An Exploration of Meticulous Authority
A few weeks ago I went to an early premiere of Wes Anderson’s eighth feature film The Grand Budapest Hotel at an Academy members screening room. They have special rules there, like no eating, no talking, no texting, and no walking out during the end credits. The last rule allowed everyone to revel in Alexandre Desplat’s jumpy and zithered score. A Q and A with Anderson and the film’s star Ralph Fiennes followed afterward, and I was fortunate enough to meet both of them for a brief moment. But as I reconsider that night, the screening was bookended in a very Wes Anderson kind of way.
First, this was a kind of movie screen that was covered by a curtain, which split and opened in the middle once the projection began. It’s really how every Wes Anderson movie should open, as though a curtain is pulling back. My reasoning for this is quite simple. In nearly every Wes Anderson feature, a parted theater curtain either begins the film, a scene, or borders a character. It is one of many quintessential Anderson shots that neatly and subtly suggests his two-dimensionality at work, his tableau “shot-consciousness,” as David Bordwell writes, which has come to define his flat and angular picture book sensibility. Rushmore (1998) opens that way and so does the Steve Zissou film premiere in Life Aquatic (2004). This persistent attention to framing suggests that Anderson’s audience only sees what Anderson wants us to see, which is usually quite a lot.
This is not, however, filmed theater. Anderson knows the difference a camera makes, its ability to capture an immensity of detail in one beautifully juxtaposed shot. The dioramas and dollhouses he builds suggest that his settings and characters evoke a storybook quality, not only in their narrative glow but in their flatness. Some have lamented the negative implications this has exhibited. Characters never walk diagonally in Wes Anderson pictures, forever bound to straight lines and low relief. Even in their confusing, messy, and perverse lives, the world is made a little simpler this way, if not slightly unnatural. As Sean McPherson, a Manhattan hotelier commented in the New York Times, Anderson’s vision is about “making things 10 percent off reality — not surreal, just a little bit odd.”
These traits have only grown more refined and precise in each subsequent film since his feature debut with Bottle Rocket (1996). But they have also become his burdening trademarks. He has trapped himself into a stylistic corner, become an influential prisoner bound to his established cinematic palette of saccharine pastels and meticulous planning. That doesn’t make his films any less charming or quirky, but it has created an invisible yoke. There are few moments in his films that feel free from this artistic control, noticeably in Bottle Rocket (still garnering his eventual signatures) and in Darjeeling Limited, where the realities of shooting on site in India provide colorfully chaotic backgrounds. You get the sense he’s not as comfortable, but they provide a vividness he usually doesn’t acquire.
Anderson is one of the few recognizable auteurs today. His stylistic impulses can and often do, though never pompously, subvert his narrative action. His signature shots though often help confuse his dramas for comedies. Anderson has never been appreciated as a great dramatic director because his bright warm colors and easily recognizable filmmaking salutes pierce light into his pervading dark and melancholic themes. The cult of Anderson, the growing niche crowd of supporters which has trumpeted his praise, cling to this confrontation. More fervently they attach to his resume of compositions and techniques, a filmmaking laundry list that affirms a Wes Anderson picture.
You quickly come to find that a Wes Anderson movie must have: the binoculars shot, the God’s eye tabletop shot, the “whip-pans,” the long tracking shot, the slow motion pan to pop music, the symmetry, the familiar cast, and the list goes on. These have become so omnipresent that even his film crew is intuitively inclined. In a New York Times interview during promotion for The Royal Tennenbaums, Anderson said that while filming, ”It got to the point where they didn’t even have to ask me,” he said. ”They knew it was a tabletop scene, so they’d set up the camera over the table. ‘Oh, here it comes, another standard Wes tabletop shot.’ It’s more for me, I think, than it is for the movie. It feels right to me that way. But the ultimate effect is that it unifies the movie…I have to admit, I think perhaps it’s more meticulous than is really healthy.”
The Binoculars Shot
In my brief question to him, I asked Anderson about this specific repeated shot, used in his latest film The Grand Budapest Hotel. He had no idea why he continues to use it, indicating, similar to the tabletop shots, that his film crew implemented it for him and suggested it may be some vague “psychological thing.” As film critic Matt Zoller Seitz, who wrote a book and composed video essays about Anderson, wrote in Vulture, “He will happily discuss the technical or structural aspects of his movies, or the history of cinema or popular music, but when it comes to interpreting his own work, he clams up.”
In one of his video essays, Seitz recalls the adage that, “‘Immature artists imitate while mature artists steal,’ but that’s not really accurate. Any artist worth a damned does a fair bit of both, and he doesn’t stop there. He transforms his influences into something fresh, even something new. Imitation becomes procreation becomes a creation.” Anderson’s templates, which help him spawn his own variations, range from cinematic icons to cartoon creators. Work from Orson Welles, Francois Truffaut, Bill Melendez, and Martin Scorsese has been pulled into continual discussion and re-imagined into his idiosyncratic vision.
I want to start with Welles both technically and thematically. He, like Anderson, was seen as an auteur, controlling nearly all aspects of his productions. For Citizen Kane, RKO gave Welles complete control, which subsequently waned with each new movie after the studios were pushed to the brink with his demands. Nearly all of his directorial efforts have been concerned with characters’ rises and falls and the collateral damage associated with them. His second feature The Magnificent Ambersons begins with an image of a house and Welles’ third person voice, describing the impressive lineage of the Amberson family. Anderson begins The Royal Tennenbaums at the Tennenbaum house as Alec Baldwin omnisciently narrates and introduces the characters. Moonrise Kingdom begins with a portrait of the lighthouse home hanging from the interior wall. Bob Balaban this time is a comically visible narrator.
In Tennenbaums, Anderson mimics Royal’s fatherly negligence and growing separation from his children by matching a montage scene from Citizen Kane. The three young children sit opposite their father at the ends of a boardroom table just as Charles Kane sits opposite his first wife. As the dissonance and time between them grows, so does the length of the table. Another important Wellesian trait revolves around his thematic cinematography, specifically regarding the camera’s use of deep focus, creating a depth within the frame. Welles uses the focus to highlight a little Charlie Kane through the snowy window, juxtaposed against his parents in the foreground. The only time I see this kind of shot is in Bottle Rocket where Anderson was still testing his dioramic displays. Here Luke Wilson’s Anthony is having a conversation with his hotel chambermaid in front of a bar window where we see his friend Dignan (Owen Wilson) fighting a stiff in the back.
The broader context is that this is the beginning of Anderson using windows as staple shots in his arsenal. This is Welles working here, too, using the window as a recurring motif throughout Citizen Kane. With Anderson, it demonstrates less a narrative function than it does a character one. Windows offer an escape but also a cruel hopelessness, a view to the outside that rarely allows access. When seen from the outside, as we often do, the windows box characters in, appearing as prisoners, immobile actors. Windows also create artistically formal, rectangular compositions in themselves.
You can see Anderson’s love for Truffaut in all of his stories, centering on precocious children and stunted adults. Anderson implements a classroom scene from 400 Blows in Rushmore and finds inspiration from Truffaut’s later work Small Change, which exemplifies the sporadic nature and random realities of life. Anderson commented in the New York Times about that particular film, explaining, “That’s what’s so great about this movie. There are all of these threads, all of these people and story lines, but it also feels very free, as though we can join any character at any moment. There are some characters who have just one scene or just one moment, and then a few who kind of continue throughout the whole movie and have their own developing stories. But when they’re introduced, they’re all introduced in the same way, so you’re never sure who is going to turn out to be important and who’s making their only appearance. It’s very rare to introduce characters that way, yet it doesn’t feel like a stunt the way Truffaut does it. It feels very natural.”
In Rushmore, Anderson channels Bill Melendez using protagonist Max Fischer as a momentary substitute for Charlie Brown, and later uses the musical theme of Peanuts in Tennenbaums.
Scorsese, a champion of Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, feels like a mentor in Anderson’s God’s eye views and slow motion, emphatic zooms (Think Max Fischer walking to an electric guitar in slow motion in relation to the waltzing pace of weaving between restaurant tables in Goodfellas). The tabletop images have quickly infected nearly every point of view shot in an Anderson film.
These of course are just several of Anderson’s inspirations. More will likely hit you at random times and places. The Graduate sheds its influence into Bill Murray’s melancholic dive into a swimming pool in Rushmore. Watching The Royal Tennenbaums after screening Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront, you can’t help but see Terry Malloy’s (Marlon Brando) pigeon coop as a doppleganger of the Tennenbaum roof where Mortecai, their trusty falcon boomerangs to Richie (Luke Wilson). Or specifically the graphic matches between Royal (Gene Hackman) conversing with his grandchildren and Malloy chatting up Edie (Eva Marie Saint) behind the chained fence.
If you’ve seen all of Anderson’s work, or at least a few films, you know his stories deal primarily with family dysfunction. Parents divorce. Children push them away. Parents push their children away. All of his films fall somewhere into that schemata. But a silver lining usually erupts by the end, and protagonists, once bitter and negligent, slowly soften into more mature, compassionate people. Anderson likes playing with these variations of comeuppance and reconciliation, examining that finite line between his precocious children and stunted adult characters, each story taking a different path to get there.
In Bottle Rocket, it takes a failed- massively and pointlessly conceived- robbery for Owen Wilson’s Dignan to grow up into his less than risky suburban Texas life. Rushmore’s Max Fischer (Jason Scwartzman), the master of the extra curricular, finally ends his acidic love rivalry for a teacher with Mr. Blume once he comes to terms with his teenage self and barber father. Royal Tenenbaum, after years of separation, eventually realizes his adult children’s importance in his physically deteriorating life. Steve Zissou in Life Aquatic eventually equivocates a revenge-fueled search for a shark as his own search for his long-lost son. A train trip in The Darjeeling Limited allows three brothers to confront their closeted, buried emotional wounds still cut open by their deceased father. Fantastic Fox finds contentment not because he reengages his instinctual food grabbing, but because he reengages with his son and wife. It takes a magical hurricane in Moonrise Kingdom to knock sense into parents and scoutmasters that Suzy and Sam’s love shouldn’t be forbidden, but encouraged. I won’t write anything about Budapest just yet, but you can be assured it doesn’t stray far from the dysfunctional family tree.
That’s a reductive one sentence summary of each film’s evolution, but it hints at their interconnectedness. Anderson’s style, more than anything, is a unifier. The discontent present in Max Fischer’s life may as well be the discontent of Ned Plimpton’s in Life Aquatic. Set pieces and props become recurring totems of this now eight-film series. Tourists in India mutually suffer and console with those in storybook New York, or Houston Texas, or made up New England.
Anderson, The Person
“Nobody ever wants to hear this, but the older you get as a director, the smaller your universe becomes. Older directors who stay hip are directors with excessive curiosity.” – Ruth Vitale, Paramount executive
”He would always have only half of his shirt tucked into his pants — always. Only half. The other half would be hanging out casually.” – Unknown Rushmore actor
“Wes is still a young man, but he was just a kid when I met him on Rushmore. And he’s grown as a person, as a man, as a movie director. His stuff just keeps getting better and better. And he’s managed to make the making of movies a real living experience.” – Bill Murray, actor
I think Wes has reached an incredible point of maturity. His talents really shine now.”- Alexandre Desplat, composer
“[He]feels there’s a world that happened before, which he might have been happy in. But there’s a bittersweet feeling from the nostalgia for the thing you never actually experienced, the time you never actually lived in. Writers’ and filmmakers’ imaginations absolutely hinge on this.” -Ralph Fiennes, actor
Wes Anderson was born in Houston, Texas in 1969. His parents divorced when he was just eight years old. As a kid he made super 8 movies with his brothers and graduated high school from St. John’s school in Houston where he became known for his extensive play productions (Max Fischer anyone?). He later graduated from the University of Texas in Austin in 1990, studying philosophy. There he met Owen Wilson for the first time. They became roommates, desired to make a movie together, and eventually came up with a script for Bottle Rocket, first a black and white short that spiraled into a colorful debut feature.
Anderson had short spiked hair when he was filming Bottle Rocket. Now he has the long straight hair that Luke Wilson sported in his debut. Anderson now wears tweed jackets and silly bright colors. At the Academy screening he came wearing another tweed suit, a pink button down, a zebra tie, and blue socks. He has embodied the quirkiness his films exude. But I worry about this. Ruth Vitale’s quote above is accurate and might be pinpoint with Anderson. After experiencing his latest effort The Grand Budapest Hotel, it seems his stylistic evolution has reached its peak. How much more Wes Anderson is there left to spread around? How much more does he want to keep exploring with it? Is he ready for a diagonal line? Maybe he belongs back in stop-motion and animation. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) proved that this was his favorite medium and was the foundation for his creative juices. Since then, in both Moonrise and Budapest, he’s dropped hints of exuberant animated expression, necessarily fantastical, into his human realities.
In a recent New York Times article about the Budapest, Anderson gave his actors the option of watching an animatic, storyboard of images he had edited together of the entire movie, with him voicing all the characters. Willem Dafoe felt unneeded. “I thought: ‘This guy doesn’t even need actors. The film is already made,’ ” he said.
Here lies the existential weight of Wes Anderson. Where does he go from here? The Grand Budapest Hotel is darker and more violent. People are stabbed, extremities are taken. If Anderson made The Royal Tennenbaums today, would he let Richie’s suicide bleed out as intended, or save him again? The latter still seems likely. But Anderson is still going to make his kind of movies and there’s something beautiful about that because nobody makes a movie like Wes Anderson.
“I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it – but, I will say: He certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace!” The line is uttered in The Grand Budapest about Ralph Fiennes’ character Gustave H. But doesn’t it feel like it’s about Anderson, too?
I didn’t forget the other bookend. It was in the final moments of the Q and A when I noticed it. Ralph Fiennes was sitting slumped in his chair waiting for a question when I saw a gold pin on the flap of his suit jacket. It was an emblem from the movie, two old fashioned keys criss-crossed over each other representing “The Society of Crossed Keys,” a secret hotel society in the film. This confirmed the spillage of Wes Anderson’s movies into real life. For Anderson, everything must be exact. Every frame has value. Every detail matters.
I’ll leave you with this perfection.
Screenshots courtesy of: RKO Pictures, Columbia Pictures, Buena Vista Pictures, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, and Focus Features