02 April 2014

List: Impossible - The Films of Wes Anderson

by Kevin Powers

About two weeks ago, I posted a picture collage on Instagram with the Criterion Collection cover art of four Wes Anderson films (see above). The four in that picture are what I consider to be my favorites. Many of the movie buffs I follow on Instagram began to laud Anderson's latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, as his best work. At the time, I hadn't yet seen it. I since have and will discuss later in this blog post. However, I will stand by the four in the picture above as not any kind of best of but as the ones that touch me most.

I posted the following comment to accompany the Instagram post:

"I had a conversation with my wife @amvpowers today regarding Wes Anderson. We agreed that you can't really rank his films in a traditional sense. You have to categorize. This is how you do it:

The Most Personal: For me, it's Rushmore (1998)

The Coolest: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

The Best as a Narrative: Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

The Best Overall (Looks, Laughs, Soundtrack, Identification with Characters): The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

Sadly, The Grand Budapest Hotel is not yet playing in Knoxville. More to come on the blog..."

I can't rationally make a ranked list of Wes Anderson's work. It just doesn't happen that way with him. Each of his films builds on the one previous creating a lasting mosaic of images in your mind. Anderson is a visual genius. His work oozes order and color and magic and animation and love. He imagines and realizes every detail of every frame of every movie he has made. He is a true artist, and his movies are funny and touching and gorgeous all at the same time.

I'll start by discussing the films not involved in my categories above.

Bottle Rocket (1996) is Anderson's first feature. He was a young, Texas filmmaker, who got a huge lucky break in the form of real studio money to make a debut. Unheard of really at the time. It is a great film containing a surprisingly powerful (and unexpected) love story at its center. It introduced us to some of the tricks we would come to adore in Anderson's subsequent work, including, foremost, characters obsessed with order and plans. It also introduced the world to brother Luke and Owen Wilson (Anderson's classmate at the University of Texas).

I think this one would go in the "cool" category. It's a unique film, something new for its time. Dignan (Owen Wilson) is the leader. He has a meticulously detailed five-year plan...and beyond. And this marks the first time we see Anderson's penchant for order and detail. Dignan's journal is one of the great things about this film. He is a character driven by an obsession for control, as all of Anderson's characters are. Dignan's goal is to commit some small burglaries and get in with the local crime boss (James Caan). Along with Anthony (Luke Wilson) and Bob Mapplethorpe (Robert Musgrave), Dignan puts the plan into action. The most memorable scenes occur early as the trio obtain some guns, and, in one of the great sequences of 1990s film, shoot them in an open field. Anderson shoots close-up on the guns, their faces. The narrative takes a really interesting shift after their first botched heist (of a library) and the film becomes this almost meandering journey through the outskirts of Dallas in the summertime. The end of Bottle Rocket always felt un-focused and messy to me. It's downfall. What it did, though, was start the career of some really great comic actors and put Wes Anderson on the map.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Anderson's third feature is a pure, fully-realized blend of style and narrative. It tells the story of a wealthy family in this dreamlike New York City. The patriarch, Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) is ousted by his wife, Etheline (Angelica Huston), and, at the beginning of the film, which is narrated by Alec Baldwin, we are introduced to another of Anderson's trademarks:  the stacking of perfectly framed images in succession complete with title cards (almost as lists). It also displays, for the first time, his ability to cast the perfect ensembles of actors, which will continue through the rest of his films. This one goes in the "best overall" category.

The grown "Family of Geniuses" (the Tenenbaum children), played as adults by Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and Gwyneth Palrow, have lost their childhood genius in adulthood. When Royal resurfaces with new of terminal cancer, the family comes back together bringing the past to the present and struggling (hilariously) along the way. Upon first viewing The Royal Tenenbaums, I was struck by the perfect choices in soundtrack selection with songs ranging from Paul Simon's "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" to Nico's cover of Jackson Browne's "These Days". There are also often beautiful images, some funny, some shocking, some sad. My favorite scene has Royal showing up at the local Y to try to meet his grandsons for the first time. Bob Dylan's forgotten classic "Wigwam" plays on the soundtrack as Anderson's camera, led by cinematographer Robert Yeoman, executes this shot I'd never seen before or since. The camera zooms quickly and tightly into Royal's face then cuts and zooms sort of out and back in at the same speed to the two boys doing sit ups and pull ups on a jungle gym. It is just perfect, so memorable.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) is Anderson's first fully-animated film, live stop-motion animation. It represents to me a film in a category all its own. Being animated, it doesn't get to a personal level for me, though it is surely paced, quick-witted, and accessible to people of any age. It is an adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic children's book of the same name and works on many levels. Having now seen The Grand Budapest Hotel, I have a new outlook on this one. You'll see what I mean later.

So how did I come to certain conclusions with the four I'm saying are my favorites? Here you go:

The Most Personal

Rushmore is the second perfect movie I saw as a high school cinephile (the first is Joel and Ethan Coen's Fargo, still my favorite movie ever). It tells the story of Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), the kid involved in every club and extra-curricular activity with no time or interest in studying. Oh, the style! Oh, the soundtrack! Herman Blume (Bill Murray), a local millionaire, delivers a chapel address at Max's all-boys private school, Rushmore. He stands outside having a talk with Dr. Guggenheim (Brian Cox). Enter Max. He tells Mr. Blume how much he loved his speech. As Max leaves, Blume says to Guggenheim, "Sharp little guy." To which, he replies, "He's one of the worst students we've got." As The Creation's song "Making Time" plays on the soundtrack, we are introduced to Max Fischer and all of his club activities in succession complete with title cards. It was one of the best things I'd ever seen. I was totally in awe.

Max goes on to fall in love with a young Kindergarten teacher at Rushmore and ends up competing with Blume for said love. Max writes and directs plays. He gets Latin cancelled then reinstated. He is, at once, both likable and loathe-able.

It has some of the most memorable lines of any movie I've seen. "OR they?" "She's my Rushmore, Max." "I'll take punctuality." "You just have to find something you're good at and do it for the rest of your life. For me, it's going to Rushmore." It must be seen my all people and is one of the most profound movies in my movie life.

The Coolest

"Esteban was bitten!?" "No! Eaten" How great is that exchange to begin a movie. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) features Bill Murray in the lead as a Jacques Cousteau rip-off artist who makes documentaries about his adventures at sea. His crack team of sea-faring oddities, includes a Portuguese guitar player covering David Bowie songs; his long-lost son from Kentucky, Ned (Owen Wilson); a foul-mouthed, pregnant British journalist (Cate Blanchett); a former German bus driver named Klaus (Willem Defoe); his wife, Eleanor (Angelica Huston), and his "nemesis" Hennessy (Jeff Goldblum). At the time I first saw this movie, it was the "coolest" thing I'd ever seen to that point.

There are Filipino pirate attacks, interns with guns, a topless chick, red caps and speedos, and a life-size built cutaway of the ship, The Belafonte. In one of the most genius shots ever, Anderson has his camera glide from room to room in this elaborate ship set as Steve (Murray) introduces Ned to his boat. Mark Mothersbaugh's interesting score highlights the scene that ends with a shot of an old small deep sea diver with the name "Jacqueline" marked out. "What happened to Jacqueline?" Ned asks. "She didn't really love me," Steve replies. At the end of this journey, a beautiful thing happens. The MacGuffin is revealed. What follows is so touching, it can't be described.

Many people, especially critics, hated this movie. And, for good reason... It is over-long, self-indulgent, and cost $50 million to make. Way more than any other Anderson film. It allowed him to over-do, n many ways, the tricks up his sleeve. But those tricks are memorable to me. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a grand piece of work. And a dude plays acoustic versions of David Bowie songs in Portuguese. Now that is cool.

The Best as a Narrative

Moonrise Kingdom tells the story of 12-year-olds in love on a small New England island town called New Penzance. Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Heyward) had met the year previous during a town school pageant. He, an orphaned Khaki scout, and she, an avid reader playing a raven in the play. We see this in flashback as they correspond and plan to meet and run away together. Anderson weaves this backstory together with ease, framing their correspondence together in perfectly framed images. At one point, Sam is writing a letter, while his "greaser" foster brothers stand in the background. It is simple, but it shows what an imagination Anderson has to add that little detail of time period to the background. 

When Sam and Susie finally meet again, it became the most fresh and magical romance I'd seen on screen in a long while. It is incredibly ridiculous and funny as well. The cast of characters rivals The Royal Tenenbaums. Bruce Willis as Police Captain Sharp, tasked with leading the search party for the missing; Bill Murray and Frances McDormand as Mr. And Mrs. Bishop, Suzy's absent-in-plain-sight, attorney parents; Ed Norton as Scout Master Ward, the man guilted and motivated by his loss of a scout; Jason Schwartzman (in a brilliant cameo) as Cousin Ben, a Scout Master from a neighboring troop, who also officiates weddings; and Bob Balaban as the coolest movie Narrator of all-time. In this regard, it works the best for me, out of all of Anderson's work, as a story. And the ending of this story is so sweet, it's hard to hate anything about it. Anderson is able to use all his tricks and fill all the frames with his idiosyncratic details while, this time, maintaining a sweet, honest coming-of-age love story. It contains the truest young love scene in any movie I've seen. I couldn't believe I was seeing it.

The Best Overall 

The Darjeeling Limited brings all of Anderson's themes together for me. The character who wants to control everything. The loss of a parent (or parents). Sadness and color and heartbreak and warmth abound. Set in present-day India, it tells the story of the three Whitman brothers: Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody), and Jack (Jason Schwartzman). They haven't seen each other in over a year, since their father died, each of them hanging on to something of their fathers. Prescription sunglasses, luggage, memories. Francis (like Dignan before him) brings the three together on a well-planned mission: To be a family again by traveling through India on a passenger train. Mishap after mishap finds them off the train and on foot in India. 

Anderson's signature slow motion comes twice in this film. The second time is the signature end scene as the brothers race to catch the train back. The first time it is after a tragic accident that brings the three brothers to a funeral. The Kinks' song "Stranger" melodically pulling them together. Just such a beautiful sequence. As they lie and connive and talk about the third brother to each other behind his back, they do come together. It is the most touching, funny, and perfect work of Anderson's for me. I want to hug these brothers, take over-the-counter codeines and codones with them, have Francis order my meal for me. It contains one of the great tracking shots of any film (and Anderson is known for his elaborate shots of this nature) in which train cars bring together all of these small characters seen throughout the film in one take in different cars to the Rolling Stones' "Play with Fire". I could go on and on about this one. 

It's companion piece plays before it. It is a short film starring Jack (Schwartzman) as he is holed up in a Paris hotel. His estranged girlfriend (Natalie Portman) shows up, they have sex, and that's it. It is, by itself, a beautiful movie, and adds a level of complexity to The Darjeeling Limited you don't notice until you watch a few times. I remember the smallest details of this film, which contains so many I couldn't even begin. I can only say that this is the one to see...

...But so are all of them...

...In my next post...The Grand Budapest Hotel and how it fits in...

To recap, categorize all of Anderson's films:

The Most Personal


The Coolest

Bottle Rocket
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
The Fantastic Mr. Fox

The Best as Narrative

Moonrise Kingdom
The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Best Overall

The Royal Tenenbaums
The Darjeeling Limited (w/ Hotel Chevalier)

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