Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Wes Anderson From Both Ends: Bottle Rocket and The Fantastic Mr. Fox

“They’re not going to catch me. Because I’m a fucking innocent!”

Wes Anderson is one of those directors who I don’t merely value but cherish. His unique voice, melancholy, delicate, whimsical in the best manner, and ever so slightly aloof, is one I can imagine cinema without. But its not something I like to do. Like the Coen’s his absence would leave cinema a much unhappier place.

There’s a definite divide of opinion on Anderson, between those who love the ever increasing specificity of Anderson’s persona (This is a director who makes Credit Card commercials more personal then most films) and those who wish he’d crack a window on his hermetically sealed world and let some air in. Though, after the unfair shellacking that The Darjeeling Limited received, Anderson’s warmly reviewed The Fantastic Mr. Fox, seemed to find the critics mostly back on Anderson's side.

The film that most of the detractors of his latter day work point to is Bottle Rocket. And it is beginning to look like something of an anomaly in Anderson’s career. Not so much in tone, but in a certain loose limbed spontaneity. There’s a certain sloppiness to the film, but a certain life that counter acts it.

While one could argue that Rushmore takes place in as much of a “real world” as Bottle Rocket. The key difference being that Rushmore is a film about a Wes Anderson Character colliding with the world, Bottle Rocket is a film about the world colliding with a Wes Anderson character.

Bottle Rocket sets its tone early with Luke Wilson “escaping” from the mental hospital he’s been residing in, under the supervision of the staff (“Everything about this looks bad.”). Its soon revealed that Wilson is participating in this farce to satisfy his friend Dignan, played by Owen Wilson. Dignan devised the plan and Wilson didn’t have the heart to tell him that since he checked himself in, he could go ahead and check himself out.

Dignan has a plan to get Wilson, and their friend in with a local “crew”. After robbing a bookstore for a paltry take, they go on the lamb as the start of Dingham’s sixty year plan. Like all Anderson’s protagonists, Dingham has a very specific idea of what the world should be. Unlike with most Anderson characters, the world refuses to play along.

We all know guys like Dignan. Hell I know a whole bunch. Guys who are always talking about the big plans they’ve had, and the connections they’ve made, and how it will all come together, with that same hopeful smile in their voice no matter how many times it doesn’t happen. And after you know these guys awhile you just plain stop believing them. But you never have the heart to tell them that. I mean how could you?

Because the thing is, that if you were ever to tell the Dignan’s of the world that their plans will not bear fruit, it wouldn’t be their heart you were breaking but your own. Because if someone who believes, and hustles and plans, with such faith and ferocity can’t get their dreams off the ground, well then where does that leave you and your dreams? You may not believe in Dignan, but you let him think that you do, because doing so allows you to believe in yourself again, if only for a little while.

Bottle Rocket doesn’t feel quite like any other Anderson film (No other Anderson film could star James Caan). Its looser more ramshackled, comparable to the work that Jaramusch and Linklater were doing at the time. But the filmmaker who Anderson would become is just under the surface, breaking through with Wilson’s halting romance with a hotel maid and the sequences set to The Proclaimers “Over And Done With” and The Rolling Stones “2000 Man” which showcase Anderson as one of the most arresting combiners of image and music working today.

It is true as people say that the filmmaker who made The Fantastic Mr. Fox could not have made Bottle Rocket. But it is just as important, and a great deal more ignored that the director who made Bottle Rocket could not have made The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Anderson has found his particular, peculiar voice as an artist and why so many wish to penalize him for it is rather beyond me.

Its true that The Fantastic Mr. Fox took me a little longer to digest then any of his other work. I wasn’t expecting the film, its tone is singular even by Anderson standards. And Mr. Fox himself was so strangely determinedly imperfect. Don’t get me wrong I liked it enough to name it as one of my top ten films of the year. But even though I knew I liked it, I wasn’t quite so sure what I thought about it.

The answer perhaps comes in the technique. Animation would seem to be the ideal medium for an artist as meticulous as Anderson. But while some insist that the “just so-ness” of his frames, I find it downright cozy. From the opening frames, of the exact copy of the book I used to own no less, to the film’s autumnal feel, The Fantastic Mr. Fox is a supremely inviting film. Filled with all sorts of agreeable digressions and animated with a lively spirit, while keeping a brisk runtime. This is a film barely over eighty minutes that still finds time for a scene like this.

Like Anderson himself everything is delightfully singular, from Michael Gambon’s deliciously nasty villain (though Gambon always seems to have a sinister edge to me no matter how nice he’s playing) to Willem Dafoe’s rat, who is played so close in vocal styling’s and mannerisms to Dafoe’s infamous Bobby Peru that I refuse to believe its accidental. It’s a film which rejoices in the odd detail (Mrs. Fox’s paintings) and the unremarked upon joke (“Love Is All There Is” the theme song for Disney’s Robin Hood continuously playing in the background) and unexpected callback (Kristopherson’s repeat of the karate scene in Bottle Rocket, this time by a character who is very Andersonian.)

Its easy to want to strip Anderson to his elements. His anglophilia, urbanity, melancholy, dry wit, impeccable ear for music and subtle poetry. But there remains something elusive and inexplicable about Anderson’s work.

Take the scene where the three greedy farmers procure their steam shovels, and we’re treated to the sight of the cackling minature Bean pulling the various pulley’s and levers in his cab like he’s Marvin the Martian prepping to blow up Earth. Set to the utterly unexpected yet somehow perfect, Street Fighting Man. How else am I to react to such a specific and wholly unexpected image, but with delight?

So too, Anderson himself.


Franco Macabro said...

Certainly a unique voice, with a style all his own.

Bottle Rocket is the least Wes Anderson of the Wes Anderson films. Though as you mention in your review, his style is still there, it just hasnt fully blossomed.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox felt very much like an Anderson movie, at times it felt like I was watching The Royal Tenenbaums, cause it has that same feel, that same way to tell a story.

Every time Anderson is working on something, I eagerly look forward to it.

Unknown said...

I have to respectfully disagree here. BOTTLE ROCKET is the well-spring where every other Wes Anderson draws its influences, themes, look, etc. from. Being as it was his first film, one can already see Anderson working out motifs, themes, camera techniques, and so on that would permeate all of his other films.

For example, you have the deadpan style of humor, like in that hilarious scene where Anthony tells that girl he went crazy. You would see that style of humor pop up in RUSHMORE with Bill Murray's delivery of certain lines and reaction shots and then in THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS with Murray again.

BOTTLE ROCKET introduces the energetic dreamer/troublemaker who's aspirations are always just out of reach because he refuses to accept the "reality" of a given situation. So, you've got Dignan who plans all these heists but is completely inept at pulling them all off. In RUSHMORE, you've got Max pulling off all of these amazing extracurricular things but he's flunking school and gets kicked out. In ROYAL TENENBAUMS, you've got Royal, who is scams his way back into his family's life in order to have one last chance at fixing the damage he's done over the years but just causes more problems.

BOTTLE ROCKET also introduces the notion of dysfunctional families -- look at Bob and Futureman. Where are there parents? The two brothers are always fighting. In RUSHMORE, you've got Max and his father, sorely missing their dead mother. You've got Blume and his disaster of a family - a wife cheating on him and two sons who are idiots.

ROYAL TENENBAUMS is the mack daddy of dysfunctional families as Anderson takes a page of J.D. Salinger's book and presents us with a family of geniuses who have hit hard times and reunite under the same house in order to try heal old wounds and regain some of that mojo from their childhood.

Stylistically, you've got the use '60s and '70s music appearing over montages. I think he's used the ROLLING STONES in all of his films, for example. He also uses front-facing camera angles in which the actor looks directly into the lens. Again, starting in BOTTLE ROCKET and used in his other films. With the except of THE DARJEELING LIMITED, all of his films end with a slow motion shot.

Anyways, these are just some examples that come immediately to mind. My point being, BOTTLE ROCKET is a Wes Anderson film through and through, and the source where all of his other films come from. It all comes back to BOTTLE ROCKET and it's interesting when you watch these film chronologically how his style has developed but thematically, I would argue they are all fairly consistent.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ FC, your right about the similarities between Fox and Tenenbaums maybe that's why I liked it so much.

@ JD: This was a great comment. I do think the family is Anderson's great obsession, it'd be interesting to write an essay on that some time.

I must not have been very clear in my review though. By no means do I mean to suggest that Bottle Rocket is lesser, or not a part of Anderson's work. Far from it.

All I meant to say is that Bottle Rocket is still taking place in the real world, while the Anderson movies of Tenenbaum and beyond are all taking place in Wes Anderson land.

Unknown said...

Bryce Wilson:

I gotcha. I was also responding to The Film Connoisseur's assertion that "BOTTLE ROCKET is the least Wes Anderson film of the Wes Anderson films." If anything, a film like THE DARJEELING LIMITED feels the least like an Anderson film, IMO.

Simon said...

Great write-up. I'm gonna agree with JD...the Darjeeling Limited felt too spacious and...not very Anderson(y).

Bryce Wilson said...

See this is funny to me as depending on the day you ask me Darjeeling is my second favorite Anderson film (Behind Tenenbaums).

I don't know if there is a shot in Anderson's ouerve I like better then Brody's absurdly spindly limbs stretching to capacity in slow motion, as he runs past Bill Murray in the train station to the sound of The Kinks.

I love the Michael Powellesque feel of the film in monastery and village scenes.

And maybe because I admittedly have my own sibling issues, but I find the story at the center very moving.

Gideon Strumpet said...

Loved to see the write up. I whole-heartedly agree with J.D. and have long held Bottle Rocket to be the quintessential Wes Anderson film. I won't create a litany of reasons why I think so, as J.D. does a fine job of that, but suffice it to say that with Bottle Rocket Anderson created the template against which I will always measure his films.

That being said, I think Fantastic Mr. Fox is something of a return to form for Anderson and easily his best movie since Tennenbaums.

Lastly, and I don't know how much veracity there is to it, but I saw Anderson's name in connection with a big screen reproduction of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. A huge production, but a family drama, which definitely plays to his strengths.

Bryce Wilson said...

Hey Gideon thanks for stopping by!

I for one would pay damn good money to see Wes Anderson's Anna Karina.

I'm curious to know what's going on with his "Science Fiction" movie shit in space. It sounded like the ultimate Max Fishcer production/

Unknown said...

I really need to watch THE DARJEELING LIMITED again. Criterion Collection confirmed that they are giving the film their usual deluxe treatment in the fall so that should be worth checking out!

Bryce Wilson said...

Oh man now I'm going to have to double dip. Haven't done that in a long time.

Should be worth it though.