Wes World: The Cut-to-Fit Universe of Wes Anderson
Take a tour of the highly stylized, personally customized world of "The Grand Budapest Hotel" director's movies
He's been called a master of hip cinematic heartbreak who deals in worlds as shiny and perfect as a Christmas ornament — or, put more charitably, a virtuoso at making pathos both wrenching and witty in a idiosyncratic, individual style. You always know when you're watching a Wes Anderson film; the symmetrical compositions and deep-cut soundtracks are a dead giveaway. His latest movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, has members of his repertory-players cast (including Jason Schwartzman, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson) zipping through a never-quite-was 20th-century Europe, one as bright and airy as a fresh-made French macaroon. Storywise, its allusions to the continent's darker, war-torn history makes it a departure from the norm. Stylistically, however, it takes place in the same sui generis, style-is-substance ecosphere of all of his movies. We call it "Wes World."
Dress For Success
Read any profile of Anderson written after Rushmore, and you're likely to find journalists crowing about his custom suits, each a half-size too small, or how his custom-made pants featured a longer "drop" in their construction. But even before acclaim gave him the ability to buy bespoke, Anderson found ways to make clothes comment of his characters. On Rushmore's DVD supplementary materials, the director's occasional writing partner Owen Wilson notes how "Wes will have a look for a character before we have much of the character written down." It often works; much of Max Fischer is defined by his school uniform, complete with pretentious-but-charming beret; when Tilda Swinton swoops into the plot of Moonrise Kingdom and curtly refers to herself as "Social Services," her cool blue cloak lends her purpose velocity. Action is character, they say. In Wes World, so is a fringed cowboy jacket, a red tracksuit or a scoutmaster's uniform.
The Shape of Things
Orson Wells called filmmaking "the best train set a boy could have," and for Anderson, it's not just the pleasure of the train but everything around it — the scenery, the little people, the fake grass on the hillside. The curtains that draw back as titles denote the passage of time in Rushmore? Those are real, small-scale curtains mounted on a rack in front of the camera; doing the same thing through movie making magic with an optical effect would have meant a loss of resolution, Anderson said, and he wanted the film "clean and sharp." One of Anderson's best-loved films, in fact, is one where his capacity for control was completely required: the stop-motion Fantastic Mr. Fox. And when the filmmaker cuts to one of his frequent insert shots — showing us the record player, book, stamp or other vintage and/or handcrafted object they're looking at — the objects not only help build the world, but speak volumes about the people in front of the camera and the gentleman behind it. In an interview, Fox producer Jeremy Dawson says that Anderson "loves the idea that you can create everything you see on-screen ..." He could be talking about any of Anderson's movies.
Those seeking sentimental educations or easy resolutions, you're advised to look elsewhere: Anderson himself has suggested that his films aren't the kind where all's well that ends well so much "all's okay that ends okay." At the finale of The Darjeeling Limited, the Whitman brothers — dealing with their father's death through a cross-India train tip, in part to find their mother — are running for a train, and to make it, they abandon their father's monogrammed luggage in their wake. The temptation to read Anderson himself has noted that his viewers may get more out of that moment than he meant there to be: " I think that [the Whitmans] take their emotional baggage with them; they just abandoned their father's luggage …" For all of the comedy in Rushmore, it's also a story of three incredibly sad people, all the musical montages and bee-attack set pieces actually serving amplify, not dilute, the sadness. It's not that Anderson is some chilly, distant Kubrickian filmmaker. There's pain in his films — from the hard-fought survival of Mr. Fox's family to those lost siblings on that Eastern express train — and there's heart in his movies. You just usually won't find the latter worn on his well-tailored sleeve.
Music as Muse
Anderson has one of the best ears for pop music of any director; in fact, there's even an Anderson tribute album, I Saved Latin, from American Laundromat records, featuring luminaries like Black Francis, Juliana Hatfield and Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin covering the songs that Anderson's used in his films. (Early ordering bonuses include a Team Zissou beanie, or a Khaki Scouts badge — even more endorsement to the idea that Anderson's fan don't just enjoy his sensibility, they long to live in it.) And his choices are as deliberate and micromanaged as everything else in his films; to ensure that Rushmore's montage of Max's many clubs synced up to Creation's "Making Time," Anderson blasted the song on the set for the two days it took to shoot it. Richie Tenenbaum's suicide attempt, set to Elliott Smith's "Needle in the Hay," looks, sounds and feels unlike any other scene in the film — but it works perfectly within it, a true taste of bitterness to help you truly recognize the sweet.
Royale With Frommage
If you had to compare the filmmaker to anyone, you might look to the land of Royales-with Cheese: In a lot of ways, Anderson is Quentin Tarantino with refined tastes and tighter clothes, stacks of old New Yorkers laying around instead of '50s pulp novels. They both share an obvious cinephilia, an eye for telling detail, and a deep understanding of how much of a movie is driven by music. More importantly, the two directors share an interest in how history gets re-mixed through pop culture to create a heightened look back at both. They've also both been taken to task by critics of making movies that are too insular and manufactured, and in Anderson's case, get accused of making dollhouses with every last detail so perfect it suffocates the life out of the film.
But at his best, Anderson does exactly what filmmakers are supposed to: He creates a world, completely and utterly his, and then fills it with characters who can, and do, speak to universal human emotions inside those places. Yes, his films take place in a created world where the parts and pieces mesh like the clockwork of a watch. But to the people inside them, their universe is just as messy and muddled and difficult to them as ours is to us. Anderson may wear custom-tailored suits, but his fans recognize how in many ways that's more as armor than as a style choice: When the world around you falls apart -- and it will -- there's more than a little comfort to be found in the things you know you've chosen to hold on to.
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