This is a long, rambling essay about my personal relationship with the films of Wes Anderson. You don’t have to read it before starting the retrospective. But it might give you an idea of where I’m coming from.
In the ‘90s a hotshot director came out of nowhere with a stylish little crime movie that got good press. His sophomore effort came two years later and tore through the film world, changing the face of American independent film for a good long while. This director is Quentin Tarantino.
But it’s also true that the people QT brought into cinema culture skewed to one side of the cinephile spectrum, the end populated by the Brian DePalmas and the Kinji Fukusakus. This isn’t QT’s fault. He’s a cultural omnivore. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is as indebted to Godard as it is to John Woo. But most people who love it are likely to try Woo first. Woo’s films just look cooler. And they don’t come with the baggage of art and pretension that define the name Godard. But any proper cinematic education is as steeped in the French New Wave as it is in New Hong Kong Cinema.
And even if Wes Anderson’s films list to the Truffaut end of the New Wave, that’s the niche he’s filled. The auteur of quirky dysfunction is the other director to crossover into mainstream notability since the ’90s. And you can probably replace QT’s name in the first paragraph with his and get pretty much the same outcome. In some ways the two play complementary roles. While Tarantino schooled the new generation on cult and exploitation, Anderson introduced them to the independent cinema and Modernism.
At least, that’s how their movies played for me. I grew up in the small South Asian country of Bangladesh. We have movie theaters. But they mostly show new Bengali movies of the mass appeal commercial variety. Sometimes a Hindi movie. No, our big exposure to movies was TV. Channels like Star Movies and HBO (the Indian HBO, it’s not like the American one) showing movies 24/7. But the range and diversity of these movies was pretty small: stuff everyone wants to see, stuff they could get the rights to and stuff people would watch over and over again. Home Alone was on a lot. As was You’ve Got Mail.
But, sometimes, you’d get a weird one. One that slipped through the filter. The Lost Boys was strangely popular. And then there was the time I ran smack dab into The Royal Tenenbaums. It was the morning after a sleepover with my favorite cousin. Naturally I was a bit out of it as I sat in front of the TV munching my breakfast. And, for some reason, Star Movies decided that 10:30 a.m. on a brisk morning was a perfect time to play out the droll reunion drama of the Tenenbaum clan. It was like a kick in the teeth. I’d seen nothing like it before. So particular. So dense. So weird and creative and different. I had no idea what it was. Star Movies played the movies without commercial breaks and I had missed the title card. I just slumped there, watching. I wouldn’t understand what I was watching until much, much later.
It was around the time of bootleg DVDs that I finally got into movies. Let’s say it was 2006. Here was a simple, easy and inexpensive (about $1 each) way to watch movies. And I took to it like a duck. But, it might have stayed a quick flirtation if it wasn’t for my Dad.
My Dad makes documentaries. I have about as much interest in my Dad’s work as most people do in their father’s creative efforts. But he also teaches film. And though I have never taken a class with him (*shudder*), I think he might be pretty good at teaching. He must have been super excited to introduce me to movies. But he never overplayed his hand. Not when I started reading his film history books and not when I started pilfering DVDs from his collection. But, occasionally, he’d go on his DVD shopping trips and bring me back something. Once he got me two discs. One was The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a bootleg of the Criterion release. The other was a copy of The 400 Blows. It’s been about 8 years since then. I haven’t quite recovered.
I saw the rest of Anderson’s movies pretty soon after that. There was something about them that resonated with a young upper-class Bengali kid. And it wasn’t just me. By the time I was in high school Anderson movies were a form of cultural capital. You could judge people’s taste in movies by how much Tarantino and Anderson they’d seen. But it wasn’t an elitist kind of judgment. It was the kind of judgment that made you want to arrange a hang out for the specific purpose of showing them The Royal Tenenbaums.
I’ve seen a lot more movies since then. And I know a lot more about them. I don’t know nearly as much as I would like to. And my analysis is still pretty poor. But I think it’s about time to look back at the movies that got me started on this crazy life binge and talk about what I think of them now.
So join me if you’d like and together we’ll step into the breach. A breach filled with arrested development, dollhouse details and a punchy British Invasion soundtrack. Hopefully it’ll be fun.
*The title is stolen from Matt Zoller Seitz’s wonderful book.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)