Why Do Wes Anderson Movies Look Like That?

The dom­i­nant form of Hol­ly­wood and/or main­stream film­mak­ing has been real­ism, the sense that even in our wildest fan­ta­sy, sci-fi, and super­hero films there’s still an attempt to hide the cam­era, the crew, and the light­ing, and that what we’re see­ing just *is*, that noth­ing has been con­struct­ed for us. Despite the tricks that edit­ing and non-diegetic sound (music, etc.) play on us, we are still will­ing to believe that we are see­ing a thing that hap­pened.

There’s very few film­mak­ers that explic­it­ly resist this and still make pop­u­lar and suc­cess­ful Hol­ly­wood films, and Wes Ander­son is one of them. Hence the above video essay from Thomas Flight, who recent­ly vis­it­ed Anderson’s films to pull out the more eso­teric of his ref­er­ences.

Flight’s the­sis runs thus­ly. Ander­son chose to use real fur on the stop-motion pup­pets in the Fan­tas­tic Mr. Fox not despite the hair mov­ing from the ani­ma­tors’ hands’ manip­u­la­tion, but *because* of it. Show­ing the fin­ger­prints as it were of the cre­ators with­in the film itself is a con­stant styl­is­tic choice in his cin­e­ma, and one that is also reflect­ed in his use of flat, dio­ra­ma-like frames. This is what crit­ic Matt Zoller Seitz, who has writ­ten sev­er­al beau­ti­ful cof­fee table books on Wes Ander­son, calls Plani­met­ric Com­po­si­tion. But it’s also there in the titles, use of the­ater cur­tains, of the numer­ous sto­ry­book and com­ic book ref­er­ences that shape Anderson’s work.

This is not new of course, if you fol­low any writ­ing on Ander­son. It’s a key to under­stand­ing his aes­thet­ic. But Flight goes fur­ther to ask why. Why con­struct some­thing so arti­fi­cial and risk alien­at­ing audi­ences?

Flight comes to the point: it’s a risk worth tak­ing. It’s a moment in childhood—he com­pares it to a par­ent read­ing a bed­time sto­ry. A par­ent is present, often the focus of the child’s atten­tion (there might not even be a book) but at the same time so is the sto­ry. Words unfold in speech and also unfold in a child’s mind. Both exist in the same space, the arti­fi­cial and the real.

So many Ander­son films unfold like storybooks—we often see a hard­back book with the same title in the film itself, or in the case of The Grand Budapest Hotel, a series of sto­ries and books, all nes­tled inside each oth­er. Flight doesn’t make the com­par­i­son, but it is worth doing so: Anderson’s films are like epis­to­lary nov­els of the 19th cen­tu­ry, such as Franken­stein or Wuther­ing Heights, sto­ries with­in let­ters with­in sto­ries.

But here’s the inter­est­ing part: when Ander­son has a moment of height­ened emo­tion in his films, where char­ac­ters let down their guard and speak from the heart, the direc­tor will give us the clas­sic real­ist shot/reverse shot. It’s fleet­ing but it’s there.

And that works exact­ly because Ander­son holds off on reveal­ing it to us until that one moment. The sto­ry­teller knows it’s spe­cial and knows we’re going to find it spe­cial. At a time when the auteur the­o­ry is under attack from crit­ics on one side and the cap­i­tal­ist machine, it’s good to know there’s a direc­tor like Ander­son who doesn’t give us what we want, but gives us what we so sore­ly need.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Wes Anderson’s Shorts Films & Com­mer­cials: A Playlist of 8 Short Ander­son­ian Works

A Com­plete Col­lec­tion of Wes Ander­son Video Essays

Wes Ander­son Releas­es the Offi­cial Trail­er for His New Film, The French Dis­patch: Watch It Online

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.