A Wes Anderson Primer

In preparation for Moonrise Kingdom, I thought it might be interesting to compile some brief words about each of Wes Anderson’s previous films into a short primer, in the hopes that it might interest some folks who have never experienced his work to check him out. Hopefully this will function as a nice starting point for newcomers, or maybe those who felt left out because they started with the wrong film. Or, perhaps, it’ll just be an excuse to relive the great stuff (and Fantastic Mr. Fox) that Anderson’s done in the past. I hope you enjoy.

Bottle Rocket (1996)

Written By: Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson
Starring: Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Robert Musgrave, James Caan, Lumi Cavazos

Overview: There’s really no more diplomatic way to put this: Bottle Rocket is the work of somebody who would become a great artist, before he was either great or an artist. The story of three friends who turn to high-reward heists as a way of financing their meticulously planned futures — or, rather, the story of one friend who does that and the two others who go along with him — contains precious little of Anderson’s magic, style or cleverness. It’s not devoid of value — both of the major heist sequences are all-time highlights — but it fails to build any serious momentum, and derails entirely about halfway through. Luke Wilson falls for a maid played by Lumi Cavazos, and his romantic overtures are nothing short of predatory. That can be handled well, but it doesn’t seem as though either Anderson or his actors are aware of it, causing the romance to work out in a way that neither justifies itself nor feels like a natural evolution of the dynamic between those characters. It’s a creepy and utterly misguided plot development that interferes with the better aspects of the film — Owen Wilson portrays manic depression here quite well, and Robert Musgrave is one of Anderson’s great one-offs — and gives no indication whatsoever of how well Anderson would deal with similarly mismatched pairings in the future. There’s also a notable lack of visual panache, and none of the action or dialogue feels as meticulously constructed as it does in Anderson’s later films. But no worry…Bottle Rocket taught Anderson a lot, and only two years later he would make this:

Rushmore (1998)

Written By: Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson
Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Olivia Williams, Seymour Cassel, Mason Gamble

Overview: I don’t know who made Bottle Rocket, because Rushmore is in just about every way the real Wes Anderson’s debut. Every one of his hallmarks is not only on display here, but operating in full and confident force: father issues, brilliant shot composition, inventively reappropriated pop-songs, a clearly artificial but deeply moving world, and an unwavering devotion to tearing down his characters’ conceits. It also marks Anderson’s first collaboration with both Bill Murray and Mark Mothersbaugh — though Mothersbaugh did step in after the fact to provide a score for Bottle Rocket — both of whom would shape immediately what comes to mind when we think about the concept of “a Wes Anderson film.” Rushmore is the story of Max, an over-reaching and under-achieving 15 year old, who harbors so many aspirations that there’s no way he can focus clearly on any of them. Until he meets Miss Cross that is, a teacher at Rushmore Academy with whom he attempts to begin an affair. At heart, though, it’s a story about growing up, as are all of Anderson’s, and it’s a story about friendship, both with a steel mogul played by Bill Murray and his dedicated lackey played by Mason Gamble. It’s essentially a story about appreciating what you already have, which, as Max comes to learn, is never as much as you think it is, but always what you need.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Written By: Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson
Starring: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Luke Wilson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Danny Glover, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Alec Baldwin (narrator)

Overview: It would be impossible — simply impossible — to heap too much praise upon The Royal Tenenbaums. To date, this is clearly Anderson’s masterpiece, and that’s some high praise indeed. Absolutely nothing about this film is wrong. There is no detail overlooked, no line of dialogue that doesn’t both amuse and hurt, and no actor who is anything but perfect for his part. Even Ben Stiller turns in a performance he’ll never top — not that he ever tries — and the soundtrack is absolutely stellar. Gene Hackman plays Royal Tenenbaum, patriarch of the formerly well-respected Tenenbaum family, though now the children have all moved on…and down. It’s a story of dissolution, of consequence, and of maybe, sometimes, just possibly, righting wrongs that have sat painful and unaddressed for decades. In Royal’s case, he does this by pretending to have cancer in order to keep his wife from marrying a black man, but it’s not where you start that matters…it’s where you finish. The Royal Tenenbaums is Anderson’s most overtly affecting film, flush with raw and frustrated emotion, and brimming with what’s probably his darkest comedy yet. Hackman brings a selfish and charming energy to the role that pervades even scenes he’s not in, and his gradual awakening to the damage he’s done — even as he’s in the midst of doing more of it — is expertly handled with the careful and attentive touch of a brilliant director working at the absolute top of his game.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)

Written By: Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach
Starring: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum

Overview: The Royal Tenenbaums might be Anderson’s best film, but The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou is my favorite. And I don’t just mean it’s my favorite of Anderson’s…I mean it’s my absolutely favorite film period. Attempting to justify my adoration for this movie could only leave me unsatisfied by what I’ve said, so I don’t think I can actually even try. What I can say is that Anderson has built a deeper, more profound and more magical world with The Life Aquatic than he could ever build elsewhere. The plot follows celebrity oceanographer Steve Zissou as he seeks mortal revenge on the mythical sea creature that killed his partner, but that’s really just the impetus for what the film’s actually about: Steve learning about who he is…and, more importantly, who he’s not. Along with him on this fateful voyage is Kentucky Air pilot Ned Plimpton, who may be his son. Ned’s unexpected appearance is only the first of many things that force Steve to explore inward for once, and his rotating, conflicting emotions manifest themselves in some brutal ways throughout the course of the film, culminating in a display of ultimate humanity…long after it can do him any good. It’s flawed, and it’s unfocused, but then again so is everybody. The Royal Tenenbaums gets my vote for the only perfect film ever made, but The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou hits me in ways even that one can’t, and that’s why it immediately became — and remains — my favorite film of all time.

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

Written By: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman
Starring: Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman

Overview: A noticeably quieter film follows The Life Aquatic, with a far tighter focus on a much smaller cast, and an adventure that takes three isolated, entitled American brothers and strand them during their soul-seeking train ride through India. In actuality, though, the trip they take is interpersonal, and the souls they seek very quickly turn out to be each other’s. The Darjeeling Limited feels a little less deliberately constructed than Anderson’s previous three films, and that’s clearly deliberate. Rather than thrusting the audience into one of Anderson’s worlds, Anderson’s taken three of his characters out of an Anderson world and thrust them into our own. The characters in India are less affected, less prone to staring coldly into the middle distance, and don’t rely on the snipes and jabs of the Whitman brothers to get their point across. It’s an experience in personal growth for them, as they realize that they don’t at all need to be damaged and conflicted adults they’ve become. Mark Mothersbaugh did not return as original score composer for this film, nor for anything beyond The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. His absence is felt, and Bill Murray’s relegation to a cameo contributes to this not feeling quite the way we now expect an Anderson film to feel. But, again, it works to separate the adventure within The Darjeeling Limited from what’s come before, just as the movie itself feels separate. The brothers Whitman have a lot to work on, after all, and they don’t need you bringing all that old baggage along.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Written By: Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, based on a story by Roald Dahl
Starring: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Eric Chase Anderson, Wallace Wolodarsky, Bill Murray

Overview: A strict structuralist like Anderson would no doubt appreciate the fact that we’ve both begun and ended on disappointment. (In fact, as a disappointment fetishist, he’d doubly appreciate it.) Fantastic Mr. Fox had a lot of people asking questions when it was announced, and it’s pretty safe to say that it didn’t satisfactorily address them when it arrived. It almost seems silly to say this, but Anderson’s so gifted at manipulating human behavior, treating his characters like dress-up dolls brought to life and thrust into complex social situations without practice, is lost on a film where that’s what he’s doing to literal dress-up dolls. He’s assembled an excellent voice cast, and his newcomer brother Eric Chase Anderson shockingly blows the rest of the seasoned actors away, but his curious expansion on a minor Roald Dahl story just doesn’t come together the way it needs to. As could be expected he sprinkled the experience with great songs, which might well turn young children on to music they might not have experienced otherwise, but it’s doubtful that it’s turned many children — or anyone for that matter — on to the films of Wes Anderson. Moonrise Kingdom is on the horizon, however, and if the small amount of footage I’ve seen is any indication, Fantastic Mr. Fox is less a catastrophe than just the forgettable lull before a glorious upswing.

Analyzing the Moonrise Kingdom Trailer

As of this writing (April 22) the released footage from Moonrise Kingdom amounts to no more than a trailer, and three exclusive clips drizzled around the internet. Each of the clips are under a minute long and don’t really demonstrate much beyond the fact that Wes Anderson is absolutely at his most Wes Andersony…and that it’s still a beautiful thing. We’ll touch on those below, but only in passing, as this is a look at the official trailer for the film.

If you are interested in seeing the clips, you can watch them here, here and here. No spoilers, apart from what we already know from the trailer, but, as always, watch at your own risk. And please link me if you know of any other footage I missed.

In summary, yeah, this looks pretty fantastic. Growing up has always been one of Anderson’s favorite themes, though this looks like it will tackle the issue head on for the first time since Rushmore. (It was skirted in The Royal Tenenbaums by using childhood as a mechanism for gauging how far the characters have fallen, and subverted by The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited by presenting us only with a view of their adult lives, leaving us to piece together what got them there.)

It looks lovely, brilliantly dreary and evocatively sad, with a late summertime feel, just before all that wonderful freedom falls away and it’s time to get back to school. There’s also no strong clue as to the film’s reappropriated pop songs (at least not to me…can anyone identify the French song in the trailer?), so that should make for a nice surprise, but it does sound like the soundtrack is pulling toward a sort of classical Gothic dirge. With this, I am both fine and in love.

Here’s what else we see in the trailer:

No. I said, what kind of bird are you?

An absolutely beautiful moment opens the trailer, with Jared Gilman declaring his affection for Kara Hayward the only way Wes Anderson’s characters know how: by saying something different entirely. It’s a wonderful way to open the trailer — and it’s safe to say that it comes pretty close to the beginning of the film as well — and it suggests that Anderson might have struck gold again with a young actor in Gilman. His last major discovery of a young actor was Jason Schwartzman, and that sure as hell worked out pretty well. In fact, Anderson has an eye for young actors, or is at least much more careful in vetting them than his contemporaries, because I’m not sure I’ve ever been annoyed by any of the little scamps darting around in the sidelines of his films, whereas usually they detract by default and you need to work to overlook them. (The little girl who plays Grace in Bottle Rocket is admittedly distractingly unskilled at being an actress, but since then he’s had a pretty strong streak in casting the young.) It will be interesting to see how this one pans out. We don’t get to see much of Hayward in the trailer, so it’s more difficult to gauge her performance, but that’s okay…Gilman’s taken away my concern for both of them.

Turn right, and follow to the end.

The love birds (get it…?) plot their escape over several quick flashes of communication and preparation, which I suspect is lifted more or less wholesale from the film and isn’t trimmed much here. Their one-word exchanges are typical of Anderson characters, and the fact that they took time to write such simple letters — and to communicate in a less personal way, thereby remaining guarded — hearken back to both Ned’s pre-addressing of 50 envelopes for Jane to correspond with him in The Life Aquatic, and Richie’s blunt communications by telegram in The Royal Tenenbaums, in which he says things he’s only comfortable saying because he knows he’s several layers removed from the rest of the world. The sharp cuts are all beautifully framed and demonstrate that Anderson hasn’t lost his flair — or compulsion — to make even his briefest visual statements hit both deep and hard. Gilman’s instructions to Hayward, along with what we actually see him doing, tap directly into the things he’s learned in the Khaki Scouts, and it’s going to be fun to piece together their lessons and routines from the way we’ll see them exploited…much as we were able to do with Team Zissou.

Who’s missing?

Camp Ivanhoe. Yeah, one of the things that worries me — in fact, the only thing that worries me, and it’s a pretty small worry — is the title of this film. Moonrise Kingdom doesn’t feel particularly evocative of anything…or, rather, it feels like it’s trying a little too hard to be evocative. Bottle Rocket was a metaphorical title referring to Dignan’s bright — but always brief — burning for change, Rushmore was named after the academy Max attended (and also served as a metaphor for personal ambition), The Royal Tenenbaums was a gloriously two-sided title, referring both to the family as a whole and their lost regal status, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou evokes both images of sea life and life upon the sea, not to mention life itself, The Darjeeling Limited is named after a fucking train so, okay, that one sucks too, and Fantastic Mr. Fox was the title Roald Dahl chose and was the least of that film’s worries anyway. But Moonrise Kingdom just feels to me like it deserves to be attached to a forgettable Mickey Mouse video game than a Wes Anderson film. I reserve the right to change my mind immediately upon seeing the film, of course, but calling the Boy Scout analogue “Khaki Scouts” feels like something they’d do in a Saturday Night Live skit because they didn’t have any time to think of something better. A bit of a disappointment there, albeit an early and easily corrected one. Camp Ivanhoe, on the other hand, is legitimately hilarious.

Jiminy Cricket! He flew the coop!

Another bird reference here, which, I hope, will be carried through as a complete theme. We also see Edward Norton for the first time as the scoutmaster, and it’s pretty immediately apparent that he’s playing a live action Ned Flanders. If anyone could do that, it’s Edward Norton, so I’m more than happy enough if that turns out to be the case. His expletive substitutes may well turn out to be annoying, but Anderson’s quite good at measuring out his quirk just enough that it’s cohesive, but never so much that it’s overbearing, or unconsciously annoying. Norton has the potential to be a great addition to Anderson’s growing assembly of actors, so I’m interested to see how this pans out.

Does it concern you that your daughter has just run away from home?

Frances McDormand’s bullhorn is a bit disconcerting. What I said above about Norton’s profanity-free obscenities holds true here, as I do think Anderson is fully capable of regulating these personal crutches and affectations so that they have the correct impact, but the bullhorn feels a bit obvious, and he’ll have a much tougher time keeping that from getting annoying. It could work in the same way that Chas Tenenbaum’s matching track suits work as a method of keeping his children immediately identifiable in a crowd — and therefore safer and easier to reach should anything happen — but if the bullhorn charts the same territory then I’ll be even more doubtful about its necessity. Of course, McDormand is fantastic and will be another great addition to Anderson’s cast. Marrying her character to Bill Murray’s also suggests that she’ll fit more easily into the ensemble than it might seem.

Until help arrives I’m deputizing the little guy, the skinny one, the boy with the patch on his eye, to come with me in the station wagon.

If any name that popped up in the cast list thrilled me outright, it was Bruce Willis. Willis is an extremely capable actor who, unfortunately, does not always get roles that allow him to show off his considerable range. Working as a comic character in a Wes Anderson film is no doubt going to let a lot of his relatively dormant talents run free, and I absolutely love the low-key, ineffectiveness of his uniform. The badge is hardly visible against his unassuming white shirt, and the black tie suggests — presumably correctly — that the police are a mere formality in this town where nothing ever much happens. I like this.

If we find him, I’m not going to be the one who forgot to bring a weapon.

The idea that the manhunt (or boyhunt) might get dangerously out of control is floated in this trailer — and in one of the clips released — but I don’t think it’s going to be a genuine danger in the film, and is more likely to be played for laughs. At least, I hope that’s the case, as preteens actually beating each other senseless with blunt objects would be about the last thing that I’d expect from this movie. Still, it’ll be interesting to watch it unfold, and it’s liable to lend a sense of increasing urgency to the events of the film, in much the same way that the otherwise ineffectual pirate attack caused Steve Zissou to take a stand with his crew — or perhaps that should be the other way around — and ultimately forced him to consider the wisdom of his quest in a way he hadn’t before. Not that the reflection helped anything. For these characters, it never does. And that’s why we love them.

Our only look at Jason Schwartzman in this trailer, but my goodness is it a great one. There’s so much I’d like to say about this single frame, but I won’t do it. I’d cheapen it. Just look at it yourself. Just take a moment — a full minute — to stare at it, to study every detail, and to just immerse yourself in how absolutely fantastic this image is. Let your eyes see everything. Let yourself appreciate it. Because this is a fucking artist at work. Whatever misgivings I might have about what I’m about to see, this is the kind of still frame that makes all of my apprehensions disappear.

I’m told that he’s just been struck by lightning.

Unlike Frances McDormand, I’d kind of preferred Tilda Swinton to have stayed within the Coen brothers talent pool. She’s not bad at all, but she’s the type of actor that I find very distracting. I’d put Jack Nicholson in the same category. They’re great, but it’s difficult to separate them from the characters they’re meant to be playing. Swinton just seems to pulse icy hatred through the air at all times, and while I know that that’s usually what she’s trying to do, I think it’s a little too easy to see her trying to do it. She doesn’t disappear into roles the way others can, including Willis, Norton and McDormand, so I’m a little less interested in seeing more of her character because I can already guess what it will be. In one of the exclusive clips dropped online, it becomes apparent that she’s playing a human version of Miss Finch from Follow That Bird. Unlike Norton’s personification of Ned Flanders, this doesn’t sound like a notable deviation from anything else she’s done, and she’s the one aspect of the casting that, I’m afraid, leaves me cold.

I’ll be out back. I’m gonna find a tree to chop down.

…but whatever concerns I might have outlined above, the real moral of the story is that we end the trailer with a reminder that Wes Anderson knows exactly what the fuck he’s doing. Give me a drunk Bill Murray with an axe, and you’ll have me on your side forever.

Bring on May 25.

Announcing: Wes Anderson Month

One month from today sees the release of Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson’s seventh film and one I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. To celebrate, I will be giving this blog over to discussions of Anderson and his work, and I can’t think of a living director more deserving of that attention.

The rolling tribute will last for one month, up to the release of Moonrise Kingdom, so if you have no interest in that or any of his other films, I’ll see you in June! Nah, I’ll probably have a bunch of non-Anderson posts here as well, but this will give me a good outlet for what is some pretty major excitement right now.

What you can expect to see:

– Commentary on the Moonrise Kingdom Trailer, along with some analysis and conclusions drawn from what we know so far
– A Noiseless Chatter Spotlight on one of Wes Anderson’s films. Feel free to suggest which one.
– That’s How We’ve Always Done It: A discussion of the consistency of Wes Anderson’s approach, themes and characterizations, and whether it’s an indication of his strong and developed voice, or a reluctance to chart new ground.
– Listomania: The 10 Most Affecting Wes Anderson Moments, reworked from my original article at Noise to Signal
– Anatomy of a Scene: Deconstructing one of Anderson’s many unforgettable moments, and taking a look at how and why it works.
– A Look Back at Wes Anderson’s previous films, as a brief primer for newcomers.
– Friday Musical Interludes consisting of licensed music from the films of Wes Anderson
– My Review of Moonrise Kingdom, once it’s out of course. Spoiler: It’s better than Fantastic Mr. Fox. Because come on.

…and maybe some more stuff too, so stick around. I look forward to counting down the days with all of you, and reading your comments as we discuss one of the most interesting artists of any kind working today.

Oh, and the image above and to the right is an egg I dyed with my girlfriend this past Easter. It’s Steve Zissou, and I ate him on a sandwich.