Publish Our Love: Wes Anderson

Wednesday, July 10, 2019 - 6:44pm

Design by Kathryn Halverson

Design by Kathryn Halverson Buy this photo
.

“You can never publish my love,” Rogue Wave chants, in the song that the title of this series riffs on. Maybe that’s true, and we can never quite account for our love on paper or in print, but we sure can try. That’s what this series is devoted to: publishing our love. Us, the Arts section of The Michigan Daily, talking about artists, some of the people we love the most. Perhaps these are futile approximations of love for the poet who told us we deserve to be heard, the director who changed the way we see the world, the singer we see as an old friend. But who ever said futile can’t still be beautiful?

[An homage to David Foster Wallace’s “David Lynch Keeps his Head.”]

1. WHO THIS ARTICLE IS ABOUT

To date, Writer/Director Wes Anderson has made nine feature films, four short films and three highly stylized commercials. He has been nominated for seven Oscars — those being two for Best Animated Feature, three for Best Original Screenplay and one each of Best Picture and Best Director — though he has won none. A Wes Anderson piece is known by its unique pastel, tableaux style and its melancholic, deadpan humor. Anderson has been referred to as one of the few actively working ‘auteurs,’ a term associated with historic filmmakers like Mike Nichols, Luis Buñuel and Jean-Luc Goddard.

1(A). THE FOOTNOTE FOR SECTION 1

The three directors listed as examples of ‘auteurs’ were chosen only half-arbitrarily, each of these three artists having lent something to Anderson’s films somewhere over the course of his twenty-six-year career. A hundred names of filmmakers from the last seventy years could have been swapped in or swapped out to fit this label. Auteur is a fairly vaunted title, but it’s really just a fancy way to describe a filmmaker who is intimately involved in the entire creative process, from the very inception of the idea to the last cuts in post-production — an artist who retains a near autocratic level of control over all aspects of the film. The term originated in the sixties during the French New Wave as a way to classify directors who operated outside the Hollywood establishment, though this particular distinction has been all but lost over the years.

2. ENTERTAINMENTS WES ANDERSON HAS MADE THAT ARE MENTIONED IN THIS ARTICLE

“Bottle Rocket” (1996), “Rushmore” (1998), “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001), “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (2004), “Hotel Chevalier” (2007), “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007), “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009), “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012), “CASTELLO CAVALCANTI” (2013), “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014), “Come Together” (2016) “Isle of Dogs” (2018)

3. THE DIRECTOR’S BACKGROUND AND OTHER WIKIPEDIA-ISH STUFF

Wes Anderson was born in Houston, Texas in 1969 to an archeologist and a father who worked in advertising. His parents separated and divorced when he was eight years old, the event deeply affecting the young boy. Anderson made silent films with his dad’s Super 8 camera as a child, using his friends and brothers as cast and crew. Anderson attended the University of Texas at Austin after graduating high school. There he pursued a philosophy degree while working part time as a cinema projectionist.

At school he took as many play-writing classes as he had time for, meeting his future creative partner Owen Wilson in one of these classes in his second year. Anderson and Wilson became roommates, bonding over their love for directors like Cassavetes, Malick and Huston, as well as their shared desire to create. The duo made their first short film “Bottle Rocket” together in 1993, when Anderson was twenty-four. The short made it to Sundance, word-of-mouth eventually landing them a five-million-dollar deal for their first feature by the same name.

Anderson has an older brother Mel who works as a physician, and a younger brother Eric who works as a writer and artist. Eric’s paintings have appeared in many of his brother’s films, most notably as the watercolor movie-poster for Anderson’s second film, “Rushmore.” Anderson married Lebanese writer Juman Malouf in 2010. The couple had a daughter, Freya, in 2016. Anderson has lived in Paris for many years.

4. THE PART THAT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE THE WHOLE ARTICLE

“Fantastic Mr. Fox” came out when I was ten years old, and I probably saw it a year or two afterward. I remember finding it to be mostly strange and off-putting. The taxidermy-like puppets and their off-kilter family banter was a departure from the easily comedic Aardman Claymation film’s I’d adored as a kid (specific devotion paid to “Chicken Run” and “Wallace and Gromit: A Grand Day Out”). And though I don’t think I immediately got it, “Mr. Fox” had my curiosity piqued. I got the sense that this kids movie trusted me a little more as a viewer, that there was more to this fantastical forest than I could then see — there was a dramatic texture to the movie that most family flicks go without. Having gorged myself on two “Toy Story” movies and a “Shrek” sequel, I was left forever waiting for the “Mr. Fox” sequel that never came.

I ran into Anderson next at the 2015 Academy Awards, where “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was nominated for nine Oscars, winning four. I was reluctant to stay up late, knowing I’d be tired at school the next day, but I couldn’t pull myself away from the screen. What was this funny looking pink-and-purple comedy that kept getting nominated next to “Whiplash” and “Birdman?” Considering myself to be a high-brow ticket-buyer at the time, I stuck to Iñárritu and didn’t explore “Grand Budapest” any further.

Two years later, during my senior year of high school I made a documentary for a C-SPAN student competition. My team and I were struck by how creative the previous year’s winner had been with her film (my then, and continued, understanding of C-SPAN as synonymous with parched). Convinced we needed to spice our direction up a bit, we hunted for fresh inspiration. It was a piece of algorithmic, targeted-marketing, divine intervention that brought to my YouTube feed the H&M commercial “Come Together” that Anderson had made that year (that week, even). I was instantly enamored, watching “Come Together” and his previous Prada advertisement “CASTELLO CAVALCANTI” on repeat the rest of the school day. I showed both the films to my documentary co-conspirators and suddenly we had our muse. That was a Monday. By Saturday night I had watched every Anderson film, short and advert to date.

4(A). WHY THIS TYPE OF ARTICLE MAKES ME UNCOMFORTABLE

I’ve found trying to nail down exactly why something is/was important to me is a tall order. I was surprised by this. I didn’t think it would be all that different to what I’ve written before, but designing this article was difficult, a frustrating process for me. I think the exercise of repackaging into tight, punchy sentences my admiration for an artist that has sprawled out of control makes me nervous that I’m going to leave something out, or not do that admiration justice. I pity my friends, family and associates who had to live through my Anderson phase, as it was all-consuming. It was quotes and Wes-only chit-chat and a subconscious structured in planimetrically framed dolly slides — I fanboyed to an embarrassing extent. Wrapping that all up into a nice little article-essay feels like a mountainous task, fear of misrepresenting both the artist and the late 2016/early 2017 version of myself always looming large.

I also have doubts about how worthy of an article my affection is. When planning this article out, I was anxious about the threat of hiding the artist too much, when, really, I think this should be about them. I feel much more comfortable writing a piece about the reasons for my affection toward a work of art rather than the affection itself. The end goal, I think, is to motivate someone else to give it a try. So, maybe, if they’re lucky, they’ll have a similar experience to mine. Then the purest, most sincere version of this article is probably one line: Go watch “The Royal Tenenbaums.” Experience it for yourself. Walk into it with an open mind, and maybe you’ll find your entire sense of what a movie is/can be changed by the time you read “Directed by Wes ANDERSON.” 

4(B). A POSSIBLE SECOND READING TO SECTION 4(A)

I’m having difficulty writing this article about how much I like Wes Anderson (for evidence, see the fact that I had to rip-off/homage this ridiculous essay structure from DFW to be able to get the words to even come out) because if writing this article was easy, I would feel like a bit of a fraud of a fanatic. I hope to “publish my love” by talking mainly about all the aspects of an Anderson film I find so compelling — so compelling to see, to hear and to feel — in the hope that I can pay forward all the joy that his work has brought me. I’ve never been very good about talking/writing about my emotions, so this seemed like a good middle ground.

5. A QUICK SKETCH OF WES ANDERSON’S VISUAL DEVELOPMENT

Since “Tenenbaums” in 2001, no working director has cultivated a more distinct visual style than Anderson, and you could count on the fingers of your right hand the ones who’ve come close. I’ve always been struck by his ability to bring all his many stylistic features together in such a cohesive, breathless fashion. Anderson’s look has never felt forced. I get the sense that he really does see the world this way.

Anderson’s visuals have only gotten more Andersonian over the years. From the start, he’s appeared a director in love with a tableau shot, preferably one set against a flat background with as many of his characters included as possible. He prefers to work in horizontal space, looking on to his subject from one side, giving the audience a sense of the width of his worlds. I find that this locked, single direction perspective gives the movies the feeling of drama on stage — sometimes a grand pantomime, sometimes a grave drama. “Bottle Rocket” shows wisps of these future visual trademarks, but none of the flourishes are executed with the acute precision that would show face a decade and a half later. “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore” are certainly the most industry standard in the Anderson catalogue. They generally lack the color palette of his later films, and you can tell that they were imagined with the tighter budget of a new director in mind. The three live-action features of the twenty-aughts are similar in their visual ambition, “Zissou” and “Darjeeling” the start of the continued tradition of Anderson films taking place overseas.

Anderson’s first animated feature, “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” is the film that’s gone the furthest to distill the director’s visual style. In a way, Anderson’s direction has always been built for animation, the filmmaking genre that gives the director the most complete control over their subject. To show his team of animators exactly how he wanted the clay puppet cast of “Mr. Fox” to move, Anderson made a series of videos of himself, essentially walking the team through the entire script. In animation, Anderson’s ability to dictate the design of the miniature sets gave him a command of color he’d never had before. This eye for the film’s palette has continued on in both of his post-Fox live-action films, “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Grand Budapest.” 

Other parts of the animation process have seeped into Anderson’s workflow as well. During pre-production for “Moonrise,” Anderson made a similar series of videos to those he sent to the animation team working on “Mr. Fox,” this extra physical step in the planning of the film allowing him to refine the film’s visuals before ever stepping on set. The iconic pink-and-white hotel face in “Grand Budapest” as well as the observatory and ski-chase were all constructed using miniatures not unlike those in “Mr. Fox.” These two films show the firmer understanding of his own style Anderson gained having faced the meticulous challenge of imagining a world through stop-motion.

5(A). NOT EVERYONE LIKES THIS

Not everyone likes this. And those opinions have not always been the minority. It’s hard to imagine in a post-“Grand Budapest” world, but for over a decade, Wes Anderson was a hard sell. He was not an artist that was instantly accepted and pushed as a big thing in Hollywood. He’s only ever worked on a budget over 40 million dollars once, topping out at 50 million for “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.” Anderson’s nine films have all received mixed critical opinions, the director saying in an interview following “Mr. Fox” that he thinks every reviewer that loved the film had hated at least one of his previous, and vice versa. I’ve heard Anderson’s body of work described as three original films (“Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore” and “Tenenbaums”) and then a bunch of self-parody of the third. Common critiques are that the director is too full of himself, too stuck-up-his-own ass to do something different — that the director is, and this one really puzzling to me, an uncreative one-trick pony.

I can’t sincerely argue that Anderson doesn’t draw from the same, tightly cinched bag-of-tricks frequently throughout his films. In fact, in a lot of ways I agree. Even going past purely visual aspects of Anderson’s films, that are a lot of through-lines. In both “Tenenbaums” and “Moonrise,” the forbidden lovers finally see each other for the first time in a pair of matching yellow tents. In both “Darjeeling” and “Rushmore,” the film’s main characters grieve over the death of a parent. In both “Zissou” and “Grand Budapest,” a great man goes on a quest to discover what makes him … great. These similarities are not lost on any diligent viewer. I also don’t think these similarities are a bad thing.

Anderson has always made his movies. “Bottle Rocket” attracted attention from Hollywood producer Polly Platt because it was different from the type of first-time writer, youth-oriented scripts she was used to. Bill Murray agreed to do “Rushmore” because, upon reading the script, he found a writer and a director that knew exactly what they wanted to do. Anderson’s rigid devotion to his vision for his films probably makes him an exacting presence on set, but it’s a formula that has produced a career of movies that must be as close as one can come to their vision. Anderson doesn’t cast a wide net, but he’s genuine. In the director commentary for “Tenenbaums,” while trying to explain the costume choices for the three grown up children (the choices for Margot and Ritchie obvious, making clear sense), Anderson arrived at the third child, Chas, a wealthy New York businessman who has dropped the expensive, tailored suits of his youth for a bright, neon-red Adidas tracksuit. Anderson stumbled around an explanation for a few moments then paused, conceding “I just thought it was funny.”

5(B). SOME BUSINESSY THINGS FROM MY RESEARCH FOR SECTION 5(A)

Anderson has worked on a budget of 25 million or lower on six projects. His average proportional return on investment at the box office for those six movies (here we’re measuring box-office divided by budget averaged for those movies) is 3.1, meaning, on average, those movies made back their budget 3 times over. That’s including two incredible outliers: “Bottle Rocket” gained back only eleven percent of its budget at the box office, which is, as I’m sure you can tell, not good. “Grand Budapest” has the highest proportional box-office value of all of Anderson’s films, gaining back its budget of twenty-five million seven times over.

The two films with budgets higher than twenty-five million had an average proportional box-office-to-budget value of 0.93, meaning those films together didn’t make back their funding. Interesting for two reasons, one being that Anderson films with smaller budgets seem to do significantly better with the public, the other being that Anderson’s (relatively) expensive films (of course) cost the studios more money by not being able to make back their budgets, since those budgets were higher in the first place.

5(C). OTHER ANDERSONIAN VISUAL TRADEMARKS

Lots of different aspect ratios, color-coded costume design, walls with too many paintings on them, dark eye shadow, Futura Font, formal wear in informal settings, informal wear in formal settings, near picture-book positioning of subjects on screen, Bill Murray.

6. THE SOUNDS OF WES ANDERSON

All Wes Anderson scenes have a distinct cadence that, I like to believe, comes from his early working relationship with Owen Wilson. Their friendship, galvanized by non-stop talk of writing and stories and film, seeping in to color the pair’s writing style.

Some of Anderson and Wilson’s conversations read like lines from “Bottle Rocket.” In an interview after “Darjeeling,” Anderson and Wilson talk about going to India to shoot a film, and Wilson mentions he was not at all excited about the prospect. He says he didn’t like the idea of having to get the whole battery of immunizations required of him. Anderson quickly retorts, “I didn’t get any shots.” Wilson also didn’t like that he had to take malaria pills. Anderson again responds, “I didn’t take those either.” Wilson pauses for a beat and then admits that neither did he, but his co-star Adrien Brody did, and “apparently they cause terrible nightmares.” In this small interaction we see two facets of a great Anderson scene in action: The neurosis of treating something quite minor as something quite dire, and the deadpan of casually mentioning something outlandish with the nonchalance of the day’s weather forecast.

Anderson, in an interview talking about “Zissou” and “Mr. Fox,” described a writing partnership as a bit of a friendly competition between members of the same team — who could take the scene one step further, who could make the other one laugh (this comment was mentioned while talking about two movies Anderson wrote with Noah Baumbach, but I imagine it holds true for the relationship Anderson has with all his writing partners). Anderson hasn’t worked alone on writing any of his nine features, and maybe it's these tight writing cohorts of sometimes two, three or four people that are the source of the director’s fluid, bantering dialogue.

6(A). THE SOUNDS OF WES ANDERSON THAT AREN’T DIALOGUE

One of the easiest things to latch on to in your first Wes Anderson go around is his incredible knack for soundtracking. Anderson’s soundscapes have, since his very first film, been a strength he frequently leans on. The director’s first few soundtracks were largely licensed music, many of the songs coming from the British invasion of ’60s and ’70s pop. This era of Anderson soundtrack peaks at “Tenenbaums,” a film that approaches jukebox-musical levels of non-stop music, the soundtrack including songs from The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Clash, The Velvet Underground, Nico, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and more. 

The soundtracks of “Zissou” and “Moonrise” stick out as interesting explorations into incorporating one specific artist more intimately in the texture of a film. In “Zissou,” one of the ship’s crew members passes his time seated on the ship’s bow, playing Portuguese covers of David Bowie songs. Bowie’s music plays an important role in the movie, becoming a motif Anderson pulls on and returns to, and serving as a useful tool Anderson can use to add an exclamation point to any scene that needs some help. 20th-century composer Benjamin Britten’s music is very nearly a plot device in “Moonrise,” Kara Hayward’s Suzy Bishop, the female lead, toting around a record player that is non-stop Britten. It’s as though all the music in the world has been replaced by Britten records, the music diegetically present in almost every scene in the movie. The short made to accompany “Darjeeling,” “Hotel Chevalier,” also fits this bill, the song “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?” looping the entire length of the short.

Anderson’s films have also been fertile ground for Academy Award worthy Original Scores. Composer Alexandre Desplat, who’s worked together with Anderson on every project since “Mr. Fox,” has been nominated in the category three times for work on Anderson films, winning the Oscar in 2014 with “Grand Budapest.”

7. A WES ANDERSON FAMILY ... WES ANDERSON’S FAMILY?

The worlds of Wes Anderson are centered on the interpersonal conflicts of a family, played out on the grand stage of the setting’s city, country or Island of New Penzance. An Andersonian family is never happy. The children are emotionally stunted. The parents are out of love or estranged. The outlook is bleak, conflicts mishandled, bridges nearly burnt. 

Much has been speculated about where Anderson’s family dramatics come from. More often than not, Anderson’s slate of eerily similar family plot lines are linked back to his parents’ separation during his childhood. Anjelica Huston had to ask Anderson if she was really just playing his mother in “Tenenbaums”; her role, that of an archeologist and mother who stays and raises the children after her husband moves out, is plucked nearly wholesale from Anderson’s own life. (Anderson was confused, concerned even at this questioning, though I have to side with Huston on this one. He even had her wear the same glasses!) There was an art book published on this principle: “The Wes Anderson Collection: Bad Dads,” 20 dollars on Amazon Prime.

Though, more specifically than just is-the-dad-in-the-picture-or-not, I’ve noticed Anderson favors playing around with all different types of didactic relationships in his stories. Six of his nine films, “Rushmore,” “Tenenbaums,” “Zissou,” “Mr. Fox,” “Moonrise” and “Grand Budapest,” include some type of mentor-mentee imbalance between two main characters. 

In “Rushmore,” “Moonrise” and “Grand Budapest” the relationship is discovered, not born into, these three movies exploring the difficulties associated with any imperfect pedagogy built outside the family unit. These relationships are generally more optimistic, coming from the sense that here the mentor is choosing to take the mentee under their wing. When the writer starts with a regular father-son dynamic, conflict always pushes the relationship in the other direction.

In “Tenenbaums,” “Zissou” and “Mr. Fox,” the relationship is of a father and son, each of these three movie dads just about summed up by their shared inability to be there when it matters. They shunt their children by favoring different kids; they distance themselves, failing to see how much they’ve passed down; sometimes, they just disappear. Notice how in each of these three films, the father’s name features in the title. I’ve always loved how the title “The Royal Tenenbaums,” named after Gene Hackman’s protagonist Royal Tenenbaum, points to Anderson’s underlying conceit that, for better or for worse, we’re all our parents’ children.

7(A). DRAMEDY, NOT BLACK COMEDY

All of Anderson’s films are, by IMDB classification, comedies. His humor is dry, and always, as I see it, admirably restrained. I don’t think he’s ever used shock value or indecency or anything remotely exploitative to try and get a laugh, and I commend him for that. There’s enough drama and trauma in each of his films that sometimes he’ll get dropped into the “black comedy” genre bucket, and though there are some bloody aspects to his films, I think this categorization misses the point of his comedy.

Wes Anderson’s greatest strength as a writer is his ability to position a character precariously on the edge of their own self-destruction. An Anderson character is often headstrong, either aging-but-spry or young with a thousand-yard-stare. An Anderson character is usually troubled, defined by a deep, somber longing, their perfunctory antics rooted in some trauma in their past. An Anderson character is — and this one is certainly the grimmest of the three — tragic, destined to find that their earthly quests cannot save them from whatever inexorable hunger shakes them to sleep at night. In Anderson’s characters, we find these three traits again and again and again — none of which are exceptionally funny on their own. His humor, then, takes root in how his characters deal with their plight — that is, poorly. 

I think Anderson gets a bad rap as an artist only focused on his aesthetic, one who leaves emotion at the door, which is just not true. His characters are often reserved, even in moments a different director would make fiery, leading to his stories being misconstrued as cold and unfeeling. This is a result of where Anderson likes to bring the audience in on the timeline of his characters’ stories. We always meet an Anderson character after their life defining incident has already happened (see, Max Fisher’s mother dying in his childhood, the Tenenbaum children’s genius burnout, the death of Zissou’s best friend, the Darjeeling brother’s brush with suicide et al.) — we’re not here for the lightshow, we’ve been brought along for the bereavement. 

Anderson is able to flip these tragedies around and squeeze some laughs out of them because he purposefully designs his characters as emotionally ill-equipped to deal with their own suffering. Seeing his characters fumbling through the bureaucracy of their emotions is heartening, familiar — we find something we can identify with. To get back to my original point: Anderson doesn’t make “black comedies” because we’re never supposed to laugh at the tragedy; Anderson wants us to smile, to sigh, to well up with emotions in spite of it, as witnesses to the absurdity of it, as partners in grieving it, as assistants in the struggle of moving forward.

7(B). THE FOOTNOTE FOR SECTION 7(A)

A qualification on the topic sentence above: There is one scene Anderson’s done that I count as exploitative. I can’t stand the brand of comedy where essentially the punchline of the joke is a child doing something inappropriate that an adult would usually do (I’m looking at you, “Little Miss Sunshine”). The beach scene in “Moonrise Kingdom” breaks this rule. Anderson approached it more earnestly than “Sunshine,” trying to represent it as the awkwardness in a pair of kids’ first relationship, but it was taken to an unnecessary extent.

8. LIST OF ALL ACTORS/ACTRESSES WHO HAVE APPEARED IN MULTIPLE WES ANDERSON FILMS

Owen Wilson, Luke Wilson, Anjelica Huston, Jason Schwartzman, Eric Anderson, Tilda Swinton, Brian Cox, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, Bob Balaban, F. Murray Abraham, Lucas Hedges, Fisher Stevens, Roman Coppola, Kumar Pallana, Seymour Cassel, Wallace Wolodarsky, Waris Ahluwalia, Saorise Ronan, Bill Murray.

9. WHERE WILL WES GO NEXT

Wes Anderson’s ninth and most recent film “Isle of Dogs” was his second foray into animation. “Dogs” is the far superior technical piece to “Mr. Fox,” yet the movie falters, lacking the emotional gut-punch any Anderson fan has come to expect. “Dogs” is my least favorite Wes Anderson film. It is also the only in his oeuvre I have seen just once.

“Isle of Dogs” followed the trend set by “Grand Budapest,” breaking away from the smaller, family-matter stories of early Anderson, becoming global, factioned, political even. As Anderson’s esteem has grown, so has his ability to attract a growing fraction of the Hollywood elite (show me a DVD sleeve that had to fit more A-list talent on the cover than “Grand Budapest”). I wonder if maybe the demands to find a place for all of his nearly two dozen frequent collaborators has pushed him to start creating stories whose scope extends past some parents, some kids and some friends of the family. It’s probably more likely that Anderson just feels ready to finally tackle these bigger themes, these bigger stories. The artist once confined to the seedling dramas of wannabe capers and schoolhouse love now creating with the confidence necessary to address the 20th-century cultural decline of eastern Europe, and the subjugation and elimination of minorities (while maybe not so subtly setting the movie in Japan).

I (somberly) expect this trend to continue into his next film, “The French Dispatch,” of which not much is known save a giant cast list and a line that the film will be “a love letter to journalists” set in a fictional 20th-century French city. I expect Anderson to continue his journey into social commentary, taking a stand on something like journalistic integrity, journalistic responsibility or free speech. And while I would maybe prefer a tighter, smaller story — one closer to the early Anderson ilk, I trust the artist to know what he’s doing and deliver on something he feels he needs to make. Because, at the end of the day, that’s what has gotten him this far — and who am I to complain, this article was about him, anyway.

10. START HERE