9
May
2010
Whose Film Is It Anyway?
Wes Anderson
Jordan
By Jordan

Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

"The task of validating the auteur theory is an enormous one, and the end will never be in sight."-Andrew Sarris, Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962

The idea of a director as an auteur gets thrown around a lot by cinema nerds and pretentious film students everywhere, but a common understanding of the term is much harder to come by. As the above quote points out, the charge of proving or disproving the auteur theory is a large one, and to an extent that is not the point of this feature. Rather, the idea that drives this column is to examine the theory and spark a conversation about its merits and its weaker points. I do not seek to prove or disprove the auteur theory entirely, simply to learn more about it, and through that, deepen my understanding of film as a medium. Before beginning an examination of the first director I have chosen to cover (Wes Anderson), I thought it best to spend a few moments discussing the idea of the "auteur" as I see it, a view that is come by more through being a huge film geek than by an actual scholarly pursuit of writings on the auteur theory, and thus one that is open to correction or criticism by anyone who happens to disagree with my assessments.

As I see it, the auteur theory presupposes that the director is the primary "author" of a film; ergo he or she exercises ultimate control over the final product, whether from a story, style, or thematic viewpoint, and thus is ultimately responsible for the film. This manifests itself through recurring technical elements, a definable personal style, and thematic consistency throughout their work.

This is why Wes Anderson is the perfect director with which to open my examination of the auteur theory. Whether you ask a rabid fan or a vehement detractor, there is little doubt that Anderson has a definitive style. Though arguably less present in Anderson's debut film Bottle Rocket, all of his films to a certain extent display his singular view of the world, and espouse the themes he believes are important to understanding the human condition.

In terms of technical aspects, Anderson pays far more attention to minor aesthetic details than most other directors. For example, in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, every crew member of the submarine the Belafonte wears an identical uniform made up of matching wetsuits, red caps, and Adidas sneakers, all emblazoned with the Zissou crest. A starker example comes in Anderson's third film, The Royal Tenenbaums, which takes place in a period neutral, highly fictionalized version of New York City. The entire cast is decked out in clothing that would fit better in the early 70's, the city is overrun with heavily dented Gypsy cabs, and the destitute can find solace at the nonexistent 375th Street YMCA.

More than just the basic mise-en-scene, Anderson peppers his films with subtle visual quirks, like the Dalmatian mice that freely roam the Tenenbaum household and find themselves in the background of several scenes, or the stop-motion sea-life that Team Zissou explores. Anderson also allows for subtle visual humor and blink-and-you'll-miss-it sight gags, from Dignan's punching Anthony and running away in Bottle Rocket, to the extended montage of pranks in the escalating war between Henry and Max in Rushmore, from the shifty "intervention" in which Richie, Pagoda, and Royal try to get Eli Cash off of drugs, to the brotherly struggle on the train in The Darjeeling Limited.

Anderson also has a particular musical style that flows through all of his films as well. He is notorious for his deft use of older pop music, particularly from the late 60's and early 70's. With the exception of "Starálfur" by Sigur Rós near the end of The Life Aquatic and "Needle in the Hay" by Elliot Smith at a climactic moment in The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson sticks exclusively to the use of pop and folk music from that period. Whether it's The Faces "Ooh La La" that ends Rushmore, the David Bowie covers that fill The Life Aquatic, or the Nick Drake, Nico, and The Velvet Underground that underscore the protagonists' malaise throughout The Royal Tenenbaums, the period fills all of Anderson's work. Even The Darjeeling Limited, which takes place in India, is filled with period Bollywood music, with asides from The Kinks and The Rolling Stones.

Another stylistic element that Anderson often incorporates into his films is a large recurring cast. From the Wilson brothers, who appear, either individually or together in all of Anderson's films, to Bill Murray, who has shown up in every one of Anderson's post-Bottle Rocketefforts, to Seymour Cassell, who appeared in Rushmore, The Life Aquatic, and The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson often returns to the same troupe of actors throughout his career. This does not necessarily signify that Anderson works as an auteur, yet a closer examination reveals that most of these actors play similar roles in all of Anderson's films. Owen Wilson can be found as a woefully immature and emotionally vulnerable charmer as Dignan in Bottle Rocket, as Eli Cash in The Royal Tenenbaums and as Ned Plimpton (cum Kingsley Zissou) in The Life Aquatic. Bill Murray plays a morose, downtrodden old soul in Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic (though an argument can be made that Murray has been playing this trope out in all of his films for more than a decade now). Even Anjelica Huston can be seen as an intelligent, fiercely independent divorcee in The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited, as well as playing a similar character in The Life Aquatic (differentiated only because her character there is only separated from her husband, not officially divorced).

In terms of personal style, much of Anderson's life creeps into his films. His admitted obsession with Jacques Cousteau is an obvious inspiration for The Life Aquatic, but also plays heavily into the plot of Rushmore, when Jason Schwartzman's Max Fisher falls in love with his teacher based on a note she wrote in a Cousteau book and sets about wooing her by attempting to construct an aquarium at the titular school in her honor. Bottle Rocket clearly oozes the ennui and malaise of an aimless mid-twenties that Anderson spent in Austin, Texas where he met frequent collaborators (and Bottle Rocket stars) Luke and Owen Wilson. Anderson is also the product of divorce, as are the primary characters in Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Darjeeling Limited.

Yet the similarities between his works run deeper than simple autobiographical similarities. The theme of a controversial love interest is hit on repeatedly throughout Andersons films. In Bottle Rocket, Anthony falls in love with a housekeeper who doesn't speak a word of English. In Rushmore, Max Fisher falls in love with Miss Cross, who is twice his age, and Miss Cross in turn is wooed by Henry Blume, who is much older than her. In The Royal Tenenbaums, Richie and Margot have what amounts to an incestuous (though technically legal, as she is adopted) attraction that is explored throughout the film. In The Life Aquatic both Steve and Ned actively pursue the pregnant journalist Jane Winslett-Richardson, who is pregnant as a result of adultery.

All of these complex romances are symptomatic of another theme that runs through Anderson's work: the idea of a protagonist with unrealistic expectations that are constantly at odds with the real world. In Bottle Rocket Dignan wants to be a criminal mastermind, in Rushmore Max hopes to win the love of Miss Cross, in The Royal Tenenbaums Royal desires to win back his family and stop the remarriage of his ex-wife, in The Life Aquatic Steve hopes to make a hit film for the first time in years while avenging his fallen friend, and even in Anderson's newest film, an adaptation of Roald Dahl's The Fantastic Mr. Fox the titular animal wishes to continue a life of crime while providing a safe, comfortable life for his family. Each of these expectations, just like the romantic conquests discussed before them, end in disappointment for the protagonists. Reality infects Anderson's whimsical world, and the dreamers that populate that world must inevitably come to accept that life does not always provide what they want.

Even in failure, though, Anderson stresses there is always hope. Dignan may end up in prison, but only because he realized his dream of a criminal escapade. Max may not win the heart of Miss Cross, but he does find a place at a public school and a romantic interest closer to his own age. Royal does not stop Ethilene's marriage, but he does find a way to be a part of his family's lives again. Steve does not kill the jaguar shark, and experiences several other important losses along his journey, yet the film ends with him striding triumphantly onward to face the world again. Even Mr. Fox is forced to live out his days in a sewer after his theft brings the ire of three villainous farmers, but in the end he discovers his sewer provides him access to a supermarket, and as such to all the food he could ever need. The failures Anderson puts his protagonists through are a way to sift through their shallow self-centeredness and provide them a sort of enlightenment that even though the world is a less magical place than they hope, it is still a place worth living.

Further, a particular strain of male bonding recurs throughout Anderson's work, in which two characters, who either become friends or have always been friends are torn apart by the presence of a romantic interest, and eventually thrown back together in a revelation of their mutual pettiness. Max and Henry do horrible things to each other in their rivalry for Miss Cross, Royal and Henry are at odds over the affections of Ethilene for most of The Royal Tenenbaums, just as Richie and Eli fight over Margot, and Steve and Ned are constantly competing for Jane's affections in The Life Aquatic. All of these men behave reprehensibly toward one another until they are finally confronted with their immaturity by the objects of their affections. By the film's dénouement, all of the aforementioned pairs have reconciled or at least grown to accept each other, and come to a better understanding of their previous pettiness.

Finally, a current of emotional subtlety runs through Anderson's work. His characters rarely express their feelings openly, except in crucial scenes which often occur about once in a film, yet when they do express their feelings, they are bluntly honest with one another, even if they express their honestly in an off-handed manner. For example, in The Royal Tenenbaums, when Royal is about to be kicked out of the house, he tells the family, "I just want to say that the last six days have been the best six days of, probably, my whole life." The narration explains that Royal realized the truth of this statement immediately after saying it, in keeping with his roguish dishonesty, and penchant for a good grift. Another of these moments occurs when, in the same film, Margot and Richie discuss his suicide attempt. She asks him, "You're not going to do it again, are you?" And he responds with honest ambiguity, "I doubt it." In Rushmore when the characters have hit rock bottom, Max and Henry meet on an elevator inside a hospital, where Henry lights up a cigarette and pours vodka into his coke. When Max asks how he's doing, Henry replies, "I'm kind of lonely these days" before simply walking off. These moments of brutal emotional honestly stand out against the sense of subtle yearning and repression that characterizes most of the rest of Anderson's films.

It may be possible to critique Anderson for living too much in his own hyper-controlled insular world, of writing essentially the same film about the malaise of upper-middle class white people whose lives fail to meet their expectations, and for being musically stagnant in the same small period, yet no one can deny that Wes Anderson embodies the idea of the auteur. Walking into any of his films at any point, it is almost immediately possible to sense his presence behind the camera, and his views of the world are continually communicated through the ever-growing body of his work.

Whether the auteur theory holds up under subsequent examinations is yet to be determined, yet it is clear that at least in this case, Wes Anderson is the author of his films, and controls each of them with a precise, inimitable style that makes each of his movies his and his alone.

Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:

5/23: Martin Scorsese

6/6: Terry Gilliam

6/20: David Mamet

7/4: Paul Thomas Anderson
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