Sic Transit Gloria: The Problem with Wes Anderson
Twenty years ago, Wes Anderson's breakthrough film, Rushmore, was released. But his stubborn refusal to expand cinematic horizons has resulted in a stunted, predictable body of work.
In the early months of 1999, I was all caught up in the buzz surrounding Wes Anderson's second feature film, Rushmore. I heard a great deal of positive feedback and read the numerous glowing reviews, comparing Anderson to such trailblazing visionaries as Francois Truffaut, Orson Welles, and Stanley Kubrick. Bill Murray – later to become a staple of Anderson's ensemble casts – was getting Oscar buzz for his uncharacteristic indie turn as the self-loathing industrialist tycoon, Herman Blume. The soundtrack was aural feast that included everything from the Who to the Kinks to Cat Stevens (an obvious nod to one of Anderson's heroes, Hal Ashby) to Yves Montand. Indeed, Rushmore was the ultimate middle finger to the brainless blockbuster fodder foisted on us by the Michael Bays of the world.
I missed out on catching Rushmore in the theaters but rented the VHS repeatedly over the summer of 1999. The film, which centers on an eccentric teenager Max Fischer (played to perfection by Jason Schwartzman), his crush on a schoolteacher (Olivia Williams) and his unusual friendship with Bill Murray's aforementioned Blume, was a welcome breath of fresh air. When I bought my first DVD player the following year, the Criterion Collection edition of Rushmore was the first disc I purchased. Kubrick passed away the previous year; my estimation of Anderson's work – based on Rushmore, in addition to my admiration for his first feature, Bottle Rocket – was perhaps, in my mind, an unintentional passing of the torch from one cinematic generation to another.
Rushmore is, on its own merits, a fantastically quirky gem of a motion picture. The cinematography is a rather overt nod to auteurs of the past. The dialog is idiosyncratic and martini-dry. The soundtrack oddly favors British Invasion bands (the "prank-off" montage between Schwartzman and Murray, set to The Who's "A Quick One", is, in my opinion, one of the most brilliant uses of rock music in film). It's somewhat refreshingly stuck in a completely neutral time period. Although it's inarguably set in the present day, there's no modern technology present. While 1998 predates the ubiquity of the smartphone, the complete lack of a single cell phone (which hit the market in 1983) or computer anywhere in the film is odd. The school's library still uses card catalogs, which were already antiquated by the time the film was made. Anderson's disregard for the modern world seems both cheerfully rebellious and perhaps an indirect homage to his filmmaker heroes. Truffaut's Antoine Doinel films didn't need these things, so why should Anderson's?
Not surprisingly, Anderson's follow-up, The Royal Tenenbaums, was released in 2001 to great anticipation and subsequent rave reviews. But as the credits rolled and the theater lights came on, I was befuddled and disappointed. Did Wes Anderson basically make the same film as Rushmore?
In tone and general technique, I think we can all agree that yes, The Royal Tenenbaums is a stylistic twin to its predecessor, which is not necessarily an unforgivable crime. Look at Martin Scorsese's work: he's made more than a couple of films that include a Rolling Stones song, overenthusiastic character narration, and wild-eyed cocaine ingestion. How many Robert Altman movies contain rambling overlapping dialogue and an ensemble cast that could populate a small town? Most of them. Many of cinema's finest directors have distinct styles, techniques, and overall quirks that define much of their work.
The thing about Anderson is that his films have embraced so many similarly quirky and unique techniques that they blur the lines between his films. Furthermore, his twee world of intentionally stilted dialog, apathetic characters, and weirdly baroque scores has allowed him to slide into common parody fodder. YouTube contains a multitude of Anderson spoofs, retooling everything from Star Wars trailers to John McCain presidential campaign ads through his mawkish, fussy lens.
Following The Royal Tenenbaums, I was willing to give Anderson one more chance. But when I saw the trailer for his next film, 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, my hopes were dashed. Anderson clearly hadn't figured out a way to move out of his comfort zone, or just didn't bother trying. Murray was back, along with more Anderson mainstays (Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston, Seymour Cassel). It's Rushmore underwater! And true to form, the soundtrack includes plenty of fastidious peculiarities, including a great deal of David Bowie covers, sung by Seu Jorge entirely in Portuguese. We get it, Wes. You're weird. Nobody's going to confuse you with Garry Marshall.
In fact, the one time that Anderson seemed content to try something new was when he tackled a completely different genre. The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) is a warm, highly entertaining foray into animation (stop-motion, of course; an old soul like Anderson wouldn't touch CGI with a ten-foot pole). I would go so far as to say that animation is the ultimate format for Anderson's vision, as it places virtually zero restrictions on his penchant for world-building. And while he later made another animated film, this year's Isle of Dogs, it was bogged down by criticisms of racial stereotyping and cultural appropriation.
In between those films, Anderson has continued to ply his self-consciously quirky trade to varying levels of success: The Darjeeling Limited, Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel, not to mention a plethora of television commercials and short films. All of which have garnered him critical and commercial success in addition to a rabid following, mainly among young film enthusiasts who – rightfully – are looking for something beyond the Fast & Furious franchise or a creatively bankrupt reboot.
Look, a large part of me is glad that Wes Anderson is living among us making movies. Any one of his films stand on their own as admirable works of art, worthy of large audiences fed up with cookie-cutter Hollywood fodder. The problem is, Anderson has created his own collection of cookie cutters and refuses to use any other tools. I hope that Anderson begins to follow a different muse that allows him to enter a new artistic phase. Because like his most famous character, Max Fischer, Anderson appears dangerously close to sudden death academic probation.
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