It is very rarely the case that seemingly every still in a movie bears the distinctive stylistic fingerprint of its director. Yet it’s difficult to deny the unmistakability of Wes Anderson, the baby-faced American auteur who for 22 years has been serving up meticulously curated picaresque scenarios in warm pastel hues. Even Anderson’s dialogue, with its blend of the grandiloquent and the jocular and its built-in comedic timing (“In summation, I think you just gotta not do it, man.”), is almost impossible to misattribute.
The work of Wes Anderson is the subject of a pending Smithsonian retrospective, which will begin at the National Museum of American History this evening and continue for the next four days. Over the course of the special event, all eight of Anderson’s major pre-Isle of Dogs big screen efforts will be shared with ticket-holding museumgoers of the Washington, D.C. public. Presented out of chronological order, the menu of movies will keep viewers on their toes and invite novel comparisons.
The Life Aquatic, which kicks off the retrospective, seemed a kind of mission statement for Anderson when it appeared on the scene in 2004. Its protagonist, a star-crossed oceanographer on a quest of revenge against the shark that stole his best friend, is a glaringly imperfect incarnation of Le Monde du silence legend Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Captain Steve Zissou (played by Bill Murray) struggles to impose order on his environment throughout the film, never stepping back to appreciate the absurd comedy and natural beauty unfolding all around him.
Dour and nearly impossible to satisfy, Zissou manages to stay stern-faced even while sporting his trademark salmon-colored beanie and baby blue shirt. It is easy to imagine this character as someone Anderson wants to avoid becoming, a cautionary tale for him to bear in mind as he continues to refine his own obsessive process. Anderson asserts his personal commitment to imagination and wonder by dialing the wackiness in Aquatic up to 11—arguably no other film of his is as aggressively out there as this one, whose soundtrack is dominated by Portuguese-language David Bowie covers performed live onscreen by Brazilian musician Seu Jorge.
The Life Aquatic was not the first time Anderson had evinced an affinity for Jacques Cousteau in his filmmaking—Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), the brash prep school protagonist of his 1998 movie Rushmore, proudly flaunts Cousteau’s book Diving for Sunken Treasures in the school library. Fischer, who spends the movie jockeying with sad sack industrialist Herman Blume (Murray again) for the heart of a widowed schoolteacher (Olivia Williams), is another instance of an Anderson leading male who takes Cousteau’s bold, masculine example the wrong way. Unlike Zissou, though, Fischer is charming and charismatic, and it’s easy for viewers to tumble down the rabbit hole with him.
This forceful charm is common to several other Anderson stars, perhaps most notably the incurable night bandit Mr. Fox (voiced to a tee by George Clooney). Mr. Fox wins us over in spite of his “wild animal” impulses through suaveness, savvy and casual confidence (“I used to steal birds, but now I’m a newspaperman.”). Similarly, in The Grand Budapest Hotel, we easily dismiss the profligate lifestyle of M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) on the basis of his own eloquence and aplomb (“Ten? Are you joking? That’s more than I’d pay an actual dealer, and you wouldn’t know chiaroscuro from chicken giblets.”).
In contrast to these models of competence and sophistication stands Dignan, the oafish hero of Anderson’s breakout film Bottle Rocket. Portrayed by Owen Wilson (also making his debut in the movie business), Dignan is someone who bumbles his way through life, a lovable naïf who dreams of pulling off the perfect heist and riding off into the sunset with a sage landscaper-criminal called Mr. Henry. Dignan’s childlike yearning to find happiness and good in the world is an early signal of Anderson’s penchant for viewing life through youthful eyes.
While never fully abandoning Dignan’s starry-eyed wonder when writing younger characters for his subsequent films, what Anderson did start to do was blend his naïve youthful archetype with his charismatic archetype. The resulting precocious children combined Dignan’s positive-minded search for meaning with the shrewdness and linguistic precision of a Mr. Fox. Indeed, even within Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), we see this sort of questioning wunderkind model represented in Cousin Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson), who in addition to being a star whack-bat player is an assiduous chemistry student and frequent voice of reason.
Of course, Anderson’s ultimate ode to childhood adventure was 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom, whose two winsome runaways—coonskin cap-clad Sam (Jared Gilman) and his bereted beloved Suzy (Kara Hayward)—are kids that exhibit in spades both headiness and practicality. The maturity of Sam’s outlook is perhaps best illustrated by his reflection on the unexpected slaying of his wire-hair terrier. When Suzy asks Sam, “Was he a good dog?,” the boy pauses and replies coolly, “Who’s to say? But he didn’t deserve to die.”
Moonrise Kingdom is a standout achievement not only for its dialogue and rich musical underpinning (the film was scored by Frenchman Alexandre Desplat, who went on to net a statuette for Budapest Hotel and another, more recently, for Del Toro’s The Shape of Water) but also for its painstaking presentation. From the first moments of the movie, which involve a series of long, precise pans across the dollhouse-like rooms of Suzy’s home, it is clear that the viewer is in for a formalist feast for the eyes.
The stop-motion animation of Fantastic Mr. Fox (and later Isle of Dogs) gave Anderson essentially unlimited control over the aesthetic of each shot, and that film teems with parallel lines (take a look at Ash’s bedroom) and striking symmetries. That Anderson manages many of the same gorgeous effects even with live action—in Kingdom (Sam and Suzy’s sultry beach dance springs to mind) and in Budapest (Gustave and Zero’s initial walk through the hotel, the prison break sequence, etc.)—is a testament to his skill and dedication.
Since Anderson’s indie debut in 1996, his popularity and acclaim have only grown. Where Bottle Rocket had a cast of then-unknowns, his most recent effort, Isle of Dogs (now playing), is preposterously star-studded, featuring the voices of Bryan Cranston, Ed Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson and Yoko Ono—to name a few. Trends in filmmaking conventions may come and go with the years, but it seems safe to say that the stylistic genius of Wes Anderson has impacted cinema indelibly.
Smithsonian Theaters is presenting the Wes Anderson restrospective in the Warner Brothers Theater at the National Museum of American History from April 4 through April 8, 2018.