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Some Wes Anderson thoughts

July 2, 2012

I recently saw two movies directed by Wes Anderson, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Moonrise Kingdom. Until now, I had written off Anderson as a director whose style I didn’t like or understand — a judgment I made solely on the basis of Rushmore. But now I feel totally ready to join the Anderson cult. Below, I talk a bit about the style of The Life Aquatic and Moonrise Kingdom and why I find these movies stylistically interesting.


In “Notes on Quirky,” James MacDowell considers the sorts of movies that people describe as “quirky” and outlines the features of a coherent aesthetic that these movies share. MacDowell’s essay here is worth reading, and I don’t think I’d be able to summarize it here. The “quirk” aesthetic he describes involves a number of features. The name suggests affected weirdness, and that’s certainly one element of the style, but to me it’s the least interesting one (which is why I find the name kind of unfortunate, though that’s not MacDowell’s fault — he didn’t choose it). More fundamental is the way that quirky movies combine traditional dramatic categories, refusing to pin themselves down as “comedic” or “serious,” “artificial” or “believable”:

The effect for the viewer of relating to characters in a manner allowing for this particular brand of deadpan, as well as this kind of acutely awkward comedy of embarrassment, as well as, occasionally, slapstick is one that I would argue is relatively uncommon outside of the sensibility. It is, crucially, a comic address that requires we view the fiction as simultaneously absurd and moving, the characters as pathetic and likeable, the world as manifestly artificial and believable.

While describing role of slapstick in quirk, MacDowell points out that slapstick works very differently in quirky movies than it does in “slapstick comedies” because of the lack of genre expectations:

In The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, Steve (Bill Murray), disappointed that a rescue mission has failed, tells his crew (with a too-apt pun on the fact that they are in an abandoned hotel), ‘Alright, let’s check out’, before toppling head over heels down a staircase. Isolated instances of this type of comedy tend to emerge completely unannounced in quirky films. They surprise us with their suddenness and seeming inappropriateness in a manner not usually available to more conventional ‘slapstick comedies’ (which come with expectations that such gags will regularly occur), and thus help establish a faint sense of surrealism through their incongruity.

To me, this kind of thing is very appealing. MacDowell describes the effect as “a sense of surrealism,” but it could also be viewed as a kind of realism. This style opts out of the distillation process by which genres are produced. Genres boil life down to a sequence of certain “allowed” types of events. Quirk, on the other hand, simply uses events as it sees fit, with no sense that the events have been purified or optimized to provide a certain sort of experience. The slapstick moments feel as though they are occurring not because we are watching “a comedy,” but simply because they happened. Quirk acknowledges that real life does not have a consistent tone, that people’s immediate responses to dramatic events can often lack what we think of as “dramatic appropriateness” (hence its use of deadpan), and that moments of (e.g.) “slapstick comedy” do occur in real life, but typically in sudden and unexpected ways.

This naturalistic quality might be merely boring if quirk was less outlandish in other ways. But since the content of quirky movies is typically implausible and even “surreal,” the naturalism serves as a counterbalance. It dulls the sense, which would otherwise be strong, that these flights of fancy have been artificially engineered for maximum entertainment value. They’re not believable, and yet they are presented as snatches of real life, convincingly rough around the edges.

If you’re a filmmaker and you want to present fundamentally ridiculous subject matter without it being utterly laughable, this is one way to do it. A very different approach to the same problem, quirk’s mirror image, could be called “epic” (after the word most commonly used to casually praise movies that use this style). The epic approach deals with ridiculous material by presenting it with a perfectly straight face, according it the seriousness we (feel we) accord to important things. Dramatic arcs are conventional, humor is kept to a minimum, and the visual style aims for “gorgeous” while studiously avoiding “dreamlike.” By playing its material straight, an epic movie wants to win you over by convincing you that no matter how ridiculous its premise is, that premise has no less dramatic potential than any other. In the Batman movies of Christopher Nolan — epic’s purest exponent — no one ever laughs at the idea of vigilante who dresses as a bat, though the idea is hilarious. The goal is not to overcome the ridiculousness, but to ignore it, and tell a story about fighting crime that’s good enough that the bat stuff seems aesthetically incidental.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is about as quirky and un-epic as you can get. It’s a very, very odd movie. The central character, Steve Zissou, is an aging Jacques Cousteau-style oceanographer and documentarian whose films about his explorations no longer captivate the public. The movie chronicles his last voyage, a quest to slay the exotic creature (a “jaguar shark”) that killed his business partner Esteban. The premise is already fanciful enough, but the weirdness is compounded by a sequence of intentionally implausible plot twists. Zissou’s adventures are cartoonish, sometimes literally (fictional sea creatures are depicted through deliberately unreal-looking stop motion animation). There are bizarre action scenes where the bad guys are parodically poor shots and everyone seems almost bored. But all of this whimsy is moored to reality, sort of, by quirk. The weary, paunchy Zissou (played, inevitably, by Bill Murray) is relentlessly deadpan. He seems to have one basic response to everything life throws his way — namely, becoming mildly annoyed while remaining essentially unfazed. The tension between Zissou the persona (intrepid, curious, encyclopedically knowledgeable) and Steve the man (callous, irresponsible, unable to remember “all those Latin names” without his wife’s help) is present in every scene, but never really mined for drama. Despite being stuffed to the gills with outlandish incidents, the movie feels casual, unconstrained, almost plotless — its artistic sensibility matches Steve’s demeanor. Surprisingly enough, this works. The documentary-like naturalism makes us feel that we’re being invited along on Steve’s voyage — invited into “the life aquatic,” so to speak. That the life aquatic turns out to be awkward, rambling, often unpleasant, sometimes even boring — well, that fits. It honestly seems like that’s what it would be like to follow around an aging, washed-up pop science guru.

The Life Aquatic produces unique and enjoyable effects by having one foot in fantasy and one foot in documentary. But it’s not going to endear anyone to the quirk sensibility who wasn’t already converted; it’s just too long, too weird, too limp and noncommittal in its attitude. To some people, it undoubtedly represents the worst that quirk can be: a string of dramatic non sequiturs and not-quite-funny awkward situations that doesn’t amount to anything like a conventional story. By contrast, in Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson has created almost a quirk manifesto — quirk’s definitive response to epic. Indeed, in some ways Moonrise Kingdom simply is closer to epic than The Life Aquatic. Its tone is more consistent, and its scenes of action and confrontation aim to be exciting in a conventional way, rather than trying for parody like The Life Aquatic‘s. Moonrise Kingdom opens with Benjamin Britten’s piece “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” which slowly introduces orchestral instruments one by one in order to show the listener what each one sounds like. The soundtrack is built around an original piece, “The Heroic Weather-Conditions of the Universe,” which has a similar layered structure. Britten’s piece feels like a perfect analogy for Moonrise Kingdom, a carefully paced and constructed movie where individual jokes and plot threads feel orchestrated, expertly timed and arranged. Indeed, in strong contrast to The Life Aquatic, the most conspicuous quality of Moonrise Kingdom is its relentless entertainingness — the way all its jokes and plot twists work together to keep the viewer fully engaged from beginning to end.

It’s a movie about young, headstrong lovers — as far from Steve Zissou as you can get — so its panache feels thematically appropriate. Indeed, it would be easy to give this material the full epic treatment, to gravitationally bend the tone around an adolescent sense of the grand importance of the central characters. What makes Moonrise Kingdom such a wonderful, fascinating work is that it instead combines its youthful confidence with the off-kilter rhythms of quirk. Like the successively arriving instruments in “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” each new event in Moonrise Kingdom feels fitting and yet truly novel and unpredictable. The naturalistic mix of comedy and drama, warmth and stony stubbornness, keeps the viewer consistently off-balance, and yet the movie executes its own steps with flawless grace. As with the actions of its youthful protagonists, you never know what it’s going to do next, but you know that whatever it is, it’s gonna be good.

Moonrise Kingdom is charming and fun, yet it avoids the ruts into which many movies fall in the pursuit of those qualities. It’s dramatic without being dramatized, funny without being “a comedy.” It is an impressive demonstration of what the quirk sensibility can offer us.

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