Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Now I've Seen Everything Dept.: Wes Anderson

A Young Adult's Guide to Growing Up (Sort of) in the 70's

Wesley Wales Anderson was born in Houston, Texas on May 1, 1969. Anderson began experimenting with writing short plays and making home movies as a child, and continued that interest at the University of Texas, majoring in philosophy.  It's there that he met his first of many collaborators, Owen Wilson, and in 1992, the two fashioned a short black and white film called "Bottle Rocket" starring Wilson and his younger brother Luke—they couldn't hire actors, due to the miniscule budget. But, they could submit it to the Sundance Film Festival.  And the rest plays out like a particularly amazing after-school special. of Anderson's films.

Bottle Rocket (1996) Anderson's first feature came about as a result of producer James L. Brooks seeing the short at Sundance.  With Brooks' help and the endorsement of such industry-folk as Polly Platt and L.M. Kit Carson (the film had a role featuring Platt's daughter), Wilson and Anderson expanded the script in a deal to make a feature version for Columbia Pictures. The odd, fully expanded Bottle Rocket not only scored the lowest test scores at previews, but only opened in 42 cities in the U.S., guaranteeing that it wouldn't grab the attention of...anyone.  

The story of two friends, Dignan (Owen Wilson) and Anthony (Luke Wilson), it begins when Dignan helps Anthony leave a psychiatric hospital, where the latter has checked in for "exhaustion." Dig then outlines a "75 year plan" for a criminal career that sounds anything but restful. It's an eccentric "coming of age" scenario where the aimless Anthony must learn to live by the counseling of his "out-on-a-limb" friend, jump-starting his life

The work was strong enough, of its own, that it slowly gained cult-film status through home video, and then, through Hollywood (Martin Scorsese says it's one of the "Top ten" films of the 90's), making Anderson a particularly strong (and obviously eccentric) voice in the independent film culture. 
Anderson's short film on which the feature is based.

The "75 year plan"

Rushmore (1998) If Bottle Rocket seemed a little ambling in nature, Anderson's next film was extraordinarily assured and disciplined. Another collaboration between Owen Wilson and Anderson, it's the story of an under-performing enfant terrible, Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman, in his film debut), who gets kicked out of his exclusive ivy-league High School and must exist in the uninspiring world of public school. 

Ordinarily, this wouldn't be a problem for Max, as he's less of a student and more of a public institution, putting the "extra" in "extra-curricular," with a Wellesian brio and ego. Max's chutzpah attracts the attention of one of the Ivy-league fathers (Bill Murray), whose own kids, the product of an unhappy marriage, have none of Max's zest. His interest leads him to an affair with the teacher that Max is in love with, Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams) which further complicates things.

It's a weird hybrid of sources, from Salinger to Schulz, cuisinarted to become a bizarre anti-matter version of The Graduate, and starting to cement Wes Anderson's use of one-point perspective, composed to create a single, central locus, making his frames rectangular black holes to suck in the focus of his viewers. That perspective would start to dominate his work more and more, starting with his next film.
Max (Jason Schwartzmann) in a rebellious phase

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) An all-star cast (Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Danny Glover and, of course, the Wilson brothers and Murray) in another script by Owen Wilson and Anderson. The Tenenbaums are an entirely dysfunctional family of geniuses and savants, who can't seem to overcome their early childhood successes and meet (much less exceed) their potential. They are a family of over-achievers crippled by arrested development.* If there's a strain of J.D. Salinger in Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums goes further and feels like the cinematic version of Salinger's "Glass" family.

Father Royal (Hackman) is a con man who decides to return to his family after decades of absenteeism—and, of course, after he's been evicted from his hotel for not paying the rent—only to find that his gifted children are stuck on a treadmill of bad choices, childhood obsessions, and long-held personality ticks. He also is determined to derail the impending nuptials between his wife, Etheline (Huston) and her accountant (Glover).

If the film has a down-side (and it does), it is that the extended Tenenbaums are so zombie-like as to be not very interesting and certainly not as much fun as the "old goat" father is, enhanced by Hackman's gift for wolfish comedy, which is infectiously enjoyable. It's not the other actors' faults, so much as the characters Wilson and Anderson have written for them. Even in a real zombie movie, you don't root for the zombies.
The young Margot and Chas in their little box environments

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) No one's in the comfort zone on this one. Written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach as a satiric tribute to the television documentaries they grew up on, The Life Aquatic... stars Murray as an un-charismatic version of Jacques Cousteau, Anjelica Huston as "the brains of Team Zissou," Willem Dafoe as German crewman Klaus, Cate Blanchett as a brittle reporter covering Zissou's latest documentary, only this time it's personal about the hunting of the "jaguar-shark" that killed Zissou's best friend (Seymour Cassel). Zissou's family is another splinter-group, due to the father's ambivalence towards them, and his own obsessions with himself. Most of the film he spends wondering if the young man who enters his life (Owen Wilson, again) might be the son he never knew. For Zissou, his crew is more his family (with the advantage that he's actually their boss) and even his quest for the shark of myth is a half-baked mission, more in keeping with his role as a self-promoting filmmaker-adventurer than for anything really personal.

Meandering, and a bit off-course much of the time, The Life Aquatic is an acquired taste.
Bill Murray as Steve Zissou, life passing him by.

The Darjeeling Limited (2007) Here's what I wrote in 2007: Wes Anderson is one of those directors who can be really "on" or really "off." Sometimes his movies are merely mordant exercises in quirk, much ado about neurotics. Nothing happens, but people are in a dither for a couple hours. But The Darjeeling Limited is a solid movie that stays on the tracks, if not the beaten path, for its entire length. Oh, people are dithering, alright--there's an especially screwball flashback sequence where the Whitman Brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman) are on their way to their father's funeral, and stop off at the garage where Dad was getting his car fixed. The sequence is intricately thought out and such a brilliant example of people desperately finding temporary solutions for long-term problems that one might recall similar family clusters in their own life.

But The Darjeeling Limited is about a close-knit family that's come unraveled—well, exploded in selfishness and separation—and is brought together by the control freak of the bunch (raising suspicion and defensiveness) to take a train trip across India, ostensibly to find their mother, but ultimately to find themselves. Or each other. Or to find a way to work together, rather than cross-purposes (in frequently hilarious ways). What could have been eye-rollingly heart-warming (ala Little Miss Sunshine) becomes intriguing and dramatically interesting, with good performances by the Anderson stock company (Anjelica HustonWilsonSchwartzman, and Bill Murray in a cameo), but also Adrien Brody who steps seamlessly into Anderson's off-axis world of vacant stares, and pregnant pauses.

"I'm going to go pray at another thing:"
Schwartzman, Brody, and Wilson still have some healing to do.

Hotel Chevalier (2007) Short film that tied in tangentially with The Darjeeling Limited as Jason Schwartzman's Jack Whitman character hooks up with "the girlfriend" (she's never named and played by Natalie Portman) who inspires the "short story" he wrote in Paris. And, I dunno, but I think she might be "gaslighting" him.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) Anderson experimented with stop-motion animation to create the strange creatures in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, using a technique that's more like the old "Gumby" films, rather than, say, the Rankin-Bass films of his youth.  For his first film adaptation, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, based on a Roald Dahl book (adapted by Anderson and Noah Baumbach), he went full stop-motion animation, planning it out and leaving the filming to a team of animators (supervised first by Henry Selick, then Mark Gustafson) along the lines of the Tim Burton model. 

It might seem like an odd project for Anderson, but Dahl's sensibilities and writing had informed his previous films, like Rushmore, and the way Anderson's directing style was forming, the proscenium arch settings and cracker-box tableaux of Mr. Fox hew right into that one-point perspective he was becoming so enamored with. In fact, stylistically, it's difficult to tell the difference between Fantastic Mr. Fox and his next film.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012) Anderson's sixth feature is a romantic's version of 'the barefoot bandit" story, but without the issues of ego, narcissism, and general public nuisance, and Anderson couches it all in an idiosyncratic format with scrupulous Kubrickian stylistic fluorishes—the measured tracking pace, the hand-held shots of freedom and chaos; the stylized expressionless acting, the structured mise en scene, perfectly balanced on a central fulcrum.  On top of that, it's hilarious, with dialogue that's formal, distinct, played absolutely straight, betraying no irony, delivered in a deadpan lack of elevation.  

Two kids decide to run away from their structured environments: Suzy (Kara Hayward), from her shattering family (parented by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand; Sam (Jared Gilman) from his Boy Scout troop (led by Edward Norton).  They run off into the wild, trying to escape the various search parties trying to find them, and the local police (led by Bruce Willis).  

Presented as if a documentary by Bob Balaban, Moonrise Kingdom is funodd, and rebellious in Anderson's over-stated understated fashion.

This shot still cracks me up: "Jiminy Cricket, he flew the coop!"

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) Anderson's 7th feature is as light as a soufflé and as multilayered as one of those perfect "Mendl's pastries" that are featured in the film. Anderson mixes past and future, starting in the present and going back in time with an ever-constricting aspect ratio in order to tell the tale of how a lobby-boy named Zero (Tony Revolori) came to own the Grand Budapest Hotel ("the last faint glimmer of civilization in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity") set in the country of Zubrowka —as related in 1968 by the elder Zero (F. Murray Abraham) to the author (Jude Law), who would write the history of the hotel in 1986 (as Tom Wilkinson). It's a complex tale involving the hey-day of the Hotel in pre-War 1932, when the wily concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) purloined a precious painting and was subsequently accused of murder and spent time in prison. It's a combination of playhouse miniatures, meticulous full-scale hotel interiors, and sequences of cartoonish manic energy that leave one a little breathless.

Isle of Dogs (aka 犬ヶ島, 2016) Anderson returns to stop-motion animation with a different aesthetic: combining Kurosawa with the feel of the Rankin/Bass holiday specials from the 1960's that he loves. Telling the story of how a corrupt bureaucracy can oppress an entire sub-set of life by manufacturing a crisis, the film focuses on Japan's dog population being sequestered to "Trash Island" after an outbreak of "Snout Fever" and then allowed to be forgotten, one can see all sorts of real-world metaphors being applicable for penalization, segregation and ostracism. The human species if all-too capable of all that. But, Anderson makes the film a lot more sophisticated in graphic detail and story-telling technique giving the film a mixed-media vibe far beyond what he has displayed in the past. For someone so enamored of the one-point perspective, he seems to be extending his technique by not moving the camera, as filling it in interesting ways beyond its point of view. 

The French Dispatch (of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun) (2020) Anderson's eighth film is a magazine format film about a magazine—the fictitious French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Sun (any resemblance to The New Yorker are purely reverential. The product of its editor's extended holiday in the city of Ennui-sur-Blasé (where he chose to stay),The French Dispatch is a magazine of higher tastes about the local scene with accomplished writers holding forth and making "something" of the city's day-to-day.
The film is an omnibus of the publication's final issue following the death of its publisher Arthur Horowitz, Jr. (Bill Murray). No more publication would be forthcoming and all subscriptions to future issues would be re-funded. That issue contains an obituary of Horowitz, the standard bicycle tour of Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) and three stories of particular note from the magazine's past: "The Concrete Masterpiece"—about an insane murderer's (Benicio Del Toro) unlikely rise in the art field (as related by art historian J.K.L. Berenson (Tilda Swinton); "Revisions to a Manifesto" the work of Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) in which she struggles with her objectivity in covering a youth revolt called "The Chess Revolution"; and "The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner" by noted author Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) on the singular events surrounding his invitation to review the exquisite meals served to city's Police Commissioner (Mathieu Almaric), where a kidnapping is served as just desserts.
Fast-paced, with a consistent obliteration of "The Fourth Wall" The French Dispatch might well be called "Keaton-esque" in its dead-pan delivery amongst the frantic goings-on screen-wise. Many cinematic tricks and playing with "the form" but one is advised to see it on as big a screen as possible as the sub-titles are rather small and delicate. 

Asteroid City
(2023) The story of the first contact of humans and aliens isn't nearly as life-changing as most experts think, as the precedent is the concerns of a couple dozen people quarantined at the "Junior Stargazer/Space Cadet" convention at the tourist-trap town near the Arid Springs Meteorite impact crater. The concerns are a government-imposed quarantine, the contest for the kids at the convention, the usual conflicts of disparate people thrown together where kids are concerned and where the chance of romance blooms even in the desert.

Anderson tells that story, but he stages it as the documentary presentation of an arts program (in square TV format) about the creation and subsequent production of the last play of a playwright named Conrad Earp (Edward Norton). Jason Schwartzman leads the voluminous cast which, when it's not told from the point of view of the television series is in severe widescreen tinted in the bleached colors of long-in-sun post-card. Anderson stretches the production until it's so tight it threatens to snap an audience's attention, but it's dead-pan humor and constant fancifulness keeps the things afloat.

Wes Anderson // Centered from kogonada on Vimeo.

* Mitch Hurvitz, created his "Arrested Development" series before The Royal Tenenbaums and almost abandoned it, after seeing Anderson's film.

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