Wes Anderson: Whimsical Like a Fox

The new Wes Anderson film arrived on the scene last month, and with it, certain comforting inevitabilities. I don’t mean the Bill Murray role or the nostalgia-laden soundtrack. I mean the raftload of clichés in the reviews—even the positive ones. Anderson has been called “twee,” a word more smug than anything it could possibly describe. His films have been labeled “dollhouses,” something we should all disapprove of because they’re for girls, and “Cornell boxes,” a damning comparison if ever there was one.

And of course, he’s been accused of “arrested development,” both in his style as a filmmaker and his worldview as an artist. About the second charge more later, but the first can be put to rest immediately. A onetime critical darling, Anderson began to suffer a backlash after The Royal Tenenbaums, when it became clear that he intended to hone his aesthetic rather than abandoning it for novelty’s sake. Yet nobody faults Hitchcock for having made thrillers over and over, or for reusing signature camera techniques. Within Anderson’s circumscribed domain—which he has slowly expanded, as in the animated Fantastic Mr. Fox—he has been tirelessly inventive and meticulous in his craft. He has remained, too, the most literate screenwriter and director of his generation. The backlash demands a backlash. It’s time for Wes Anderson criticism to grow up.

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One way to gauge Anderson’s achievement is to set him beside another celebrated auteur with the same initials. Critics who find Anderson’s work immature and Woody Allen’s sophisticated have things backward. (There are exceptions to this rule, but not many.) Anderson’s films are outwardly childlike but conceal mature emotional insight. Allen’s films play at urbane adulthood but are at heart sophomoric.

What has earned Allen his reputation as a sophisticate? Mainly scenes like the one in Manhattan in which he dictates, into a tape recorder, his list of things that make life “worth living”: Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, Mozart’s Jupiter symphony, Cézanne’s still lifes, and so on. This is allusion as name-checking, and falls terribly flat. Joan Didion mocked it as “the ultimate consumer report”; it strikes me more as an earnest undergraduate essay. I haven’t seen Allen’s latest, Midnight in Paris, but the conceit strikes me as equally literal-minded: a screenwriter is transported back in time to meet his literary heroes, whose pantheon he aspires to join. You see? It’s a literate film.

Anderson also harbors high-art ambitions, but mingles far more naturally with his influences. Allusion in his films is a background effect, assimilated in sly, organic fashion. It’s not necessary for him to tell us that J. D. Salinger’s spirit hovers over Rushmore or that The Life Aquatic is a screwball Moby-Dick, because he simply uses these materials and trusts his audience to understand. The Royal Tenenbaums happens to contain the best parody of Cormac McCarthy ever written:

ELI CASH [reading from his new novel at a press conference]: The crickets and the rust-beetles scuttled among the nettles of the sage thicket. "Vámonos, amigos," he whispered, and threw the busted leather flintcraw over the loose weave of the saddlecock. And they rode on in the friscalating dusklight.

But the object of the parody is never identified, and these lines do more than show off the screenwriter's literary aptitude. They skewer Eli’s pretensions while capturing the poignance of his thirst for fame (how desperate does a native Manhattanite have to be to write such florid Western stuff?). They’re also just plain funny. If Allen wrote a similar parody, he would step on it by having Woody Allen tell the camera how bad it is. 

Anderson has outdone Allen even on Allen’s own turf; in Tenenbaums he has made the best New York City film since Taxi Driver. Woody’s films give us the native’s New York: the trendy hole-in-the-wall restaurants, the beautiful buildings tourists never notice. For all their anxiety, they are proud advertisements of insiderdom—recall that the director of Manhattan grew up in Brooklyn. But Anderson, a Texas kid, does Allen one better by giving us a lived-in version of what outsiders imagine the city to be like. His New York is confected out of Salinger and old movies, outfitted with a geography of plausibly insider-ish yet wholly made-up place names: “Little Tokyo,” “the 375th Street Y.” His characters are natives of the Manhattan dream, but the dream retains its power to exclude and expel. (“I always wanted to be a Tenenbaum,” says Eli, who used to stare into the family’s windows from across the street. “Me too,” says Royal, the family patriarch.) Anderson is said to have exasperated Gene Hackman by shooting a scene in Battery Park, only to ruin the view of Lady Liberty by positioning Hackman’s scene partner in front of it. This is perverse enough, but fitting: behind every character in the film stands a hidden fantasy of freedom and arrival. 

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Anderson has made a wise choice of literary influences in J. D. Salinger, who is both eminent and popular but not beyond his range. (Try saying the same of Woody and Flaubert.) In fact Anderson may be Salinger’s most successful inheritor to date, even if his medium is the screen and not the page.

Holden Caulfield, the rebel who spawned a million copycats, has one of his worthiest descendants in the hero of Rushmore. With Max Fischer, Anderson cleverly departs from the Catcher prototype by giving us a troubled young man who actually loves his prep school. But the departure doubles back on itself: Max, too, is flunking. He pours all his energy into self-invented extracurricular activities (shades of Finny in that other prep-school classic, A Separate Peace). Like Holden, he is much too busy learning to be bothered with education. Unlike Holden, he is a middle-class kid surrounded by rich kids, and Anderson captures his dignified affectations with wicked accuracy. Informed that he's been put on academic probation, Max knits his fingers: "And what does that entail?"

Likewise, Anderson’s Tenenbaums are extensions of—if not improvements on—the Glass family, a brood of prodigies so saintly that John Updike wrote: “Salinger loves [them] more than God loves them.” None of the Tenenbaums is a saint, and even the supposed genius of the children is thrown constantly into doubt; we never have to take it on faith, as we do with Seymour Glass.

On the other hand, some critics have felt that the Seymour of Tenenbaums is Anderson himself, beating us to death with his own precocious genius. The most stinging review of an Anderson film remains A. O. Scott’s 2001 takedown in The New York Times, which concludes:

Mr. Anderson has talents that don't entirely serve his ambitions, and “The Royal Tenenbaums“ finally elicits an exasperated admiration. Yes, yes, you're charming, you're brilliant. Now say good night and go to bed.

It's a great barb, but it goes only so deep. Scott blurs for comic effect what other Anderson critics have simply overlooked: the distinction between an artist's character and the content of his art. Hitchcock’s films are strewn with dead bodies, but as far as I know he never killed anyone. Likewise, Anderson employs precocity and arrested development as recurring themes, and childlike whimsy as a surface effect, but it doesn’t follow that he himself is a man-child tossing off frivolous entertainments. Actually everything about him suggests a shrewd, ambitious, self-aware artist. In interviews he appears well-schooled in both literary and cinematic history, and speaks thoughtfully about his inspirations and intentions. His slight boyish shyness looks, in another light, like canny reticence.

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The charge Anderson can never seem to duck was phrased most memorably by Roger Ebert: “terminal whimsy.” Ebert had the good sense to qualify this: “Isn’t that better than half-hearted whimsy, or no whimsy at all?” But the Scott review, which has become the template for so many others, makes the case more sternly:

But whimsy—and Mr. Anderson's inability to refrain from admiring his own handiwork—triumphs in the end. For every moment that hits a delicate note of pathos and surprise—as when Royal tries to win over Margot with ice cream, or when he confronts his rival, Mr. Sherman, in Etheline's kitchen—there is another that suffocates in cuteness.

One of the pleasures of ''Rushmore'' was its deft, relentless use of pop music. Here, the tracks by Nico, the Rolling Stones and other artists old and new place quotation marks around emotions rather than underlining them. Like the songs and the reiterated portrait-style shots, the witty costumes and gorgeous interiors become suffocating, and the whole enterprise begins to feel more arch than artful, a gilded lily that spoils its perfection by insisting on it.

Again an Anderson fan has to concede the partial truth of this. I’ll admit that the romance between Richie and Margot Tenenbaum has always struck me as more art-directed than heartfelt (not so the fraught relationship between Royal and Etheline). And the problem has deepened in subsequent movies: the culminating scene of The Life Aquatic, in which Captain Zissou’s crew observes a mythical shark from a bathysphere, has about as much emotional resonance as you’d expect from an encounter between a mythical shark and a bathysphere. Music swells, a tear forms in Bill Murray’s eye, but the effect verges on, well, bathos.

And yet the wholesale dismissal of Andersonian whimsy seems too easy. It makes me want to stand up not only for Anderson but for whimsy, as a legitimate tool of serious artists.

Whimsy, with its inevitable adjective “childlike,” has a rich artistic history. I’m thinking not just of Joseph Cornell’s boxes or Salinger’s comic flights but of all the great children’s book authors, from Maurice Sendak and Roald Dahl (whose Fantastic Mr. Fox Anderson adapted) to J. M. Barrie and the greatest of them all, Lewis Carroll. In a recent pseudo-analysis of Wes Anderson’s “stunted adulthood,” David Thomson wrote:

The sensibility of [Moonrise Kingdom] is of an adult alarmed by anything like maturity (so let’s refer to it as “maturity”) and nostalgic for the purity of childhood about to be warped. What it is is J.M. Barrie, and the Peter Pan whimsy could give you the creeps.

If J. M. Barrie is a little creepy, surely Carroll, the photographer of child nudes, is even creepier. Yet no critic these days doubts his artistic genius, his ability to conjure beauty and injustice and menace within a relentlessly silly fictional universe.

Anderson’s whimsy, like Carroll’s, smiles with a set of sharp teeth. His films are playful, but they don't confine themselves to play. They depict mature adult relationships (Royal and Etheline, Etheline and Mr. Sherman) as effectively as any films in recent cinema. They also stage clashes between the genuinely and the spuriously mature (Miss Cross and Max Fischer), while delicately suggesting that each side can partake of the qualities of the other.

Again I can’t resist a comparison to Woody Allen. There is something aesthetically unsettling about the relationship between Isaac and Tracy in Manhattan, not because of the age difference per se or the accusations surrounding Allen’s personal life (though these don't help), but because Isaac gets all the good lines. She is not only seventeen to his forty-two, she is an underdeveloped character—more idol than human. Contrast this with the inverted scenario in Rushmore, in which the fifteen-year old Max falls for a schoolteacher in her thirties. Their dialogue is not a comedian-and-straight-woman’s schtick but a byplay between fully realized, flawed characters. Any critic who considers Anderson’s world a dollhouse should revisit the scene in which Miss Cross rejects Max's grabby advances:

Miss Cross: What do you really think is going to happen between us? Do you think we're going to have sex?

Max: That's a kinda cheap way to put it.

Miss Cross: Not if you've ever fucked before, it isn’t.

Max’s humiliation, as he reels backward in her first-grade classroom, is terrible to watch.

What Anderson understands, as most of his critics don’t, is that whimsy can be the ideal backdrop for serious business. It can be the misdirection, or indirection, that allows an artist to produce real emotion as if by magic. All the best moments in Anderson’s films are those in which adult reality snaps us out of childlike fantasy. The nudity in The Royal Tenenbaums (during the flashback to Margot’s colorful past), the blood in The Life Aquatic (during Ned’s ill-fated helicopter flight), carry genuine shock value because they seem like intrusions from another world. Dignan’s arrest at the end of Bottle Rocket clamps real handcuffs on what had been a whimsical caper. “They’ll never catch me, man,” he boasts, “‘cause I’m fuckin’ innocent”—but soon enough they do, and soon enough he isn’t.

It’s one thing to accuse Anderson of repeating these effects; it’s another to ignore them—to treat him as though, like the child with the dollhouse, he doesn’t really understand what Mommy and Daddy are arguing about. If anything, he draws outsized attention to the frailty of his sheltered worlds (think of Richie Tenenbaum’s bedroom tent) and to the harshness of the universe around them. His tidy, obsessively detailed style implies almost too much emotion underneath the surface—a chaotic reality that he, like his characters, must try to set in order.

Good critics have long sensed this, and there are signs that critics in general are warming to him again. Cliché-ridden as they are, reviews of Moonrise Kingdom have generally been favorable, with a few even suggesting that there’s more to Anderson’s style than meets the eye. There is, even if you dislike that style; even if you'll always find it hopelessly artificial, it deserves better than your condescension. Yes, Anderson is twee. Yes, the hipsters love him. Yes, yes, you're devastating, you're brilliant. Now say good night and go to bed.


[Royal Tenenbaums screenshot courtesy Consistent Inspiration.]

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