“This is an Adventure.” Steve Zissou
Wes Anderson’s latest movie, “Moonrise Kingdom” just played in competition at Cannes. In fact it opened the festival. I’ve never really understood it when you hear about movies showing “out of competition” at film festivals. What’s up with that? It would be as if Tiger Woods showed up at the Masters and said, “Hey fellas, I’m just going to hit the ball around a little over here, but I’m not going to keep score or anything. You guys go on ahead without me.”
It doesn’t matter that it didn’t win, right? Who cares what those snobby Mediterranean audiences think anyway? I’m totally looking forward to seeing it when it eventually plays here.
I’m the furthest thing from a hipster. I usually only get “into” something after it has jumped the shark, or sold out, or gone off the air, or broken up, or whatever sad metaphor you want to use. I can say, however, that I’ve been with Wes Anderson from the beginning (well, almost the beginning). I also realized I have an almost Rain Man like ability to remember where I saw each of his movies the first time and with whom.
Wes Anderson movies. There are certain hallmarks that we’ve come to expect from them. A certain colour palate, well placed slo-mo, meticulously selected pop songs from the 60s and 70s on the soundtrack, unconventional characters and plotting, wholly imaginative and yet familiar created worlds.You either love them or you don’t. I guess it’s like most things, it comes down to personal taste. A couple of years ago, when “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” was in theatres, I was chatting about Wes Anderson to a friend and we both realized that we loved his movies, but when we ranked them, it turned out she had his movies in almost exact opposite order to me. But that’s what we do, don’t we? We’re listmakers. I guess it’s like trying to decide which dessert off the dessert cart you’d like the best. All of the movies are pretty damn good, even the ones I don’t really care for all that much.
With that in mind, why don’t I tell you my list? Will you indulge me this self-indulgent trip down cinematic memory lane? I think I’ll go chronologically.
Bottle Rocket (1996) Cinematheque, Winnipeg (Rank: #2)When I worked at the downtown library, there was a group of us that got really close and would end up doing things socially outside of work from time to time. One Tuesday afternoon Gail came up to me and said there was this funny sounding movie playing at Cinematheque after work and would I be interested in checking it out? I’m always up for a movie, then and now, and the two of set off for the late show. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard at a movie and identified so strongly with its characters. Anthony, recently released from a mental hospital. Now who does thatsound like? His loyal and faithful friend, Dignan? That could only be my best friend Ed. And Bob Maplethorpe, the friend with the car? That was our friend Jon. It really felt like how lives would have gone if we had decided to turn our attention to a life of crime. And in the middle of it all is this sweet unexpected love story between Anthony and Inez that you are totally rooting for. Gail and I could hardly talk on the way home, we were laughing so hard and remembering all the great lines and scenes. Gail was a little older than the rest of us. (30 when we were in our early 20’s) but she really fit in with the group, she was such a sweet person and when you work with someone, age didn’t matter so much. A few years later she developed ovarian cancer and we lost her at the maddeningly young age of 41. At her funeral, someone played a hauntingly beautiful version of “Alone again, or” by Love, and I can’t help but think she asked for that because of Bottle Rocket, since that song is featured prominently in one scene. Whenever I think of “Bottle Rocket” I think of Gail.
Rushmore (1998) Silver City St. Vital, Winnipeg (Rank #1)This time I knew who Wes Anderson was, and I had doggedly made all my friends watch “Bottle Rocket” when it came out on video. Most of my friends liked it, although I’m sure to what degree. Anyway, I had gathered a large group together to see Rushmore. I was aware of the so-called “sophomore slump” and was partially ready to not like what I was about to see.
But I loved it.
This was Wes Anderson fully formed. The Mark Mothersbaugh score was the mortar to all of the off-beat bricks that make up this wonderful ensemble cast. And oh my God, Bill Murray. I’ve always loved Bill Murray, but I had never seen him so understated, so reserved, so awesomely funny as Mr. Blume. This movie marked the beginning of a friendship and working relationship between Bill Murray and Wes Anderson that continues to this day. Bill Murray has had a role in every Wes Anderson movie since.
My friend Ed and I love detail in movies, comics, books, everything really. Ed loved all of the little touches for which Wes Anderson soon became known. In the scene when Max is arrested and held overnight, Ed noticed that they that taken his shoe laces, as if he were on suicide watch or something. I never noticed that the first time, but I always see that on subsequent viewings. It’s the little things, isn’t it?
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) Towne Cinema, Winnipeg (Rank: #6)A lot of people consider this to be their favourite Wes Anderson film, and for many people I know, it is the only Wes Anderson movie they’ve seen. So it comes to some people’s surprise that I rank it lowest. I think a lot of it had to do with expectations. I enjoyed Bottle Rocket so much, and Rushmore so much more, I couldn’t imagine how excellent his third outing would be. My friend Ed had seen it a few days before me and called me up. “Trev, you’ve GOT to see it. It’s incredible. In fact, I’m going to take my parents next week to see it. Why don’t you come along with us?” First of all, Ed isn’t really a gusher, and secondly, I’ve never really known him to take his parents out to anything, so my expectations were at ceiling height to begin with. To me, I guess Anderson’s sophomore slump was actually his senior slump.
Although there are some great moments in the movie, like the scene where Royal takes his grandsons out for a day on the town, the sum total felt less than its parts. I know this sounds crazy, but it felt like it was trying TOO HARD to be a Wes Anderson movie. I know that’s like coming out of a McDonalds and complaining that your Big Mac tastes too much like a Big Mac, but there it is. Also, it felt to me like this was the movie where the secret was out that Wes Anderson was a cool guy and everyone in Hollywood wanted to work with him. Even Ben Stiller was in this movie, and that usually for me spells box office poison. Bill Murray was there, sure, but his character was such a sad sack I just felt bad for him the whole time. I was underwhelmed throughout most of the movie, and was on the fence about it. I mean, it was a Wes Anderson movie, after all. But then we got Richie’s suicide attempt scene and that put it over the edge for me. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve always felt squeamish when I’m presented with suicide scenes in movies or TV. And in particular I can’t stand scenes involving wrist cutting. There’s something reptilian in my brain that just reacts viscerally whenever I see that, I can’t explain it. And so I kind of felt like throwing up after that scene, to be honest. I think I’ve gotten better over the years, but it didn’t win Royal Tenenbaums any points in my personal ranking scheme. Which is a shame, really, because there is a lot to like. “So what did you THINK?” Ed asked me afterwards. “Um, well, it was okay,” was all I could manage. I knew I should have liked it, and that it was technically a “GOOD MOVIE”, but it just wasn’t for me, I don’t think. It’s telling that it’s the only Wes Anderson movie that I haven’t gone back and watched multiple times.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) Grant Park Cinemas, Winnipeg (Rank #3)My friend Kaj has his birthday in early January, and a tradition we have if he’s in town is to go out for supper and a movie. Sometimes it’s just the two of us, and sometimes there is a group. This year, (January 2005), there was a group of about 10 and the movie was “Life Aquatic”. I went in with the lowest expectations of any Wes Anderson movie to date. I still felt emotionally bloodied and bruised after “Tenenbaums” and wasn’t sure what to expect. Happily, all my reservations were unfounded, and I just fell in love with this picture.
When I was a kid, I would watch PBS every Monday night for “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau”. I was probably around 12, the magic age discussed in the movie. Steve Zissou, Bill Murray’s character, is clearly based on Jacques Cousteau, if Jacques Cousteau ever had a mid-life crisis. Cousteau’s ship was called “The Calypso” and Zissou’s was “The Belafonte”, naturally. Wes’s brother, Eric Chase Anderson’s production designs never felt more alive and realized than in this movie, in my opinion. One of my favourite sequences was where Zissou simply says, “Let me tell you about my ship”, and we’re treated to a wonderful cross-section tour of all the nooks and crannies that the Belafonte has to offer. I turned to Kaj at this point and said, “I want to be part of Team Zissou. I want to be the ship’s librarian on the Belafonte!” It felt like you actually could. His crew was such a diverse collection of misfits, that I don’t think you would need to make a very strong case to him. “Well okay.” Zissou would say. “Let’s get you fitted for a speedo and a glock. Wait, do librarians get glocks? No, let’s get you a laptop and a librarything.com account. You’re okay with a Mac?”
Steve Zissou is not an easy protagonist to like. He’s selfish and manipulative, and yet I couldn’t help but come to love him and root for him as he tries to make sense of the death of his longtime partner from a Jaguar shark attack. Oddly enough, this is probably the Wes Anderson movie I’ve rewatched the most times. Oh, and it has JEFF GOLDBLUM!
Unfortunately, I seem to be in the minority on this one. After the movie ended, one of Kaj’s friends said to him, “I wish I enjoyed that movie as much as your friend Trevor seemed to!”
The Darjeeling Limited (2007) Globe Cinemas, Winnipeg (Rank: 5)I saw this one with Ed. At this point, the Wes Anderson “look and feel” was firmly established, and unlike the Royal Tenenbaums, I was happy to spend a couple of hours in his universe this time. You know how sometimes you just really feellike a Big Mac? I know this sort of trivializes the film, and it’s not meant to. I just mean that it makes use of slo-mo, Kinks and Rolling Stones songs, and the spiritual and mundane mix so well that you stop noticing that it is a Wes Anderson movie and quickly get invested into these three brothers and their attempt to create a spiritual journey for themselves. The short film, Hotel Chevalier, sets the stage for what is to follow, and I feel bad for American audiences who did not get to watch the short when the Darjeeling Limited was originally distributed. I recently rewatched this film and actually enjoyed more than I did the first time. I rank it second to last, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. It just means that when you rank things you love, they can’t all be in first place, right?
The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). Cinema City, Polo Park (Rank: 4)Wes Anderson has been accused of being all style and no substance. Whatever, man. For this one, Anderson makes a feature-length stop motion film based on the Roald Dahl story. The interesting thing is that even though you’re watching a bunch of furry animals running around, you know instantly that you’re in a Wes Anderson movie. All the elements are there: recurring cast (Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, to name a few), cool soundtrack, familiar colour palate, detailed production design, quirky characters. I saw this one with Ed, his wife Dilara and their son Eddie, who would have been four at the time. When it was over and the lights came up. Eddie turned to me and said, “I want to get the DVD!” Me too, Eddie, me too.
So there you have it. My chronological relationship with Wes Anderson films. Do you agree, disagree? What are your favourites? Looking at the rankings below, it seems weird to see the movies laid out this way. Maybe a cluster would be a better representation. Rushmore at the top, a cluster of Bottle Rocket, Life Aquatic, Mr. Fox and Darjeeling, with Tenenbaums at the bottom? In any event, I am very much looking forward to “Moonrise Kingdom”. Kaj has already expressed an interest in seeing it with me when it comes out, but I have a feeling I may see it more than once in the theatres. That would be a Wes Anderson first for me.
2. Bottle Rocket
3. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
4. The Fantastic Mr. Fox
5. The Darjeeling Limited
6. The Royal Tenenbaums
? Moonrise Kingdom