Books

Masters of the Universe: On Matt Zoller Seitz’s The Wes Anderson Collection

The Wes Anderson Collection. It’s the book you didn’t even know you were waiting for. Yet, when it arrives on your doorstep, it still holds the power to change a blasé day into something just short of magical. Take it from me. When I got my copy, on a humid Tuesday in November, I felt at once overwhelmed by excitement and nostalgia. As I stared into the book’s cover—an Andersonian cutaway of an illustrated cityscape, populated by a mash-up of the filmmaker’s most memorable characters and settings—I became awash in a sense of nervous expectation. It’s the way a kid feels on Christmas morning. The way I myself felt when, as a high school sophomore, I sat in a darkening theatre and my heartbeat quickened and then began to race as the pinprick notes of Maurice Ravel’s “String Quartet in F” filled my ears and The Royal Tenenbaums began. This is important, I remember thinking. This is a movie that matters. And here’s Royal now, I thought, staring closer into the book cover. He’s taking a stroll past Rushmore Academy with Ari and Uzi and their little beagle. And what’s that beagle’s name again? Oh yeah: Buckley! And, hey, there’s Max Fischer in his red beret. And Mr. Fox and Mordecai. And Bob Mapplethorpe. And here, flying a kite, is Margaret Yang. And the Whitman brothers. And Richie and Margot and Eli Cash. And then, way out there, off in the distant waters, past the house on Archer Avenue and the Hinckley Cold Storage Building and the Darjeeling Limited, afloat beneath a rather precarious-looking yellow whirlybird, is the Belafonte in all her broke down splendor. Here it is, I thought, all of it, right here, in this big book—and that’s when I knew I was in trouble. Because that’s when I knew I wouldn’t be able to put it down.

Clocking in at just under 330 pages, at a weight of nearly four-and-a-half pounds, critic Matt Zoller Seitz’s “book-length conversation interspersed with critical essays, photos, and artwork,” with a foreword by Michael Chabon, is, like the seven films it dissects, at once serious and enchanting, outwardly quirky and cartoonish but inwardly heart-rending and complex. It’s a big, colorful book that draws attention to itself, and in so doing, draws attention to the fact that lots of American moviegoers feel very strongly about Anderson’s films. No matter where I took this book, people were quick to take notice and make comments.

A colleague hung around my office and flipped through its pages. He reminisced wistfully about Ned Plimpton’s death in The Life Aquatic and then asked if he could borrow the book when I was finished. Fellow patrons at my neighborhood coffee shop, despite sad attempts at discretion, stole so many glances at my copy that I more than once stopped my own reading to indulge them in friendly conversations about Anderson. People were more than happy to talk—and often at some length—about the director’s impact on their lives. They spoke mostly about The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom, and they rolled their eyes at me when I insisted Rushmore was Anderson’s best. But, no matter what we talked about, one thing was clear: Wes Anderson really mattered to these people. That, and they really, really wanted to take a look at my book.

Seitz calls The Wes Anderson Collection “a long talk between a filmmaker and a journalist who know each other pretty well.” The two men’s familiarity (they’re longtime acquaintances but not close friends) is clear, but whether or not it ends up working out to Seitz’s advantage is less well defined. Organized by film, the book is comprised of Seitz’s short critical essays and lengthy interviews with Anderson. Not surprisingly, Seitz, the TV critic for New York magazine and Editor-in-Chief of RogerEbert.com, is at his best when penning the essays. Comically titled by their precise word count (“The 1,322-Word Essay”; “The 1,113-Word Essay”), each piece illustrates his deep familiarity with Anderson’s work. His analysis throughout is consistently tight and, at times, remarkable. Anyone who doesn’t take Anderson seriously, or who finds his movies overly quirky or precious, owes it to themselves to read Seitz’s brilliant pieces on The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited, both of which gave me the shivers.

But the beauty of Seitz’s essays goes beyond graceful prose and solid examination. They’re great because he’s a great critic, but they’re special because Seitz, like any other person who’d ever drop fifty bucks on this book, is a true fan of Anderson. In essay after essay, nothing is clearer than Seitz’s love for each film. It’s not the sort of love that’s gushy or overblown: Seitz doesn’t spend a single second kissing Anderson’s ass. It is instead the deep reverence that comes from spending serious time with each movie. Seitz has studied each of these films so closely, has spent so much time reflecting on their characters and messages, that his writing will illuminate new ideas for even the most devoted of Anderson’s fans.

Whether it’s Bottle Rocket (“audacious yet gentle,” a movie that’s “cool and warm at the same time”), or The Royal Tenenbaums (“a mosaic built of tiles that are themselves mosaics”), or Fantastic Mr. Fox (“a fable about the tension between responsibility and freedom”), every chapter is replete with thoughtful and eye-opening interpretations. Seitz makes it look easy, and his skillful analysis is humbling. His essays are like a master class on Anderson, and they’re reason enough to buy this book.

Seitz’s interviews with Anderson, however, are something of a letdown. Whereas the author’s writing is controlled and engaging, his interviews, recorded in three sessions over as many years, go on too long with too little payoff. Throughout their talks, Anderson seems less than 100% on board. (This is especially true in the earlier sections, where he so often responds monosyllabically with “yep” and “hmm,” I wanted to tear my hair out.) As time goes on, Anderson appears kind of over the whole project. In the interview for Moonrise Kingdom, for instance, Seitz delivers a theory on Anderson’s decision to break down the wall between the film’s comic and dramatic elements. He then asks the filmmaker if his description seems fair. Anderson responds,

Everything is a fair description, because that’s how you felt it, it’s how you saw it. In terms of what I had in mind, it’s hard for me to even know exactly… It all kind of gets churned through such a whole routine by the time it’s up on the screen; I’ve had twelve different ideas about what it’s all about… It’s not a given that this all works. And it’s certainly not a given that’s it’s all going to work for one viewer or another.

Here Anderson, the Artist with a capital A, seems exasperated by Seitz, the critic with the capital C. (I admit that I’m inferring Anderson’s tone of exasperation; despite his opus of vibrant films, Anderson is a rather flat interviewee, and his lack of intonation makes his moods hard to read—but that’s another issue.) The two men, never mind their obvious individual intellects and mutual regard for one another, simply occupy different worlds. This sort of not-quite-conflict conflict, this sense that Anderson is politely making himself available (albeit detachedly so) for Seitz’s project sort of haunts the book. You know Seitz is a fan of Anderson, and you know Anderson respects Seitz, but you can’t help but feel that Seitz has poured his heart into a lot of these questions only for Anderson to respond with the verbal equivalent of a shoulder shrug.

Let the record show that I don’t mean to cast Seitz as a bad interviewer. Not by a long shot. His questions are pointed and serious; they just don’t always yield the answers you’d hope for or expect. I do, however, question his editorial approach. From what I can surmise, the interviews are merely transcribed and printed—even if that’s not the case, that’s certainly how it feels. And, yes, of course, there’s plenty of wheat among this chaff—more of the former than the latter, to be sure. And, yes, the interviews get better in the book’s second half. But still, they could’ve been stronger throughout. All conversations, no matter the participants, suffer from lag time, and Seitz is too strong a writer not to know the importance (painful though it may be) of editing and condensing. In fairness, he does offer a warning of this in his preface: “When [Anderson and I] talk,” he writes, “we talk about movies, art, the relationship between creativity and criticism… Every now and then I’ll try out one of my pet theories on his work to see what he says… The conversation went where it went…” Unfortunately, it didn’t always go someplace interesting. In the end, the interviews certainly aren’t bad; they’re just not as insightful as I’d hoped.

But let’s face it: Unless you’ve got the ten or so hours it’d take to read this thing cover to cover, The Wes Anderson Collection is more realistically a coffee table book—albeit one of the coolest coffee table books ever. As such, for all the page-flippers out there, the book’s most enjoyable element is without question the pictures—of which there are literally hundreds. Whether it’s old photos of Anderson and Owen Wilson looking like unaccompanied minors at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival, or early sketches of Ethylene Tenenbaum or Team Zissou by Anderson’s brother Chris, or an inset depicting the evolution of the wolf from Fantastic Mr. Fox, you can’t help but marvel at the endless hours of sifting and thoughtful design that went into this book’s construction. Flip to any page, and you’ll find not just one but a series of interesting images. Here, in black and white on page 143, Angelica Huston sits playfully on Anderson’s lap. Here on 206, a stubbly Bill Murray in a baseball cap stands flanked by dozens of Indian woman in colorful dresses. On 310, a soaking wet Ed Norton stands beneath a rain machine, awaiting direction from an umbrella-obscured Anderson. And on and on and on. The pictures, like the wonderful illustrations by Matt Dalton, are an endless delight, a visual feast readers can enjoy and re-enjoy every time they pick up the book.

The Wes Anderson Collection is also filled with little tidbits of insider information, henceforth referred to as Fun Facts. Fun Fact #1: Did you know that Wes Anderson and the Wilson brothers first met Kumar Pallana (Mr. Littlejeans, Pagoda) at a Dallas coffee shop called Cosmic Cup? (Okay, yeah, I think I’d heard that before too.) But, Fun Fact #2: Did you know that the owner of Cosmic Cup was Kumar’s son, Dipak, and that Dipak, too, has made bit appearances (the teacher at the start of Rushmore, the bookstore employee in Bottle Rocket) in several of Anderson’s films? (Me neither!) Other fun facts: Bill Murray did Rushmore for “something like $9,000”; the train in The Darjeeling Limited is a real train—just as the hilariously tall tree house in Moonrise Kingdom is an actual, bona fide tree house. Or had you heard that Bottle Rocket, never mind a backing from James L. Brooks, was rejected from all the major film festivals? Of course, these little details, at least on the surface, are simply trivial and fun. But when you dig deeper and consider the big picture of Anderson’s evolution and success, when you consider the chanciness of it all and the unique charm of his style, you can’t help but feel that his life has been somehow blessed, like he was destined from birth to be a filmmaker of note.

The Wes Anderson Collection will satisfy all fans of Anderson, from the novice who’s just seen The Royal Tenenbaums for the first time, to the diehard expert who’s got the punctuality award tattooed on her bicep. But as I worked my way to its end, I found myself wondering as to its point—its reason for being. Did Seitz spend years of writing and interviewing simply to create a giant Anderson retrospective? Maybe. If he did, his book is a complete success. Any fan of Anderson—or, really, any fan of contemporary cinema—will appreciate the book’s design, its satisfying discussions on impetus, influence and technique. Seitz himself calls the book “a tour through an artist’s mind, with the artist as guide and amiable companion.” I think that’s fair. But I also think it’s fair to say that Seitz made this book for a bigger reason. The Wes Anderson Collection seems to me an argument to hold Anderson among the most important filmmakers of his generation—to put him in the conversation with David O. Russell and Alexander Payne and Jonathan Demme—and even Quentin Tarantino and Gus Van Sant. Seitz’s book does not exist solely to offer Anderson’s fans further opportunity to delight in his universe of idiosyncrasy. It’s a book that challenges the haters to take Anderson seriously—to look past the quirks of his style, the deliberate artifice that too many critics are too quick to discount—and see him for what he is: a serious artist of exceptional talent.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Seitz’s book is the grand irony it illuminates. One of Anderson’s most common themes is that an obsession with control hinders growth. In film after film, his principal characters, often in the aftermath of a tragedy, are always clinging to something. In Rushmore, Max plays God over the worlds of his plays rather than dealing with the one in which he’s lost his mom and exists as a social outcast. Chaz Tenenbaum wakes his kids up in the middle of the night for emergency evacuation drills so that he won’t ever lose them the way he lost his wife. Steve Zissou fixates on making a documentary about vengeance so that he doesn’t have to fixate on the death of his mentor and his own march toward obscurity. It’s only after these characters accept their lack of control that they begin to move forward and get on with their lives. (Max dedicates his final play to Herman Blume and Edward Albee, Rosemary’s deceased husband; Steve and Chaz realize they’re surrounded by loved ones and finally start the process of mourning.) And yet Anderson’s films themselves are super controlled—they’re too tight, critics say, so controlled they’re artificial. Michael Chabon, however, in his truly lovely introduction, refutes this reaction. He argues that Anderson’s embrace of artifice—the costumes, the sets, the caricatures—creates for his audience a “scale-model” of the universe that “[intensifies] our experience of brokenness and loss by compressing them… Grief, at full scale,” he continues, “is too big for us to take in; it literally cannot be comprehended. Anderson… understands that distance can increase our understanding of grief, allowing us to see it whole.”

This is precisely why Anderson is great—why his movies, despite their zaniness, are so moving. Every time he makes a new film, he creates for it a new world and becomes master of its tiny little universe. He exercises complete control over every detail, every shot, every nuance, and it allows his message to shine through on overdrive and strike you dead-on in the heart. That’s why you choke up when Steve Zissou asks if the shark that killed Esteban still remembers him, never mind that he’s in an overcrowded submarine full of people in polyester jumpsuits, never mind that the shark’s a cartoon. It’s why you feel a sense of almost cosmic restoration when Chaz and Royal stand before the house on Archer Avenue and son tells father, “It’s been a hard year,” never mind that the camera’s just done a pan of a fire engine, a priest with a broken ankle, and a drugged-out Eli Cash in war paint. And it’s why, at the end of Max Fischer’s play in Rushmore—a violent Vietnam saga, complete with dynamite, that he somehow managed to get produced at a public high school—I quite literally clapped my hands and whispered to my friends, “This is the best movie I’ve ever seen.” I was in the eighth grade then, and I didn’t fully understand Rushmore. But I did understand that the film was moving and unique and important, and I think anyone would be hard-pressed to come up with three better words to describe the films of Wes Anderson.

William Torrey lives and works in Baton Rouge. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Florida Review, The North American Review, Washington Square Review, Colorado Review, the Hawai'i Review, New Madrid and Zone 3, where his story "Trabajar" won the 2011 Editors' Prize. He is currently at work on a novel. @wshametorrey | wstorrey@gmail.com.