On the subject of “one-sentence novels”, Brad Leithauser writes that these are stories “in which some charged sentence makes so expansive a bound that every other sentence is retrospectively seen as a tensing and a preparing to spring.” To voracious readers, some marvelous pieces of literature might immediately stand out as perfect examples of these stories. Given that the archetype does not owe its presence to the particular medium but to the author’s state of mind, it is not surprising that the rule applies as fittingly to pictures, too.
One-scene pictures are defined by a particular scene which sufficiently captures the auteur’s creative impulse behind the story. This is not the scene where a plot twist or a concluding part of ‘story’ is presented; it is rather the point where the audience understands that something bigger than the story itself is at play. The brilliant, enigmatic brief encounter between the gray wolf and Mr. Fox in the 2009 film Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of the most beautiful examples of this type.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Wally Wolodarsky, Michael Gambon, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Jarvis Cocker
(Indian Paintbrush/American Empirical; General: 25 Nov 2009; UK theatrical: 23 Oct 2009 (General); 2009)
Few directors in American cinema today are lucky enough to have earned widespread reverence for introducing, and consistently satisfying their audience with their own distinct style; Wes Anderson is one such director. That he has the adroit for beautifully decorating his movies with sublime art design and palliating humor makes it so that the integral message is often lost on viewers who do not look beyond the obvious reoccurring themes of his work—patriarchy, group-psychology, grief—or critics that decry style over content.
In reality, there is much in the Andersonian style that sublimely gives the content its figure. This is true of the wolf scene, too. Bits and pieces of evidence ensconced and dispersed all throughout the movie point the audience toward the climax of the movie.
One of Anderson’s signature tools for character depiction is the use of physical objects—often in the form of characters’ most valued possessions—in exposing his characters’ state of mind. Suzy’s record player in Moonrise Kingdom, Eli Cash’s cowboy hat in The Royal Tenenbaums, and Francis’s favorite belt in The Darjeeling Limited are deliberate efforts aimed at building mise-en-scène that reveal the most intimate details about the main characters, far more overt than what could have been deciphered from dialogue.
In the case of Mr. Fox, the exposition arrives in the form of two integral overhead shots of Fox’s columns in the Gazette. Fox despairingly asks his wife if any of her friends read the column. The response is enough to show Fox that he is his only audience. The first column, “Fox about Town”, introduced before any of the chaos of the story unfolds, succinctly describes what the story is about: “The breeze picks up, and a change of season is upon us,” writes Fox.
Fox is facing the winter of his life. Soon after dislodging the metaphor of the elaborate “whack-bat” game, he is back to discussing winter in an upfront manner. This is where, for the first time in the movie, the English Wolf is introduced. Fox expresses his admiration for the Wolf’s tenacity in the face of harsh winter. The revelation that Fox named his whack-bat team after the English Wolf, mentioned later in the article, is all we need to know to understand that Fox’s feeling towards the English Wolf is one of admiration and not phobia, despite what he would claim later. Wolf, in this sense, becomes the ideal image of surviving winter, the next season of Fox’s life.
Visual depiction of the vagaries of seasons is also used by Anderson to expose Fox’s marriage in its turbulent state. In his column, Fox writes of his disenchantment with “reeds, thunderstorms, and other matters of the vale”. A deep focus shot of Fox’s house seconds later adds to the significance of Fox’s words when the house is shown embellished by Felicity’s paintings, all depicting the same landscape: a thunderstorm in the vale. Later in the movies Fox, in a benignly inquisitive tone, says to his wife: “Still painting thunderstorms, I see.” “Do you still feel poor?” Felicity responds.
Soon after, Fox’s trepidation and anxiety about the next season of his life fashions the chaos and digs the hole in which all characters find themselves trenched in. Fox’s decision to relive a past season of his life by going back to stealing chickens, is more about ignoring the next season than it is about embracing the past one. The perennial matter at hand in this story is man’s tendency to suddenly pine for the untrammeled summer when first signs of winter arrive—an often-discussed theme portrayed in an original light. Felicity calls it an all “too predictable story” and tries to encourage Fox to change and adapt as the second act comes to an end.
With this background, the movie arrives at the climax. After Fox undergoes the initial stages of his transformation, he and his gang come in contact with the English Wolf. A critical piece in the beautiful set design of this scene has gone unnoticed.
All throughout the movie, full panoramas of city’s landscape fail to evince any physical signs of winter, yet the set design in this climactic scene separates Fox and his gang, driving their motorbike in a barren autumn land, from a snow covered, frigid landscape of winter only couple of feet away. The picturesque dissonance of two seasons within a single frame is used to drive home the point that the English Wolf is simply an embodiment of a character strong enough to survive winter.
Fox’s phobia of the Wolf merely an aversion to the next season lying ahead and not the wolf itself. “I am asking if he thinks we are in for a hard winter?” is the “one-sentence” that divulges, at once, the allegory of the Wolf, of changing of the seasons, and most importantly Fox’s most pressing concern, that of facing the winter of his life. The salute between the Wolf and Fox is a physical gesture that is commonly associated with feelings of solidarity and resistance, solidarity with the wolf in resistance to winter.
The dénouement is followed by another glimpse into Fox’s mental state. In his next column, “Fox on the Prowl”, Fox simply writes, “I am not the Fox I used to be. Not by choice”, a beautiful allusion to the inevitability of winter’s arrival in every man’s life and the consequential transformation of character it accompanies.
The picture, aptly released in 2009 when Anderson celebrated his 40th birthday, is another exegesis of a midlife crisis but in an originally introverted light. Anderson has famously claimed that the Wolf scene was the reason the movie was made, and interesting tidbits such as the resemblance between Fox’s physical stature and Anderson’s, as well as their astonishingly similar taste in fashion are pronouncements from the auteur that highlight the extremely personal massage of the movie. Fox animates the chaos in the story to hide his inner tribulations from his family and friends. The Wolf becomes the only character to whom Fox reveals his deep concerns, and the only perfect messenger who can deconstruct those concerns for the audience.