Soon after the release of Moonrise Kingdom, I was talking to a friend, who graduated with a film studies degree, about movies. We discussed Scorsese’s genius–he stood by Taxi Driver as Scorsese’s best, complaining about the repackaging of Robert DeNiro (as an actor in second- or third-rate comedies instead of the acting giant he is), while I argued GoodFellas was easily on top. We agreed The Birds was the highlight of Alfred Hitchcock’s career, and we similarly praised the master of suspense. We weighed The Godfather versus Citizen Kane, conceding that The Godfather was the better of the two and therefore the best movie ever made. Then he posed a question:
“What about modern directors–do you like Wes Anderson?”
I told him I did, and I gave generic praise for Moonrise Kingdom. My friend shook his head.
“He’s too cutesy,” he said.
His sentiment is echoed by many. Anderson is a success, sure–he’s been nominated for three Academy Awards–but there is still a section of movie lovers who love to hate him and his signature aesthetic. Instead of artistic, Anderson’s films are juvenile–they’re “cutesy”. They lack the raw robustness of other, better movies.
I wholeheartedly disagree.
Anderson is far from a “cutesy” director. He is one of the greats, in the leagues with Scorsese. His movies are different from Scorsese’s, but all great movies are not alike.
While Scorsese is somewhat darker, Anderson’s eccentric aesthetic–colorful and sometimes whimsical sets and costumes make the world in a Wes Anderson movie look like a toy or a storybook–paints every shot like a work of art in of itself. Anderson employs long takes and cuts in camera; those long scenes become more of a feat as everybody seemingly hits their marks, like the first scene of Moonrise Kingdom. Anderson’s characters, whether the Tenenbaum family in The Royal Tenenbaums, Max Fischer in Rushmore or the two kids, Suzy Bishop and Sam Shakusky, in Moonrise Kingdom, are lovable, quirky and sometimes humorously dark without losing depth or growing tiresome. His films are more comedic than dramatic (sometimes blurring the line between the two) and possess over-the-top or slapstick components that are just weird enough to be likeable, just exaggerated enough to be funny and just sincere enough to make the film better.
Anderson’s most recent, The Grand Budapest Hotel, exemplifies his exceptional use of color, featuring bright, crimson walls in the hotel, deep, purple uniforms on the staff and delicate, pink and green pastries from Mendl’s that become crucial to the story. Every scene is beautiful, and the fake, painted backdrop only adds to artistic quality. Not only is Anderson’s mastery of color and staging exceptional, it is unique.
Grand Budapest mocks its own earnestness, as do many of Anderson’s films. A borderline cliched, moral-of-the-story line is broken with an f-bomb and a scoff. The storybook feel (and actual storytelling in Grand Budapest) is contrasted with parts of the story that would never be included in a children’s novel, like M. Gustav’s slew of affairs with hotel guests, exclusively old, rich women, in Grand Budapest.
In each film, Anderson creates a world. In Grand Budapest, it’s the European country Zubrowska and that grand hotel. In Moonrise Kingdom, it’s the charming island of Penzance. In The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, it’s his boat, the Belafonte. Each of these worlds Anderson has created are enticing and endlessly fascinating. They are toy worlds that are not fragile, and they are completely created and contained in roughly 100 minutes. Each world Anderson creates is extraordinary, but there is one in particular that is especially exceptional.
The world of Rushmore Academy.
To me, Rushmore, Anderson’s second film, is among the few perfect films ever made and certainly my favorite of Wes Anderson’s. Jason Schwartzman, at the very beginning of his career, plays Max Fischer, a student at Rushmore Academy, who is so involved in extracurriculars, he is failing most of his classes. He is constantly writing and directing plays, forming clubs, drafting petitions and getting everybody involved in one of his schemes. Fischer is unusual, enthusiastic and naive. He is Anderson’s quintessential creation.
The basis of Fischer’s character is easily summed up with one of his lines after Bill Murray’s character asks what the secret is (to life, presumably): “The secret, I don’t know… I guess you’ve just gotta find something you love to do and then… do it for the rest of your life. For me, it’s going to Rushmore.”
Rushmore, more so than Bottle Rocket (his first), was the beginning of many distinctive Wes Anderson touches. Anderson first uses annotations in Rushmore to display all the clubs and student organizations Fischer is a part of–from president of French Club and the Rushmore Beekeepers to founder of the Astronomy Society–and then uses them again in his other films, notably in The Royal Tenenbaums when outlining Margot Tenenbaum’s indiscretions. Rushmore is also the first time we see Jason Schwartzman as well as Bill Murray, who both continue to appear in many of Anderson’s films (Schwartzman, Murray or both appeared in every Anderson film after Rushmore even voicing characters in the animated Fantastic Mr. Fox and having cameo appearances in Grand Budapest).
As a stand-alone film, Rushmore is clever, funny and addictive. Well-written, well-cast and well-directed. Unique, witty and signature.
While Anderson’s films are quintessentially his and share components, aesthetics and actors from each, they are still singular, individual works of art. Separate from his other films, The Grand Budapest Hotel is still a good movie, Moonrise Kingdom is still a good movie, Rushmore is still a good movie. Throughout his career Anderson has achieved the impossible: He has created a genre so signaturely his own yet still managed to make every film in that genre simultaneously dependent on and independent of the other films.
Wes Anderson should unquestionably be considered amongst the elite club of revered and remembered great directors. His achievement in film exceeds Oscar nominations and wins; it is an achievement, like his films, truly unique unto itself.