Dartmouth Film Society Focuses on Director Wes Anderson
A scene from The Darjeeling Limited
The Royal Tenenbaums
A scene from Moonrise Kingdom
A scene from Wes Anderson's 'Rushmore'
L ike marzipan or Turkish Delight, the films of Wes Anderson are a taste you acquire — or not. His movies, eight in all, are the focus of a Dartmouth Film Society retrospective that begins this Sunday at 4 p.m. in the Loew Auditorium in the Black Family Visual Arts Center with his first film, Bottle Rocket , and ends May 25 with his current release, The Grand Budapest Hotel .
He’s a director whose style is routinely and a little lazily described as “quirky” and “whimsical,” which in some critical circles is the kiss of death. What they mean is that his style can seem overdetermined, and his use of literary voice-overs and stories about misunderstood prodigies affected, as if he’s so intent on setting himself apart from standard Hollywood fare that he goes too far in the other direction and squeezes the life out of his movies.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say his films are a matter of style over substance, because he has a delicate empathy for the misfits of life, and he has a unique voice. But sometimes he puts too much weight on how things look rather than how they make us feel.
When Anderson is at the top of his game, however, he’s one of the most original directors working. The way he crowds his screen with daffy objects and eccentric imagery makes his films look like a Joseph Cornell box: there’s a lot going on in them. It takes a while to acclimate yourself to that universe, you have to pay close attention, and there’s something mysterious but instinctively right about how he gets his actors to move through a scene.
He has a natural eye for life’s comedies, the accidents and slapstick and weird little moments happening on the periphery of a scene, which makes him more like one of the silent film comics — a Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd — than a 21st-century studio hack. And he has a rapport with children and adolescents, understanding that their world is in a freer, more imaginative universe than the one inhabited by adults, with their rigid rules and absurd expectations.
He’s also assembled a stock company, including Owen and Luke Wilson, Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman, who are gifted actors but more importantly bring intuitive comic sensibilities to a scene. Last, he is one of the few film directors whose use of music is uncannily right. Like Scorsese, he knows intuitively which songs to use to amplify a moment or scene.
I’m fonder of Anderson’s earlier movies, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore , than I am of the later films, although all of them have some inspired set pieces, which might be part of the problem. The Royal Tenenbaums , The Darjeeling Limited and Moonrise Kingdom have marvelous, individual sequences but as a whole they don’t hang together as stories.
On the other hand, Fantastic Mr. Fox , Anderson’s adaptation of the Roald Dahl children’s book, is an inspired piece of work. Shot in old-fashioned stop-motion animation, the film is visually wondrous, filled with clever visual and verbal punning. It retains Dahl’s irreverence while adding Anderson’s sweetness, a quality Dahl could never be accused of having.
I wonder whether Anderson, who is Texan but now divides his time between New York and Europe, should think about returning there, at least to make a movie. (I haven’t yet seen The Grand Budapest Hotel .) Bottle Rocket and Rushmore , both set in Texas, have a wonderful loopy quality. The delight of a great comedy is that it makes the illogical logical, and the logical illogical, and both films have that quality in abundance.
Rushmore is a near-perfect comedy, I think. Set at a boys prep school in Houston, the 1998 film follows 15-year-old Max Fischer, an intellectually precocious, wildly ambitious kid who’s there on a scholarship. He’s got a younger, loyal sidekick named D irk Calloway, but no friends otherwise because, basically, he’s impossible, a seething mass of resentment and loneliness.
When Herman Blume, the father of two students and a wealthy, self-made man, gives a talk to the assembled student body in which he urges them to “take dead aim on the rich kids,” an impressed Max decides to befriend him.
They strike up an unorthodox alliance: the unhappy millionaire trapped in a stifling existence, and the boy who pretends to be the son of a successful neurosurgeon. But things get complicated when they both fall for the same woman, a teacher named Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), and battle each other for her affections.
Jason Schwartzman is letter-perfect as a smarty pants who can’t conceal an innate, and frequently misguided, sense of his own superiority. At the same time, his life motto could be the old Groucho Marx saw about not wanting to belong to a club that would have him as a member.
The movie’s not-so-secret weapon is Bill Murray as the depressed Blume. What a doleful, almost dog-like face he has here, the tiniest shifts in his expression conveying boredom, despair, disappointment, affection and mostly, resignation. With the exception of Bottle Rocket , Murray has been in all of Anderson’s movies, and to each h e brings his genius for the deadpan delivery and unexpected bursts of sly, physical comedy.
Sometimes I’m impatient with Anderson’s affectations but on the whole I’m glad his films exist. In an era of Hollywood mediocrity, Anderson is a filmmaker of principle and witty invention. I’d like to look inside his brain to see how it works — I imagine a Rube Goldberg universe of sleight of hand, chain reaction and firecracker surprises — but in a way I don’t need to: his films tell us what we need to know.
For information call the Hopkins Center Box Office at 603-646-2422 or go to hop.dartmouth.edu/Online/film .
Nicola Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.