Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Director: Wes Anderson
Producer: Jeremy Dawson, Scott Rudin, Wes Anderson, Steven M. Rales
Cast: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Harvey Keitel
Whimsical Indie Drama
1 hours, 33 minutes
I don't get Wes Anderson.
It's not like I haven't tried. I know that he is much-loved by many of my friends and both critics and filmmakers. Martin Scorsese considers Anderson's debut Bottle Rocket one of the best films of the nineties. Of Moonrise Kingdom, it was selected as the opening film for this year's Festival de Cannes. It enjoys a 95% rating on Rotten Tomoatoes, though only 84% on Metacritic. Yesterday, director Rian Johnson tweeted "Finally saw Moonrise Kingdom. Favorite film of the year so far by a country mile."
But sometimes connecting to an artist's work is like reacting to a joke: you either get it or you don't. Different people will react to different things. I'm generally open-minded, however, and I try my best to appreciate all styles and genres in the spirit in which they were meant to be taken. And so I've tried to like Anderson's movies, to no avail.
I haven't seen Bottle Rocket but I've watched all his others except perhaps The Royal Tenenbaums – I've tried watching that several times, each time getting only ten minutes or so further into it before giving up because nothing was actually happening. Some I've watched more than once. I recently rewatched The Darjeeling Limited and found it typical of his work. Although I didn't laugh, there were moments of amusement sprinkled throughout the paper-thin plot and characterizations.
Nonetheless, I held out hope for Moonrise Kingdom as the reviews were overwhelmingly positive and some going so far as to say that this might be his best yet. Maybe this would be the film that finally clicks with me and makes me understand the others.
It was not to be. Although I did come away thinking that Moonrise Kingdom was the best of his films, that wasn't necessarily saying very much. I did get a few chuckles such as a reference to The Shawshank Redemption with a movie poster. It also did have a more substantial story of young romance on the run, more well-integrated themes, and Anderson's trademark stiffness seemed more suited to the characters than in his previous works.
Still, the usual characteristics – some would say "flaws" – were all there: rigid staging that doesn't allow for emotions or strong acting, implausible characters and motivations, symmetrical framing, lots of head-room over the characters, camera movements strictly adhering to straight lines and 90° or 180° angles, etc. It's style over substance, and it's not even an interesting style.
The squareness of his camera work is relentless. A typical scene might be a symmetrical shot of a room, then track sideways to another room stopping when it's perfectly centred, then again to another room perfectly centred. Then he might throw in a 90° whip pan or two, just to mix it up. People always directly face the camera and/or away from it as in the picture at the top, or exactly 90° to the camera. Each shot is treated like a stage piece or a photo where the characters are clearly playing to the audience.
Of course, no one sits around a picnic table like they do in that last one, just facing one direction. But in an Anderson film, it's not only possible but mandatory.
Watch the trailer below to see how unwavering this approach is. I think there were only two moments in the actual movie where people talked at an angle with an over-the-shoulder shot. They were the two moments of intimate discussion, suggesting that even Anderson acknowledged the detachment caused by his usual approach.
Here's a publicity still that shows a diagonal camera angle that would never appear in a Wes Anderson film.
This was taken by a still photographer who was not positioned on the dolly where they were filming. As this scene appears in the film, the camera tracks just above the fence (bottom left of the photo) while they walk to the right in a single file alongside the entire length of the fence.
His a very distinct approach that one either finds wacky and amusing or anal and constricting. But even if one did find it funny, humour wears thin with constant repetition. I don't find it very imaginative or difficult, for that matter. The difficulty lies with the cinematographer who has to light everything for a long take, and the production designer who has to make sure every squarely-framed shot is composed and mostly symmetrical. The actors are given precise blocking with precise marks to hit, but that's easy enough compared to the emotional digging that is mostly absent in his work.
Perhaps I'm being hard on him, but as I said, I don't get Wes Anderson. I'll still try to keep an open mind, though. I mean that sincerely. I'm well aware that many filmmakers with much more experience and understanding than I hold him in the highest regard. So, if anybody has any insights as to what it is that I'm supposed to be delighting in or how it is that they enjoy his films, then please do let me know.