Wes Anderson and the Aesthetics of Autism

01.12.2005 | Jacob Siegel | Film | 4 Comments
My first glimpse of Wes Anderson’s film Rushmore was in a movie poster at the uptown Lowes on Broadway. I was fresh out of high school, a young man with good prospects who affected more style than he had earned and wanted more than he deserved, working a low-end job and living in a shoebox apartment. On a riverfront block lined with townhouses and luxury apartment buildings, mine was the flophouse banished to the far end, where we blighted only one immediate neighbor.

Fittingly, it was at this low point in my life, when I was most unsure of myself, that my dreams and ambitions grew their most grandiose and far-flung. I have never been so lonely, unwound, despairing and messianic in my life. Caught in these circumstances I took frequent jaunts to the movies, where I could be alone and distracted from myself. It was in this state that I went to see Rushmore.

I don’t think I blinked watching the film. It was an intimate pleasure. It helped that I took from it just the message that I wanted to hear. Greatness, it seemed to say, didn’t require erudition and accomplishment. A fierce loyalty to one’s passions was its own victory.

Wes Anderson’s films have never strayed from his singular vision and insular sensibility. Taken as a whole his works are a valentine to his own uniqueness, their subject increasingly the Andersonian aesthetic itself. What began as honest whimsy has lately become so rich and thick it could clog the arteries.

Although their plots have varied, the subject of each is beautiful losers, characters measured by the artistry of their failures. Owen Wilson in Bottle Rocket, Jason Schwarzman in Rushmore, Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums and Bill Murray in The Life Aquatic all botch or abandon their duties and ostensible ambitions. But in the end, these films suggest, the protagonists transcend their nominal aspirations by inspiring those around them with their private, madcap passions. Quixotic characters, they pass indefatigably through their losses, exuding slapstick stoicism and realigning our sense of purpose. But as the subjects have remained the same, so have the director’s failures, his own ebullience overshadowing that of his characters and reducing them to figurines in a celluloid dollhouse.

Anderson’s first film, Bottle Rocket, begins with its lead, Anthony, returning from a voluntary stint in a mental hospital spent recuperating from the ennui of his privileged, suburban upbringing. His best friend Dignan is a dreamer who’s ashamed of his vaguely lower class background.  Once they are reunited Dignan shows Anthony the five-, ten-, and fifty-year plans for their lives that he has drawn up. Scribbled in colored marker in a marble composition book, the plans outline their partnership in crime and eventual diversification into legitimate success and family life. Anthony’s alienation from himself and the trappings of his circumstances are inverted in Dignan, who is alienated from the outside world and comfortable only when he give free reign to his childish fantasies. Anthony joins in Dignan’s criminal daydreams, preferring delusions to his own aimlessness, until he falls in love and drifts toward respectability and away from Dignan. In the penultimate scene Dignan’s playacting finally collides with reality as the cops close in on his doomed robbery attempt. Refusing to let Anthony take the fall his parting words before he’s arrested voice the existential motive behind the hijinks: “They’re not going to get me man, because I’m fucking innocent.”

Bottle Rocket establishes the core ideas that Anderson elaborates on in his later work: alienation, the anxieties of class, the compromises of adulthood, and the underlying premise that fealty to one’s dreams both elevates and isolates the dreamer.

In Rushmore, Anderson crafted his masterpiece. Unlike Bottle Rocket, which traded in melancholy as motif, Rushmore expressed moments of true longing, shame, and emotional agita—serious stuff that was poignant without being either overstated or austere. Flawless on first viewing, it was an improbable success when subjected to closer scrutiny. It was poised, from scene to scene, on the edge of preciousness.

Max Fischer, the film’s teenage hero, pines for greatness and for a much older woman in whose presence he attempts, with comic poignancy, to act like a man. Like Dignan in Bottle Rocket, Max is an oddball and an outcast who ennobles his condition by flaunting his idiosyncratic style and keeping company with his own obsessions.

Max is on scholarship at the elite world of the Rushmore Academy, busy posturing his way to an identity worthy of posterity—claiming, for instance, that his barber father is a neurosurgeon. Max’s counterpart is Herman Blume, a trustee of Rushmore and a destitute millionaire suffering under a malaise of divorce, bratty children and self-pity. When the two first meet Herman is drunken and adrift and drawn to Max, who appears sure and self-possessed. Herman, the millionaire Vietnam veteran, asks Max what his secret is.

“I guess you’ve just gotta find something you love to do,” Max says, “and then do it for the rest of your life. For me, it’s going to Rushmore.”

Two of Anderson’s recurring themes are captured in this exchange. One is the blurring of roles between youth and adulthood. The other, closely connected, is the distinction between one’s formal purpose and one’s more obscure and urgent reason for being.

Where Bottle Rocket portrays characters in their twenties pushing back the threshold of adulthood, Rushmore embodies that conflict in actual children and adults, namely Max and Mr. Blume. Anderson dwells on childhood in his pictures, but never reduces it to a romantic state of purity. Rushmore’s voice of wisdom is Max’s younger friend Dirk, the only sober authority in the movie. If the child is the father of the man, in this picture he knows it and adopts a fatherly role.

In the film’s opening scene, Max dreams of solving a math equation of supreme difficulty and being carried in celebration on the shoulders of his classmates. He yearns for distinction at Rushmore but ignores its rules and requirements. Max internalizes an idea of Rushmore and re-imagines it as a place where his self-evident importance renders schoolwork a distraction from his time spent founding clubs and staging plays. Before long he falls in love with a teacher at the school and drifts even further into his private world, culminating in his expulsion. In matters of courtship Max’s methods are as obtuse as his approach to academic success. He tries to impress the teacher and object of his affections, Ms. Cross, by acting out his awkward pretensions of manly sophistication, brushing off her concerns and rejections.
Max: The truth is, neither one of us has the slightest idea where this relationship is going. We can’t predict the future.
Ms. Cross: We don’t have a relationship.
Max : But we’re friends.
Ms. Cross: Yes, and that’s all we’re going to be. Well, yes…
Max : That’s all I meant by “relationship.” You want me to grab a dictionary?
Max, disguised as a hotel man, just after piping bees into Bloom’s hotel room.

The middle arc of the movie is devoted to the war between Herman, the man-child, and Max, the child aspirant to manhood, for the heart of Ms. Cross. In the end, after Max abandons an attempt to topple a tree on his old friend, Blume confesses his love for Ms. Cross in familiar terms. “She’s my Rushmore,” he says, to which Max dejectedly replies, “I know. She was mine too.” Neither of them bothering with the thorny business of human relations, they built Rushmores out of her, disregarded her as a person apart from their own desires and folded her into their private manias. This section of the film is shot with a combination of slow-motion sequences and close-ups, with a constantly running soundtrack of anxious 1970s teenage pop. The technique’s effect is to cut the action off from the film’s external world so that everything closes around their personal feud, making it as glamorous and ridiculous as it deserves to be.

In the film’s final arc, Max reconciles himself to Ms. Cross’s rejection, finds a sweet girl his own age, applies himself in his new public school and proudly admits that his father is a barber. If this seems in outline to be a pat or phony ending, it isn’t on the screen. The story doesn’t end with Max straightening out and waking up to the real world. Resolution comes from abandoning his false posturing, not from shucking off the fantasies and affectations that define him. We are left with the feeling that to be simply Max is enough—to imbibe on one’s dreams and organize life around them.

Rushmore’s unique style was engrossing because it was set in constant motion, carried by the story and married to the characters’ travails. The film’s dreamy storybook quality, reinforced by meticulously framed widescreen shots, never became stale; rather than lingering self-consciously it moved with the pace of the action. A similar point could be made about the dialogue, which was stilted but true to its characters, clever but never too clever by half. The writing had a perfect ear for childish knowingness, and innocence that hides but constantly betrays itself. Even better, it was knock down funny throughout.

Although its distinctive style was what caught the eye, the film’s real power came from its insightful and empathetic rendering of Max’s plight. Max, as the arch-adolescent, dramatizes a universal condition. Without the standard clichés about teens horny for angst, Anderson shows what it’s like to confront our first intimations of mortality and lust for everything at once—not least an epic identity and women.

Many people at the time of the film’s release, especially young men, shared my reaction to Rushmore. It resonated with a certain audience who couldn’t quite pin down what they liked about it. Anderson had managed to be hip without being hipsterish, sharply aesthetic but still accessible. By inventing his own language of cues and gestures made up of the familiar rather than the obscure, he offered a sense of cool that wasn’t exclusionary. Rushmore’s peculiarity—the fact that you either got it or you didn’t, that it couldn’t be explained—turned it into one of those shorthands for taste and cultural positioning. Unfortunately, in this flush of recognition Anderson was acclaimed mostly for his auteurism. Not much was devoted to the substance that made Rushmore genuinely worthwhile.

Iconoclasts, aren’t we? Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow in The Royal Tenenbaums.

The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson’s next film, was a showcase for all the bad impulses that he had previously kept in check. Taking Rushmore’s success as a sign that its followers were enthralled not by its story but by the telling, Anderson eschewed dramatic tension and inflated Rushmore’s storybook quality.  He betrayed his audience by pandering to them and yielded little more than a showcase for his twee visual composition. Anderson seemed, in his second major effort, to have succumbed to a Max Fischer syndrome. Taking cues from the wonderfully fictitious and teenage Max, he ignored the trappings of filmmaking and freed his sensibility, expecting that it would be the audience’s reward to bask in it.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou revives some of the energy from Anderson’s better efforts, reasserting the balance between human concerns and artifice that produced his best work, but only comes back half-way. Zissou is an oceanographer-filmaker and another version of Anderson’s hero with many faces: the arrogant, sensitive eccentric who won’t give up. The film begins with the death by shark of Zissou’s best friend, casually handled with the deadpan comedic tone that can express real tragedy. Before Zissou sets off as a bumbling Ahab to kill the shark that ate his friend, we learn of his declining career through gossip and the disappearance of his funding. A professional failure, Zissou is also confronted by his wife’s departure and the arrival of a young Air Kentucky pilot who may be the son he’s never met. With these elements Anderson could have made a fine story and an engaging film, but his problem has never been with crafting a narrative line. Rather, it’s a failure to tighten the elements together to produce depth and internal tension.

The film can be read as autobiography, with Anderson as Zissou musing on talk of his own decline, and asking what he’s done to deserve his wealth and success. But self-awareness can’t save this picture from the fact that it’s scattered and ineffectual. Whatever the film’s theme—Oedipal, vengeful, or autobiographical—it lags behind the cute outfits, blithe banter and brightly colored fish that fill the screen. Too much of the movie is pointless, or worse, more evidence of Anderson’s glibness and dandyism as he gives the preening stylistic touches that he thinks the viewer wants to see.

Consider Zissou’s crew. Its charcters, meaningless as individuals are not even used as background to flesh out the story or add depth. They pop into the foreground long enough to exhibit their quirkiness and quickly recede with a passive-aggressive flourish, daring you to ask what purpose they serve. The result is that those personalities that ought to give the film substance fail to rise above the static of ambient minutiae.

In one episode Zissou’s ship is attacked by pirates, in a sequence that’s shot with an incongruously realistic and kinetic feel. The point is to give Zissou a vehicle to assert his brutish heroism and rise above his narcissism, but the scene unfolds as a bland parody. His heroism, and the story, would have been better served if we had been jarred from the film’s tone by something on a more human scale of emotion. A convincing attempt to know his son, Ned, or to avenge his friend, both predicated on Zissou evincing genuine concern for either of them, would have forced the film to break from its running gag and take itself seriously. But in the film as Anderson has crafted it, none of these storylines are given real attention. Even Ned’s death drops like another weightless punchline.

Visually The Life Aquatic is a mixture of sterile arrangements reminiscent of Tenenbaums and more vibrant, expansive shots. The best in the movie are those that track motion and give the viewer space to breathe in a more open frame, as when the camera follows Zissou walking to the edge of his ship to smoke a joint under the stars, or when it captures the Arctic sky at night ribboned with brilliant natural colors. But so much of the imagery is artificial and tightly structured that the visual contrivances, which ought to produce wonderment, like a fantastic cross-section of Zissou’s ship, lose their power and distinction. The problem with such effusive style is that it covers over the films’ internal conflicts, filling up those cracks where the viewer can enter the story and try to understand it for themselves. If Anderson would have lightened up on his calculus of vagary, he might have seen he had the makings of a fine movie, even if it wasn’t quite Andersonian.

I still love Rushmore as much as I did the first time I saw it. But I’m no longer living in self-imposed exile in a flophouse or splitting my days between planning conquests and gnashing my teeth. Anderson, meanwhile, rather than exploring the consequences of solipsism through his art, has cultivated it as a method. He is increasingly loud but incommunicative, and deaf to emotional signs and triggers. He seems to be fashioning an aesthetics of autism. It’s alright to build Rushmores out of our passions. But if we seal ourselves inside them we have nothing to gain, and nothing to share. The private language that Wes Anderson opened to the public in his early work has been codified and exhausted of meaning. It’s time he found a new idiom.

I'd like to start a good discussion about this, but the fact is I agree with just about every sentence you've written. Though I share your perspective on these films, I could never have articulated it so well.
01.12.2005 | Ben
This is a terrific article. Well done, Jake. I'll venture where Ben feared to tread, with just a couple of points: First, I think that one of the great things in all of Anderson's films, and part of the reason that young (wholly unaccomplished, but sure of their own impending greatness) men love his films, is that he treats his beautiful losers with dignity. Maybe that is too serious a word, but he never mocks their ambitions to the audience. And that's what we, racked with potential, all want - we want the world to nod with solemnity when we talk about our novel, or about how we would clean up the municipal workers' union, or become real estate magnates.
Second, your point (and phrasing) regarding Anderson's reduction of his characters "to figurines in a celluloid dollhouse" works not only on a character level, but also, and importantly, on a visual level. All of Anderson's films, especially tennenbaums and life aquatic, have a patina of make-believey feeling to them - think of the scene with Hackman and his twin grandsons running around the city, or the attack on the pirate's hideout in life aquatic - these scenes take on the feeling of Max's vietnam-era school play - they are easier to believe because they are shot in such a far fetched manner. Finally, one more (small) point about the "doll house" effect - this effect is literally seen when Zissou takes us on the tour of his vessel, which is cut away in cross section, like how a literal dollhouse can be opened up and played with.
Again, great piece - really impressive.
01.13.2005 | Zach Intrater
04.25.2006 | Dana
I hear what you are saying, but I think you misjudge the guy. Life Aquatic is a step forward for him, and here's why. It is a more sophisticated production of his fantasy life. As you explained in his other films, so in this story his formal purpose and deeper, vague reason for being are beautifully intertwined. the whole ship has a formal reason but is imbued with Zissou's deep need to create something ineffebly beautiful. The way the ship is at once singularly beautiful and falling apart demonstrates not only Zissou's mind but the other protagonists you speak of- Dignan, Max.
08.21.2006 | Stephen

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