by Derek Hill
Born: 1969; Location: Houston, Texas; Occupation: Filmmaker
When director Martin Scorsese named Wes Anderson as his cinematic heir in the March 2000 issue of Esquire, the announcement must have confused more than a few dilettante Scorsese fans who rushed to the video stores expecting another Taxi Driver or Goodfellas and instead received the droll comedy of Bottle Rocket or the boldly stylish, melancholic whimsy of Rushmore. Bewildering though it may have been, hopefully it didn’t take long for them to realize that the great Scorsese knew exactly what he was talking about.
In an age when “style” for most filmmakers constitutes delirious, swooping crane shots, spasmodic whip-pans, and jittery nonsensical montage sequences in lieu of coherency, Wes Anderson’s refined yet strong visual sense must seem inhibited and preciously old-fashioned. But what Scorsese immediately saw in Anderson was the presence of a true authorial voice, that distinctive ingredient that distinguishes a competent filmmaker from an artist. And now, almost fourteen years since Anderson first arrived on the American film scene, it’s easier to see that he’s remained one of the most consistent and singular filmmakers of his generation.
Anderson’s first feature-length film, Bottle Rocket, was released in 1996 to genuinely favourable reviews, and for its admirers it came as a refreshing reconfiguring of the post-Tarantino crime film, which required that all subsequent contributions to the genre were to include pistol-packing thugs with degrees in Pop Culture decontructivism. Despite Tarantino’s own significant worth as a filmmaker, the numerous bastard children he spawned learned little from him other than to embellish on the violence and profanity and mistake non-linear storytelling with intelligence and true craftsmanship. Anderson’s debut, which is ostensibly a crime picture, lightly subverts the mid-90s crime film with its delicate humor and the generous affability of its leads, Bob Musgrave and brothers Owen and Luke Wilson as would-be crooks that embark on a life of crime. After the three friends bumble through a bookstore robbery, they flee to a motel and hole up until the heat simmers. It is at this point that the film detours into unexpected romantic territory when Anthony (Luke Wilson) falls for a pretty Paraguayan maid (Lumi Cavazos). This segue might have grounded the film for good, but Anderson and his actors seem almost relieved that they don’t have to go through the motions of the crime genre any longer. When the film does reassert its narrative footing and the gang joins up with tough guy Mr. Henry (James Caan) for a big heist, we’re relieved and assured that the finale will not regress into mediocrity.
Although Bottle Rocket initially failed to build a theatrical audience due to Columbia Pictures’ mishandling of it, the film found a far more enthusiastic response once it arrived on DVD and cable.
Anderson’s second film, Rushmore, would, like Bottle Rocket, draw on autobiographical details, such as its private high school setting—much of it was filmed at St. John’s School in Houston where Anderson had been a student. But unlike his first feature, which retained a more naturalistic approach to the story, Rushmore would find the young director in a more ambitiously stylistic mode, infusing his coming-of-age tale with vibrant, slightly exaggerated widescreen compositions, well-timed physical humor to match the deadpan comedy, and more solid storytelling maturity due to Anderson’s and co-screenwriter Owen Wilson’s growing confidence as filmmakers. Rushmore would generate strong, favourable reviews and plenty of media attention now that Disney was financing distribution. But while the film would have a more successful theatrical run than Bottle Rocket was allowed, Rushmore would fail to break even at the box office. From its lead performances by newcomer Jason Schwartzman and veteran Bill Murray to its precisely selected soundtrack of mostly British Invasion cuts to its gentle whimsy underlying the more extroverted comedy—Rushmore was a signal to the world that the young filmmaker from Houston, Texas, was a formidable talent to watch.
With the release of The Royal Tenenbaums in 2001, critical and mainstream success would finally come to Anderson. But this acceptability would not arrive because the filmmaker had diluted his eccentric style or toned down his predilection for convoluted narrative threads and maladjusted though sympathetic characters. Equipped with a robust budget and an all-star cast, including Gene Hackman as the grizzled patriarch of the oddball overachieving Tenenbaum clan, Anderson’s third film would find the director broadening his aesthetic palette without ever losing sight of his large cast of characters and the emotional and comedic waves they generate. Immaculately crafted from its script (co-written with Owen Wilson) to its highly formal cinematography and set design, Anderson’s evocation of a New York that never was, peopled with his Peanuts characters on the skids, is arguably his finest film yet. Many critics agreed, placing the film on their best of the year lists. Anderson and Owen Wilson were also both nominated for an Academy Award for their screenplay and Gene Hackman would go home with a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy.
Anderson’s follow-up would be more problematic. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, starring another large ensemble cast lead by newly recharged Bill Murray (it was his first film since starring opposite Scarlett Johansson in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation), would be an even more ambitious and expensive outing than The Royal Tenenbaums. And while Anderson and company would trade the hermetic, snowglobe stylization of New York for the expansiveness of the Mediterranean, The Life Aquatic in many aspects would continue the hyper-artificialness of the previous two films though incorporating a looseness of form that was reminiscent of Bottle Rocket. Most audiences and critics would not agree, though. Despite the film’s many charms, this underrated comedic gem sank both critically and commercially, and Anderson would be faced with the first real disappointment of his career.
The perceived failure of The Life Aquatic’s budget bloatedness and unfocused script, courtesy of Anderson and new screenwriting collaborator Noah Baumbach, would lower expectations for The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson’s 2007 follow-up. But while the inevitable Anderson backlash would gain urgency among fans and detractors alike—perhaps no more prominently stressed than with the Steely Dan duo Walter Becker’s and Donald Fagen’s open letter entitled “Attention Wes Anderson”—the new film would surprise many with a more low-key approach to the material. Gone was the flamboyant artifice of The Life Aquatic, and in its place came the light and space of shooting on location in India to balance out the recognizable exaggerated realism.
Scripted by Anderson, director Roman Coppola, and actor Jason Schwartzman, The Darjeeling Limited focuses on the plight of three brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman respectively) who travel through India by train on a “spiritual journey” a year after the death of their father, hoping to reengage with one another and with their estranged mother (Anjelica Huston) who is now a nun living in a Himalayan abbey. The film feels like a transition piece for Anderson, still exhibiting the bold widescreen framing and attention to production design detail we come to expect from him, but offering up a more straightforward, nuanced approach to character, as well as a generating significant emotional warmth by the time we reach the end. It’s a tale of maturity delivered by an artist deepening his sense of character, story, and style as he slips into middle age.
So what does the future hold for Wes Anderson… and for us?
As of this writing, Anderson’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book The Fantastic Mr. Fox will be released into theatres in the UK next week and in the US next month. Drawing on the old Rankin-Bass animated television Christmas specials for visual inspiration, Mr. Fox has so far garnered rave reviews—the best since The Royal Tenenbaums— following its premiere at the London Film Festival. Rumors are currently tying Anderson to a remake of the French film Mon Meilleur Ami (My Best Friend); following the mixed audience reaction to his last two films, Anderson may be on the verge of the greatest mainstream success he has known thus far.
Derek Hill is the author of Charlie Kaufman and Hollywood’s Merry Band of Pranksters, Fabulists, and Dreamers, available at your local bookseller. Currently he’s working on a critical biography of Terry Gilliam for Schaffner Press and editing Peter Jackson: Interviews for the University Press of Mississippi. He resides in the United States.