Where to begin with Wes Anderson

A beginner’s path through the droll, dollhouse world(s) of Wes Anderson.

21 September 2015

By Leigh Singer

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Why this might not seem so easy

“All of Wes Anderson’s films are comedies… and none are.” When the foremost chronicler and advocate of Wes Anderson’s cinema, US critic Matt Zoller Seitz, makes such a sweeping and seemingly paradoxical statement about his subject, the uninitiated Anderson viewer might be forgiven a certain hesitancy to get started. Delve a little closer into his eight-feature career and the repeated tropes – a repertory-like cast, a fastidious, dollhouse aesthetic, even the studious use of Futura typeface – may also suggest a certain rarefied exclusivity to Wes’s world(s).

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

And yet Wesley Wales Anderson has become one of the most respected, beloved filmmakers of the past 20 years – going from cult indie figure to major industry player, all without appearing to give one inch of his artistic sensibility or integrity. More impressive still is that, rather than having one or two anointed masterpieces, all eight films from comedy heist debut Bottle Rocket (1996) through to last year’s lavish, award-winning The Grand Budapest Hotel have their vociferous supporters, implying a consistency that escapes most artists in any medium.

Seitz’s statement is spot-on. The tremendous amount of humour in Anderson’s curiously out-of-time work, be it droll and literary, or antic and slapstick, never dominates the undertow of melancholy, usually defined by past heartbreak. His protagonists – arrogant oceanographer Steve Zissou, ageing hustler Royal Tenenbaum, debonair hotel concierge Gustave H – are fantasists; control freaks who try to bend the world to their will but find the world a little too unwieldy and complex to do their bidding. The comedy and tragedy results from their struggles against, and eventual reluctant acceptance of, this fact: a delicate tonal balancing act that Anderson regularly performs with incredible dexterity.

But if these are his underlying themes, it’s the instantly identifiable, dazzling surfaces that first draw people in. Anderson uses every aspect of production – props, costumes, camera moves, soundtracks – to construct intimate, intricate worlds, be they Rushmore’s prestigious prep school, The Darjeeling Limited’s Indian train or Moonrise Kingdom’s quaint New England town. And unlike his characters, Anderson’s control freakery never appears to be stymied. Indeed, his venture into stop-motion animation, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), allowed his critics to carp that he was finally doing with small figurines and miniatures what he’d been doing with actors and full-size sets all along – setting them in a series of micro-managed, pre-determined poses. Devotees, however, see something far more mercurial and alive: the art behind the brazenly foregrounded artistry.

The best place to start – Rushmore

Rushmore (1998)

Anderson’s debut Bottle Rocket has a distinctive, loping lo-fi charm, yet it’s still very much a neophyte filmmaker finding his feet. Instead, if one really wants to study him, the best bet is to, quite literally, attend Wes Anderson school. Rushmore (1998), co-written with Owen Wilson, shows Anderson absolutely establishing his voice only second time out. Precocious teenager Max Fischer (fellow frequent collaborator Jason Schwartzman making his screen debut) is a terrible student at Ivy League-esque Rushmore Academy but king of extracurricular activities, most notably screen-to-stage adaptors The Max Fischer Players.

The love triangle that develops among Fischer, his widowed teacher Ms Cross (Olivia Williams) and disaffected steel mogul Herman Blume (a resurgent Bill Murray) is beautifully unlikely, hilarious and poignant, particularly when unpicking both male characters’ fragilely constructed public personas. Anderson’s flagrantly stylised staples – slow-motion and symmetrical framing, French new wave homage and retro 60s ‘British invasion’ soundtrack (Kinks, Stones, Faces) are all present, correct and brilliantly blended to produce one of the great coming-of-age movies.

What to watch next

If Rushmore chimes with you, it’s worth following Anderson’s own career trajectory to his next film. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) is a bittersweet dramedy about a wealthy New York family of prodigies and misfits all undone by the eponymous, self-centred yet charismatic patriarch, played by a never-better Gene Hackman with blinkered, roguish charm. The film expands Anderson’s scope, taking an explicit literary and theatrical angle (with wonderfully modulated Alec Baldwin narration) on its subjects, the inventive, whimsical setting – set in a richly detailed Big Apple every bit as much a fantasy playground as Stanley Kubrick’s in Eyes Wide Shut (1999) – accentuating the contrast with the all-too real sorrows of its emotionally adrift clan.

Boasting a peerless American ensemble cast (Hackman, Murray, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Luke & Owen Wilson and Danny Glover), Mark Mothersbaugh’s evocative score and a witty, deeply felt, Oscar-nominated screenplay by Owen Wilson & Anderson, The Royal Tenenbaums is the director’s crowning achievement.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Where not to start

Of all Anderson’s films, probably the most divisive are The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) and The Darjeeling Limited (2007), mid-noughties efforts that were accused of overly fussy design and wilful eccentricity. Fantastic Mr. Fox was pretty much universally loved, possibly because Anderson put his own stamp on Roald Dahl’s popular story and is operating in his most explicitly comic register.

The most recent features, Moonrise Kingdom (2012) with its young lovers on the lam and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), a series of nested tales about the death of beauty amid Mitteleuropa totalitarianism were even more rapturously received. Indeed, this writer is certainly in the minority in finding these latter two major disappointments, whose familiar camera flourishes, hermetic chocolate-box design and gimmicky star cameos felt tiresomely twee and reductive (though Ralph Fiennes’s Grand Budapest flamboyance is rivalled only by Hackman as the best lead performance in an Anderson film).

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

I personally prefer The Life Aquatic’s messier structure, more ornery relationships and ever more daring production design – Steve Zissou’s ship the Belafonte is a marvel of cross-sectioned art direction. And my own personal favourite is probably The Darjeeling Limited (and associated short Hotel Chevalier, the only genuinely sexy part of Anderson’s entire body of work), where Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman’s trio of emotionally stunted brothers are forced out of their sheltered existence (and Anderson ejected from his neatly designed train carriages) to grapple with a vividly chaotic and tactile India. But that’s the beauty of Anderson’s oeuvre: it’s varied and ingenious enough to attract supporters across the board.

While you don’t go to Anderson for cutting-edge, state-of-the-nation commentary, his idiosyncratic, handcrafted aesthetic, emotional acuity and sheer moviemaking craft are, at their best, among modern cinema’s highlights. Unlikely as it seems, were Wes Anderson’s retro charms ever to be usurped or deemed irrelevant, the epitaph given by aging ex-bell boy Zero about his mentor Gustave H. in The Grand Budapest Hotel would be an apt summation for their creator: “To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it. But I will say, he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvellous grace.”

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