Unexpected Transcendence: The Films of Wes Anderson

April 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Charming. Absurd. Bold and unique. Wes Anderson is one of the most interesting directors to emerge during the rise of independent film in recent years, and his style is perhaps the most defined and recognizable of his contemporaries. He has also, at times, been one of the most misunderstood, but his films speak for themselves when the audience listens sincerely.

Wes Anderson’s career began with the short film Bottle Rocket, which appeared at Sundance in 1994. Anderson wrote the screenplay with his old friend Owen Wilson, and it launched Wilson’s career as well. The short opens with two characters (played by Owen and his brother Luke) walking quickly and having an argument about the character Huggy Bear from Starsky & Hutch. Suddenly, the argument ends and they casually rob a house while upbeat jazz plays. The juxtaposition of intentional visual movement and absurd dialogue creates strong curious interest in a surprising new way. This ‘curiously unique’ quality, a rare gem in filmmaking, has been central to Wes Anderson’s films since. The short continues: we see the two characters in a diner and learn that they were robbing the house of Luke’s character’s parents. Suddenly, we realize that these characters are a couple of very simple, slightly pathetic guys stuck in Nowhere, USA, and they become immediately more charming. Already in this early work, Wes Anderson’s brilliant humor was apparent. The beauty of it is that it is always just a little bit sad. He evokes a more robust emotion than other comedy, a more human experience.

Fortunately, a few Hollywood notables recognized the

Anderson/Wilson team as a true and distinctly new voice that could speak directly to the emerging independent culture, and Bottle Rocket was remade as a full-length feature in 1996. Because of its obvious difference from typical Hollywood comedy, however, the film screened very badly. Its limited release kept it from reaching the audience that would appreciate it and appreciate it deeply. Again fortunately, Anderson got another shot withRushmore in 1998. And again, the film failed to make budget. But Anderson received constant critical acclaim for both films, and he got one more chance. Finally, with proper promotion and distribution, The Royal Tenenbaums was a financial success in 2001. Since then, Anderson has made The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou in 2004, The Darjeeling Limited (along with the short film Hotel Chevalier) in 2007, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2009.

Despite being filled with bizarre characters that do not immediately seem relatable, Wes Anderson’s films create powerful feelings of connection in audiences. He captures the pains and joys of a young independent culture in a way that no other contemporary filmmaker has managed. His humor is gloriously awkward and ironic, a reflection of postmodern self-awareness. The absurd lack of emotion that actors express under Anderson’s direction flirts with existentialism, and yet he manages to create very powerful emotional responses in audiences because of the poignant accuracy of his depiction of living a life of numbness. People in this culture recognize themselves in the characters and are deeply moved by what it reveals to them. For example, Margot, played magnificently by Gwyneth Paltrow in Tenenbaums, has stopped herself from really showing any emotion at all to block out the pain of disappointment her father has caused her. She speaks flatly and rarely changes expression. When we see her cry on Richie’s shoulder at the end of the film, even though it is only soft and slight, the effect is truly heart-wrenching. The fact that we can see her trying to stifle her sadness is far more emotionally affecting to us now than watching wild displays of grief, because, as a modern culture, we constantly repress ourselves. We can relate better to subtle inward pain. Wes Anderson reveals this about us with fine artistic sensibility.

Anderson uses a very deliberate style of cinematography to tease out this subtle pathos. Characters are introduced by images of the objects they are surrounded with. Every shot is visually appealing because of its intentional color palette and spatial composition, which also makes the world Anderson creates surreal. In a way, the surrealism and obvious intention of this world keeps the audience at distance, something typically undesirable in film, but because even this is intentional, it makes the films even more distinctive and enjoyable. Without the confines of realism, Wes Anderson is able to speak to us in the way he really thinks – and, for many, we find that we relate better to that than most realism.

Because many contemporary independent-culturals feel an honest connection to Wes Anderson’s work, many others have insincerely claimed appreciation for his films, throwing them among their collections of hip memorabilia in an attempt to be fashionable. This type of cultural diffusion is not uncommon. Independent people constantly form new cultures around new art forms that truly speak to them; others admire the idea of independence and try to recreate it by ‘possessing’ its art. This system does at times have its benefits (for example, the fact that environmental concern is currently popular has dramatically aided this noble cause; even though many participate only because it is hip, they are still making a positive difference), but in most cases, it is detrimental. It has certainly marred the public image of Wes Anderson’s films, as they are often dismissed as hipster candy because of their association with that group. The inherent themes of Wes Anderson’s films actually discourage this act; the characters are often rich and defined by their possessions, lost in a backdrop of grandeur, but their dissatisfaction helps us recognize that such forms of self-identification can’t make anyone happy.

Perhaps the most powerful, subjective, and difficult-to-explain reason Wes Anderson’s films are great is that when they are truly appreciated, they create moments of transcendence. They fill the audience with both an intense longing for connection and a deep love for people. Every confused emotion of the film will come together into one heart-stopping moment, often slow motion images set to unique, triumphant music: Dignan proclaiming his innocence as he gets caught by the police in Bottle Rocket; the family walking solemnly away from Royal’s grave after he has redeemed himself and brought them all back together in Royal Tenenbaums; everyone reaching out to Steve Zissou in the submarine as he sees the jaguar shark, begins to cry and realizes he can’t kill it in Life Aquatic; the brothers finally throwing away their luggage as they run for the train in Darjeeling Limited. They are spiritual moments where visual art, distinct characterization, and literary closure blend seamlessly together. They open a window to something more real than realism.

Life is absurd. Life is sad. Life is joyous. Too many artists only let themselves see one aspect of life. Wes Anderson finds the sadness in absurdity, the absurdity in sadness, and the joy that can come from both, when people finally make real human connection. He shows it in a way that speaks directly to us now. If we can sincerely appreciate that, we might just be able to learn how to love life a little bit better.

By Aaron Young Smith, staff film writer.

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