Here to Create: Love him or hate him, Wes Anderson is a necessary force in modern cinema
As usual, it was Anthony Lane of the New Yorker who found the words for…what I had been struggling to put into words after my first viewing of Wes Anderson’s newest film, Isle of Dogs. Which runs along the lines of: Why do Wes Anderson films leave me cold?
Within minutes of chewing on this thought, however, I realized this wasn’t quite right.If they leave me cold, then why have I splurged on every single one of his Criterion Blu Ray editions?
Maybe my hemming/hawing has less to do with the films themselves (which, I must say, I find magnificent) than his fans. It’s a similar feeling to seeing Lorde in concert a couple weeks ago. I am a huge fan of the artist, but the whooping and wailing and frenzied teeny-bopping going on ‘round me sent me into a tailspin. It’s the same with Wes’s fans. I have an image of mind of the stock character who attends, and champions, his films: haircut just so, clothes delectably disheveled in that zeitgeist-y “I spent an hour on this look just to make it look like I don’t care about my look” kinda way.
So anyway I realized, quite quickly, Wait, I really like Wes Anderson films. Maybe it’s the quirk, maybe it’s the liberal helpings of Bill Murray. This latter fact aligned with what Lane wrote in his New Yorker review of Isle of Dogs: Anderson’s casting, for which it seems the crème de la crème come running, elevates his films from their tidy, concise framing.
This could be said for most great films, or great sports teams—the players take the day—but I think Anderson’s deserve particular highlighting. As has been his standard, presumably since *that* American Express commercial, which presented a Day for Night look in his trademark tracking, his films have always had a distinct feel.
It seems there are two ways, as in anything, one might respond to such technical rigor. I’m reminded of something The Economist once wrote of Jack White: he often works on new music with instruments that are just off-key, or slightly out of tune. It forces him to work harder to get the sound that he wants. It follows along with what White’s often said, that it’s not about how much your instrument costs; it’s how good you are at playing it. Basically, talent wills out. Talent will find a way to surpass limitations.
This Richard Brody profile of Anderson, in the run-up to the release of Fantastic Mr. Fox, in 2009, is a good example of this point. There’s a segment in which Anderson notes that, in a supermarket setting in the Fox film, the on-site team had placed miniature loaves of bread in the slightly less miniature refrigerator, and stores don’t put bread in the refrigerator.
No one’s going to notice, save for a select 0.00001% of the population that, you know, cares about that. But most importantly, Anderson would know. And it would bother him. His fastidiousness might appear overwhelming. Many directors are detail-oriented, and I’m reminded of that sequence in Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night, when Truffaut the film director, playing Truffaut the film director in the film itself, notices a phone in a hotel hallway. The way his glance lingers on the object lets you know that he will be using this phone at some point in some future scene, which he does. Now, this was but a detail; and I always enjoy Truffaut for the way his films move and breathe.
I wonder if some of the actors who consistently work with Anderson enjoy his films precisely because of his fastidiousness. Like White with his guitars, they feel his scripts and direction possess a type of restriction that draws forth a special performance. If I only have this amount of space to work in, in this particular shot, then how can I maximize my output?
It was Lane’s reminder of Ralph Fiennes’s physicality, often in direct contrast to the technical rigor he was placed in, that took The Grand Budapest Hotel into the transcendent. It’s my favorite of his films, and one of my all-time favorite films, in general.
The Brody profile, is telling, most notably because of his rebuttal of the (ample) criticism leveled at Anderson throughout his career. The lightweight stories he tells, the way the quirks and qualms of his characters have infected everyday life, rightly or wrongly depending upon your opinion, but infected it they have, most notably in the affectations of hipsterdom.
It takes me to Isle of Dogs, which I have only seen once, but look forward to seeing again. Does it divide opinion? Of course. But this is a marker of a great artist. Any work with any meaning is going to divide opinion; I begin to worry when the Rotten Tomatoes score is fixed at 100%. It’s like a Russian election. Usually, when you feel a gut reaction to art, I hate it or I love it, you are forced to think about it. That’s better than sitting passively through another special effects-laden thriller. Not that there isn’t a time and place for that brand of blockbuster, say at the end of a long week. But they’re becoming the majority of output every year. And that’s where Anderson becomes vital.
There is where Brody makes his best point: many of Anderson’s detractors allow their initial discomfort at his technique to cloud their vision. It’s like the old adage in comedy: just because you’re offended doesn’t mean you’re right. The problem might be Anderson’s intelligence. His films employ a winking quality, those racial “stereotypes” detractors jump upon actually bait Anderson places in a steel trap of humor.
This is why I so enjoy Lane’s film reviews for the New Yorker. I would say he is a guide, in-the-best-sense-of-the-word—although of course that doesn’t do him justice, and I’m immediately reminded of Rick Fucking Steves prancing about some foreign land—so I should add that what I mean is that Lane reminds me of Virgil navigating Dante through the overwhelming chaos of the underworld.
I’ve seen a lot of movies, but I often find when I exit a theater after a film that I have no idea how to process what I’ve just scene—erm, seen. How can you, with so many images assaulting your senses at such a prodigious rate? Somehow, someway, on a week-to-week basis, Lane creates film reviews that have an effect of placing your mind in repose beside a babbling brook. His insights are light through the trees.
I’ve come to appreciate the way Anderson’s films force me into a re-view. I do find myself struggling during that first viewing; yet with each successive exposure, I slowly melt away. Rushmore, Royal Tenenbaums, Life Aquatic, Darjeeling, Moonrise Kingdom. I rebel on first watch; then, I begin to see the humor; then, I begin to appreciate the sheer effort that went into the undertaking. A phrase or a sequence lodges itself in my mind.
In Isle of Dogs, it’s Tilda Swinton’s pug turning from television, transfixed. These images form a guide. The guide informs your life. That’s what film can do, and I hope that it continues to do so.