Pop Off: The quirks of Wes Anderson
Published: Tuesday, September 24, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, September 24, 2013 00:09
One of the most stylistically unique and innovative storytellers working in Hollywood today is Wes Anderson. His direction is comparable to that of Tim Burton and Richard Linklater, in that all of his films cannot be mistaken for anyone else’s work, and the effect on audiences can be polarizing. But quality aside, Anderson’s methodology is nothing short of fascinating, and it begs to broken down.
When watching an Anderson film, it is hard not to create an internal checklist of his recurring themes and features. They include large casts, one of whom is Bill Murray, family relations, magic realism, autumnal colors and outsiders as protagonists. He also possesses a compulsive attention to detail, using the scenery to tell the story as much as the characters. His sets have been compared to dollhouses, often showing rooms on a two-dimensional plane. His transition to stop motion animation with “Fantastic Mr. Fox” was so successful because the film was literally a diorama over which he had complete control.
His mantra also appears to be influenced by literature. “The Royal Tenenbaums” was actually structured as a book, with chapter headings presented as pages and a narrator completely separate from the story. The work of Ernest Hemingway is a possible influence. Much of his dialogue, like Hemmingway’s, is short and declarative; using long back-and-forth conversations for development. It’s also hard not to think once about “The Old Man and the Sea” while watching “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.”
All of Anderson’s films have phenomenal soundtracks, both original and adapted. He has an uncanny ability to apply the perfect song to a scene, but he never blends music and dialogue. He clearly illustrates what he wants us as an audience to be focusing on, and the music is always meant to be part of the foreground, and in a sense it is dialogue itself.
Then there are the characters. Nobody in a Wes Anderson movie is normal. All characters have a set of quirks, which throughout the story he collectively celebrates. Max Fischer, the main character of “Rushmore,” was a teenage social mogul with an impossible spectrum of artistic and social talents. But the surreality that surrounds Fischer is what makes him so interesting. He creates people so original because there is no way any of them could exist, but he is able to fit them flawlessly into human skin. They also appear to inhabit another dimension where social restraints on emotional discussion don’t exist. I would say that takes away from the story’s realism, but that was never his intention. Anderson desires to, and succeeds in, bringing out the warmest and sweetest component of human emotion, even when his characters are a bunch of forest animals.
But the component of the Anderson formula that’s the most striking, as well as the most cinematically admirable, is his editing and cinematography. He favors direct shots, with the actors looking straight at the camera. In “Moonrise Kingdom,” the camera seems to bounce back and forth between characters with every sentence. The camera only moves when he is giving an overlay of the setting, and his constant cutting makes every shot appear as its own fragment. The two words to best describe it are “stiff” and “blunt,” although I mean neither negatively. The effect he creates is the removal of a layer of separation between the film and audience; which is why the pathos in his films is strong. It’s a technique I’ve seen backfire on inferior filmmakers, but Wes Anderson understands balance, and how to keep all of his stylistic efforts present yet under control.