Wednesday, 9 July 2014

My Wes Anderson Experience

The camera turns 90 degrees to the side, revealing some unknown figure. They make a sardonic reply. Maybe they're smoking on a cigarette. A child says something no child would say. Time slows down in a dramatic moment. A classic rock song comes on. A dog or other small animal is killed in a way which is both tragic and hilarious. People don't have the right accents. You're reading something and the cover appears with bold yellow letters in the Futura font. A narrator discusses your every move. You pass Owen Wilson, Jason Scwartzman and Bill Murray and think nothing of it. You're in a Wes Anderson film.
     Wes Anderson films are some of my favourites, not only because of the times they came into my life but because of the inventive style and themes which don't hide his problems but instead do their best to make up for them. Having seen all the films now, I wanted to put down my thoughts on my experiences with each of these varied and wonderful films, for better and for worse.
From Wikimedia

Bottle Rocket (1996)

Based on a short of the same name Anderson directed in 1994, Bottle Rocket is the debut of the Wilson Brothers Owen and Luke, the former now known mainly for wacky comedies. This was the last of Anderson's films that I saw, and what is immediately noticeable with hindsight is how simply normal the style is - the camerawork is more naturalistic and the characters distinctly more human. The tale of two friends, one attempting to become a career criminal and the other trying and failing to move away from that life, works mainly because of the brothers and their familial relationship.
      Although Wilson's directorial style is typically absent here, there are hints towards it development. The film ends with the first of Anderson's famous slow-mo scenes as Owen Wilson's character goes to prison. It's not a film I love, but I don't really hate it either, and it's fairly fun where it needs to be.

Rushmore (1998)

From Wikimedia
Rushmore is my least favourite Anderson film by a pretty wide margin, and is thus of course a critical darling. It's not that it isn't good - in place it's brilliant - it's just that I don't enjoy the way it was executed. Jason Schwartzman, another of Anderson's major collaborators, makes his d├ębut here in what is his most complex and thought-through performance as the central character Max Fischer, a brilliant-but-lazy fourteen year-old whose crush on nursery teacher Miss Cross (Olivia Williams) leads him into direct competition with tired industrialist Herman Blume (Bill Murray, in his first of many Anderson appearances.)
     Instead of developing any particular relationships, the film is focused entirely on the development of Max's character, from his ignorant and arrogant beginnings to what is hopefully (and deliberately ambiguously) more wise ending. His sparring with Blume ends up failing spectacularly in a fantastic scene which rips away the film's prior pretence of being a romantic comedy, with Williams' Cross tearing into both Max's adolescent sexual posturing and Blume's desperation. The rest of the film sees Max rebuilding the bridges he burnt with his barber father and the few classmates who actually liked him.
     The reason why I can't really watch this is for that first half, in which Max's personality is so grating that it makes the film difficult to watch. The implication at the end that the vast majority of his development has been for show doesn't make that any easier, and neither does this being the first example of Anderson's habit of giving children adult voices. It works here because it shows Max's precociousness and arrogant naivety, but in later films it stands out and adds a strange tone to proceedings, especially in films which focus on children as main characters.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
From Wikimedia
The archetypical Wes Anderson film, and by far the most well-known. It's the first with an all-star cast, as well as being the first which really displays the style Anderson is known for. Unlike his first two films, which could conceivably take place in our reality, Tenenbaums is the first which feels like it exists in a bizarre parallel world where everything has been subtly rearranged to be more whimsical. This also brings out another shade of Anderson's work in which dark themes take the wheel, even though humour and whimsy surround them.
      Following the decline and rise of the Tenenbaum Family, the family's many members and their respective backstories (explained in a long intro by narrator Alex Baldwin) means that there's something for everyone. The film's nature means that everyone is stained by tragedy - Richie by his failed career and life-long obsession with his adopted sister, Margot by her abandonment issues and eternal dissatisfaction, and Chet by the death of his wife and the obsession with health and safety that follows. This is all bound together by the film's central focus on patriarch Royal (Gene Hackman) and his attempts to bring his family back together by any means, even if that means that he has to change his character to do it.
     For me the film is in a weird place - I love the film's style and aesthetic, as well as its fantastic soundtrack. The dynamics of the Tenenbaum family are ridiculously enjoyable to watch - as is the liberal amounts of development that every single character gets in spades. Where I end up feeling a little awkward is during the film's depiction of suicide and the underlying misogyny that surrounds that entire issue. Mid-way through the film, Luke Wilson's Richie discovers that his adopted sister Margot has in her life had a string of lovers, and for a reason I can't fathom this drives him into a suicidal state which Margot later blames herself for. It's a stain on what is otherwise a fantastic film with some really warm themes.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)
From Wikimedia
Bill Murray is a prolific contributor to the Anderson oeuvre, and this film is his day in the lime-light. The Life Aquatic is a tribute/ripoff of the works of famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, who style and works are borrowed by Anderson to create a tale of redemption and loss. Critical reception to this film was terrible - it is thus, of course, one of my favourites. The main criticism of the film is that Anderson's direction and set design so often breaks with convention that it often becomes impossible to maintain the suspension of disbelief, but I think this is what the film wants, as it continually plays with the audience's expectations by comparing and contrasting with reality.
     Bill Murray is at his best when playing characters who are tired of life - this is true of more or less all of his Anderson appearances, with the possible exception of his cameos in The Darjeeling Limited and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Here though is where that performance gets to shine, as through the guise of defamed oceanographer Steve Zissou we see his cynicism develop to a fever pitch. At the same time, Wes Anderson gets in his daddy issues with the character of Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson playing against type), who believes himself (falsely, as we discover at the end) to be Zissou's son.
     Mark Mothersbaugh (who scored the first four Anderson films) adds to the film's distinct aesthetic with his score - half of which is Seu Jorge's brilliant Portuguese covers of David Bowie songs, some out-of-nowhere electropop and then the chilling Zombies b-side "The Way I Feel Inside" for Ned's death.
     It's tempting to call Wes Anderson the king of Daddy Issues, and this film is the middle of a trilogy in which those themes are at the forefront. The Life Aquatic instead focuses on isolation and, as is as also a common Anderson theme, the idea of lost glories. This is big in every Anderson film from The Royal Tenenbaums onwards, but here is where it first became the star focus.

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
From Wikimedia
My favourite Anderson film, and one that I can quite literally watch at any time without getting tired of it. Following a successful and critically loved short called Hotel Chevalier, Darjeeling follows three American brothers (Played by Owen Wilson, Adrian Brody and Jason Schwartzman) on a train-ride across rural India, meeting for the first time since their father's funeral and, initially unknown to the younger two brothers, on a quest to find their estranged mother (Anjelica Huston). Along the way they indulge in spiritual encounters, obstensibly to gain enlightenment but actually coming to learn more about each other and the reasons why they fell apart in the first place.
     Unlike most of the rest of Anderson's post-Bottle Rocket films, there's very little in way of presentation and pretention. Not to say that his style isn't everywhere, but there's no narration or bookmarks or grand storytelling. He lets the three leads play out their own characters in a series of confined spaces, eventually casting them out into the wilderness and bringing their shared neuroses to a head. It's quite odd to think that Anderson's most heartwarming and uplifting film centres almost entirely around a sequence of two funerals and two seperate abandonments. But it's about siblinghood and family and overcoming past differences in a way which, while still fairly bittersweet, is somewhat more positive than elsewhere in the ouevre. (Last time I'm gonna use that word, I promise.)

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
From Wikimedia
My first exposure to Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom came into my life at a time where I needed escapism, and escapism is what I got. The world of New Penzance and the associated islands are incredibly isolated, and this makes the adventures of Suzie Bishop and Sam Shakusky all the more influential on the islands' tired adult populace. On a surface level it's a story about two children breaking free from the shackles of society and falling in love with each other. On a deeper level, it's about the adults of the story realising that their lives could do with a bit more of the couple's childlike idealism.
      Also making Moonrise Kingdom so memorable is the first appearance in the collection by composer Alexandre Desplat (he's done so many scores it's not worth listing just a few of them), whose floaty original music is mixed in with a score heavy in the works of Benjamin Britten. The resulting score gives the film an ethereal atmosphere and underlines both the film's sense of adventure and its sense of nostalgia.
      My favourite performances in the film are those of Bruce Willis' exasperated Captain Sharp and Bill Murray in a role which makes Steve Zissou look like a beacon of positivity.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
From Wikimedia
Anderson's most recent production is one in which every single shot is an Andersonism. It is, visually, an exquisitely constructed piece of artistry, in which every single shot has some great artistic reference (or simply looks pretty.) At the same time as maintaining this aesthetic, it also presents a continual mix of maddash comedy stylings and a great, all-imposing melancholy which encroaches on the film from beginning to end. There's no character development as in other Anderson films - instead, we examine a series of continual, domino-esque falls from grace as the eponymous hotel and the great figures associated with it each move past their golden eras.
      The result is a breathless film, as beautiful as it is horrifying, as funny as it is morose. Desplat's score not only enforces the film's strange omni-European roots, but also drives home the various styles of fashion and music that the film passes through as it flashes back and forth between the present and various decades of the 20th Century. Both Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori's lead characters are eccentric individuals with coloured pasts and a deep layer of sadness beneath their exteriors, and the relationship that develops between them (less father-son this time, at last) is a joy to behold, even when it ends up having tragic consequences. It's a beautiful film and, despite the very bitter end to its tale, it's an experience that's worth having. It's the pinacle of what Wes Anderson has acheived.


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