Bing Search



THE PERFECTLY PRECIOUS WORLD OF WES ANDERSON

By Kim Morgan
Special to MSN Movies

Recently, The Guardian's film blog ran a small piece highlighting the trailer for Wes Anderson's upcoming -- and for Anderson fans, greatly anticipated -- "Moonrise Kingdom." With perhaps a mixture of love and mockery, the writer checked off the usual Anderson tropes: "Every box is ticked: Schwartzman, Murray, pint-sized precocity, a retro palette, distracted dads, slo-mo hand-holding, fab hats, dead-centre deadpan," and then asked readers to weigh in on what they thought. As you can imagine, opinions were split between excitement and annoyance. One of the more amusing comments came from a reader who stated, "You can tell this is a discussion about Wes Anderson movies when it boils down to the fact that he's definitely using a different font this time."

Ah, yes, Anderson's attention to detail -- the clothes, the pastel colors, the walkie- talkies, megaphones and record players, the ... Dalmatian mice. Those things that many critics have decried as an addiction to quirk, an overly precious and obnoxious palette that values style over substance -- a critique that's decidedly more tired and lazy than anything Wes Anderson's ever done, I might add.

In fact, nothing Wes Anderson creates is lazy. There's always some twist. It takes an aggressive stylist, innovative soul and industrious spirit to create Margot Tenenbaum, raccoon eyeliner, mink coat, Izod dress, missing finger and all. She is singular Anderson (you actually forget Gwyneth Paltrow is playing her), not only for her personal style, but for her bittersweet beauty, her sad, fatherless childhood, her past triumphs, future failures and her deadpan demeanor, something that fills his frame so perfectly that she becomes overwhelmingly touching. I challenge anyone to get through Nico's "These Days" without, at least once, thinking of Margot Tenenbaum stepping off the Green Line bus. And yet, she's likable, intelligent and funny too. In short, she is style and substance. She's not merely a cardboard cut-out of quirk -- she's an interesting, mysterious woman, and nothing you've seen in any other film, and she's now so iconic that no other filmmaker could create her. She practically carries her own copyright. And yet, we recognize her, somewhere, in some kind of buried childhood memory or something.

Which leads me to one essential element of Wes Anderson: nostalgia. And not just nostalgia for nostalgia's sake, collecting memories like Star Wars action figures encased in original packaging, never to be played with. No, he's getting at something deeper and more ennui-filled: those feelings of childhood that are both beautiful and painful because we can only access them through memories, pictures, music and our father's clunky old dial phone (something you'll see in an Anderson phone, no matter what year it is). It's not surprising that most of Anderson's adults act much like children -- or rather, act like what we, as children, might have imagined we'd be like as adults. We'd hail dented gypsy cabs in New York, travel on the Darjeeling Limited with our siblings or, as in "The Life Aquatic," become Jacques Cousteau Zissou explorers, calling our competition "my nemesis." It's a lovely presage that the book Max Fischer checks out in "Rushmore" is "Diving for Sunken Treasure" by Jacques Cousteau.

That's not to say Anderson's films are adolescent. There's too much adult reflection and seriousness within his meticulously art-directed frames. Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) may be a lovable, nattily dressed deadbeat dad, but he's also, eventually, a regretful man who truly loves his family. The shot of the one son who resents him most, the business-minded, now excessively safety-oriented Chaz (a red tracksuit-clad Ben Stiller), sitting teary-eyed with a vulnerable and dying Royal in the back of an ambulance hits the viewer with such a powerful punch that you are smacked into the reality of loss. It's so emotional that, for some of us, you can feel it in your stomach and without warning, you spontaneously sob. That's not just style. And it's not easy sentimentality either.

But back to his style and signature. Anderson loves his slow-mo shots (and montages) set to music (and with great taste -- the Kinks, the Who, Brian Jones-era Rolling Stones, Love, David Bowie, David Bowie in Portuguese, Nico) to the point where it drives some viewers crazy. Or, in the case of an Indian boy's funeral in "The Darjeeling Limited," offends them (I don't agree with that critique and find the slow-mo during that tragic moment powerful, allowing us to drink in all of what's happening -- for all of the characters). Anderson's slow-mo has become so recognizable that a savvy YouTuber created a video comprised of Wes Anderson slo-mo shots, all set to Ja Rule (see it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRGqeHIItY8  -- Editor's note: Contains profanities.). I have no problem with Ja Rule, but it's not quite the same as Max Fischer emerging from an elevator to the Who's "A Quick One, While He's Away."

And then there's the God's-eye view. Anderson adores that shot with an almost fervid fetishization tantamount to Hitchcock's love of blondes. Books, letters, laminated lists, even Richie Tenenbaum's bleeding, suicidal wrists are shot from above (check out the YouTube tribute called Wes Anderson// From Above: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PNpVURAgG5g). For me, each method serves its purpose with potent panache. A slow-mo allows us to drink in the scene and even feel placed in the action. The omnispective POV has us floating above it, like a memory. Who stamps library books anymore? It's perfect to view this outdated act from above, like how we often dream -- out of body: something dislodged, both spatially and temporally, from the past.

It's interesting, then, that Anderson's brilliant debut feature, "Bottle Rocket," finds his most compelling character planning for the future. Owen Wilson's Dignan has listed a detailed 50-year plan of goals for his small crew (namely his best friend Anthony, played by his brother Luke) that involves petty criminal shenanigans, like robbing a book store (with unfortunate small bags), family homes ("You took the earrings, Dignan? ") and a cold-storage facility, leading to Dignan's valiant efforts to save crew member Apple Jack, and to his swift arrest. Though Anderson would go further with set design and detail, Dignan is an Anderson (and Wilson) creation through and through -- his defining moment in which viewers were absolutely disarmed by a character and actor (Wilson brought a unique style and wit that has been part of Anderson's universe since). And further, in an era of Tarantino rip-offs (the 1990s), we were absolutely struck by the movie's inherent sweetness. Dignan, like Anderson, is thoroughly well-organized, micromanaging the kind of world he wants to live in, from his yellow jumpsuit (he's ordered a dozen of them) to the correct way Anthony should escape from a mental institution. And yet, in the real world, Dignan, like all of us, just can't achieve that kind of perfection, which by film's end is overwhelmingly poignant. The ever-enthusiastic Dignan (no matter what) jokes (perhaps half-jokes) from the prison yard something like an action movie shoot: "Here are just a few of the key ingredients: dynamite, pole vaulting, laughing gas, choppers -- can you see how incredible this is going to be? -- hang gliding, come on!" Is this Dignan? Or Wes Anderson? Pity Dignan couldn't have become a movie director.

So, back to Anderson's critics. When J.D. Salinger passed away, I wrote a piece for MSN about his influence on cinema (even as Salinger, save for one bad attempt, never wanted any movies made of his work). Wes Anderson was a major part of that piece, and I pointed out that critics of Salinger slapped Anderson with similar derision. Both have been called overly precious, overly privileged and overly adoring of characters living in a vacuum of nostalgia and sweetness, dislocated from reality. Well, what, exactly, is wrong with nostalgia and sweetness? Particularly if it's crafted with genuine heart and individual éclat? And Anderson's distinct dislocation, inertia and wistfulness -- from the Tenenbaums to the Foxes -- is part of the point. When Anderson sets it beautifully, like when Margot and Richie Tenenbaum tearfully discuss his suicide attempt and profess their love for each other in their tent while listening to the Stones' "She Smiled Sweetly," Anderson allows the record to keep playing, and so when we hear, up next, "Ruby Tuesday," the entire moment is filled with such bittersweet beauty. As Henry Allen wrote in his remembrance of Salinger, "Hemingway was a writer who made unhappiness beautiful. Salinger took it a step further -- with the same uncanny ability to evoke the world his characters move through, he made it a virtue." The same could be said of Anderson. That, and as Dignan said, "I'm not always as confident as I look."

Kim Morgan is a film writer who runs the MSN Movies blog and has contributed to many outlets including LA Weekly, Reel.com, DVD Journal, Salon and The Huffington Post. She was a film critic for The Oregonian and served as DVD critic on Tech TV's "The Screen Savers." She's also appeared as guest film critic on AMC's "The Movie Club," E! Television, Reelz, Starz and "Ebert & Roeper." Read her blog at SunsetGun.com.

Check out MSN Movies’ Summer Movie Guide to plan your summer entertainment. Find release dates and watch trailers for all the hottest action, horror, drama, comedy, family and sci-fi films in the pipeline.
 
Top Summer Trailers