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CineMasters: Wes Anderson

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“We’re a pack of strays, don’t you get it?” says Steve Zissou as he describes his ragtag team of seemingly professional marine biologists in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Dir. Wes Anderson, 2004). “Klaus used to be a bus driver, Wolodarsky was a high school substitute teacher.” 

With this quote, Zissou, whose enthusiasm for marine life far outweighs his knowledge on the subject, sums up the majority of characters in the films of Wes Anderson – misfits in search of a family to call their own.

While Anderson has always described his films as "five degrees removed from reality,”[1] his deliberately mannered style and meticulously framed shots rarely alienate their viewers. Like his contemporary Spike Jonze, Anderson’s fantastical visions welcome audiences into his world, acting like confectionary boxes which hold deeply flawed characters and universal themes at their centre.

Growing up in Houston, Texas, Anderson regularly dreamt of striking out into the wider world, even asking his parents if he could study in Paris at the age of 12. Now he lives between Paris and New York, and films in a huge variety of international locations. He’s become a man of the world whose own surrogate family includes regular collaborators Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and fellow indie director Noah Baumbach.

His need for ever-expanding horizons would make him the envy of Max Fischer, the 15-year-old protagonist of Rushmore (Dir. Wes Anderson, 1998). Fischer, who spends his life joining every society on the campus of his private school, is another figure in the Anderson world who tries everything but achieves nothing. He lives for Rushmore, the school of the title, but is failing to gain the grades necessary to stay there.

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Adding to his strains is the death of his mother several years prior, as well as the working-class anxiety he feels towards his father, a barber who he tells strangers is a neurosurgeon. Fischer successfully creates his own fictions to make his life bearable, even staging elaborate plays concerning his family and friends.

Shaping his precocious nature is Herman Blume, a wealthy businessman, and Rosemary Cross, a teacher he falls in love with. Both are as disaffected but endearing as Fischer himself.

Although the film effectively plays out as a love triangle, Fischer’s relationship with Cross combines the need for maternal affection with confused pubescent desires. Similarly, Blume’s role as a father figure gives Fischer a relationship with someone whose ambitions are almost equal to his own. As these characters get to know each other, their need to form a surrogate family of sorts is realised.

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If Rushmore is about finding comfort outside of the traditional nuclear family, then The Royal Tenenbaums (Dir. Wes Anderson, 2001) is about reconciling a family that’s fallen apart. The Tenenbaums of the title are a wealthy clan of child prodigies fallen on hard times, in part because of the actions of their lascivious father, Royal Tenenbaum. Two decades after abandoning his wife and children, Royal finagles his way back into the fold by faking a terminal illness, thus allowing Anderson to reveal the secrets that have festered between each family member. 

Both petty and seismic familial traumas can be evidenced in the Tenenbaums, whether it’s sibling rivalry, tarnished childhood dreams or the acceptance that we all assume the traits we loathe in our parents. But while the Tenenbaums are outlandishly strange, they exist in part to ask viewers a simple question – can we reconcile the flaws of ourselves and our relatives to live a better life?

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Rushmore and Tenenbaums hinted at the eccentricities of Anderson’s style and won him a loyal cult following, but they’re formalistically mild when compared with the rich art direction, precise framing and expressive acting styles that would characterise his later work. Nowhere is this clearer than in his stop-motion animations Fantastic Mr Fox (Dir. Wes Anderson, 2009) and Isle of Dogs (Dir. Wes Anderson, 2018), his latest film. 

These “children’s films for adults”[2] broaden the theme of family by celebrating groups who have been marginalised by mainstream society. The congenial animals of Fantastic Mr Fox are displaced from their homes by evil farmers, while the sick canines in Isle of Dogs are banished from civilisation by an authoritarian government. Each of these films shows that being an outcast might be the ideal way to live a satisfying life. “We’re all different,” says Fantastic Mr Fox to his family and friends, “But there’s something kind of fantastic about that, isn’t there?”

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In many ways The Grand Budapest Hotel (Dir. Wes Anderson, 2014), Anderson’s runaway success which earned him nine Oscar nominations and four wins, is the culmination of his studies of difference. Gustav H, a bisexual hotel concierge, creates a family out of the hotel staff working around him, and becomes a paternal role model to Zero, his bellboy and a political refugee. But when one of Gustav’s geriatric lovers dies, the pair find themselves embroiled in a tale of stolen art, murder and an adventure-laden journey through the fictional Republic of Zubrowka.

In the backdrop of this screwball-inspired tale a war is brewing, one which rejects the liberal values of Gustav and Zero in forms reminiscent of Nazi Stormtroopers during the Second World War. The need for a stable family unit becomes a necessity as war rages on, especially for outcasts like Zero and Gustav. Gustav himself sums up the need for a familial identity when he describes his friends as the “faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.”

As Anderson’s career continues, his compulsion to show those “faint glimmers” onscreen is what’s given his work such a profound connection with audiences across the world, making them feel as though his characters are the comforting relatives they appreciate more in these increasingly tumultuous times

 
Kevin Fullerton

Freelance Writer
April 2018 


[1] Wes Anderson, 23/02/2014, ‘Wes Anderson: In a World of his Own’, interviewed by Tom Lamont for the Guardian.

[2] Steve Rose, 23/03/2018, ‘Wes Anderson Movies – Ranked!’, the Guardian. 

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