Wes Anderson is the most polite filmmaker in punk rock, but that’s probably what makes him the most effective, too. Notorious for his meticulousness and specificity, the Texan philosophy graduate’s carefully-constructed worlds belie a call to arms to explode the established order. While his aesthetic is pristine and exact, his stories are fuelled by a drive towards change, revolution and destruction of what is accepted.
Nihilo sanctum estne? Is nothing sacred?
Sic transit gloria. Glory fades.
His rebellious roots were on plainer display in those early years, starting with the slap-dash anarchy of debut Bottle Rocket, brimming with manic energy and delinquency. Though the 1996 feature has its own deliberate sense of structure and precociousness, lovable rogues Andy and Dignan (brothers Luke and Owen Wilson) crash through their half-baked schemes without deference to the rules of a world not built for them.
It is a subversive streak that would distill itself into greater potency in his next entry, 1998’s Rushmore, which gave the world a quintessential tearaway in Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman). The spirit of punk is alive in Max and the rowdy British invasion bands that soundtrack his antics, while his revolt has a distinctly Andersonian twist in how he strikes out in order to break in to the rigid, age-old structures of the titular private school. But the real insurgent of Rushmore is Anderson himself, and his behind-the-curtain meddling with the accepted truths of his characters’ realities.
As Max fights on – for a place at Rushmore, for the love of kindergarten teacher Miss Cross (Olivia Williams), and for his precious extracurricular activities – Anderson puts himself to work tearing down what his hero has grown used to and forces him through a series of incidents that uproot his world and force him to begin anew. What emerges is a fundamental theme in the director’s catalogue: nothing meaningful happens while standing still.
While Max has spirit and anger in spades, what he’s fighting for is familiarity and safety. But while he actively pushes against the new and unknown, it is forced upon him in the form of the public school he is made to go to and the reality of a world that has no desire to indulge his eccentricities. Once he accepts that the world is rebelling against the shape he wants to mould it into, and instead allows himself to evolve, he discovers new acceptance and deeper truth under a new, unfamiliar, exciting world order.
New world orders are built into every Anderson movie, brought about by fundamental changes both wanted and unwanted. In The Royal Tenenbaums, Gene Hackman’s titular patriarch weasels his way back into a family that mistrusts him just as much as the mistrust each other. Though they become closer through trials, torments and revelations, the Tenenbaums only truly become a family unit again when Royal ultimately dies of a heart attack in the closing moments.
Similarly, the world of The Grand Budapest Hotel is one where change marches on as a jackbooted authoritarian regime. That change only truly takes hold when Ralph Fiennes’ M. Gustave – a relic of a time long gone – is executed and cast aside. Change is not always for the better in Anderson’s stories, but it is always brutal and radical, whether physically or personally.
However, it is usually a positive force, most demonstrably in Anderson’s Roald Dahl adaptation Fantastic Mr. Fox. Here, the intrepid animals push back against farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean with a full-on campaign of resistance – deploying wits and force to break out from under the iron fist holding them down and threatening their lives. It leads them to an entirely new way of life – dwelling in the sewers and with an unlimited source of food at the supermarket they live below. For Mr. Fox and his cohort, revolution is the ultimate giver.
What’s interesting about Wes Anderson’s filmography is that, as the films get increasingly ‘Wes Anderson-y’ in their constructed, heightened nature over time, the themes of rebellion and subversion become more clearly distilled and subtle. Underneath the fairytale puppy love romance of Moonrise Kingdom is a restlessness and disdain for the world grown-ups have built and continue to misuse. Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop’s (Kara Hayward) quest to be together is an act of open revolt against what their parents and caregivers expect from them. The zany chase movie that ensues is potent in its allegorical nature – a group of people, their worth dismissed and belittled by those ineptly in charge, break away and make a bid to rebuild the world in a shape that works better for everyone.Courtesy of: Focus Features
Sam and Suzy’s push back results in a world that is familiar, yet subtly changed to the benefit of all – Sam and police officer Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) move in together, which gives them both the stability, care and companionship they have longed for, Suzy’s parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray) learn to communicate and move forward with their train wreck marriage and scout master Ward (Ed Norton) becomes an assured, adept troop leader with a host of new recruits to share his dream. Two kids in love and their discreet insurrection adjust their island home gives everyone the clarity they need to truly evolve.
Throughout his career, Wes Anderson has had to work hard to resist the criticisms of tweeness and superficiality that have blighted the reception of his films in cynical corners. But he rises above his imitators and detractors because of the depth below the surface – the complex ideological and interpersonal battles staged between his characters and the intricate allegories for real world and deeply-felt issues. His exacting visual style is the dressing for chaos underneath and the two speak to each other in a way that shows revolution can be radical and punk, even when it’s polite and quiet.