The Wonderful Year of Wes Anderson

“On TikTok, people are romanticizing ordinary activities by recording and editing them into videos that try to imitate the cinematic style of Wes Anderson, the American filmmaker known for an eccentric style characterized by symmetry, distinctive color palettes and a bit of quirkiness.”

The above quote comes from an April 2023 article in The New York Times, written by Jesus Jiménez, entitled, “How to Make Your Life Into a Wes Anderson Film.” The article goes on lay out, step-by-step…how to make your life into a Wes Anderson film. Jiménez cites quick cutting, symmetrical framing, and quirky music as sure-fire ways to turn your everyday life into an Andersonian feature.

Similarly, The Afterparty, a murder mystery comedy series, uses each episode to emulate, and sometimes mock, the tropes and styles of different film genres. In the fourth episode of the second season, instead of poking fun at a specific genre, the episode picks on Anderson specifically, describing the episode’s style as a “twee indie film.” Twee? Really? The episode then uses the same how-to method used in the viral TikTok trend and gives its best Wes Anderson impression. The lead actress in the episode, Anna Konkle, is even doing her version of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Margot Tenenbaum, of The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), thus classifying the episode as a visual spoof and merging with the TikTok trend in a singular “Wes Anderson Moment.”

The whole trend is insulting.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Anderson had this to say regarding the replication of his life’s work: “It’s a bit like if you’re told, ‘Your friend does a great version of you.’ Maybe you say, I’d really like to see it, and maybe you say, I don’t want to see a version of me, even if it’s good. It can be like, ‘Is that me?’” In the same interview, Anderson goes on to liken his “style” as his handwriting, and that perhaps people are picking up on the way he writes. The trendy recreation of his “handwriting” is like a serial killer chopping up magazine pieces and spelling out in big pastel letters, “THIS IS A WES ANDERSON MOVIE, AND I, TOO, AM QUIRKY AND ARTISTIC.”You're in a Wes Anderson film"(tiktok compilation) - YouTube

The replication of Anderson’s work isn’t all bad. It’s brought attention to one of America’s great working auteurs, and I’m not here to gate-keep Anderson’s filmography; the more cinephiles, the better. What embitters me about social media’s reproduction of Anderson’s work is the removal of the essential piece of Anderson’s so-called “aesthetic:” his soul. Read anything about Anderson’s life, anything at all, and you’ll see the details of his life that formed the way he makes his movies, from his father’s career as an architect to his early ambitions as a writer. Boiling Anderson’s life story down into a series of symmetrical shots and pastel colors is about the same as reducing Scorsese’s career to a Rolling Stone’s needle drop over a tracking shot that ends in a freeze frame, or Nolan’s filmography into non-linear narratives with a blue-green color palette and a white male protagonist in a suit (okay, maybe the last one applies). In short, if Anderson is some form of a pastel Picasso, and the imitation of his work is a paint-by-number, at best.

And yet, despite my apparent distaste for the near-mockery of Anderson’s work, my feelings toward his prominence in the current culture are paradoxical; I love that Anderson and his films are becoming more popular among the general audience, but I sometimes disapprove of how his works and style are received and interpreted. Nevertheless, when I take stock of his visual aesthetic’s eminence on social media and the carbon casting of his artistic flair in episodic television, paired with the fact that, in a span of five months, he released one feature film and four short films, I have come to affectionately refer to this year, 2023, as The Wonderful Year of Wes Anderson. While the first half of the year got off to a rocky start (see complaints enumerated above), the second half has been what can only be described as, well, wonderful. 

Asteroid City - Rotten Tomatoes

Asteroid City debuted at Cannes in May, followed by a wide release in June. While Anderson’s films are known to boast impressive ensemble casts, none are more hefty, more star-striking, and more talented than that of Asteroid City, which features that acting talents of Scarlett Johansson, Jason Schwartzman, Margot Robbie, Tom Hanks, Adrien Brody, Edward Norton, Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton, Steve Carell, Liev Schreiber, and Jeffery Wright, among others; in a year that released the billion-dollar-double-feature with the all-star casts (that’s Oppenheimer and Barbie), this cast trumps all. The story of the film is simple: it’s about a father, Augie, and his children, who travel to Asteroid City, Arizona, to attend an astronomy convention for his son, Woodrow, while also juggling the loss of Augie’s wife and the children’s mother, and further, their encounters with other parents, young astronomers, and possibly, extraterrestrial beings.

Actually, it’s about a troupe of actors, in 1950s New York City, who are putting on a play, written by Conrad Earp and directed by Schubert Green, called “Asteroid City,” which is about a father, Augie, and his family, who travel to Asteroid City, Arizona, to attend an astronomy convention for his son, Woodrow, while also juggling the loss of Augie’s wife and the children’s mother, and further, their encounters with other parents, young astronomers, and possibly, extraterrestrial beings.

Actually, it’s about an anthology television program, hosted by Bryan Cranston’s “Host,” which is televising a live production about a troupe of actors in New York City who are putting on a play, written by Conrad Earp and directed by Schubert Green, called “Asteroid City,” which is about a father, Augie, and his family, who travel to Asteroid City, Arizona, to attend an astronomy convention for his son, Woodrow, while also juggling the loss of Augie’s wife and the children’s mother, and further, their encounters with other parents, young astronomers, and possibly, extraterrestrial beings.

In case you missed it, there are multiple framing devices and levels of story at play inside Asteroid City. Scarlett Johansson, the actress, plays Mercedes Ford, an actress, who plays Midge Campbell, an actress. Initially, the structure feels pedantic, but comes to prove necessary in the emotional climax of the movie, when Margot Robbie’s “actress who plays Augie’s dead wife” recounts the dialogue of a scene cut from the play between herself and Augie. The scene has more depth and sincerity than anything that takes place within the play, but of course, it’s supposed to feel that way. “Augie” and “Dead Wife” are characters, played by Schwartzman’s “Jones Hall” and Robbie’s “Actress.” In Anderson’s constructed world, Hall goes on the journey of discovery, not of an alien being or life beyond our world, but in understanding the meaning of art, and why stories are important. The audience is not meant to understand what occurs within the play, “Asteroid City,” but understand the emotions of the characters who are acting in the play, because they are the closest depictions of us, the audience.

Shortly before his encounter with Robbie’s Actress, Schwartzman’s Hall has a conversation with Adrien Brody’s Schubert Green (director) about the objective of the play, the motivation of his character, and if he’s “playing him right.”

“I still don’t understand the play,” says Hall.

Green replies, “Doesn’t matter. Just keep telling the story.”

Dahl by Anderson – A Quartet of Wes Anderson Short Films (2023) Netflix –  The Video File Blog

This encounter highlights Anderson’s interest, not in the story itself, but in the idea of stories, and how the structure of stories is as important as the story itself. This theme of “stories,” has been with Anderson since the beginning of his career, from the narration-by-obituary format in The Royal Tenenbaums to the New Yorker-esque short story anatomy of The French Dispatch. It’s no coincidence that his collection of shorts recently distributed on Netflix, consisting of The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, The Swan, The Rat Catcher, and Poison, utilizes the same story-in-a-story composition.

Anderson told The Daily Beast that the four shorts are separate from each other, but due to the fact that he uses the same hexad of actors (Benedict Cumberbatch, Dev Patel, Rupert Friend, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley, and Richard Ayode) in each, and utilizes Roald Dahl as a character/narrator in all four shorts, I simply refer the shorts as  “Wes Anderson Presents Roald Dahl.”

This isn’t the first time the filmmaker has presented the author, either. In 2009, Anderson release Fantastic Mr. Fox, a feature-length adaptation of a feature-length Dahl novel, and while Dahl’s words and imagination are still evident on screen, the film is still an adaptation; the shorts are something more. They are a direct and exact visualization of Dahl’s words and stories, equipped with each character describing their actions in prose-style fashion and Ralph Fiennes’ Roald Dahl as a character, narrating his own story when necessary. The choice to have the actors recite, word for word, exactly what they are adapting is a narrative decision I have never seen in a film before.

I recently read a criticism of the shorts, which stated that because film is a visual medium, the spoken exposition of the film is unnecessary and insulting to the audience. As a loyal member of the un-insulted audience, I took offense to such a criticism, so I took to the Internet to see what Anderson himself had to say on the matter, and I found my defense. In an interview with Screen Rant, Anderson said, “When I finally had the moment of inspiration, the idea was: “I am equally interested in the way Dahl tells the story as I am in the story itself.” The story completely hooked me as a child, but if you take away his words, well, I guess, it’s not a movie I felt compelled to do. It’s a great Dahl story, but if I do it using his words, his descriptions, then maybe I know how to do it. You are being told the story directly. That’s why Dahl is in it, because he is the storyteller, not just the author. And the actors are both playing the scene and reciting Dahl’s words.” Anderson’s explanation of the structure of the shorts not only justifies the use of essayistic exposition, but also adheres to the theme he made abundantly clear in Asteroid City. Whether it’s the words of real-life author Roald Dahl’s novels or the fictional play of fiction playwright Conrad Earp, you can count on Wes Anderson to do one thing: keep telling the story. Take that, uninitiated critic; I win.

Asteroid City and “Wes Anderson Presents Roald Dahl” differ in quality and in emotional resonance. As a fan of Steven Spielberg and gambling movies, Asteroid City and The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar hooked me the most, but whatever your preference is, if you have one at all, it’s impossible to not recognize that what Wes Anderson is doing in the medium is entirely singular, and his work demands to be seen. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that his style dominated  TikTok’s algorithm for a time. Oscar Wilde once said that “life imitates art far more than art imitates life,” and I’ll be the first to say that if life has to imitate anything, there may be no better art to imitate than Anderson’s. Sure, we may be deadpanned, depressive, and lonely, but we’re all headed there anyway, so at least the colors will be pretty and the outfits will be stylish. The structure may feel convoluted and nonsensical, but then, I often think of the words of Dahl himself: “A little nonsense now and then, is relished by the wisest men.”

brysonschubert

Hey, my name is Bryson! My favorite movie is Ferris Bueller's Day Off. My three favorite filmmakers are Rian Johnson, Edgar Wright, and Quentin Tarantino. You can find me on Letterboxd @brysonschubert!

brysonschubert

Hey, my name is Bryson! My favorite movie is Ferris Bueller's Day Off. My three favorite filmmakers are Rian Johnson, Edgar Wright, and Quentin Tarantino. You can find me on Letterboxd @brysonschubert!

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