Everybody has one friend who always (or even just for parties) models themselves on Margot Tenenbaum: wearing thick kohl eyeliner and oversized fur coats, dripping with deadpan humour, pashing on people she probably shouldn’t. It’s an excellent and reasonably easy costume to put together, as are the distinctive outfits of stacks of Wes Anderson‘s iconic characters: from the orange beanies of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, to the cutesie ’60s fashion of Moonrise Kingdom, to the oversized sunglasses and old-timey suitcases of The Darjeeling Limited. Or you could just dress up as Fantastic Mr. Fox.
What I’m trying to say here is that we have all once considered attending a fancy dress do as an Anderson character, or picked up a set of Tenenbaum-themed notebooks in an artisan homewares shop. Everyone recognises/froths on the unmistakeable Wes Anderson aesthetic when they see or hear one: all stripped-back pastel colour palettes, 1960s and ’70s pop, heavy on The Kinks and The Rolling Stones, and meticulous flat lays. Without Anderson there would be fewer make-up/book/vinyl flat lays on Instagram – or at the very least they wouldn’t all be set to such perfect right angles.
Atm we’re in the midst of an obsessive Anderson episode because we’re that keeeeeeeeeeeen for his latest, Isle of Dogs, out April 12, which scored the indie auteur the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival this Feb. It’s his second sashay into stopmotion animation after 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, but this time the subject ain’t a beloved Roald Dahl book from our collective childhoods, but another intrinsic piece of our identities as cool gals and guys who are in touch with the culture ‘n shit: doggerinos.
Alright, an Isle of Dogs synopsis: Dogs in Japan 20 years from now have been infected by dog flu – the solution, according to the authoritarian new mayor of Megasaki City, Kobayashi, is to banish them all to the nation’s tip, Trash Island. Kobayashi’s 12-year-old orphaned nephew, Atari, undertakes a quest to rescue his fluffer, Spots, befriending a pack of “scary, indestructible alpha dogs” to help him find his best mate.
Who among us would not also go to such lengths to be reunited with our canine better halves?
Oh and did you see that list of Isle of Dogs‘ stars? It’s MASSIVE: Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton…
We’ll let Guy Lodge of Variety‘s review sum up the film: “Wes Anderson returns happily to animation with a Japanophilic canine adventure that is richly imagined, drily witty and, finally, barking mad.”
Our Anderson obsession has us thinking about the visionary director’s influence on cinema, and on culture at large.
Would a movie about boning and then saving a sexy fish man with a great arse have won Best Picture at this year’s Oscars if Anderson hadn’t over the space of a 20-year career whet the industry’s and audiences’ appetites for whimsical caper movies? Probably, but it’s worth asking.
Without Wes: Would countless film students have to listen to synopses/entire scenes blatantly ripping off his signature visual style and detached and dry repartee between characters? Would Charli XCX‘s pink-tinged dream ‘Boys‘ have such a captivating and immaculately put together video clip? Would a whole bunch of uninteresting people have replaced having a personality with having seen The Grand Budapest Hotel multiple times? Answers: No, Yes, No.
Anyway, let’s pick apart some of Anderson’s films and their influence on the zeitgeist.
Bottle Rocket was the first major film role for all three Wilson brothers (yes, there are three Wilson brothers, in descending order: Andrew, Owen and Luke), so the argument could be made that we wouldn’t have the below excellent compilation video without the collected works of Wes Anderson (at the very least we wouldn’t have two superb examples). It’s also one of the very few movies featuring Owen Wilson where he doesn’t have a teenage boy’s shaggy long-at-all-sides haircut. So there’s that.
All three went on to appear in Anderson’s next two features, with Owen, who became friends with Anderson in the ’80s when they were both studying at the University of Texas in Austin, featuring in seven outta nine Anderson movies, and actually co-writing Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. He’s the director’s second most featured actor after Bill Murray – but we’ll get to that later. Anderson does of course have a habit of repeatedly working with the same performers, both writers and actors, which indicates that being on a Wes set is delightful/he has some kind of rapport with his collaborators/he’s a top bloke *thumbs up*.
Let’s start with the obvious: since Rushmore, Bill Murray, the man every person wants to invite to their fantasy dinner party, has appeared in every Wes Anderson film. Every single one. Some critics have said that Murray’s role in this was the start of his “second career” as an actor in independent films – a turn away from his early-to-mid ’90s roles in Groundhog Day and Space Jam (both still excellent).
And the star of Rushmore, Jason Schwartzman, is another frequent collaborator: appearing in all his movies from The Darjeeling Limited to The Grand Budapest Hotel, and scoring a ‘Story by’ credit on Isle of Dogs. He’s also another example of an actor making his feature film debut in an Anderson movie. So without Anderson, we wouldn’t have Schwartzman in I Heart Huckabees and Marie Antoinette, but we would still have his band Coconut Records.
Rushmore‘s an example of a Wes Anderson movie that falls into the ‘New Sincerity’ school – where a postmodern fixation with ironic detachment somehow coheres with an empathetic sensibility: while the irony of the movie keeps audiences at a distance from characters like Schwartzman’s Max, techniques like the careful use of music mean that at prime emotional moments the audience is aligned with him. You can see that same mixture in later movies like Napoleon Dynamite and Garden State. One last thing: in ’16, the US National Film Registry declared the movie “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant“, selected it for preservation in the Library of Congress.
The Royal Tenenbaums
The Royal Tenenbaums is the Anderson movie that is arguably an icon in and of itself, in terms of aesthetics and its characters. It’s the best example of his work as both immaculately presented and as character-driven narrative, bestowing on all of us the greatness that is Gene Hackman as head of the dysfunctional Tenenbaum family, Anjelica Huston as his estranged wife, and Luke Wilson, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Stiller as their super weird children.
The set-up for The Royal Tenenbaums, even down to a shot level is perfectly symmetrical metanarrative – the reading of a book within a film introduces all the major players, who are each followed individually, as narrated by Alec Baldwin. That meticulous arrangement draws attention to itself as a distinct style, while making the dramatic potential of the narrative seem absurd, less tragic than dryly comic. The same narrative technique, and absurd approach to dramatic events was later deployed in Arrested Development. And it goes without saying that the fashurrn of the characters directly influenced the actual fashion world.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Wes Anderson didn’t create the idea of breaking the fourth wall in films – he didn’t even really further it as a technique. But he has consistently used it as an narrative device in his movies to add wry humour, a wink-and-a-nudge tone, and acknowledge the presence of the audience. One of our favourite examples is The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou – in a scene where Bill Murray as the titular character says his films are docos and thus inherently truthful, the camera zooms out enough to show that he and his shipmates are standing not on a ship, but on a set.
The Life Aquatic also serves as the most blatant example of Anderson’s interest in oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau – the entire movie is an homage to and parody of the guy. But it’s not the first time he’s referenced Cousteau in a film: Max in Rushmore reads his book Diving for Sunken Treasure, a portrait of Cousteau by Richard Avedon can be spotted in the background of the party scene in Bottle Rocket. Those kind of references to set pieces in other films by the same creator are bloody ubiquitous these days: think Parks and Recreation, Rick and Morty…
The Darjeeling Limited
What stands out about The Darjeeling Limited is the way music is so carefully folded into the film’s overall vibe – the film wouldn’t be the same if The Kinks’ ‘This Time Tomorrow‘ didn’t score the opening scene, where Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson and Schwartzman run for the train. Or if ‘Strangers‘, also by The Kinks, didn’t mark the moment where the brothers leave a child’s funeral.
On top of that is the distinct visual style of the film: both the scenes above are in slow-motion, adding a kind of tenderness to the moment, a sense of gravitas but also of strangeness. It works for this movie, and is something that’s become a hallmark of Anderson’s movies: sweet and simple’60s and ’70s rock, like folk-tinged and emotive Rolling Stones tracks lyrically relevant to the scene. And that same intertwining between audio and visual elements – the soundtrack becoming as integral to a film as a character in its own right – is plied in films as diverse as Baby Driver and Manchester by the Sea.
Oh and both Adrien Brody and Schwartzman later collaborated with Anderson again in one of his many A+ commercials: take these for H&M and Prada. The elaborate short film advertisement has to have been influenced by our man Wes.
Fantastic Mr Fox
The best example of Anderson’s dedication to craftmanship is Fantastic Mr. Fox, his first feature-length foray (furry) into the world of animation (He first played with stopmotion techniques in The Life Aquatic). He applied his meticulous visual style to the form – mostly stopmotion using puppets, controlled by crew, some of whom worked on Tim Burton‘s Corpse Bride. Animation is a perfect ground for Anderson’s commitment to visual formality and handmade art direction. And that handmade, beautifully configured aesthetic is one that is endlessly drawn upon from Insta to ads to other films.
What’s really interesting is the way Anderson recorded the voice roles – George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Schwartzman… – outside: in a forest, an attic, a stable, even underground. That’s the kind of idea that helps make his films so unique and stylised, authentic and warm-feeling.
In a way, the films of Wes Anderson legitimised a certain whimsical quality in cinema – they brought to cinema audiences the meandering yet light-hearted yet understatedly emotional qualities of ’00s “mumblecore” movies like The Squid and the Whale (produced by Anderson) or Frances Ha, but set them against a hyper-stylised background, making them palatable to a wider audience. You could even probably go further – and say that that much of that “mumblecore” genre is likely influenced by Anderson’s ’90s movies: Bottle Rocket and Rushmore.
The children in Moonrise Kingdom and their story of adolescent love is given an adult sense of seriousness by Anderson and his all-star cast, while still feeling really warm. It’s arguable, but I think a film like Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird and its tender focus on young female relationships and its sparse early ’00s Sacamento setting couldn’t have been made without the aforementioned Baumbach films, as well as Anderson’s, in particular Moonrise Kingdom. The entire throughline of this film is also vintage Anderson – a story of innocence and childhood viewed through a nostalgic lens.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Grand Budapest Hotel is possibly Anderson’s master work – or at least it is in the eyes of many critics and much of his audience. The compelling crime caper is one of the best examples of Anderson’s ability to create immersive self-contained worlds with their own rules and conventions that seem as real as our own.
The movie scored a deserved Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, and was the second of three to star Swinton and Norton. The restricted colour palette and the rollicking wacky narrative is typical Anderson, as is the way it was shot: on location in Germany in Görlitz, Berlin and Saxony, just as The Life Aquatic was filmed on location in Naples, Ponza and the Italian Riviera. He also used miniature models again as he had in The Life Aquatic: wide shots of the hotel were actually shots of a handmade miniature model. Action movies have been using these kind of models for echelons, but it’s a quaint almost retro move that adds to the overall tone of the movie.
Oh and how could we forget that it birthed some of the best Kanye West-cross-Wes Anderson memes:
(God I hope this reemerges for Isle of Dogs. Speaking of, if you’re hella keen to see more of Wes Anderson’s work after reading this, don’t miss his latest work in cinemas April 12.)