© 2018 by J. Eric Thompson

The Wes Andersonoscopy

Beetlejuice was awesome. I won’t explain why. You saw it. After nine years of directing short films and the occasional TV episode – and skipping over Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, solely because I still shudder at the memory of Large Marge – Tim Burton was allowed to show the moviegoing world his creative guts. And boy did he. So kookily, in fact, that he was given one of America’s most beloved action heroes with which to solidify himself as a real Hollywood player. Then he gave us Edward Scissorhands, which was great, and everything started to unspool. Not that I blame Johnny Depp.

But he didn’t help.

Tim Burton, Auteur was a different beast, though still a uniquely odd one. Nowadays, were you to catch a frame of any Tim Burton film, you’d immediately recognize it as a Tim Burton film. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you care. His reliance on dreaminess and CGI (and Johnny Depp, of course) doesn’t give him enough time or energy to focus on developing interesting stories or empathetic characters, which is why his style of filmmaking lends itself best to adapting fantastical works already beloved by his audience.

Show us the pretty pictures, Tim. Tell us the one about the white rabbit, or the mean barber.

The same thing happened to M. Night Shyamalan, albeit more embarrassingly and to a worse degree. He had major success with his first film and was given free reign, and with each passing project, not only did he attempt to recapture the same magic of The Sixth Sense, but tried to force his maturation behind the camera; he wanted to be known as that guy who was like Hitchcock but with twist endings, as opposed to broadening the scope of his storytelling and allowing his own cinematic proclivities to subtly evolve over time (like Scorsese, Kubrick, the Coen Brothers, PT Anderson, Coppola, et al).

 

But as Kurt Vonnegut said of literature in an interview with The Paris Review, it seems, too, that the auteur “should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.”

 

 

Enter Wes Anderson, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. (ahem)

 

Anderson’s worlds are symmetrical and bright while Burton’s are dreamlike and muted, but both are intensely (and often overbearingly) surreal. Where Anderson paints clouds on the background set piece, Burton generates them with a computer, but both refuse to do so in a manner that isn’t quirky to the point of being distracting at best, and gimmicky at worst. Unfortunately, the same is true of their characters.

Both worlds are filled with inhabitants that seem to exist merely to give the film a certain aura, as opposed to the film existing in order to highlight the characters. The way Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia gave every role the weight of a lead, The Grand Budapest Hotel lacked any main character at all. Oh look, there’s Bill Murray. And Tilda Swinton is wearing lots of makeup. It was as if every cartoonish expression and punctilious movement only existed to facilitate the all the crash zooms and swish pans. Like watching an autistic child play in his dollhouse.

Wes wasn’t always like this. His best work is rooted in the family dynamic; the brothers of Bottle Rocket and The Darjeeling Limited, the father/son relationships in Rushmoreand The Life Aquatic, the entirety of The Royal Tenenbaums, were all superb, and even evolved throughout his first few films as he explored the different methods of storytelling. As much as Bottle Rocket smacked of a student film, Rushmore was presented as a play, even closing with a song and falling curtain, while Tenenbaums had the chapters of a novel and Life Aquatic was shot like a documentary. The Darjeelingtrain and the odd, construction-paper feel of Moonrise Kingdom – allowing it to look more claymated than The Fantastic Mr. Fox – began to drift away from that progression, however, and The Grand Budapest Hotel ignored it altogether, opting instead to present what felt like a Technicolor Three Stooges short made in France before the New Wave.

Sacrebleu! Nyuck nyuck nyuck…

A moment on silly words, while we’re here:

Andersonism | æn-dər-sən-izem | noun

a phrase or dialogue meant to sound intelligent/weighty/existential, but actually comes across as contrite/empty/bromidic

“Was he a good dog?” she asked about the dead pup.
“Who’s to say?” was the inane response.

The reaching mentality of this silly brand of dialogue causes so many of Anderson’s more recent scenes to feel contrived and hollow – much like his characters, fittingly – as if he’s making up platitudes meant to be remembered for their vacuity as opposed to their cleverness or relevance. Or maybe he assumes his audience can’t tell the difference.

But again, this feels new. In Life Aquatic, one of the best cinematic (and weighty, emotional) moments happens after Steve Zissou is told by Owen Wilson’s that he (Zissou) might be Wilson’s father, at which point the captain excuses himself and walks the length of the ship to smoke a joint at the bow, David Bowie in tow. Upon his return, he apologizes, telling his possible son, “You caught me with one foot off the merry-go-round.” That single line was emotionally relevant, clever, and telling of Zissou’s character all at once. Lines such as these are apt to stick with an audience because of how much is said in so few words. Lately, though, Andersonisms tend to stand out because they feel forced, even phony. For example, describing that all the women that the hotel concierge had slept with were blonde, his interviewer asks, “Why blonde?” to which he receives the reply, “Because they all were.”

Q: Why is the sky blue?
A: Because it isn’t all the other colors.

Q: Do androids dream of electric sheep?
A: Do sheep not dream?

Q: What, me worry?
A: Why would you worry about what when what never worries about you? Or how?

Huh? We can do this all day, but we won’t get anything from it, other than a headache from the perpetual eye-rolls. But the phosphenes you’ll see from all the eye-rolling will be camouflaged among the zippy choreography and swish pans and crazy colors of the film. The on-screen kaleidoscope, however, is controlled. Severely so. Without having to concentrate on plot or empathize with the characters, all the audience is asked to do is look at the pretty colors and tricks. Hey, this looks like a Wes Anderson movie.

Therein lies the arrogance of the auteur disappearing up its own Zissou, so to speak.

The most well-received filmmakers of our time (critically, not financially, for the sake of this argument) don’t spend the entirety of their film reminding us that it’s their film. They allow us to be immersed in the story without distracting us with signatures or cameos. Hitchcock even placed his own cameo early in the films, so that the audience could find him and resume focus on the story. I would even argue that he most likely grew tiresome of the trademark as his films amassed, but became fearful that the only thing the audience might discuss, upon seeing the film, is the absence of Hitch.

 

That is a complaint few would make of Wes Anderson. Or Tim Burton. Or Quentin Tarantino. I have no problem not thinking about them. I’d prefer it, actually, especially if I have a movie to watch. But the intensity and consistency of the surreal Anderson world forces the audience to constantly acknowledge the voice through which the story is being told. And if that voice is screaming from a megaphone two inches from your ear – cleverly or not – you can’t possibly give a shit about the story being barked. What’s with all the shouting?

Perhaps that isn’t fair. A megaphone is much too boisterous and screechy a device to represent the more subtle signature that the combination of Anderson’s camera moves, empty characters, fake-existentialism, symmetry, painted backgrounds, and Bill Murray produce. That specificity is designed to keep the entire thing just this side of unwatchably weird (see The Adventures of Baron Munchausen as an example of crossing that line – sorry, Terry). Wes Anderson won’t allow the audience to get past his precisely orchestrated silliness, while at the same time dares them to question whether something so meticulous can be justly labeled silly.

It’s the same phenomenon that prompts “hipsters” to walk around Bohemia with a plaid pashmina, paisley jeggings, trucker hat, and suspenders while somehow affecting not only a straight face but a what-are-you-lookin’-at? attitude. Don’t be closed-minded, man, this is how I feel, he says as he scratches his beard, straightening his Wayfarers.

Put a shirt on, slim, the gauge of your nipple ring is stretching out your Hello Kitty tat.

I call bullshit. Both hipsters and their Andersonian godhead are trying too hard to appear interesting so they don’t have to bother with saying anything we haven’t heard before, which is akin to the reason that pretty girls don’t have to develop personalities and ugly girls shellack on the makeup in order to look like they aren’t wearing any. Goth kids in the 90’s were rebels with nowhere else to turn but to spurn all color and everything Mom, and as they’ve matured their rebellion, though still aimless and with no reason other than a misguided and lazy quest for individuality, has grown subtler. Twee is the new black, it seems, and the brawny and bearded are toughest when dainty and cute. Got a problem with my salmon-colored sweater-vest, pal? You see all this facial hair??

I’m generalizing, of course. And the beardless “King Twee” Anderson has every right to create any dollhouse film he wants to create. And he should, if so inclined. But we have every right to be bored with it. And we will, probably. I haven’t played with dolls since I was thirty.

But I’m scared of his inclinations. I’m afraid that as Wes Anderson, Auteur disappears further and further up his own asshole, so to speak, he’s in danger of imploding, of becoming too “twee” for his own good, of becoming a child again, the kind that makes all sorts of godawful racket to get you to look in his direction, just in time for you both to realize that he doesn’t have anything else to say.