He Saved Latin: A Wes Anderson Retrospective

Today, after two delays and more than 17 months since it was set to premier at Cannes, Wes Anderson’s new film, The French Dispatch, is finally being released in cinemas. In order to celebrate this momentous (it is, right? Movies are back, people!) occasion, we take a look back at Anderson’s sprawling, whimsical, and oftentimes biting filmography.

Wes Anderson has a look. I don’t mean Wes Anderson the person (although yeah, he does); I mean Wes Anderson the filmmaker. There is a distinct charm, a symmetry, a style that is instantly recognizable and, to some, quite comical. We all know the score: the films and characters are quirky; everything is in the middle; the camera moves on a grid (in fact, commenters on YouTube were audibly shocked when they saw a camera move on a circular axis in the French Dispatch trailer) and there are pans galore; it all feels like it’s set in a different time, in a different place, in a world punctuated and dictated by aesthetics, stylized to the point of self-cannibalization. The imagery, the dialogue, the eclectic soundtracks, Bill Murray. It’s pretty easy to pinpoint the tropes and parody his style. Even SNL did it, and it was actually funny (imagine that…). From this description, Wes Anderson comes across as a pretty monotonous director.

And yet, while it may be easy to classify him and his works as homogenous and undeserving of the hyperbolic praise they receive, you can’t deny that they’re different. Not only do they look different, they feel different; there is something about that framing that controls not only the image, but the viewer. When you face the world Anderson and his collaborators have constructed, you have no choice but to enter it. You must. Sometimes, there isn’t even an invitation: you’re just in. Only the best directors can do this. Films appear to be Kubrickian, or Lynchian; these styles and approaches become intrinsically linked to these names, the artistry—and influence—unmistakable. And while Anderson’s name is hard to fit in this mold (Andersonian? Wesean?), what he lacks in mononomy he certainly makes up for in originality and recognizability (and then some!)

No one else’s films will ever look or feel like Wes Anderson’s films, and that’s a good thing. No one should even try. We go see a film because it’s a WES ANDERSON MOVIE, because everything is in the centre and the Kinks are playing and Alec Baldwin is narrating and the end comes in slow-motion and HOLY SHIT THE JAGUAR SHARK IS BACK and we’re not going to kill it but whew…close call. We go because we know what to expect, and yet have no idea what comes next. We go because Wes Anderson saved Latin, and Bill Murray’s career. What did you ever do?

I had the pleasure of That Shelf contributors Emma Badame (EB) and Colin Biggs (CB) joining me in this trip through Anderson’s filmography. Blurbs are by Marko Djurdjić except where noted.

Bottle Rocket (1996)

From the outset, Wes Anderson was drawn to familial topics. Not familiar: familial. Siblings, parents, and extended families (both forced and chosen) populate all of his films, as do the strange, often dysfunctional dynamics that grow out of these relationships. Our very individual—oftentimes excitable—responses to these connections and interactions drive many of his narratives, including his debut feature, Bottle Rocket. Taking the plot and characters from a 1992 collaboration with the ever-present Wilson Brothers, Bottle Rocket follows Anthony (Luke), Dignan (Owen), and their hapless crew of heist-hungry partners (including the always intimidating James Caan as the mysterious Mr. Henry) as they attempt to rob a safe at a cold storage facility. Hilarity and backstabbing ensue as the ill-equipped “masterminds” attempt to put together a bulletproof plan, to inevitably ironic results.

While Anthony and Dignan aren’t brothers in the film, Anderson takes full advantage of the Wilson Connection, capitalizing on their idiosyncrasies and differences, all while taking full advantage of the audience’s extradiegetic knowledge of his stars and cowriters. Many of the classic Anderson hallmarks are already present here—empathy for annoying characters; overhead shots of hands doing stuff; the Mark Mothersbaugh soundtrack; the…ugh…~*quirkiness*~—and the film received early praise from critics and fellow filmmakers, not least of all Martin Scorsese, who named it one of his favourite films of the 1990s. While some consider Bottle Rocket to be “Wes Anderson before he was WES ANDERSON,” this early effort would set a somewhat Wellesean precedent, one which Anderson was more than willing—and ready—to top.

THE ORIGINAL BOTTLE ROCKET SHORT, 1992


Rushmore
(1998)

I hate to admit it, but I probably (re: obviously) have a little Max Fischer in me. Ok, I was a much better student than Max, but that overcompensating, overachieving high school mentality was strong in this one. Good thing that dissipated, amirite?!??!!

Starring Jason Schwartzman, Olivia Williams, and Bill Murray as a trio caught in a very unique love triangle (who actually loves whom is somewhat left a mystery), Anderson’s most recognizable tropes materialized in Rushmore: a penchant for impeccable framing, offbeat characters with even more offbeat tastes, soundtracks rivalling anything compiled by his post-modern contemporaries, and of course, Bill. Anderson’s fully-formed and recognizable style emerged when the director was still in his 20s, thanks in no small part to Robert Yeoman, Anderson’s cinematographer for all of his live-action films, including The French Dispatch, who helps give the films their flat, symmetrical—yet ultimately welcoming—look.

The film is credited for reviving Murray’s career (he had previously suffered a series of flops and setbacks), and for launching Jason Schwartzman’s. In 2016, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, where it has the honour of being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Plus, I’ve dressed up as Max Fischer 8 out of the last 10 Hallowe’ens, so it has that going for it. Observe:

“Sic transit gloria…glory fades.”


The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

I have a strange family. We’re small, but we pack a lot of punch. We’re loud, we get into each other’s business as much as humanly possible, and we overreact…constantly. The Royal Tenenbaums was the first Wes Anderson film I watched. I was 13 and probably too young to get most of it, but it still reminded me of my family…well, parts of it at least. And yet, as both my parents and I got older, it started to hit much differently.

The Royal Tenenbaums tells the story of the titular family, an aristocratic but undignified group made up of patriarch Royal (Gene Hackman), matriarch Ethel (Anjelica Huston), and their three child prodigies—Chas, Ritchie, and Margot (Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, Gwyneth Paltrow, respectively). The kids, now grown, move back into their stately, uptown family home after a series of breakdowns and mishaps. When their “dying” father tries to get back into their lives, the family has to decide whether the selfish, egotistical man who raised them has done any growing up of his own, or whether he’s the same old, disappointing Royal.

Hackman is probably the best actor ever (IMHO, but whatever), and the script—written by Anderson and Owen Wilson—is both acerbic and affectionate, oftentimes simultaneously. The film is dizzying and literary (as it must be), a kaleidoscope of emotions, characters, and angles. Featuring some of his most inspired musical cues, Robert Yeoman’s aesthetic-defining cinematography, and Anderson’s single best shot (see below, you’ll know exactly which part I’m talking about…), The Royal Tenenbaums is surely Anderson’s best film. He and Wilson find humour in the morbid and mundane, the dark and the light, the good and the bad. This is nostalgia through crooked glasses. For all of its deadpan humour and aesthetic meticulousness, The Royal Tenenbaums is a surprisingly tender film, empathetic and hopeful, yet one that harbours an underlying perversity beneath its pastel overtones, an unapologetic vulgarity barely obscured by corduroy.

The traumas of our past effect each of us in different ways. While their naïveté is debilitating, it’s also what helps keep The Tenenbaums—through all their bickering and aloofness—together. It’s exhausting, but at least it’s love.


The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou
(2004)

When Wes Anderson chose to pay comic homage to the greatest oceanographer of all time, Jacques Cousteau, it seemed at once both an obvious choice and completely out of left field. But get a load of Bill Murray on a boat in a onesie and a red beanie, backed by Mark Mothersbaugh’s synths and David Bowie hits sung in Portuguese courtesy of Seu Jorge, and you’ll wonder why it took filmmakers—and audiences—so long to jump aboard.

The film follows an eccentric oceanographer (Murray) who is out to capture and exact revenge on the “jaguar shark”—an almost mythical fish responsible for the death of his partner Esteban. The plot is deceptively and purposefully simple, leaving time for the myriad of quirky character moments that truly set the director’s work apart. And, like every Anderson hit, the colour palette is Farrow-and-Ball perfect and the cast an embarrassment of (familiar) riches. Life Aquatic marks Jeff Goldblum’s first Anderson film appearance, and he’s joined by Cate Blanchett, Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston, and Willem Defoe, who truly steals the show as Klaus Daimler, Zissou’s first mate aboard the Belafonte. Though not much of a hit when originally released, with its excellent script (co-written by Noah Baumbach) and charm aplenty, it’s not hard to see why this particular entry in the Anderson’s canon has grown to be a beloved favourite. —EB


Hotel Chevalier
(2007)

Released as a prequel (prologue? Preamble? All of the above) to The Darjeeling Limited, this 13-minute short stars Jason Schwartzman as Jack Whitman (the same character he plays in Darjeeling) and Natalie Portman as Rhett, his former partner, as they attempt to reconnect at the fictional Hotel Chevalier in Paris. Soundtracked by Peter Sarstedt’s faux-chanson “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely),” Anderson’s first official short since Bottle Rocket is a witty, bitter, and pedantic vehicle for two really good actors, and neither disappoints. The anxiety of their confrontation is exacerbated by the film’s oppressively wide aspect ratio, the feeling of distance and longing perpetuated by the size of the frame itself. It works wonders to make you feel awful. The script is toxic and hard, but the tenderness displayed by Portman and Schwartzman, even while saying heinous things to one another, is a testament to their talents. I’ve never seen Portman so deadpan, her laissez faire delivery and cool presence proving she should have had a larger role in Darjeeling. Here’s hoping her and Anderson work together again.


The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

A love-letter to the films of Satyajit Ray and Louis Malle, as well as Jean Renoir’s The River, Anderson’s first film with future frequent collaborator Roman Coppola stars Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Adrien Brody as three very distinct-looking brothers, who travel to India in search of…well, a lot of things. Aboard the titular Darjeeling Limited, the trio visit various temples, towns, and markets, their selfish, self-absorbed fighting overwhelming any beauty Anderson is trying to convey. And this juxtaposition is the film’s saving grace.

Featuring a killer soundtrack, impeccable production design and cinematography, and some of Anderson’s most unpleasant yet watchable characters, The Darjeeling Limited was seen by a good chunk of critics as a step back for the filmmaker, especially after the disaster-cum-cult favourite Steve Zissou failed to impress. And yet, by subverting the cliché of the Inspired White Traveller™, Anderson, Coppola, and Schwartzman turn their supposed white saviours into failures when they’re needed most. Their overprivileged, infantile personas are interrogated by Anderson, not celebrated, as is their family’s presence in India. They are a nuisance, worthy of more than a few eye-rolls. Although the brothers are ever-so-slightly redeemed by film’s end, Anderson refuses to heroize or forgive them, and this lack of absolution is the only sensible conclusion.

It just might be my favourite of his films.


Fantastic Mr. Fox
(2009)

Fantastic Mr. Fox, like many Wes Anderson endeavours, is a tale of misfits coming together under less than ideal circumstances. Except this family is lovingly crafted in stop-motion. Mr. Fox is fantastic, as are his wife and son, but being fantastic hasn’t been quite enough for our hero of late. Tired of the inertia of daily life, Mr. Fox (George Clooney) begins stealing from the top three farmers in the area, in order to reclaim the “pure wild animal craziness” of his youth. As soon as Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, the three farmers, end up poorer thanks to Mr. Fox’s actions, they launch an all-out war against the Fox family.

George Clooney is perfectly cast as Mr. Fox, the suave, sly, and often persuasive head of the Fox family, who, realizing he is reaching up there in years, decides to once again be a wild animal. Uncharacteristic of most of Mr. Clooney’s roles, he lends an emotional vulnerability to Mr. Fox, who, despite his polished exterior, is not all that different from his introverted son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman): he too has his failings. Led by an excellent voice team of Clooney, Meryl Streep (as Ms. Fox), Jason Schwartzman, Willem Dafoe (as the nefarious Rat), and Bill Murray as Fox’s lawyer, Clive Badger, each cast member is fleshed out and memorable. The autumnal colours used to create Mr. Fox’s world evoke warmth and ground the story in a tangible world. Fantastic Mr. Fox is where Anderson’s artistic voice is most apparent: his first animated film, it’s a classic made one beautiful frame at a time. —CB


Moonrise Kingdom
(2012)

Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson’s seventh directorial effort, peers down on childhood from the faraway distance of an adult mind, and serves as wish fulfillment—a yearning for a time when children could live without the modern anxieties of adolescence. The island Sam and Suzy—our two protagonists—create is infused with all of the positive feelings of the ’60s, before the Manson murders and Vietnam invaded headlines. Yet, as a hurricane threatens to wash their kingdom away, the freedom that Sam and Suzy have must end. Once parents invade the story, the need to hide their young love makes sense: love can’t always last through aging. One exchange between Suzy’s parents, Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand), sums up their entire relationship: “Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” Laura tells Walt. He whimpers back, “Why?”

Some of us don’t grow out of adolescent moping. Parents and adults in Anderson’s films are often wildly irresponsible, yet in Moonrise Kingdom, Bruce Willis (as the local constable) and Ed Norton (as a troop scout leader) serve as beacons for matured competence, a first for the director. Anderson’s recurring motif that youthful ideals can’t survive adult resignation is on display, but sweetness tinges the hurt: Sam and Suzy don’t have to deal with all of that just yet. —CB

True love will find you in the end.


The Grand Budapest Hotel
(2014)

“Why do you want to be a Lobby Boy?”

Not every Wes Anderson movie appeals at first glance, even to his greatest fans, but there is something about The Grand Budapest Hotel that had us from the word go. Yes, there’s the usual chocolate box aesthetic; of course, there’s the quirk and wit that comes with every (okay, most) Anderson scripts; but if we’re being honest, there’s one particular thing that truly sets this one apart and that’s Ralph Fiennes. As the Grand Budapest Hotel’s famously fastidious concierge, Monsieur Gustave H., the British actor reminds viewers that he really can do it all and, when it comes to comedy, do it staggeringly well. There are brilliant performances from basement to penthouse suite, with special mentions going to Saoirse Ronan, Tony Revolori (as said Lobby Boy), Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe (again) and Tilda Swinton. But without the layered charm of Fiennes as Gustave, Grand Budapest wouldn’t pack nearly as much of a punch as it does.

While it’s true Anderson often aims for hidden depth in his features, he doesn’t always quite pull it off. Here, the director adeptly puts forth all his usual visual trickery and successfully manages to, with the help of a particularly adept cast, infuse some thoughtful and genuinely affecting ideas. —EB


Isle of Dogs (2018)

Isle of Dogs, Anderson’s second foray into the world of stop-motion animation, takes place in the future, fictionalized Japanese city of Megasaki, where Mayor Kenji Kobayashi has exiled all of the city’s dogs to Trash Island during an outbreak of Canine Flu. When Atari Kobayashi, one of our two protagonists, steals a plane and crash lands on the island in search of his missing pooch, Spots, he befriends a group of mutts who decide to help him find his dog, setting off an inevitable chain of snowballing events.

Featuring some gorgeous animation sequences which are beyond ambitious in their construct and fluidity, the film has—to me—always felt like a minor stepping stone in Anderson’s oeuvre. It’s just fine at best, and I always felt it didn’t really know what it wanted to be: a kid’s film for adults? A serious work of art for kids? A passion project? A test of will? To me, it all seems jumbled, and the story, although epic in its attempted scope, never feels as coherent—or as personal—as his other works. The film also experienced some unwelcome controversy upon release due to its somewhat rudimentary portrayal of Japan. Although he collaborated with a Japanese writer on the story (Kunichi Nomura, who also served as the film’s casting director and voices Mayor Kobayashi), some critics saw it as an overly-simplistic, stereotypical, and naïvely Westernized appropriation of Japanese culture, one that’s not only disingenuous, but insulting. Others, however, saw the film as a warm and enthusiastic homage to Japan, its culture, and its cinema: it’s hard to call someone insincere when they’ve put this much work into something.

Beautifully designed and realized, the film bolsters a name-drop-heavy cast of Anderson regulars, as well as newcomers to the World of Wes™️ (wouldn’t that be an AMAZING theme park??). Bryan Cranston in particular is perfect as Chief, the leader of his pack; the humour really is both kid- and adult-worthy; and there is a particular sushi making scene that…well, here:

If nothing else, this is magic.

Like every frame in every one of his films, I’m sure that was Anderson’s intention.


Further Viewing

Anderson has directed many commercials and promotional shorts that serve as miniature reminders of his talent and adaptability. His self-referentiality and -deprecation are on full display in many of these, especially the American Express commercial, which synthesizes all we love (and hate) about Anderson in one humorous, 2-minute snapshot of the director’s directing habits (say “director” one more time…). And so, I have included all of those here for your viewing pleasure.

You’re welcome.

AMERICAN EXPRESS (2004)

 

SOFTBANK (w/ Brad) (2008)

 

STELLA ARTOIS (2010)

 

SONY XPERIA: Made of Imagination (2012)


PRADA: CANDY (w/ Roman Coppola) (2013)

 

PRADA: CASTELLO CAVALCANTI (2013)

 

H&M (2016)

 

Most of these films are available on Disney+. The French Dispatch is now playing in theatres…and that’s the happiest, most exciting sentence I’ve written in 19 months.

Watch Jason Gorber’s review from Cannes and catch Pat Mullen’s brand new review of Anderson’s new film.

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