Obsolete Vernacular: A Wes Anderson Retrospective

Wes Anderson has another movie coming out March 7th, 2014, The Grand Budapest Hotel, his eighth. A couple of weeks ago the trailer hit the internet, and provided much fodder for anyone inclined to call Wes Anderson twee or pretentious or prone to self-parody. Of course, it’s useless to make judgements about whether or not any movie will be good or bad based on its trailer, and that’s perhaps doubly true of a Wes Anderson movie. Only the broadest strokes of story and style are communicated in a trailer. Anderson has a legion of bespoke knapsacks full of style. The likelihood of his style coming across as self-parodic in a trailer? Very high. Does the style of the upcoming movie appear to be heavy on artifice? Absolutely. What’s interesting is that Anderson’s progress into increasing levels of artifice and surreality has yielded, arguably, his best work.

What follows:

A chronological tour through Wes Anderson’s first seven films.

Bottle Rocket

Anderson’s first feature includes the debuts of no less than three Wilson brothers, and launched the considerable careers of Owen and Luke.

Three aspiring (if unconvincing) criminals pull a small heist, masterminded by Dignan (Owen Wilson), go on the lam, and end up staying in a glamourless motel. Anthony (Luke Wilson) falls in love with a Paraguayan housekeeper, Inez (Lumi Cavazos), who works there. Human drama complicates the proceedings.

In Bottle Rocket, you have the introduction of Anderson’s standard visual quirk, his stagey framing, his impeccable musical sense. But you also have his intense focus on humans figuring out how to love other humans. All of his movies hinge on moments where people make choices towards people.

Dignan wants to be a criminal. He wants to earn the respect of a crime boss he worked for briefly. Anthony has no interest in pursuing crime. At moments, you could accurately say that Anthony helps Dignan out of pity. But, at his best, Anthony’s motivations toward Dignan bubble up out of genuine affection. Committing a crime is less important to him than supporting Dignan’s idiotic ideas.

Anderson keeps his distance from these emotions, but it would be a mistake to think that this distance is cold. It’s a distance that allows him to bottle particular emotional effects. Exposition happens offhand, requiring the viewer to pay careful attention. We’re not talking complex mysteries. The plot is so minimally present that it only makes sense to refer to it obliquely.

Bottle Rocket isn’t a mind-bogglingly great movie. But in the late 90’s its tone made it seem mind-bogglingly great to me. Movies were a morass of Tarantino-isms, and Bottle Rocket was unabashedly sweet. Not sentimental about the world, but still capable of observing what made being alive worthwhile. Dignan ends the movie in prison, cut off from his friends. That’s hell in a Wes Anderson movie.

Also, Anderson’s movies are funny. He doesn’t always get credit for handling movies that contain credible characters in exaggerated circumstances while being stylish, subtle, and very funny. That’s incredibly hard to do. It’s hard enough to pull off that his most notable clones—Jared and Jerusha Hess, Napoleon Dynamite—don’t even try to get the whole package. They opt for a much broader absurdism.

I watched this movie on a tiny TV/VHS combo. I woke up the next morning and watched it again. I’d never seen anything like it. I felt relieved to know that someone had made a movie that liked things and people.


Rushmore is the story of an over-achieving high school sophomore, Max (Jason Schwartzman), capable of pulling just about anyone into his orbit, including Herman Blume, a successful industrialist (Bill Murray). Max falls in love with Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), a teacher at his school. Then Herman Blume falls in love with her too. The movie pits a fifteen year-old high school student against a married fifty year-old businessman, for the love of a widowed first-grade teacher.

Rushmore articulated the kind of director Wes Anderson would be. His visual precision and meticulous set design came to the front here. Another of Max’s traits is that he’s a playwright and director (with specific debt to the Fitzgerald short story The Captured Shadow). The idea of “putting on plays” becomes thematically integrated into the movie, and into its visual scheme. The movie marks its sections out with velvet curtains opening in front of the camera to reveal the drama. Max can’t help but create dramatic situations throughout his life. He stages a bicycle accident outside Ms. Cross’s house. Through the window behind him, we can see his bicycle perfectly illuminated under a street light. He uses fake blood. He’s adept at stage-craft.

He’s good at pomp and style, and great at organizing a crowd around his personal vision. He’s able to convince Herman Blume to spend eight million dollars on an aquarium in order to regain Ms. Cross’s attention. He’s less suited to navigating a world of adult emotions. Anderson’s careful directorial control leaves this somewhat ambiguous for a while. He lets us forget that Max isn’t really a peer of Herman Blume and Rosemary Cross. Or at least he lets us wonder whether or not the movie itself thinks he might be. This sets up a great scene between Max and Ms. Cross in which he tries to kiss her, an attempt which ends with them locked in a struggle strips Max of his dignity, his armor of self-delusion momentarily pierced. She becomes suddenly powerful and even sadistic in this moment and rubs Max’s face in the disparity between them with a question: “Do you think we’re going to have sex?”

Rushmore can contain a moment like this alongside scenes in which high school boys act out Serpico as a stage play. Anderson can make disparate emotional moments feel like they belong together.

Again, the characters here, after trials, choose to connect to people. Max learns to stop directing his life, shed an amount of his pretense, and gains a contentment with his situation as a high school student.

After I watched Bottle Rocket I figured out that Wes Anderson had another movie already released on video. I rented Rushmore. I watched it. I rewound it and watched it again immediately.

The Royal Tenenbaums

Tenenbaums is about a family of geniuses in decline. The three grown children—Richie (Luke Wilson), Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), and Chas (Ben Stiller)—end up all together, back in their childhood home in New York City. Also back is their father, Royal. Evicted from his hotel, he’s faking stomach cancer to stave off homelessness.

Where Bottle Rocket and Rushmore were both centered around a single protagonist, Tenenbaums follows each member of the ensemble. Where Rushmore adopted the framing device of a play, Tenenbaums is ostensibly a book, complete with narrator (Alec Baldwin).

Though it does work like an ensemble film, it still centers on Richie and his actions. We find early on that Richie has been in love with Margot (his adopted sister) since they were kids. She’s married to the Oliver Sacks-esque Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray) and is conducting an affair with Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), a neighbor boy who grew up with the Tenenbaum children and has since become a successful author of, apparently, post-modern Westerns, written in a prose-style reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy.

The turning point for the movie is Raleigh and Richie’s investigation of Margot, which yields an array of affairs and cigarette smoking. Burdened by this discovery, Richie attempts suicide. He survives, and this act winds up slowly bringing the family back together.

The movie contains several sticking points:

  1. Richie’s act of sacrificial suicide is the most passive sort of action a hero could possibly take. He’s represented in the hospital during his recovery with a red cross over his bed. This is a clear, intentional Christ-typing. However, Richie’s escape into suicide bears no resemblance to Christ’s work on the cross. This got under my skin.
  2. Richie’s suicide scene was scored with Elliot Smith’s song “Needle in the Hay.” This marked the first use of a (roughly) contemporary song in a Wes Anderson movie. I felt like it stood out and didn’t work.
  3. The suicide scene in general felt like a major tonal departure for Anderson. For someone so carefully contained, this sort of move showed up very sharply. Onscreen death, even a failed attempt at death, is hard to match with Anderson’s tone.
  4. In the final scene of the movie, with the characters leaving Royal’s funeral plot in slow motion, I became acutely aware of the characters as actors in silly uniforms. I love the artifice of how Anderson dresses his characters, but this really stuck out to me. This impression hasn’t softened with repeated viewings.

It’s still a sharply written movie, and builds a world and tone that just don’t exist anywhere else.

Gene Hackman nails every beat in the movie. No one can turn slimy into lovable quite as fast.

One of the best moments in the movie can’t really be written about. It’s purely a filmic experience. Richie goes to meet the bus delivering Margot. He waits for her to exit. As she does, the sound fades and the chords of Nico’s “These Days” begin. It’s a heightened moment, and artificial, and telling and emotional and beautiful.

I did not leave the theater fully satisfied. But my quibbles were minor.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

This is Anderson’s take on Moby Dick. A weed and Campari addled Cousteau, Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), confronts a possibly fictional Jaguar Shark, and loses his partner and friend to the beast. He vows to find the shark and blow it up. His last few films have flopped, making funding hard to come by. A young man who may be his son, Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), shows up to provide both the money and a B-story for the documentary. A lady reporter shows up to profile Zissou. As in Rushmore, both Ned and Zissou become infatuated with her.

Steve Zissou is the least sympathetic character at the center of any of Wes Anderson’s movies. He lies to everyone. He betrays everyone. Where Royal Tenenbaum has a deeply buried love for his family at his core, Zissou has come untethered from anything honorable. We love to watch Bill Murray fumble through his movies and mug everything into order, but Zissou capitalizes on a suspicion we try to repress— that maybe Bill Murray is a jerk.

Of course, Zissou gets around to finding something worthwhile, but he does it too late for it to do him much good. But he does so at the cost of a character of such earnest sweetness, that his failure is more or less unforgivable.

At a point late in the plot, Zissou and Ned go up in a helicopter to try to spot the Jaguar Shark. Apparently due to Zissou’s negligence in maintaining his equipment, the helicopter crashes and Ned dies. This moment makes almost no sense whatsoever. It’s certainly in keeping with Zissou’s character that his equipment fail due to his incompetence, but why should that result in Ned’s death? Not to mention that Ned dies in the service of a quest of extremely dubious value. It feels like an insult. Or that Anderson and his co-writer Noah Baumbach got a kick out of inserting an event so arbitrary as to make the movie senseless.

I left the movie theater disappointed. The looseness of the previous movies allowed them to go in strange directions, but they maintained coherence. It seemed like The Life Aquatic didn’t give a damn about coherence. I worried that this would define the trajectory of Anderson’s movies.

In retrospect, it’s not such a bad movie. It’s pleasant to the eye, funny, and generally entertaining. It’s easy to re-watch. But it doesn’t maintain the trajectory you would expect based on the first three movies.

The Darjeeling Limited

Anderson set his next movie almost entirely in India. Three brothers—Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrian Brody), and Jack (Jason Schwartzman)—have suffered the loss of their father, and over a year later have still not put themselves back together.

They grieve in diverse, completely uncentered ways: self-destructive relationships, suicidal impulses, drugs, obsessive reliance on routine and order. They end up in India with a halfway notion that they’ll experience something “spiritual” there by visiting holy sites.

Early on, Peter requests that they give him their passports so that he can make sure they don’t lose them. The other brothers refuse.

None of their attempts to connect with their spiritual selves amount to anything. They’d prefer to buy things in the bazaars rather than pray in the temples. Their connections with each other are likewise completely undermined by an inability to deal with their father’s death.

Their dysfunction gets them kicked off their train—they’re disconnected from everyone.

They completely undermine their initial attempt at a ritual through their inflexible concern for getting it right, doing it the way the guru told them to. They then meet up with the boys and death. The death of the boy brings them into contact with a culture that has specific procedures to deal with death and grieving. They participate in the ritual grief.This ritual grief is contrasted with the flashback to their father’s funeral. No one knows what to do or how to handle anything. It’s confusion and chaos. They decide to go see their mother, a nun. She clearly uses “religion” not to repair her relationship with her sons, but as a way of escaping from them.

However, they’ve seen that ritual can serve to bind people together, in the funeral rite.

They then perform the ritual with the peacock feathers “their own way.” But they do this together, and the ritual binds them together, because they know that’s perhaps the most powerful thing a ritual can accomplish—a bond between people. This rebukes the idea that it’s the tradition that made the indian funereal rite work—it’s that the ritual structure gave people a fixed point at which they could connect and help each other.

The brothers decide to leave their passports with Francis. It’s just a gesture. But it’s a gesture that acknowledges their connection and dependence on each other.

Though I find the previous narration of the movie compelling, when I saw it the first time it was another Zissou-esque disappointment for me. Now that we have the benefit of hindsight in our post-Moonrise-Kingdom-world, it’s clear that this movie cleared the way thematically.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

An adaptation of the children’s book by Roald Dahl, Anderson and return co-writer Noah Baumbach took major liberties with the story, which resulted in a wonderful stop-animation movie. I love Pixar as much as the rest of my demographic, but there’s much to appreciate about Fox as the anti-Pixar. Pixar has broken story. They’ve nailed it down. It allows them to do great work. But they’ve also clarified action and the motions of plot to such a degree that kids brought up on their movies grow impatient with anything that requires them to do the work of exposition for themselves. To enjoy Fox, they need to regain a measure of patience. Anderson doesn’t nail things down. He suggests and wanders.  Fox features Anderson’s signature elliptical dialogue. Characters talk around the things they mean. There’s a lot there that viewers—child and adult—only pick up on return trips. This is a movie I want my kids to grow up with so that they become attuned to paying attention to the words characters use, the many ways people hide their intentions in language.

Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney), a respectable newspaperman, turns recidivist bird thief and brings the wrath of three local farmers down on the rest of the animal community. The characterization of Mr. Fox as a thoughtless pseudo-existentialist, refusing to make excuses for his animal nature, works perfectly plunked down in a children’s movie and makes the posture even more absurd than it is in Anderson’s other pieces.

Ultimately the farmers drive the animals out of their natural habitat to live in the sewers beneath the city. Forced to survive by their wits, the movie ends with the animals breaking into a supermarket. Now they have to make their peace with processed food. But even so far out of place, even stripped of their wildness, they still find every reason to be grateful, not only for their food, but for each other.

How many filmmakers can claim this kind of consistency across this kind of range? Compare Anderson to Scorcese, who gave us Hugo. It’s a fine attempt a kid’s flick. But he moved significantly outside of his standard mode of operation, and it shows. It contains too much that’s only generically child-focused. Anderson’s aesthetic identity is so well-defined that transposing it from spiritual searching in India to stop-motion animal puppets in mid-life crisis causes no significant disruptions.

Moonrise Kingdom

The story of two 12-year-olds who fall in love at first sight. Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward)—an orphan, and a functional orphan, respectively—make a plan to flee into the wilderness together. The adults pursue them as a biblical storm descends.

The love between the children, and the storm itself, flout every institution. Their marriage ritual is recognized nowhere, except by themselves. This results in other characters moving outside of their respective institutions, and the values of the institutions instead being written on their hearts. Scout Master Ward is stripped of his office and immediately after performs his heroic act of saving the Commander (in fact evokes Aeneas, carrying the Commander on his back from an old, burning institution into a church, the new city). Actually, the scouts who first enable the marriage leave their institution, purely motivated internally, having been moved by Sam’s love and their “shabby” treatment of him. As Sam has pointed out, they no longer have an institutional bond, and yet they act on his behalf anyway.

So if the movie is about how true love or virtue is enacted outside of institutions, why are the lovers so quick for Sam to accept an offer to engage in a legal, institutionalized bond with Captain Sharp?

The answer the movie seems to give is both subtle and complex: first, Captain Sharp has ceased to act on the part of the law. He sees the lovers in the church and doesn’t give them away, even though he’s ostensibly bound by duty to find them. Social Services arrives and threatens to cite him, which causes him to respond with a dubious citation of his own (the pad he brandishes reads “Boating Citations”). He’s no longer concerned with functioning strictly within institutional rules or alliances. However, he does retain his office, doesn’t renounce it. His initial request is rejected by the State (Social Services) but he engages the help of two lawyers who make his case and secure the adoption, apparently through proper legal channels. He thwarts the State’s desire to swallow up all that it can and inflict corporal punishment.

Captain Sharp demonstrates that institutions themselves are not wholly destructive. People, with the law of love written on their hearts, can still act effectively within them, but only if they are not utterly subsumed by them. Sam accepts and all is well, except that the storm intervenes. However, we know already that Sam has been tested by the storm and that it won’t harm him or separate the lovers. In fact, the storm merely acts to prove that the thing saving the lovers from the void is their connection to other virtuous humans who believe in love, however battered that belief may be. Further, they’re suspended over the void not only by Captain Sharp but by a symbol of his institution; his tie, which binds him to his office. This is a reminder to the lovers not to give up completely on all institutions, on all society, which can, populated by virtuous humans, exist for their care and protection.

Also Sam, early in the movie, is thrown out of the institution of his foster family (which is revealed not to be a real family at all, but an institutionalized facsimile of one), and his father claims that this is “for the best.” As we wade through the failures of these institutions, the movie does seem to believe—at least within the scope and frame it chooses—that being outside them is better.

There’s much to be made of the fact that this church is the site of the production of Noye’s Fludde, and that though humanity might fall, though love and society might be broken in the relationships of the adults in the movie, the divine can intervene to protect love and virtue and bring them out dry and safe.

After the cleansing flood, the action of a great wind, we also hear Scout Master Ward proclaiming that there’s a marked increase of “esprit de corps.” Of course, that’s just an idiomatic French phrase for morale. We shouldn’t read it as an indication that the Spirit has broken out, made things new, repaired broken humanity, should we?

I’m not claiming any faith for Anderson. I believe that, for him, humans save themselves and each other, create their own meaning in their own rituals. But he’s left the door open to the numinous, which happily rushes in, like a mighty wind.


There’s no reason that Grand Budapest Hotel can’t ruin the streak that Anderson’s on with Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom. But the thing that won’t ruin the movie is Wes Anderson doing Wes Anderson. If the movie is a self-parody, it won’t be because of its quirky approach to color palette or dialogue. It’ll be the same reason any other movie by a director we’ve come to trust, strikes us wrong: it’s just not as good as his other stuff. What’s absolutely sure is, even if it fails, Grand Budapest Hotel will be unlike anything else out there, and worth seeing for that reason alone.

Joshua Stevenson

Josh Stevenson lives and works in the Inland Northwest (code for Idaho), with his wife and children. He keeps a blog at www.stervenson.wordpress.com for your enjoyment.

2 Responses to Obsolete Vernacular: A Wes Anderson Retrospective

  1. The trailers looked interesting, and the cast looked impressive, so I talked my wife into seeing “Budapest”. About half way through, my wife and I agreed that it was a waste of $20 and 2 hours of our lives that we will never get back.
    Sorry, but It just didn’t do a thing for me.
    Looking back, if I’d realized it was from the same guy who did Moonrise Kingdom, I would have run the other way. That may have been the second biggest waste of time to date.
    Reminded me of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.

    • Maybe a little elaboration would help. What failed to impress? What about the films did most critics unnecessarily praise?

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