There is no doubt that writer/director Wes Anderson uses the possibilities offered by the medium of film to its utmost potential. While many modern films trot out often-explored themes, source material, and effects, Anderson and the many co-writers (Owen Wilson, Roman Coppola, etc.) he has collaborated with over the years have created unique worlds for their characters to inhabit.
And that’s where he loses some people. While the worlds he creates may be unique unto themselves, they do seem to spring from a larger universe where all of these characters may bump into each other someday. Although it may be awkward if Bill Murray’s Herman Blume, Steve Zissou, and Raleigh St. Clair find themselves in the same coffee shop.
Anderson uses many of the same themes and even the same look for many of his films. But they all retain their own identity. It’s a fine line to walk; you immediately know you’re watching a Wes Anderson film in the way it’s constructed, the actors that he uses repeatedly, and the particular, precocious mood it evokes. While there has been the occasional misfire (“The Darjeeling Limited” comes to mind) Anderson has amassed an incredible body of work. Each film can be viewed as part of the larger Anderson milieu, but more importantly, each one stands on its own.
So with all of this talk of the Anderson Style, we thought we would examine a few of the key identifiers.
Let’s face it. Anderson has worked with several different co-writers, but the basis for most of his male characters is a struggle by way of fatherhood, from both father and son. And if you include Suzy (Kara Haywood) from “Moonrise Kingdom,” there’s a struggle with a mother and a father. Anderson is the child of divorce, and he has described it as the most significant event of his upbringing. And while there is nothing to indicate he has had the same feelings as his characters (Like Max in “Rushmore,” did he ever claim that his father was a neurosurgeon instead of what he really did for a living?), it’s safe to say that some of this anxiety has made its way into his films.
Anderson has tackled this issue in many ways from both viewpoints—son or daughter searching for acceptance and father looking for a way out. From the outright abandonment or refusal to acknowledge children (Steve in “Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” Royal from “The Royal Tenenbaums”) to finding alternate father figures when you feel that yours is failing you (“Rushmore,” “Moonrise Kingdom”) to the shadow that your deceased father still casts over your family (“Darjeeling Limited”) family strife and father issues are well traversed by Anderson.
But just because Anderson and his co-writers have set up what might seem to be fancifully harsh observations about parenthood, it does take into the account the ambivalence that some men feel about their roles. And who better to elaborate on this than Gene Hackman and Bill Murray?
The following scene from “Tenenbaums” just about sums it up. Royal (Hackman), estranged from the family, has been invited to his daughter Margot’s first play, on the night of her eleventh birthday. Her siblings Chas and Richie are part of the cast:
Chas: What’d you think, Dad?
Royal: It didn’t seem believable to me (cut to a reaction shot of a crushed, staring Margot)
Chas: Did you at least think the characters were well developed?
Royal: What characters? It was just a bunch of little kids dressed up in animal costumes.
Margot (getting up from the table): Good night everyone.
Royal: Sweetie, don’t be mad at me. It’s just one man’s opinion.
Of course the kicker to this scene is that as she’s dejectedly walking away from the table, everybody starts awkwardly singing “Happy Birthday” to her. He never once understands, or acknowledges that this “one man’s opinion” carries a lot of weight.
Most of the protagonists in Anderson’s films are intelligent; they are even occasionally successful. But nearly all of them have some sort of crushing inadequacy, and most of the time it affects their relationships with the people closest to them in their lives. These are also people who aren’t in control of what’s happening to them despite their best efforts. And an easy way to fake having control is setting up elaborate rigidity in their routines by way of uniforms (like in “The Life Aquatic” or even Chas and his sons in “Tenenbaums”) or through the use of logotypes, letterheads (it’s amazing how many of Anderson’s characters have issued communiqués), and choice of font. Anderson used Futura fairly exclusively from “Bottle Rocket” through “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”
“Rushmore” may be the best example. Max’s obsession with setting up clubs, writing plays, and even spearheading the school’s new aquarium all point to a serious case of inadequacy masked by megalomania, all under the guise of achievement. But also done with excellently printed invitations and placards.
Anderson has more than just a style or a stamp when it comes to the worlds he invents. And while each film is set in an entirely different world, the adherence to this rigidity and the social constructs of the organizations to which his characters belong is both comforting and exhilarating. And while critics have derided the cuteness factor or the pandering to hipsters (i.e. the uniforms of Team Zissou), it’s hard to imagine these characters not having these accoutrements.
You Have No Idea What Decade the Movie is set in
While “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore” appear to be basically set in the present, “Tenenbaums” and “Life Aquatic” use anachronisms, aged technology, and a blissful ignorance of the outside world to their benefit. “The Darjeeling Limited” is set in the India that we’d like to believe exists; “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is animated so it’s set in a dreamy past/present amalgamation; and “Moonrise Kingdom” (the early 1960s) and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (sometime between World War I and II, with narrative jump to the modern day—sort of) are set in the past so they are unencumbered by any modernity whatsoever.
So what does all this mean? Anderson seems to have very little use of modern mores and the pace of today’s world in his films. Even the movies that are ostensibly set in the present make little use of the devices, speech patterns, and developments that permeate other filmmakers’ work. In “Rushmore,” Max is decidedly not a modern teenager, what with his penchant for writing plays—on a typewriter, mind you.
“Tenenbaums” may be the perfect example of Anderson’s delight in bending the time space continuum. The three Tenenbaum children are all prodigies, but they become stuck in the time of their greatest failures, which seems to be the late 1970s/early 1980s. This gives Anderson a chance to stretch his hipster wings by way of costumes and outdated analog technology. But at least it seems genuine, rather than a tacked on device as it’s used elsewhere. “The Life Aquatic” follows in a similar vein. Steve’s ship, the Belafonte, is of World War II era vintage. Of course, even the premise of the underwater exploration action films are based on Jacques Cousteau, which were the staple of many classroom projectors of the 1970s and 1980s. But the world of Zissou is gleefully stuck in this simpler era of adventure—cutting actual film as opposed to digital and powder blue everywhere.
Any discussion of Anderson’s films is hardly complete without mentioning music. Most of it comes from the British invasion—The Rolling Stones, The Who, and The Kinks all play prominent roles in most of the soundtracks. Anderson seems to revel though in picking just the right semi-obscure tune from a major band to help tell a story. The end scene of “Rushmore” has become iconic, as the Faces’ “Ooh La La” plays at the “Heaven and Hell” Cotillion.
And who can ever forget appropriating David Bowie’s music, but translating it into Portuguese for “Life Aquatic?” Anderson’s collaborators, Mark Mothersbaugh and Alexandre Desplat also seem to compose music that accents what’s going on during the film without actually sounding like it’s of any particular era. Anderson is also fond of the odd “Peanuts” snippet, evoking melancholy Christmas memories.
Absurdly Grand Set Pieces and Action Sequences
This may be the most important section of all. If you’re creating a world, you better damn well get it right. And if you’re a filmmaker who depends upon a setting to evoke mood and emotion, well you better double damn well get it right. But Anderson also knows how to use action, and the anticipation of action, to his films’ betterment.
“Bottle Rocket” is always the odd man out, simply because it was his first film. It didn’t have the scope or budget that his later films would. With “Rushmore,” the genius lay in the set pieces within the set pieces. Max the playwright adapts the Al Pacino vehicle “Serpico” for the stage, complete with a subway train. His piece de resistance, however, is the sprawling Vietnam epic “Heaven and Hell.” Explosions, a helicopter drop, bombers obliterating the countryside…all too wonderful.
“Tenenbaums” is mostly claustrophobic, by way of the family mansion which draws the Tenenbaums in and saves them exposure from the outside world. It’s a wonderful set piece which serves as a character in the film. “The Life Aquatic” takes a similar approach with the Belafonte, and Steve even offers a tour by way of a schematic cutaway. This is no slight to “The Darjeeling Limited,” in which Anderson had an entire train at his disposal, but “Life Aquatic” may be his most evocative movie to date. The ship’s setting, the island locations, and a completely ridiculous battle with pirates puts this one over the top.
“Moonrise Kingdom” has a different feel, what with the following of two adolescent characters running away through woods and other terrain. There is a classic cutaway of Suzy’s house early in the movie, and the elaborate Khaki Scouts camp is a great setting for inclusion and alienation. The scale of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” rivals that of “Life Aquatic.” Set against wartime intrigue the modern day, dilapidated hotel comes to life with the narration of Zero (F. Murray Abraham). And you can’t beat that ski race chase scene.
The Anderson Style
There are of course many more indicators of the Anderson Style, and many of those amount to actual choices as opposed to overarching themes or things that can be regarded as stock in trade. The use of slow motion, underwater shots, and artwork all spring to mind. Anderson’s longtime cinematographer, Robert Yeoman, obviously deserves credit for helping to shape the filmmaker’s style. But then again, so do the production designers that have worked with Anderson over the years. In the end, even if you’re not necessarily a fan of Anderson’s, it’s hard to deny the stamp he has left on filmmaking. The argument always seems to be that if he relies too strongly on many of these elements. But if he didn’t, then they wouldn’t be the films that have established a legacy in the world of cinema, now would they?