences: The films of Alfred Hitchock, the writings and films of Peter Bogdanovich, Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape, Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Dune by Frank Herbert, and The Art of Star Wars ed. Carol Titelman.

Is it necessary viewing?: For understanding the work of one of our most respected American auteurs of film, yes. For getting into Anderson’s other films, no. There’s a reason it’s at the bottom of the list.

7. The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

Description: After successfully blowing critics and audiences away with Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and even The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Anderson’s fifth feature film, The Darjeeling Limited, felt like less weird/whimsical fare. Some found it gravely disappointing. I find The Darjeeling Limited to be a refreshing and strong film. It features Anderson favorites, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzmann as three brothers travelling on a train across India. The natural colors in the Indian villages and landscapes are even a perfect fit for Anderson’s tastes. There are pastels!

There is a memorable scene in The Royal Tenenbaums in which Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson) attempts suicide to the Elliot Smith song “Needle in the Hay.” It is a very dark moment in an otherwise light-hearted film drenched in pastels and goofy characters. The Darjeeling Limited takes the mood and sincere sense of existential angst in Richie’s suicide scene and applies it to Francis, Peter, and Jack Whitman. They are all depressed and doing drugs. They are all selfishly trying to figure out their own lives to the detriment of others.

A tragic family death has torn them apart and another tragic death, three quarters of the way through the film, will bring them together. Anderson attempted to ask the question, “How important is family?” in Tenenbaums but successfully answers it in full in Darjeeling.

Influences: Jean Renoir’s The River, the films of Satyajit Ray, and the films of Merchant-Ivory.

Necessary viewing?: It’s a beautiful film, but probably not necessary Anderson.

6. Rushmore (1998)

Description: Matt Zoller Seitz says in The Wes Anderson Collection, “There are few perfect films. Rushmore is one of them.”

It is with Rushmore and the delightfully sly characters of Max Fischer (a young Jason Schwartzmann) and Herman Blume (Bill Murray in his first of many Wes Anderson films) that Anderson establishes the origin of his signature style. The soundtrack by Mark Mothersbaugh gives the film that pluck and whimsy we have come to know and love in every other Anderson outing. The self-absorbed characters surrounded by loving, nurturing parental figures as well as the hairstyles, clothing, cars, and symmetrical shots are all taken for granted now, but they were molded on the wheel in Rushmore.

It is a story about a boy in a wealthy private school who has natural gifts for leadership but uses them all on extra-curricular activities. Max, the boy, has poor grades and very few friends. He falls in love with a member of the faculty, Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), and establishes a venomous friendship with Herman, the local steel tycoon. Together, Herman and Max discover that they are wallowing in loneliness and it may have something to do with how self-absorbed they are. This theme of male loneliness as a result of selfish behavior/thinking is the foundation of almost every Anderson film moving forward. Max may have the attention of every person at Rushmore Academy, but he is actually the son of a poor barber (Seymour Cassel dressed to look identical to comic-strip artist Charles Schulz) and a dead mother. Herman may be the wealthiest man in town but his wife is having an affair and his sons hate him.

Influences: Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, Sidney Lumet’s Serpico, Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Hitchcock’s Vertigo and North by Northwest, Bill Melendez’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude, Mick Jagger, young Tom Cruise, young Noah Taylor, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, and Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane.

Necessary Viewing?: Yes.

5. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

Description: Zoller Seitz says of Anderson’s befuddling film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, “Anderson has made a meticulously controlled film about control freaks trying to micromanage their own narratives.” Anderson’s biggest mistake was having this film follow after the critical success of The Royal Tenenbaums. Although a critical flop, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou would go on to establish a loyal cult following.

There is no question that The Life Aquatic (my favorite Anderson film) is a full-blown demonstration of Anderson’s powers. It is to Wes Anderson what 2001: a space odyssey or The Shining was to Stanley Kubrick. It is certainly Anderson’s most ambitious film to date. The film is a handmade visual feast featuring submarines straight out of Cousteau, bizarre uniforms, eccentric hats, probably bisexual male characters, stop-motion sea creatures, underwater fight scenes featuring the imagined jaguar shark, gunshots fired to punk rock songs, and smoking joints to a David Bowie soundtrack performed completely in Portuguese by Seu Jorge as Pele dos Santos.

Steve Zissou (Bill Murray in one of his best performances) is an aging, washed up marine biologist and documentary filmmaker who attempted, for years, to establish himself as a television action hero. He’s lost his touch. His partner, Esteban (Seymour Cassel), has been eaten by the “jaguar shark.” His wife, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston in another excellent performance), has left him and is sleeping with Steve’s rival, the flamboyant Alistair Hennessy (Jeff Goldblum). With a crew of crazy misfits, Steve sets out to avenge Esteban’s death and take back his own life. Together, Anderson and Robert Yeoman shot The Life Aquatic in CinemaScope and in so doing, created an ambitious epic comedy film. When was the last time you watched an epic comedy?

Critics and audiences may have walked away wondering “What the hell just happened?” but this film is a cinematic achievement of the highest order, like it or hate it.

Influences: Jacques Cousteau (after featuring him briefly in Rushmore, Anderson decided to make a film in tribute to him), the films of Stanley Kubrick, Jacques Tati, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola, James Bond films, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, the films of Federico Fellini, Star Trek: The Original Series, and the stop-motion films of Rankin-Bass.

Necessary viewing? : To fully understand Anderson at his most weird and indulgent, yes.

4. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Description: The Grand Budapest Hotel is only the second film by Anderson to offer a definitive time and setting. It is set in 1930’s Europe, just before World War II. Anderson originally cast Johnny Depp and Angela Lasbury in the roles of hotel concierge M. Gustave H. and his much older lover Madame D. These roles were recast and given to Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton (now an Anderson mainstay). Fiennes demonstrates his incredible capacity for comic acting in the juicy role of yet another clueless, arrogant Andersonian patriarch. Budapest is Anderson’s most ambitious film yet. It even beats out The Life Aquatic for being the most theatrical and the most daring in design, scope, and movement. Clearly influenced by Kubrick’s The Shining and David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, Anderson’s film is a true wonder to behold, even if the menacing dark and threat of death loom over every scene.

Inspired, but not based on, the works of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a story within a story within a story. The first story is one being told by a Writer (Tom Wilkinson). He is telling the story of his younger self (Jude Law) encountering the man known as Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the owner of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Mr. Zero Moustafa is telling the Young Writer the story of his relationship with M. Gustave H. in the early days of the pastel hotel on the snowy mountaintop. Together, a young Zero (Tony Revolori) and M. Gustave must engage in a desperate attempt to retrieve a painting called “Boy with Apple” from the wrong hands. What they end up uncovering is a wrongful accusation of murder and an adventure plot overshadowed by the threat of war and further destruction. Zweig was the inspiration for the Writer, the Young Writer, and M. Gustave in looks and in personality.

All of Anderson’s films are comedies and studies in sadness. No film of Anderson’s capitalizes on the darkness inherent in sadness like Budapest, however. It is the most viewed of Anderson’s films to date, next to The Royal Tenenbaums and Fantastic Mr. Fox. It is also the most decorated of Anderson’s films and earned a spot as the “21st Greatest film since 2000” in a BBC poll.

Influences: Stefan Zweig’s literary works, Kubrick’s The Shining, David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, Hitchcock’s Strangers On a Train, Stanley Donen’s Charade, James Bond films, and the early films of the Coen Brothers.

Necessary viewing?: It is the most recent of Anderson’s films and his most popular among audiences, critics, and awards shows, so yes.

3. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Description: Moonrise Kingdom is Wes Anderson’s family-friendly film. Even though it is his least adult work and his most accessible to the viewing public, it is still very Andersonian in its presentation and themes. It is the first of Anderson’s films to be set in a particular place and time. Even though the setting happens to be coastal New England in 1965, it is a New England that doesn’t exist except in Anderson’s imagination, much like his Europe of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Bob Balaban plays The Narrator, the first omniscient narrating voice since Alec Baldwin in The Royal Tenenbaums. It is a new, and welcome piece, to have an embodied Narrator moving from scene to scene and Balaban, now an Anderson mainstay, is perfect in the role. He even looks a little like a rustic Steve Zissou in his hat and beard.

Two kids, Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) and Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), run away from home and agree to meet up in a far off field. From there, they will begin a journey together. Their goal is to build their own kingdom on a beach where adults are not allowed. Much like early scenes in The Royal Tenenbaums, this film is also inspired by E.L. Konigsburg’s book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and the 1995 TV movie of the same name by Marcus Cole. Suzy is the fiery daughter of the tightly wound Mrs. Bishop (Frances McDormand as a welcome addition to the Anderson fold) and the bumbling and insecure Mr. Bishop (a slovenly Bill Murray). They are both lawyers who have a failing marriage. In some of the greatest melodramatic scenes of any of Anderson’s films, Mrs. Bishop carries on a private affair with Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), the officer in charge of rounding up the townsfolk to find the lost children. Anderson uses a brilliant touch of subtlety here, though. The affair is only hinted at, never explicit. Sam is an orphan and one of the Khaki Scouts of which Edward Norton is the den leader. In one of the best scenes of the film, Suzy reveals to Sam that she is an obsessive reader of children’s fantasy novels. In the books she reads, orphans are always the heroes. Suzy says to Sam, “I always wished I was an orphan. Most of my favorite characters are. I think your lives are more special.”

“I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about,” Sam replies.

“I love you, too,” she says.

If you ever wonder as to whether or not Anderson possesses a magic touch, just remember that he turned action hero Bruce Willis into an Andersonian caricature. Anderson has a way with his actors.

Influences: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, “Noye’s Fludde” One Act Opera by Benjamin Britten, “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” by Leonard Bernstein, Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Satyajit Ray’s Charulata, Our Town by Thornton Wilder, Spielberg, Truffaut, and Me: An Actor’s Diary by Bob Balaban, Terrence Malick’s Badlands, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Ken Loach’s Black Jack, Waris Hussein’s Melody, and Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and The Wild Child.

Necessary viewing? : If you want to see one of Anderson’s greatest achievements of film, yes.

2. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Description: Fantastic Mr. Fox is Anderson’s first film made from an adapted screenplay and it manages to uphold and honor Roald Dahl’s original children’s book while, all the while, making a defiantly original work. It is interesting that Anderson and Noah Baumbach chose to adapt the work of a British writer to make what would become Anderson’s most quintessentially American film. The first song we hear, in fact, is “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” by The Wellingtons. Mr. Fox, or Foxy, as he’s called, is listening to this song on his Walkman as he finishes smoking a cigarette by a tree. The scene is dripping with autumnal colors and evokes the dream of every one of Anderson’s male anti-heroes. It’s as if these men, Mr. Fox, Royal Tenenbaum, Francis Whitman, Dignan, M. Gustave H., Sam Shakusky, Steve Zissou, Max Fischer, etc. are all asking, “Am I a legend yet?”

Mr. Fox is Anderson’s first animated feature and it is fitting that it is stop motion. After viewing the film, it became suddenly, and strangely, clear to me that all of Anderson’s films are “stop motion” in a certain sense. Every character and every shot in every single one of his films is cartoonish and contains quick jerky motions and awkward pauses. Although the influence of Bill Melendez, Charles Schulz, and Peanuts is evident in every Anderson film, odes to Rankin Bass holiday specials are just as evident.

The film is, simply put, a stop motion cartoon that exists to entertain. It is colorful, hilarious, and full of that trademark whimsy that makes every Anderson film likeable, even to those who may find his films a bit on the odd side. George Clooney is perfectly voice cast as Mr. Fox, a worthy Andersonian patriarch, who has been in “the newspaper game” since his vixen bride, Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep), insisted that he give up chicken theft. Foxy has decided to come out of retirement for one last job and ends up negatively impacting all of the woodland critters who live in his community. Full of hilarity, hijinks, and another fabulous soundtrack, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a great achievement by Anderson, one of the finest animated films ever made, and the predecessor to Anderson’s upcoming Isle of Dogs.

Influences: Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl, Holiday TV Specials produced by Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass, the films of Nick Park and Peter Lord, Walt Disney’s Robin Hood, Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier, Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans, the films of Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, Michael Powell, and Emeric Pressburger, Jerome Robbins’ and Robert Wise’s West Side Story, David Fincher’s Zodiac, Federico Fellini’s Amarcord, Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, and Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton.

Necessary viewing?: Yes.

  1. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Description: Set in a fictionalized New York City, The Royal Tenenbaums joins the ranks of late 90’s/early 2000’s films obsessing over dysfunctional families. What sets Tenenbaums apart from the likes of Little Miss Sunshine, Running with Scissors, and The Ice Storm, however, is its style. If Rushmore helped Wes Anderson boldly experiment with his signature style, Tenenbaums secured this style as, well, the official “look” of a Wes Anderson film. Not only that, but Tenenbaums became Anderson’s official break out film and most critically praised until Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Grand Budapest Hotel arrived on the scene. If film students study an Anderson film, it is always The Royal Tenenbaums.

The film tells the story of the rich, eccentric, and traumatized Tenenbaum clan. They are a family of geniuses. Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman in one of his finest performances) is the Anderson patriarch that would become the standard for every other male protagonist in Anderson’s films. He is a selfish, scheming, witty sonofabitch who believes himself to be a legend in his own right but has a wounded heart of gold. He is estranged from his family. Etheline Tenebaum (Anjelica Huston) is Royal’s distant wife and mother of his three children. These children are the deeply depressed tennis prodigy, Richie “Baumer” Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson), the grieving, neurotic, and angry prodigy with an “almost preternatural understanding of finance,” Chaz Tenenbaum (Ben Stiller), and the emotionally disturbed adopted daughter and genius playwright, Margot Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow).

Royal decides he wants to reunite with his family and tells them all he is dying of stomach cancer. Etheline believes him and takes him in but is torn between her estranged husband and a kinder gentleman caller, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover). Baumer is tragically in love with his adopted sister, Margot, and returns to their family home at 111 Archer Ave. to be close to her. Chaz’s wife died in a plane crash and he is raising his two boys, Ari (Grant Rosenmeyer) and Uzi (Jonah Meyerson) on his own. His doting mother invites Chaz and her grandsons to live with her in their family home on Archer Ave. Margot is unhappy with her older, faithful, gentle, sad sack husband, Dr. Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), and moves back home. She is sleeping with Baumer’s childhood friend, Eli Cash (Owen Wilson). He’s the drug-addled Cormac McCarthy type. Margot’s affair with Eli will deeply complicate the relationships with both Raleigh and Baumer.

Narrated to perfection by Alec Baldwin, The Royal Tenenbaums is Wes Anderson’s masterpiece of film. If every other Anderson film is lost in the coming apocalypse, The Royal Tenenbaums will be the film humanity preserves and views for years to come.

Influences: John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy, William Friedkin’s The French Connection, the works of J.D. Salinger, the songs of Simon & Garfunkel, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, the Andy Warhol Factory, Robert Frank’s photography, the cartoons and covers of The New Yorker, the films of Alfred Hitchcock, the films of John Ford, Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies, the films of Orson Welles, Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, the films of Hal Ashby, Peanuts comic strip by Charles Schulz, Peanuts TV Specials by Bill Melendez, Francois Truffaut’s Two English Girls, and Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Necessary Viewing?: Essential. If you only see one Anderson film, let it be this one.

As Anderson’s newest film, Isle of Dogs, makes its way to theaters in a couple of weeks, I invite you to treat yourself and watch some of his other films. Anderson is a true thief in the best way, stealing from many important influences to make gorgeous and hilarious pieces of film that defy reality and ground us in human story.

* I owe much of my work in this piece to film critic Matt Zoller Seitz, his book The Wes Anderson Collection (Abrams: New York, 2013), and his series of video essays title “The Substance of Style.” (www.YouTube.com).

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Earth Makers: Sacred Stories & Queer Spaces

Earth Makers: Sacred Stories & Queer Spaces

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