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Fantastic Mr. Fox, dir. Wes AndersonFantastic Mr. Fox, dir. Wes Anderson
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13 Nov 12
Wes Anderson: An American Stylist

Wes Anderson, whose Moonrise Kingdom opens the third edition of the American Film Festival, is one of a group of directors who emerged in the late 1990s. Like his peers, Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell, Sofia Coppola, Alexander Payne and Darren Aronofsky, Anderson looks back to the golden age of 1970s American cinema for inspiration. The link between film past and present was further cemented in 2000 when Martin Scorsese declared Anderson to be his cinematic heir. The statement may have confused some. After all, the viscerality of Scorsese's work is a far cry from the rarified worlds Anderson creates. However, the director of Taxi Driver saw in Anderson an accomplished artist who employed light, camera movement, editing and design in a way most filmmakers would never dream of. One only needs to watch the opening of his latest film to witness Anderson's control over the medium, gliding through the rooms of a family home. What is most remarkable is that such confidence was already evident at the beginning of his career.

Anderson's first film Bottle Rocket (1996), cited by Scorsese as one of the best films of the 1990s, is a playful take on the crime genre, which segues into a romantic comedy, before returning to the underworld with a poorly-conceived heist. It stars Luke and Owen Wilson, who would become regular members of Anderson's acting troupe, and James Caan, playing a tough crook. Set in a part of Texas that Anderson grew up in, the film's ambition and the impressive direction belied its modest budget. Unfortunately, due to the studio's mishandling of the film, it fared badly at the box office. Nevertheless, positive reviews and word of mouth saw it become a hit on DVD, paving the way for Anderson's second film.

Like Bottle Rocket, Rushmore (1998), was set in a world Anderson knew well. He attended a private school in Houston not dissimilar to the one that becomes a playground for Max Fischer, the central character, brilliantly played by Jason Schwartzman, who is often the trump card in Anderson's cast (he is the standout performance in Moonrise Kingdom). From the simple premise of a young student who falls in love with one of his teachers (Olivia Williams), only to find himself in competition with the principle (Bill Murray), Anderson creates a fantastical world that culminates in the staging of a school play about the Vietnam conflict, replete with gunfire and mortar bombs. For many, the film remains Anderson's finest to date, his style unfussy and free, unencumbered by the stylisation that would play a dominant role in his later films. The film also initiated one of the most fruitful – and surprising – director-actor collaborations, between Anderson and Bill Murray. Like his work with Sofia Coppola and Jim Jarmusch, Murray found in Anderson a filmmaker capable of understanding and utilising his talent.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) saw Anderson break into the mainstream. A comedy drama par excellence which, like Rushmore, was co-penned by Anderson and Owen Wilson, it is a paean to the dysfunctional American family, albeit one that lives within the comfortable world of uptown Manhattan. Gene Hackman plays the wayward patriarch, Anjelica Houston his wife, Bill Murray the family psychiatrist, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow the damaged siblings, and Owen Wilson the outsider. The near-perfect script, with its wit and satirical sideswipes that mock the existential crises of the privileged, critiques America's obsession success. As critic Emily J. May noted, "Anderson’s films focus on the disaffection of the American upper class and their paradoxical search for meaning within the confines of their wealth. Anderson effectively presents an America in which the Dream has been realised and the resulting collective ennui that follows any realised fantasy."

Tenenbaums was a huge success critically and commercially, so expectations were high for Anderson's next film. Although he would remain within the realm of the privileged, the director decided to travel further afield with his subsequent work. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) is a parody of the constructed world of Jacques Cousteau, the underwater explorer and filmmaker who became a household name in the 1960s and 1970s. It stars, Murray as the eponymous hero along with a cast of Anderson regulars as his crew. Visually resplendent, the film's offbeat narrative and occasional forced humour kept audiences and critics at bay, a disaster for a film that cost so much. However, the beauty of Anderson's images and Murray's committed performance should hopefully see the film re-appraised in the future. It is a bold and singular work whose originality, coming out at a time when Hollywood's unwillingness to take risks on such a scale, vastly outweighs Anderson's lapses in judgement.

The Darjeeling Limited (2007) took Anderson to India. It was shot on a significantly smaller budget than The Life Aquatic and tells the story of three battling siblings, again from a wealthy background, played by Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and Adrien Brody. This return to familiar thematic turf offers up a number of amusing scenes, particularly on the train journeys. However, the central turns and the director's stunning use of the Indian landscape notwithstanding, the film is uneven in tone and it veers a little too close to Orientalism in its representation of India.

The most surprising entry in Anderson's filmography to date is his faithful adaptation of Roald Dahl's The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Beautifully realised in stop-motion animation and featuring a glittering cast headed by George Clooney and Meryl Streep, the director's now renowned attention to detail pays dividends in the recreation of a sleepy English countryside torn apart by the war between the sly, charming Fox and his nemeses, three farmers named Bean, Boggis and Bunce. Anderson's characters have often looked cartoonish, so his move into this format seems natural. Even so, the sheer exuberance of the film, as well as the level of invention, particularly in the climactic battle and the uplifting epilogue, make it a joy to watch.

It might have been surprising for some to see British singer and the frontman of Pulp, Jarvis Cocker, making an appearance in Anderson's animated treat. However, one of the pleasures of watching an Anderson film is to witness a filmmaker employ his eclectic musical taste. From the wide array of songs sourced for Rushmore and the Icelandic ambient rockers Sigurd Ros' appearance in The Life Aquatic, to The Kinks tracks sitting side-by-side with songs from Satyajit Ray films in Darjeeling, Anderson excels at creating mood through his musical choices. So it seems natural that the setting of Moonrise Kingdom – a small island off the east coast of the US – should be accompanied by the music of 20th century British composer Benjamin Britten. Additional tracks, including Hank Williams, Saint-Saėns, Jacques Dutronc and score composer Alexadre Desplat add to the quirky mood.

Moonrise Kingdom is a Wes Anderson film in extremis. Familial dysfunction, this time more kooky than damaging, remains a major element of the narrative. The suggestion that youth possesses more wisdom than age, a theme that has continued through the director's work since Rushmore, is also present. Anderson also makes great use of stars, often outside their comfort zone, as evinced by Edward Norton, the ever-reliable Bruce Willis and an outstanding Harvey Keitel. And then there is the film's look. Moonrise Kingdom is a film enraptured by its own design. In one sequence, a man's plaid jacket matches the decor of the room around him, including the colour of a bowl his wife is using in the kitchen. The film is almost suffocated by its style. Like The Life Aquatic, Moonrise Kingdom will likely divide audiences, particularly those seeking substance beneath the surface. More than any other filmmaker who emerged out of the 1990s, Anderson has as many detractors as he does fans. However, there is no denying his imagination and skill as a director. He is one of the most fascinating figures on the landscape of American film.

 

Ian Haydn Smith
AFF English Daily Editor

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