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‘Characters who aren’t people’: The expressionist wonder of Wes Anderson

gbh - James Robert Smith
James Robert Smith

Off-kilter and distinctively dollhouse, Wes Anderson has always had his own instantly recognisable Bohemian brand. With an unconventional very dry quirkiness, Anderson is a touchstone in cinematographic history and makes for a perfect indie poster child who has very successfully broken into mainstream. At first, I wasn’t sold on this defining kitschiness: soft lighting didn’t make up for soft plots, and overshooting with anamorphic lenses didn’t make up for undershooting deeper meaning. It threw me that his characters weren’t people, and the deadpan sometimes just soulless and stunted. However, once I realised the seeming shallowness was intentional and drove for a fill-in-the-blanks audience approach, I fell head-over-heels for his whimsical universe and the joy of his directorial idiosyncrasy.

Starting off with the shaky beginnings of the rudimentary Bottle Rocket, Anderson’s first short was a post-college short starring and co-scripted Owen Wilson. The ingredients are all there – rule of thirds galore, straight-faced delivery and a bizarre narrative – but the recipe’s not quite right. There is an edge to it that’s not there in the usual low-budget film, but overall it’s very overlookable. Sundance’s pass is understandable, if not applaudable, and Owen Wilson nearly jumped ship from filmmaking to join the navy following its critical tank. However, it is interesting to see how big names start out on micro budgets, and a recommended fifteen-minute watch in the context of his later skyrocket to success.

The glamorisation of brokenness doesn’t always sit right: depression seems a colour-paletted world away from its reality and the tortured cast martyrized, but despite this The Royal Tennebaums frequently has its moments of an undeniable, knockout charm.

Anderson finds his stride and cinematographer Robert Yeoman by his debut feature Rushmore, which follows a student caught up in his extra-curriculars and pining for a teacher at a local lower school. Yeoman is the missing ingredient, and his cinematography is the slick finishing touch. This film is a time capsule for the early beginnings of Anderson’s signature leitmotif of adults failing children, and often stunning in its sensitivity. Women in this film still take backburner roles as is often the case in Anderson, but still, it is a compelling watch and lays the groundwork for the more well-known The Royal Tenenbaums. In a similar vein, it also follows prodigy children and the tensions in their eccentric family. The glamorisation of brokenness doesn’t always sit right: depression seems a colour-paletted world away from its reality and the tortured cast martyrized, but despite this , Tennebaums frequently has its moments of an undeniable, knockout charm.

Moonrise Kingdom is darker still. Part-fairy tale, part-epic caper and part-Bildungsroman, the aesthetic is breath-taking, but recent releases such as Hunt for the Wilderpeople have done the “revelation in the wild” trope better. Broaching the subject of childhood sexuality is tense in film where real child actors are used, and sometimes it makes for uncomfortable viewing. This is in part a problem with the feeling of being ‘on the outside looking in’ as the audience of Anderson films, rather than side-by-side with its characters, which makes for an eerie feeling of voyeurism. The ending is interesting, and as one of his defining films it is definitley worth a watch, but the ride isn’t always easy

The Darjeeling Limited is a gem in terms of character, and the relationship between the three brothers is precisely and wonderfully done. The opening is phenomenal, with Bill Murray in a twist oddly like the turnaround done by Spielberg’s Pyscho. It’s just a shame that Anderson chooses India to be his prop, and it feels like a very ‘Gap Yah’, whistlestop tour through a culture rather than genuinely engaging with its society. Andersons’ films have often excluded the crucial stories of people of colour, and it is particularly telling in this film in which anyone who isn’t white only ever orbits the main characters. 

My three personal favourites from Anderson’s filmography are The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Fantastic Mr Fox and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Fantastic Mr Fox doesn’t fit the usual cookie-cutter Anderson mould as a stop-motion children’s story, but the outcome is darkly imaginative and with a wicked spin on the already devious Ronald Dahl which puts Tim Burton to shame. Charming and a stylistic predecessor to Budapest, Life Aquatic is a white whale tale bow-wrapped in pirate aesthetic and with terrible, tragic moments which slam out-of-the-blue and without warning. With jaw-dropping sets and camerawork to match, it is the main story which reaches out to me. Grand Budapest feels like the final result of all of these films, and it is impossible not to fall in love with the spectacular world of the deliciously dandy M Gustave, wrapped in layers of time and matching different aspect ratios sitting within each other like Russian nesting dolls.

Wes Anderson is not all icing. His stylishness is not a smokescreen, and there is a meaning to the emptiness. “Characters are real. People are not,” Aaron Sorkin reminds, and this explains why their one-dimensionality is not the product of careless underdevelopment. In Anderson, there is an act of audience participation: it is our job too to project onto these fictional placeholders in order to feel connect with his cast as roadtrip, rolling planes music blares over a slow mo sequence. Anyone that can turn H&M adverts into masterpieces is brilliant, and his million-dollar budgets are not just hollow blockbuster cladding. Even though his characters may not feel or be “real”, there is no question that Anderson’s legacy undeniably is.

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