The Opposite of Naturalism Is Truth

How Wes Anderson Went from a Fuckin' Innocent to a Civilized Wild Animal

The Opposite of Naturalism Is Truth

BOTTLE ROCKET / FANTASTIC MR. FOX Wes Anderson at his earliest and best, respectively.

All right, so what's your complaint about Wes Anderson? Everybody's got one—he drives more people absolutely insane than any other living director. Are his films too similar for you? Are they too mannered? Too cutesy? Too aloof? Is his aesthetic too predictable? I call bullshit on all those complaints. What auteur doesn't pick at the same themes and ideas over and over again? A great director has one statement or question they spend their entire career communicating to us. What auteur doesn't demand total control over their films? It's literally the definition of auteur.

The aesthetic complaints against Anderson—that his movies are too darling, that they feel artificial, like closed systems—might as well be arguments against film itself. Every film is an artificial, closed system. Naturalism is the lie. By designing the aesthetic of his movies to resemble overambitious shoe-box dioramas at a student art show, Anderson is acknowledging the artificiality of the medium. He's not interested in what happens outside the rectangle of the screen because, as far as the movie is concerned, there is no outside the screen. Once you move beyond the perfect rectangle, nothing exists. Every movie is a solipsist.

As of last week, I've seen every Wes Anderson film, and I've enjoyed almost all of them. The Darjeeling Limited lost me with its dour literalness and meandering camera. I nearly walked out on it when it was released in the theater in 2007, and I haven't revisited it since. The film that I saved for last was Anderson's first: Bottle Rocket. My Anderson fandom started with Rushmore and continued onward. I didn't watch Bottle Rocket before because it was clearly the only film where Anderson is on training wheels—you can tell from the trailer that Anderson doesn't have total control, and the movie's premise felt too obviously post-Tarantino 1990s indie-film, with its diners and quirky morons committing crimes. I avoided it for so long, my avoidance coagulated into stubbornness.

All that stubbornness was for nothing. Bottle Rocket is charming exactly because it's a comic-book-style origin story for Wes Anderson. It begins as a typical 1990s crime movie, with Anthony Adams (Luke Wilson) pretending to break out of a mental hospital so he can indulge the fantasies of his overdramatic friend Dignan (Owen Wilson, who cowrote the film). It's packed with clever moments—I especially like Luke Wilson riffling through a copy of Job Opportunities in Government in the midst of a bookstore stickup (who the hell robs a bookstore looking for a big payout, anyway?)—but you can feel the movie losing interest in the premise as it goes on. Luke Wilson's character falls in love with a maid named Inez, and then Bottle Rocket goes nuts, with jumpsuits and mini-motorcycles, a man named Applejack, and James Caan wearing what appears to be a tiger-tooth necklace.

Bottle Rocket may have started as a generic crime comedy, but by the time Dignan drops his wonderful, meaningless catchphrase—"They'll never catch me, man, because I'm fuckin' innocent"—we're watching a Wes Anderson movie. And Anderson remained a fuckin' innocent, running wild and seemingly free of contemporary influences and criticism. The thing about innocence, though, is that you have to lose it to understand it. Anderson wishes innocence away and wills it back again in all his films. It's an artifice, but it's a good one.

To me, the greatest Wes Anderson film is Fantastic Mr. Fox—it's the one time Anderson exacted near-total control over that perfect rectangle. Aside from their voices, the actors do his bidding. Rumor has it, Anderson physically acted out scenes for his animators to emulate, the way Chaplin would go around his sets and demonstrate to each individual bit player exactly how they were to behave on-screen, so every character in a Chaplin film was Chaplin himself. These puppets look like foxes and badgers, but they're really all Anderson.

At first blush, Mr. Fox, voiced by George Clooney, seems to be the exact opposite of the wild (and somewhat dim) Dignan. He's austere, civilized. But you don't have to scratch too hard to find the pulsing red underneath: In between scolding his son for not being enough of an adult, Mr. Fox tears his food to pieces, growling and gulping like the beast he is. Soon enough, Mr. Fox embarks on a series of heists that are only slightly better planned than Dignan's.

Mr. Fox himself argues the clearest examination of Anderson's themes of innocent hope and brutal reality. One minute, he's despairing in the tininess of life. The next, he's coaxing his animal friends into fighting the evil forces threatening their neighborhood by telling them they are "wild animals with pure talents." In the end, he eulogizes the loss of their home: "They say our tree may never grow back, but one day something will," and it's the kind of hopeful statement that Anderson reserves for only the most divine moments in his movies, when all the artificiality and control builds to a moment of pure honesty and love, captured in a single perfect rectangle. recommended


Comments (20) RSS

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There are many excellent articles about the work of WES ANDERSON in Slate magazine.
Posted by orange cat on May 14, 2014 at 10:34 PM · Report this
Bottle Rocket was my first Wes Anderson film and still my favorite. In fact, if I rank them, they almost go in the order they were made. I think Rushmore was the best presentation of his aesthetic, i always called it "high school play production on the big screen", and i feel like the rest of his films never quite captured it as perfectly again. I also think Bottle Rocket and Rushmore had real heart, something his later films lacked as he poured on the twee and quirk and drowned any real emotions out of his stories. I really felt for Dignan. I really felt for Max (and REALLY felt for his dad), but the last character I had a real emotional connection to was probably Ben Stiller's paranoid widower in Tennenbaums. I don't count myself as a hater, and I still watch all his films, but mostly I find them just nice to look at.
Posted by longball on May 15, 2014 at 9:32 AM · Report this
I read the other day that he's like the great-great-grandson (or something) of the guy who wrote the Tarzan books. I thought that was funny.
Posted by Linus999 on May 15, 2014 at 3:43 PM · Report this
TheMisanthrope 4
A great director has one statement or question they spend their entire career communicating to us. What a stupid statement.
Posted by TheMisanthrope on May 17, 2014 at 1:58 PM · Report this
Supreme Ruler Of The Universe 5

Wes Anderson is irrepressible.

So how can one repress him?

Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe on May 17, 2014 at 3:47 PM · Report this
The lack of interesting, dynamic female characters. That's the only beef I have. And I need to put it aside when I watch his movies, because I truly enjoy them. But you either have the stoic, beautiful, pained treasure-woman, or you have the wonderful old mother-crone. Or that slightly-shrewish Mrs. Fox. There are no female characters who are loveable fuckups like the characters that Jason Schwartzman or the Wilsons play. Some argue that Paltrow's character in Tennenbaums is a fuckup, but she's too gorgeous and quiet for that to have any real resonance. This omission of real, relatable females is somehow more difficult to see in his films than in the films of other directors. I think it's because the aesthetics somehow veil it, or distract the viewer from it.
Posted by The Cap'n on May 17, 2014 at 4:05 PM · Report this
Addendum and disclaimer: I haven't seen "moonrise kingdom." I've heard that one breaks the mold, which is cool.
Posted by The Cap'n on May 17, 2014 at 4:05 PM · Report this
raku 8
Only two of his movies (Tenenbaums & Moonrise Kingdom) pass the Bechdel test, and only just barely. Absolutely pathetic. No more attention to these types of movies and directors, they're white male supremacy in film form.
Posted by raku on May 17, 2014 at 4:45 PM · Report this
Supreme Ruler Of The Universe 9
I'd like to see a Wes Anderson-Johnny Depp collaboration. The super cloying and whimsical nature of it would make eyeballs explode in the theaters.

As Johnny studies up whatever ethnography he intends to plunder, Wes will be designing cutsy cutout sets that blend the design notions of IKEA with some nostalgic Euro-centrism.

After it's all been done, the Coen Brothers can edit in a single 15 minute landscap-y location shot. Something with a jeep or VW microbus moving turtle-like over the Southwest and which references Charley Varrick.
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe on May 17, 2014 at 5:04 PM · Report this
Josh Bis 10
My only complaint is that he can't make a movie every year. I really love all of Wes Anderson's movie in varying degrees -- even Darjeeling isn't as disappointing as I remembered -- but agree with you about the pure perfection of Fantastic Mr. Fox. I know that a lot of people have a soft spot for Up, but it murders me to know that it took the Academy Award right out of Mr. Fox's paws.

Posted by Josh Bis on May 17, 2014 at 5:06 PM · Report this
We think raku is full o'shite.
Posted by Thom and Bri Bri on May 17, 2014 at 6:17 PM · Report this
great read.

i enjoyed darjeeling limited, and agree mr fox is his best work. haven't seen the hotel yet.
Posted by Swearengen on May 17, 2014 at 6:30 PM · Report this
"Some argue that Paltrow's character in Tennenbaums is a fuckup, but she's too gorgeous and quiet for that to have any real resonance."

Yikes, really? The perceived beauty of the actor playing the role doesn't negate the complexity of the character. I wouldn't dismiss the importance of Richie -- another quiet character -- because I find Luke Wilson attractive (with the beard).

And how does Etheline's being a mother detract from her complexity as a character? She's definitely a better parent than Royal, but she's not defined by motherhood.
Posted by Amanda on May 17, 2014 at 8:04 PM · Report this
John Scott Tynes 14
"Naturalism is the lie." Paul, I wonder if you're conflating naturalism with realism. They're quite different. Film noir is naturalist; cinema verite is realist.…

Bottle Rocket is amazing and I love it deeply. I saw it in the theater and it blew me away. What both it and Mr. Fox have in common is that they are both caper movies. Capers in film are escapist fantasies that have a lot in common with filmmaking itself: you assemble a crew of diverse talents, you make a meticulous plan, everything goes wrong, and through your wits and courage you pull it out of the fire.
Posted by John Scott Tynes on May 17, 2014 at 10:20 PM · Report this
Thank you! I love his films. I don't understand the people who think his films are precious or mannered. They break my heart every time.
Posted by pinkbunny on May 17, 2014 at 10:54 PM · Report this
The Establishment 16
I say The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is the best film that Wes Anderson has made.

Come at me.
Posted by The Establishment on May 18, 2014 at 5:57 PM · Report this
npage148 17
#16, don't worry, I got your back. We'll take them on together. I adore Life Aquatic. All of it
Posted by npage148 on May 19, 2014 at 8:09 AM · Report this
Per Bernstein 18
I always thought the opening of American Beauty and the idea of "beautiful garbage" (the dancing plastic bag) was ripped off from the scene in Bottle Rocket where Inez and Anthony were talking about their feelings for one another through a translator:

Rocky: [translating for Inez] You're like paper. You know, you're trash.

Anthony: Like trash?

Rocky: You know, you're like paper falling by, you know... It doesn't sound that bad in Spanish...
Posted by Per Bernstein on May 19, 2014 at 8:24 AM · Report this
T 19
I've never cared for Bottle Rocket, every time I've watched it I've struggled to get through it and by the end I'm left wanting to watch literally any of his other movies. Even The Darjeeling Limited. It's not something I've ever been able to put my finger on, as I love just about everything else he's done.

@16/17 The Life Aquatic is I think Anderson's most under-appreciated film. I'd rank it his second best after The Royal Tenenbaums.

@8 Transformers passes the Bechdel Test. Michael Bay must be your favorite director, what with him being such a staunch feminist ally with a deep respect for women.
Posted by T on May 19, 2014 at 10:52 AM · Report this
Dirtclustit 20
I liked it better, Paul, in your rough draft, where it ended with

"... and it's the kind of hopeful statement that Anderson reserves for only the most divine moments in his movies, when all the artificiality and control builds to a moment of pure honesty and love, captured in a single perfect wrect angel."
Posted by Dirtclustit on May 19, 2014 at 11:49 PM · Report this

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