It always happens the same way: I’ll be watching a movie, doesn’t matter what—smart or stupid, action or drama, Bay or Bergman—all it takes is a detail, a soft echo of some memory, to pull me out of the action onscreen and into my head. Let’s say I’m watching Cobra (1986), because why not? Marion Cobretti (Sylvester Stallone) is taking on some lunatic in the produce aisle of the most sinister supermarket you’ve ever seen, and my eyes fix on the burnt orange tile on the wall behind him. Suddenly I’m four years old, shopping for frozen orange juice concentrate at the old Grand Union and I can feel the fridge-cooled air blowing through my hair as my mother pushes me down the aisle. It may not be tisane and madeleines, but it’s real to me.
Moviegoing is full of these Proustian moments. New or old, films have a unique ability to induce nostalgia. Go see the Coen Brothers’ latest movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, and you’ll want to travel back to ’61 and spend a week in their glorious, autumnal version of Greenwich Village. Queue up The Terminator on Netflix and you’ll pine for a night out at Tech Noir, back when hair was big and gun laws were lax and the machines weren’t so self-aware.
Nostalgia is a futile sort of longing, one whose foolishness and impossibility is at the fore whenever we watch a movie. Which is to say, when we long for the past, we know, in some abstract way, that we cannot visit it; when we see it in a movie, we know that no matter how vivid it may appear on screen, we know that somewhere deep down there is only an empty stage or a blank wall or a cathode ray tube behind the picture.
It’s no wonder, then, that one of the best analyses of nostalgia in recent memory has come in a movie. Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011) is a feature-length discourse on our misguided yearning for the “good old days.” It’s light and captivating—provided you share the protagonist’s fondness for Cole Porter and The Lost Generation. It’s a soufflé of a film, airy, delightful, perhaps insubstantial, but its meaning and effectiveness are predicated on disappointment. We watch Owen Wilson get crushed by the realization that, well, the grass is always greener on the other side. Just as he wants to escape to les Années Folles, the object of his affection longs for the Belle Epoque. Quel dommage!
It’s not exactly deep stuff—you just gotta live in the moment, man!—but that’s sort of the point. If life were so deep and serious all the time you’d just be crushed under the weight of endless, crippling epiphanies. These things happen all the time, whether you’re walking down the street, drinking tea, or, yes, watching a movie.
A confession: I’m a big Wes Anderson fan. As big as they come. After watching The Royal Tenenbaums, I spent a solid year trying to track down a vintage Adidas tracksuit. (Sadly, I failed.) I own a bright red “Team Zissou” cap. In high school, I appeared in a Tenenbaums one-act for chrissakes. If that doesn’t make me a bona fide fanatic, I don’t know what does.
But no matter how many times I watch Rushmore or The Life Aquatic or Moonrise Kingdom, I’m never moved. Maybe I’m taken back to the basement where I first watched Tenenbaums or the dorm room where I watched Rushmore as I tried—and failed—to make the first move with a longtime crush. These are real memories, sure, and ones I associate with Anderson’s work, but they exist outside and apart from his films. Try as I might, I can’t locate any “Cobra moments.”
Imagine shouting into the darkness and hearing no echo and you’ll get an idea of how I feel. There’s a dullness, a hollowness there. And, I mean, it’s especially troubling because Wes Anderson movies should be nostalgia factories! All that outdated technology and classic rock and vintage clothing! Something in there should be pulling at my heartstrings, playing my memories like a piano! So what’s the problem?
Anderson’s detractors criticize his films for emphasizing style over substance, for passing off quirk and whimsy as originality and vision. I thought that might be the place to start. But the deeper I went, the more I realized: It’s all about control.
III. Anderson’s Dream
There’s a story, often told, about the jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. It seems Monk’s wife, Nellie, had a real problem with pictures—or anything, really—hanging crooked on the walls. Nowadays she’d probably end up on Luvox, but Monk hit on a much simpler solution: he nailed a clock to the wall at a very slight angle and forced her to deal with it until she got over her phobia. Now, we’re supposed to look at this anecdote and think: man, Monk had this slanted, unconventional way of looking at the world that found its way into his music; he found meaning in imperfection. On a simpler level, though, Monk just knew the world was a little off, that angles weren’t always right.
Unfortunately, Anderson hasn’t met his Monk, and his art suffers for it. His films are filled with all manner of distress and conflict: suicide, divorce, parental neglect, car accidents, shootings, stabbings, robberies, pirate attacks. To a certain extent, Anderson’s rigid formalism, his meticulous framing and measured camera movements and immaculate art direction, serve to foreground the physical and emotional turmoil that invariably underpin his stories, but everything has its limits. Even the most visceral, chaotic art—think Pollock or Basquiat—is often best consumed in the sterile confines of the gallery—but you wouldn’t mount them in a gilt frame.
But that’s exactly how Anderson’s films are presented. Elegantly framed, perfectly positioned, like the pictures that adorn the Tenenbaum family’s stairway. (Even Royal’s beloved javelina, symbol of his pigheadedness, hangs just so in its appointed place.) They permit admiration but not interaction. They are not part of the world because they are the world. It’s hard—for me, anyway—to look at any of his films and say, “Yes, I’ve been there before!” This is especially hard to stomach given that Anderson’s Rushmore falls into the broad category of “high-school comedy,” perhaps the pre-eminent “nostalgia film” genre. Watch any other high school films of that era—Election, American Pie, Can’t Hardly Wait—and you’ll ask yourself, at least once, “Did people, did we, really dress like that?” Watch Rushmore and the thought will never cross your mind.
IV. A Doll’s House
Nora: He called me his little doll, and he used to play with me just as I played with my dolls. Then I came to live in your house—
Helmer: That’s no way to talk about our marriage!
Nora (undisturbed): I mean when I passed out of Papa’s hands into yours. You arranged everything to your own tastes, and so I came to have the same tastes as yours… or I pretended to.”
—Henrik Ibsen, A Doll’s House
There’s no doubt Wes Anderson knows how to construct a set. Each of his films—his freshman effort Bottle Rocket excepted—revolves around a central edifice: Rushmore Academy, the Tenenbaum townhouse, the good ship Belafonte with its cutaway hull, The Darjeeling Limited, and Moonrise Kingdom’s overtly dollhouse-esque “Summer’s End.” The upcoming Grand Budapest Hotel does nothing to break the streak. Each is beautifully rendered and photographed. Each is quirky and charming and gorgeous in its own way. But each is a prison too, a thing to be escaped.
From a story perspective, this dynamic can be invigorating. Max Fischer must escape his beloved Rushmore if he’s to grow up. The emotionally blunted Whitman brothers have to hop off the train and into the world in order to recapture their joie de vivre. Suzy Bishop has to leave “Summer’s End” to find love for the first time.
Thing is, no matter how much they change or grow, no matter how much “human” stuff they experience, they’re never more than Anderson’s playthings. They wear his clothing, follow his choreography, dance to his music. So, sure, the Tenenbaum children escape the shadow of their absent father, but they can’t escape that meticulously crafted townhouse. They pass from the hands of one manipulative man into another.
In a less gifted director’s movie, some unmastered energy would break the spell; perhaps it would never even be cast. A chintzy special effect, a flash of star power—that’s all it takes to pull you outside of the movie. Again and again, Anderson avoids these pitfalls. His aesthetic mastery plays a big part in that—but it’s his reliance on a sort of repertory company of actors that really clinches it. Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, the Wilson brothers, along with a host of bit players—they appear often enough in his work to blend in, to subordinate themselves to the grander vision. The one time Anderson cast a huge Star with a capital S—George Clooney—he made him into a stop-motion fox. This all contributes to a real sense of insulation from the “real-world.” In a sense, The Fantastic Mr. Fox is just as real as anything else Anderson has made.
V. The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra
On some level, Anderson’s just doing his job—he’s a director, and directors are manipulators by trade. But where some might be content to write their subtext in fine print, he lays it all out in Futura Bold. This is especially clear when it comes to music.
I have no quarrel with the music itself. Anderson’s preferred mix of 60s-70s pop and rock falls right in line with my own tastes. Heck, he and his longtime music supervisor Randall Poster helped expand my horizons. Before I saw The Royal Tenenbaums, I knew about The Velvet Underground & Nico, but I’d never bothered checking out Nico’s solo stuff; I knew about Dylan, but where else was I going to hear “Wigwam,” a deep cut off his reviled Self-Portrait?
So, I guess what I want to say is thanks, guys—but I really wish you’d been a bit more subtle. Nico’s “These Days” helps amp up the emotion during the slo-mo reunion of Margot and Richie Tenenbaum, but it’s a huge distraction in more ways than one. It’s not just that I start thinking about running over to the record store when the movie gets out, it’s that it prevents me from considering the scenario at hand. There’s plenty of emotion there already—Anderson’s taken pains to establish the momentousness of their reunion—and I wish I had a moment to contemplate it.
This may seem a minor quibble, and if it were an isolated incident, I’m sure it would be. But Anderson seems to think you can’t have drama without a killer pop song to go along with it. Richie wants to kill himself? Let’s cue up Elliot Smith. Ned Plimpton, né Kingsley Zissou, bites it in a helicopter crash. Why not some Zombies?
Anderson begins his most recent film, Moonrise Kingdom, with a selection from Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, and one gets the feeling that his soundtracks are an attempt to formulate a sort of pop equivalent, to display a certain savviness in the same way your cool uncle might “spin” some vinyl for you while telling you about the time he saw R.E.M. “back in the I.R.S. days.” It’s cool and all, but it’s a lot more fun to look through his records when he’s not around; at least then you can feel like you discovered something on your own, even if you did scratch a few things in the process.
VI. “Where do we go from here?”
Perfectly level pictures. Dolls and dollhouses. Overly protective uncles—I’m running low on analogies for Anderson’s tendency to manipulate and control. Which is good, because I think it’s finally time we examine what happens when you remove the Anderson canon from its sterile celluloid confines and bring it into the real world. Exhibit A: “TENENBAUM FAIL,” a Tumblr-blog that made the rounds a few years ago. Take a look at the Tumblrs and Flickrs of the world and you’ll find dozens of photos of dozens of wannabe Tenenbaums and Fishers and Zissous drinking PBR High Life. But among the legions of Andersonites in their tracksuits and fur coats, do you see anyone dressed as public school Max Fischer? Or post-suicide attempt Richie Tenenbaum? Of course not. Then you wouldn’t get to rock a red beret or a sweet beard and tennis headband.
The “Tenenbaum Fail” moniker is more telling than even its creators know, I think. Sure, it’s a clever bit of Failblog-piggybacking and a snide way of mocking those dreadful whimsy-addled hipsters, but it’s true too. Try as you might, you’re never going to recreate that Anderson magic; it can’t, and perhaps should never exist in the real world.
This shouldn’t be a problem, really. Superheroes, wizards, and cartoon characters don’t exist in the real world, but plenty of people devote their time and money dressing up as them. But Anderson’s characters don’t carry that obvious whiff of unreality. They have the same emotions and experiences, and suffer the same tribulations—unrequited love, marital discord, suicidal thoughts—as we, the viewers do. I’d aver that your average viewer has little interest in the postlapsarian version of Anderson’s worlds, and why should they, when he’s able to create such captivating worlds to begin with?
For all the talk of Anderson’s films sacrificing style for substance, the real complicating factor, the real defect in Anderson’s films, is that style persists even as the substance changes. Team Zissou suffers a terrible loss, but they never shed their uniforms. The Tenenbaum family loses its patriarch and Chas & sons can only be bothered to switch out their red tracksuits for black ones; the kohl around Margot’s eyes doesn’t even run. How are we supposed to relate when it’s hard enough to keep from spilling beer on our fur coats and track jackets?
Stephen Tyler is a writer living in Los Angeles.