Moving Pictures
Apr 08, 2009, 08:53AM

Substantive style, and vice versa

A look at an ongoing series of Web films critiquing the ever-debatable film director Wes Anderson.

Wes Anderson’s influence on so many terrible films over the last decade has overshadowed just how beautiful and technically stunning his best movies can be, which is why critic Matt Zoller Seitz’ ongoing video series, “The Substance of Style,” is so enjoyable and essential. Seitz has posted three entries of a promised five, each of which addresses the influence of a different filmmaker or artist on Anderson’s work. Through split-screen comparisons, judicious editing and research, and an obvious love for Anderson’s films, “The Substance of Style” convincingly makes the case for Anderson’s auteur status. Most importantly, it helps us forget Juno, Napoleon Dynamite, Little Miss Sunshine, Garden State, and the many other pale Anderson imitations that lack his skill and cinematic knowledge.

I agree unreservedly with Seitz’ claim that Anderson, in the classic auteur mode, is “an artist who imprints his personality and preoccupations on each work so strongly that, whatever the contributions of his collaborators, he deserves to be considered the primary author of the film,” and no doubt this kind of influence-identifying game showcases the incredible depth of cinematic knowledge and technique that makes Anderson so unique in his time. But in all honesty, the side-by-side comparisons with older filmmakers also reminded me of certain aspects in Anderson’s films that have always annoyed me.

In the first three videos, Seitz shows the influence on Anderson of Orson Welles, François Truffaut, Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby, Mike Nichols (specifically The Graduate), A Hard Day’s Night director Richard Lester, and Peanuts creator Charles Schulz and his animator Bill Melendez. I’ll venture a guess and say that Parts 4 and 5 will likely touch on The Last Picture Show director Peter Bogdanovich, Jean-Luc Godard, Preston Sturges, and maybe even J.D. Salinger, although I’m excited to see where Seitz takes his project no matter what.

I hold the uncontroversial opinion that Anderson peaked with Rushmore in 1998, and his subsequent films have suffered (relatively) from his unchanging aesthetics and concerns. My review of The Darjeeling Limited upon its release was probably a little too hard on the man, but I still consider it to be his weakest film by a tremendous margin. Yet again, Anderson placed his vibrant palette, stunning mise-en-scene, and roving camera at the service of a story about a broken, over-educated, upper class white family. While I don’t share certain people’s view that Anderson’s films are implicitly racist, I agree that his total aversion to political reality or social engagement works against him, particularly when the human dramas he stages have come to seem progressively insular and less poignant. This of course places him at odds with Scorsese (the young director of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, at least), Nichols, Ashby, and even the Welles of Citizen Kane, all of whom saw their characters as inextricably part of a greater social milieu. Seitz, to his credit, acknowledges this shortcoming of Anderson’s in Part 3.

Less objectively, I find that Anderson’s allusive style, while inspired and often entertaining, sometimes feels merely fussy and showoffy, particularly when we consider how un-prolific and thematically unvaried his career has been thus far. Anderson’s acknowledged visual debts to his heroes is the very basis for Seitz’ series, although Scorsese and Godard were equally fond of homage, and every older artist in “The Substance of Style” were paragons of productivity, often cranking out multiple films a year in multiple genres. Anderson, the beauty and originality of his best films aside, has made only five films in 13 years, all of which (save maybe Rushmore) follow the same basic plot. The varied settings of Bottle Rocket, The Life Aquatic, and The Darjeeling Limited aren’t even comparable to the genre dalliance that Anderson has publicly admired in Godard, Bogdanovich, Scorsese, Ashby, and Nichols. For this reason, I sympathize with the Anderson-haters who feel his films can be too cute or mannered; his movies exhibit tremendous cinematic skill and knowledge while largely avoiding personal observations or greater social engagement.

Still, I rewatch Rushmore every year or so, curious if my own growing film knowledge will reveal some latent juvenile qualities in Anderson’s movie that I missed as a more naïve viewer—and, if anything, I enjoy Rushmore more deeply every time. It is a perfectly composed film, filled with poignant writing and flawless performances. Anderson’s debts to past artists never gets in the way of his own unique vision or the subtlety of his human interactions; just watch how Bill Murray’s Herman Blume reacts to the implied news that Max Fischer’s father is a barber rather than the neurosurgeon that Max promised earlier. Bottle Rocket, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic all offer their own versions of this moment, as well, even as Anderson’s aesthetic feels progressively like a formula. I have every reason to believe that Anderson, still young, will achieve Rushmore’s greatness again as his career progresses, and in the meantime, Matt Zoller Seitz’ sublime bit of appreciation can remind us what a visionary he’s always been.


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