There are certain directors that push the buttons of cinephiles and send us to extreme viewpoints. Every time they release a new film, the writing often focuses on our feelings about the perceived value of that filmmaker. Are they artistically worthwhile? Why do they keep doing the same thing? A prime example is Wes Anderson, who’s returned to prominence with The Grand Budapest Hotel this month. It’s one of the most anticipated early 2014 films and arrives in St. Louis next week. Anderson has plenty of devoted fans, so I don’t feel the need to defend why I think he’s a good artist. Instead, what puzzles me is the continued anger from cynics who despise his work. There’s nothing wrong with disliking any movie, but roping all his films together into a singular vision feels short-sighted.
A recent example is Noah Gittell’s “The Case against Wes Anderson” for the Movie Mezzanine. It’s a well-written piece that includes solid points about Anderson’s characters reflecting his persona. The question is whether that’s truly a problem. Woody Allen has faced this charge for years, yet there is something to the “write what you know” idea for plenty of artists. Why should Anderson push down the aspects that make him original? There’s also the charge that he steps too far beyond reality with his films. It seems we could make the same attack on Terry Gilliam, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, or Michel Gondry. Why put creative directors in a box and ask them to conform to our ideas about what constitutes a film?
Here is an excerpt from Gittell’s piece that elaborates on this criticism:
“Movies, of course, don’t need to be set in a world that precisely mirrors our own for them to be relatable. But reality in some form – whether it’s in the setting or in characters who behave in ways that we understand – must be present. In other words, there must be a way in, a way for us to bridge that divide between the fantasies of the screen and our recognizable realities.”
Let’s examine this statement for a moment. The idea that a certain connection “must be present” in films doesn’t allow for each of us to take our own approach to cinema. It’s true that finding a common bond with the characters in a movie can make it succeed for audiences. Even so, that assumes that we’re all seeking the same thing when we watch a movie. Looking specifically at Anderson, this premise also theorizes that his work can’t deliver that association. That’s quite a statement for a director with eight feature films covering a wide swath of territory. His films may be artificial, but that’s an essential part of the movie experience. Even many documentaries are a construct with specified heroes and villains designed to elicit certain emotions from the viewers.
The strongest example for me is Moonrise Kingdom. It’s shot with Anderson’s trademark style, but it’s hardly a soulless endeavor. The teenage romance at the center of the story has plenty of heart within the whimsy. There’s also a growing father-son bond, a married couple struggling to connect, and an overzealous scout leader hoping to prove his worth. The film has so much character that it nearly bursts from all that energy. There’s nothing wrong with disagreeing with my take, however. The danger is using a few parts of the movie as part of an all-encompassing hate of the filmmaker.
A more nuanced take comes from Stephanie Zacharek’s Village Voice piece titled “I’m Trying to Love Wes Anderson, That Miniaturist Puppet Master”. She writes about struggling with the live-action films of Anderson and only loving The Fantastic Mr. Fox. This line is a key argument in her take: “Characters in live-action Wes Anderson movies have adventures, yet there's no sense of adventure in them.” That’s a question that hangs over each of our reactions to his work. Do we reject the thought of a puppet master yanking his characters through a story? Or does his vision lead to wonder and delight? Zacharek’s criticism makes sense, particularly with my least favorite Anderson film — The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. That story appears less organic and more of a lark. Characters die and I feel little for them, and my reaction connects with critics who look that way upon all of his work.
What irritates me about simplistic vitriol against Anderson and other filmmakers is that it disregards their ability to grow and evolve. The music world has similar artists like Belle and Sebastian that lost devoted fans because they weren’t following a certain path. Their reaction makes sense, but it also leads to one-note criticisms. Even a detested guy like Michael Bay received more of a chance when he released Pain and Gain last year. Dismissing Anderson as just doing the same thing is too easy. Gittell essentially ropes all of his lead characters into the same type, and that’s hardly true. Dignan’s false ideas of grandeur in Bottle Rocket are much different than Max Fisher’s unrequited obsession for a teacher in Rushmore. Why try to put everyone in a box?
I’ve experienced a similar feeling with John Sayles, who’s explored diverse communities in 18 features. The reviews tend to fall into a pattern and call out familiar points about his independence and lack of technical ability. Spike Lee still is viewed by many as a director who only focuses on race, yet his output covers a wide range of subjects. There’s nothing wrong with injecting our love or dislike for a director within a review. Certain themes repeat across their careers, yet that’s hardly a sign of failure. Martin Scorsese has frequently covered spiritual territory and guilt, but he’s considered a skilled “auteur”. Let’s give Anderson the same breadth to grow without resorting to tired complaints. The Grand Budapest Hotel may work for you or fall flat, but at least give it a shot to stand on its own merits. Let’s dial back the hate and focus on the movies. That’s the point, right?
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