“You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed that’s what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant… oh, fuck it.”
— M. Gustave, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Writing about Wes Anderson in 1999, after the release of just two films — Bottle Rocket (1996) and Rushmore (1998) — film journalist Mark Olsen proclaimed that Anderson’s cinematic universe was “a Middle West of the Imagination,” in which characters “chase their miniaturist renditions of the American Dream.” Anderson went on to set films in a submarine, an Indian train, a fictitious eastern European hotel, and, most recently, a post-futuristic Japan in this year’s Isle of Dogs. That is, according to its production designer, a future Japan as seen from the 1960s.
As a literary thinker, Anderson has been compared to John Cheever for his humorous handling of the overlap between privilege and nihilism. As a filmmaker, he’s been compared to François Truffaut, the French New Wave director who defined auteurship as a director’s personal imprint on the film. This definition dominated the film industry for over half a century.
Wes Anderson’s signatures are hard to miss. His penchant for symmetry forces scenes into predictable tableaux: the tennis court, the boardwalk, the library, the Alpine gondola track. Unpleasantness, though allowed onscreen, is ultimately pressed into a storyboard that’s about as radical as a tartan blazer. The filmmaker’s dusty palette of pink, mustard, puce, and wintergreen has been celebrated and spoofed around the web.
What’s become increasingly obvious, however, is that Anderson’s “Middle West of the Imagination” does not travel well. Though only working with a sample size of two, Olsen was able to identify “guilt and anxiety about an inherited life of privilege and leisure, and its seeming inescapability” as a key concern of Anderson’s oeuvre.
Isle of Dogs tackles the filmmaker’s usual themes — isolation, childhood nostalgia, and the intrepid dreamer — but it also brings Anderson’s limitations into stark relief. In the film, dogs (an inherently sympathetic group) are interned on an island of trash amid a wave of anti-dog xenophobia led by a corrupt mayor. Two thirds of the film are set on a trash heap island, while the remaining third takes place in Megasaki, a visual metonym for urban Japan: bustling, technicolor, and restrained.
The filmmaker’s dusty palette of pink, mustard, puce, and wintergreen has been celebrated and spoofed around the web.
Critics saw the film’s unchallenging “political” plotline as an afterthought to its meticulously curated stop-motion backdrop. “[The movie] regards Japan as a curiosity that doubles as useful scenery,” writes Nina Li Coomes in The Atlantic. “I like Wes Anderson Land; it’s always a fun place to visit. But some parts are less fun than others, and what we see of it in Isle of Dogs is finally ugly in ways beyond what even its maker could have intended,” says Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times.
Visual continuity is its own form of conservatism. (After all, where is the line between “miniaturist renditions” and small-mindedness?) A filmmaker must be especially agile to maintain relevance in the current pace of our political culture. For Anderson, aesthetics precedes politics, and 2018 is not the year to make an apolitical movie.
Critics have come to believe that visual signatures are no substitute for a political viewpoint; they are less concerned with “authorship” than with what the political and social environment has written about the author. It’s simply not the best time for Anderson’s high art in short pants.
“There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.”—Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot
Wes Anderson Land is a civilized speck, where order is imposed by adherence to three visual commandments: the text, the tracking, and the tone.
I. The Text
In 2007, the indie documentary Helvetica unleashed a fresh wave of font snobbery on the world, encouraging the average hipster to pay more attention to the typefaces he or she consumes. Of course, Anderson was already paying attention: starting in 1996, he used Futura for his films, before debuting a custom typeface for Moonrise Kingdom and switching to Archer for The Grand Budapest Hotel. (Archer, unlike Futura, has a serif. A risky proposition for a director obsessed with symmetry.)
Anderson signals his love of lettering with monogrammed luggage, with the faux-branding of the pastry shop Mendl’s, and with his characters’ easy library access. He collapses the semiographic and the literary through secret society pins, wilderness badges, and the Steve Zissou ‘Z.’
Anderson yearns for his own alphabet, his own Genesis. He is “Boy with Apple.”
Writing about Bottle Rocket in 2007, critic Devin Orgeron notes that having one character “busily organizing the little details as the larger and uncontrollable details (like family) disintegrate around him” is a pattern match for Anderson’s directorial style.
The Isle of Dogs poster mixes Futura, Archer, and kanji (Japanese text). As redditors have pointed out, katakana is used to “translate” the name of foreign actors. Despite speculation by English-speaking fans, kanji and katakana are standard practice and not special “calligraphy” for the film.
But that’s the danger of Anderson’s signaling. While cue cards, typographic asides, and hand-written letters may signify Anderson’s literary ambitions, it’s not possible to customize a language he doesn’t speak.
II. The Tracking
What is the American Dream if not linear? Anderson is famous for both his single tracking shots and his symmetry. In combination, these techniques, coupled with a well-designed set, vividly illustrate Wes Anderson Land as far as the eye can see.
The Tenenbaums live in a house with four floors, indicating their financial comfort. Each floor is populated with windows, and every window presents an opportunity for Anderson to center a shot on a freshly twee tableau. “These small worlds are alternately viewed as oases from upsetting circumstances and as childish retreats by characters who refuse to grow up,” J.M. Tyree writes in Film Quarterly. These worlds also serve as a refuge for the privileged rich. In curating these scenes, Anderson nods toward (although never completely dissects) this privilege.
“He’s taken off his shoes and one of his socks and… actually, I think he’s crying,” says the tennis announcer as Richie Tenenbaum sits on the tennis court in defeat. Even in his moment of childish despair, Richie is bound by the symmetry of his surroundings.
III. The Tone
What is the color of a tennis court? The answer differs around the world, and yet most people will answer “green” based on the Wimbledon standard and its accompanying prestige. It’s nice to think Anderson selects each color that appears onscreen, but those colors were selected for him by the circumstances and brands that surround privilege. Who wears plaid? The same people who call their summer homes “camp.”
In 2017, architect and artist Amanda Williams painted unoccupied Englewood homes with eight colors from African-American consumer culture, pulling inspiration from products such as Flamin’ Red Hot Cheetos and Ultrasheen hair conditioner. Anderson’s oeuvre presents a similar study in whiteness, from the navy of Max’s blazer in Rushmore, to the khaki of Camp Ivanhoe in Moonrise Kingdom. Think: the purple uniform of a hotel porter, L.L. Bean green, lots of fur.
An auteur like Anderson can’t be judged solely on his careful selection of images. In 2018, an auteur is also judged by what they exclude from the screen, as exclusion remains a persistent aspect of American politics.
Reviewing The Life Aquatic (2004) for The New Yorker, Anthony Lane anticipated the effect Wes Anderson’s aesthetic would have on his fans:
Aware of the allure of postdigital notions of authorship and its creation of a generation of film-mad, DVD-coveting cinephiles, Anderson both feeds those tendencies in his book-like and highly aestheticized DVD packages and warns against them in his narratives of similarly exclusive and eccentric characters who, in the end, must emerge from their caves and must be resocialized.
“Postdigital authorship,” for a generation that grew up ripping, torrenting, and burning film, acknowledges that ownership is no longer dependent upon who has the right to show the film or to watch it. Audiences are convinced that they don’t “own” a film until they’ve experienced a piece of its universe — whether it be a coffee table book, a limited edition vinyl, or a Milanese cafe. (GQ called the latter a “twee mess.”) Other tributes are unofficial: enamel pins on Etsy, a Margot Tenenbaum mug on Society6, and an annual Wes Anderson fan art show.
However “highly aestheticized” these products are, they are not so different from pre-digital movie fandom. But the ability of fans to also adopt Wes Anderson’s gaze on social media reinforces the fact that his impact on film is visual rather than social and political. If fans believe they can replicate Anderson’s eye so easily, what perspective is the filmmaker actually offering?
Anderson’s tentative relationship to politics is complicated by the number of social media fan accounts devoted to his aesthetic. The most famous of these is @AccidentallyWesAnderson, which migrated from reddit to Instagram. Fans submit “found” images that emulate the director’s aesthetic. Recent posts include the spires of an Argentinian basilica, a lighthouse in Minnesota, and a courthouse in Dallas.
Anderson yearns for his own alphabet, his own Genesis.
On reddit, the images are presented without context. The Instagram account relies heavily on Wikipedia for its captions. Looking at the range of geographies, it’s absurd to think they could be unified by adopting the symmetrical gaze of one auteur — that a pink banquette at a London restaurant and a preserved wall in Havana could somehow exist on the same spectrum of Andersonness. In the wilderness (meaning, beyond the bounds of Wes Anderson Land), fonts and colors delineate a ‘hip’ cafe from a takeout menu. They carry an entire set of social expectations. Lawns require upkeep. Symmetry is expensive.
It’s only a matter of time until Tokyo-lite imagery appears on the Accidentally Wes Anderson page. (See also: a centered shot of the recent Korean summit.)
Seeing Anderson’s gaze recreated in Instagram’s grid proves the real seduction of a Wes Anderson film: the sensation of having watched the 90-minute machinations of a particularly attractive diorama. (For what it’s worth, the set from Isle of Dogs did a public tour.) If only that gaze could be cast out rather than in, the auteur might realize… oh, fuck it.
Until then, the auteur as civilizer remains problematic.