In Praise of Wes Anderson

by Tony Shea on October 6, 2012


Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson has now made three of my favorite films, with the inclusion of Moonrise Kingdom, along with Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The Royal Tenenbaums. Like Terry Gilliam and the Coen Brothers, Wes Anderson’s highly personal and idiosyncratic style is not for everybody, but I would argue that Wes Anderson is probably the best contemporary filmmaker we have.

I find that I am able to watch Wes Anderson’s films again and again, even those films of his that I do not particularly love, The Life Aquatic, and The Darjeeling Limited among them. But each re-watching reveals something new that always interests me. For instance, Willem Defoe’s performance as Rat in Fantastic Mr. Fox always provides a fresh thrill,  considering how dark and menacing the character is, smoking, switchblade wielding, murderous, for what is ostensibly a kid’s movie.

Likewise, every time I read Royal Tenenbaum’s gravestone I feel a kind of mad hilarity come over me, and I’m just blown away, considering what we have come to learn about Royal, the patriarch of the Tenenbaum clan, who is a liar, and a grifter:

Royal O’Reilly Tenenbaum (1932-2001) Died Tragically Rescuing His Family From The Remains Of A Destroyed Sinking Battleship.

It is a detail like so many others in Wes Anderson’s work that straddles the line between tragedy and comedy in perfect balance. His films are ultimately about people, even if the people are foxes and rats and badgers, not events. They are emotionally rich undertakings, alive with detail and deep layers of meaning. The love story between brother and sister combination Ritchie Tenenbaum and Margot Tenenbaum (she’s adopted) is one of the most beautiful unrequited love stories ever told.

Even when Ritchie is driven to a moment of suicidal darkness, there is a kind of penetrating light that energizes the film. (Watch the whole clip).

Just as important as what Wes Anderson actually does, is what he does not do. He makes liberal use of wide shots to inform us of the setting in which the characters exist, rather than always slamming into close up. The pacing of the films is moderate and allowed to take it’s time, rather than frenzied. There are quiet moments that are not filled with expository dialogue, quiet moments when people just exist in their imperfection, trying to make sense of it all. Rather than constantly cutting, Anderson often allows the viewer to linger on the frame, and grabs entire sections in elaborate tracking shots that are perfectly choreographed so that the audience’s attention is never fractured. There is a real control at work that is unique and utterly distinctive.

There really is no one quite like Wes Anderson currently at work in the landscape of American cinema. When you are watching one of his films you know it. Even the stop-motion animated Fantastic Mr. Fox had all the hallmarks of a Wes Anderson film: a dry wit, a humanistic sense of forgiveness, a reasonable point of view unaffected by needless hysteria, a beautiful sense of pace, an admiration of love in all it’s forms, even the painful parts, but with a wicked edge of dark humor and surrealistic weirdness, inhabited by well rounded characters who are allowed to breath and let their presences be felt, rather than being moved along the barrel of the plot like bullets in a gun.  The color palette of his films is like a fall day in Virginia, muted yellows, and reds, and browns, like the world hovered somewhere in the mid-1970’s. The soundtracks are eclectic  stretching the gamut from 1960’s rock and roll to French Jazz. There is a timeless quality to his films.

Like Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson writes or, at least, co-writes all of his scripts and his films have a literary quality to them that aspires to bridge the gap between novels and film: the inclusion of omniscient narrators like Alec Baldwin’s brilliant piece of vocal work in The Royal Tenenbaums, and dividing the film into chapters. This is a trait also shared by Quentin Tarantino whose films also have a literary quality to them. But while Tarantino has been inspired by noir, and western pulp novels, Wes Anderson seems to have been inspired by J.D. Salinger (to whom we must imagine he owes a debt, when we consider that the Tenenbaums remind us, in their prodigious genius, of the Glass family of Salinger’s work) and other greats of 20th century literature.

Whereas so many films focus on plot at the expense of character, provoking the emotions, by force if need be—think of the joyless deadening plethora of horror films, and the big budget comedies assembled from marketing data—Wes Anderson’s films allow the audience to indulge in the richness of a character’s life, both outer and inner life, thus creating a much more powerful connection with the audience–the way a great book does.

Even when he sometimes misses, Wes Anderson’s films are filled with memorable twists and turns, little discoveries, wonderful moments of dialogue that are hilarious and lively, carefully constructed images that are a masterful merging of source material, narrative eye, cinematography, production design and performance.

His films are ensemble endeavors where a variety of characters each get their time in the sun, fully revealing themselves to us. Moonrise Kingdom, like his other films, benefits from a top-notch cast of actors including Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Bob Balaban, and the great Bill Murray all working selflessly,trying not to attract too much attention to themselves in service to the material, and in so doing giving some marvelously offbeat performances.

And at the end of Wes Anderson’s films I find myself getting choked up by a sense of forgiveness and possibility—and joy. I guess at core, that it what I like about Wes Anderson’s films most, their joyfulness. It’s the joy I felt as I watched Moonrise Kingdom last weekend. It’s the joy I feel during the closing sequence of Fantastic Mr. Fox as the Bobby Fuller Four song Let Her Dance plays. I laugh until I start crying and then I laugh some more.

Tony Shea ( Editor-in-Chief, New York)

Tony Shea is based in New York, having recently moved from Los Angeles after more than a decade on the sunny coast. His short films have won numerous awards and screened at major festivals around the world including Comic-Con. As a musician, he is the lead singer for Los Angeles rock n’ roll band Candygram For Mongo (C4M) who has been a featured artist on Clear Channel Radio’s Discover New Music Program and whose songs have been heard on Battlestar Gallactica (Syfy Channel) and Unhitched (Fox) among other shows and films.

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