Thursday, January 28, 2010

Modern Maestros: Wes Anderson

Robert here, continuing my series on great contemporary directors. I thought I might as well round-out the Anderson trifecta with Wes Anderson, a director on whom I’ve had mixed feelings (though I cannot deny his influence). So to all those who love, love, love Mr. Anderson, please accept my advance apologies. I shall try to keep this unbiased. If nothing else, Wes Anderson has been the only director to successfully convince Natalie Portman to go sans clothes, and that’s certainly worth celebrating.

Maestro: Wes Anderson
Known For: Quirky, comedic tales of families and failure.
Influences: Satyajit Ray, Orson Welles, Mike Nichols, Quentin Tarantino and perhaps most of all Hal Ashby.
Masterpieces: I find Anderson to be endlessly fascinating, but I’m not in love with any of his films, except for Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Disasters: none (I promise I’ll eventually get to a director with a disaster, I swear)
Better than you remember: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was his most poorly received film and I can’t say I disagree. So no entries here.
Awards: Nominations at the Oscars, BAFTAs, Venice and Berlin. Not a whole lot of substantial wins.
Box Office: The Royal Tenenbaums with over 50 million is the winner.
Favorite Actor: Bill Murray and Owen Wilson tie, each in five of Anderson’s six films.

Wes Anderson was a part of a new generation of indie directors that came to prominence in the late 1990's including (though not limited to) David O. Russell, P.T. Anderson, and Spike Jonze. And though he may not be the most talented among that group, he's possibly the most influential. His is the career that launched a thousand quirky comedies. Without Wes Anderson would there be a Little Miss Sunshine? a Juno? an Eagle vs. Shark? The tragi-comedy about a sad figure set to impossibly trendy music isn't a new concept, but one may just have to credit Anderson for hastening its recent rise (for better or worse). What's so surprising is that even though Anderson is thought of as a "hip" or "trendy" director his themes are not exactly the encapsulation of "cool". Stories of once-great men, their downfalls, and familial relationships aren't as cool as stories about killers or kings.  But it's here where Anderson keeps returning. Royal Tenenbaum, Steve Zissou, Mr. Fox are all men attempting to recapture some past glory (and who all star in films named after themselves). And do they recapture their past glory?  Well that's complicated.  Anderson never gives us a clear ending.  His ulitmate suggestion seems to be that life is neither happy nor sad nor simple, yet almost always ironic. So yes you can find your white whale (or jaguar shark) but when you get there the price you've paid for your goal will diminish its worth.

It was during Roger Ebert and Martin Scorsese's discussion on the best films of the 1990's (Scorsese selected Bottle Rocket to his list) where they noted this sense of existential irony that permeates through that decade's independent cinema. "Everything has quotation marks around it" says Roger Ebert. And there's something about Wes Anderson's style that puts him at the forefront of this phenomenon. Anderson's construction and framing often highlight the artificiality of his films. Realism is farthest from his mind and he regularly betrays convention with the film drawing attention to itself as a result. Anderson would rather shoot a conversation between two characters in its entirety with both in profile then as series of cross-cut over-the-shoulder shots. Why is this? Is it to achieve a sense of unreal? Is it to maintain the tempo of a comedic scene? Is it just to break the rules? A little bit of all three I think.

Once great

It's nice to see Wes Anderson back on top of the world again with his most acclaimed film in eight years. Even though his two prior films achieved interesting things (The Life Aquatic allowed him to work with Herny Selic and The Darjeeling Limited let him homage Indian cinema in a way he'd been hinting at for a while) neither was able to capture the brilliance of The Royal Tenenbaums, which was, at the time, the quintessential Wes Anderson film, hitting all of his most common themes and also having fun taking a somewhat affectionate look at the oppression that comes from being rich and famous (an offshoot of his interest in failed great men and a concept taken right from Hal Ashby). But Fantastic Mr. Fox gave Anderson the chance to try animation, a genre quite possibly perfectly suited to Anderson's constructed ironic sensibilities. What's next for Anderson we don't know. IMDb and Wikipedia each list different future projects, but there's little doubt that he'll have another film out soon and it will continue to influence young directors while clearly setting himself apart from those who try to do what he does with his superior sense of style and craft.


Anonymous said...

This annoyed me. The bias was clearly there.

Mike said...

I have to disagree with the anonymous comment. For a writeup on a director I adore from a blogger who doesn't share that adoration, this is a very precise and well written piece in a series that I've been digging. And for the record, I think The Darjeeling Limited qualifies as "better than you remember." It's wonderful.

Glenn said...

hah, yeah bias. Because that's what people writing on the internet aren't ever allowed to have?

Who are these people who get offended when someone has a different opinion to them and aren't afraid to say so. Seriously.

Nevertheless, I really liked this Robert. I feel we're in the same boat in regards to Anderson. Royal Tenenbaums and Fantastic Mr Fox are definitely my favourites, but I'd like to go to stumps for Darjeeling Limited, which surprised me after Life Aquatic, which I wasn't a fan of. I'm not that big on Rushmore either, although I'd wager that a rewatch of that would yield different results.

Anonymous said...

I don't mind that he has an opinion at all, that's fine. It just annoyed me that someone who doesn't really like Anderson is doing a "Modern Maestro" write up on him.

I never said I was "offended" because he had a different opinion than me, Glenn. At all. I also never said people writing on the internet aren't allowed to have bias. I didn't say much, really.

The article is well written and everything, I just felt annoyed by things like "he may not be the most talented among that group"- which took me right out of it. I mean, that comment really didn't need to be there.

I'm not trying to disrespect the author, and I hope it's not coming off that way. It's just that personally, I view these "Modern Maestros" columns to be some what of a tribute to the director so I was a bit annoyed that the author obviously wasn't the biggest fan.

Sorry if I upset anyone.

Robert Hamer said...

Oddly enough, I think I'm a bigger fan of Wes Anderson than Robert and I *would* qualify The Life Aquatic as a "disaster."

James said...

With today's death of J.D. Salinger, I was going over in my head who would, given the impossible chance, direct "Catcher in the Rye." Other than possible Terrence Malick, Wes Anderson is the one director that could best connect to Salinger's words. "Royal Tenenbaums" was very much in that style.

Stella said...

With all due respect James, I think "Catcher in the Rye" is unfilmable. Either way, anything adaptation would be a letdown.

Am I the only one who thought The Life Aquatic was wonderful?

Robert said...

Anonymous - I appreciate the feedback. Honestly I'm not sure I'd have done a piece on Wes Anderson had I not absolutely fallen in love with Fantastic Mr. Fox.

While each of these Modern Maestro posts can't help but reflect my opinion, I'm hoping to feature directors that go beyond simply my favorites and include those that I still find interesting or whose influence is undeniable.

That being said, Mr. Fox is really encouraging me to revisit some of Anderson's past work that I may not have been in love with (except for Life Aquatic, which I suspect probably plays its entire hand on the first viewing).

Walter L. Hollmann said...

"I thought I might as well round-out the Anderson trifecta"

What, no Paul W.S. Anderson? ;P

The Royal Tenenbaums is one of my ten favorite movies, Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of my ten favorites of 2009, and dammit, I love The Life Aquatic, and I have a feeling it will be seen as a misunderstood gem ten years down the road. Still need to see Bottle Rocket.


Robert, keep on keeping on. I'm kind of the opinion that if opinions don't show in career profiling, they aren't worth much. Otherwise, just read their filmography, you know?

i love this series. I understand reservations about Wes Anderson (even though i love him) more than I understand the defiant pro Life Aquatic stance -- sorry Walter ;) -- which i think is enjoyable but way too affected to transcend its affectations if you know what i mean.

but the Royal Tenenbaums is bliss. I'd rank his movies like so


good to very good

problematic but still enjoyable

i still haven't seen Bottle Rocket. oops.