Wes Anderson and the Perfect Fusion of Style and Substance

[written by Cole Clark]

With the Wes Anderson discourse machine now fully up and running, takes are pouring in over the style of the acclaimed director’s films. One of the most popular, “they’re all the same,” is the lazy version of “they all do the same thing,” a fair argument given the stylistic and visual similarities between say, Isle of Dogs and Fantastic Mr. Fox. Anderson’s films do look similar and feature similar casts, and the dejected, old-man-out-of-his-prime stereotype shows up in nearly all of his films. This kind of idiosyncrasy isn’t uncommon in independent film, with directors like Ari Aster and Kelly Reichardt sticking to their visions across projects, yet Anderson stands out, to the point where the Criterion Collection will soon feature every one of his films, sans Isle of Dogs. In the case of his upcoming 2020 film, The French Dispatch, early reactions to the promotional material (mostly on Twitter) reflect a simultaneous joy and disillusionment with his brand of quirky haircuts and symmetrical shots. If style were all Anderson had to offer, I’d be firmly aligned with the detractors. But who is stopping to remember that Anderson is more than just an interior decorator?

Anderson’s films tell stories that speak to the human condition, namely, what it’s like to be a bastion in a world that’s changed course. In The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Bill Murray plays the titular role as both a jackass and a romantic. His search for companionship takes him across the sea in search of the shark that killed his only true friend, and on the way, he discovers a lost son who may or may not be the connection he’s always wanted. Ned, played by Owen Wilson, loves Steve unconditionally, though he’s eager to challenge him on outdated modes of business, like stealing a rival’s sonar equipment to track the shark (they steal it anyway). They argue, compromise, and admit their love for one another over the course of a long, strange journey to the shark, itself a remnant of the past Steve is unwilling to let go. Ned and Steve’s relationship is culled from real-life struggles humans have been facing for centuries: what is authentic connection, and why do we keep searching for it in the wrong people? It’s a story told through neon costumes and elaborate tracking shots, but it’s a poignant one nonetheless. Anderson does more than create rich, finely-sculpted worlds: he fills them with real people. 

Now, before I get dismissed, of course this is not the only or best way to make films. Stories can exist for so many purposes, and we’re all entitled to our own favorite filmmakers. Anderson happens to be one of mine. What’s more, there’s no need to become upset over a director’s stylistic choices, so long as they don’t inhibit the film. Watching Fantastic Mr. Fox for the first time is an exercise in childlike wonder, an experience many who’ve seen it likely won’t forget, but even with his lower-scale projects, like The Royal Tenenbaums, the production design and shot compositions support the narrative. It’s entertaining to see Ben Stiller micromanage his two identical sons in matching red track suits, because it’s one of the many ways we learn he’s afraid of letting them go. Style and theme compliment one another, and though one might appear to dominate the other, there’s a real sense of craft and attention to detail in every one of Anderson’s films I’d like to see remain.

An opposite case exists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where spectacle triumphs over deliberate character and story design. In the MCU, arcs have a dual purpose of being compelling and understandable to the widest possible audience. With Anderson’s films, that second stipulation isn’t a factor. He’s making the films he wants to make in the way he prefers, and up until this point, he’s told stories or followed characters that justify that style. If it doesn’t appeal to you, we’re all entitled to our preferences, but perhaps the recent uproar isn’t a case of film fans abruptly souring to Anderson, but a product of missing the forest for the trees.


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