Friday, January 23, 2015

The World of Wes Anderson, Part I

The Stamp Collector

You would probably never know it but Wes Anderson is from Houston, Texas.  It was at UT Austin that he met Owen Wilson and the two teamed up to create Bottle Rocket, which die-hard Anderson fans still regard as his best movie.  Almost 20 years later, Wes is in the running for Best Director and his film, Grand Hotel Budapest is up for Best Film.

It seems that he has finally reached that rarified air of Hollywood, yet he released the film back in March so that it would be available for the spring film festivals, not Oscar consideration.  But, then came an unexpected Golden Globe win for best comedy film, as well as numerous awards for best screenplay, and this film became the talk of Tinseltown. 

His films have been nominated for Academy awards before, largely for his scripts which are the cornerstone of his productions.  You don't see much great writing today in Hollywood.  Films tend to rely largely on actors' performances, case in point Silver Linings Playbook from 2012.  But, there is something special in all of Wes' films as he explores new terrain each and every time, yet finds a way to make it intimately accessible.

I think this is largely because his films grow out of childhood fantasies, even Grand Hotel Budapest, which is more how a young American would imagine the old Austro-Hungarian Empire than it is how it was.  He based his script on the stories of Stefan Zweig, but this is mostly Wes re-imagining the world Zweig lived in, giving it a rich sense of color and absurdity that has become the hallmark of all his films.

Leafing through Wes' monograph from a couple years ago, you see an auteur who reveled in sea monkeys, scale models, and stamps as a kid.  This comes across in his movies as well.  This book takes you up to the making of Moonrise Kingdom, which is essentially a children's story for adults.

Wes's films have traditionally dealt with misplaced youths, which may have been the way he felt growing up in Texas.  The Royal Tenenbaums is probably the closest thing to an autobiography, as he deals with divorce and its aftermath, which presumably reflects to some degree the divorce of his parents when he was eight years old.  He echoes a similar theme in The Darjeeling Limited.   Both are very serious films, although he doesn't lose sight of the humor in many of the situations he sets up.

Films can become a form of therapy for some directors.  This is how Alejandro Jodorkowsky describes his work.  You get the sense that Wes Anderson goes through a similar catharsis in his movies, even an ostensibly children's story like The Fantastic Mr. Fox.  The film takes the classic Roald Dahl story as a jumping off point for much larger themes, using humor to disguise the pathos of his characters.

This was particularly true in Bottle Rocket, in which Owen Wilson gave his most convincing performance as a two-bit hood unable to confront his own insecurities.  I think Anderson appeals more to Gen X'ers than he does Millennials, which I suppose is why he is finally getting the attention he deserves.  After all, Gen X'ers now form a significant portion of the body of the Academy, and so we see more films to their liking making the cut.

It also helps that he is drawing actors as diverse as Bill Murray, Angelica Huston, Adrian Brody, Ed Norton, Frances McDormand, Bruce Willis, Willem Dafoe, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Harvey Keitel and Ralph Feinnes to his movies.  Everyone wants to be in a Wes Anderson movie these days, and his growing cavalcade of actors was on full display in Grand Hotel Budapest, which was fitting given films like Hotel, which similarly had all-star casts back in the 1960s.

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