Playlist #12: Wes Anderson

Definition of QUIRKY: “adjective strikingly unconventional or given to idiosyncrasies.”

Part of the process of commodification for the purpose of selling a product to the largest audience possible means sticking a label on it: “there you go folks, that’s what it is, clearly labelled. Now buy it.” Even the least savvy amongst us can spot it a mile off these days. Zooey Deschanel? Keep her in the – admittedly self-constructed – box marked ‘kooky’, package it up and that incredibly average sitcom will appeal, if only for a while, to just about enough people. Where are we going with this? It’s a fair question, so we’ll cut to something approaching the chase.

Today sees the general release of Moonrise Kingdom, the seventh feature from director Wes Anderson, a person to whom the adjective ‘quirky’ has long been applied. And it’s in that quirky box he sat for some time, but around long enough now for the description to have been rendered mostly defunct (unless you write for the Guardian apparently), critics and audiences alike now are able to spot themes and conventions in his brand of film making. In fact, they are unmissable to anyone other than the most casual of viewers. So renowned has he become that earlier this month, Moonrise Kingdom opened the Cannes film festival.

Let’s not kid ourselves though; it is those conventions of Anderson’s films that continue to set him apart from truly mainstream cinema. Each new release provides entirely different expectations than an audience planning to see, let’s say, Men In Black 3 (also out today). Though he employs a typical realist narrative, Anderson plays de facto modern-day anthropologist, a detached documentarian making a study of (usually) suburban upper middle class American life, set in a time and place that never quite existed. The characters, flawed but loveable, behave in a manner you suspect Anderson either imagines or wishes people would.

“Anderson employs a mixture of score and classic, achingly cool pop”

Certainly, they don’t belong to the particular world we inhabit, but for anyone who has read JD Salinger’s Franny and Zooey – there’s that name again – their behaviour isn’t a million miles away from members of the Glass family, the children of which are all terribly precocious. Sound familiar? In contrast to the penchant for eerily prodigious kids, there is the wayward man-child character; Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums, Bill Murray in Rushmore and The Life Aquatic’s Steve Zissou. He’s practically a staple.

The rituals don’t end here. His fans come back for a habitual package including recurrent use of multiple cast members, which has seen Murray and Owen Wilson appear in six of Anderson’s seven feature length offerings. You have to ponder whether he populates his films with the people he actually wants to call his family, so often do the same names appear.

Another noteworthy aspect of his films (if perhaps taken a little for granted) are the soundtracks accompanying the on-screen action. Anderson employs a mixture of score (provided often as not by Mark Mothersbaugh) and classic, achingly cool pop. Critics, and he has his share, find it easy to take pot-shots at what they perceive to be a scatter-gun approach to soundtracking. On the release of 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited, Will Oldham no less described Anderson’s approach as cancerous: “‘Here’s my iPod on shuffle, and here’s my movie.’ The two are just thrown together.”

Cancerous, huh? Not bad for a guy who introduced us to the beautiful sadness of Elliott Smith, whose Needle in The Hay perfectly fits the scene in which it is employed (spoiler alert) for troubled Richie Tenenbaum taking a shave but going that bit further with the blade. One suspects that rather than literally picking songs he thinks are cool, the approach to his movie soundtracks is rather more exhaustive than Oldham would like to have us believe, and every bit as subject to the obvious perfection as the aesthetics and mood.

This is where we probably have to ‘fess up. Long time aficionados of Anderson and his oeuvre, we’re hardly in the most objective of positions, though you probably guessed that, his being the subject of a playlist something of a giveaway. But ever since that first experience of The Royal Tenenbaums, not really knowing what to expect and getting teary-eyed for practically two-thirds of the movie, we’ve been hooked. Yes he is prone to imbuing the normal with a sense of heightened import, and conversely, ascribing a sense of normality to the extraordinary, but while he continues to do it with such panache, who are we to argue?

Posted on 25/05/2012 by thedoublenegative