Ford or Welles, Scorsese or Coppola, Altman or Campion? One of the most passionate cinema conversations we can enter into is discussing the work of a director we’re heavily invested in.
The talk can get heated as the director’s obvious merits are considered, the uncompromising aesthetics and the underlying themes we can trace and track across their body of work – everything that makes him or her worthy of this adulation.
In film studies the name given to this approach is “auteur theory”, whereby great directors are considered to “author” their films, regardless, or in spite, of how they were funded or the conditions under which they were made.
So what of the work of American director Wes Anderson, whose eighth feature film The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) opens in Australia today? The film stars Englishman Ralph Fiennes in his adventures as Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a European hotel in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka.
Might Anderson too be considered a contemporary auteur? A modern “great”? And if so, how might we recognise one of his films and assign it with such value?
There are four underlying consistencies across Anderson’s body of work to make a case for his films being uniquely his own and of artistic importance.
1) Visual style
You don’t have to be Margaret or David to realise Anderson has a distinctive visual style.
A high degree of formalism (emphasising color, line, shape and texture) informs his films. Every shot is carefully staged and arranged, and the periphery of the frame is just as important to what’s occurring in its deep centre.
Anderson asks us to look at the edges, as much as the middle, because that’s where the real drama might be occurring. As in life, for Anderson it’s often in the margins and with the marginal that the most important human and social interactions occur.
Anderson’s visual style is also often self-reflexive, drawing attention to the very act of looking. He is renowned for using perfectly centred shots and symmetrical compositions (see video above), such as the highly staged scenes in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001).
His filmwork becomes a mediation on perception, on film’s relationship to analogue film, and to painting. His use of miniatures and matte-painted backdrops combine these obsessions – both perceptual tricks and decidedly painterly.
In The Grand Budapest Hotel, the matte-painted mountaintop wonderland called Zubrowka (see movie poster, right) is a striking case in point.
Anderson’s films also make use of replete primary-coloured palettes that soak and wash objects, textures, fabrics, buildings and environments, so that they become infused with living matter; so that they become a living canvass.
There’s also a degree of nostalgia to this “sunflower” aesthetic (symbolising connections between the sun, fire, and warmth) since Anderson looks to the past to fill the anomic present with core human values such as kindness, respect, truth and balance.
What Anderson creates visually in his films is a magical realist world in which adult characters are in part rendered youthful or juvenile simply by the childlike brushstrokes that better paint their arrested lives.
Anderson populates his films with offbeat, outsider characters that are either struggling to come to terms with adulthood, longing for a past that can’t be recuperated, or trapped in a liminal space where they can’t or won’t fit.
In Moonrise Kingdom (2012), Captain Duffy Sharp (Bruce Willis) is trapped by obligation and conformity, admitting that the one woman he loved “didn’t love me back”. He’s covertly having a sterile affair with a married woman and only finds hope and renewal through adopting Sam, the child he still wants to be.
3) A touch of the absurd
On a thematic level, Anderson’s stories are absurdist mediations on modern life.
His carefully choreographed mise-en-scene stands in stark contrast to the speed and fluidity of late capitalism. And yet, the past he retreats to is itself flawed and damaged – it’s the pull of accidents, incidents and unseen forces where hope and transformation lay.
While Anderson’s films are melancholic, they’re shot with delicious joy and hope: his version of absurd living ultimately chooses life.
That’s the message of The Fantastic Mr Fox (2009), a stop-motion animation based on Roald Dahl’s children’s book of the same name.
With the Farmers in retreat, Fox leads his family to a drain that opens up into the floor of a supermarket. Celebrating their new food source and the news that Fox’s wife Felicity is pregnant again, the animals dance in the aisles as the film ends – a utopian sentiment in the face of such aggression and oppression.
4) Keeping it constant
On a production level, Anderson maintains a number of core collaborations, generally working with the same cast and crew.
This includes actors Owen Wilson (with whom he also co-writes), Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman and Kumar Pallana; the cinematographer Robert Yeoman; the music supervisor Randall Poster; and the composer Mark Mothersbaugh, who created the score for Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
Such collaborations work in favour of the auteur approach because they suggest that a great director is able to marshal the activities of a creative ensemble, and is able drive an artistic team to fulfil their own vision.
We could perhaps counter claims that Anderson is worthy of auteur status. As a visual director, the characters he writes and the stories they occupy can be seen as rather one-dimensional and wooden – though ironically this is arguably one of his tropes.
Anderson’s cinema could be said to be a triumph of style over substance, full of allusions that do not go anywhere deep or meaningful.
But these criticisms seem at best misplaced.
The complexity and beauty of Anderson’s film style, his concern with the marginal and the disaffected, and his desire to find in childhood something remarkably powerful, suggests an auteur working at the height of his powers.
The Grand Budapest Hotel opens for general release in Australia today.