I don’t just love Wes Anderson’s imaginary world, I want to live in it. I want to live among his characters and, even better, work with them. I once had a conversation with a movie-loving Catalan couple, over a lingering late supper in a Barcelona restaurant, in which they expressed their utter bewilderment over The Royal Tenenbaums. I mimed swooning with love for that film; they shook their heads. “The characters… the way they talk… it’s not real,” they said. They were flummoxed by the deadpan expressions and laboured dialogue. I had to reassure them that the Tenenbaums did, in caricature, represent a certain, distinctive North American type: intellectually serious but emotionally immature WASPs. “They’re my people!” I enthused, only at that moment realizing it to be true.
My people. My sensitive, tightly wound, passive aggressive, neurotic, overthinking, practical, ambitious, repressed people. More than anything, they want to be taken as seriously as they take the world. (Hence the lack of smiles.)
I admit there are Anderson films that I love less, but certain titles – Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel – I simply adore. Here is what I like about them:
Characters are often shown doing their jobs, at which they are good… very good. They are organized and diligent and serious and efficient to the point of mania. Wes Anderson’s perfect world is populated by people who take enormous pleasure in doing a job really, really well, whether it’s putting on a school play, scheduling precocious children, running a scout camp, searching for a missing person, or managing a large hotel. Not only do they excel at their work, but they approach every mundane task seriously and with a fanatical attention to detail. This dedication can seem entirely out of proportion, but their forward progress leaves slackers in the dust. Not that there are many slackers in this world. Those who thwart the main character’s plans do so simply because they too are doing their jobs very, very well. And even if their occupation is not high in status, these characters apply themselves wholeheartedly, living the saying “if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” In this hyper-distracted era, it’s a treat to envision a life simple enough to focus all your effort in one direction.
And everything is so organized! Characters are constantly formulating goals, making elaborate plans to achieve those goals, then executing these plans with surgical precision. Military-style discipline and teamwork make an appearance in every film. Everything becomes an ‘operation’: robberies, acts of revenge and sabotage, searches, rescues and escapes. Whether or not the objective of the operation is worthwhile is irrelevant. Pulling off a daring escape from a psychiatric facility is worth doing even though the patient is free to walk out the front door at any time (Bottle Rocket). The effort expended in achieving the goal is what gives the goal its value.
Another aspect I love is that adult characters speak to children and youth as equals.
SCOUT MASTER WARD
What’s your real job, sir?
SCOUT MASTER WARD (caught off-guard)
I’m a math teacher.
SCOUT MASTER WARD (stiffening)
Lazy-Eye shrugs. Scout Master Ward frowns.
SCOUT MASTER WARD
You know, we’re, actually, kind of, in the middle of something, if you didn’t notice. This is a crisis. Anybody else?
A little later…
Pause. Scout Master Ward wheels back to Lazy-Eye:
SCOUT MASTER WARD
I’m going to change my answer, in fact. This is my real job. Scout Master, Troop 55. That’s us. I’m proud of that.
The scouts look impressed but slightly lost.
I agree with you. That’s eloquent. I can’t argue against anything you’re saying — but I don’t have to, because you’re twelve years old.
Captain Sharp brings the skillet to the table and serves three links onto one plate and three onto another. He sits down.
Look, let’s face it, you’re probably a much more intelligent person than I am. In fact, I guarantee it — but even smart kids sometimes stick their fingers in electrical sockets, if you see what I mean. It takes time to figure things out. It’s been proven by history: all mankind makes mistakes. It’s our job to try to protect you from the dangerous ones. If we can.
Captain Sharp pours an inch of beer into a glass and slides it over to Sam.
You want a slug?
The characters are all children, in the very best sense.
They approach life, adversity, and love with the absolute openness and candour of children. Their straightforward approach to the world is echoed on every level in Anderson’s films. Characters look straight into the camera’s lens. The viewer looks straight at every scene, nothing in the mise en scène is hidden from view. There are no sneaky angles and few fancy camera moves. We engage with every scene head-on, just as the characters do. Most characters speak frankly and honestly, and even tricksters like Royal Tenenbaum fall back on plain speech and confession as soon as they are caught out in a lie. Life is not simple, but its complexity is something we can figure out and tackle, each in our own way and on our own terms.
The jobs these characters hold are a child’s vision of work, with strict rules and simple requirements. When a child imagines him/herself fully grown in a grownup job, their ideal selves might resemble the adults in these films, handling every situation with perfect aplomb.
These characters – Ed Norton’s scout leader for example – approach their work with the same intensity that an eight-year-old starts a club and takes the weekly attendance in a notebook, carefully noting the date and placing checkmarks by each name.
Max Fischer (Rushmore) was the first exemplar of this, as the founder of dozens of clubs, and creator of many acclaimed theatrical productions. At the same time, this Renaissance teen is failing every class, apparently the worst student Rushmore Academy has ever had. His accomplishments are solely on his own terms, as he chooses what to apply his energy to. The Tenenbaums form the young-adult sequel to gifted teenhood. Moonrise Kingdom pits ambitious, idealistic teens against adults who don’t seem to have progressed very far, despite their age and experience.
Steve Zissou and M. Gustave are simply more fantastical extrapolations of the over-achieving Max Fischer, effectively helming large, complex organizations.
This repeated elaboration of the disciplined, obsessive work ethic wins me over totally. Like any good freelancer, I have a hazy nostalgic envy of anyone with a straightforward, old-fashioned job. I fantasize about sitting down at a large desk, with an IN tray on the right hand side and an OUT tray on the left. I pull sheets of paper from the IN tray, deal with them (somehow, with a nice fountain pen) and place them in the OUT tray. It doesn’t have to be easy work, it could involve great thought and application, but it is work that is possible to do excellently well. And when the IN tray is empty, my work day is a success. So satisfying!
Here’s the best part. The care and attention to detail that is apparent in all of Anderson’s films is proof that he himself approaches his work in the same way his characters do. I imagine a Wes Anderson film set as the Anderson-universe in microcosm, where every job is worth doing well and efficiency rules the day. Which may be why certain actors (Bill Murray most notably) show up time and time again, like returning scout camp veterans.
What perplexed my Catalan friends the most about Wes Anderson’s characters – their buried emotions and awkward, formal speech – is exactly what makes my heart ache the most. They are simply children, stating their intentions directly, without subterfuge or guile, and looking us right in the eye to see our reaction.