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The Wonderful Wistful World of Wes Anderson

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Recently, The Guardian's film blog ran a small piece highlighting the trailer for Wes Anderson's upcoming -- and for Anderson fans, greatly anticipated -- Moonrise Kingdom (which I haven't seen but will review soon). With perhaps a mixture of love and mockery, the writer checked off the usual Anderson tropes: "Every box is ticked: Schwartzman, Murray, pint-sized precocity, a retro palette, distracted dads, slo-mo hand-holding, fab hats, dead-centre deadpan," and then asked readers to weigh in on what they thought. As you can imagine, opinions were split between excitement and annoyance. One of the more amusing comments came from a reader who stated, "You can tell this is a discussion about Wes Anderson movies when it boils down to the fact that he's definitely using a different font this time."Ah, yes, Anderson's attention to detail -- the clothes, the pastel colors, the walkie- talkies, megaphones and record players, the ... Dalmatian mice.

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Those things that many critics have decried as an addiction to quirk, annoyingly twee, an overly precious and obnoxious palette that values style over substance -- a critique that's decidedly more tired and lazy than anything Wes Anderson's ever done.

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In fact, nothing Wes Anderson creates is lazy. Even when you spy a kind of cinematic reference (I see it most in Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude -- particularly the "Trouble" sequence), there's always a twist. It takes an aggressive stylist, innovative soul and industrious spirit to create Margot Tenenbaum, raccoon eyeliner, mink coat, Izod dress, missing finger and all. She is singular Anderson (you actually forget Gwyneth Paltrow is playing her), not only for her personal style, but for her bittersweet beauty, her sad, fatherless childhood, her past triumphs, future failures and her deadpan demeanor, something that fills his frame so perfectly that she becomes overwhelmingly touching. I challenge anyone to get through Nico's haunting "These Days" without, at least once, thinking of Margot Tenenbaum stepping off the Green Line bus. It's Nico's curious mixture of deadpan and emotion, of course, and so perfectly merged with deadpan, emotional Margot. And yet, she's likable, intelligent and funny too. In short, she is style and substance. She's not merely a cardboard cut-out of quirk -- she's an interesting, mysterious woman, and nothing you've seen in any other film, and she's now so iconic that no other filmmaker could create her. She practically carries her own copyright. And yet, we recognize her, somewhere, in some kind of buried childhood memory.

Which leads me to one essential element of Wes Anderson: nostalgia. And not just nostalgia for nostalgia's sake, collecting memories like Star Wars action figures encased in original packaging, never to be played with. No, he's getting at something deeper and more melancholic: those feelings of childhood that are both beautiful and painful because we can only access them through memories, pictures, music and our father's clunky old dial phone (something you'll see in an Anderson movie, no matter what year it is).

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And that kind of obsolete technology (old television sets tied to radiators, VHS tapes, records) can fuse with our past movie watching experiences with a kind of phantom palpability. Recently I re-watched Midnight Cowboy, and became misty over, not just the tragic story and of course Harry Nilsson's beautiful "Everybody's Talkin,'" but that the picture brought me back to a childhood memory that was both in touch with and removed from reality. I had to question where that flood of memories was coming from: Watching the movie at home from school on TV? The idea of that kind of New York City -- the New York I never experienced because the movie was released before I was born -- but those who lived there certainly did experience? And harshly remember? And then, the gentle, nearly child-like love of these two men that I figured, even at my young age, was also sexual? As gritty as Midnight Cowboy is, it does have an innocence about it. And though it's far grimier than anything Wes Anderson has ever created, I thought of Anderson. Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo could fit into Anderson's universe, albeit with a different kind of ending. John Schlesinger's bus death is more grindingly, powerfully tragic than any of Anderson's mournful finales, but I can see Joe Buck getting on with with his life in an Anderson-like Florida too. The idea of Joe Buck attempting the kind of optimism and dreams many of Anderon's characters want to have (like Max Fischer), sans Ratso is heartbreaking in itself. And I love that that there was no direct homage (save for, maybe, Owen Wilson's cowboy-clad Eli Cash in The Royal Tenenbaums) that brought me to that thought. It was a swirling cinematic idea and repressed childhood memory, but pushed to the present by Anderson in cohoots with myself. It almost sounds insane. Ah, the magic of movies.

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It's not surprising that most of Anderson's adults act much like children -- or rather, act like what we, as children, might have imagined we'd be like as adults. We'd hail dented gypsy cabs in New York, travel on the Darjeeling Limited (for me and my love of train travel this was extra special) with our siblings or, as in The Life Aquatic, become Jacques Cousteau Zissou explorers, calling our competition "my nemesis." It's a lovely presage that the book Max Fischer checks out in Rushmore is "Diving for Sunken Treasure" by Jacques Cousteau.

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That's not to say Anderson's films are adolescent. There's too much adult reflection and seriousness within his meticulously art-directed frames. Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) may be a lovable, nattily dressed deadbeat dad, but he's also, eventually, a regretful man who truly loves his family. The shot of the one son who resents him most, the business-minded, now excessively safety-oriented Chaz (a red tracksuit-clad Ben Stiller), sitting teary-eyed with a vulnerable and dying Royal in the back of an ambulance hits the viewer with such a powerful punch that you are smacked into the reality of loss. It's so emotional that, for some of us, you can feel it in your stomach and without warning, you spontaneously sob. Your dad may have been horrible, but he's still your dad. That's not just style. And though it's universal, particularly among so many kids of divorce, it's not easy sentimentality either.

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But back to his style and signature. Anderson loves his slow-mo shots (and montages) set to music (and with great taste -- the Kinks, the Who, Brian Jones-era Rolling Stones, Love, David Bowie, David Bowie in Portuguese, Nico) to the point where it drives some viewers crazy. Or, in the case of an Indian boy's funeral in The Darjeeling Limited, offends them (I don't agree with that critique and find the slow-mo during that tragic moment powerful, allowing us to drink in all of what's happening -- for all of the characters). Anderson's slow-mo has become so recognizable that a savvy YouTuber created a video comprised of Wes Anderson slo-mo shots, all set to Ja Rule. I have no problem with Ja Rule, but it's not quite the same as Max Fischer emerging from an elevator to the Who's "A Quick One, While He's Away."

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And then there's the God's-eye view. Anderson adores that shot with an almost fervid fetishization tantamount to Hitchcock's love of blondes. Books, letters, laminated lists, even Richie Tenenbaum's bleeding, suicidal wrists are shot from above. For me, each method serves its purpose with potent panache. A slow-mo allows us to drink in the scene and even feel placed in the action. The omnispective POV has us floating above it, like a memory. Who stamps library books anymore? It's perfect to view this outdated act from above, like how we often dream -- out of body: something dislodged, both spatially and temporally, from the past.

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It's interesting, then, that Anderson's still startlingly wonderful debut feature, Bottle Rocket, finds his most compelling character planning for the future. Owen Wilson's Dignan has listed a detailed 50-year plan of goals for his small crew (namely his best friend Anthony, played by his brother Luke) that involves petty criminal shenanigans, like robbing a book store (with unfortunate small bags), family homes ("You took the earrings, Dignan? ") and a cold-storage facility, leading to Dignan's valiant efforts to save crew member Apple Jack, and to his swift arrest. Though Anderson would go further with set design and detail, Dignan is an Anderson (and Wilson) creation through and through -- his defining moment in which viewers were absolutely disarmed by a character and actor (Wilson brought a unique style and wit that has been part of Anderson's universe since). And further, in an era of Tarantino rip-offs (the 1990s), we were absolutely struck by the movie's inherent sweetness.

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Dignan, like Anderson, is thoroughly well-organized, micromanaging the kind of world he wants to live in, from his yellow jumpsuit (he's ordered a dozen of them) to the correct way Anthony should escape from a mental institution. And yet, in the real world, Dignan, like all of us, just can't achieve that kind of perfection, which by film's end is overwhelmingly poignant. The ever-enthusiastic Dignan (no matter what) jokes (perhaps half-jokes) from the prison yard something like an action movie shoot: "Here are just a few of the key ingredients: dynamite, pole vaulting, laughing gas, choppers -- can you see how incredible this is going to be? -- hang gliding, come on!" Is this Dignan? Or Wes Anderson? Pity Dignan couldn't have become a movie director. And, damn. Dignan's final bit of goofy bravery set to "2000 Man" -- it's so funny and beautiful and sad and perfect: "They'll never catch me... because I'm fucking innocent." 

So, back to Anderson's critics. When J.D. Salinger passed away, I wrote a piece for MSN and here about his influence on cinema (even as Salinger, save for one bad attempt, never wanted any movies made of his work). Wes Anderson was a major part of that piece, and I pointed out that critics of Salinger slapped Anderson with similar derision. Both have been called overly precious, overly privileged and overly adoring of characters living in a vacuum of nostalgia and sweetness, dislocated from reality. Well, what, exactly, is wrong with nostalgia and sweetness? Especially if it's crafted with genuine heart and individual éclat?

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And Anderson's distinct dislocation, inertia and wistfulness -- from the Tenenbaums to the Foxes -- is part of the point. When Anderson sets it beautifully, like when Margot and Richie Tenenbaum tearfully discuss his suicide attempt and profess their love for each other in their tent while listening to the Stones' "She Smiled Sweetly," Anderson allows the record to keep playing, and so when we hear, up next, "Ruby Tuesday," the entire moment is filled with such bittersweet beauty, that you can't help but be moved -- and not by a suicide necessarily -- more a memory of a perfect little moment.

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We do have those in life -- even when they're sad ones. As Henry Allen wrote in his remembrance of Salinger, "Hemingway was a writer who made unhappiness beautiful. Salinger took it a step further -- with the same uncanny ability to evoke the world his characters move through, he made it a virtue." The same could be said of Anderson. That, and as Dignan so poignantly stated, "I'm not always as confident as I look." None of us are.

Well, perhaps, even with all of his failings, excluding this man. 

Originally published and extended for my piece at MSN Movies

Read more Kim Morgan at her blog, Sunset Gun.