Filmmaker Retrospective: The Idiosyncratic Cinema of Wes Anderson
The penultimate scene in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, represents what audiences feel when they look on the screen, and see the beautiful visual perfection of fusion of a specifically chosen palette of colours, whilst hearing Jeff Goldblum saying “That’s him Klaus” but instead of referring to the shark, he is referring to Wes Anderson.
Anderson’s world has become something beyond the screen, and it has infiltrated our world very subtly, until last year, when the world woke up to the majestic beauty of Monsieur Gustave’s hotel in The Grand Budapest Hotel, and finally looked behind the camera to find this shy, idiosyncratic intellectual with a 60’s haircut, who goes by the name of Wes Anderson.
Most of Anderson’s influences and inspirations are usually very clear in his movies. His unique visual style has been repeatedly labelled as very nostalgic, but in reality most of this nostalgia revolves around one era; the late sixties, and early seventies.
In The Grand Budapest Hotel the story is being narrated by Zero Moustafa in 1968, in Moonrise Kingdom, the story is set in 1965, in The Royal Tenenbaums young Margot listens to a 1968 Rolling Stones album, which lies on her bed, plus the rest of the narration of the children’s childhood is filled with props that ring 60’s and 70’s, including their clothes (a good example of this style of clothing and even decorating in general, would be Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby).
A director who famously admires Wes Anderson, and who used the pop aura of this period in his own movies, is Martin Scorsese, and the most simple yet blatantly visible influence of Scorsese on Anderson, is the use of slow motion in his movies, alongside some music from late 60’s bands such as The Who, The Kinks and The Rolling Stones.
Another director who is a direct consistent influence on Anderson is Stanley Kubrick. Anderson’s shots are praised for their perfect use of centred frame and the one point perspective. Obviously, as he himself admitted in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, this is a direct influence from Kubrick’s mastering of this technique.
One only has to look at the peculiar use of this technique in any of Anderson’s movies, and at the unique way the tracking shots are used, such as in the inside of the Bishop house in Moonrise Kingdom, and the inside of the hotel in Kubrick’s The Shining.
To look at Anderson’s work in development, is to look at any other director’s work, yet with Anderson, there is a certain consistency in the filming techniques, which is much clearer than any other director’s, and whilst it is easier to notice, one can enjoy it almost effortlessly. This does not apply however to his characters, who are beautiful to look at, fun to listen to, but immensely hard to understand their intricacy.
They give the impression of simplicity, straightforwardness and plainness, when in reality the straight tone with which they respond one another, especially in films like The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, leaves the viewers with a smile on their face, yet a doubt in their mind, that there was something beyond what has just been said.
In this observation, we’ll advance through Wes Anderson’s world in these past 20 years of film making from his debut of Bottle Rocket to the his latest movie The Grand Budapest Hotel.
1. Bottle Rocket (1996)
Wes Anderson’s debut film was originally released as a short in 1994. This short version of Bottle Rocket, is very essential to understanding Anderson’s influences, as the film is just overflowing with that fresh radical aura of the French Nouvelle Vague, especially when accompanied by Jazz music from the likes of Chet Baker and Vince Guaraldi (the latter also shows Anderson’s love for the Peanuts television cartoon, particularly shown in this short and The Royal Tenenbaums when he uses two tracks specifically written by Guaraldi for their Christmas special).
Moving onto the feature-length movie, Anderson’s establishing of his visual style his very personal characters and their unique way of dialogue, was strikingly portrayed very simplistically, by two untrained actors, mainly; Owen and Luke Wilson and their ‘pointless’ adventure, somewhere in Texas.
The plot develops as these two friends, Dignan and Anthony, ‘break into’ the latter’s house, with a list of things to steal. They continue to do these kinds of amateur heists, along with a new acquaintance; Bob Mapplethorpe, until eventually they plan a reasonable one which actually needs some skill.
Here, Anderson wittingly manages to portray this robbery as still being very amateur and foolish, even though the characters take it seriously. The robbery ends up as a complete Dog-Day-Afternoon flop.
The character of the hard-headed yet loveable Dignan, really stands out in the movie and is most probably one of the strongest reasons why the movie has such a cult following. He has somewhat childish mannerisms, especially contrasted to Anthony who due to certain issues has matured and sees life more realistically.
The title in itself has the characters set up before hand, as Anderson himself says, “[bottle rockets] are so hard to control and so poorly made. They are the kind of thing that could catch a garage on fire, but a neighbour with a garden hose could put it out.”
Note: Interesting fact is, Andrew Wilson, (Luke’s and Owen’s older in real life) plays the role of Future Man, Bob’s older brother.
2. Rushmore (1998)
A nostalgic trip down memory lane of the director’s own high school, Rushmore allowed Anderson to explore the plot of this new innovative movie in familiar grounds, which was of great help to its construction, as he himself said, he could picture the scenes in his head on their actual location. This movie also marked two very important friendships of Anderson; Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman.
A very memorable anecdote of the making of this movie is Schwartzman’s audition for the part, for which he went wearing a home-made blazer to look the part, which Anderson loved and actually used for the film. In Murray’s case, Anderson wanted him to play the part, but he “didn’t think it was realistic” to think that the production could get him.
As the new teacher Rosemary Cross is assigned to Rushmore, Max Fischer’s life turns its attention from the constant activities of the academy to the new teacher. Fischer (played by Schwartzman) is involved in everything around the academy, from Stamp and Coin Club vice-president, to founder of the Astronomy Society.
Meanwhile, Herman Blume (played by Murray), Rushmore’s benefactor, visits the academy, as his own youthful energy seems to have faded, and he is curious as how Max is in every single club in the academy, and he manages to keep up with everything. Blume also starts to fall for Cross, and eventually a newly started friendship between Fischer and Blume, turns into a revenge battle for the new teacher.
Anderson has personally stated that his main influences for this movie were Nichols’ The Graduate (1967) and Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971), as the mutual idea is of the young man falling in love with an older woman.
There also seems to be a kind of reference, to Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973), as Max walks out on the stage with a bouquet, we see the stage behind him set like something out of that movie, especially with the catholic priest, the actor dressed up very similar to De Niro and the alley background behind the windows.
3. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
This movie was Anderson’s most detailed and intricate movie yet, helping him establish his visual style to a further step, which set the Wes Anderson mise-en-scéne.
Many people believe that Rushmore was the movie that set the aura of Wes, but in reality Rushmore’s setting developed because of the style which revolved around the characters more than that of the set and location, whilst with The Royal Tenenbaums the characters and the scene behind them were very much connected, especially in the Tenenbaum house, and most particularly, their rooms.
The plot revolves around these two brothers and their sister, whose ingenious achievements in their youth, eventually cam to an end, and their lives were transformed into complete disaster. As their laissez-faire father; Royal (played by Gene Hackman) gets divorced from his wife (played by Angelica Huston), his life too, reaches a point of success, and as he descends into bankruptcy, he returns to the house asking his wife to stay for a while.
She, on the other hand, is seeing a friend of hers, and this scares Royal, as he wanted to prevent his old house from ending up belonging to some other man. As the story develops, we see the family struggling to live once again under the same roof. It embodies Andersons’s recurring idea of family problems, and it carefully examines the notion of the mystique around the lives of people who are labelled as geniuses.
One of the movie’s most interesting aspect is its delicately chosen soundtrack, featuring songs of Paul Simon, Nico, The Velvet Underground, and Nick Drake, which help construct the melancholy aura of the characters, and the events which take place around them.
There is a strong (probably the strongest from any of Anderson’s movies) nostalgic feeling around everything which is connected to the Tenenbaum family, and an underlying idea of the golden age of the 60’s compared (their youth) compared to the depreciating period of the 80’s (the time in which the film seems to be set in).
4. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)
Based around the famous French oceanographer, Jean Jacques Cousteau, this Anderson film is one of the most loved and celebrated movie from his repertoire, having a wonderful variation of beautifully filmed locations, and a palette of wonderfully coloured scenes and clothes, giving it a sense of nostalgic, yet very fresh look.
With Bill Murray’s stunning performance as Steve Zissou, an oceanographer who wishes to avenge a ‘Jaguar Shark’ for the killing of his best friend, whilst dealing with his first encounter with his son (Owen Wilson), and his relationship with his wife, Zissou remains one of the most iconic Anderson characters. He feels like an Anderson character just as Royal Tennenbaum (Gene Hackman) feels like an Anderson character.
The apathy of Zissou towards everything else except the killing of the shark makes the character extremely interesting, and the rest of the crew’s dedication to this avenging expedition, gives it a sense of brotherly loyalty, especially between Zissou and Klaus (Willem Dafoe).
The plot develops with Zissou’s search for this shark, transforming his usual scientific approach, to a hunting approach, and eventually, in a beautifully filmed sequence, we see his realisation of the beauty of this shark, and his true love of his work, overtake his instinctive anger.
When compared to other of Wes’ previous and even later movies, and keeping in mind that it is a comedy, it has a fascinating underlying tone of melancholy, which is only put away for the final shark sequence, as every character’s individual problems and thoughts, are all swept aside, by this Wordsworthian notion, as they are mesmerized, by the natural beauty of the aquatic animal.
Aesthetically the film looks and feels brilliant, and one has to keep in mind the difficulties encountered by the production to film on sea, which, according to Wes himself, is one of the hardest things to do in film. For the first time we also see Wes Anderson’s use of stop-motion, for a few specific aquatic shots and sequences, which was in fact his introduction to the art, and as we’ll see later, he developed a whole movie through it.
Another interesting feature of this film, is its soundtrack, especially with Seu Jorge playing Bowie hits in Portuguese live on the Belafonte – Zissou’s ship – and (another mention of the final Jaguar Shark scene) the use of Sigur Ros’ beautiful unique sound, which captures the aura of the astonishment of the characters, with the creature in front of them.
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