As is true of all great artists, Wes Anderson’s creations have a distinct and immediately recognizable aesthetic. This, of course, is because all art is to some degree an exercise in self-reflection. It is unavoidable. Just as a signature inevitably reproduces a unique aspect of the individual who signs it, so too do movies reveal aspects of the filmmaker who created them.
With Anderson’s latest film, Moonrise Kingdom, playing in cinemas now, here’s a look back at some of the on-screen idiosyncrasies and eccentricities that have made him one of the most accomplished cinematic stylists of his generation.
The Unlikely Protagonist
Anderson’s films are full of loveable misfits and oddball heroes. Think Max Fisher in Rushmore: estranged from his classmates, certified square, and failing in school, yet simultaneously brilliant, hilarious, and arguably the most dedicated student at the academy. Or Mr. Fox, who despite being from an entirely different species than his neighbors, still manages to be indelibly fantastic.
Anderson’s characters excel precisely in those areas where society attempts to call them failures. They succeed by being unabashedly, un-self-consciously, weird––extraordinary in their strangeness.
Celebration of Antiquated Technology
iPods are often eschewed in favor of record players, phones on the wall are rotary dial, cars are from distant generations, and team Zissou films its documentaries with reel-to-reel cameras. Picture the Tenembaum household. The visual aesthetic is distinctly colored by the old and the analogue.
Jason Schwartzman/Owen Wilson/Bill Murray/Kumar Pallana
Of course, one of the most obvious conventions of his films is the family of actors that inevitably show up. The ones listed above are the main recurring players, but there are others too. And did you know Owen Wilson was Wes’ freshman year college roommate?
Slow Pans, Long Pauses
Hailing back to a film noir tradition, a typical Anderson convention is to include uncomfortably long still shots of characters waiting, staring off into space, or displaying otherwise inert behaviors. And then the camera pans through a doorway, and we catch a glimpse of passing a doorframe or a wall, and then the next scene begins.
Another un-ignorable Anderson cliché is the heavy French influence. Whether it is background music, names like “Zissou,” sultry women, or hotel décor, there is a lot of hoity-toity French stuff on set. It contributes to the general aesthetic favored by the director, but also ironically undercuts the coarse behavior and childish antics of the cast.
Wes’ films have often been accused of having a pretentiously post-modern lack of naturalism; and it is of course true that verisimilitude takes a backseat in his productions. But the charge of pretention is grossly unfair. Rather, there is a charmingly tendentious celebration of the ordinary in his productions, as though the moral compass of the films––no matter what direction it might careen towards along the way––must always magnetically return to point toward the trivial, trite, and commonplace: thereby transforming it into the extraordinary (or, even better: the extramundane).
There is a certain je ne sais quoi quality of contradiction inherent in the personalities of Wes Anderson’s characters. Protracted scenes, often without dialogue, show them displaying every outward symptom of insecurity, indecision, or fluster. But when the time comes to speak or act, they do so with unhesitating confidence, and with some strange mixture of deadpan joke-delivery and ultimate Clint Eastwood cool.
It produces a strangely endearing pathos for the viewers, an odd feeling of awkwardness, and a comic tension between the audience’s conception of the character and the opposing one held by the other characters in the film.
Moonrise Kingdom is already being hailed as Anderson’s greatest work to date. Without a doubt, it will contain many of these same loveable clichés and conventions that have made his oeuvre so uniquely compelling. But more importantly, we can also look forward to new additions and refinements of style as Wes continues to revise and evolves his distinct style.
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