Wes Anderson is probably the most discussed director of the last few years. Like most indie directors gone mainstream, he’s amassed a large amount of detractors. Most of their complaints revolve around the fact that he does exactly the same thing, over and over again. While acknowledging that complain as a flagrant oversimplification, we could as ourselves: isn’t that what auteurs do?
His themes and technique have been studied to exhaustion. From the use of colour, symmetry, camera angles, to the themes of childhood and melancholy. Wes has a very distinct style, which in part accounts for how easy it is to find patterns in his work.
Things get harder when you’re looking under the surface for what makes his work so widely accepted as authorial. The text that follows tries to uncover some of the more neglected recurrences in technique and thematic.
1. New Addition to a Recurrent Cast
If you close your eyes and try to give a face to Wes Anderson’s movies, you’ll probably see one of these: Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Kumar Pallana and son, Anjelica Houston, Adrien Brody, or Owen and Luke Wilson. If you’re more familiar with his recent movies, Tilda Swinton and Edward Norton might pop-up.
Directors like Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Akira Kurosawa, or the Coen brothers surround themselves with familiar actors. They create a work and artistic relationship, which usually pays dividends for a number of movies and then go their separate ways.
While the use of recurrent actors is certainly associated with Wes, it has a particularity. His favourite actors usually have one or two main roles, and give way to new collaborators, moving into the red and yellow background.
Think of Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revelori, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, George Clooney and Meryl Streep. These actors joined the well-defined ensemble cast Wes put together, and they did it as protagonists, bringing new faces to the mix.
Owen Wilson, Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman had two big roles each, but populated the director’s universe as secondary characters. The actors who play secondary characters return, too. Willem Dafoe, Kumar Pallana and Seymour Cassel are the most recognizable.
By creating this recurrent ensemble cast, Wes Anderson creates a sense of familiarity. A sense of family. Most of his movies reunite all of them by the end. In way they’re saying, “We’re still here!”, like families do.
2. Unorthodox Idea of Family
While the ensemble cast creates a sense of familiarity in the spectator, there’s a broader idea of family that Wes works with repeatedly. Most characters are, in one way or another, outsiders. They all seek to belong somewhere, usually among small communities that replace an orthodox family.
In “The Royal Tenenbaums” it is found within traditional family paradigms, but only if your last name starts with a “T”. Not for Eli Cash, the character played by Owen Wilson. He was a family friend who envied their dynamic and tried desperately to feel included. He famously said “I’ve always wanted to be a Tenenbaum”. Wes Anderson had a very similar experience, and identified with that aspect of Eli.
In “Bottle Rocket” Dignam attempts to find the family he lacks among a gang of maintenance crew/robbers. “Rushmore” is a temporary replacement for a family. The Belafonte crew. The underground community of “Fantastic Mr. Fox”. Khaki scouts and police department. Hotel.
“Darjeeling” is the only true exception to this rule. Even so, the Whitman family amounts only to the Whitman brothers, isolated from their absent mother and mourning their dead father.
Continuously, Wes Anderson explores the frailty of traditional family values and connection. He shares this with the American post-modernist writer Kurt Vonnegut. Much like Wes, Vonnegut travelled for long periods of time. The unconventional idea of family that Wes develops in his movies has strong similarities with Kurt Vonnegut’s idea of extended families:
“Well, I am used to the rootlessness that goes with my profession. But I would like people to be able to stay in one community for a lifetime, to travel away from it to see the world, but always to come home again,…Until recent times, you know, human beings usually had a permanent community of relatives. They had dozens of homes to go to.
So when a married couple had a fight, one or the other could go to a house three doors down and stay with a close relative until he was feeling tender again. Or if a kid was so fed up with his parents that he couldn’t stand it, he could march over his uncle’s for a while. And this is no longer possible. Each family is locked into its little box. The neighbours aren’t relatives. There aren’t other houses where people can go and be cared for.”
3. Father Figures
A little research reveals that the Wes Anderson’s parents divorced at a very young age, hastening his teen angst period. Throughout the director’s filmography there’s a constant search for a strong male figure, a role model, a father – literal or figuratively. Someone whose attention, even if they have died, his characters always seem to be looking for.
Since Mr. Henry in his first movie all the way through to M. Gustave in “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, in every single movie, a male character is either resolving issues with a dead or absent father figure, or seeking the love and attention of an alive one. It would appear that almost 40 years later, Wes Anderson is still coping through his art.
4. Planimetric Composition
While the formalism of the Texan director has been thoroughly analysed, the emphasis has fallen mostly on the colour palettes that characterize its different movies, the symmetry of his shots and his use of “god’s eye view” angle – the camera lens looks down, perpendicular to the subject, usually objects. Kogonada made two brilliant supercuts about these last two.
Another less known characteristic of the formalism of Wes is the use of what David Bordwell calls “planimetric composition.” This type of composition is fairly uncommon. One of its pioneers was Jean-Luc Gordard, a big influence in Wes Anderson work. Bordwell describes it saying “the camera stands perpendicular to a rear surface, usually a wall.
The characters are strung across the frame like clothes on a line. Sometimes they’re facing us, so the image looks like people in a police line-up (…) the planimetric scheme is well-suited to a “painterly” or strongly pictorial approach to cinema.”
The evocation of childhood themes and feeling in his movies come partly from this approach. Aligning one or more characters with the lenses pointed perpendicularly at the background dwarfs them. It encloses them in this boxed, geometrical world. I suggest reading Bordwell’s article for an in-depth analysis on this authorial trait.
5. The Use of Sound and Music
Wes Anderson loves the inherent nostalgia of 70’s rock music. It makes for most of his movies’ soundtrack, along with the work of composers Mark Mothersbaugh and Alexandre Desplat.
One interesting thing Wes does with these songs is to use them to characterize characters, actions and locations. In “The Grand Budapest Hotel” the Degoff und Taxis, Jopling, Zero, or the army have themes associated with them. Not only the characters wear distinctive clothes and accessories, they also are branded by their own song.
Another recurrence in the use of sound is the attribution of extra-diegetic (sound that happens outside the sphere of the narrative) sound to objects or movements. In Rushmore, Max opens “Diving for Sunken Treasure”, a book on marine archaeology. When he stares at it, something very interesting that happens: the sounds of ocean waves and birds chirping flood the screen. Sea and birds are not in the frame, nor close.
This happens again and again. More often than not, as a form of colourful punctuation. In “The Royal Tenembaums” every time characters are presented through books, sounds correspondent to their atmosphere are played. In “The Grand Budapest Hotel” comical sounds are added to characters movement. Henkle’s entrance in the train is an example of that.
He also consistently turns diegetic music into extra-diegetic. Characters turn music on and, after a cut or a scene break, only the spectators are privy to it.
6. Action AFTER the Inciting Incident
While there are many dramatic moments in the films of Wes Anderson, they rarely surpass the intensity of the stories’ trigger. Something traumatic happens either off-screen or as a preemptive flashback. The narrative revolves around the characters dealing with the ways in which that event affects them. The trauma is usually mentioned once or twice, and is rarely on-screen.
These incidents vary between mental breakdown, betrayal, divorce, or pregnancy. Parents or friends or lovers or everybody dies, and it all happens before the timeline of the main story. “Rushmore”, Wes Anderson’s second film, features Max dealing with his mother’s death, Mrs. Cross dealing with her husband’s death, and Mr. Blume with his wife’s betrayal. We might miss that these are the forces that determine the events of the story, because they all happened before the initial credits.
Only the pool scene gives a tiny hint that Mr. Blume is being cheated on. The movie barely alludes to the death of Max’s mother, with a scene where he’s using a typewriter with the inscription “Bravo, Max! Love, mother.” And not much more is said of the death of Edward Appleby, Mrs. Cross’ late husband.
We might take this for subtlety, but this consistency in later movies showed that Wes simply prefers to explore and understand how these characters deal with these traumatic events in the long term, than to show the initial experiencing of pain.