Derek Hill is the author of the new book Charlie Kaufman and Hollywood’s Merry Band of Pranksters, Fabulists and Dreamers, now available in the U.K. (Amazon | Waterstone’s | Blackwell ) and out soon in the U.S. ( Amazon ). He has agreed to write several pieces for the Academy.
First of all, I want to thank Mr. Appleby for inviting me here to blog and for graciously mentioning my book, Charlie Kaufman and Hollywood’s Merry Band of Pranksters, Fabulists and Dreamers. The book is the first study of directors Richard Linklater, David O. Russell, Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze, Sofia Coppola, and Michel Gondry as a movement of filmmakers despite their varied aesthetic approaches– a sort of (new) American New Wave in the direct tradition of the French New Wave filmmakers. It’s currently available in the UK and will be released in the US in September.
Perusing the Rushmore Academy message boards, I was taken with the thread asking “how long have you been a Wes fan?” So as a way to introduce myself to the Rushmore Academy, I’ll give my own rambling two cents, but also I’d like to talk about the film that did it… the one that sent me head over heels in love with Anderson’s work.
I first heard about Wes Anderson in 1998 with the release of Rushmore. I’d been living overseas when Bottle Rocket had come out, so didn’t know anything about it when it was given its limited release in 1996 and was still oblivious to Anderson when Rushmore premiered theatrically. Although I was intrigued by the trailers, I have to admit feeling a bit cautious about the hype surrounding this young director I’d heard nothing about and was honestly reluctant about seeing yet another film set in a high school milieu. I was in my mid-20s. I didn’t care to see any more American coming-of-age movies about wily pupils taking over, sticking it to the Man or whatever. But damn if I wasn’t still curious. And what was Bill Murray doing in it? At that time, Murray was still far from being the go- to guy for middle-aged crazy, so that wasn’t exactly a selling point either, although I loved him. When I did finally see Rushmore, I was impressed. Here was a director who seemed in complete control of his material, and at his young age—Anderson was also in his mid-20s—had a distinctive style and was equipped with a refreshing comedic palette that vaguely reminded me of Hal Ashby (who I would later discover was a major influence). But I was still suspicious….
The Royal Tenenbaums swept me away in those hurried early minutes, whisking me through the express history of these Peanuts overachievers on the skids like lovely Anna Karina and her gangster wannabe boyfriends zipping though the Louvre in Godard’s A Band Apart or Truffaut’s rapturous prologue to Jules and Jim. But while I admired Anderson’s film, it left me cold, cold, cold. I would later drastically change my view about Tenenbaums (I adore the film now), but at the time I was ready to join the ever-growing anti-Wes brigade.
Then The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou plunged me into its phantasmagoric tides. I’d heard from several friends, unabashed fans of Anderson’s films, that Life Aquatic was a disappointment, messy, too self-conscious, self-indulgent, and horridly not funny. But when I finally saw it, I couldn’t disagree more with the naysayers. Maybe it was my childhood love of Jacques Cousteau or Seu Jorge’s Bowie covers (I’m a big Thin White Duke fan) or maybe it was the appropriation of action movie tropes turned inside out and willingly ridiculous (though oddly still energetic in their own way).
But I think it has something to do with soul.
For the first time, I was able to connect with Anderson’s characters on an emotional level. Which is funny to me since the stretched-out reality of Zissou, not to mention the Fellini-esque sets and big production, was allowing Anderson to go deeper into into the realm of fabrication and artifice than ever before. A bigger budget allowed Anderson to construct his fantasies with bigger, bolder strokes. But at the core the emotion, I felt, was bigger as well. Finally! Finally, I was connecting on that precious level that others had felt with Anderson’s earlier work, and somehow the whole supposed “mess” of a film was pulling me into its undertow. Beneath the exquisite layers of style was a heartfelt—and very funny—ode to a bastardly, ego-maniacal father figure that I couldn’t help but care about, and a film peopled with characters who were as crushed and somehow still in awe with Murray’s droll insouciance as I was. And by the time that Zissou submerged in that tiny, rickety submarine packed with friends and foes alike, searching for that ever- elusive mythic shark to resurrect his own flagging career—not selflessly avenge his compatriot Esteban as he has consistently self-promoted—Anderson snatched me into his gentle hands and broke my heart in pieces.
Perhaps it was being in my mid-30s and having to finally confront the reality of mortality with the loss of loved ones (and my own existence) or maybe it was my convoluted issues dealing with my own delinquent father… something in Anderson’s glorious epic unlocked hidden rooms in me and drew me closer to him as a filmmaker. Revisiting the earlier films, I saw them with new eyes and realized that the strong emotional undercurrents had always been there, always been apparent to viewers willing to mix their laughter with some tears. While many of Anderson’s detractors tossed the dreaded “style over substance” charge into the arena, I couldn’t help but feel that it was their refusal to engage emotionally with the films that was keeping them closed off. It’s one thing to dislike Anderson’s stylistic approach. You don’t like the way he tells stories, so be it. But to deny that there is an emotional core is a whole other matter and a great disservice to a filmmaker who has repeatedly worn his heart on his eccentric sleeve. Anderson may not be a storyteller filled with philosophical ideas, but cerebral stimulation is not the sole aesthetic apex for what makes a compelling filmmaker. As many a director has proved in the past—Chaplin, Tati, Truffaut, Ashby, just to name a few that spring to mind—sometimes the most sublime insights into who we are come with a laugh, a welling of the eyes, and sometimes both at once.
I’ve seen the Life Aquatic countless times, of course, and it never fails to work its magic. Along with The Darjeeling Limited, it’s my clear favorite, and has become one of those precious “desert island” films for me: You are to be stranded on a desert island and have only one suitcase for your fave DVDs; which ones do you take? But Anderson’s earlier films are not far behind and would probably have to come along too. I guess if I ever do plan for a lifetime stranded… it better be one hell of a big suitcase.