Cozy worlds. That’s what Wes Anderson builds in his films: cozy worlds where everything is in its right place, every room and setting has character, and every character is fully realized. And they come to realizations in these cozy worlds, whether floating on a ship, whiling away in an academy, bouncing around the suburbs, cloistered in a gigantic family home, wandering around an island, or taking a train trip across India. If only our world was as mannered and filled with cozy character like Anderson’s films our lives would be more like novels instead of the rough, unsteady, and often unresolved reality we navigate through instead.
Wes Anderson’s films are unmistakable for their visual style: lush, color palette-matched sets with flat space camera moves that follow characters from one location to another; symmetrical visual compositions; slow-motion scenes; snap-zooms; and always a tight control over pacing, editing, and use of retro pop-rock songs on the soundtrack.
And those are just some signature aural and visual elements of his films. On a textual level, his work follows similar themes: the sad disconnect between fathers and their children, particularly sons; of boys and men alike who find themselves in the midst of existential crisis and desperately trying to find meaning in their lives; dysfunctional families who hope to make their obvious differences work despite all evidence to the contrary; and the disappointment that bright individuals face when their lives don’t match up to their (or other people’s) expectations.
It’s a paradoxically melancholy and semi-magical realm that Anderson’s work inhabits, where material trappings can’t satisfy a wanting soul and fantastic lifestyles belie the inner sadness of the people living them. Anderson seems to be uniquely disenchanted with the trappings of success of any sort, detailing in his work that even the well-to-do and glamorous can find their lives lacking. After all, even the Queen of England gets depressed sometimes.
But life cannot have the sweet without the bitter or else it would be out of balance. Perhaps that’s why Anderson tends to make his characters well-off: sticking the downtrodden with tragedies to overcome would be cruel. The rich can suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune instead: fathers can die in his films for their rich sons and offspring to suffer; great personal setbacks can befall the wealthy but their comfortable trappings can at least assure the audience that their suffering isn’t entirely unbearable. Even Max Fischer, the son of a barber who lost his mother, has his ineffable brilliance and scholarship position at a well-heeled academy to buoy his dour disposition.
Anderson’s films are funny, sad, and always incredibly enjoyable to watch. He has made an art form out of the luxury of sadness and evoking the rich interior life of the misunderstood misfits of the world. These aren’t the losers of the world under Anderson’s purview but the most human of us all. And it’s the humanity of his treatment of these figures–never caustic, cruel, or mocking–that endears his work to his audience, themselves trying to map the emotional terrain of being alive and intelligent human beings in a beautiful world that seems to play ironically against their own inner melancholy.
Wes Anderson: A Perfect Director
Anderson is known best for his meticulous craftsmanship: every scene, setting, and set is designed to fit his exacting vision. This is a hallmark of great directors, from blockbuster hit machines like Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott to highbrow filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick. Between these heights, Anderson falls somewhere in the middle, always hoping to create films that appeal to wide audiences while never forgetting his personal vision and dedication to the creation of a holistic world for his characters to inhabit. And while he rarely succeeds at creating a solid box office smash, he always makes sure that his vision is left intact.
There are so many films of Anderson’s that come across like an intricate piece of clockwork that it’s difficult to deconstruct them, but The Royal Tenenbaums’ grammar may be used as a decoder for his entire oeuvre: between its novel-like structure (indeed, it unfolds like a novel, complete with chapter headings and an unseen narrator [voiced by Alec Baldwin]); characters with visual signifiers from their sartorial choices to mannerisms that reflect–if not define–their personalities to a T; a central physical hub that serves as their contextual basis (here, the sprawling Tenenbaum house on Archer Avenue in New York City); the entire ensemble is a dysfunctional family whose father issues have left each of them wanting for something to resolve, either inside or externally; the visual grammar lines up with Anderson’s signature stylistics; and the music is an integral part of the larger panoply of meaning that underscores the ineluctable feelings of the characters and scenes that aid the viewer’s understanding.
When combined, all of these elements create a detailed, complex world that Anderson pulls off masterfully, where we as a viewer not only believe completely in a New York City that has roaming gypsy cabs that can be trusted to pull up at the right moment but also of a place where the weird, elliptical Tenenbaum clan could exist untouched by the modern world, living within their own secluded bubble but one that the audience wishes were their own to inhabit. Even if the viewer grew up in their own dysfunctional family, it most likely didn’t take place in a sprawling three-story townhouse in NYC filled with prodigies. This is part of the magic and talent of Wes Anderson as a director: to create worlds we would happily escape into–even if the characters that inhabit it are themselves desperate to escape it.
Characters, Mirrors, and Families
About these characters: they’re almost universally brilliant people whose smarts cannot help them escape the circumstances they find themselves in, either by fate, choice, or miscalculation. The three brothers of The Darjeeling Limited are each fantastic individuals raised in cozy circumstances, but they are all also terribly flawed individuals. And when they reunite, their personal foibles become exaggerated, as if they are direct currents to each other’s neurosis and problems.
Yet they are also the only people who can truly understand each other: maybe it’s codependency or else a need to be able to connect to somebody who understands their pain. It’s not coincidental that one of the first acts they act upon is exchanging various drugs each of them has procured while in India, or that they can suss out each other’s lies and bullshit almost instinctively through conversation. These three poor souls barely know themselves, but at least they know each other.
And this is another common theme throughout Anderson’s films: people who need other people to act as mirrors to provide them a reflection of themselves they otherwise cannot see–and how they end up reflecting each other. Sometimes it comes in the form of idealizing themselves, such as Max Fischer and Herman Blume’s quirky friendship that turns into a fierce rivalry, or Steve Zissou using Ned Plimpton as an emotional crutch when he feels adrift, hoping so much that this stranger is his son that he begins affixing new names to him and absorbs him into his crew. The Tenenbaum family are insular mirrors of each other that reflect back their own failures (it’s important to note that the one Tenenbaum that rejects his family the most and vocally externalizes his frustrations–Chas–is also the only one to have moved on to have a family of his own; even then, his own sons are identical twins, literally mirrors of each other).
In Bottle Rocket, Dignan is so isolated in his own life that he creates schemes and heists with his friends to feel like he’s not alone in the world–going as far as to have them wear. matching jumpsuits so they reflect his own vision of what a unified team should look like (Another reoccurring visual theme in Anderson’s work is uniforms. The Life Aquatic, The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom, Grand Budapest Hotel and Rushmore all feature groups of characters in nearly identical uniforms.)
Family–either related by blood or by spirit–is one of Anderson’s signature character arrangements in his films and the desire by at least one character to keep this arrangement together often drives the plot. At least two of his films, The Darjeeling Limited and The Royal Tenenbaums, are literally about this motivation by a brother and a father in a family, respectively. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is about an ad hoc family arrangement in the form of Zissou’s crew as well as Zissou’s own desire to have a biological son of his own–especially at a moment when his best friend and mentor just died and his wife has left him.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox focuses on the titular character’s reluctance to stop his youthful escapades to guarantee the safety of his family while Rushmore’s two protagonists–Max and Herman–are desperate to establish a father/son dynamic that they feel is more in line with their own wants and personalities. The Grand Budapest Hotel features a similar arrangement, with a mentor-father/son dynamic detailed between Gustav and Zero. Moonrise Kingdom features a combination of Anderson’s favorite arrangements, with a dysfunctional family going through strife when their daughter runs away to meet a boy, while said boy is himself an orphan that eventually is adopted by his scout leader; meanwhile, these two kids are tentatively trying to establish their own relationship external from the family.
But what does Anderson make of families? That they’re often painful but ultimately necessary? That the families we seek out on our own terms can be more satisfying than the ones we’re naturally born into? Or that the responsibilities families impose on us can be suffocating? Perhaps Anderson addresses all of these questions and answers them obliquely: that we are all alone and especially feel alone, and sometimes you need to be reminded that you’re not; that’s what family–whether natural or by choice–is there to provide.
Bill Murray As Totem
Bill Murray–beloved comedy actor and overall American treasure–is one of Anderson’s stable players, appearing in every one of his films save his debut feature Bottle Rocket. The sad-eyed, mournful character he appears as in Anderson’s films is one constant in Anderson’s films, so much that Murray could be seen as a totem for the filmmaker’s characters in general. The weary characters Murray plays Anderson’s work seems to represent the melancholic spirit that pervades his films; at the same time, Murray always has a glimmer of whimsy in his performances, and while he may seem detached, he’s also wryly watching the situations around him unfold like he’s enjoying a private joke with himself.
Even when Murray’s characters don’t figure heavily into the plot, he represents something in Anderson’s films. This is clear in The Darjeeling Limited, when Murray’s unnamed character opens the film. A businessman of some sort, he’s being taxied through the busy streets in an Indian city, trying to make his train. As the train pulls away from the station, we watch him run towards it in slow motion, hoping to catch up–only to be outpaced by a younger man (Adrian Brody’s Peter), who climbs aboard the caboose and watches as the older businessman eventually gives up his chase. In context of the film, we could see Murray’s character as a sort of stand-in for the old man in the main character’s lives, their father, who couldn’t outrun the inevitability of death while his sons continue forward.
But besides this incidental appearance, Murray’s characters in Anderson’s work represent men who have had more than half their lives already go by and have woken up one day to find themselves passive observers in their own lives: in Rushmore, Herman is a disillusioned successful businessman who takes no joy in his family or circumstances, instead hoping that connecting with a bright young man and courting a younger woman will restore his long-gone enthusiasm. He also functions in this film as a counterpoint to Max Fischer’s enthusiastic young man, suggesting that what Herman sees in Max is a younger version of himself (something in his brutish twin sons he does not); in The Royal Tenenbaums he’s neurologist Raleigh St. Clair, the droll older husband of Margo, who has become marginalized in his own relationship and also maintains a close relationship with a younger man; in The Life Aquatic, Murray’s Zissou plays a faded version of a once-vital oceanographer, where his fantastic ship is a living memorial to better times; again, he hopes that connecting with a younger man–purportedly his son–will restore the enthusiasm that time and life’s experiences have sapped of him; in Moonrise Kingdom, like in The Life Aquatic, he’s the husband of an unfaithful wife, and like in Rushmore, he’s a man who’s become disenchanted with his own family.
And maybe that’s the ultimate totem that Murray represents as a through line in Anderson’s work: of disenchantment. Like the Tenenbaums and their collective faded light, the brothers in The Darjeeling Limited and their strained relationships with each other and in their own lives, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox, where Mr. Fox has grown bored of the “straight” life he lives, Murray carries the spirit of the disenchanted into Anderson’s films. This common theme has been played to varying degrees by his characters in his films, and in the case of The Grand Budapest Hotel is perhaps the central message, of looking back on a more colorful, exciting past that the characters were once part of when they were young and times were different. But it’s in Murray’s constant presence in all of Anderson’s films, save one, that links this theme–nobody plays sad-eyed disillusionment better than Murray, and he is representative of Anderson’s own preoccupation with the effects of time, experience, and faded promise that determine the trajectory of his plots and motives of his characters.
Diagrams and Drawings to Actualization
One word that’s been used to describe Anderson’s aesthetic is precise: he fills every frame with exacting details, choreographs his cinematography to match the rhythm of the character’s speech and pace of movement, and frames shots with balanced visual elements. Characters are dressed in uniforms instead of irregular clothes and are performed with tics and mannerisms that create individuals rather than flat, fictional creations.
The rhythm of his films function on tension/release dynamics, with long quiet stretches suddenly bursting with a loud rock song on the soundtrack and a quick-cut montage, or else suddenly slowed down with dreamy ethereal music; there’s at least one action sequence in his films that disrupt the meditative tone his films otherwise run on. By employing the arts of sound and film editing and to jolt the viewer out of the complacency his impeccably color-coordinated scenes encourages, Anderson keeps his films kinetic and interesting. When The Who’s “A Quick One While He’s Away” accompanies the montage of revenge one-upsmanship Max and Herman engage in against each other in Rushmore, it works to snap the audience’s attention back to the screen; similarly, in The Royal Tenenbaums, when Raleigh and Richie visit the detective to find out about Margot’s past, The Ramones punk “Blitzkreig Bop” plays over a quick-cut montage of her colorful secret life. In a more playful use of this technique, in The Life Aquatic Zissou’s team goes into training mode to one of Mark Mothersburg’s keyboard and drum machine ditties on the soundtrack.
But he uses the opposite technique to provide moments of great significance as well, by using slow motion and music to introduce characters or let the audience observe one a little closer. In The Royal Tenenbaums this is used memorably when Margot steps off a bus to meet her brother; this is presented in slow motion while Nico’s wistful version of “These Days” plays on the soundtrack and a choreographed line of uniformed porters walk in step behind her, crossing her path. It’s again used in The Life Aquatic with Zissou standing on the deck of his ship after his first conversation with Ned Plimpton, in which he takes a long drag off of a joint while David Bowie’s “Life On Mars?” plays; the slow motion shot of him exhaling a cloud of smoke gives him a moment to breathe after first meeting his possible son.
Action sequences play surprisingly important parts in Anderson’s usually subtle films, often functioning as breakout moments for his long-suppressed characters. In Bottle Rocket, it’s the heist that goes wrong near the end of the film; in The Royal Tenenbaums it’s Chaz’s massive freakout at the end after Eli Cash nearly runs over his sons; in The Darjeeling Limited it’s the brothers frantically trying to save some children from drowning; in The Grand Budapest Hotel it’s the prison breakout sequence; Fantastic Mr. Fox has a good number of action sequences that punctuate long, unbroken moments of dialogue and plot development; in Moonrise Kingdom there are also a few, the two most memorable being Sam and Suzie’s first confrontation with the Khaki Scouts, in which Suzie stabs a boy with a pair of scissors, and of course Sam’s harrowing rooftop escapade in the midst of a lightning storm.
Anderson paces his films through sequences and orchestrates them through movements, much like a long-form piece of music: there are lulls and crescendos; montages and slow motion sequences; exposition and character development. And in finding that rhythm through cinematography and editing, Anderson creates masterpieces.
An Endearing Melancholy
Anderson has faced two sorts of criticism for his work: 1) that it’s too “twee,” “precious,” and “cutesy,” and 2) that it’s overly melancholic and sad. The mixture of these two elements, however, is what gives his work such an endearing quality. Like J.D. Salinger’s work, his films are populated by smart but emotionally stunted people; people who have spent so much time in their own heads that they forgot to look around and consider other people (The Tenenbaums, the brothers in Darjeeling).
On the flip side, you have characters who desperately need the attention and love of the people around them and either fail to get this (such as Max Fischer, Suzie, and Dignan) or succeed but find it’s not satisfying like they had hoped (Zissou, Eli Cash, Mr. Fox). One of the great successes Anderson has done by creating characters with these esoteric problems is that they are endearing to audiences who recognize themselves in these characters; by addressing and putting into center focus these more difficult aspects of ennui and melancholy, Anderson appeals to the smart, sensitive, and more than nostalgic crowd.
But it’s not that his work itself is sad: that’s why there’s such bright colors and attractive settings and fantastic cinematography in his films, after all. It’s because Anderson recognizes–as his audience does–that there is a lot of beauty in the world, and living life is an alternating journey between being able to recognize and enjoy that beauty and times when emotionally and mentally, beauty is besides the point.
Which is why I would label his work endearingly melancholic: there are whimsical flourishes, but these are present to balance out the darker corners; there are bright colors and wacky characters, but this only masks the sadness many of them carry inside; being a colorful individual is both a blessing and an exhausting burden; and having a lot expected of you is a compliment and a curse put upon you by well-wishers who wonder why you’re not doing as well as they thought you would.
His work is appealing both visually and thematically; there are few directors that could accomplish what he does on a regular basis in his work. Although his influences for these themes are drawn directly from French New Wave directors who have explored these nuanced emotional states and how they affect the individual, I don’t think any director has done it with as much style as Wes Anderson. I look forward to every film he releases and own most of his work on DVD, which I rewatch with regularity, always catching something new each time. I don’t think he’s yet to make a bad movie. A fastidious director with a firm vision which he enacts to perfection in each of his films, Wes Anderson is one of the greatest directors of his generation–and in my estimation, he’s a perfect director.