Due to the daunting financial commitment of a night out at the movies, I make it a point avoid the theaters at all cost. Plus Netflix is just so great. But lately there have been too many films out that can’t seem to be passed up.
Persepolis was amazing. There Will Be Blood deserves every bit of praise it’s getting. Everything from the art direction, to Daniel Day Lewis’ performance, to Jonny Greenwood’s score was pitch perfect. There was a sense that this story was a sprawling epic, while somehow never losing the intimate scope. I still haven’t caught the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men yet, despite universal raves from everyone.
While I enjoyed Juno, I think some of the praise is a bit overblown. Nominated for Best Picture? And Best Actress? Really? Not many of my friends even liked the movie. The most common remarks seem to be along the lines of it being a bad imitation of a Wes Anderson film. It made me wonder about how any movie that displays any bit of quirkiness gets pegged as Wes-Anderson-esque. I recall the most scathing critique of Napoleon Dynamite’s director described as a "poor man’s Wes Anderson". Ouch... but kind of true.
It also made me wonder how that must affect Wes Anderson himself. If it influences how he makes his films. I see how artists could become recognized for a signature style and then fall into the trap of it defining their work.
I must admit to not being too fond of Anderson’s last two films, although The Darjeeling Limited fared better than The Life Aquatic in my mind. I started to get the sense that his movies began to be dictated by people’s expectations of what they were supposed to be. They seemed to be dumbed down versions of his earlier work. Granted these films haven’t been subjected to insanely high number of viewings that I allowed for Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. Rushmore is also one of my all-time favorite movies so there’s a lot to live up to.
Still, his movies have always retained an amazing visual style that he’s also known for. Just about every frame of his films is immaculately composed. They could truly pass as paintings.
Perhaps it’s the content of the movies that is beginning to wear thin for me. Anderson has a knack for using consistent elements throughout his career. The most obvious being the reuse of particular actors, but he’ll also re-employ visual and musical elements. (I was disappointed to find out that his collaborations with Mark Mothersbaugh and Kumar Pallana ended after The Life Aquatic.) Anderson is an obvious fan of the Kinks and the Rollings Stones who have graced almost every soundtrack so far.
More importantly, he has used each movie to explore similar themes and subjects.
There are significant father issues in each movie. James Caan’s Mr. Henry in Bottlerocket wasn’t a biological father to Owen Wilson’s Dignan but Dignan was desperately seeking the approval of the older figure. Schwartzman’s Max Fischer had to overcome the shame he felt towards his father’s profession, but also developed a father-son relationship with Bill Murray’s Henry Blume. The Royal Tenenbaums (TRT) examined the father theme more overtly with the entire family dealing with the negligence of Gene Hackman’s character. In The Life Aquatic (TLA), Owen Wilson’s Ned was seeking out a relationship with his father Bill Murray as Steve Zissou, and the death of the father in The Darjeeling Limited (TDL) caused the three sons to undertake a soul searching journey.
Death is also a driving force in the stories. The death of Zissou’s best friend, Esteban in TLA spurred him towards a revenge quest. Royal’s supposed terminal illness plays an important role in reconciling the family. While Owen Wilson wasn’t technically in Rushmore (RM), his presence as the deceased Edward Appleby was felt by each of the characters. And I’ve already mentioned the effect of death in TDL.
Another recurring element in the stories is the seeming reversal of roles between the younger characters to the older characters. The elders are often seen giddy and child-like, while the younger characters are mired in sadness and restraint. Royal Tenenbaum was the epitome of the man-child, while Max Fischer can be seen as the ultimate example of a child wanting to be an adult. Each of the Tenenbaum children had some sort of debilitating psychological conflict, while in Anjelica Huston’s mother figure, you could practically see the butterflies in her stomach as she experienced a kiss with Mr. Sherman. In RM, Herman and Rosemary were experiencing a blooming love, while Max and Margaret’s encounters were composed of doubt, sadness and unrealized desire. Max’s younger friend, Dirk, portrayed an even older persona as a stoic, wise friend. Huston’s character in TDL was the one running off while her sons forced themselves into the painful therapy of their relationships to each other.
The most interesting thread for me is the water theme which is explored subtly in RM but is pushed to the obvious forefront in TLA. In RM, there are several water elements that mark the storyline, such as the inclusion of aquariums (both in Rosemary’s classroom and Max’s plan for a world-class aquarium), the Jacques Costeau book, Edward Appleby’s death by drowning, Max’s last name being ’Fischer’ (or fisher), or one of my favorite scenes: Herman cannonballing into the pool and remaining underwater in the fetal position. The little boy swimming around him like a singular sperm punctuated the idea of Herman being reborn at that moment.
And that’s the whole appeal of Anderson films. There’s depth and a great attention to details, creating interesting and developed characters, interesting dialogue and beautiful visuals. Yet he’s been covering the same ground for a long time. It’s beginning to become monotonous and almost self-cannibalizing. Each time around is less interesting and also less developed.
There were several moments in TDL that made me groan with the explicitness. When Owen’s character, Francis, began removing bandages to reveal his injuries and proclaim "I guess I still have some healing to do." he was obviously referring to more than physical scarring. A little too obviously. Also in the end, the brothers chase after a train and dump their luggage, I had to remark to myself "Oh okay I get it, they’re letting go of their ’baggage’ now." These things just didn’t feel like they’d fly in Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love all of these films. And to be Wes Anderson and have every non-traditional character-driven film come out have to be compared to him, is saying something about the impact and significance of his work. I just hope his work doesn’t become a parody of itself.
Addendum: Look, someone else has Anderson on the brain. Linky