Wes Anderson – Reality and Magic

It pains me to write it but for eight years I did not have much of an appreciation for the work of Wes Anderson. Shortly after viewing The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou I felt that Mr. Anderson had begun to engage in a form of filmic navel-gazing. I was not alone in having this opinion and the chorus of voices agreeing with my assessment made it all that much easier to dismiss his works.

What I would like to put forth here is something of an explanation as to how I stopped appreciating the works of Mr. Anderson and, more importantly, how I began again. I would like to start with a quote:

I think there should be distance between an audience and what they’re watching on the screen. I don’t want reality. Somebody can say, oh, it looks so real.  Well, dammit, it’s not real. It’s a story. I don’t want to blend the two, I want distance between me and what I’m watching on the screen.  Otherwise there’s no magic there. And I think that’s probably what’s missing a lot now, no magic.

Gordon Willis

The first Wes Anderson film I saw was Rushmore. I went in with no expectations and I came out bemused. It was unlike anything I was watching at the time and although there were a number of people in the cast I recognized it did not have the aggressive approach that the film Magnolia did with its casting. I do not come to Bill Murray with the same same attitude that so many seem to today. I think he is a fine actor and, especially in a Wes Anderson film, capable of complex and interesting performances. His laid back attitude and general air of detachment do little for me. His past films do not sway me in his favor. He is, like many actors who rose to great heights in the 80’s, a little boring to me. I find him self-satisfied and not terribly interesting.


I do not write this to tear him down. As I already stated I think he can turn in quite wonderful performances. I do feel that he needs proper handling to do so and the person who seems best equipped to handle him is Wes Anderson.

While Rushmore did not feel like reality to me it did not feel as removed as The Royal Tenebaums and certainly nowhere near the level of abstraction as The Life Aquatic. I liked Rushmore and I liked the quirkiness and style but I connected with the “reality” of the picture. It has a heart and that heart is of a wounded high school boy who pours everything he has into the love of his school.

After watching Rushmore I discovered that Mr. Anderson had already directed a film, Bottle Rocket. I vaguely knew of the two lead actors and when watching it I was surprised when James Caan came on screen. Again it was an interesting and unexpected bit of casting that added to the story and did not detract from the film. I enjoyed Bottle Rocket very much, it was even more realistic and, to me, accessible picture.


The connection that I feel with the characters of these two films was absent when I watched his third, The Royal Tenebaums. There are many possible reasons for this. His use of a narrator and the strange detachment all of the characters have, to themselves and others, certainly play a part. The unreality of New York City, a place I had visited a few times, seemed to call attention to itself as if to say, “See I am not real,” which confused me.


I have never been a fan of artifice. The costumes in this film, the styles of speech, the bizarre moments that seem to be connected to little else (the hawk on the rooftop) all jolted me out of the film. Ultimately what tainted the experience for me was the cast. This is the first time that the casting called attention to itself in a Wes Anderson film. Nearly every central character is played by someone I knew well from other roles (the Wilson brothers in part from Wes Anderson films). Several cast members, in particular Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Stiller, are playing against type. She is sullen, secretive and withdrawn. He is terrified, abrasive and overprotective. What I experienced with this, as I am sure many others did, was the undesirable experience of being pulled out of the movie at numerous points because of these associations. Watching Danny Glover walk around in his very specific, very artificial costume will always be jarring to me.

I could continue on but I feel I have belabored the point already – what worked in the first two films, most likely because of casting, did not for me in The Royal Tenenbaums. This experience, coupled with negative reviews undoubtedly contributed to my initial response to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.


What strikes me now is how funny this film is. Yes, Bill Murray is doing his thing being emotionally distant and disaffected. Yes the film contains more artifice than any of his earlier ones. Yet, as strangely as it is told the story is relatable. It is very human and knowable and, yes, it is often outrageously funny. At the time none of these things registered with me. What I took away from my initial viewing of The Life Aquatic was that Mr. Anderson had stopped caring about the viewer and started making films for himself.

So now, finally, I would like to discuss what changed for me. It is my sincere hope that by sharing my own “revelations” I might help others who have ceased enjoying these films (or never began). For me the change came about after watching The Fantastic Mr. Fox. For those of you paying attention this means I skipped The Darjeeling Limited. I also avoided Moonrise Kingdom, waiting until the spring of 2014 to give Mr. Anderson’s films another chance.


The reason for this was the trailer for The Grand Budapest Hotel. Madcap, zany and filled with Ralph Fiennes- I thought, for the first time in nearly a decade, “this looks interesting.” So why start with Mr. Fox? First, it is an adaptation, which made me think that the self-indulgent aspects of his filmmaking would be less prevalent. Second the film is animated, which led me to believe that my prior issues with well known actors jarring me out of the film would not occur.

I can safely say the film greatly exceeded my expectations and did so largely for the very reasons that had caused me to dislike The Life Aquatic. Here the attention to detail, with the costumes and the sets, even the music, all worked in the film’s favor. I never forgot that it was George Clooney speaking (although I did with Meryl Streep) but it did not matter. I was not looking at George Clooney in some strange costume moving mechanically. Because the film was animated I was not distracted by his hair or clothes or car. Since I was not familiar with this particular Roald Dahl story I was not annoyed with the changes made for the adaptation. In short it was exactly the experience I needed to reignite my interest in Mr. Anderson’s live action works.


The next day I sought out The Darjeeling Limited. The scales had not been lifted from my eyes but I did feel that perhaps I had been too quick to judge. What struck me while watching the film, almost immediately, was the playfulness. The warmth Mr. Anderson clearly feels  for the characters, despite how they act or what happens to them, is undeniable. There is no villain in the film. There is no ‘bad brother’. As the film continued I began to notice the attention to detail, whether with the train itself or with the character’s costumes, and how it did not strike me as simply artifice. In this story the clothes that Adrien Brody’s character wears matter. They are important to the story being told and they inform who the character is.

By the end of the film I was certain that I was wrong about The Life Aquatic and The Tenebaums. I had the terrible realization that I, for whatever reason, had been missing the point. When I watched Moonrise Kingdom the following day the matter was settled- I had been a schmuck.


The revelation, for me, is that Wes Anderson has his own unique approach to story-telling. The artifice, which so clearly indicates what you are watching is not real, is not there to diminish the characters or undermine the story being told. I believe this is simply how he frees himself to tell the stories he tells. It seems apparent to me now, having re-watched his films with this understanding, that how he tells the story is as important as the story being told. Mr. Anderson makes these movie worlds because he likes them. Take a moment and think about this: the director is telling these stories in this way because he likes the stories themselves and the act of telling them. Now name another filmmaker who consistently does the same.

The more I have thought about this the clearer it has become, Mr. Anderson in making worlds that he himself wants to visit. The characters speak the way he wishes people would speak. They dress the way he wishes people would dress. They are able to live in a way he wishes we could, whether in a luxurious New York City home complete with its own hospital room, or in a modified ship that contains (among many other things) an editing suite and sauna. When you view his films with this in mind I feel you can see that so much of his world-building is just him creating things he wishes existed. The train in the Darjeeling Limited is a wonderful example of this. Perhaps it symbolizes something, perhaps it represents something- I choose to see it as a fantasy train made real. I think each film is populated by these places and things not to distract and not to dominate but simply to exist.

So to conclude with the quote I have yet to comment on,

I think there should be distance between an audience and what they’re watching on the screen. I don’t want reality. Somebody can say, oh, it looks so real.  Well, dammit, it’s not real. It’s a story. I don’t want to blend the two, I want distance between me and what I’m watching on the screen.  Otherwise there’s no magic there. And I think that’s probably what’s missing a lot now, no magic.

Gordon Willis

I believe that Wes Anderson is in full agreement with this statement. He is not looking to capture and present reality; which is not to say that his films are pure fantasies or that they do not deal with real, important matters. Most of his films deal with loss, often death, and although many aspects of the film are whimsical and playful he is never dismissive of the importance of these loses concerning his characters. What I believe he seeks to achieve (and I think he does) through the use of elaborate sets and costumes is this distance between the audience and the film. The artifice clue the viewer in early to the truth, ‘this is not reality’ and allow for the magic of filmmaking to take place. We can watch this particular story told in this particular manner and enjoy it because it is not reality. We can be captivated, allow the different techniques in the telling of the story to transpire because we know we are watching something that is not real. That these stories are told with such loving care and attention to detail only enhances them; it increases their value and the payoff, I think, is that much greater.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s