BOTTLE ROCKET (1994)
A few years ago, I was working as an assistant at a well-known commercial production company, and I was charged with transcribing notes from pitch calls that our directors would conduct with advertising agencies. Do enough of those calls, and you’ll notice a recurring set of distinct references that agencies employ as a form of shorthand for an idea. They’d make such references, like the (not-an-actual-word) word “aspirational”, so frequently and obliviously that the other commercial assistants and I developed several inside jokes about their usage.
The most egregious offender was whenever an ad agent invoked the name of filmmaker Wes Anderson– and it was a fairly common occurrence. The irony of swiping a high-profile independent filmmaker’s visual style to hawk juice boxes surely wasn’t lost on me, nor was it entirely unexpected. Anderson’s style is so easily commodified because it’s so immediately identifiable — just look at any one of the countless “______ If It Were Directed By Wes Anderson” parody videos that litter the internet.
While there are many imitators, there is only one Wes Anderson, and his one-of-a-kind aesthetic has fueled one of the most distinctive and fresh filmographies in recent memory.
The surface aesthetics of Anderson’s style are highly identifiable– camera movements that play out in flat space (only laterally or vertically), symmetrical widescreen compositions, rack zooms, twee art direction- and their ubiquity and popularity amongst the younger population has earned him scornful titles like “The Hipster Director”. In a cinematic age characterized by the inorganic perfection of CGI, Anderson’s films stand out like bespoke artisan crafts– the product of actual human hands.
His mise-en-scene appears as a precious diorama brought to life by old-school techniques that harken back to the cinema’s early association with magic. He electrifies his work with music from a wide variety of eclectic sources, from British Invasion rock to the scores from Indian Bollywood films (an artistic conceit that has earned him comparisons to Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino).
Of course, anybody can (and often do) adopt this combination of traits and techniques, but what makes Anderson’s films particularly effective and emotionally resonant is the undercurrent of melancholy that runs beneath his stories. Despite their breezy, fast-paced comic affectations, his stories wrestle with heavy thematic ideas: grief, abandonment, broken family dynamics, sibling rivalry, and the loss of innocence. Anderson’s unique brand of alchemy can be imitated, but never duplicated, and his influence on the art form is simply unrivaled.
Anderson was born in Houston, Texas, on May 1st, 1969. He was the second of three boys– Mel Jr., who would grow up to become a doctor, and Eric, who’s illustrations would become an integral component of the marketing of Wes’ films. His father, Melver Leonard, worked in advertising and his mother, Texas Ann, was an archeologist.
As easily evidenced by viewing his work, Anderson has always had a literary flair about his worldview– a trait that was arguably passed down by his great-grandfather, Edgar Rice Borroughs, who wrote the novels “John Carter of Mars” and “Tarzan”. His first foray into filmmaking was, like so many other brilliant directors, via shooting little shorts on his father’s Super 8 film camera that starred his brothers and other childhood friends.
As he became more serious about the idea of filmmaking as a career, he looked to the works of European cinema as well as Hal Ashby for inspiration. In 1987, Anderson collected his high school diploma from St. John’s School (where he’d later shoot his 1998 breakout, RUSHMORE) and set off to Austin to study philosophy at The University of Texas.
It was there that he met a shaggy-haired blonde boy with a crooked nose by the name of Owen Wilson, and when Anderson wasn’t in class or working as a part-time projectionist at the local cinema, he and Wilson would excitedly daydream about all films that they’d one day shoot together.
After graduating in 1990, Anderson and Wilson decided to get serious about one particular idea, which followed a ragtag trio of aspiring thieves as they endeavored to establish their careers in crime, only to be derailed by rookie mistakes and their own incompetence. They called this short film BOTTLE ROCKET, and in 1992, they recruited indie producer Cynthia Hargrave to help them realize their vision on a $4000 budget.
Naturally, being amateur filmmakers with no formalized education in the craft, they ran out of money after producing about eight minutes’ worth of the finished film. Those eight minutes, however, were enough to convince people that Anderson and Wilson had some actual talent, and in short order, the pair were able to finish their film and get it programmed at one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world: Sundance.
The story of BOTTLE ROCKET concerns Dignan (Owen Wilson) and Anthony (his brother, Luke), two enterprising wannabe-crooks bumbling their way forward with only famous heist films and Hollywood movie logic to guide them. They start out small and safe, like stealing from their own parents’ house, before determining that levelling up requires obtaining a gun and holding up a local bookstore. BOTTLE ROCKET gives us a pair of charming, loveable characters whose eagerness and naivete is matched only by their own ineptitude.
Even at this, the earliest stage of his career, Owen’s eventual stardom is apparent. The same goes for Luke, with his more-level-headed approach to Anthony. The understated comedy and eclectic blend of characters goes a long way in creating a compelling film out of minimal resources, as well as establishing the types of character that Anderson would come to be known for. An interesting facet of the short concerns Anderson’s use of dialogue that’s laden with pop culture references.
This speaks to a common film school cliche, the aping of popular storytelling trends– towards this end, Anderson is arguably aping the influence of Quentin Tarantino, who popularized the conceit with his then-recent hits RESERVOIR DOGS (1991) and PULP FICTION (1994). This isn’t as bad as it sounds, however– it simply means that the young Anderson hadn’t yet found his own voice, and was simply experimenting with the techniques of others. Obviously, we all know that Anderson eventually found his own unique calling card.
The precise, almost clockwork-like camera movements that define Anderson’s visual style aren’t so much on display here, but the seeds are certainly sown. Shooting on black and white film in the 4×3 aspect ration in accordance with his budget, Anderson and his cinematographers Bert Guthrie and Barry Braverman shoot wide, covering most of the action in master shots, then punching in for strategic inserts.
The camera switches frequently between handheld and locked-down tripod shots, depending on whether movement is needed or not. The low-budget is most apparent when what would normally be a dolly shot weaves and shakes with the imperfections of handheld movement.
Anderson and the brothers Wilson shot BOTTLE ROCKET in their native Texas, and the story’s everyday locales (back-alleys, small town main streets, run-down apartments) are a far cry from the increasingly fantastical settings in which he’d place his characters in later works.
There’s no sense of the preening control and preciousness that would mark later works like THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX (2009) and THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)– instead, the rough-hewn, lo-fi nature of Anderson’s short caper (and it’s boppy 40’s-era jazz soundtrack) suggests the improvisational influence of John Cassavetes. Thematically speaking, however, BOTTLE ROCKET exhibits signs of Anderson’s future story conceits by placing considerable focus on the sibling dynamic between the brothers Wilson as well as their offbeat interests.
BOTTLE ROCKET’s Sundance premiere garnered Anderson a significant amount of attention, as well as a coveted slot in the Sundance Institute’s Directing Labs, where he would rework the story for his feature-length debut. Foregoing the long, agonizing stretch of trial-and-error that most aspiring filmmakers endure, Anderson’s bonafides as a true auteur are apparent from the start.
As his most low-budget (and only black and white) film to date, BOTTLE ROCKET is a whimsical glimpse into Anderson’s psyche at its most pure— unadulterated by Hollywood cynicism, and driven by an innocent love for film.
BOTTLE ROCKET (1996)
A cursory glance at director Wes Anderson’s filmography suggests an artist who sprang forth with a fully-formed aesthetic. From his breakout film (1998’s RUSHMORE) onwards, the filmmaker’s work has retained a consistent, immediately identifiable style. We know, however, that an artist’s voice doesn’t manifest itself in mature form overnight— it agonizes and toils itself into shape through years of trial, error, and experimentation.
Some are lucky to undergo this very vulnerable, sometimes-humiliating process out of the public eye, achieving their breakthrough when they’re good and ready. Others aren’t so lucky, forced into the unenviable position of displaying their artistic growing pains for all the world to see.
Anderson has had such an illustrious, celebrated career that it’s easy to forget that he was one of the unlucky ones, with his first professional work received as something of a creative disaster. As time has passed, however, it’s become increasing clear that the problem with Anderson’s feature debut wasn’t him. It was us, and our unwillingness to recognize the arrival of an important new voice in American cinema.
When Anderson and his co-writer/star Owen Wilson took their 1994 short film BOTTLE ROCKET to the Sundance Film Festival, they made some new friends in powerful places. Their fresh comedic voice found an ardent fan in producer Polly Platt, who brought the short to executive producer James L. Brooks’ attention.
Brooks, who creatively shepherded the landmark television cartoon THE SIMPSONS, was taken by these charming, eccentric kids from Texas, and immediately put them to work developing BOTTLE ROCKET as a feature film. After a short stint at the Sundance Institute Directing Lab, Anderson and the brothers Owen were lifted up out of their Texas comfort zone and flown to Los Angeles, where Brooks set them up in an office on the Columbia lot.
It was Anderson and Wilson’s first time writing a feature screenplay, and they struggled through the process for a couple years before they emerged with a shootable script. For a couple of young, wide-eyed Texas, this alone would have been a tremendous feat— but their job was only just getting started.
The feature version of BOTTLE ROCKET follows the same basic beats as its short-form counterpart, but Anderson and Wilson have elongated the plot to give greater depth to the characters while allowing for more comedic opportunities and situations. Luke Wilson reprises his role of Anthony, a burn-out reeling from exhaustion who’s given himself over to the schemes of his friend Dignan (Owen Wilson).
Dignan has fallen in love with the idea of living on the lam as a wanted criminal, and has recruited Anthony to assist him in pulling of a series of small-time heists to catch the attention of his mentor, a professional crook named Mr. Henry (James Caan).
After pulling off the successful robbery of a local bookstore in Dallas, they hit the road to begin their destinies as outlaws. For all Dignan’s meticulous planning, however, the plot is derailed by the one thing he didn’t anticipate— Anthony falling in love with a Mexican motel maid named Inez (Lumi Cavazos).
Luke and Owen may be some of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood today, but at the time of BOTTLE ROCKET’s release, they were complete unknowns. BOTTLE ROCKET kickstarted their careers by giving them a platform to show off their off-kilter chemistry. Much has been written about Owen’s debut as Dignan, a relentlessly-idealistic dreamer who believes in himself and his friends to a fault.
He steals the show from his lower-key counterparts at every turn and blesses the film with some of its most memorable moments. His boyish energy is endlessly infectious, helping us to forget that he’s also a deluded, manipulative control freak. As Anthony, Luke plays to his comedic strengths as the straight man, serving as the perfect foil to Dignan’s hopped-up excitement.
Robert Musgrave plays the disgruntled getaway driver Bob Mapplethrope, going above and beyond what is required of him to become one the film’s greatest charms. BOTTLE ROCKET was also Musgrave’s debut as an actor, but sadly his great performance here didn’t translate to a bigger acting career like it did for the Wilson brothers.
The film’s most recognizable face— veteran tough-guy actor James Caan— ironically gets the least screentime. He plays Mr. Henry, Dignan’s mentor and a local criminal mastermind who offsets his rather-eccentric style of dress with a boisterous, wise-guy confidence. His presence helped to raise BOTTLE ROCKET’s profile significantly, but not even Sonny Corleone himself could save the film from the magnetic pull of obscurity.
Other cast members of note include the third Wilson brother, Andrew, (yes, there’s a third one) as a cocksure bully known only as Future Man, and Kumar Pallana (in the first of a recurring series of cameos in Anderson’s work) as Kumar, the space-case safecracker who inadvertently derails the film’s climactic heist.
BOTTLE ROCKET marks the first collaboration Anderson and his regular cinematographer, Robert Yeoman. Owing to its status as a low-budget indie, the film is easily the director’s most realistic-looking work in a career defined by its precious music-box aesthetics. While Anderson initially wanted to shoot in the anamorphic aspect ratio (like he would do for the majority of his later features), it was ultimately decided that BOTTLE ROCKET would shoot in the Academy 1.85:1 frame– likely for budgetary reasons.
The film is supremely interesting in the context of the development of Anderson’s visual aesthetic. There are only hints of the symmetrical precision and flat diorama-esque depth that would come to define his composition, presenting instead a somewhat unwieldy mise-en-scene with uncomfortably claustrophobic close-ups and a long sense of depth afforded by the sprawling Texas horizon.
In building up his own voice, Anderson borrows liberally from the style of established influences, like Martin Scorsese’s whip-pans, or the punchy insert shots popularized by Quentin Tarantino. The use of these techniques, as well as the incorporation of considered and smoothly precise camera movement, would be instrumental in forming the backbone of his own style. The cumulative effect is that of a young artist with impeccable taste fumbling his way through to the finish line— uneven and messy, sure, but beautiful to behold.
Anderson and production designer David Wasco use a mix of outdated set dressings, props, and costumes to bestow a general feeling of timelessness on the picture. In not calling attention to any era in particular, Anderson’s work essentially becomes its own self-contained universe outside of time, beginning in earnest with BOTTLE ROCKET’s sleepy, nondescript buildings and midcentury vehicles.
This conceit is also echoed in Anderson’s choice of music, which recklessly mixes together classic rock from bands like The Rolling Stones and The Proclaimers with other tracks spanning the gamut from punk to salsa. This varied musical landscape is grounded with a consistently jaunty, high-energy score from composer Mark Mothersbaugh that perfectly captures the childlike, innocent tone Anderson has established here.
BOTTLE ROCKET also marks the beginning of one of Anderson’s highest-profile signatures: sending out the audience out on an emotional high via a slow-motion closing shot set to an upbeat rock track.
While Anderson’s artistic aesthetic had yet to solidify during the production of BOTTLE ROCKET, several of its components can be seen manifesting on a thematic level. There’s an air of mischievous innocence to the piece, with an optimistic, almost-childlike outlook towards malaise and the consequences of a life of crime. This interesting juxtaposition creates an unexpected feeling of whimsical melancholy, a tone that Anderson has used to great effect in his later works.
More often than not, Anderson’s child characters are smarter (or at least more perceptive) than the adults– his 2012 feature MOONRISE KINGDOM is predicated almost entirely upon this conceit. In BOTTLE ROCKET, this is evidenced by Anthony’s kid sister, who possesses an almost-supernatural ability to cleave through the bullshit politics of adulthood with staggering clarity. The inverse is true for Dignan, whose mission to make it as a career criminal is driven by juvenile fantasies that cloud his awareness of the world outside of himself.
While he’d never admit it, he believes the world revolves around him– just like a child would. This outlook also translates to Anderson’s treatment of the character dynamics. Anthony and Dignan aren’t brothers (well…not in the film, anyway), but their relationship exhibits the qualities of sibling rivalry. They bicker and argue constantly, at times even coming to physical blows, but never once do we suspect they won’t end up together in the end, for the foundation of their friendship is the kind of bond shared only by family.
Finally, Anderson’s own eccentric sartorial affectations are reflected in the costuming choices for his characters. One of the funniest sight gags in the film is the image of these naive criminals executing a heist while clad in canary yellow jumpsuits, looking like (to paraphrase Future Man) “little bananas”.
This attention-grabbing outfit is the brainchild of Dignan, who in his off hours, has no shortage of peculiar shirts to putter around in. Bob dresses like a member of the Reservoir Dogs who accidentally slept in and missed the robbery. Mr. Henry is easily the most eccentric of the bunch, slipping in and out of oversized pooka shells, turtlenecks, driving caps, Japanese kimonos, and power suits with ease. Not even Anthony– the supposed straight man– is immune to Anderson’s off-kilter sensibilities, appearing for much of the film in a candy red fleece pullover.
Again, this all circles back to the childlike outlook that Anderson imbues in his films– the characters dress in an exaggerated fashion, as if they were children dressing up in the ways they perceive adults to dress.
BOTTLE ROCKET holds valuable lessons for first-time filmmakers, not the least of whom was Anderson himself. One of those lessons is that past performance is not a reliable indicator of future success. After the 1994 short knighted them the wunderkinds of Sundance, they reasonably assumed that the 1996 feature would be received similarly.
To the shock of everyone– even the critics– BOTTLE ROCKET was rejected by Sundance. This development would be disappointing enough for any film, but for a project that was developed directly inside of Sundance’s prestigious talent incubator, it must’ve been downright heartbreaking. Adding insult to injury, the film bombed so badly at the box office that Owen reportedly almost joined the Marines because he didn’t think he had a future in the movies.
But as time has gone on, the film community has slowly caught on to what only a handful of critics initially knew: BOTTLE ROCKET is a deliriously charming little film whose spot in Anderson’s filmography is every bit as worthy as his later, more successful works. Throughout the 90’s and 00’s, BOTTLE ROCKET slowly gained a cult following among Anderson aficionados as they traded well-worn DVD copies amongst each other.
It all culminated in 2008, twelve years after its release, when that highly respected distribution label, The Criterion Collection, inducted the film into its library– bestowing upon it a level of prestige that the film could have never possibly imagined during its failed theatrical run. Criterion’s move enshrines BOTTLE ROCKET for what it really is– a brilliant, if flawed, debut, and the first expression of one of contemporary cinema’s most original and influential voices.
Despite the disappointing reception of 1994’s BOTTLE ROCKET, director Wes Anderson’s first feature somehow managed to gain a small following of fans inside the studio system. They championed his efforts towards a follow-up–a feature called RUSHMORE– scripted from an idea that he had initially hashed out with co-writer Owen Wilson long before BOTTLE ROCKET came to fruition.
The project was initially set up at New Line Cinema, where it languished for quite a while before the studio decided they didn’t want to go through with it. Undeterred, Anderson and producer Barry Mendel put the rights up on the auction block and sold it to Disney.
Their scheme proved fruitful, and before long Anderson was back in his home state of Texas, shooting his second feature on the very same grounds that had been his actual high school. But this wasn’t some scrappy indie production like BOTTLE ROCKET was– backed by a budget of ten million dollars and the support of well-known screen performers like Bill Murray, RUSHMORE was a real, honest-to-goodness studio picture.. and the launching pad for one of the most interesting and inspiring careers in cinema.
RUSHMORE tells the story of Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), an outspoken and eccentric young lad who fancies himself the head of his class at his prestigious private high school, Rushmore Academy. In a way, he is– he’s the president or founder of just about about every social club on campus, and he regularly mounts elaborate (if highly inappropriate) stage adaptations of classic films.
However, he’s not so hot where it really counts: his grades. Regularly threatened with academic probation, he just might actually be the lowest-performing student at the school. His efforts to improve his grades are derailed when he falls in love with a first grade teacher named Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams) and befriends the local steel tycoon, Henry Blume (Bill Murray).
In a complicated bid to win her love (even after she’s already rejected him), Max convinces Blume to donate funds to build a large aquarium on the school grounds, all without the school’s knowledge or permission. His scheme fails, and Rushmore’s headmaster Dr. Guggenheim (Brian Cox) summarily expels him from the place that has given Max his very identity.
Lost without his beloved Rushmore, Max flails in his attempts to fit in at his new public school– his eccentricities and conceited sense of self-importance making him more enemies than friends. As he falls even deeper into despair, he alienates even the few friends he has: he incites a childish war of aggression against Blume when he discovers his affair with Miss Cross, amidst other bouts of acting out that cost him some of his closest allies.
Through all these trials, RUSHMORE reveals itself as a heartfelt, if idiosyncratic, coming-of-age story, and sets the sets the stage for the kind of grand comeback that only Max Fischer could devise.
Besides the obvious discovery of the Wilson Brothers in BOTTLE ROCKET, RUSHMORE is perhaps the earliest example of Anderson’s uncanny eye for talent. After all, his characters are so meticulously developed that he can’t leave it to just any old actor to reliably breathe life into his creations.
This was certainly the case with Jason Schwartzman, who was only found after an exhaustive worldwide search for the perfect kid to play the precociously ambitious Max Fischer. RUSHMORE is Schwartzman’s debut, kicking off a career that’s given us several iconic performances over the last several years. Even while he’s gripped in the throes of puberty, Shwartzman effortlessly embodies Max’s misguided, deceitful charm.
Murray had already cultivated a long career as a beloved and respected comedic actor, and his turn here as the melancholic steel tycoon Herman Blume marked a new direction that continues to this day– characterized by quiet, inward-looking and deadpan comic performances within somewhat serious films.
Murray’s performance as Blume– a droll Vietnam vet and disinterested businessman– was highly praised as one of RUSHMORE’s biggest strengths, beginning a close collaboration with Anderson that has run through every one of the director’s subsequent films to date.
Olivia Williams brings a balanced, sweet perspective to the film as the widowed elementary school teacher and object of Max’s affections, while Brian Cox slips effortlessly into his coke-bottle glasses for the role of Max’s arch-nemesis and cranky headmaster of Rushmore Academy, Dr. Guggenheim. Seymour Cassel, a seasoned character actor and longtime member of indie maverick auteur John Cassavetes’ troupe of players, is an inspired choice to play Max’s dad, Bert– a sweet and jovial barber.
Amidst all these new faces, Anderson brings back a few members of his BOTTLE ROCKET cast. Luke Wilson has a recurring cameo as Dr. Peter Flynn, a male nurse and William’s boyfriend, while Kumar Pallana lends his eccentric senile charms to the small role of Mr. Littlejeans, Rushmore’s groundskeeper. The other Wilson brothers, Andrew and Owen, also appear briefly.
Andrew dons a sleazy mustache as the no-nonsense Coach Beck, and co-writer Owen trades in BOTTLE ROCKET’s starring role for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance as Miss Cross’ dead husband via a photograph in her room.
Anderson’s BOTTLE ROCKET cinematographer Robert Yeoman returns to lens RUSHMORE. Shooting for the first time in the 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio that he has since employed as a consistent component of his aesthetic, Anderson intended to give RUSHMORE a slightly heightened sense of reality, or a feeling resembling (in his words) “a living Roald Dahl book”.
Indeed, the film feels somewhat like a fragile diorama, achieved via an inspired mix of symmetrical compositions, flattened depth, bright primary colors and prominent intertitles rendered in both flowing calligraphy and Anderson’s preferred Futura font. His tableaus are given motion by a considered and precise camera that only picks itself up from it sticks and dolly tracks to strategically capture brief handheld moments of chaos or imbalance.
Returning production designer David Wasco reinforces the exaggerated prep-school aesthetic by dressing the various locations with the quirky minutiae of Max’s world. Editor David Wasco builds off his prior collaboration with Anderson in BOTTLE ROCKET, channeling the spirit of Martin Scorsese (despite the radical tonal difference) in his navigation of Anderson’s frequent whip-pans, punchy inserts, speed ramps, and numerous montages.
Mark Mothersbaugh, also a BOTTLE ROCKET alumnus, crafts RUSHMORE’s baroque electronic score, using the template of classical music to convey a quirky, ornate vibe that fits in with the film’s exaggerated depiction of academia.
The real spirit of RUSHMORE’s soundtrack, however, lies in Anderson’s usage of rollicking Brit Invasion tracks, which imbues a punk edge to the film’s buttoned-up approach. Creation’s “Making Time” becomes an anthem of sorts, headlining an eclectic mix of classic rock tunes from the likes of The Rolling Stones and John Lennon, French love ballads, and even cues from the 1965 television special A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS (indeed, Anderson’s aesthetic tends to draw comparisons to, and borrow quite frequently from, Charles Schulz’s creations).
The film’s musical palette finishes off with the now-iconic use of Faces’ “Ooh La La”, which plays as the film draws to close. Combined with Anderson’s characteristic slow-motion final shot, the track sends us out on an uplifting, hopeful note that’s tempered by a hint of sweet nostalgia.
If BOTTLE ROCKET established Anderson’s singular voice to the film community, then RUSHMORE does the same for his self-contained universe, whereby he examines recurring themes even while cycling through new characters, locations, and scenarios. Anderson’s characters are, at their hearts, innocents– they believe in the best version of themselves and the world, even if their expectations don’t quite match up with reality.
They’re eccentrics and outcasts, reflected outwardly in their style of dress as well as their off-kilter interests (in RUSHMORE, Max buries his nose into books by Jacques Costeau, foreshadowing a larger fleshing out of that world in 2004’s THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU). These traits also manifest in the reversal of role dynamics, where the children seem to be smarter or more cognizant of reality than the adults.
Though he’s only fifteen, Max acts much like he perceives successful adults to behave (which, ironically, isn’t very adult-like at all). Conversely, the middle-aged Herman Blume resorts to childish antics and petty revenge in his war with Max over Miss Cross’ affections.
RUSHMORE also reinforces and perfects Anderson’s trademark balance of the comedic elements with a sobering dose of melancholy. Heavy, mature topics like divorce, adultery, and regret hang over the otherwise sunny playgrounds of Rushmore Academy, and Anderson’s characters’ attempts to hold on to their innocent natures in spite of this reality endears them to us even more.
As in RUSHMORE, Anderson’s characters often encounter dramatic conflict along the lines of their relationship (or lack thereof) to their families. A fundamental driving aspect of Max’s character is his relationship with his dead mother, and his actions throughout RUSHMORE can be seen as an attempt to reconstruct a new family unit for himself, with Blume and Cross as parental figures.
Blume in particular represents the ideal father figure for Max, at least as far as Max’s idealized perception of Blume as a successful, enterprising steel tycoon and not how he is in real life: a lonely, sad sack railing against his failing marriage and his obnoxious sons. Complicating matters is the fact that Max already has a dad, albeit one he tells other people is a brain surgeon to obscure the fact that he’s really just a “lowly” barber.
Naturally then, a major plot point of the film revolves around Max learning to accept his biological father for who he is and see value in other lifestyles he’d otherwise dismiss as beneath him.
RUSHMORE is an extremely important film in Anderson’s career, for obvious reasons. For one, it marks the first appearance of American Empirical Pictures, Anderson’s production banner that has carried forth through all of his films to date. RUSHMORE premiered at the Telluride film festival, whose rave reviews propelled the film further on to a warm reception at the box office, redeeming Anderson in the eyes of the studios system after the disappointment of BOTTLE ROCKET.
With the successful execution of his first studio film, Anderson proved he could deftly navigate the luxuries and the pitfalls that come with higher budgets and well-known collaborators, all while still retaining his singular voice within the final product. And while that voice may have confounded audiences during the release of BOTTLE ROCKET two years prior, this time they had caught up with the young auteur– cheering him on to higher ground.
RUSHMORE would go on to win Best Director and Best Supporting Male at that year’s Independent Spirit Awards, but its legacy would be truly solidified when the venerated Criterion Collection gave the film a spine number of its very own only two years later. Anderson was now, officially, a rising force in Hollywood, and much like his precocious wunderkind Max Fischer, he was ready to show the world what he could do.
THE MAX FISCHER PLAYERS PRESENTS THE MTV MOVIE AWARDS (1999)
After the breakout success of 1998’s RUSHMORE, its eccentric characters, charming storyline, and hotshot young director earned a prominent place within the cultural conversation about that year’s notable films. As a smaller film, it stood the risk of being overlooked in favor of larger, more popular films like OUT OF SIGHT, ARMAGEDDON, or THE TRUMAN SHOW.
While these films didn’t quite fit into the archetypical awards show mold, their popularity earned them recognition at the MTV Movie Awards. In a move that exhibited genuine inspiration and foresight, the committee chose to also recognize the upstart appreciation surrounding RUSHMORE as one of the year’s best films by incorporating the film’s singularly eccentric style into the on-air promotions leading up to the awards.
The central idea, called THE MAX FISCHER PLAYERS PRESENT THE MTV AWARDS, utilized RUSHMORE’s recurring subplot that saw Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fischer mount endearingly elaborate stage productions of popular films like SERPICO. Wes Anderson was enlisted to reunite with Schwartzman and the rest of his RUSHMORE cast in creating a series of short spots that saw Max Fischer and company creating stage adaptations of OUT OF SIGHT, THE TRUMAN SHOW, and ARMAGEDDON.
The square 4:3 aspect ratio of the television format echoes the boxy constraints of a live stage, as does Anderson’s camera movements that flatten depth while moving in only two dimensions. The lighting, sets, and special effects all possess the same janky, handmade quality that made their incorporation in RUSHMORE so charming.
The various tricks and props that Max and company use to evoke the big-budget look of these three films is endlessly inventive, foreshadowing and anticipating the mild fan phenomenon of “sweding” Hollywood films that was popularized by Michel Gondry’s sleeper hit BE KIND, REWIND (2008).
Anderson effortlessly recreates RUSHMORE’s iconic tone and style, right down to the whip-fast comedic timing and innocently acerbic wit. His films often possess a diorama-esque or proscenium-like affectation to their aesthetic, as if his stories were self-aware and unfolded under the encapsulation of air quotes, and MAX FISCHER PLAYERS PRESENTS THE MTV MOVIE AWARDS is perhaps one of the most literal manifestations of that conceit.
All in all, the spots were highly effective in promoting 1999’s Movie Awards for MTV, but they were even more effective for introducing Anderson’s unique voice to culture-literate teens and young adults: the audience that would champion Anderson to even greater heights as he built his body of work.
THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001)
After the breakout success of 1998’s RUSHMORE, director Wes Anderson had established himself as a singularly unique and quirky voice in independent cinema. With his career now on the rise, Anderson and his writing partner Owen Wilson turned their attention to what was their most ambitious project yet: a sprawling tale about a fallen upper-class New York family that was inspired by Anderson’s parents’ divorce as much as it was inspired by Orson Welles’ THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942).
Titled THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, the project saw Anderson and Wilson reunite with their RUSHMORE producer Barry Mendel, who was able to leverage the success of their previous collaboration into bringing prestige mogul Scott Rudin onboard to help them steer the good ship American Empirical towards its next port of call: New York City.
THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001) was Anderson’s first film shot outside of his native Texas, with the change of scenery significantly expanding Anderson’s worldview and sense of scope even as he endeavored to tell an intimate story about a family fallen on hard times.
Anderson’s New York City is rendered in a highly-stylized and fictionalized manner, capitulating to the stylistic conceits of his central characters as if they had built the city themselves. As the title would suggest, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS tells the story of the Tenenbaum family, a prosperous and upwardly-mobile clan living in a charming, yet stately, brownstone mansion somewhere on the Upper East Side.
The parents are successful in their own right, but their children are regarded as outright prodigies, each one blessed with an extreme intellect and an inherent talent for their chosen activities. But, just as the house used for shooting was actually located in working-class Harlem in real life, appearances can be deceiving, and the Tenenbaum family’s constant pursuit of excellence masks their debilitating shortcomings and failures.
One day, patriarch Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) gathers his children together to inform them of his divorce to their mother, Etheline (Anjelica Huston). This kicks off a long, downward spiral for the once-great Tenenbaums, with each kid in turn succumbing to the disappointments of adulthood. Just as suddenly as he had left, Royal returns decades later to his grown children with another devastating announcement– he’s dying of cancer.
This development brings the estranged Tenenbaum clan all back under the same roof, inadvertently creating factions and rivalries when old flames flare back up and old scores demand settling. As the situation expands into an increasingly-comedic conflagration, the Tenenbaums will learn that for all their god-given talents, their best assets have always been each other.
The warm reception of RUSHMORE privileged Anderson with the clout to cast genuine Hollywood stars for the first time in his career, and while his selections for THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS are decidedly off-kilter and unexpected, he exhibits an exceptional eye for casting and an ability to consistently display ubiquitous and established performers in a new light. This could be easily applied towards any of the film’s three most high-profile leads, Gene Hackman, Ben Stiller, and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Much like Bill Murray in RUSHMORE or James Caan in BOTTLE ROCKET (1996), Hackman fills the role of the old-school showbiz veteran whose presence lends a great deal of prestige and gravitas to the picture. Despite reports that Hackman was combative with Anderson during production, you’d never know it just by watching his performance, which he throws himself into with mischievous zeal and deceitful gusto.
Royal is something of a peacock, draping himself in loud (yet somehow tasteful) double-breasted suits and affecting a grandfatherly cad’s persona to match. Primarily known for playing hard-nosed brutes and stubborn heartland father figures, Hackman uses the character of Royal Tenenbaum to show off a gentler, happier side of his personality, creating one of his most memorable roles in the process.
Ben Stiller follows in Bill Murray’s footsteps as an SNL alum, turned popular comedy star, turned soulful indie stalwart. Consider the fact that THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS was released the same year Stiller let loose his endlessly popular modeling satire ZOOLANDER, and his angry, neurotic performance here becomes all the more remarkable.
Never seen without his trademark tracksuit, Stiller’s Chas Tenenbaum has let his beef with his father turn him into an altogether different monster towards his own boys– one who burdens them with his own obsessive compulsive concerns about safety or making every moment of free time count towards their financial and physical betterment.
Stiller’s performance is unexpectedly moving, precisely because of Anderson’s inspired casting against type. While Stiller has yet to collaborate with Anderson again, his involvement in THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS would set the stage for further dramatic forays, the most notable of which being GREENBERG (2010) and WHILE WE’RE YOUNG (2015)– both directed by Anderson’s frequent writing partner Noah Baumbach.
When she’s working with directors like Paul Thomas Anderson or David Fincher, Gwyneth Paltrow is able to transcend her admittedly bland instincts and deliver a truly edgy performance. This is certainly true of THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, where she projects a deadpan, cynical persona onto the character of Margot Tenenbaum, the family’s adopted daughter and an enigmatic playwright with a nympho streak.
With the retaining of several of his BOTTLE ROCKET and RUSHMORE costars and the appearance of new faces who would go on to collaborate with Anderson again, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS establishes the idea of the director’s close-knit company of actors– a repertory from which he draws again and again like a stage director would.
Both Wilson boys return in full force, after appearing in RUSHMORE via mere cameos (Luke) or not even at all (Owen). Luke plays Richie Tenenbaum, a fallen tennis star who’s lovesickness for his adopted sister Margot has caused him to grow quiet, withdrawn, and depressed. Owen Wilson plays Eli Cash, not necessarily a Tenenbaum per se, but he grew up so closely with them that he might as well be one. Like Richie, he’s also in love with Margot, but he’s been able to achieve more success than Richie thanks to his successful career as a prestigious western novel author.
Owen turns in a hilariously bizarre performance that’s always draped in cowboy fringe and never short on charm, despite the character’s supreme narcissism and escalating cocaine habit. With a character role noticeably diminished from his stature in RUSHMORE and crowded in amongst several other eclectic personas vying for attention, it would be easy to forgive Bill Murray’s performance for getting lost in the shuffle.
Thankfully, Murray more than holds his own as a prominent neurologist and Margot’s humorless husband, Raleigh St. Clair. Seymour Cassel, who was plucked from the late indie auteur John Cassavete’s troupe of performers to join Anderson’s in RUSHMORE, pops up in THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS as Dusty, a kindly elevator operator in cahoots with Royal’s mischievous agenda.
Anjelica Huston puts in the first of several performances for Anderson as a noted archaeologist and the Tenenbaum matriarch, Etheline, projecting a quiet dignity and strength to counter Royal’s admittedly juvenile worldview. The character is reportedly based on Anderson’s own mother, who was an archaeologist as well. Kumar Pallana, in his third consecutive appearance in an Anderson film, is gifted here with a much higher-profile role than his last two outings. He plays Pagoda, the Tenenbaum’s slightly batty, possibly dementia-riddled housekeeper who moonlights as Royal’s partner in crime.
THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS arguably boasts the largest cast of any Anderson film, possibly too large to fully cover in-depth here, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the involvement of Danny Glover and Alec Baldwin. Glover plays Henry Sherman, the Tenenbaum’s family accountant and Etheline’s new beau. Impeccably dressed in a bowtie and bright candy colors, Sherman is a prototypical Anderson character— a charmingly eccentric throwback to a bygone era.
Glover plays Sherman against type as a dignified intellectual plagued by insecurity and anxiety. Alec Baldwin appears only in voice form as the Narrator, but his quiet, stately baritone fits in perfectly with Anderson’s highly-stylized take on New York’s bourgeoisie.
Anderson has one of the most highly-identifiable styles of any director, living or dead, and if RUSHMORE could be considered the establishment of said style, then THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS doubles down on its affectations and solidifies it into his signature. Returning for his third consecutive go-round, cinematographer Robert Yeoman has become Anderson’s chief conspirator in fashioning his style.
The 35mm film image was acquired via true anamorphic lenses, which flatten depth while causing a noticeable curve distortion at the edges. Together with his tendency to compose his frames in an almost perfectly symmetrical manner, Anderson’s preference for the anamorphic aspect ratio results in a diorama-esque affectation that’s blessed him with his own calling card while also cursing him with an easy target for parody by pop culture– this so called “twee” style is called out by critics as a manifestation of a preening aesthetist.
However, to fixate on the surface level of Anderson’s choices is to miss the point; his visual flourishes are always rooted in the story he’s telling. Because many of his stories are ensemble-based, he employs the wider angle of view afforded by the anamorphic format as a way to put more of his characters in the frame. Techniques like this are a major reason why his films are as rich dramatically as they are visually.
THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS’ cinematography exhibits considerable growth on Anderson’s part, who is experimenting here both on a stylistic level as well as on a grammatical level. Much of the film’s coverage eschews the conventional shot/reverse-shot language employed by narrative films since the dawn of the medium, opting instead to construct its individual scenes into elaborate master shots that use camera movement to change our field of view.
One particular scene from late in the movie comes to mind, where Eli meets with Margot at a bridge to come clean with each other emotionally. Anderson dollies back and forth between lines, creating new compositions while revealing more of the scenery and playfully alerting us to the fact that they’re being spied on. Anderson employs dollies, cranes, and Steadicam rigs to achieve this effect throughout, giving the film a distinct formalist air– which he then punctures with strategic jabs of handheld camerawork.
His camera mostly moves laterally or vertically along a two-dimensional axis, a technique that compresses depth and evokes that particularly flat diorama effect he’s infamous for. Funnily enough, this approach ends up working to his advantage: on the few occasions in which he pierces his flat tableaus with a violent rack zoom, he manages to reclaim the rack zoom’s punk-rock origins while subverting our own expectations of his style.
THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS also sees a few other flourishes that cement his unique aesthetic, like his signature top-down perspective inserts (which are usually focused on hands or a small object), or his subtle in-camera speed ramps set to evocative rock tunes (of which this particular film boasts no less than two).
Like Yeoman, production designer David Wasco returns for his third consecutive tour of duty with Anderson, bathing the frame in a deliberate mix of bright reds, oranges, and pinks. The result is a warm confection of a film, laced with a heavy dose of nostalgia and an autumnal melancholy. Anderson’s films feel removed out of time, contained within their own separate universes, and Wasco’s eclectic production design contributes mightily towards that effect.
In THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, this isn’t only reflected in the eccentric and anachronistic manner of dress typical of characters in the Anderson universe, but also in the props, vehicles, and set dressings that all read as outdated but indistinct to any particular era. Anderson’s vision of a highly fictionalized, almost-mythic New York is reinforced by the fact that the director and his collaborators actively go out of their way to hide prominent city landmarks or any aspect of the outside world that can betray the film’s meticulously-crafted sense of timelessness.
On the post side, Anderson collaborates for the first time with editor Dylan Tichenor, perhaps better known for his recurring working relationship with director Paul Thomas Anderson. Tichenor balances the structural formalism of Anderson’s camerawork and compositions with jump cuts and other flourishes borrowed from the French New Wave.
Anderson and Tichenor divide the film’s story into chapters, signified by intertitles rendered in Anderson’s signature Futura typeface and designed to mimic an old novel, implying that the film was adapted from this book (which, of course, doesn’t actually exist in real life). Tichenor’s edit is given a musical lift by returning composer Mark Mothersbaugh, who’s baroque electronic score hints at the upper crust affectation of Anderson’s characters, and by Anderson’s own eclectic mix of contemporary and unpretentious needledrops.
He pulls together such disparate acts as the Rolling Stones, Nico from the Velvet Underground, John Lennon, The Ramones, and Elliott Smith, blending them together into a coherent musical landscape that perfectly captures the lively vigor and melancholic longing of his characters’ interior states. Just like he did in RUSHMORE, Anderson also incorporates Vince Guaraldi’s iconic cues from A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS (1965), drawing further parallels between his characters and Charles Schulz’s ragtag crew of misfits.
THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS is sometimes regarded as the quintessential Anderson film, in that the storyline and style most syncs up with the thematic fascinations and character dynamics that define Anderson’s particular worldview and fundamentally inform his work.
Like the aforementioned PEANUTS character Charlie Brown, Anderson’s creations are misfits even within their own families. This leads to strange, off-kilter relationship dynamics serving not just as a source of great comedy, but as the core backbone of Anderson’s stories. While his larger filmography trades in this exploration of stunted growth, it’s especially true of THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, whose characters are trapped in the same state of mind in which they felt at their prime, but refuse to acknowledge the need for growth or change.
This theme manifests in several ways, such as the innocent, childlike perspective that marks Anderson’s tone, or adult characters behaving irrationally like a child might. He uses this tone to effectively (and affectionately) skewer the pretentious intellectual class– specifically, that worldly Europhilic flavor of which Anderson himself could be classified into.
As his career has progressed, Anderson’s body of work has been informed by this particular archetype: RUSHMORE’s privileged private school bubble hinted at it, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS’ East Coast Literati ecosphere firmly established it, and later works like THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (2004), THE DARJEELING LIMITED (2007), and THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014) would expand upon and perfect it .
While Anderson’s stories are admittedly marked by a fair degree of whimsy, he tempers them with serious, depressive issues like divorce, suicide, death, and regret. THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS is all about the specter of regret and unfulfilled promise, harnessing these themes to impart Anderson’s message that true success isn’t some Rand-ian individualistic effort– it’s a family affair.
THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS debuted in 2001 to healthy critical reception, earning Anderson his first Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Indeed, until the 2012 release of MOONRISE KINGDOM, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS enjoyed a distinction as his biggest success story to date. Even today, Anderson’s third feature is still regarded as one of his strongest and most intimate works, with the combination of a larger scale, a higher budget, and more production resources affording Anderson the opportunity to present himself for the first time as a polished, mature artist who had finally found his creative groove.
THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (2004)
With the the breakout success of RUSHMORE (1998) and THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001), director Wes Anderson had claimed his place as one of the most prominent directors working in American independent film. However, he was not simply content to stay there– his gaze was transfixed towards the ocean horizon, towards the endless adventures awaiting him in exotic international settings.
The strong performance of Anderson’s previous two features had earned him the clout to develop a long-gestating passion project inspired by the adventures of famed oceanographer, explorer, and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau. Anderson’s regular writing partner, Owen Wilson, was unavailable to help him flesh out the particulars, having made a name for himself as an in-demand Hollywood star— thanks, ironically, to Anderson’s films.
Instead, Anderson turned to his filmmaking contemporary and personal friend Noah Baumbach, who was poised for a directorial comeback of his own with the impending release of THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (2005). After huddling together in a secluded booth of a New York City restaurant for months on end, Anderson and Baumbach finally emerged with a script for THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (2004), a classically Anderson-ian tale of deluded grandeur set on the high seas.
Producing once again under his American Emperical banner with his ROYAL TENENBAUMS team Barry Mendel and Scott Rudin, Anderson set sail for the Italian Riveria and Rome’s famed Cinecetta Studios with 50 million in his pocket, ready to make his biggest film yet.
Steve Zissou (Anderson muse Bill Murray) has cultivated a modest celebrity for himself as an adventurous oceanographer, explorer and nature documentarian. He commands a small crew of collaborators and friends while sailing the seven seas on his trusty/rusty ship, The Belafonte. When the curtain rises on THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, our hero is premiering his latest film at the prestigious Loquasto Film Festival– but it’s an empty victory. During filming, Zissou’s best friend Esteban (Seymour Cassel) was attacked and eaten by a gigantic jaguar shark.
The event has thrown Zissou into a deep funk that’s forced him to reckon with his legacy and his value in a world that no longer seems interested in him. At the film’s premiere afterparty aboard The Belafonte, a young man approaches Zissou and introduces himself as Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), the long-lost son Zissou never knew he had.
Ned’s joining of Team Zissou re-energizes Steve, and he assembles his crew once more to track down the jaguar shark that ate his friend and blow it out of the water, “Moby Dick” style. Thus Steve sets out his greatest adventure– one that will test his closest relationships as well as his innermost convictions as he pushes doggedly onward to reclaim his fading glory.
THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU marks Bill Murray’s third consecutive collaboration with Anderson, and his first as the headliner. Delivered firmly within the recent deadpan serio-comedic phase of his career, Murray turns in a soulful, nuanced (but no less hilarious) performance as Steve Zissou, a highly fictionalized blend of real-life explorer Jacques Costeau and Ernest Hemingway.
This is frankly one of Murray’s best roles, nakedly exposing the aging actor as he tangles with the issue of fading luminance and irrelevancy in a world that’s left him behind– themes shared (and quite differently explored) in his other acting masterpiece of the era: Sofia Coppola’s LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003). Murray flourishes under Anderson’s direction, giving us one of the most memorable and intimately soulful characters in recent cinematic history.
As Steve’s alleged bastard son Ned Plimpton, Owen Wilson eschews the off-kilter braggadocio of his BOTTLE ROCKET (1996) and ROYAL TENENBAUMS performances for that of a refined, southern gentleman with a pencil mustache and a sedately deferential demeanor. Ned is a pilot for Kentucky Airlines, sharing his (alleged) father’s passion for navigating vast expanses of blue space.
Anjelica Huston appears again for Anderson as Eleanor Zissou, Steve’s aristocratic wife whose family has become something of a reluctant benefactor to Steve’s ambitious schemes. Cate Blanchett brings an altogether-different feminine presence to the film as Jane Winslet-Richardson, a pregnant journalist who has volunteered herself for the task of interviewing Steve for a cover story.
Blanchett is one of the medium’s finest contemporary actresses, fiercely dedicated to her role to the extent that she performed while actually pregnant in real life. Granted, Blanchett’s performance here is one of her stranger ones– she projects a stubbornly focused air with a weird accent and a high-pitched voice, the intent of which isn’t immediately clear.
A few other Anderson acting regulars appear in THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, like Seymour Cassel in a bald cap as unwitting shark-lunch Esteban. As Anderson’s filmography has grown, so too has his stable of repeat performers– many of whom show up for the first time here. Willem Dafoe plays Klaus, Steve’s unofficial sidekick (and an intense little Kraut).
Dafoe is responsible for some of the film’s funniest bits, and he’s often seen in the background doing small things that most people won’t even notice until their third or fourth viewing. The endlessly watchable Jeff Goldbum plays Alistair Hennessey, a successful marine scientist and Steve’s de facto nemesis by virtue of not only being a direct competitor, but also being Eleanor’s ex-husband.
Goldblum plays his up natural confidence and charisma to a devilishly-cartoonish degree, positioning his talents as a natural asset within Anderson’s idiosyncratic aesthetic.
While his stories may always be told from a specifically Anglo-Saxon perspective, his casts have always been fairly diverse in ethnicity. THE LIFE AQUATIC’s international backdrop affords Anderson to expand in this arena, and while perennial favorite Kumar Pallana doesn’t make an appearance, bit part actors like Waris Ahluwria and Seu Jorge are given a significant amount of screentime to rival that of their co-stars.
Ahluwaria plays Vikram, Team Zissou’s resident cameraman who diligently (and doggedly) captures all of the group’s adventures. As the character Pele, Brazilian musician Seu Jorge spends the entire film playing David Bowie songs in Portuguese. Perhaps more than any other singular aspect, Jorge’s Portuguese Bowie covers nail the particularly bohemian naval feel that Anderson is after.
Finally, Anderson’s co-writer Noah Baumbach makes a small, nonspeaking cameo as Philip, the silent lackey of Michael Gambon’s foppish producer character.
Anderson’s regular cinematographer Robert Yeoman reproduces the director’s signature anamorphic style onto the 35mm film frame with consistency, rendering the thoroughly-considered, cast-packed compositions in large swaths of bold primary colors (blue, red, & yellow) and faded pastels.
Anderson’s flat, two-dimensional sense of camerawork is also present here, which isn’t as boring as it might sound. Indeed, Anderson’s inspired mix of pans, tilts, dollies, rack zooms and crane shots lend a great deal of energy and old-fashioned character to the film. Like he’s done in previous works, Anderson counters these formalist techniques with New Wave touches like in-camera speed ramps and limited handheld photography.
THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU is arguably the earliest instance in Anderson’s filmography where his unique aesthetic actually becomes cognizant of itself. There’s a deliberate, handcrafted feel to the cinematography that swings from inspired in one moment to contrived and indulgent in the next. The overall effect suggests a cinematographic approach that’s perhaps too charming for its own good.
A theatrical stagecraft conceit has informed Anderson’s aesthetic since RUSHMORE, and Anderson uses the occasion of THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU to embrace it as a major part of his approach. It begins quite literally in the film’s opening during the festival sequence, where the 4:3 frame of Zissou’s documentary is bordered by the curtains of an actual stage proscenium.
There’s also a major setpiece that sees Zissou interrupt the story to walk the audience through the layout of his boat, The Belafonte. We see the ship in cross-section, like those old books we all saw in elementary school. By building only half the ship in cross-section, Anderson is able to use his lateral camera moves to create a two-dimensional exploration of the space, stringing the action along various rooms like a big live-action side scroller video game.
This vintage, lo-fi approach extends to the inspired use of stop motion animation for the various aquatic critters Team Zissou encounters. Animation legend Henry Selick joins Anderson’s team, crafting imaginative twists on well-known oceanic lifeforms (like a paisley-patterned octopus and rainbow-colored seahorse).
Whereas other directors would simply turn to CGI, Anderson’s use of stop-motion animation falls right in line with his vintage aesthetic and sets him apart from his contemporaries. The limited use of Selick’s iconic style of animation in THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU sets the stage for the full-blown exploration of the technique in his animated 2009 film FANTASTIC MR. FOX.
Anderson’s references to Jacques Costeau and the presence of ocean-faring imagery go back as early as RUSHMORE, and with THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, he’s able to focus on the topic quite acutely, fleshing out his idiosyncratic obsessions into an entire imaginary world. Towards this end, Mark Friedberg replaces Anderson’s three-time production designer David Wasco, but one would never know there was a switch judging by the design alone.
Here as in Anderson’s previous works, the characters dress in an eccentric manner. For instance, Team Zissou alternates between slate blue wetsuits and pastel blue uniforms adorned with red caps. Then there’s the character of Hennessey in general, a narcissistic sartorialist of the highest order. The costumes, along with the set design and props, don’t equate themselves with any one particular time or place.
Instead, they exude a timeless feel that helps to maintain Anderson’s contained mini-universe while ensuring the graceful aging of the film itself.
Anderson’s regular composer, Mark Mothersbaugh turns in another archetypically Anderson-ian score, marked by percussive electronic synths employed in a baroque, classical fashion. THE LIFE AQUATIC, like Anderson’s previous works, draws from a wide range of classic rock and roll music to establish its own distinctive palette.
This palette is fundamentally informed by both the spirit and the voice of David Bowie in particular, with the film using tracks like “Life on Mars” and “Queen Bitch” (in addition to the aforementioned acoustic covers sung by Seu Jorge in Portuguese). The off-kilter swagger of Bowie’s music complements other flavors like Iggy Pop, Icelandic post-rock group Sigur Ros, and even a little Mediterranean-appropriate flamenco.
Just as the technical presentation of THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU sees Anderson crystallizing his aesthetic into something immediately identifiable, so too does the film’s storyline deal in quintessentially Anderson-ian thematic preoccupations. The drama of his stories always hinges along conflicting family dynamics, and THE LIFE AQUATICexplores the unique kind of combative relationships particular only to fathers and sons.
Ned Plimpton comes to Steve Zissou in search of a father figure, and while Steve welcomes him, he keeps the young man at an emotional arm’s distance. He wants all the fun of being a father with none of the actual responsibility. If anything, Zissou’s general poutiness and cavalier disregard for other peoples’ feelings might actually make him the child in the relationship. Another major theme– sibling rivalry– manifests in Steve’s right-hand man Klaus coming to blows with Ned over the attentions and good graces of their fearless leader.
Despite the warm golden sunlight of the Mediterranean and Anderson’s bright, cheery visuals, a heavy air of melancholy hangs over the proceedings as Zissou grapples with the pain of death and loss, as well as the regret and heartbreak of unfulfilled dreams.
As his biggest film up to that point, THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU shows a tremendous boost in confidence and skill on Anderson’s part. However, the film did not perform as well as expected, both critically and commercially. Even today, the film is beset by poor reviews that paint the “twee” surface aspects of the presentation as indicators of the young director becoming too aware of himself and/or losing his touch.
What the naysayers don’t account for is the long-lasting impression the film has made on pop culture– how else can one explain the reliable phenomenon of groups of friends showing up to every Halloween party clad in the Team Zissou uniform? This is evidence of the film’s connectivity to something resonant in our shared human experience.
While Anderson himself might dismissively attribute the film’s quirkiness to a self-described “Italian phase, THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU’s pivot to the international stage parallels Anderson’s stepping away from his humble Texas roots to become an artistic citizen of the world.
Following the release of 2004’s THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, director Wes Anderson found his particular aesthetic as a much sought-after commodity in the advertising world. While he would remain absent from the big screen for the next three years, the rising indie star busied himself with several works for the small screen.
AMERICAN EXPRESS- MY LIFE MY CARD (2004)
American Express has a history of collaborating with prominent artists– just look at any of their spots with Martin Scorsese. Anderson joined this tradition in 2004 when he shot “MY LIFE, MY CARD”. The spot, which initially aired in cinemas, aims to recreate the offbeat energy and characterization of Anderson’s feature work while implying that they are really a reflection of Anderson’s own idiosyncratic reality.
The spot features frequent Anderson collaborators both on and behind the camera, including actors Jason Schwartzman and Waris Ahluwahlia, writing partner Roman Coppola, producer Barry Mendel, and cinematographer Robert Yeoman. The piece channels the bourgeois Europhile aesthetic that began to bloom in Anderson’s work during this period while imitating the director’s signature visuals to the point of parody.
The yellow-tinged Futura typeface, flat compositions, lateral two-dimensional camera moves, whip-pans, stuffing lots of people and business inside the frame… it’s all here. Anderson’s stagecraft affectations are present in the context of the artifice inherent in a large-scale film shoot. Out of all the commercials Anderson has directed in his career, “MY LIFE MY CARD” is arguably his best and most memorable.
DASANI CAMPAIGN (2005)
In 2005, Anderson teamed up with water bottler Dasani for a pair of spots called “HAMSTER” and “BEAR”. Each piece features an actor in a cheap Halloween costume version of their respective spots’ animals as they declare their love for Dasani water. Anderson’s stagecraft sensibilities manifest in cross-sectional sets that allows Anderson to follow his subjects with lateral two-dimensional camera moves and whip pans.
AT&T “YOUR SEAMLESS WORLD” CAMPAIGN (2007)
In 2007, Anderson created a series of spots for the AT&T “YOUR SEAMLESS WORLD” campaign. The spots focus on a variety of interesting occupations– a student, a reporter, a mom, an architect, an actor, and a salesman– and explains how their respective expertise is shaped by A&T technology. The campaign plays as distinctly Anderson-ian thanks to the speakers travelling through a series of flat diorama-esque tableaus filled with offbeat activity.
Anderson’s camera moves laterally through the various vignettes, but the subject’s position in the frame stays static. The stagecraft-y, self-aware proscenium feel inherent in Anderson’s aesthetic is heavily present in this campaign, making for a playful and technically dazzling series of spots.
HOTEL CHEVALIER (2007)
After a few years away from the big screen following the lackluster performance of his 2004 feature THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, director Wes Anderson returned in 2007 with two notable works: a feature film called THE DARJEELING LIMITED, and HOTEL CHEVALIER– a short narrative film written and self-financed by Anderson, intended to serve as an illuminating (but by no means necessary) prologue to his feature.
Shot entirely on location in Paris’ Hotel Raphael, HOTEL CHEVALIER features Anderson’s RUSHMORE (1998) lead Jason Schwartzman, as well as first-time collaborator Natalie Portman.
Schwartzman plays Jack Whitman, his struggling novelist character from THE DARJEELING LIMITED, in a short vignette that finds him holed up in the eponymous Hotel Chevalier. When his cushy solitude is compromised by the sudden intrusion of his ex-lover (Portman), he battles with himself, oscillating between the resistance and the embrace of her womanly temptations.
Deprived of any exposition, the audience is forced to gauge the nature of their obviously-complicated relationship using only the character’s terse, somewhat-cliched dialogue. The last time Schwartzman appeared in Anderson’s work, he was still an awkward, gangly kid, but in HOTEL CHEVALIER he has blossomed into an elegantly composed adult in full command of his emotions.
He may not be as verbose as Max Fischer or any other character in the director’s contained universe, but with his impeccably-groomed mustache and habit of wearing a suit with no shoes, he’s a classical Anderson-ian creation. Portman is less so, in a very edgy performance that features the aggressive confidence of close-cropped hair and the exposed vulnerability of bruises pockmarking her body.
Waris Ahluwalia, an Anderson company regular who made his debut in THE LIFE AQUATIC ZISSOU, also makes a brief appearance here as one of the hotel’s security guards.
HOTEL CHEVALIER’s status as a self-financed piece means that Anderson has no corporate overlords to appease, so naturally he employs his signature aesthetic to its fullest. His regular cinematographer Robert Yeoman returns, shooting the film in Anderson’s preferred anamorphic aspect ratio, which in the context of the confined hotel room location, causes the edges of the frame to warp considerably.
While the visual presentation incorporates the highest-profile aspects of Anderson’s style (lateral dolly-based camera moves, whip pans, the yellow Futura font, the top-down hand action insert, and the slow-motion ending shot), HOTEL CHEVALIER also finds the director experimenting with subtle techniques that nonetheless leave a profound mark.
For instance, Anderson uses several compositions as an occasion to play with the idea of negative space, subverting his audience’s expectations for balanced, symmetrical compositions by placing his subjects off-balance within the frame. For instance, one shot depicts Jack lying in bed watching television. The frame is composed looking straight-on towards the headboard– a very symmetrical shot.
However, whereas we might expect him to then place Jack in the center of the bed and balance the frame, Anderson chooses to place him in the lower left corner and give the composition an unnatural amount of headroom. This conceit could be read as the visual manifestation of Jack’s character trying to find a place for himself within the meticulously-crafted world he’s built around him.
HOTEL CHEVALIER is curious within Anderson’s filmography as it sees the filmmaker indulging in the safety zone of his established aesthetic while also striking out from it in very bold ways. The hallmarks of Anderson’s style– eccentric manners of dress, a deliberately staged diorama-esque affectation, and a distinct and somewhat-kitschy Europhilic sensibility– run gleefully rampant, freed from studio expectations and audience-minded producers.
This same freedom also allows Anderson to take risks that are at odds with his established conceits, which some critics might label as child-like or precious. Undercurrents of melancholy run throughout Anderson’s work, which he employs to subvert the “twee” aspects of his style with a profound emotional resonance.
In that regard, the tragic subtext of HOTEL CHEVALIER is especially biting– he uses the complicated sexual mechanics of a broken relationship as well as the inherent vulnerability of nudity to explore ideas about regret, abuse, and missed opportunity. In this light, HOTEL CHEVALIER is arguably the most mature story Anderson has ever tackled.
Anderson reportedly found the experience of shooting HOTEL CHEVALIER to be invigorating. He likened the project to shooting a student film, alluding to that all-too-rare kind of filmmaking where the set becomes an incubator of creativity and expression rather than a factory producing a product for commercial consumption.
HOTEL CHEVALIER premiered at the Venice Film Festival alongside THE DARJEELING LIMITED. When the feature was released in cinemas, however, HOTEL CHEVALIER did not accompany it. Instead, the short was distributed for free on iTunes (the conspicious shot of an iPod in the film suggests that Apple might have been involved from the project’s inception). Ironically, the short was much better received than THE DARJEELING LIMITED.
By this point in Anderson’s career, there was a growing consensus that Anderson’s style was beginning to wear off its welcome and, as evidenced by HOTEL CHEVALIER, was better served in smaller, concentrated doses. As a prologue to THE DARJEELING LIMITED, HOTEL CHEVALIER is effective enough, but on its own, the short is a compelling foray into the complicated world of sexual relationships, as informed by Anderson’s own growing perspective as an international artist with a serious case of wanderlust.
THE DARJEELING LIMITED (2007)
The cultural hallmarks of India and its people have always been woven into the fabric of director Wes Anderson’s aesthetic. Chief among Anderson’s earliest influences were the films of iconic Indian director Satyajit Ray, and actors like Kumar Pallana and Waris Ahluwalia are prominently featured throughout the young auteur’s feature work. In the mid-2000’s, Anderson was caught in the grips of a creative wanderlust, setting his stories in exotic lands and far-flung seas.
Whereas 2004’s THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU was inspired by the numerous Jacques Cousteau documentaries Anderson had grown up on, the idea for his fifth American Empirical production would be informed by his fascination with Satyajit Ray’s work as well as Louis Malle’s documentaries about India.
After one of Anderson’s influences– Martin Scorsese– screened Jean Renoir’s THE RIVER (1951) for him, his desire to travel to India and set a film there was cemented.
From Owen Wilson to Noah Baumbach, Anderson has always chose interesting and inspired writing collaborators for his projects, and for this new endeavor, he enlisted the help of his RUSHMORE (1998) star Jason Schwartzman and fellow filmmaker Roman Coppola (son of Francis Ford).
They travelled all over India by rail, taking in the culture and customs of the countryside as they hammered out the script for what would become THE DARJEELING LIMITED (2007)– arguably the most divisive film amongst the director’s loyal following, but also just maybe his most heartfelt and insightful.
THE DARJEELING LIMITED was produced by Anderson, Roman Coppola, Lydia Dean Pilcher, and prestige-film super-producer Scott Rudin– a pedigree that gave Anderson and company the money and resources to shoot entirely on location in India. The story concerns the Whitman brothers, a trio of malcontent adults each caught in the grips of their own stunted neuroses, as they rendezvous in India under the auspices of “a spiritual journey”.
This journey– really more of a meticulously over-planned itinerary of stops– occurs along the track laid out before the titular Darjeeling Limited, a rickety passenger train steeped in a kind of old-world romantic glamor. As they soak in the warm beauty of their surroundings and encounter various urban and tribal dwellers, their cramped living quarters on the train amplify each brother’s particular idiosyncrasies and reveal the underlying psychological reasons for their strained relations.
When their squabbling gets them kicked off the train entirely, they set out to find their mother, who is preaching Christianity at a convent up in the Himalayas. Their ensuing journey causes each brother to reckon with his own internal demons, and finally allows closure on the disconnect that’s been driving them apart for so long.
THE DARJEELING LIMITED is a pared-down film in every sense of the word, especially in regards to the cast. Instead of the sprawling ensemble of eccentric characters that defined THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001) and THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, Anderson downsizes to three leads and a small scattering of supporting cameos.
For two of the three brothers, he reaches all the way back to his earliest work and casts his old college roommate and BOTTLE ROCKET (1996) star Owen Wilson, and his RUSHMORE lead Jason Schwartzman. Wilson plays Francis, the eldest Whitman brother, who’s tendency to be proactive and make plans on behalf of his brothers has grown into an overbearing bossiness (that ironically plays like a mellower, grown-up version of Dignan from BOTTLE ROCKET).
At the start of the film, Francis is still recovering from a motorcycle accident that he eventually reveals was a suicide attempt (a freaky story development considering Wilson’s real-life suicide attempt around that time), and as such, Wilson spends the entirety of his screen time hobbling around in bandages and braces like a mummy. Schwartzman plays the youngest brother, Jack. Jack is an aspiring novelist who writes thinly-veiled fictional accounts of the people in his life.
Schwartzman is playing the same character we saw in Anderson’s previous short, HOTEL CHEVALIER (2007), and THE DARJEELING LIMITED expands the character into a brooding young man who takes himself way too seriously. Anderson company newcomer Adrien Brody is caught in the middle as the third Whitman brother, Peter. Peter is somewhat of an emotional drifter, losing himself in a reverie brought about by painkiller abuse and his dead father’s early possessions.
He’s about to be a father himself, and his whole reason for coming to India was to come to terms with that fact while escaping some of the pressure of his impending life change. Brody turns in a natural, nuanced performance that grounds Wilson and Schwartzman’s particular eccentricities. Despite none of the three men looking anything like each other, their natural chemistry together is entirely convincing as a trio of brothers with a long, complicated history.
Even though he’s in an exotic, unfamiliar land, Anderson surrounds himself with friendly faces from his stock company of performers. Anjelica Huston puts in her third consecutive appearance in an Anderson film as Patricia Whitman, the boys’ mother. Patricia is an interesting character who has achieved the spiritual enlightenment that her sons seek, imparting her wisdom in an unadorned, no-nonsense syntax. Bill Murray makes a small cameo as a businessman who rushes to make his train.
The fact that Murray flew all the way out to India for what probably amounted to one day of shooting speaks volumes about their creative relationship, not to mention their their mutual love and appreciation for each other. Waris Ahluwalia and Kumar Pallana also appear in bit roles, Ahluwalia as the stern, humorless Chief Steward aboard the Darjeeling and Pallana as a nonspeaking passenger.
Of all of Anderson’s regular technical collaborators, only cinematographer Robert Yeoman and production designer Mark Friedberg lend their talents to THE DARJEELING LIMITED. Having shot all four of Anderson’s previous features, Yeoman is well-versed in the director’s signature aesthetic and is able to faithfully replicate it here, despite the streamlined production circumstances.
Shooting on 35mm film in the anamorphic aspect ratio, Anderson and Yeoman capture the panoramic Indian vistas with much more handheld camerawork than the director has previously employed. This is due to the filmmakers having far less control over their locales than ever before– indeed, the entire production of THE DARJEELING LIMITED was something of a run and gun operation. Most of the “classical” Anderson-ian stylistic flourishes can be found in the train sequences, where he could exert the most amount of control.
The train itself was bought especially for the production and renovated by Friedberg to better reflect Anderson’s particular tastes as well as his own perception of Indian culture. This approach allows for an image that trades in bold swaths of yellow, blue, green, and red– accurately capturing the vibrant pops of color that dot the dusty Indian landscape. These sequences also allow Anderson to employ lateral camera-movement to convey the diorama/proscenium effect he’s so well-known for.
Outside of the train, Anderson peppers other signature techniques like rack zooms and whip-pans wherever he can in a bid to render his scenes in as few individual shots as possible. While other aspects of Anderson’s style– slow-motion ending shots, symmetrical compositions, and top-down hand inserts, etc.– are just as present as they’ve ever been, THE DARJEELING LIMITED also sees Anderson toning down lesser conceits, such as otherwise eccentrically-dressed characters making do with simple suits in limited shades of gray.
Whereas Anderson’s usual tendency to arrange his tableaus in compartmentalized, dollhouse-like configurations runs the risk of sucking the spontaneity or immediacy from a scene, THE DARJEELING LIMITED’s embrace of verité cinematography results in one of the most lively and vibrant mise-en-scenes in the director’s career.
Mark Mothersbaugh, the composer of Anderson’s previous four features, does not return to provide THE DARJEELING LIMITED’s musical soundtrack. Anderson foregoes an original score entirely, opting for a mix of carefully-selected tunes that reflect both the Indian setting as well as his own eclectic tastes.
Most of the film’s music is sourced from notable Indian films from directors like Satyajit Ray and James Ivory, giving the film an authentic sense of place and character that most modern composers would strain to emulate.
Like Martin Scorsese before him, Anderson unifies his body of work with the incorporation of classic rock from the likes of The Kinks and The Rolling Stones, the latter of whom’s track, “Play With Fire”, is used to particularly resonant effect during the scene in which the Whitman boys achieve their own version of spiritual enlightenment by just shutting up for once and reading each other’s eyes.
Curiously, Anderson indulges in his own personal Francophile affectations by including Joe Dassin’s “Aux Champs Élysées” and the distinctly-Parisian “Where Do You Go To My Lovely” by Peter Sarstedt (which was also used prominently in the film’s companion short, HOTEL CHEVALIER). On its face, one would think the juxtaposition of French music against an Indian setting would be incongruous, but Anderson’s inspired pairing actually comes across quite naturally.
THE DARJEELING LIMITED may be set within a culture that’s radically different than anything Anderson has ever explored, but the director’s thematic fascinations apply just as well in India as they do in Texas, New York, or Port Au-Patois. Sibling rivalry, a theme that obliquely courses through all of Anderson’s films, rotates front and center here in a narrative that hinges on the brothers’ somewhat antagonistic relationships to each other.
The Whitman boys may be grown adults, but their constant bickering and squabbling lets us know that they still have a lot more growing to do. Anderson’s uniquely bittersweet approach to heavy story elements like suicide, regret, and the fear of change gives the film an emotionally-resonant charge that contrasts with the bright, airy visuals.
One of the more striking moments of the film concerns the aforementioned silent spiritual enlightenment sequence. Set to The Rolling Stones’ “Play With Fire”, Anderson’s camera gently pans across the faces of the Whitman brothers and their mother before transitioning to a train, where several vignettes have been set up in the various compartments.
We dolly laterally alongside the different compartments, each one containing a previously-seen character experiencing a moment of solitude and reflection. Anderson’s logic becomes more dreamlike as each compartment passes by, with the tableaus resembling decidedly non-train settings like an airplane, or a French hotel room, or the dense Indian jungle…. complete with an animatronic tiger.
This sequence, while admittedly a little baffling from a literalist perspective, is indicative of Anderson’s growing confidence in the magical capabilities of cinema and establishes a firm foundation that he’d build upon in the fanciful, highly-exaggerated reality of his subsequent features.
THE DARJEELING LIMITED premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Little Golden Lion award. When the film made its stateside debut, it was met with mixed reviews. Most were generally favorable, riding on the critics’ established goodwill for Anderson as an artist. Amongst Anderson’s cultish following, however, THE DARJEELING LIMITED is perhaps his least-loved– for all sorts of reasons, both trivial and integral.
To focus on the film’s shortcomings, however, is to miss the point. For a director so notorious for exerting an unrivaled amount of control over his images, THE DARJEELING LIMITED is an important film in Anderson’s filmography precisely because he makes the conscious decision to cede that same control to the wild unpredictabilities of a foreign land and culture.
The film is a product of a director in transition: his wanderlust phase was coming to an end, and there was a need to return home and retool his aesthetic because of diminishing returns. Despite its popular perception as an albatross hanging over Anderson’s work, THE DARJEELING LIMITED is an earnestly genuine and optimistic exploration of spirituality and rebirth. In a way, the film served as an artistic cleansing for Anderson himself, in that the production process renewed his energies and recommitted his spirit to making great work.
SOFTBANK COMMERCIAL (2008)
There’s a curious phenomenon within the international world of commercials whereby hyper-famous American celebrities appear in spots that only air in foreign markets. Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film LOST IN TRANSLATION shed a little light on this phenomenon, basing a major plot point on Bill Murray travelling to Tokyo to pose for a series of whiskey advertisements.
The appeal of doing foreign spots is understandable– celebrities get a huge payday for a small amount of work, they get to travel to exotic locales, and, perhaps best of all, nobody they know will ever see it! One of the best instances of this real-life phenomenon is a campaign that Japanese telecommunications giant Softbank created in 2008. I use the word “campaign” loosely, as I’m really only aware of two spots within this idea, and even then the only connecting tissue between them is the presence of Brad Pitt.
David Fincher directed one spot, while Wes Anderson directed the spot embedded above. The general idea behind these two spots seems to be a bizarro, highly-exaggerated rendition of what Japanese culture perceives these two auteurs’ visual styles to be.
Anderson’s spot pays homage to the films of Jacques Tati, and features Brad Pitt bouncing around a series of vignettes outside of a small French town. The piece is executed in one continuous shot, with the camera whip-panning and dollying around to unveil each successive tableau. This approach is consistent with Anderson’s history of using camera movement instead of editing to change perspectives within his scenes.
His tendency to create eccentrically-dressed characters is evidenced in Brad Pitt’s canary-yellow outfit. Anderson’s Europhilic affectations are present in the trappings of a rustic French village while the timeless quality of his work is reflected in the various props, costumes and vehicles that belong to no specific era in particular.
FANTASTIC MR. FOX (2009)
Over ten years and five features into his career, there was a growing sense that director Wes Anderson’s preening, overly-meticulous aesthetic was growing stale. Since the career high of 2001’s THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, his subsequent work was greeted with diminishing returns. An aesthetic re-invention was needed, and curiously, Anderson did just that by actually doubling down on his signature style.
American Empirical’s sixth production, FANTASTIC MR. FOX (2009), takes Anderson’s best-known stylistic tropes and amplifies them to a cartoonish degree, but the difference here is that the film actually is a cartoon. Sourced from the Roald Dahl book of the same name that Anderson had loved since childhood, FANTASTIC MR. FOX presented several new challenges for the director as not just his first work adapted from the mind of someone else, but also his first fully-animated effort and his first true work in the family genre.
He had limited experience with the art form, having incorporated animation legend Henry Selick’s stop-motion creations as part of THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (2004). As a direct result of that collaboration, Selick and Anderson ventured forth with the development of FANTASTIC MR. FOX shortly afterwards. Selick eventually left to make CORALINE (2009), but Anderson soldiered forward with his stop-motion vision.
FANTASTIC MR. FOX takes place in an idyllic rendition of the English countryside, modeled after the grounds on which Roald Dahl’s estate sat. Having given up a life of stealing chickens in favor of settling down and raising a family, Mr. Fox (George Clooney) has suddenly found himself at a crossroads in life. He’s now the same age that he was when his father died, and he’s suddenly sick and tired of living underground in a cave like all the other foxes.
Against the warning of everyone from his wife (Meryl Streep) to his attorney (Bill Murray), Fox purchases a tree on a hill and hollows out a home for himself and his kin. From his towering tree, Fox has a clear vantage point of the surrounding rolling hills– including the farms of Boggis, Bunce, and Bean (and all the tempting livestock and food to be found there). It isn’t long until Fox is tempted back into his old bandit ways, but what begins as “one last job” blows out of proportion and alerts the triad of malicious farmers to Fox’s schemes.
Intent on revenge, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean descond on Fox’s tree/home and try to ferret him out with bullets and digging machines. Fox and his family dig deeper underground to escape, but the farmers only escalate their pursuit, managing to displace the entire animal community in the process.
Fox and friends take refuge in an expansive network of underground tunnels and caves, but the looming threat of total annihilation seems inevitable. Realizing his culpability in this mess, Fox takes it upon himself to recruit the particular strengths of his varied animal friends and eliminate the threat of Boggis, Bunce, and Bean once and for all.
FANTASTIC MR. FOX finds many members of Anderson’s core group of performers making an appearance, but the film really belongs to George Clooney in the titular role. Let’s be honest– the role of a sly, debonair fox presents no real challenge to Clooney from an acting standpoint, but it’s this very same comfort that makes his casting so ideal and his performance so endlessly charismatic.
This sense of pitch-perfect casting extends to Meryl Streep’s performance as his wife, the quietly resilient Mrs. Fox. Clooney and Streep’s involvement represents a new apex in Anderson’s caliber of collaborators, having ascended to the rarefied air of the Hollywood’s prestigious A-list.
Of course, all this talk of Hollywood royalty is not to discount the contributions of Anderson’s supporting cast, the grand majority of which is made up of his close friends and creative partners. Bill Murray does the impossible in stealing the show out from under Clooney as Badger, Fox’s brusque and combative attorney. Anderson’s RUSHMORE (1998) and THE DARJEELING LIMITED (2007) star Jason Schwartzman brilliantly depicts the frustrated awkwardness of Fox’s cub, Ash.
THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU’s Michael Gambon and Willem Dafoe appear as the heavies Franklin Bean and Rat, respectively: one’s a relentlessly vindictive cider farmer while the other is a West Side Story-style greaser trapped in the body of a backwater rat. Anderson’s frequent collaborator Owen Wilson briefly pops up to explain the intricacies of whack-bat as Coach Skip.
Wallace Wolodarsky, who played a personal assistant plagued by alopecia in THE DARJEELING LIMITED, plays Fox’s partner-in-crime, Kylie. Kylie is an anxious possum who’s loopy physicality recalls that of the actor Kumar Pallana, who a,so routinely appeared in Anderson’s previous works. Still other Anderson alumni like Adrien Brody and Brian Cox show up in near-unrecognizable voice cameos, while Anderson himself makes his first appearance in his own films as a weasel who specializes in real estate.
The result is a highly eclectic and diverse cast that breathes wonderful life into Dahl’s literary creations while staying true to Anderson’s signature character archetypes and behaviors.
Anderson’s use of old-school filmmaking techniques have helped to make his name as an auteur, and FANTASTIC MR. FOXbrilliantly applies his particular brand of handcrafted artistry to a genre overstuffed with flashy computer-generated imagery. Whereas the increasingly-miniaturist “proscenium” aesthetic Anderson had been pursuing with previous works was met with derision, the natural endpoint of said pursuit (the literal creation of actual dioramas) in FANTASTIC MR. FOX, was widely (and ironically) embraced.
The handmade, miniaturized feel of the stop-motion puppets is imbued with a tangible sense of life by Animation Director Mark Gustafson and his team (who replaced Selick after his departure), and shot at twelve frames a second (rather than the standard 24) so as to call our attention to the animation techniques themselves.
But just as much as FANTASTIC MR. FOX is a celebration of obsolete filmmaking practices, so too is it a product of newer technology. FANTASTIC MR. FOX was shot frame by frame using a Nikon DSLR camera, marking the first time (within the feature world at least) that Anderson has worked with digital.
Owing to the highly specific skill set required of animation filmmakers, Anderson has to forego collaborations with his usual crew in favor of a creative partnership with craftsmen like Director of Photography Tristan Oliver and Production Designer Nelson Lowry. Indeed, the only major technical collaborator to return is THE DARJEELING LIMITED’s editor Andrew Weisblum, but even then his chief purpose is to oversee the cut by main editors Ralph Foster and Stephen Perkins.
Despite these radical changes in collaborators and format, Anderson’s signature visual aesthetic manages to lose nothing in the translation. FANTASTIC MR. FOX echoes THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS in its use of an autumnal color palette comprised of rich oranges, yellows, and browns. The two-dimensional nature of animation is perfectly suited towards Anderson’s flat, symmetrical compositions and lateral camera movements.
FANTASTIC MR. FOX is Anderson’s first feature since BOTTLE ROCKET to not be presented in the 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio, but even working within the narrower dimensions of the 1.85:1 Academy frame, he finds multiple opportunities to indulge in packing his compositions with as many members of his ensemble as he can.
Lowry ably replicates the usual hallmarks of Anderson’s production design– a miniaturized, almost-fetishized depiction of objects, timeless set dressing and props (see the usage of an anachronistic portable radio), and an eccentric, yet highly personal, sense of sartorial style. For instance, Mr. Fox’s iconic brown double-breasted corduroy suit is modeled after the one Anderson regularly wears in real life.
Anderson’s approach to the sound design and music of FANTASTIC MR. FOX is just as inspired as his visual ideas. For starters, Anderson eschewed the conventional practice of obtaining clean voice recordings in highly-controlled studio booths. Instead, he took his cast out to a friend’s rustic farm in the Connecticut countryside and captured their vocal performances out in the field.
As such, there is a richly organic quality to the acoustics that supersedes anything that a digital reverb processor can emulate. The organic, natural approach extends to the film’s music, replacing the gilded electronic scores of the director’s previous films with a blend of live orchestral instruments.
Alexandre Desplat seems to have succeeded Mark Mothersbaugh’s long reign as Anderson’s composer of choice, beginning here in FANTASTIC MR. FOX with a pastoral conceit that incorporates banjos, jazz flutes, whistles, mandolins, a marching band, and even an English boy’s choir.
Desplat also receives a little help from folk artist Jarvis Cocker, who is also given the role of Petey to play within the actual film. The score perfectly captures the rural agricultural setting and character of Anderson’s vision.
Anderson’s films usually contain an eclectic mix of classic pop and rock-and-roll needledrops, with each work tending to highlight a particular sub-genre within either category. RUSHMORE was informed by the rebellious chords of the British Invasion. THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS used Nico of the Velvet Underground to channel the Warhol-ian spirit of avant-garde art pop. THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU strutted around in the glam rock styling of David Bowie.
THE DARJEELING LIMITED used the proto-punk English ballads of The Kinks to emotionally resonant effect. WithFANTASTIC MR. FOX, Anderson zeroes in on the subgenre of surf rock, utilizing several cues from The Beach Boys in addition to Bobby Fuller Four’s “Let Her Dance” and The Rolling Stones’ “Street-Fighting Man”. Another notable inclusion is The Wellingtons’ “Ballad of Davy Crockett”, a jaunty little piece that evokes the boyish eagerness for adventure that’s present throughout all of Anderson’s films.
Despite the childlike innocent tone that marks his work, Anderson never feels like he’s patronizing his audience or insulting their intelligence. Even in the context of a family film such as FANTASTIC MR. FOX, he readily acknowledges the unsavory realities and the sobering tragedies of real life. This results in a distinct impression of melancholy that plagues every Anderson protagonist in various fashion.
Recurring themes like sibling rivalry and familial dysfunction are present in Ash’s envious squabbles with his athletically-gifted cousin Kristofferson, as well as Mr. Fox’s strained relationship with his wife and son. The pitfalls of vanity is a major theme role in the film, with Mr. Fox’s preening lifestyle and high opinion of himself eventually leading to the placement of his family in dire jeopardy.
Works like RUSHMORE, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, and THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU also hang important plot points upon their protagonist’s ability to perceive their own vanity and grow away from it. FANTASTIC MR. FOX also deals with perhaps the gravest themes in all of Anderson’s filmography– genocide and displacement.
Boggis, Bunce, and Bean’s scorched-earth approach to dispatching Mr. Fox affects the entire animal community, turning them into refugees as they burrow deeper underground to escape the violent devastation of their homes. It’s not often that a family film addresses the imminent terror of total annihilation, but Anderson’s considered tonal balance keeps things light and fun without being frivolous.
After the disappointing reception of THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU and THE DARJEELING LIMITED, FANTASTIC MR. FOX counted as a big win for Anderson right when he needed it. While it underperformed in the conventionally-lucrative animation market, the film was praised by critics as a return to form and a creative re-energizing of Anderson’s sensibilities.
Come awards season, it was nominated for two Oscars in the Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score categories. More importantly, perhaps, the film brought handmade, classic stop-motion techniques back into a conversation increasingly dominated by pixels and render farms. By applying his singular aesthetic to the world of animation, Anderson had buoyed his flagging artistic profile and discovered a reinvigorated creativity that would fuel a second run of highly-acclaimed, legacy-defining work.
STELLA ARTOIS “LE APARTOMATIC” COMMERCIAL (2010)
Director Wes Anderson’s signature visual style has proven to be a hot commodity in the world of advertising. As such, he’s built up a solid side-career directing commercials and advertisements for lifestyle brands like American Express, Ikea, and Dasani– all of which have eagerly embraced his idiosyncratic aesthetic. In 2010, premium suds brewer Stella Artois added themselves to Anderson’s distinguished list of commercial collaborators by employing his services for a spot called “LE APARTOMATIC”.
The piece tells the story of a young bachelor taking his pretty date back to his extravagant pad, which has been built with a wide variety of gadgets and mutating furniture so impressive that she quite literally becomes lost in it. That’s no matter, however, because one of the gadgets has dispensed the perfect chalice of Stella Artois– and that’s all the young bachelor REALLY wants.
“LE APARTOMATIC” is one of the rare projects in which Anderson collaborates with a co-director (his THE DARJEELING LIMITED (2007) writer, Roman Coppola), but his individual stamp ends up dominating every aspect. Anderson’s signature is immediately identifiable from the first shot– the requisite symmetrical, flat compositions, considered dolly movements, top-down insert shots featuring hands are all present and accounted for.
The French architecture of the picturesque apartment building seen outside the window speaks to Anderson’s Europhilic affectations, while the handcrafted sense of stagecraft in the form of transforming furniture, complicated machinery, knobs, and dials implies a theatrical proscenium encapsulating our perspective.
All in all, “LE APARTOMATIC” is a bright, breezy, and memorable spot that finds Anderson operating at the height of his commercial powers. In a way, it as much an advertisement for Anderson the artist as it is for delicious beer.
MOONRISE KINGDOM (2012)
After the reinvigorating creative (if not financial) success of 2009’s FANTASTIC MR. FOX, director Wes Anderson embarked on a new live action script with Roman Coppola, who during the writing of 2007’S THE DARJEELING LIMITED had helped Anderson tamp down the escalating scope of his earlier narratives while honing in on the essence of the stories themselves.
This pared-down approach valued simple, concise, and emotionally resonant stories over the increasingly-complicated and meandering plotting of earlier films like THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001) and THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (2004). After a series of live action features set in romanticized, exotic international locales, Anderson cast his gaze back stateside to explore the uniquely American culture of boy scouts.
Anderson had made his career by exploring the inner lives of eccentric characters oblivious to the worlds outside their insular bubbles, so it’s something of a wonder that it would take seven features before he told a story set within the institution of scout-hood. After all, with their crisply-starched uniforms, fetishization of craftsmanship, and boyish eagerness for adventure, the archetypical boy scout troop is perfectly suited to Anderson’s particular aesthetic.
This inspired melding of artist and subject matter resulted in MOONRISE KINGDOM (2012), a triumphant restoration of Anderson’s original promise that would go on to become one of the director’s most beloved films.
Sometimes, in order to move forward, we must move back– and in that sense, MOONRISE KINGDOM finds Anderson and his production team (producers Jeremy Dawson, Steven Rales and Scott Rudin) going back to basics. In accordance with the conceits of a simpler story with smaller stakes, Anderson was given a budget of 16 million dollars to work with– his smallest since the scrappy days of BOTTLE ROCKET (1996).
The film takes place in the summer of 1965 on the fictional island of New Penzance, a sleepy seaside community off of the Massachusetts coast. A young boy named Sam (Jared Gilman) and a young girl named Suzy (Kara Hayward) are two star-crossed lovers who just want to escape from the stifling rule of their parents (or in Sam’s case, his boy scout troop) and be together.
After concocting a convoluted escape plan via a series of exchanged love letters, Sam and Suzy fly their respective coops and meet up to begin their new, independent life together. Their concerned parents, who themselves are beset by adult romantic troubles far removed from the uncomplicated idylls of their kids’ puppy love, organize an island-wide search party. Both parties’ efforts are given sincere urgency when they learn that a massive hurricane is headed their way– a storm of historic proportions that threatens to change their insulated way of life forever.
MOONRISE KINGDOM represents a major shift for Anderson in terms of his cast, eschewing most of his regular troupe of stock players save for two or three. For instance, it’s the first film of Anderson’s films in which his earliest core collaborator, Owen Wilson, was absent entirely in the making of it. It’s a testament to Anderson’s ease with talent that his cast of mostly-new faces feel like they’ve always been a part of the director’s eccentric stable.
Bruce Willis explores an unexpected facet of his tough-guy cop persona as Captain Sharp, the sleepy island’s sole lawman. Leaning into his advanced years with a wisp of greying hair and coke-bottle glasses, Willis delivers a soulful, nuanced performance that’s rich with an unspoken history of regret and disappointment. Edward Norton is an inspired choice as Scout Master Ward, the khaki scouts’ doggedly determined leader, barnstorming around Anderson’s carefully staged tableaus with a restrained sensitivity and hilarious lack of self-awareness.
Frances McDormand, who has consistently delivered brilliant performances for directors Joel and Ethan Coen, does the same for Anderson as Mrs. Bishop, mother to our main female protagonist, Suzy, and a pragmatic lawyer whose unhappiness has driven her into Captain Sharp’s arms. Tilda Swinton is admittedly a very unique looking woman that, while stunningly beautiful, arguably falls outside the mass media’s conventional ideals of feminine beauty– so the opportunity for her to indulge in conventional femininity is a rare one indeed.
Her character, simply named Social Services, is a meticulously-coiffed government hack who ends up becoming something of the film’s de facto antagonist.
Bob Balaban routinely breaks the fourth wall as MOONRISE KINGDOM’s Narrator, a collegiate, Hemingway-esque presence that lends the film an appropriate degree of nautical New England authenticity. Considering his early work as a young Martin Scorsese’s cinematic muse, it was only a matter of time until Anderson (who early in his own career had been called “the next Scorsese”) enlisted the efforts of esteemed character actor Harvey Keitel, who appears briefly here in the role of Commander Pierce, the gruff head honcho at Fort Lebanon.
Of course, no discussion of MOONRISE KINGDOM’s cast would be replete without the mention of its two leads, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward. Both made their film debut here, with their endless supply of quirky charm making up for their lack of experience. Hayward channels THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS’ Margot Tenenbaum with her thick eyeliner and deadpan, artistic attitude.
Gilman plays Sam, an orphan and a precocious young khaki scout who brings to mind a younger, more bookish version of RUSHMORE’s Max Fischer.
Speaking of Max Fischer, Jason Schwartzman is one of three familiar faces in MOONRISE KINGDOM. He plays Cousin Ben, an aloof wiseass in sunglasses who serves in the senior leadership at Fort Lebanon. Anderson’s brother, Eric Chase Anderson, appears in a brief cameo as Keitel’s assistant. Finally, Bill Murray puts in his requisite appearance as Mr. Bishop, Suzy’s father.
Murray’s role here is his largest since THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, effortlessly channeling that particular flavor of Connecticut/New England WASP with his loud pants and a weary sense of privileged entitlement. Much like the other characters he plays in Anderson’s films, the character of Mr. BIshop is a sad sack who is well aware his wife has made him a cuckold, but lacks the anger or passion to do anything about it.
The fact that many of Anderson’s newer collaborators– Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, and Harvey Keitel– would return for his 2014 feature THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (in even smaller roles) speaks volumes about the immense enjoyment Anderson’s casts get out of working with him.
Purportedly, many members of the cast like Norton and Schwartzman actually moved in to the mansion Anderson and his technical collaborators had rented for themselves during the production of MOONRISE KINGDOM– forsaking the creature comforts of luxury hotels entirely. Anderson has a reputation for treating his collaborators like family, evidenced in the return of key craftspeople like cinematographer Robert Yeoman and editor Andrew Weisblum.
The production’s back-to-basics approach is reflected in the lo-fi nature of the film’s cinematography. In a bid to evoke the soft nostalgia of a bygone era, MOONRISE KINGDOM was shot on Super 16mm film. This meant that, by virtue of his acquisition format, the film would be Anderson’s first live action film since BOTTLE ROCKET to choose the 1.85:1 Academy aspect ratio over the wider anamorphic frame.
This decision has a chain-reaction effect on subsequent decisions down the line, from framing, to blocking, to the movement of the camera. While his compositions are still characteristically flat, Anderson’s frames are not as symmetrical and balanced as they are in previous works. The framing is a lot closer, utilizing conventional over-the-shoulder compositions in dialogue scenes.
While there’s the expected, ubiquitous employment of lateral dolly moves, whip-pans, slow-motion ensemble moments, and carefully curated top-down hand inserts, Anderson also builds upon his embrace of chaotic naturalism in THE DARJEELING LIMITED with a fair amount of handheld camerawork and long shots that dwell on natural environments.
The incorporation of split-screen techniques during phone conversations, when combined with Anderson’s uncharacteristic use of the Academy aspect ratio, speaks to a burgeoning desire to experiment with the size and shape of his frame– a desire he’d go on to explore brilliantly in THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL.
Anderson’s films have always had a timeless sense about them, due in large part to the presence of anachronistic set dressings, props, costumes, and the like. Even with MOONRISE KINGDOM– a period film strictly set in 1965– production designer Adam Stockhausen manages to convey a world that belongs to any decade, yet no decade in particular. The film is awash in muted, worn yellows, oranges, greens, and pinks, evoking the autumnal earthiness of the story’s setting.
The color blue is used sparingly, save for night sequences that take on a moody cobalt hue. True to Anderson form, the various sets are designed to have a distinct, expressionistic dollhouse quality to them– almost like somebody’s memory of a space rather than an accurate recreation of it. This goes double during the film’s climactic rescue sequence atop the church during a hurricane.
Anderson pares down his color palette to blacks, whites, and the aforementioned cobalt blue, while the church set itself is reduced to a minimalistic abstraction resembling the Gothic spires of German Expressionism. The overall effect resembles an old silent film, an impression that surely isn’t accidental on Anderson’s part.
The pacing of Anderson’s films have always been jaunty and tight, and part of MOONRISE KINGDOM’s charm is how quickly Andrew Weisblum’s edit moves the story along, trimming excess fat while never sacrificing an endearing character moment. The edit itself is notable in that there’s considerably more cutting within the individual scenes, whereas Anderson’s previous works tended to favor longer scenes that moved the camera instead of simply cutting to a new angle.
Whether it’s a practical decision made by budgetary concerns or a directorial choice on Anderson’s part, the development is certainly hard to ignore. The film’s swift pace is complemented by returning composer Alexandre Desplat’s score, which reflects the quasi-militaristic world of boy scouts with a marching staccato of bugles and snare drums set against a lushly eclectic mix of orchestral instruments, bells, a boys’ choir, and even a musical saw.
Anderson subverts his own habit of incorporating rock cues here by pairing the soulful crooning ballads of country star Hank Williams and the avante-garde midcentury French pop of Francoise Hardy. Despite stemming from cultures that were continents apart, their pairing in the context of MOONRISE KINGDOM is unexpectedly complementary.
Williams’ sad cowboy songs reflect the regret that the adult characters feel over how their lives have turned out– a regret that they mistakenly thought would be left behind with the rest of the world when they started their new lives in the isolated island community of New Penzance. Hardy’s lusty art rock echoes the exotic unpredictability of first love, which Sam and Suzy spend the film eagerly fumbling through.
The film’s true guiding light, as far as music is concerned, is English composer Benjamin Britten, whose deconstructed operas and classical works captivated the imagination of a prepubescent Anderson, and directly inspired the tone of MOONRISE KINGDOM. The character of Britten’s compositions evokes a bygone collective innocence that is tantamount to the success of Anderson’s vision, which he arguably might not have achieved without it.
While Anderson’s visual aesthetic is evolving outward to assimilate increasingly diverse influences, his recurring thematic and narrative tropes seem to be condensing inward, crystallizing into a deliriously charming, if predictable, confection. His tendency to compose his scenes as a miniaturized diorama encapsulated by an implied proscenium is more present than ever, as does the presence of the tricks of the stagecraft trade (in the form of plays, auditoriums, masks, costumes, etc).
There’s an element of theatricality to the characters’ “normal” costumes as well, with an emphasis on the eccentric manners of dress that characterize the isolated denizens of New Penzance. Uniforms are also a significant aspect of Anderson’s sartorial fascinations, stretching all the way back to BOTTLE ROCKET with Dignan’s insistence on his heist crew wearing matching canary yellow jumpsuits.
In MOONRISE KINGDOM, the ubiquitousness of the khaki scout uniforms is the obvious embodiment of this conceit, but smaller examples like Captain Sharp’s stark, pressed policeman’s uniform further tie the characters’ sartorial sensibilities to their identities.
Finally, Anderson’s work is fundamentally informed by the melancholic innocence of Charles Schulz’s PEANUTS comics, and the director even goes so far as to homage his influences by naming one of the film’s dogs Snoopy. The characters of both properties revolve around the idea of children possessing the cognizance and self-awareness of adults, oftentimes coming across as more mature and insightful than their older brethren.
In MOONRISE KINGDOM, indeed it seems that the only sane people on the island are the lovestruck kids at the center of it. The melancholic bent that gives Anderson’s films their resonant emotional heft continues with MOONRISE KINGDOM, touching on the psychological ravages of adultery, regret, and absentee parents.
Unfaithful spouses run rampant through Anderson’s work, but the bittersweet affair between Captain Sharp and Mrs. Bishop (and its defeating effect on Mr. Bishop) is especially touching– an effect no doubt stemming from Anderson’s own experiences with the complicated virtues of love as he’s grown older (the film is dedicated to his girlfriend, Juman Malouf).
Besides his outspoken qualities, plucky young Sam has another connection to RUSHMORE’s Max Fischer in that he has grown up without the benefit of two parents in a conventional nuclear family scenario. While Max was raised by his father, Sam is unlucky enough to be an outright orphan. having lost both his parents earlier in life. The open acknowledgment of the more-tragic aspects of life grounds the confectionary whimsy of Anderson’s work, bringing balance by adding sour to the sweet and giving MOONRISE KINGDOM’s nostalgic, wistful tone a profound emotional heft.
MOONRISE KINGDOM opened the Cannes Film Festival, where its warm reception fueled positive buzz that (despite its limited release) translated into healthy box office and vociferous approval from critics. The capstone to the film’s success would be Anderson and Coppola’s Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, restoring the director’s reputation as the darling of film critics and aficionados worldwide.
Like THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU before it, MOONRISE KINGDOM even had an unexpected effect on pop culture with the adoption of Sam and Suzy’s iconic appearance as a couples’ Halloween costume stalwart. FANTASTIC MR. FOX had hinted at the beginning of a second phase of Anderson’s career, but MOONRISE KINGDOM confirmed it– having learned from his failures, the creatively re-inspired Anderson had entered a new act marked by a desire to experiment visually while staying true to his sensibilities.
COUSIN BEN TROOP SCREENING (2012)
The year 2012 marked director Wes Anderson’s grand return to live-action filmmaking in the form of MOONRISE KINGDOM. As part of the film’s promotion, Anderson enlisted the services of his frequent collaborator Jason Schwartzman for a Funny or Die sketch called COUSIN BEN TROOP SCREENING.
A short piece similar in style and function to his MAX FISCHER PLAYERS PRESENTS THE MTV MOVIE AWARDS series of promo sketches from 1998, COUSIN BEN TROOP SCREENING finds Schwartzman reprising his role of Cousin Ben, a fast-talking hustler of a scout leader. The piece also features some of MOONRISE KINGDOM’s khaki scouts playing their characters once again as they shuffle into a makeshift tent to take in a screening of the film.
Befitting its status as a short comedy video for Funny or Die, COUSIN BEN TROOP SCREENING appears to have been shot digitally— but that’s just about the only deviation from Anderson’s signature aesthetic. Indeed, Anderson indulges in his own stylistic affectations to a degree bordering on parody. His flat sense of depth is flatter, his symmetrical compositions are even more precisely calibrated, and the implied presence of an external proscenium bottles the action up inside a meticulously-staged diorama.
It’s interesting to see the whimsical, lushly-realized universe of MOONRISE KINGDOM in the guise of a low-budget internet short, as the crisp sheen of digital seems to diminish some of the charm of Anderson’s idiosyncratic designs. While COUSIN BEN TROOP SCREENING doesn’t offer much in the way of growth for Anderson, it serves as an inspired and unconventional form of promotion for its larger parent project.
In addition to the release of his feature MOONRISE KINGDOM and its short companion piece COUSIN BEN TROOP SCREENING, director Wes Anderson’s already-busy 2012 was made even busier with a trio of new commercial works. Anderson’s unique artistic style had been employed in service to various lifestyle and luxury brands before, and now he was expanding into the automotive and telecommunications realm.
Anderson directed two spots for Hyundai, each one employing a particular facet of his aesthetic. “MODERN LIFE” features a domestically chaotic scene of a cook preparing dinner for his family, rendered in flat, centered compositions that employ lateral camera movements to change our perspective while keeping energy up. While there’s certainly a stagecraft-y, cross-section sensibility to this spot, “TALK TO MY CAR” tackles this aspect of Anderson’s creative outlook more directly.
“TALK TO MY CAR” combines a handcrafted appraoch to production design with old-fashioned rear projection techniques to realize the concept of a family driving their Hyundai through various times and story genres. The midcentury “mod” color palette Anderson employs here is somewhat reminiscent of the sartorial palette of Suzy, MOONRISE KINGDOM’s pint-sized female protagonist.
SONY XPERIA: “MADE OF IMAGINATION”
Anderson’s third spot during this period was for Sony Xperia, and it saw the director reunited with his stop-motion animation collaborators from 2009’s FANTASTIC MR. FOX. Titled “MADE OF IMAGINATION”, the spot features whimsically handcrafted and animated robots careening around busy cross-sectioned vignettes.
Besides replicating Anderson’s trademark diorama-style compositions and signature camera movements, “MADE OF IMAGINATION” speaks to Anderson’s tendency to imbue his work with a childlike perspective, as evidenced here by casting a young boy as the spot’s narrator.
PRADA SHORTS (2013)
Most well-known feature directors who dabble in commercial work create spots for a wide, seemingly-random variety of brands and products. Either a given brand wants that director specifically, or the director just happened to turn in the best bid. Others, like director Wes Anderson, tend to specialize within a particular niche. Anderson’s niche seems to be luxury goods and lifestyle brands– Stella Artois, American Express, Softbank, etc.
Hot off the success of his feature MOONRISE KINGDOM (2012), Anderson was approached by luxury fashion giant Prada to bring his unique vision to their marketing efforts. Instead of the traditional television advertisement, however, Anderson created a pair of short works that would help fuel the rise of a wild new frontier in the marketing field: branded content.
The first piece, CANDY, tells a single distinct story over the course of three short episodes. Like most fashion films, the story is exceedingly scant in favor of the aesthetics. Anderson created the piece with his THE DARJEELING LIMITED (2007) co-writer Roman Coppola, and cast emerging French starlet Lea Seydoux as the titular Candy: an attractive, stylish blonde who finds herself thrust between two squabbling brothers as they compete for her attention.
Presented entirely in French with English subtitles, CANDY allows Anderson to indulge in the Europhilic affectations that strings his body of work together– right down to the use of French art rock over the soundtrack. Pretty much all of Anderson’s technical hallmarks are present: whip-pans, lateral dolly movements, centered and balanced compositions, and a timeless, eclectic approach to production design. The rivalry between the two brothers is a vintage Anderson-ian theme, with the off-kilter family dynamic serving as the engine that drives the story.
CASTELLO CAVALCANTI (2013)
Anderson’s other Prada work made during this period is CASTELLO CAVALCANTI, and befitting the “branded content” label, it presents itself much more as a short film than any sort of ad. The fact that Anderson chooses to present the piece as an American Empirical production further confirms his narrative intentions. The piece is the Italian cousin to Anderson’s other European short, the France-set HOTEL CHEVALIER (2007).
Both works star frequent performer Jason Schwartzman, with CASTELLO CAVALCANTI casting him as a worldly, adventurous young American racer who encounters his Italian ancestors after accidentally crashing his race-car within the confines of the village his family came from.
Shot by veteran cinematographer Darius Khondji with anamorphic lenses in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, CASTELLO CAVALCANTI sees something of a return to classical form for Anderson after a series of works that experimented with the preening, miniaturized nature of his style. The compositions are expectedly flat, with Anderson’s subject slugged front and center into the frame.
The use of whip-pans and lateral, two-dimensional camera movements conveys the director’s signature sense of cross-sectioned tableaus, while a red and yellow checker pattern becomes a recurring visual motif that evokes an international sense of graphic design consistent with his fascination for European art and culture. There’s a heavy layer of Old World charm to CASTELLO CAVALCANTI, thanks to its 1950’s period setting and the vintage set dressings, costumes, and vehicles that go with it.
Like Prada’s CANDY, CASTELLO CAVALCANTI tells only the barest sketch of a story. As branded content, its focus is instead placed on the romanticized visuals and subtle placement of Prada branding. That being said, CASTELLO CAVALCANTI is a confident, solid effort from Anderson, and out of all of the director’s short-form works, his vision here would undoubtedly make for an excellent, full-fledged feature film.
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)
Many filmmakers often go back to basics in the wake of disappointment or failure– it’s a way to reconnect with our roots and recommit to the convictions that led us to pursue a career in film in the first place. In other words, it’s a renewal of vows after being led astray by indifference, indulgence, or complacency. More often than not, these downscaled efforts reinvigorate their filmmaker’s careers and allow them to better realize their vision in larger subsequent works.
This strategy worked wonders for director Wes Anderson, who came back from a protracted slump with his lo-fi masterpiece MOONRISE KINGDOM (2012). Anderson has always had a consistently identifiable and original filmmaking style– a style that has blossomed and evolved as the second act of his career unfolds.
Anderson’s creative renaissance translated to the commercial and critical success of MOONRISE KINGDOM, which he was then able to parlay into his grandest caper yet– a sprawling, confectionary portrait of a bygone gilded age called THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014).
Whereas his previous features were written with a co-writer (usually Owen Wilson, Noah Baumbach, or Roman Coppola), Anderson alone sculpted his screenplay for THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, drawing inspiration from a story co-written by Hugo Guinness and the writings of author Stefan Zweig.
Assumedly, it probably didn’t take long for Anderson’s regular producing partners Scott Rudin, Jeremy Dawson and Steven Rales to hop on board the good ship American Empirical for another promising adventure of international intrigue and heroic derring-do. For whatever troubles Anderson and his team encountered in mounting the picture, their faith was rewarded when THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL was anointed as the biggest artistic and commercial success of the filmmaker’s career.
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL takes place in the fictional country of Zubrowka, vaguely located somewhere in the mountains of central Europe. A small town in Germany played the part, with the production converting an abandoned, derelict department store into the gilded, soaring lobby and hallways of the titular hotel.
Anderson’s epic caper unfolds across several distinct time periods within the 20th century, each nestled inside of the other like a cinematic Russian nesting doll. As is to be expected in a film about luxury and indulgence, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL boasts no less than three narrative framing devices. We begin in present day, where a young girl has made a pilgrimage to a sleepy, wintry cemetery while clutching a hardcover copy of a novel titled “The Grand Budapest Hotel”.
She finds the memorial belonging to the book’s author (unnamed in the film) and sits down to read under the watchful eye of the statue commissioned in his likeness. We then flash back to 1985, where the Author (Tom Wilkinson) is filming himself as he sets up some of the political and social context surrounding the main story. This triggers another flashback to the year 1965, where we finally see the Grand Budapest Hotel, but as it was shortly before its demolition: a dilapidated, neglected ruin with hideous midcentury decor.
The Author (now played by Jude Law) is a guest at the hotel… maybe the only guest. While hanging around the lobby, he becomes fascinated by the quiet presence of the hotel’s distinguished, elderly owner– allegedly the richest man in Zubrowka, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). A chance encounter in the hotel’s spa leads to a dinner invitation, where Mr. Moustafa regales the Author with how he came to own the property.
This prompts yet another flashback to 1932, the time in which the film’s main narrative is set. The Grand Budapest Hotel is living out its opulent heyday, a golden age brought about in part by the impeccable leadership of the hotel’s concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Considered one of the best concierges in the field, he takes a young man named Zero (Tony Revolori) under his wing as his apprentice, helping him to ensure the orderliness of the hotel while he romances the many wealthy, elderly female guests.
When one of his favorites, Tilda Swinton’s Madame D, abruptly dies from suspected poisoning by an unknown agent, Gustave is bequeathed one of her most prized possessions– an invaluable masterpiece of Renaissance art titled “Boy With Apple”. Gustave and Zero are thrust into the middle of the competing factions seeking Madame D’s fortune, and it’s not long before our heroes are conveniently framed for her murder.
After breaking out of prison, Gustave and Zero hatch a scheme to clear their names and take back the leadership of their beloved hotel, even as the encroaching shadow of a second world war threatens to change their way of life forever.
Anderson’s films are remarkably notorious for procuring well-known, well-respected actors and coaxing them into showing audiences a side of themselves they’ve never shown before. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL carries on this tradition in grand fashion, boasting what is easily the largest cast ever assembled for an Anderson film.
His ensemble is comprised of many faces both old and new, and can be divided into several groups pertaining to their respective time periods. The fact that he was able to gather so many marquee names under one roof (even for the bit parts) is a testament to the substantial respect and affection that Anderson has been able to garner for both himself and his idiosyncratic vision.
The 1932 storyline claims the lion’s share of Anderson’s cast, headlined by Ralph Fiennes’ deliriously entertaining performance as M. Gustave, the mannered and elegant concierge of the Grand Budapest. He’s the personification of Victorian-era ideals regarding civilized manner and discretion, but Fiennes subverts his own stuffy image with a rascal’s womanizing streak.
Fresh-faced Tony Revolori makes his film debut as Zero, the wide-eyed lobby boy and anxious apprentice to Gustave. Like many of Anderson’s prepubescent heroes, Zero is an orphan, having been deprived of parents at an early age when soldiers raided his hometown.
MOONRISE KINGDOM’s Tilda Swinton is almost unrecognizable under heavy makeup as Gustave’s wealthy and decrepitly elderly paramour, Madame D. THE DARJEELING LIMITED’s Adrien Brody delivers a deliciously vindictive brand of old-school, black-suited villainry as Madame D’s son, Dmitri. The film serves as something of a mini reunion for THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU’s Willem Dafoe and Jeff Goldblum, who play Jopling and Deputy Kovacs, respectively.
Jopling is a skeletal, murderous brute under Dmitir’s employ, while Kovacs’ occupation as an attorney requires him to string along an avalanche of complex multi-syllabic words (which, of course, the verbosely eloquent Goldblum delivers effortlessly).
A host of other inspired casting choices rounds out the 1932 storyline’s supporting cast. Edward Norton, who previously appeared in Anderson’s MOONRISE KINGDOM, plays an altogether different kind of antagonist from Madame D’s brood– the distinguished, gentlemanly military officer Henckels, whose pursuit of Gustave is complicated by his own personal fondness for the man.
Previous Bond villain Mathieu Almaric plays Serge X, the scheming servant for Madame D, while future Bond girl Lea Seydoux plays Madame D’s French maid, Clotilde. Irish actress Saoirse Ronan is a natural fit as Zero’s love interest Agatha, a sweet-natured baker with a birthmark on her face in the shape of Mexico. Veteran tough-guy actor Harvey Keitel turns in his second consecutive performance under Anderson’s direction as Ludwig– a bald inmate covered in tattoos who helps Gustave break out of jail.
One of the film’s more inspired details is Gustave’s membership in a secretive cabal called The Society of the Crossed Keys, comprised of other in-the-know, overachieving hotel concierges just like him. While the appearances of these other concierges are fleeting, Anderson populates their ranks with some of his most-trusted stock players– Bob Balaban (who played the Narrator in MOONRISE KINGDOM), Wallace Wolodarsky (the assistant with alopecia in THE DARJEELING LIMITED), and Waris Ahluwalia (the camera-man in THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, among various parts in other works).
The biggest of these concierge roles is reserved for Anderson stalwart Bill Murray, who’s comedic talents are criminally underused as the fabulously-mustached concierge M. Ivan. Finally, longtime collaborator Owen Wilson appears briefly as M. Chuck, the temporary concierge of the The Grand Budapest when it comes under the militaristic rule of the ZZ.
The 1965 portion of the film has a very different vibe, which necessitates the casting of very different performers. Jason Schwartzman is the only familiar Anderson face here, playing the Grand Budapest’s slacker concierge, M. Jean. Schwartzman’s M. Jean is cavalier and aloof, always with a cigarette tucked between his lips. He’s the personification of the sweeping change in society brought about by WW2 and the ensuing decades.
Gone are the gilded, stately parlors and the unfailing hospitality of their stewards– replaced with brutalistic, function-over-form remodels and snobby, self-interested skeleton crews. As Mr. Moustapha (the older version of Zero), F. Murray Abraham may not resemble his 1932 counterpart Tony Revolori, but it only serves to convey the chasms of distance between the boy he was then and the seasoned older man he’s become.
Jude Law is bookish and attentive as the Young Writer, the conduit through which Anderson channels his framing device. Tom Wilkinson is convincing as Law’s character twenty years on, having grown more professorial and curmudgeonly as he’s aged.
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL resembles something of a decadent pastry or confection– indeed, many critics have likened the film to a giant layer cake. What this means in the context of Anderson’s visual development of a filmmaker is that he’s returned to an aesthetic that favors the control of artifice, having previously ceded ground to the unpredictability of MOONRISE KINGDOM’s naturalistic approach.
That’s not to suggest that Anderson has failed to innovate; in fact, the exact opposite is true. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL finds Anderson radically experimenting with his visual style. The most superliminal aspect of this is his inspired use of different aspect ratios to convey different time periods. To my knowledge, this has never been done before with a somewhat-mainstream Hollywood film.
While Christopher Nolan might have tested the waters of switching aspect ratios mid-film by mixing 35mm and IMAX footage in his DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY, Anderson’s approach is groundbreaking in that it seems to be the first time that aspect ratio has been deployed as part of the storytelling tool itself. Each time period gets its own aspect ratio: the modern-day and 1985 scenes are presented in the standard 1.85:1 Academy ratio, whereas the 1965 scenes utilize Anderson’s signature 2.35:1 anamorphic frame.
The bulk of the film– the 1932 storyline– is shot in the 1.37:1 square aspect ratio, harkening back to classic old films from the period. Anderson’s tendency to create relatively flat compositions doesn’t work quite as well in 1.37:1 as it does in the wider aspect ratios, so he compensates by instead creating compositions that emphasize depth along the Z axis.
Longtime Anderson cinematographer Robert Yeoman once again lends his expert hand (and eye) to the proceedings, capturing the film’s candy-coated palette in brilliant swathes of purple, pink, peach, red, orange, and blue. Curiously, one scene set on a train towards the end of the 1930’s timeline is presented in black and white– a decision that’s never fully explained, but is perhaps meant to convey the end of an era while foreshadowing that particular scene’s bleak ending.
Despite all of Anderson’s experimentation and innovation, fans of his classical style can rest easy: there’s no short supply of lateral dolly and crane-based camera movements, whip-pans, top-down hand inserts, rack zooms, and compositions that cram his ensemble into a singular setup.
In bringing a fictional country and a bygone era back to life, Anderson’s regular production designer Adam Stockhausen certainly has his work cut out for him. He fills Anderson’s blank canvas with layer upon layer of opulent costumes, sets, props, and conspicuous miscellanea meant to give a tangible sense of history and vibrancy to the fictional culture of Zubrowka.
There’s a timeless, central European feeling to every single scene, despite the various (yet distinct) time settings. A magical, miniaturist quality pervades THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, due in part to the usage of matte paintings and miniatures in long shots meant to convey the picturesque Zubrowkian mountaintops and countryside.
These expressionistic landscapes often dwarf the silhouetted outlines of the characters, recalling both a similar technique Anderson employed in FANTASTIC MR. FOX (2009) and the climax of MOONRISE KINGDOM, as well as the inspirations from which it draws: silent film and Chinese shadow plays.
Understandably, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL has a lot of story to tell, and thanks to an elegantly choppy and breathlessly-paced edit by Anderson company newcomer Barney Pilling, that story miraculously manages to cross the finish line in under two hours without ever feeling rushed or unnecessarily condensed.
Part of that effect can be attributed to returning composer Alexandre Desplat’s whimsically jaunty score, which brews a mix of pianos, exotic strings, brass, woodwinds, organs, imperious marches, and even a male choir to create a lush, orchestral score full of European intrigue. And to show how dedicated he is to recreating an immersive sense of period, Anderson foregoes his tendency to include modern rock and pop needledrops entirely, save for a few Germanic folk songs where appropriate.
The setting of Anderson’s various stories has followed a linear evolution from exaggerated versions of real places to entirely fictional locales that never existed to begin with. This evolution has enabled Anderson to establish truly insular sandboxes for his characters to play in. This means that from BOTTLE ROCKET (1996) onward, his work has gradually taken on a cartoonish artificiality.
The stop-motion animated FANTASTIC MR. FOX is obviously an actual cartoon, but out of all his live-action works, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is easily Anderson’s most fanciful and least realistic-looking film to date. This isn’t a bad thing– in an age where our mainstream Hollywood films are more CGI-animated than not, it’s refreshing to see obsolete technologies coming back to lend a handmade, organic touch.
This theatricality is a consistent force in Anderson’s work, containing his characters and actions within the bounds of a proscenium-like frame like an elaborately-staged diorama. It also manifests in the eccentric sartorial style of his characters and their affectations for uniform.
Several other thematic fascinations have grown more pronounced as Anderson has developed, like the international, mostly-European flavor that has been steadily overtaking the tone of his work (and Anderson himself) and has reached its logical saturation point here. The depths of his characters’ melancholy has also increased in proportion to his films’ rising stakes.
In THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, nothing less than world peace is on the line when a fictionalized version of World War 2 descends on the sleepy burg of Zubrowka. Don’t let the candy coating fool you– this film has quite the nasty streak when it comes to the malicious actions of its characters. Fingers are severed, guards are stabbed, lawyers are murdered, cats are heaved out of windows, firefights erupt in tranquil atriums, and the ideological conflicts of war make refugees and orphans out of unsuspecting Zubrowkians like Zero.
Anderson counterbalances this with a gentler kind of melancholy, personified in the hotel itself– a bittersweet nostalgia over the glory days of old, and the aching regret we feel over our ultimate powerlessness against the ravages of time. Given a long enough time period, even our most stalwart and gilded monuments to our leisure class overlords will crumble away into neglect and ruin.
Despite Anderson’s changing ideals and maturation as an artist, his boyish eagerness for a rollicking caper has been an unflagging, defining characteristic of his work. His adherence to this integral part of his identity has served him well in his career, no more so than with the release of THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL.
A Silver Bear win in Berlin was the opening salvo of a take-no-prisoners awards campaign that resulted in a tie with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu’s BIRDMAN: OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) for the most nominations at the 2015 Academy Awards.
Anderson’s films had been nominated for Oscars before, but THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL would be the first to actually win, taking home the coveted gold statue for its production design, makeup, original score, and costumes. For Anderson personally, Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director would set a new high watermark in his artistic growth and enshrine a gold capstone atop his career’s second act.
In a way, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is somewhat akin to the “ultimate” Wes Anderson film (and not just because it’s the most critically and commercially successful film he’s ever made) – the epic stakes, the masterful control of style and tone, and the veritable rogue’s gallery of recurring Anderson-ian cast members all add up to one of the most thoroughly enjoyable and fulfilling works from one the medium’s most inimitably original voices.
HOW TO MAKE COURTESAN AU CHOCOLAT (2014)
Just like he had made the short sketch COUSIN BEN TROOP SCREENING (2012) as a promotional companion piece to his feature MOONRISE KINGDOM, director Wes Anderson followed the release of his 2014 film THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL with a short tie-in distributed via the Internet. Titled HOW TO MAKE COURTESAN AU CHOCOLAT, the short is a relatively simple recipe video that teaches the audience to make the fanciful eponymous pastry that’s prominently featured in the feature.
Anderson splices in relevant shots from THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL to supplement his characteristically-framed bird’s eye perspective of hands making the dish. Judging by the quality of the new footage, it appears that Anderson shot the baking sequences digitally. The match between video and film isn’t perfect, but Anderson closes the gap with characteristic flourishes like jump cuts, eccentric title treatments and a baroque music track reminiscent of Alexandre Desplat’s score for THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL.
All in all, HOW TO MAKE COURTESAN AU CHOCOLAT is a brief, enjoyable piece of promotion that not only takes the audience deeper into the world of THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, but encourages them to become an active participant in it.
STELLA ARTOIS GIVE BEAUTIFULLY COMMERCIAL (2014)
Throughout his high-flying feature career, director Wes Anderson has supplemented his major works with regular forays into advertising. His specialty is premium luxury and lifestyle brands with an international flavor, a niche that’s somewhat reflective of his own tastes as an artist. In 2014, while he was still basking in the glow of THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL’s success, Anderson took on his second assignment for Belgian beer brewer Stella Artois– a holiday-themed spot called “GIVE BEAUTIFULLY”.
Not many people are clued into the fact that Anderson directed this spot, given that his signature style is downplayed considerably here in favor of a naturalistic look and a neutral, muted color palette. Still, a few shots are dead giveaways as to the identity of its maker: flat compositions, whip-pans, lateral dolly movements, and a 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
Stella Artois’ heritage as a Belgian brand allows Anderson to effortlessly indulge in his fascinations with European architecture and culture. It’s a curious spot in Anderson’s canon, if only because he deliberately obscures the visual style that most marketers tend to seek him out specifically for.
As of this writing, “GIVE BEAUTIFULLY” is the most recent complete work of Anderson’s as a director. In his 46 years of life and two decades as a filmmaker, he’s created a career for himself that many directors twice his age would envy– and he’s not even halfway done yet. While his signature, miniaturist aesthetic is certainly divisive, it’s hard to argue against the notion that his is one of the most auspiciously original voices in recent cinematic history.
His aesthetic and thematic fascinations may undergone a subtle evolution through his own trials and tribulations, but he’s never strayed from the artistic principles upon which he established himself. In an age dominated by generic blockbuster fare and stale mega-franchises, Anderson has managed to succeed by making HIMSELF the brand, and in the process, has blessed burgeoning indie filmmakers with a roadmap for achieving prosperity and perseverance on their own terms.
ISLE OF DOGS (2018)
It’s dangerous to be a dog in a Wes Anderson film. Whether it’s being caught between a brick wall and the receiving end of a speeding convertible as in THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001) or speared through with a boy scout’s arrow as in MOONRISE KINGDOM (2012), man’s best friend repeatedly endures abuse or meets his untimely, inglorious end in some manner.
One could be forgiven for thinking that Anderson simply hates dogs— enough so that he’s continually willing to risk that singular, unspoken cardinal rule of filmed entertainment: you can hurt, maim, or kill as many people as you want, but don’t you dare touch the dog. The premise of his 2018 feature, ISLE OF DOGS, would appear to be a culmination of his anti-dog crusade: an opportunity to banish the entirety of the canine species to an inhospitable island of literal garbage and jump-start their de-evolution back to feral scavengers.
What ultimately emerges, however, is a grand revelation of Anderson’s fundamental love for these creatures, and a tribute to their defining qualities: unflappable loyalty, peerless integrity, and a ceaseless optimism about the world that rivals the innocence of a child.
An aesthetic style as preeningly delicate and meticulously composed as Anderson’s lends itself quite naturally to the world of stop-motion animation, so it’s a bit of a wonder that his ninth feature film would only be his second animated effort (2009’s FANTASTIC MR. FOX being his first).
First inspired by a road sign he saw in England while making that film (1), ISLE OF DOGS builds on the idiosyncratic Rankin/Bass-influenced charm of Anderson’s earlier effort by weaving in his profound affection for the cinema of legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa (2). Kurosawa’s stoic, formal aesthetic has been a cornerstone of Anderson’s own artistry since the beginning, but the fictional Japanese setting of ISLE OF DOGS allows such foundations to assert themselves more overtly.
That Anderson wrote the script from an original idea, and not an adaptation of a beloved Roald Dahl novel, allows him to further invoke Kurosawa’s spirit as he spices up a simplistic story about a boy searching for his beloved dog with fantastical landscapes, mutant castaways and even killer robots. The end result is a playful distillation of Anderson’s artistic and narrative conceits, exaggerated to an appropriately cartoonish degree.
ISLE OF DOGS is set twenty years into the future, in the fictional Japanese megalopolis called Megasaki City. Mayor Kobayashi, the latest ruler in a long dynastic line of cat lovers, governs the population with an iron fist that makes his public embrace of opposition expression a half-hearted one at best. Following the outbreak of a massive dog flu that threatened to sicken the city, Mayor Kobayashi enacted a massive effort to round up every single canine and ship them off to nearby Trash Island, an abandoned heap of garbage and ruins.
Anderson’s story begins in earnest when the Mayor’s nephew and ward, plucky 12 year-old Atari (Koyo Rankin), steals a beat-up puddle jumper to fly to the island and retrieve his beloved companion Spots (voiced with a pragmatic stoicism by Liev Schrieber). He ends up just barely surviving a crash landing, and is rescued by a pack of self-described alpha dogs who, as former pets, are having a bit of difficulty adapting to the scavenger lifestyle.
A handful of Anderson’s frequent collaborators lend their voices to this group: Edward Norton plays Rex, a pooch whose free-thinking nature often gets him into trouble; MOONRISE KINGDGOM’s Bob Balaban is King; Jeff Goldblum plays Duke; longtime company player Bill Murray plays Boss, a droll bulldog further distinguished by his little baseball sweater.
The pack is always bickering, as might be expected of a group of dogs accustomed to being the kings of their own domain, but they quickly fall in line behind the lone stray: the gruff Chief, voiced by Anderson company newcomer Bryan Cranston. As the group escorts Atari across Trash Island on his heroic quest, we come to realize that it is perhaps Chief who is ISLE OF DOGS’ main protagonist— he undergoes the fullest character arc as a stray who ultimately finds a home, family, and even love (in the form of a sassy show dog voiced by Scarlett Johansson).
Anderson finds several opportunities along the way to pepper in contributions from other members of his actor repertory like F. Murray Abraham (as Jupiter, a sage elder type), Tilda Swinton (as Oracle, a space-y pug believed to have magical powers simply because she understands television), Kara Heyward (as Peppermint, Chief’s mate and the mutilated subject of horrific genetic experimentation), Harvey Keitel (as Gondo, the mangy, decomposing leader of a rival pack of rumored cannibals), and even Anjelica Huston (humorously credited as “Mute Poodle”).
This already-expansive story finds yet even more room for several human characters— there’s fairly substantial roles for actresses like Frances McDormand (playing Kobayashi’s interpreter) and Greta Gerwig (as Tracy Walker, an American exchange student with a frizzy blonde Afro whose political activism gets herself into serious trouble), in addition to very minor bit parts nevertheless credited to notable actors (Yoko Ono, Ken Watanabe and Courtney B. Vance as a scientist’s assistant, a head surgeon, and a narrator marking the passage of time, respectively)— a testament to Anderson’s magnetic draw as a filmmaker.
ISLE OF DOGS, which was photographed in England, boasts much of the same animation crew behind FANTASTIC MR. FOX— if only because there aren’t many animators still working in the stop-motion style. The format lends itself quite effortlessly towards Anderson’s desire to control every aspect of his frame and the implied world contained therein, further heightening the impression of a theatrical “proscenium” or a two-dimensional diorama that shapes his aesthetic.
Anderson’s camera movement echoes this conceit, favoring lateral moves across the x or y-axis not unlike a side-scrolling video game. While Anderson frequently employs the services of cinematographer Robert Yeoman for his live-action work, FANTASTIC MR. FOX’s Tristan Oliver has emerged as Anderson’s DP of record for his animated endeavors, helping his director harness the particular strengths of a Canon still camera towards his vision.
Thanks to the larger resolution capabilities of the stills function in DSLR technology, ISLE OF DOGS was photographed in 5k, and then downscaled in editing to a 2K resolution video file in Anderson’s preferred 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Anderson and Oliver further build on their experience from FANTASTIC MR FOX with increasingly sophisticated storytelling techniques like canted angles and split-screen sequences.
In an inspired touch, any action that’s presented within a television monitor or screen of some kind is rendered in a two-dimensional anime-style cel aesthetic, which reinforces the film’s loving homage to Japanese pop culture while diversifying the animation techniques on display. Returning production designer Adam Stockhausen collaborates with Paul Harrod to realize Anderson’s vision of a vibrant and tactile Megasaki City, creating a stark visual contrast from Trash Island’s brown/grey/rust color palette with saturated swaths of red, yellow, purple and green.
Anderson also re-enlists composer Alexandre Desplat, whose original score uses the driving rhythms of taiko drums, whistling, and bass-y male chorals to playfully flirt with the line between an authentic Japanese character and cartoonish kitsch. Of course, this wouldn’t be a true Anderson picture without a deep-cut needledrop or two, and ISLE OF DOGS definitely delivers in his recurring use of the theme song from Akira Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI as well as an admittedly-twee, lo-fi folk track from the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band titled “I Won’t Hurt You”.
Throughout his career, Anderson has pursued a certain timeless quality in his work, gradually detaching from reality in favor of miniaturized, self-contained worlds better calibrated to his exacting specifications. Eccentric characters reacting to realistic environments, such as the type to populate BOTTLE ROCKET (1996) and THE DARJEELING LIMITED (2007) have given way to larger-than-life protagonists inhabiting the painstakingly-realized snowglobes seen in MOONRISE KINGDOM (2012) and THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014).
The insularity of these self-contained worlds is further reinforced by their inhabitants’ strict social bubbles— in addition to the highly-regimented class divisions of Japanese society seen in the film, ISLE OF DOGS further divides the already-isolated dog population into distinct groups like the central pack of alpha dogs, or the so-called “cannibal” dogs who are exiled twice over.
Anderson’s fascination with the marriage between social standing and identity explains the international (and predominantly-Continental) flavor of his aesthetic; even films like BOTTLE ROCKET, RUSHMORE and THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS — all set in America, the nation whose founding principles supposedly divorce the concept of social class from the ability to determine one’s identity — find their protagonists’ struggling with the mismatch between where they come from and who they want to be.
Towards this end, uniforms become an important signifier in Anderson’s work, and ISLE OF DOGS continues the tradition by decking 12 year-old Atari in a silver flight suit to signify the heroic, adventurous nature of his quest.
The recurring themes of language and literacy provide a similar conduit, whereby his characters are notably more articulate or verbose than the general population. Like a crisp pair of monogrammed pajamas, “speaking well” is an affectation that Anderson’s characters use to project their class or social status (or, in the case of RUSHMORE’s Max Fischer, their aspirations for upward mobility).
ISLE OF DOGS frames this idea through the prism of translation, opting to fully embrace its international underpinnings by featuring characters who speak in their native tongue. Lines delivered in Japanese are presented without subtitles— a risky prospect in a climate where most moviegoers avoid foreign films on the whole, but one that also allows characters like McDormand’s Interpreter Nelson to editorialize during the process of translation.
It’s also a major source of the film’s comedy, with the English-speaking dogs often forced to guess at Atari’s Japanese commands. Anderson deftly balances this levity with the film’s more-somber aspects, arriving at the latest iteration of the unique tone he’s spent his entire career cultivating— a mood that’s childlike in its innocent eagerness for swashbuckling adventure, and yet, distinctively adult, laden with pangs of melancholic nostalgia, profound regret, and frequent reminders of both life’s fleeting fragility and the cosmos’ cold indifference.
Tragedy is always lurking behind the chipper smiles of his protagonists; with the exception of Chief, the central pack of alpha dogs in the film all come from assumably-loving homes only to be abandoned and exiled onto a tetanus-riddled wasteland. Family — or more accurately, the lack thereof — becomes a chief motivating factor behind Atari’s quest, with his having been raised under the icy guardianship of his uncle and the watchful eye of his beloved Spots positioning him as the latest figure in a long stretch of literal or figurative orphans throughout Anderson’s work.
That the director’s carefully-cultivated Dickensian flair is so visible through the heavy veneer of Japanese iconography & kitsch is evidence of the complete command of craft and voice that sets him apart from his many imitators.
Anderson is hardly regarded as a controversial filmmaker, but even he is not immune from the wrath of today’s pervasive “cancel culture”. With its Japanese backdrop — which Anderson posits as an affectionate homage — ISLE OF DOGS nevertheless invites unwanted attention from critics (professional and armchair alike) who would decry his cultural “tourism” or appropriation (3), or highlight his inclusion of Tracy’s character as a “white savior” trope.
Such attacks recall the reception to Sofia Coppola’s Tokyo-set LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003), in which certain audiences were too repulsed by its undeniable Anglo-Saxon gaze to see the sublime, delicate beauty underneath. This sort of outcry tends to accompany Western films set in Eastern cultures— after all, nobody lifted a finger when Anderson sailed the Mediterranean for THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (2004), or barnstormed across the fictional Eastern European / Caucasus landscape of THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL.
There may have been some fuss over his vision of three white men traversing India in THE DARJEELING LIMITED, but certainly not to the degree that ISLE OF DOGS is criticized. One gets the sense that it’s the film’s nature as an animated work that amplifies such accusations— admittedly, the inherently-artificial nature of anything within the camera’s frame imbues the picture with an inescapable cartoonish quality, flattening and exaggerating the mise-en-scene by necessity.
Of course, ISLE OF DOGS isn’t an authentic reflection of Japanese culture; nor did it ever set out to be. A Japanese director undoubtedly would have brought more nuance and subtlety to the proceedings, but the fact remains that Anderson — through sheer force of creative will, professional clout and affection for Japanese culture — is the one who brought ISLE OF DOGS forth into the world. Regardless of one’s take on the finished product, it’s simply a bad-faith argument to claim that his intentions were anything other than benevolent.
While an atmosphere of controversy noticeably enveloped ISLE OF DOGS, it would nonetheless prove to be a thin one— easily penetrated by a bombardment of positive reviews and audience appreciation. It was a crowd favorite on the festival circuit, where it was programmed as the closing night film at South By Southwest and was awarded the prestigious Silver Bear at Berlin.
High-profile Oscar nominations in the Best Animated Picture and Best Score categories would follow, as would a rather-modest worldwide box office haul of $65 million. Its financial performance may be on the anemic side, especially in a franchise-dominated theatrical climate where animated films enjoy higher profiles by virtue of their relative scarcity, but Anderson’s popularity as a filmmaker no doubt bolstered the film’s earning potential.
ISLE OF DOGS’ lo-fi, organic qualities provide a warm antidote to the clinical computer-generated precision of modern animated films, and it will surely age far better. Its warm reception ensures Anderson’s return to the animation medium in the future, and opens a pathway for the celebrated filmmaker to carve out new avenues within an inimitable career.
Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos. His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire. To support Cameron’s work – Subscribe on Special.tv.
THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. ——>Watch the Directors Series Here <———