The story of my relationship with the films of Wes Anderson begins, more or less, when I first started to seriously get into movies. I had always enjoyed them, of course, but sometime in high school it became more of an obsession. This was when I realized all the things that movies could actually accomplish, and around that time I also got into violent, edgy movies, like your typical horrible teenage male. For a while there, I was all about the dark, gritty stuff, and perhaps as a side effect my brain decided to reject the work of Wes Anderson. I developed an irrational hatred of all things twee, and while it might be extreme to say I hated Wes Anderson, I more or less wrote him off as something I was never going to identify with.
I think it all comes down to my general distaste for affectation, and at the time his meticulous, precious sensibility struck me as artificial. It felt as though it was trying too hard. This is baloney, of course, but it took me a long time to realize that. Another factor playing into these feelings: the two films Anderson made around this time were probably his two weakest: The Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. (I know people seem to love the latter these days, but I’m not quite on board.) I foolishly dismissed his entire oeuvre as a result, wound up not seeing Fantastic Mr. Fox when it was released, and continued on in my world of ignorance.
Then a weird thing happened: I saw Moonrise Kingdom when it came out in 2012. And I loved it. Dear lord above did I love it. I then saw it again a few weeks later to double-check that I wasn’t seeing things, and I was surprised to find I loved it even more. My entire world was collapsing all around me, and I started to wonder if everything I ever knew was a lie. For reasons I don’t even understand to this day, part of me still chose to dismiss Moonrise Kingdom as an anomaly. In the immortal words of my father: even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then.
I think one of the key moments in my Anderson conversion was my decision to start seeing as many new releases as humanly possible. The more I ventured out every week to see the latest Hollywood had to offer, the more I became appreciative of any style whatsoever. Anderson’s films no longer felt over-stylized, but refreshing. There are certain aspects of the style that can grind my gears in his lesser films, but when they’re surrounded by viewings of more bland, anonymous movies, it’s good just to see there’s a filmmaker out there who is playing a completely different game.
In fact, all the great filmmakers have a distinctive style, and most of them return to the same ideas, stories and even shots many times over the course of their career. The Wolf of Wall Street, one of my favorite films of last year, saw Martin Scorsese return to a style and story structure very similar to his earlier films Goodfellas and Casino.* While I’m obviously not the only person to notice this, I don’t believe anyone has ever spoken up and complained that Scorsese just makes the same movie over and over again. Why did Anderson’s style initially anger me so, and why does he still anger so many people? A truly unique cinematic voice is a rare thing to come by, so why on earth would we ask him to tone it down?
Honestly, I’m not sure I have a good answer to any of those questions, as my previous feelings appear more and more ridiculous the further away I get from them. In fact, for me the real success of Anderson’s films lies just as much in the writing as the directing. Take, for instance, The Grand Budapest Hotel, which will almost certainly be in the running for my favorite film of the year. It is an impeccably scripted piece of work that fills a wholly original universe with fully realized characters and a wonderful story in just 99 minutes. At his best, Anderson is as efficient a storyteller as we have working today. With the exception of The Life Aquatic, nearly all of his films are around 90-100 minutes long. I’m not too much of a stickler when it comes to running time, but it’s pretty remarkable that Anderson is able to accomplish in 100 minutes what many filmmakers can’t in movies nearly twice as long. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, not a line of dialogue is wasted.
What connects most people to Anderson’s work is, of course, the deep reservoir of emotion and melancholy that lies beneath the energetically quirky surface. The Grand Budapest Hotel may be one of his most impressive accomplishments in that respect. Here is a film that gleefully charges through its central adventure, and only at the end do you realize how painfully sad Anderson’s universe actually is. Gustave, Ralph Fiennes’ protagonist, is pretty obviously an Anderson surrogate, whether the director intended it or not. He is presented as a perfectionist, obsessed with decorum and making the eponymous hotel as great as it could possibly be. However, he is a rarity in a world that is slowly being infested by violent and vulgar men, and eventually he isn’t able to protect himself—even in the perfect little bubble he had so carefully created.
The ultimate fate of Gustave has little in common with Anderson, since this director has been able to ride his signature style to great success. In fact, he’s been able to break through without once backing away from his quirks. If anything, Anderson has only journeyed deeper into the rabbit hole that is his mind, and it’s resulted in two of the best films of his career. And most importantly, of course, he has been able to win me over in the process. (Congrats, Wes. You may retire now.) I’m sure there are people out there who will never buy into what Anderson is selling, but this is a mentality I’m not sure I understand anymore. The more I looked in to what makes his work tick, the more I realized that his style could not be less of an affectation. It’s all a crucial part of his cinematic point of view, and it’s a point of view nobody else has in the industry today. Which sounds like more fun to you: embracing this distinctiveness, or dismissing it?
* I started a post on this “trilogy” of films a while back, but it was interrupted due to sudden employment. My intent is to return to it as soon as the inspiration strikes me again.