The Case Against Wes Anderson

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There is a shot in the first reel of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel that will feel awfully familiar to devotees of the Anderson canon. Hotel concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) walks down a long hallway off the lobby of the film’s titular hotel, and as he does, we see that his job, of which he speaks with grandeur and profundity, is really comprised of a million little decisions. As the camera tracks with him, he signs off on a dining room item, checks in on a regular guest, and writes notes to be handed off to his flunkies, all in a matter of seconds. The shot feels familiar for a couple of reasons. It is clearly intended as an homage to Truffaut’s famous “What is a director” sequence from Day for Night, but it also calls to mind Anderson’s American Express commercial that paid homage to Truffaut.

The comparison is instructive: Anderson sees Gustave as a director of sorts, which makes him a handy surrogate. But you could say the same of almost all Anderson’s protagonists. With few exceptions, each of his central characters approaches life with the soul of a director, equal parts passion and careful execution. When presented with a problem, they craft a creative and complex plan and then carry it out with gusto. Which of Anderson’s characters does this description apply to?

Let’s count them down in reverse order: Sam from Moonrise Kingdom, Mr. Fox from The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Francis from The Darjeeling Limited, Steve Zissou from The Life Aquatic, Max Fisher from Rushmore, and Dignan from Bottle Rocket. These men are planners, and only The Royal Tenenbaums features a protagonist who prefers a spontaneous approach to life (although Ben Stiller’s Chas comes close to fitting into the above list). Meanwhile, in two of these cases – Zissou and Fisher – Anderson disposes with pretense altogether and makes them actual directors.

It’s not newsworthy that Anderson would create protagonists so closely related to himself, but it does speak to that one enduring criticism of the otherwise celebrated director: that his work is held back by a certain solipsism. With each passing film, Anderson seems to go deeper and deeper into his own universe, and reality gets pushed further and further to the edges of the screen. The Grand Budapest Hotel, for example, is set in a fictional hotel in a fictional country fighting a fictional war, and every frame of the film looks more like an elegant comic strip than anything resembling reality. His talented and experienced company of actors – Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton, and Edward Norton, for example – are nothing more than another set of props to Anderson, wonderful to look at but still inanimate.

Movies, of course, don’t need to be set in a world that precisely mirrors our own for them to be relatable. But reality in some form – whether it’s in the setting or in characters who behave in ways that we understand – must be present. In other words, there must be a way in, a way for us to bridge that divide between the fantasies of the screen and our recognizable realities. Anderson seems increasingly uninterested in building those bridges. When asked in a recent interview what motivates him to create imaginary worlds in his films, his answer was telling: “The real answer is…because I just like to.”

While this might make Anderson seem like an extemporaneous filmmaker – someone who deals exclusively in the present – most of his fans seem to associate his films with the past. His style certainly feels like an homage to a more elegant era, but this deep, systematic narrowing of his cinematic universe reminds me of how we engage with the world through social media. On Facebook, Twitter, and Spotify, we get to experience the world through our own personal filter. Our feeds don’t reflect the universe at large; we only see the people and things that we want to see, and day after day, our worldview gets reinforced not challenged. This ultimately means that we are not living in reality, rather a meticulously-crafted dollhouse of our own making. The “friends” and “followers” in our lives are simply props meant to hold up our own perspective.

And so it is with the Anderson canon. Watching his films, I increasingly feel the dark, lonely side of our social media universe. I feel shut out of a world I can glimpse but can’t find a way into. Wes Anderson may be a brilliant artist with a strong commercial sensibility, but he refuses to push himself to explore new social circles. In other words, he sticks to his news feed, and while he may gain new fans, his imagination gets smaller and smaller.

Like most of his recent works, Budapest is entirely devoid of dramatic tension. We may chuckle along as its wacky events transpire and be impressed with how diligently Anderson pulls the strings, but does it actually matter what happens to Gustave and his lobby boy? When Gustave ends up in prison, for example, do we feel the darkness of his soul? Hardly. Instead, it is just another place for the director and his surrogate to sprinkle their trademark fairy dust.

But it was not always this way with Anderson. Consider Rushmore and its immediate predecessor. When I think about what I loved about Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, it has a lot to do with the relationship between his central characters and the world around them. Both Dignan and Max Fisher like to think of themselves as stars of their very own movies. For Dignan, it is obviously a crime caper; for Max, probably a French New Wave romance. Still, those films are set firmly in recognizable worlds. Everyone around them looks at Dignan and Max like they are a bit crazy, which makes their delusions dramatic and comedic and, ultimately, kind of heartbreaking. The characters are like children, and we are their parents; we know that their delusions would eventually be shattered, and but watching how it happens is what makes their stories compelling.

But despite explosions, murders, jail breaks, and gun fights, The Grand Budapest Hotel is not compelling, and it certainly doesn’t qualify as an artistic step forward. Much like Mr. Fox, Anderson is digging himself further into the ground and creating a new universe for him and his friends to play in. The problem, which he seems to have no interest in fixing, is that there is not a lot of room down there for the rest of us.

  • Colin Biggs

    I could certainly see where Grand Budapest Hotel feels like there is no heart to the characters, but Fantastic Mr. Fox has the same realized relationships that Rushmore and Bottle Rocket had.

  • tombeet

    One of the trademark about Anderson’s style is his “fake” quality. Everything feels so “unreal” to the point. (I can’t speak for Grand Budapest Hotel but in Moonrise Kingdom: the people chasing Sam in the lightning field that formed a square, or the climax scene, or when Scout Master rescued Commander Pierce), but that’s one of the reason why I love his films so much, as his characters are not supposed to be real (or intent to), but fit right in the world they’re in.

    I understand your argument about his films are anything but resemble reality, but I feel that the emotion gets deepen the more movies he made. Wes Anderson, like many other auteur directors, keep repeating the same theme all over again, and by comparing each characters of his film (like you did), you can see what he really care about and all those connections get more dimensional (like for me Suzy in Moonrise Kingdom would be Margot Tenenbaums without meeting Sam, and to think like that made me feel even sadder about Margot (who is my favourite Wes Anderson’s character).

    Of course, I have to see Grand Budapest Hotel to see full extent of your arguments, but I will say that, Much like Mr. Fox, Anderson is digging himself further into the ground and creating a new universe for him and his friends to play in, and there might not enough room for everyone down there, but I will be the first to come into to that universe he created

    “The idea is to make this self-contained world that is the right place for the characters to live in, a place where you can accept their behaviour.” – Wes Anderson

    • Noah Gittell

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I think much of this is a matter of taste or preference. You and I are seeing the same things in Anderson. It’s just that it works for you and not for me. C’est la vie.

      • zeldy345

        Anderson is clearly wrong about even the remote possibility of devising a self-contained world…that is where he should be heavily critiqued, as it’s a matter of necessary structure & not taste.

  • Pixleh

    When you write about “the relationship between his central characters and the world around them” could that not be easily applied to The Grand Budapest Hotel? I mean, without spoiling too much, Gustav’s insistence on keeping the hotel as this vibrant, individual institution, his little bubble stuck in a time that had evidently gone, was directly at odds with the reality and madness of a world war. His own form of rebellion. Really, the main drama of the film is located in reality trying to catch up with him (represented in black & white). At least, that’s where I found it, and that’s also one of the reasons why the film was so melancholy.

  • Aaron Anaya

    I would say that creating an entirely fictional world on screen is completely fine. Lynch and Jodorowsky both do that. Should we have forced David Lynch to make something accessible after Inland Empire? I understand being put off by how insular Anderson’s focus has gotten, but is that really a bad thing? He is one of the few modern directors who have always tried to progress with each movie and has never repeat themselves. I have always admired that about him even though I did not always like his movies.
    Also, is it really necessary to become the latest person to complain about Social Media on the Internet? People have been doing this since Myspace and it really needs to stop. The Status Quo is not going to change anytime soon so unless they can offer a realistic solution people should leave the horse flogging for another day.

    • Slātlantican

      He is one of the few modern directors who have always tried to progress with each movie and has never repeat themselves.

      But it seems to so many of us that he is repeating himself.

      • Pbearadactyl

        How so? Each of his film has a unique character to it. For example The tragedy of The Royal Tenenbaums is vastly different from the emotional immaturity of Moonrise Kingdom. You can see a clear progression in his work. Even Noah sees that.

        • Slātlantican

          First of all, my comment probably sounded harsher than I meant it. As I have read elsewhere on Disqus, although I truly did get tired of WA’s movies with Darjeeling and Mr. Fox (which really, really annoyed me), I didn’t dislike him enough to watch more, and was rewarded by Moonrise Kingdom, which is my favorite movie of his–absolutely charming, and I’ve watched it on the flat screen numerous times now.

          But I don’t know if I would agree that all of his films have a “unique character” to them. If you’ve seen Tenenbaums (the first movie of his I saw, and I liked it) and Life Aquatic (which I did not), you’ve seen enough that you’ll instantly recognize his work, remarkably, even in the absence of live-action acting (Mr. Fox). I don’t know what this “clear progression” is; it may be clearer to others than me–I do, after all, have a pretty severe case of presbyopia.

          • Pbearadactyl

            What I mean is that you can see how he has matured and changed through his films. The progression I’m talking about is in how insular his focus has gotten, how, how stylized the visuals have gotten, and how far removed from reality the films have become. While yes you can always spot his style, his films have gotten progressively more stylized as his career has gone on. What I mean when I say all of his films have a unique character is mainly in the way that all of his films are about very different subject matter .

          • Slātlantican

            Well, he certainly has grown increasingly stylized, but surely we can agree that there is no consensus on whether that is a good thing or not, right?

          • Pbearadactyl

            I agree that no consensus has been reached, but that was never the point.

  • Will

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  • Anon

    An gnat bashing away at the ass of a giant elephant. You don’t like his movies don’t watch them. That simple. You certainly have nothing intelligent to say about them. All you are doing is parroting the complaints that have been leveled against him since around the time of Tenenbaums. Wes Anderson is the most singular, unique and imitated director of his generation, bar none. The only type of person who would complain about his movies is the type of person who wishes they could have been smart enough, driven enough, and lucky enough to have made his movies. And I always notice that the people who complain about Wes Anderson are skinny white guys in glasses who kind of look like him. Go figure.

    • Noah Gittell

      I am not that skinny, but thanks for the compliment!

  • Jimbob

    Man, I’m so glad that I’m not the only person who thinks like this. More specifically than a connection to a recognizable world, I think that Rushmore and Bottle Rocket succeed because there’s a connection to a recognizable person. The Luke Wilson and Olivia Williams characters give those films a ballast and allow you to appreciate the wacky characters that surround them. Without them, the crazies have no link to humanity. How can you empathise with that?

    • Noah Gittell

      Thanks, compadre!

  • M North

    I’ve often thought the case for Wes Anderson boiled down to whether you enjoy the adult-world-seen-through-the-eyes-of-a-child. There’s a simplicity to his films which is an alluring realism. I think of it better as nostalgia-realism, which is to say it’s like imagining your childhood again. This occurs both in the visuals and in the themes too. The precocious Rushmore; the man-child Punch Drunk Love; the quirky Tenenbaums; the playful adventurers of Moonrise Kingdom; the nostaglic-marine-equipment of Steve Zissou. They all highlight a world shown through the eyes of somebody being very nostalgia about something. It becomes up to the audience to play a role in assuming something is amiss, which is probably a good reason why people like them. There’s something to figure out.

    As you say, his films are made for the present as he assumes a present-day audience; he plays into that. That present-day audience tend to be people who are nostalgic about their childhood but too grown-up to see the world through rose-tinted-bifocals, and can conveniently find a reason to escape into his films while seeing something in them which they find personal.

    ‘The characters are like children, and we are their parents’

    That’s a good summary because it’s odd that his films invite us to be uncritical of them; it’s like parents who are uncritical (or at least easy-going) towards their children.

    • Colin Biggs

      Paul Thomas Anderson did Punch Drunk Love.

  • zeldy345

    I understand your argument; however, you do not really state why a “solipsistic” style is negative–except that it is not your taste. Why must the gap be completely bridged? You never stop to ask whether there can or even should be a bridge as you describe. The film is universalizable, no? The dialogue can be translated. The events recognized as such. Unless Anderson delves into Artaudian madness, his work is communicable, so there is a bridge that necessarily betrays his own little universe. The film survives beyond the intentions of Anderson, himself. What is disturbing about Anderson’s films, while making them wonderfully unique, is our inability to precisely locate what he communicates to us, as it does not come from a wholly different world nor exactly from this one. We cannot completely totalize what we are given; there is resistance. Just as there is no ability to see right into another individual’s thoughts, thus forcing us to rely on various forms of mediation, we and Anderson are left with an ambiguous, incomplete method of communication (film), operating beyond both writer/director & audience. In Anderson’s films, we are given ideal (universal) re-presentations lacking a direct origin in our familiar world–which is to say they are not simply reflected back. In a sense, they are irreal or spectral. I want to say these specters are mise en abyme, though not in the traditional sense, as they arise from & traverse both our world & Anderson’s settings (no matter the attempts at control) existing somewhere in a between, an abyss. They cannot be reduced to one side or the other. Therefore, there is communication, understanding, and meaning, but no particular way to stabilize it or give it rest, to simply pin it all down, which seems to exactly unravel meaning as such. To use another metaphor, though not dissimilar, Anderson sends us beautiful postcards, carefully choreographed, tied neither to him nor us, offering a glimpse to a world we will never immediately experience, though one we seem to understand–even if it disappears with every attempted grasp. However, in making his vision, his world, somewhat recognizable to all, he betrays its utter singularity; he loses control in sending it off to the audience. The only other option is silence. He cannot create a purely solipsistic universe. (Even in your media example, exteriority reigns, as every post/message can be infinitely recontextualized.) In such a strange paradox, these cards never can be said to fully arrive, for they are always set adrift, inbetween. If his films, as I believe, are, in a sense, carefully framed postcards, then Anderson is not fixated on the past but the future, dwelling on finitude (how worlds & ways of being seem to easily disappear). A postcard is precisely an inscription (an ideal mark) of the past left for the future, existing beyond the writer and addressee, that is fragile, easily erased or lost. The intention of a postcard is to thus survive the passing of time for a future. Anderson’s sense nostalgia is only ever meant for the future.

  • Colin Biggs

    That post is very much worth a read for anyone else in this thread.

  • Slātlantican

    I’ve not seen Grand Budapest, but, on the other hand, I’m sure I have.

  • tombeet

    Haha, the comparison is very interesting. As I’ve heard of Wes Anderson and Tarantino comparison before (both were influenced by the French New Wave and their love for their worlds); and P.T Anderson with Tarantino (both movie fan bluff before deciding to direct, and I think even Tarantino himself considers P.T Anderson as his rival), but this is the first time someone mention about the 2 Anderson’s comparison. It makes sense though the way you put it

  • renzo

    “In other words, there must be a way in, a way for us to bridge that divide between the fantasies of the screen and our recognizable realities. Anderson seems increasingly uninterested in building those bridges. ”

    Why should he be interested in building those bridges? Those bridges DONT need to connect fantasies n recognizable realities. There is plenty of information. I connect two sides. Im in that way.

    He’s not asking for ppl to fit in his world. You wouldn’t fit. Theres plenty of social commentary, compelling beats, and virtuous moments. I thought the movie was entertaining n touched on current issues in USA and abroad, and personas–war, immigration, workers rights, civility, common sense, love, acceptance etc.719am.clocking out.

  • renzo

    He continues to educate ppl about manners. And lately his cgi or claymation or whatever looks good and is used for big turns and surprise. Also, his wide shots are spectacular.
    He provides enough story and connections to reality or versa are in every frame. Its up to the viewer to pay attention and take hints.

  • aspenguy

    Why is it an injustice not to like Wes Anderson movies?

    …..and soccer or eggplant?