Wes Anderson: An American Original

By David Raether

Sometimes, it’s wise to jump to conclusions. For instance, if you find yourself in the Midwest on a hot, muggy afternoon and the sky turns a greenish color and the wind is howling, it’s probably wise to conclude a tornado is heading your way.

Other times, jumping to conclusions may actually be the wrong reaction. Let’s say you’re out on a first date with a lady, you reach over to grab the Tapatio sauce, and you accidentally knock a bowl of chili into her lap. She looks furious, and your futile attempt at wiping it up isn’t helping.

In this situation, you might naturally jump to a particular conclusion:

It’s over. She hates me now. No coming back from this. Too bad, because I really liked her — but it’s definitely over. ”

So, you pay for her dry cleaning, apologize profusely, and then never call her again because you’re pretty sure she’s already told her friends what an oaf you are. But then, years later, you run into her at some random event, and she tells you she wished you had called her up and asked her out again because she really liked you. But no, you jumped to conclusions and assumed she never wanted to go out again. And here you are, twenty years later, standing there and looking at her. She’s just as beautiful as ever!

But then her husband comes up, and they wander off together.

Ah, well. I shouldn’t have jumped to that conclusion.

American film director, Wes Anderson, had a jump-to-conclusions moment early on in his career. His first feature film, Bottle Rocket (1996), was having a test screening at a theater in Santa Monica, CA. The audience consisted of around 400 random people who had received free passes to the movie, along with studio executives. It’s your classic big moment. However, as the screening went on, people started walking out of the film — many in groups. After its conclusion, the remaining audience members filled out a questionnaire seeking their reactions to the film.

People hated the movie. One guy simply wrote “SUCK’D” on his form and didn’t care to elaborate any further. Anderson said he had a sinking feeling — based on the audience’s reaction — that his film career was basically over.

However, he did find one response from a woman who loved the movie.

“This is our audience!” Anderson said to the movie studio executives.

I’m pretty sure that was followed by the sound of crickets in the theater.

“It’s over,” he must have thought. Just one out of 400 viewers liked his movie.

Sigh. The end.

Except, it wasn’t the end. The movie received outstanding reviews from critics. It not only launched Anderson’s career, but also that of the film’s two co-stars, Luke and Owen Wilson. Martin Scorsese went so far as to say it was the best film of the year.

Anderson has since gone on to a brilliant career with fifteen Academy Award nominations and four wins, among other accolades. Perhaps more notably, he has carved out an utterly uncompromising style as a filmmaker. Nobody makes movies quite like Wes Anderson. They are always visually striking, idiosyncratic, and, well, full of fun.

So there. Let that be a lesson to you. Just because you spilled chili in a pretty girl’s lap, or the first audience hated your first movie, don’t jump to conclusions quite yet. Be patient. Believe in yourself. Anderson did, and it has clearly paid off.

Wesley Wales Anderson was born on May 1, 1969, in Houston, Texas. His mother was a realtor and an archaeologist — quite the rare combination. His father worked in advertising and public relations. Anderson was the second of three boys, and his parents divorced when he was eight. He attended and graduated from St. John’s School, a prep school in Houston.

He then went off to college at the University of Texas in Austin, where he met his first college roommate, Owen Wilson. Anderson became very close friends with Owen and his brother Luke before graduating in 1991 with a degree in philosophy. After college, Anderson and those charming Wilson boys moved west to Los Angeles to pursue movie careers. Anderson’s first feature was the afore-mentioned Bottle Rocket (1996), which also starred James Caan. Based on a student film Anderson made while at UT, it’s a highly-amusing caper flick set in Texas about a group of inept bank robbers.

His second film, Rushmore (1998), is about life at an exclusive prep school, partially based on Anderson’s own experiences attending St. John’s. The film starred Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray and marked the first time Anderson would work with Murray. This collaboration is still going strong today, as Murray has appeared in every one of Anderson’s movies since.

In 2001, Anderson released his third feature film, The Royal Tenenbaums, which marked the full emergence of his distinctive filmmaking style. The movie has been described as “quirky,” and while that word certainly applies, it fails to fully describe the whole experience of an Anderson title.

Wes Anderson films are what I would call “anti-realistic.” The settings are unique: a rattly old mansion in New York, a sea exploring boat, a fading 1940s grand European hotel, etc. But it’s more than just a choice of settings — they are given an entire visual language of their own. Yes, that sort of looks like what I might imagine a grand European hotel might look like back then, but would it really have that much pink? Probably not. His most recent film, The French Dispatch (2021), is set in 1950s France, but it’s a French village of the imagination — shabby, sparsely populated, and slightly menacing.

The other singular feature of Anderson’s movies is the tableau quality of the opening shot of each scene. The central figure of the scene is placed in the bottom center of the opening shot with great precision — courtesy of his frequent partner, cinematographer Robert Yeoman. You could freeze any frame in those opening moments, and the central figure would be equidistant from the edges of the frame. Anderson’s style is quite distinctive. In comedy writing rooms, it would be called “arch,” which is another way of saying a bit over the top, playful and a little bit pompous. It’s not really a compliment. It was usually used as a way of rejecting a pitch. In Anderson’s case, however, it is the very nature of his movies — the way they look, the way the characters act, the kinds of stories being told are all “arch.” Even his animated films (eg, 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox) seem as if they could easily fit into any of his live-action titles.

Anderson truly has no peer. Perhaps Tim Burtonbut not even Burton is as disciplined in scene construction as Anderson.

While his films prioritize unique aesthetics, they sometimes lack a bit of emotional connection with the audience. I often wish Anderson would just drop all the strictures he places on himself when making a movie and just go wild, à la Quentin tarantino. Regardless, if you’ve never watched a Wes Anderson movie (or maybe just one or two), you are in for a treat. He doesn’t fit into any genre. He is, as they say, sui generisLatina Latin term that means “of its own kind.”

Here are five of my favorites Wes Anderson films.

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