This post is about the films of Wes Anderson. I am no expert, I’ve just watched them all recently (inspired by seeing “Moonrise Kingdom”) and spotted a some similarities and differences between the films and I thought it would be fun to write about them. My appearance on Mastermind with “The Films of Wes Anderson” as my specialist subject will have to wait for now. Feel free to add to the discussion in the comments. In case you don’t know what the films are, here they are in order (with links to their IMDB pages):
- “Bottle Rocket” (1996)
- “Rushmore” (1998)
- “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001)
- “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (2004)
- “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007)
- “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009)
- “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012)
I’ve only seen “Moonrise Kingdom” once, so you’ll have to forgive me if I overlook something that is in that movie but not the others or if one of my connections is blown away by that film. Hopefully I was paying enough attention to not make that kind of mistake. Obviously there are few spoilers in what follows so brace yourself or look away if you haven’t seen all the films.
1.Episodic structure. I really like the use chapters in films to make them more bookish or stage-like. Also I have a very short attention span for movies and so I really like it when it is easy for me to remember where to resume a DVD. You can’t tell where a film like “Rushmore” or “Moonrise Kingdom” is going the first time that you watch it and so it proves that there is some force in control of the action, even when it seems that nothing much is happening. I think that “Bottle Rocket” and “The Darjeeling Limited” are the only films that don’t flash titles up to the screen (unless you count the DVD of the latter which presents the short film “Hotel Chevalier” first as “part one”) but in both movies the character played by Owen Wilson is obsessed with schedules and deadlines. In “Bottle Rocket”, Dignan’s notebook could almost be the outline for all of Anderson’s off-kilter characters.
2.A heist or a chase features heavily. In “Bottle Rocket” the action builds towards the break-in at the cooler plant, while in “Rushmore” there is the hare-brained plan to build the aquarium and later on the magnificent staging of the play. “The Royal Tenenbaums” centres on Royal’s plot to win back his wife, more of an emotional chase than an actual one. You could argue that the whole of “The Life Aquatic” is both a heist and a chase: a heist because there is basically no need for Steve Zissou any more and a chase for the shark that killed his partner. It’s a movie peppered with other little wheezes such as the raid on the Operation Hennessy research platform, the rescue of the bond company stooge and the relationship between Steve and Ned.
“The Darjeeling Limited” is mostly chases for trains though the journey of the brothers to see their mother has the feeling of a sham, at least the spiritual side of the trip does. “Fantastic Mr Fox” is the great heist story of my childhood and this aspect of the book makes it into the film largely intact. As for “Moonrise Kingdom”, the description of how the two young lovers meet up to elope is one of the best bits in the film. 3.The use of the colour yellow. I remember laughing at the yellow jumpsuits towards the end of Bottle Rocket worn by the gang as the heist begins - I’d waited a long time for a scene dominated by the colour yellow and was starting to wonder whether one would appear. With each passing film, the colour yellow dominates the frame more and more - perhaps culminating in “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and its amazing yellow palette of storybook sunshine. In “Rushmore” it is more subtle than in “Bottle Rocket” but there are scenes dominated by the yellow-brown colour of autumn leaves.
Why yellow? And why would I even notice something like that? Well, there has been obvious trend in movies toward certain colours dominating a scene. You can almost tell that a movie is going to be bad because the trailer is predominantly in cyan and orange (Proof: All three “Transformers” movies). There has been an excellent analysis of this phenomenon - the so-called “Teal and Orange Colour-grading virus” - here, and just because it is just a few screenshots, don’t think whole movies aren’t infected with it. Transformers 2 is in this nightmarishly dreary colour profile from start to end. Basically, when the colour profile of a scene is digitally altered to create warmer flesh tones, what happens is the ensuing background becomes bluer - a sort of murky teal colour. Because digital technology makes it easy, whole films are just being rinsed in this way.
I presume that it is easy to notice the yellow in the Wes Anderson movies because it is one of the colours that is most subdued in movies that have been processed in this way. I still think that yellow is probably his favourite colour. There are other films that react against this horrid teal and orange, one that springs to mind is “The Fall” which is a riot of colour from start to finish. Perhaps colourful films are thought of as childish and that dark, murky palettes are used to imply grittiness. Personally I think that is possible for a movie to be colourful and have darker themes, “Enter The Void” would be a prime example here.
4.Broken noses. I can’t remember exactly when it happens in “Moonrise Kingdom” but I can remember thinking “Aha, someone else has got a broken nose!”. From Francis Whitman’s motorcycle injuries in “The Darjeeling Limited” to the bloody nose received by Max Fischer in “Rushmore”, there are very few Anderson movies in which someone does not get a broken nose. Perhaps we have to accept Mr. Fox’s tail as a substitute in this case. I wonder if this relates to some significant in Wes Anderson’s life or whether it relates to some maximum level of violence that is allowed to be inflicted upon his characters.
I think there is a difference between the physical and emotional injuries suffered by the characters. In many of the films there is an element of catharsis associated with violence: there is Anthony and Dignan’s fight in the desert in “Bottle Rocket”, the Hallowe’en courtyard attack in “Rushmore”, the suicide attempt in “The Royal Tenenbaums” (resulting in much more damage than a broken nose, so there goes the theory about limiting violence), the pirate attack in “The Life Aquatic”, the rather notorious “I love you but I’m going to mace you in the face scene” in “The Darjeeling Limited”, the hilarious fight between Badger and Fox in “Fantastic Mr Fox”, and the fight between Sam and the rest of the boy scouts in “Moonrise Kingdom”. All these scenes seem to turn the narrative and, apart from in “Moonrise Kingdom”, they all pretty much introduce the third act of the film.
5.A Patriarch loses his way. Wes Anderson films are full of father figures that have lost their direction and drive. A fair proportion of them are played by Bill Murray. You could argue that “Bottle Rocket” is the exception to this, although it is hinted at in the scene where they perform a practice robbery at Anthony’s house and Anthony ends up challenging Dignan about his theft of some small items. He says “Maybe we should have robbed your house? Did you ever think of that?” and Dignan replies “You know there’s nothing to steal from my mom and Craig!”. Mr. Henry is the obvious replacement for the father figure gone awry.
In “Rushmore”, Max has a great father but he does not connect to the world that Max sees around him. Meanwhile, Mr. Blume is failing at being a father to the sons he is contemptuous of. Royal Tenenbaum seems to be the epitome of paternal failure, yet has played a part in raising amazing children, while Steve Zissou knows he is not Ned Plimpton’s father and says “I hate fathers and I never wanted to be one” yet still tries to forge a bond with him. In “The Darjeeling Limited” it appears that Francis is trying to imitate his father in ordering all the food for his brothers on the train and setting the itinerary for their trip though it later transpires that it was his mother that acted this way. All three brothers are clearly trying to work through the vacuum created by their father’s death.
Mr. Fox is not a bad father although Ash seethes when his cousin is favoured over him. In the speech scene we see someone who styles himself as a pillar of community and has to rebuild his reputation when he and the other animals are nearly flushed away by Boggis, Bunce and Bean. He is arrogant and hyper-intelligent and has to learn to respect the ideas and talents of others. In many ways, he comes good in the same way as Royal Tenenbaum.
6.There is a fantastic soundtrack. I have discovered and re-discovered a lot of great music through the soundtracks to these movies. As with the films themselves it is the mixture of familiar elements and new directions taken with each new film that make the soundtracks interesting in their own right. If you cue up the soundtracks in order you start with an almost entirely Mark Mothersbough score for “Bottle Rocket” and then that same style percolates through the songs by The Kinks and The Who that permeate the “Rushmore” soundtrack (which was originally going to feature only songs by The Kinks) and so on. There have been changes, Mothersbaugh’s last soundtrack for Anderson was “The Life Aquatic”, but the soundtrack to a Wes Anderson film is as idiosyncratic as the cinematography.
This is all without mention of how the use of music boxes, car radios, portable record players and cassette decks throughout the films drive both plot and character; there is a real sense of music being all-pervasive. In “Moonrise Kingdom”, the use of “Noye’s Flood” takes this to its height with the music and the elements almost appearing together as characters in the final act.
7.Cross-sectional shots and slow motion. With the exception of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (which is understandable because it is animated) each film ends with a slow motion shot. I’m more used to seeing introductions made with slow motion and I think in these films, the slow motion serves a similar purpose - it says “the film is ending now so say goodbye to these guys”. Of course, it is overused in “The Darjeeling Limited” where there is a little too much slo-mo dashing after departing trains.
Meanwhile, another technically impressive and visually charming shot that features in a lot of the movies is the cutaway shot, one where the camera moves through the structure of a building or vehicle (in the case of the Belafonte in “The Life Aquatic” and the train carriages in “The Darjeeling Limited”) and examines each compartment in turn. In most cases this is to establish setting and to introduce characters.
In “Fantastic Mr Fox”, the cutaway shots are central to the plot, namely the digging of the tunnels that leads to the safety of the animals and the defeat of Boggis, Bunce and Bean. I can’t decide whether I think these scenes were easier or harder to film because the film was animated: on one hand you are building everything because the film is animated but on the other it is model-based animation.
The sets generally are beautiful, quirky and funny in these movies. Probably my ultimate favourite set is the games cupboard that features in “The Royal Tenenbaums”, all those games are a whole childhood in boxes and there is something about utilitarian nature of the swinging naked lightbulb in a cupboard that I can’t quite put my finger on.
8.Bill Murray. He’s in every single Wes Anderson film apart from “Bottle Rocket” (you could argue that the part of Mr Henry was made for Murray too). I first watched “Rushmore” back in the day (this means at the turn of the century in my student house in Oldfield Park) almost solely because it had Bill Murray in it. The great thing is that it is not just “Bill Murray” that is in these movies either - you are not getting a Ghostbuster or a Caddyshack - his performances are really great, especially his madcap washed up Steve Zissou. Even his smaller roles are awesome, see the quiet tortured cuckold Raleigh St. Clair in “The Royal Tenenbaums”, and it seems impossible to imagine that he was touted as a possible Indiana Jones, but in his cameo rushing for the train at the start of “The Darjeeling Limited” he wears that hat and he wears it well.
Meanwhile, the films star a great number of big names giving performances that are unusual compared to their most well known work. Like Tarantino, Anderson has managed to coax a great performance out of Bruce Willis. (Bruce Willis is an excellent actor but in some of his performances the mask of acting is incomplete, you can see the real guy blinking at you from underneath.) Willem Defoe gets to preen against type as the rejected right hand man in “The Life Aquatic” and then revert to his bad guy role as the rat in “Fantastic Mr Fox”. Danny Glover goes from “Lethal Weapon” to being a sensitive soul with a fashion sense modelled (literally) on Kofi Annan.
Also George Clooney as Mr. Fox. Amazing.
9.An event of great importance sets up the third act. Richie Tenenbaum’s attempted suicide; the mission to rescue the bond-company stooge in “The Life Aquatic”; the boys falling in the river in “The Darjeeling Limited”; the lightning strike at the scout camp in “Moonrise Kingdom”. I guess I have already covered this above.
10.The action takes place in a weird offshoot of the real world and I want to live there. Here the most obvious examples are the fictional locales of New Penzance in “Moonrise Kingdom” and the fictional New York locations and the outlandish achievements of the precocious Tenenbaum children in “The Royal Tenenbaums”.