by matt zoller seitz?
abrams, 336 pages, $40
Wes Anderson is one of the most vital, personal, and distinctive American filmmakers of his generation, an exacting auteur whose florid signature blazes across his work. Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Grand Budapest Hotel present a gorgeously realized, slightly unreal world in which the compositional glee of Busby Berkeley sets off both the urgent intimacy of the French New Wave and the wounded ironic wariness characteristic of the American children of 1970s divorce. Anderson’s aesthetic is fully formed, and he has acolytes as devoted to him as he is to his craft. Yielding to the sensibility of an all-controlling obsessive has its pleasures.
But how much real feeling underlies the artifice? Once I asked Anderson to respond to the charge that his movies are twee, cute, overdesigned but undercooked. Do they contain too much diorama and not enough drama? “Who’s saying that?” he said, his hackles raised. But whether he likes it or not, it’s his visual style—his sets, costumes, camera movements, and props—that most critics talk about. Wrote Robbie Collin in the Telegraph, “Two of the phrases you always hear, whether people are praising Anderson’s films or dismissing them, are ‘doll’s house’ and ‘pop-up book.’”
In our chat, a few years ago, I also asked Anderson why his films were so often about lost boys trying to reconnect with elusive father figures. “I don’t know,” he said. “Ever thought about it?” I pressed. “Yep,” he said. The door to the vault swung closed.
So we’ll have to sift through the brilliant, irritating, precise, fussy, sumptuous, insufferable, original, repetitious films to learn what, if anything, Anderson means for us to take away from them. Maybe it’s simply their Anderson-ness. Asked why he liked the filmmaker Pedro Almodovar, Anderson told me, “It’s just his personality I respond to, and we really know him from these movies. They couldn’t be more personal.”
Anderson’s films bubble with his personality. Even if you turned off the sound, you could identify an Anderson film from just a few scenes, maybe even a few moments. Again and again, actors positioned like still lives at the exact center of the frame give a deadpan stare directly into the camera. Curtains and other self-consciously stagey elements are frequently deployed. Meticulously ordered spaces are laid out with hyper-real props that seem equally to spoof and celebrate a given motif (1960s ocean exploration documentaries, ’30s grand hotel farce, naturalistic color-desaturated French films). And his camera rolls briskly across it all, even gliding through rooms or between floors of his cine-dollhouses.
Wes Anderson sometimes seems more an interior decorator than a storyteller. Look can substitute for passion. Some, like Camilla Long, of Britain’s Sunday Times, would say it usually does. Upon seeing Anderson’s eighth feature, The Grand Budapest Hotel, she wrote, “I am tired of the fact that he would rather show a pair of flying goggles than real emotions such as love or jealousy or anger or hate. The last time one of his characters convincingly fell in love was 16 years ago, when Max Fischer met Miss Cross in ‘Rushmore.’”
It could be said of Anderson that his movies are so enclosed and self-referential that they’re the cinematic version of a coffee table book about coffee table books. Now we have an actual coffee table book on the filmmaker: The Wes Anderson Collection, which consists of photos from the sets and interviews conducted by critic Matt Zoller Seitz. Its introduction, written by Michael Chabon, is the most elegant defense of Anderson I’ve seen.
For Chabon, the Anderson artifice is a virtue. He rules Anderson’s detractors guilty of “the implication, simple-minded and profoundly mistaken, that a high degree of artifice is somehow inimical to seriousness, to honest emotion, to so-called authenticity. All movies, of course, are equally artificial: it’s just that some are more honest about it than others. In this important sense, the hand-built, model-kit artifice on display behind the pane of an Anderson box is a guarantor of authenticity; indeed, I would argue that artifice, openly expressed, is the only true ‘authenticity’ an artist can lay claim to.”
A clever defense of Anderson but built on a false premise. Not all movies feel equally artificial. Film is uniquely able to mimic reality, or to create an all-enveloping fantasy, and the most skilled filmmakers frequently devote themselves to sustaining illusion. Making illusion-making the subject can feel like a step backward, the sort of thing that doesn’t serve the audience with a story so much as beg it to spare a thought for the artist’s lonely struggle. Instead of providing us with a window upon his characters’ motivations, Anderson decorates the window with tchotchkes and ruffles. As Los Angeles Times critic Betsy Sharkey said of The Grand Budapest Hotel, “it will take a thousand watchings to take in every delicious morsel. Best start now.” Don’t fret about the thin characters, the limp drama, or the broad comedy. Instead, admire the effort that went into the filmmaking.
So the films draw us in, yet they are in a sense frustratingly distant, shielded by a darling little picket fence of irony. It can be tricky to break through, to identify what Anderson is actually saying rather than how he is saying it. Like Dave Eggers (born 1970) and Douglas Coupland (1961), both of whom share the filmmaker’s obsession with design, wistful fixation on childhood, and tragicomic tone, Anderson (1969) seems to retreat into irony defensively, as into a hall of mirrors. Reach out if you like, but you won’t be able to grab hold of anything. You’ll just be mocked by a voice saying, “Fooled you, that isn’t me.”
Here’s Anderson’s own cinematographer Tristan Oliver, from the delightful stop-motion animation film Fantastic Mr. Fox, discussing why Anderson directed the London-based production from his apartment in Paris: “I think he’s a little O.C.D. Contact with people disturbs him. This way, he can spend an entire day locked inside an empty room with a computer. He’s a bit like the Wizard of Oz. Behind the curtain.”
Anderson fired back, “I would say that kind of crosses the line for what’s appropriate for the director of photography to say behind the director’s back while he’s working on the movie. So I don’t even want to respond to it.”
For a non-response, that was fairly responsive—prickly, betrayed, even melodramatic. Yet compare Oliver’s take on Anderson with Anderson’s take on Anderson (on NPR, regarding The Grand Budapest Hotel): “The editing . . . and the construction of the sets and the design of the sets, even if it’s on location—this is all carefully planned. . . . But the actors—I feel like what happens is we all get together, they come on the set and then it’s just chaos, and they take over and it goes one way or another.”
To sum up: people—eek!
In The Wes Anderson Collection, the filmmaker tells Seitz why Rear Window is his favorite Hitchcock film. “Never leaving the apartment. Filming them only from across the way. Some of the other people who live there, you never see them close at all. . . . You spend a lot of time watching them, but only from across the way.” The affinity for distance is almost chilling.
It was of course disingenuous of Anderson to imply, in our interview, that he hadn’t heard of anyone saying the movies are more decoratively than narratively rich. On the director’s commentary track of the Criterion Collection edition of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the 2004 film that lost the Walt Disney Co. many millions of dollars, he says, or confesses, “I always feel very uncomfortable talking about people’s costumes and wallpaper and things because I feel like the thing I get accused of is putting too much into those things and somehow it distracts and takes away from the rest of the movie.” Then he resumes talking about the bits and bobs, the frills and trifles, the red knit caps and the two-tone blue uniforms, the omnipresent one-man Greek chorus singing David Bowie compositions in Portuguese. (Of this last gesture, which encapsulates Anderson perfectly in its balance of ostentation, oddness, and a wounded soulfulness that could be denied if necessary, he notes that it’s “woven through the whole movie. I wonder why?” If he doesn’t know, how should we?)
Even when it seems undisciplined, though, Anderson’s artistic imagination is marvelous and potent. Plucking from here and there—his commentaries on the DVDs are catalogs of hundreds of other films and books and objects and friends from whom he borrowed—Anderson devises something uniquely and extravagantly his own. He takes care of his audience, gives our eyes and ears a cosseting worthy of his cutely domineering The Grand Budapest Hotel concierge figure, played by Ralph Fiennes. No one ever says of Anderson “he phoned it in” or “that was just like last season’s film.” He is worth the price of admission.
But compare his long, fluid, tracking shots to Stanley Kubrick’s. Kubrick, so often called clinical or cold, tended to place his dollies so as to penetrate into his densely imagined worlds. Anderson’s dolly shots tend to run parallel to the action, aloof. It’s emblematic of a larger cultural trend. Anderson’s fellow Gen-X ironist Bret Easton Ellis made “We’ll slide down the surface of things” the hypnotic, creepy refrain of his 1998 novel Glamorama.
In Ellis, ironic distance frequently slides into alienation and psychosis, whereas in Anderson it becomes a cheerful shrug. This can come across as a lack of feeling. When, in The Grand Budapest Hotel, the film’s central concierge character is shot by a firing squad of whimsically Andersonized Nazis (the SS become the ZZs, for Zig-Zags), the event happens off-screen and recedes further to the background by being described, briefly and without much emotion, decades later.
Climax is afterthought in The Grand Budapest Hotel, something striking in a film that is relatively saturated with events, at least for an Anderson effort. (Of his rejected pitch for a James Bond movie, the director told Entertainment Weekly it would have been “called Mission: Deferred” and his concept was “The cold war is over, and there’s no gig . . . and the gadgetry is like he has a great coffee machine.”)
From the films, it appears that losing his father, Mel, to divorce at an early age (Anderson never talks about the incident in detail, and various references are in conflict about exactly what happened and when) is the key ingredient to his art. “Fathers and father figures . . . seem to always come up,” he mused, with understatement, in the DVD commentary to Life Aquatic. Anderson is at his best when he sticks to his central subject, which is childhood and its defeats and discoveries, its arrogance and, most critically, its limitless capacity for feeling. There isn’t an ounce of feeling in The Grand Budapest Hotel.
But in Max Fischer’s daffy quest to win Miss Cross by pretending he was in a car accident in Rushmore, in Ash’s desperation to capture his father Mr. Fox’s attention with a series of death-defying stunts in Fantastic Mr. Fox, in the adolescent not-quite-lovers’ longing to create a new reality while dancing to a French record on a beach in Moonrise Kingdom, in Richie and Margot Tenenbaum’s trying to recreate their youthful bond while listening to “Ruby Tuesday” in a tent pitched inside their house—these moments are beautiful, funny, and strange. They’re also resonant, endearing, intoxicating. They’re like memories colored and improved by fancy. Composition and mise-en-scène become conduits for emotion instead of barriers to it. And it’s emotion, not technique, that drives us to the movies.
Kyle Smith is film critic for the New York Post.