« good dogs | Main | Unsolicited Advice »

February 03, 2005


J.W. Hastings


I used Ron Shelton as an example because (except when he's working for a paycheck) he makes fairly intelligent and entertaining movies that are aimed at an adult audience (as opposed to many other American filmmakers). I think his movies are products along the lines of Elmore Leonard or Ed McBain novels. (I do think Bull Durham paints a more convincing and nuanced picture of "adults who live out the fantasies of childhood" than do Anderson's movies, but that's a separate point).

What I was trying to get at is that I think there is a compelling story to be told about an undersea filmmaker going off on a half-baked revenge mission, but that Wes Anderson isn't interested in telling that story as much as he is interested in achieving and maintaining a certain style. A style which, incidentally, seems to have an arbitrary connection to the story. While a Ron Shelton directed Steve Zissou vs. the Shark wouldn't have been an artistic masterpiece, it probably would have held my interested for over 5 minutes, simply because I thought that the story had the potential to be pretty interesting in its own right and not just as fodder for Anderson's one-trick filmmaking.

And I think your take that Anderson has yet to break out of a limited thematic range is right, but (and this is the heart of my original point) he's also yet to break out of his limited stylistic and technical range. I do think it's a problem when a filmmaker tells the same story over-and-over again, but I think it's a much bigger problem when from frame to frame, scene to scene, a filmmaker does exactly the same thing. I wouldn't really care that both Tenenbaums and Zissou are both about the same thing in a general thematic sense, but I do care that each and every scene in those movies is made exactly the same way.

I get a similar sensation watching one of those univentive "MTV"-style action movies like The Rock, where every single action scene is handled by turning up the volume and cutting really quickly. Anderson isn't a hack like Michael Bay, but they both seem to have one solution to every problem they come across as filmmakers. Of course, what Anderson does is a hell of a lot more beautiful, interesting, and idiosyncratic, but it's all he ever does and he shows no sign of even wanting to try to do something else.

It's not just that he can't--it's because if he does--if he learned a new trick--he'd be in danger of losing his audience which has come to expect that a "Wes Anderson" movie is simply one that's made up of a lot of "Wes Anderson" shots. And Wes Anderson is loved by film buffs primarily because they can instantly recognize these shots as being his. I think that it's the recognizability of his visual style (and its related tone of semi-mockery) that has earned him a following more than anything else. Anderson does have a distinctive "worldview", but I think it's a fair criticism to point out that so far that's all he's shown that he has going for him.

What I find interesting, is that there's at least a small group of filmmakers whose careers are based on presenting their idiosyncratic worldviews over and over again. These filmmakers build an audience that is looking for something different from the mainstream by giving them the same kind of "different" over and over again. This seems to be the same kind of "branding" that goes on in the contemporary art world or the indie music scene.

all the best,


are there really so many carefully composed, twee movies with oldies soundtracks and deadpan humor in the world that a director is only allowed to make THREE before people complain? how is the three the limit of people's patience?

"these filmmakers build an audience that is looking for something different from the mainstream by giving them the same kind of "different" over and over again."

if i just wanted something different over and over again, i'd run a fractal on my computer and stare at that. i think a better question to "is this different from prior works" is a simpler "does this work or doesn't it?" the moment of bill murray excusing himself from the party set to bowie's Life on Mars, for me, works as a moment, regardless of whether it echoes margo tennenbaum coming out of the bus to Nico. not everything in the movie does.

but i think its flaws are its own, and there's plenty to talk about re: that ("angelica houston looked bored and her character was underwritten" say) than this bizarre idea that an artist is only worthwhile when they're doing what the critic wants them to do instead of pursuing their own vision.

also: Play it to the Bone was neither intelligent nor entertaining.

J.W. Hastings


I'm not trying to set it up so that a filmmaker can either do "what I want" or "pursue their own vision". I am, however, trying to suggest that in the case of Wes Anderson (among other filmmakers), the pursuit of his own vision has led him straight into a rut. If this is your thing--if you like to groove on Anderson's wavelength and appreciate his "worldview"--than that's just fine and you're not alone.

Now, I realize the whole project of prescriptive critism is pretty dubious, and I know that no one really cares about what I think Wes Anderson should or should not do. But I just can't help comparing him to someone like David O. Russell. Russell's movies don't have the same natural visual style as Andersons (in fact, his movies have no discernible, distinctive style of their own) and, in fact, I think that Spanking the Monkey and Huckabees are worse than all of Anderson's movies. But Russell at least seems willing to take risks, not only from movie to movie, but within his movies. There's no such thing as a stereotypical Russell shot, while just about every single frame from an Anderson movie fits the same pattern.

I'm really not trying to say "Anderson should be more like this director I like", although it may sound like that. But I do think that Anderson plays it safe and that he gets away with it because his movies have a distinctive brand of quirkiness. For me, the flaws of Zissou and Tenenbaums all come out of Anderson's pursuit of that quirkiness at the expense of his characters and his story. And, again, if you're going to make a 90 minute movie, you better bring more to the table than a "worldview" that the audience gets after about 5 minutes.

I'm not sure what's "bizarre" about my ideas. If anything, I think it's fairly straightforward (not to mention square) to expect a filmmaker to try to keep an audience interested in the story he's trying to tell rather than trying to get his quirky "worldview" across.

all the best,

Kan Mattoo

I think as a Wes Anderson fan and having a bunch of friends who are fans, none of us were that impressed by Life Aquatic.

The reason I enjoy Anderson is not just his visual style, but rather the characters in his tales. RUSHMORE is probably one of my favorite 5 films of all time. Tenebaums overall was a good follow up, but Life Aquatic was dull in most respects.

Life Aquatic was also the first film he didn't 'write' with Owen Wilson. Consider that a risk for Anderson.

Truthfully, I think Life Aquatic was "Lets get a bunch of cash from a studio and go have some fun in Europe for a few months." I mentioned this thought to Owen's assistant a while ago and he laughed, but also pretty much agreed.


"the pursuit of his own vision has led him straight into a rut"

do you think its interesting that the movie everyone's saying he's in a rut on is a movie about a guy IN a rut? i think one of the things people don't like about it is the movie's about failure-- most movies aren't, and i kinda was wondering while i was watching it if that wasn't what people were responding to. even sideways, which is supposed to be-- its about the failure character meeting a nice girl (and i liked sideways).

while i like three kings an awful lot, and flirting with disaster almost equally for different reasons... i just don't find russel preferable in that as you point out, his wild streak can explode in his face (which, mark wahlberg aside, i think happened with much of huckabees). he seems too far in the opposite direction. (and i think anderson took a lot of risks in Life Aquatic-- Zissou's a NASTY character, thoroughly unlikable, same as Schwartzman was unlikable in Huckabees-- just i think Anderson pulled it off more)(but, yes, in a flawed movie, sure)...

but, like: when woody allen dies, are we all going to complain that all his movies were too much alike? or are we going to celebrate how just purely good annie hall is? or sleeper or purple rose or whatever. i think woody allen has made several really terrific entertaining movies even if he never pushed himself to be scorcese, say. his mileu is smaller than scorcese's but i'm lost how that affect its value.

though honestly, i've just never really quite understood the quirky complaint. its never gotten in the way of the characters for me. but with life aquatic, i think my problems with that movie, its just the characters and what they were going through just lacked the clarity of his earlier movies. his earlier movies are just simpler plotwise-- aquatic's plot was just too busy for me... but not with quirkiness so much as "serious stuff"-- cate blanchett's issues with the dad of her kid or whatever that was...

Peli Grietzer

The Royal Tennanbaums is possibly my favortie movie of all times (A rather trivial choice, I know, and obviously not the greatest movie of all times, but still my favorite), and I must say that to me, there is nothing whatsoever "quirky", about the film or any of the characters. It all makes sense in that perfect, Aristotelian-Stasis-Inducing way that can't be properly articulated, Like the best Harold Pinter plays.
I realize that's not much of an argument, but the point is that if your wavelength is synchronized with The Royal Tennenbaums, there is not a single pixel in the entire film which doesn't seem absolutely necessary.
But I do want to point out that while Rushmore is about smeone in his very shaky way up, Tennenbaums is about what happens after the whole "Rise and Fall part", when you already hit a ground and are living your own post-mortem. While the characters are of an adolscent mind, for all of them it's an adolscent mind dealing with the position of an old man.

(Reading your post again, you did hint at this with the comment about the "burned out middle-ager", but I still felt a need to say it more explicitly).


Peli Grietzer

Bah. I now find out I misread a passage when you say exactly that. Oh well.


J. W.,

I take your point about the stylistic uniformity of Anderson's films, but I'm not certain that the Ron Sheltons of Hollywood display that much more of a stylistic or technical range. Isn't playing comfortably within the confines of cinematic naturalism just as consistent as Anderson's reliance on theatrical self-awareness? Or to put it another way: how different are all those Elmore Leonard and Ed McBain novels from one another?

I think the problem is that we're taught to expect consistency of style from popular entertainment but we want individualism and autonomy from the "artistic" works we set above them. (Except that when we get it, we usually want the same kind of individuality over and over again, as you note - many indie comics work just as well as your examples.) This is especially true when those works maintain a consistent style of realism or naturalism, the style that passes itself off as no style at all.

I don't think we need to hold popular entertainment and art to two different standards of stylistic consistency (and, per all your examples, I'm not certain that we actually do). It doesn't make any sense to criticize Wes Anderson for his stylistic consistency and then hold him up unfavorably to people who are just as consistent, in what I think are far less interesting ways.

Essentially, your critique boils down to noticing that Wes Anderson, maker of "art films," does something that's supposed to be reserved for the crowd-pleasers. I'm not sure there's anything wrong with that - in fact, maybe it's one of the reasons I enjoy his movies.

Also, I'm not sure why you keep putting "worldview" in what appear to be sneer quotes, given that I took it from your essay.

Finally, the blogosphere would be a much more boring place indeed without prescriptive criticism - I know I would have far less to say. So keep it coming!

The comments to this entry are closed.

Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 03/2004