9 May 2014
It’s the bridge between childhood’s end and that interminable one, without a date, where death lies but is hidden. It’s that skull-child that smiles indelibly behind one of Hitchcock’s torn curtains. The cinema of Wes Anderson, adopting a perspective that is at once painterly, oblique and comic, has always reckoned with the Cornell box and Nabokov’s novels. The magic of Anderson’s art is a pure stripping of the flesh from the authentic: as the Pulitzer prizewinner Michael Chabon has put it, “artifice, openly expressed, is the only true ‘authenticity’ an artist can lay claim to.” Bottle Rocket (1994), Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (still in the theaters) meld beauty and fracture of the soul, failure and universal redemption, decline and resurrection, tenderness and vehemence.
For his coming tricks, Wes Anderson will go back to shutting the world up in a box, a sort of cot poisoned by palettes of dark colors and glitter. And from work to work the director/demiurge will add something extra, a bit of world (his or ours) to complete the diorama. Just as happens in The Grand Budapest Hotel, presented at Berlin as a “Central European tragicomedy,” a mechanism trapped in the coils of labyrinths, trap doors, prisons, candies, temples and elevators and capable of making the old hotel in the Alps fit in with references to the greatest classics in the history of the motion-picture industry: from Lubitsch to Don Knotts and the disintegrating marvels of Betamax. The same holds true for the characters hanging around in the Republic of Zubrowka. There is the young writer (Jude Law) who gets caught up in the history of the Grand Budapest and its 19th-century décor (but with an “interval” of orange-colored Soviet architecture). There is the staff: once impeccable, now rusty. The owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) who acts as a memory-absorbing tape, to the point of rewinding the galleries and settings of the hotel all the way back to its earliest days, when the establishment was a well-oiled machine, thanks to the dedication of the concierge Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), hyperactive, mysterious, irreproachable and very soon… in deep trouble.
We met Wes Anderson at the New York Public Library, in conversation with Paul Holdengräber, and at TheTimesCenter. In circumstances of this kind you don’t expect much intellectual generosity, but his words immediately took on a candid and delicate form, blowing that hybrid bubble of electric cardboard and endless flesh that has become a cult today. Behind Anderson’s passion for the cinema lie François Truffaut and Marcel Proust. The former “discovered at the age of seventeen at a video rental store in Houston, Texas,” with The 400 Blows blazing the trail: “It’s such a personal story, the one told by Truffaut: it’s as if it were his first words, his first novel. It’s totally his own, and at the same time it’s emotional, vivid, a powerful debut, a prelude to the New Wave, like when you hear the Velvet Underground and realize that the band was behind a whole range of new artistic influences.” The latter comes from his fascination with literature: “There’s a strong connection between books and cinema, and this brings us back to Truffaut. Almost all his movies are adaptations of texts that he loved. Proust won me over with Swann’s Way, because it’s the perfect combination of atmospheres and moments that concern the process of falling asleep. The way in which Proust approaches that process leading to a subterranean, psychological pattern of behavior—something that is part of our nature, but that we take for granted—is quite poetic.”
That Wes is a conjurer of the image (and of the imagination) is demonstrated by his conception of the set: “I hate saying cut to the actors, I don’t like to interrupt them when their scene is over. I want them to carry on, to let them go to other places. Cutting off the sequence underway is risky, it means you breaking the spell that has been cast up to then. So what I prefer is to say to the actors: Still rolling, camera rolling! Then the cameramen cut, but we all know that the action continues off camera. Like a sort of pact, one of permanent tension.”
One of the principal points of contagion by other films in Anderson’s works is the love he has for the individual roles that he cuts out and draws. And in The Grand Budapest Hotel this does not seem so far away from the notes left by Wes in the original version of Bottle Rocket, a short lasting for 12 minutes and shot in black and white on 16 mm that was reviewed for the first time by Matt Zoller Seitz (now Anderson’s biographer and author of the extraordinary The Wes Anderson Collection). All it took was a showing at the Sundance Film Festival in 1993 to attract the attention of the market and, in particular, Columbia Pictures, which decided to make a feature-length version keeping the pairing of Anderson and Owen Wilson, co-screenwriter and actor. The comedy centers on two directionless brothers: one just out of a psychiatric unit, Anthony (Luke Wilson), the other, Dignan (Owen Wilson), intent on pulling off a series of heists to cover their damned debts. The deceptively innocuous film laid the foundations for the Wilson-Anderson team of screenwriters, which was to stay together for at least two more movies (The Royal Tenenbaums received a nomination for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars). The Anderson method has remained intact since his cinematic debut (“It’s all written down in my notebooks”) and his style immediately caught the attention of Martin Scorsese: “A couple of years ago, I watched a film called Bottle Rocket. I knew nothing about it, and the movie really took me by surprise. Here was a picture without a trace of cynicism, that obviously grew out of its director’s affection for his characters in particular and for people in general.”
“The first movie I ever saw,” recalls Anderson, “must have been The Pink Panther. I remember a lot of Disney cartoons, although for a certain period of my life I watched nothing but movies starring Kurt Russell.” In Seitz’s book, Anderson refers to this obsession: “[…] he was the strongest man in the world or something like that. Do you remember that?” The deepest mark was left by Alfred Hitchcock: from Rope to The Man Who Knew Too Much, passing through Rear Window and The Trouble with Harry. When asked what made Rear Window his favorite, he responded: “Never leaving the apartment. Filming them only from across the way. […] And the cast is the best. James Stewart and Grace Kelly. They’re the best in it.” Anderson’s big dream has always been to make a feature film along the lines of Paranoid Park, with skateboarders as its protagonists, but more light-hearted: “I’ve already made it, to tell the truth. In 1978 or thereabouts, my father had a Super 8 and lent it to me. Actually, it wasn’t a temporary loan at all. I never put the film camera down and I shot my film. It was based on a book from the library. I only had the characters in my head, there was no story. I did try to draw them in a sketchbook, though.”
The time when Wes Anderson realized that he wanted to go down the road of the filmmaker was fragmented and drawn out, just as happens to the characters (and their consciousness) in his coming-of-age movies. “There was no precise moment, I’d always thought I would do something artistic, but writing came first, and then at college I felt the need to change course.” In the library of the University of Texas at Austin, there was a vast collection of books on the cinema: “I’d never had unlimited access to books about the cinema. I started to read them and to go back and forth, books to movies, movies to books. There were volumes on Fellini and Bergman, essays and manuals devoted to Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, as well as a series of books on the cinema of the seventies. I found volumes on John Ford and Raoul Walsh too. The library also had the essays that Peter Bogdanovich wrote on Allan Dwan and Howard Hawks, the writings of Pauline Kael, New Yorker reviews and a whole lot more.”
One of Anderson’s first efforts behind the movie camera was a documentary on his landlord, Karl Hendler: he did it on commission, in order to pay off some debts, “but he didn’t like it.” The encounter with Owen Wilson at the University of Texas (they attended the same playwriting class) and the reading of the book Spike Lee’s Gotta Have It opened the floodgates: “I started to look around, to seek investors. Who knows if there’s someone out there with a bit of money, I asked myself.” There was one, a producer in Austin. And between drafts and revisions, he started shooting in 1992.
The creatures that populate the vast continent of Anderson’s cinema include Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Anjelica Huston, Danny Glover, Gene Hackman, Ben Stiller and Tilda Swinton. Some of the greatest, the least tamable of faces have dipped into it. Even Gwyneth Paltrow and Jacques Cousteau in the form of a portrait on the wall (and with a red cap in Murray’s magic submarine, where the fairies of the Sigur Rós vibrate). The names on paper are of little account with respect to what Anderson asks and is able to obtain from each of them: “Bill Murray, in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, succeeded in conveying a state of unfathomable melancholy. He exudes a great deal of sadness, although at times it appears almost cheerful and light-hearted. Bill is also able to bring to the screen a sort of brutal aggressiveness, when its needed.”
It is the same blissful and sorrowful poetry that this country of ours gives off, when viewed through the fanciful eyes of Wes Anderson, even if he is working on commission. In the short entitled Castello Cavalcanti and funded by Prada, Anderson picks his way through the long shadows of Italian cinema, shooting amidst the convoluted debris of Cinecittà, with references to Fellini. The action is set in an Italian village in the 1950s; the protagonist, the star of Rushmore Jason Schwartzman. It is made up of predominantly visual sequences: Schwartzman decked out in a bright yellow racing suit, his car rocketing through the dust, the night and the moonlight, with stylistic echoes of Fantastic Mr. Fox (the stop-motion). The work, presented at the Rome Film Festival in 2013, is produced by Roman Coppola. On the soundtrack, music from Pietro Germi’s The Birds, the Bees and the Italians acts as a counterpart to the balalaika orchestra chosen by Alexandre Desplat for The Grand Budapest Hotel. The imprint of the fashion house coincides with that of the big screen, but everything remains at the service of Anderson’s fantasy: unbridled, head-on, acrobatic. And Italy becomes (once again) a place of enchantment, a postage stamp stuck onto the world map of cinema.