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The Films of Wes Anderson: Universal Themes in Peculiar Worlds
By Marc Ingber
May 2009
Generally speaking, I’m not the type of guy who remembers the dates and times of notable events in my life. I tend to use the little memory capacity I have in this area to store a handful of friends’ and family members’ birthdays and my wedding anniversary.
But contrary to this notion, I remember exactly what I was doing on Christmas Day 2001. It was the day I went to see Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums at the Uptown Theatre in Minneapolis.
At the time, I had seen Anderson’s previous film, Rushmore once or twice. I was looking forward to Tenenbaums ever since I saw a preview for it that featured Ben Stiller and two curly-haired kids wearing red matching Adidas tracksuits and Luke Wilson dressed as a washed-up tennis player. Based on the preview, I got the sense that The Royal Tenenbaums would be a bizarre, humorous and random jaunt from the same minds that created Rushmore – Anderson and his co-writer, Owen Wilson.
And I was not let down. The movie was everything I hoped it would be. It somehow seemed funny, bizarre, sad, disturbing, random, witty, dark, serious, silly and smart and all at once. To be quite honest, it was a little too much to wrap my head around that day. Between Dalmatian mice, wristbands and missing fingers, I was unsure what particular message I was supposed to glean from the movie, or if it had one at all. I just knew I wanted to see it again.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, my reaction to the movie put me in rare company among my circle of family and friends. Of the 12 or so of us that went to see The Royal Tenenbaums that day, my sister and I were the only ones who didn’t actively hate it. I’m almost sure most of them thought they were going to see a dysfunctional family comedy along the lines of Meet the Parents, which had come out the previous year and also featured Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson.
Anderson’s films are definitely an acquired taste, and it’s safe to say that it’s one that many people never acquire. For one, most of his movies take place in a bizarro universe. No one would accuse Anderson of making science fiction, but it’s difficult to recognize the worlds he creates as present day America.
It’s apparent Rushmore takes place in modern times, but between its prep school uniforms and 1960s British Invasion soundtrack, the time periods intermingle to create an alternate reality. The film seems to take place in the 1960s or 70s, even though the cars the characters drive suggest otherwise.
Similarly, The Royal Tenenbaums takes place in a fantasy New York City. It features a fictional taxi company (Gypsy Cabs), non-existent locations (the 375th Street YMCA) and Anderson purposely avoids shots of any well-known landmarks such as the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty. The characters all have signature wardrobes, or personality uniforms. Anderson uses clothes from the 1970s to illustrate the characters being stuck in the past.
Anyone who needs movies to have a believable, surface-level realism should avoid Anderson’s work. However, once you get past the goofy costumes, arbitrary background set pieces and deadpan one-liners, Anderson’s films actually have universal and serious themes. Nevertheless, the first time you watch one, it’s difficult to concentrate on anything but its peculiar characteristics. It’s only upon repeated viewings that the themes begin to emerge.
Anderson’s first film, Bottle Rocket, concerns three twenty-something friends trying to find their identities as they crawl towards adulthood. In Rushmore, the protagonist, Max Fischer, is trying to make it through high school and find his place in the world in the wake of his mother’s death from cancer. The Royal Tenenbaums is about a family trying to find a way to coexist even though they are long past the point of having anything in common.
It seems as though Anderson and Wilson come up with the serious themes for their movies first, and then deliberately try to hide them behind a facade of strangeness.
For instance, Luke Wilson’s character in Bottle Rocket, Anthony, is the 26-year-old product of an upper middle-class family who has no interest in his privileged, suburban lifestyle. As an alternative to what he sees as a miserable existence, he attempts to turn to a life of petty crime.
Though this escape from suburbia is one of the main themes of Bottle Rocket, it is only briefly alluded to in the movie. When the film begins, Anthony is in a mental institution for “exhaustion”, but Anderson avoids explaining why. At one point, Anthony makes reference to his desire to avoid spending his life sun-tanning and water skiing, but it is only one line in the entire movie. Almost any other film dealing with this theme would make it a primary part of the character’s dialogue.
This leads to another aspect of Anderson’s work that is off-putting to some – his characters, plots and resolutions rarely follow the standard arc of a Hollywood film. His protagonists typically start out unhappy, yearning for some element of their life that was present in their past. They attempt to resolve these issues through a series of events, but tend to fail miserably at doing so.
However, rather than ending with characters in despair, Anderson’s films resolve on a positive note. Though his protagonists don’t succeed at what they originally intended to accomplish, they usually inadvertently find happiness by learning to accept their own failures, grow up and move on.
Mainstream Hollywood tends to produce finales where the hero saves the day and the guy gets the girl. Anderson deals with characters who slowly learn to make peace with the fact that they didn’t. He doesn’t provide standard happy endings, but rather a more realistic brand of satisfaction. It’s not a bad accomplishment for a guy who earns his keep dealing in Dalmatian mice and red tracksuits.
Marc Ingber is a journalist with Sun Newspapers, based in Minneapolis, MN. He was born and raised in the Twin Cities and attended journalism school at the University of Kansas. His primary interests include rock n' roll, movies, food and drink, the Minnesota Vikings and the Minnesota Twins - probably in that order.
photo credit: The Sartorialisthttp://www.thesartorialist.blogspot.com/shapeimage_7_link_0
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09:film/the films of wes andersen................................................................................................marcingber2009