Okay, this media detox thing is for the birds. This week I watched six of Wes Anderson’s eight movies and some other stuff to boot. This also means that I’ve now seen every Wes Anderson movie and can therefore rank them, because this is the purpose for watching movies. Here is where I stand on it right now:
The Grand Budapest Hotel > The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou > Moonrise Kingdom > Rushmore > Bottle Rocket > The Royal Tenenbaums > The Fantastic Mr. Fox > The Darjeeling Limited
I reviewed The Fantastic Mr. Fox last week and The Darjeeling Limited earlier this year. Search them out if you want my opinions on them, which have not changed. Basically, I don’t think this guy has ever made an outright bad movie. And the ones I’ve ranked as the top four are all masterpieces, as far as I’m concerned. So let’s get into this. Anderson first, everything else after.
Bottle Rocket — I’d never seen either of Anderson’s first two movies before this week, so these are first impressions. Bottle Rocket, his debut feature, is surprisingly fantastic, but definitely a first movie. There are elements that feel like they could have been pulled from any later Wes Anderson movie, especially near the beginning: a coil-bound notebook outlining a 75-year life plan, a hysterically precocious child, a slightly crooked toy soldier being minutely adjusted. But for the most part, Bottle Rocket is a visually straightforward and almost plain film by Anderson’s standards. (The fact that several scenes were shot in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright puts that in perspective.) But for all of the distance that Anderson still has to travel in his visual style, Bottle Rocket’s dialogue and performances are already pretty close to what they’d be in his best movies. In fact, I’m tempted to say this movie’s MVP is not Anderson but his star and co-writer Owen Wilson. Wilson’s performance as Dignan, the more delusional of two very flawed protagonists, is one of his best — impressive, given that this is his first feature as well. There’s a bit of early Coen brothers in the mix here, and it’s felt most when Wilson’s onscreen. He’s that fun kind of character whose behavior and way of talking is massively out of step with his circumstances: a Coen standby. It’s always fun to be reminded that you like an actor, in spite of not liking the bulk of their movies. I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to. It’s one of those movies you watch more out of historical interest than actual enthusiasm, but that ends up delighting you regardless.
Rushmore — I was momentarily concerned that I’d end up liking the somewhat anomalous Bottle Rocket better than this, the film that made Wes Anderson’s reputation and established the aesthetic that I love him for. But as soon as Jason Schwartzman folded up his newspaper and said “I’m sorry, did someone say my name?” I banished all such thoughts. This is where Anderson’s ability to tell heartfelt stories in a deliberately arch style really flowers. Our 15-year-old protagonist Max Fischer is the first of a particular kind of Wes Anderson hero: the effusive can-do guy whose outward displays of spirit mask deep turmoil. This puts him in a category with the likes of Mr. Fox and Gustave H. And while I doubt any Anderson character will ever seriously rival Gustave H. for me, Max is a masterful creation. He acts according to his own idiosyncratic code, but as the movie progresses, we start to see glimmers of awareness that there are certain conventions he probably shouldn’t breach. This may be the Wes Anderson film with the most interesting character relationships. It’s built primarily around a deeply implausible love triangle, but all three relationships in that triangle are fascinating in their way. Max’s infatuation with the age-inappropriate teacher Rosemary Cross is a one-way street, but it’s clear that Ms. Cross sees elements of her late husband in this strange kid. His relationship with the wealthy industrialist Herman Blume isn’t quite a father/son dynamic. Clearly Blume sees it that way, and would that he could make it so simple, because he sees nothing of himself in his own children. But one of Max’s foibles is that he sees himself as a peer to the adults in his life, so Blume can’t quite make the father/son thing stick. And, of course there’s Blume and Ms. Cross’s relationship, which is the least plausible thing in the movie, but it reshapes the movie’s tensions into something strangely Oedipal, considering that there aren’t any actual family ties at play. How Anderson (and Owen Wilson, who co-wrote the screenplay) manage to resolve all of this into a “have it all” sort of ending and not make it seem cheap is a miracle. One of my first thoughts when I finished this was that I’d probably have been more impressed by it if I’d seen it before Brick, Rian Johnson’s later film about precocious high schoolers that adds a layer of film noir and has even more stylized dialogue. That’s as dazzling a film as this one, but the more I think about it the more I think it’s a ludicrous comparison. Taking Rushmore on its own terms, it’s a beautiful film, and the first real demonstration of Anderson’s brilliance.
The Royal Tenenbaums — You’ll note the rather low placement of Wes Anderson’s most acclaimed (probably) movie in the ranking above. I promise I am not being wilfully perverse. I really like this movie. But it clearly doesn’t hit me as hard as it does a lot of people. It certainly doesn’t hit me as hard as some of Anderson’s other movies. Like Rushmore, its drama is based around relationships, which distinguishes these movies from pretty much all six of the other Wes Anderson movies, which are at least partially adventure stories. Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums are Anderson’s only movies where the characters don’t really go anywhere or try to accomplish anything especially unusual. (Even Max Fischer’s prodigious accomplishments all happen within the walls of high school.) I imagine that’s what people like about these movies. But between the two, Rushmore is enormously more effective to me. Where Rushmore focusses on the relationships between three main characters, and delves pretty deeply into those relationships, Tenenbaums offers sketches of the relationships between a far vaster cast of weirdos. To Anderson’s credit (and Owen Wilson’s, who returns as co-writer and co-star), these sketches are marvellous in their efficiency. The pairings of Margo and Richie (Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson) and Royal and Chas (Gene Hackman and Ben Stiller) are especially effective. But other characters who start the movie looking promising end up in shaggy dog stories, especially Owen Wilson and Bill Murray’s characters. Eventually, Anderson will master the art of the huge ensemble cast by not pretending that every character is especially important. But here, he isn’t so graceful, and the depth of his characters’ relationships suffers. In a movie like this, that dulls the impact more than it would in a more knockabout film like Moonrise Kingdom or even Bottle Rocket. But there are still parts of this that kill me — the culmination of the Royal/Chas plotline in particular. And the opening is one of Anderson’s best. And this guy knows how to start a movie. So basically, it’s a movie I wish I connected with more than I do. But I do still like it.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou — I suppose for a time it would have been considered a minor heresy to prefer The Life Aquatic to The Royal Tenenbaums, but I get the sense that’s changing and I’m very glad. The Life Aquatic is the most diorama-like of Wes Anderson’s movies thus far and it has more cartoonish characterizations than any of his previous films. But that lightness only serves to cast the movie’s story of grief, loss and failure in even more shadow. Steve Zissou is a more dominant protagonist than appears in any other Wes Anderson film, including Rushmore. The story of this movie is very much the story of a trying time in one man’s life. As excellent as Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston and especially Cate Blanchett are in this, they’re all basically just other people who are present at Steve’s turning point. This is Bill Murray’s second-best film performance after Lost in Translation. His hangdog expression cracks just frequently enough to imply that there’s more than just a general malaise plaguing this character. I really like that Anderson has made one movie like this, with a distinct protagonist whose struggle we sympathize with. It’s not his usual M.O., but it really works here. Also, I just love how much stuff there is in this movie: stuff like Seu Jorge’s unmotivated but delightful constant David Bowie covers, the fake animals, and the ludicrous diorama that is the set of the Belafonte. It’s more than just sugar that helps the medicine go down: it’s a deliberate distancing tactic that makes it necessary to extend yourself that bit further into the film to find the humanity. The Life Aquatic requires a significant investment of empathy throughout most of its running time if you’re going to be on Steve’s side. But if you succeed in this, it pays off with one of the most sublime and openly emotive endings in Wes Anderson’s catalogue. I should say: I’ve ranked this higher than Moonrise Kingdom basically only because of the submarine scene. They’re pretty much neck-and-neck in my view, but the ending of Life Aquatic hits me straight in the gut every time. I love this movie. I haven’t even been able to get to everything I love about it. I love that this is Anderson’s movie about moviemaking: he went for theatrical in Rushmore and literary in Tenenbaums, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom and Grand Budapest, but he’s got one movie that’s straightforwardly about doing what he does and I love that. In keeping with that, I love how fake everything looks, especially the obviously-filmed-in-a-tank deep sea dive scene. I love this movie.
Moonrise Kingdom — Ah, the first Wes Anderson movie I saw, and the one I hadn’t seen for longest. This is really glorious. It might be Anderson’s most whimsical movie, partially because its protagonists are children, but also because of how seamlessly the adults in the story fit into their bizarre little lives — especially the scout masters played by Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman and Harvey Keitel. It might also be Anderson’s most beautifully shot movie, with the ropey diorama of Steve Zissou’s boat having been refined into a beautiful sort of doll’s house set for the opening titles. And it’s almost certainly Anderson’s most uplifting movie. Most other Wes Anderson movies, even those with basically happy endings (I’m thinking particularly of Rushmore) end with people learning sad lessons. The two children at the centre of this movie have had their fill of sad lessons already when the movie begins. They end the movie having realized that life can be good. Plus, it’s fun to see what happens when Anderson puts aside his British Invasion fetish in favour of Benjamin Britten. Stick around through the credits of this one. It features a Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra-inspired tour through Alexandre Desplat’s original score. (Or is it Tubular Bells-inspired?)
The Grand Budapest Hotel — Upon a third viewing of this, I think I need to make space for it in my all-time top ten. The Grand Budapest Hotel is more than Wes Anderson’s frothiest, rompiest contrivance, though it is that. It is also a story about the pain of being displaced by historical forces beyond your control. Consider why, for a moment, this movie takes place in a hotel rather than another sort of institution or locale. Hotels are places that aren’t home. They may be novel and extraordinarily pleasant, but they are elsewhere. They are temporary places for people who aren’t in their main place. And yet this movie doesn’t make a lot of time for the Grand Budapest’s guests. Normally, you’d think that a movie about a hotel would take advantage of the fact that so many colourful people may come and go from it. Yet, aside from the narrator, we only really meet one and she dies almost immediately. This is a movie about people who live and work at a hotel — people who are in a transitory place on a permanent basis. That is the heart of this movie’s sadness. Zero the lobby boy, we learn, is a refugee whose family was killed in the war. That’s why he’s at the Grand Budapest. And our hero, the concierge Gustave H., is as displaced in time as Zero is displaced in space. He’s a man of extreme elegance and refinement, in spite of his modest circumstances, and he’s found himself in an era defined by fascist brutality and simple mindedness. The Grand Budapest Hotel is the story of two people who, for different reasons, no longer recognize the world around them. And the only thing that softens the blow is the magnificence of the transitory place in which they’ve found themselves. The relationship between Zero and Monsieur Gustave is the most beautiful of many beautiful relationships in Wes Anderson’s catalogue, because each of them intuitively understands the other’s suffering. And through his mentor, Zero learns the value of pageantry as a coping mechanism. This is the purest expression of something Wes Anderson has been doing in his movies since Bottle Rocket: he makes his characters do ridiculous things and adhere to ridiculous codes, because if they aren’t occupied they’ll be consumed by their own sadness. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a sublime film. It is sublime not in spite of its ridiculousness, but because of it. Pick of the week.
The Wes Anderson Collection — I complimented my survey of Anderson’s movies with these video essays by Matt Zoller Seitz, one of the great film and television critics. It’s a lovely series, with the instalment on The Grand Budapest Hotel being especially fantastic. Seitz dives into the influence of the writer Stefan Zweig on the movie, which only makes it more poignant, considering Zweig’s own wartime displacement. He shares a great deal with Monsieur Gustave.
Sigur Rós: Ágætis byrjun — Yeah, The Life Aquatic made me want to revisit this. It’s rainy as I write this but when I listened to it, it felt like the peak of summer in Vancouver. So, an odd time to listen to a work that nobody seems able to listen to without envisioning glaciers. But whatever. It’s always Iceland in my heart. Ahem. This is exactly what I remember it being: occasionally very moving, with tracks in between that feel like biding time. “Starálfur” is justly overexposed: that chorus will just eat you alive. And I’m a big fan of “Olsen Olsen,” with its big, drunk sounding chorus. The one I loved that I didn’t remember loving is the title track, which indicates to me that after several years with this album, I may not yet be done with the growing process. That’s nice.
Sigur Rós: () — I know I heard Ágætis byrjun and Takk… in high school, because a) I have them on CD, and b) I remember them clearly. But I’m not sure I’d ever actually heard this, which is a shame, because I would have adored it then. To be clear, I adore it now as well. On first listen, I think it has the potential to become my favourite Sigur Rós album. It’s starker and more minimalistic than the albums on either side of it, but it also has more range in terms of how loud it’s willing to get. That makes it really effective. I’ve got to listen to Takk… again. I used to love that. Wonder how it holds up.
Twin Peaks: The Return: Parts 17 & 18 — I have never needed to watch something a second time more than I need to watch Twin Peaks: The Return a second time. Watching this show on a week-by-week basis has provoked the illusion that it is a television show that you can watch like other television shows: expecting effects to result from things that look like causes, and expecting to discover the causes of certain unexplained effects. But Twin Peaks has never worked like that, this most recent season least of all. There’s a moment I love in the first season of Twin Peaks, in the episode that immediately follows the introduction of the Red Room and the Man From Another Place. It’s a scene where Cooper and his colleagues sit around a table and try to make sense of his weird dream. The reason I love this scene has nothing to do with its actual content, and everything to do with what it says about the production of Twin Peaks. The Red Room scene comes from the brilliant episode “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer,” which shares its writer/director credits with all 18 episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return: written by David Lynch and Mark Frost, directed by David Lynch. Neither Lynch nor Frost receive either credit on the following episode. It seems to me that the fact that we got an attempt to make sense of the show’s freakiest sequence in the very next episode is the direct result of Twin Peaks having been made with a rotating crew of directors and writers who are, meaning no disrespect, mostly not surrealist auteurs. They are in the same position as the rest of us when presented with something like the Red Room: i.e. “what the hell do we make of this?!?” And then, like us, they devise possible solutions. It helps that they had access to a character like Cooper who, in his hyperverbalism and supernatural competence, can generally find a compelling explanation for anything. Twin Peaks: The Return has nobody writing or directing save Frost and Lynch, and it has virtually no Dale Cooper. The upshot of this is that as an audience trying to interpret Twin Peaks, we no longer have allies on the inside. Gordon Cole is the closest we get in this season, and it’s foolish to expect David Lynch to put all of the answers in his own character’s mouth. Let me try and express this another way: in the original run of Twin Peaks, there were inexplicable things that happened within the text, but the inexplicability of those things was the primary plot driver. The characters in the show were trying to explain the same stuff that the audience wanted to know. Twin Peaks: The Return is doing something fundamentally different and much more similar to other David Lynch projects like Eraserhead and Inland Empire: the text itself is the mystery. A central question the viewer is forced to pose while watching is simply “why am I being shown this?” Why do we hear lovelorn stories from roadhouse patrons who are irrelevant to the central plotline? Why are we seeing these scenes with Audrey, which don’t seem to connect with anything. What was the purpose of that one random scene with Ben Horne’s secretary’s sick husband? Between seasons two and three of Twin Peaks, the central mystery changed from “what happened” to “why is this show like this.” That’s why I need to watch this all again: because that’s a question that no character in this show — not even a 100 percent awake Agent Cooper — could possibly be equipped to answer. That’s on us.
Marc Maron: Too Real — Watched this the day it came out. I really like Marc Maron, by which I mean, I enjoy him as a person. And that’s really what’ll make or break your response to this, because he doesn’t really do a lot of “jokes” in this. Well, he does, but there are long bits where he doesn’t. Maron seems happy, these days. True to form, he doesn’t really know what to do with that happiness, or how to respond to it. But there’s a contentedness about him this time around that’s sort of new. And it’s nice to see. It certainly doesn’t make him less funny. I’ve always appreciated Maron’s willingness to risk his audience not having the same cultural signifiers as him. A joke like “Ronnie’s a problem” won’t work for a crowd that isn’t moderately well versed in Rolling Stones lore, but that doesn’t stop him. The one thing in this that outright does not work is when he does a whole extended bit twice: once as a comedy bit and once as a narrated children’s book, the joke being that his earlier bit basically has the structure of a children’s book. But all he had to do was say that and we’d get it. He doesn’t have to demonstrate. Still, it’s hard to begrudge him because the fact he’s doing it at all is part of the joke. It’s a good special. I laughed a bunch.
Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale (audiobook) — Well this is depressing. I let my Audible subscription go on for a while and accumulated credits I didn’t need, so I cancelled the subscription and nabbed this and Stephen King’s It to get my money’s worth. Claire Danes reads this, and rather well, too. The text itself is certainly not a fun time, but it is an ingenious and affecting story so far. I’ll get into it more next week, at which point I’ll probably be done it.
Radio Diaries: “The Working Tapes of Studs Terkel (Hour Special)” — This was a good Labour Day listen. It’s just the great Studs Terkel, interviewing people about their jobs, in the 70s. It’s fascinating. There’s nothing like archival tape. This really feels like time travel. It’s worth it for the story of the private detective who was hired to catch a butter thief. There’s plenty more than that, but that’s really something.
The Memory Palace: “Two Small Sculptures” — These Metropolitan Museum residency episodes have been a lot of fun, and they really make me want to go to that museum and listen to them all again.
99% Invisible: “The Age of the Algorithm” — Oh nice, 99pi tackled algorithms. This is a really good episode about where the line is between good and troubling algorithms. It’s one of the ones you should hear even if you’re not really a fan of this.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Mother-Daughter Directors Nancy Meyers and Hallie Meyers-Shyer” — A nice interview about a movie I probably won’t watch.
The Heart: “Bodies: Itch” — This is a story about an itchy butthole.
Code Switch: “An Advertising Revolution: “Black People Are Not Dark-Skinned White People” — A Planet Money crossover about the first powerful black ad man. It’s fascinating to hear about the specific ways that an all-white advertising industry was failing to appeal to people of colour. I mean, you obviously know that’s a thing. But this dives into it.
Reply All: “The Case of the Phantom Caller” — Ah, they’re back. This is a real winner. It’s the story of a mysterious series of phone calls that play music, or modem sounds, or the ambience from a basketball game, or a person reading a text or… It’s really unsettling, and the journey to hunt down the answers is fascinating. Pick of the week.