Wars and Windmills

06 August 2007

The Immutability of Wes Anderson

I think movies labeled "Comedy" are a bit of a misnomer. The amount of comedy, in my experience and with rare but welcomed exception, actually in a Comedy is drastically, yet predictably, less than what occurs. This fundamental problem in that particular genre is why I rarely rush to see such movies, or see them at all. Besides, the few moments of actual humor will more than likely be quoted to me boisterously by Nate or they will all have been neatly condensed into one little blip of hilarity, often called a "trailer". These methods are far cheaper than actually having to rent the movie and leave more time for Guitar Hero. RAWK.

So while Wes' films are absurdly funny, I don't think his films can be encapsulated into one specific genre. They offer a more constant level of humor than mere comedies, yet still show pointed glimpses into humanity that are often seen only in the most dramatic of movies. The trailer of Anderson's latest venture, The Darjeeling Limited, has hit the web and theaters and offers a glimpse into what I am talking about. "What's wrong with you?"..."Let me think about that". I dare Blades of Glory or its ilk to tackle existentialism so poetically and do so without losing the any of the understated humor and while provoking thought. Double-dog dare.

Those movies do have their place however, and do offer a quick laugh, smile, or, if you're Joe, eye-roll. But if there is a choice (and we fought wars so there would be), I choose to spend my time and funds elsewhere. Needless to say, yet say I shall, I have been looking forward to a new Wes Anderson film for quite some time. He movies constantly deliver, and that constancy is as rare as I like my steak. If nothing else I am gifted with gorgeously detailed widescreen shots accompanied soulfully by either the brilliant score of Mark Mothersbaugh or an eclectic song so befitting the scene it would seem to have been written especially for that purpose. Refer, if you will, to the mashing of two Kink's songs in The Darjeeling Limited trailer: This Time Tomorrow and Strangers.

Wes' ability to make us laugh, think, and wonder isn't necessarily a fresh trick. We see the same thing with films like The Graduate which also seamlessly blended music, cinematography, and script. But, when heavily saturated with empty servings of canned comedy, it is gratifying to sup at a table set with nothing but impeccable entrées, all of which are deep-fried or nougat-filled.


  1. *rolling eyes at the "roll eyes" comment*

  2. you didn't appreciate the shout out? I figured.

  3. I'm kidding. But you do know how I feel about Will Ferrell.

    I'm not such a snob though. I like mindless comedy at times...Animal House? Ace Ventura? Fletch? Dumb and Dumber? priceless. And many others. Can't wait for the new Wes film.

  4. I knew you were joking, but I wrote that knowing your distaste for W. Ferrell. But you're right, many mindless comedies can be great fun, and they have their place.

    You're not a snob, you're discerning.

  5. nice. let's go fishing.

  6. Too true, Darren. I agree Wes Anderson's films are special, and indefinable. Because while hilarious, they aren't exactly comedies. He doesn't create comedic situations, exactly; they are people at their most vulnerable, often in pretty desperate situations. It think that the brillance comes down to the honesty in how it's portrayed. "Life is a comedy for those who think... and a tragedy for those who feel"
    I said that. You can feel free to quote me.

  7. WOAH...and to think i once had the gall to debate with you in class. That statement is so far above the realm where my mind functions that from this time forth I concede all possible future arguments.

  8. It's about time I got to see the second love of my life (Adrian Brody) in another movie. That it was helmed by Wes is just another bonus. Great post ibid. Also, I love the new picture.

  9. First Thought


    Lovely post. I've long argued that I don't believe in genres. Sci-Fi, Horror, Fiction, Non-Fiction. This is a longer discussion and I will spare you my whole philosophy. But I really only believe in comedies and dramas. And even then, the line is blurry. Because they are inherently opposites and must be played together for a whole.

    Shakespeare knew it. Hugo knew it. Hemingway and Salinger, Shyamalan and Spielberg, Gondry, The Beatles, Picasso, and Einstein all knew it. Michael Bay does not. Neither does the producer of 24.

    Because life at its most serious is most comedic. Which is why the Bard introduced a clown in the middle of Hamlet.

    Wes Anderson is a genius for playing these opposites. The Royal Tenenbaums still stands as my all time favorite movie.

  10. Second Thought


    I don't think those comedies are mindless. Things are most clever at their most absurd sometimes. Witty banter isn't substantial. That's for real life, and it is soon gone and forgotten. Topical humor quickly falls prey to the times. Only the absurd stays. Farce is forever.

    I always say comedy is suffering. The more pain the better. The Jerk, Young Frankenstein, Dumb and Dumber, Zoolander are all about pain. People failing and hurting in ways that we have to laugh at.

  11. James:

    By "mindless" I meant more along the lines of not having a complex or robust plot to follow. Designed for laughs and, possibly, slight introspection. While I think your taxonomy makes sense (a la Poetics), I also think that sub-genres exist within the breakdowns. You'd be hard-pressed to make an apples-to-apples comparison of, say, "Billy Madison" and "The Graduate."

    I think Mel Brooks sums up some of the ideas in here nicely: "When a man falls into an open sewer and dies, that's comedy. When I get a paper cut, that's tragedy."

  12. That's true. I don't deny that sub genres can exist. Tragedy and comedy for me are very hard to compare and it's why I feel the Golden Globes have it right where the Oscars don't. And movies even within their genre can be placed in categories. Naked Gun and Airplane and Spaceballs are hard to compare to The Graduate and Bottlerocket which are hard to compare to Arsenic and Old Lace, Oscar, and Noises Off which are not exactly like Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally.

    Even then I would argue that they are not far from the same tree. Farcical elements are present in all of them. One of the most endearing things about comedy is the tying together of elements in the end. The world has order in comedy where the world must have chaos in tragedy.

  13. The only knock to Wes one can offer, and mind you I find it rather grievous, is that he continues to write characters for Owen Wilson. The persona non grata of film and self embodiment of one dimensional acting.

  14. jimmy...I have given some thought to your argument, and I think you are wrong. There are at least 3 distinct genres out there: Comedy, Drama, and Animals Doing Things They Couldn't Normally Do (a la Air Bud, Monkey Trouble, Mr. Ed).

    So there.

  15. Matt, my excellent deduction prowess tells me that you have strong feelings concerning this so I will tread softly.

    I would agree with you except that I can't...not even at all. Owen co-wrote Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums with Wes. That alone places him well within the upper echelon of cool, especially when it comes to brilliant comic impulses. Not to mention they were roommates in college and can understandably want to work together when possible. Nor is it unheard of for a director to have a list of actors he prefers to work with. Scorsese currently has Dicaprio as his constant go to guy, for example.

    Anyway, I like Owen, though I don't like everything he has done, the knowledge that he and Wes create nuggets of shinny gold together helps me though the tough times.

    So there and let us continue to be friends.

  16. You bring up an interesting point brother Darren:

    Interesting that Wes Anderson's finest cinematic achievement, "Life Aquatic", was not co-written by Owen Wilson.

    Also, I must draw your attention to my original statement. I make no qualms regarding Owen Wilson's comedic writing ability; it is his lack of diverse comedic acting talent that I disdain.

    Leonardo DiCaprio = Apples
    Owen C. Wilson = Oranges

    I like Owen Wilson too.

    I wish he and Wes would cast someone other than himself for many of the characters he plays.

  17. Well Matthias, there is no accounting for taste. Though Life Aquatic is grand, I wouldn't classify it as his best. Rushmore (which, I would note, he didn't write a roll for himself in) or Tenenbaums has my vote. And i don't think Wilson has done a bad job in any Anderson film. His portrayal of druggie/friend/wanna-be Tenenbaum is subtle, unique, comedic and tragic. His inability to escape type casting in other films doesn't diminish his rolls in Anderson films (though, admittedly his accent in Life Aquatic is not so great). But again, it is all relative.

    At this juncture I will merely use your own words.

    Comment 2: "Also, I must draw your attention to my original statement. I make no qualms regarding Owen Wilson's comedic writing ability"

    Which is interesting because you said, and I refer you back to your original comment:

    "The only knock to Wes one can offer...is that he continues to write characters for Owen Wilson."

    He is writing them himself. Which is the only reason I brought that up. But you're probably right in that Wes obviously continues to cast him in rolls in his films, but, and we're going to have to just agree to disagree here, he does so because Owen continually delivers. And, as is my point with directors having "go-to" actors, there has to be something refreshing working with someone that is your friend, you know you work well with, and knows how you work. As he does also with Murray and Schwartzman.

    And though my point was missed, you're right Dicaprio and Wilson are different fruit. Though the use of the same actors by directors (a la Scorsese and Anderson) is the same fruit. Which was the point, though poorly represented.

    But Mostly I trust Wes. I think his vision of things is impeccable. And he obviously likes Wilson's acting style, it works for the role and the tone of the film so he keeps using him.

    But again, I can see your point about his seemingly one dimensionality, say in movies like the Shanghai, (or Rush Hour goes West and white) series. But for Wes to cast someone else, I wouldn't go that far at all. They are a fine team, and I wouldn't want to see them separated.

  18. All writing aside, (which is always great by the way, and thank you for bringing it to my attention that Wilson often co-writes) the crux of my argument remains; Owen Wilson essentially plays the same character in each movie--himself!

    The characters and writing are fantastic, no doubt. But it is still my firm belief that those characters and films would be so much better if someone besides Wilson were cast in a couple of his roles.

    The Dicaprio and "go to guy" arguments are moot, but I will make this point:

    I don't mind when Dicaprio plays different characters in different movies because, well, Dicaprio can play different characters.

    Again, Wilson has one character--himself!

    Funny as that character may be, the lack of depth and diversity takes away from what could be much better characters played by much better and more talented actors.

    I think the problem is you are not separating good writing from good acting. Perhaps and equation:

    Shangai whatever = mediocre writing + one dimensional Owen Wilson acting

    Wes Anderson films = brilliant writing + one dimensional Owen Wilson acting

    The sum of Wes Anderson films are clearly far superior to the Shanghai conglomerate, but it is not due to the one dimensional (albeit humorous) acting by one Owen C. Wilson.

    I think you will see what I am talking about when you go see this next movie. It will be like the time I illustrated how Conan O'Brien essentially has only 3 tired versions of the same 3 tired jokes.

    Welcome to the light good brother.

  19. I will not offer another tome of dissent. Though I am never disappointed to see Owen in a film, especially a Wes film, I see your point.

    increase of love good brother?

  20. Matt Higginson, I respect a person who wants to defend himself at length. I'm also one of those people.

    I don't think we know each other but I'm getting the feeling we disagree on a great many points. On actors and comedians especially. Now I don't have any great love for Owen Wilson. I've always liked him in Anderson's movies. Though I don't argue against his lack of versatility, I think you're putting way too much stock in versatility.

    There's some kind of myth that versatility is the great grail of acting and comedy. I deny that myth.

    I know one great versatile actor in Hollywood. His name is Daniel Day Lewis and he is amazing. But I wouldn't say he's better than Deniro who is always Deniro and Nicholson who is always Nicholson. DiCaprio is great, yet still shades of DiCaprio are seen in every role.

    If versatility is the goal, the true actor would be unrecognizable from one role to the next. But they aren't. They can never fully quell their speech patterns, mannerisms, expressions.

    I'm guessing, Matt, that you're not an actor. I'm not either. I'm guessing that neither of us has tried to disappear into a role. I'm guessing that even if we did, our friends and family would be able to recognize us.

    Because we can see the actor as himself within the role is the beauty of it, not the imperfection of it.

    Granted, I came in on the tail end of your conversations. And I rudely butted in. But you don't seem afraid to express your opinions. And I am not a delicate flower.

    And I've been known to change my mind. It usually involves a free milkshake though.

  21. I apologize for the tone I started my conjecture in, Matt. Upon second read, it feels very confrontational considering we don't know each other. I just enjoy the topic you two were discussing and I wanted in.

    Darren can vouch for me. He knows I'm an ass but a well meaning one at that.

  22. Vouch.

    Let the hallowed ground of the fifty-seventh frozen banana be a place for open discussion not hostilities.

  23. It will be like the time I illustrated how Conan O'Brien essentially has only 3 tired versions of the same 3 tired jokes.

    I don't want to throw my hat into this ring. I really really don't.

  24. Jimmy, good call on Daniel Day Lewis. He is just..phenomenal. "In The Name of the Father" sold me on him. "Gangs of New York" sealed it.

    My other favorite actor of great versatility: Dustin Hoffman, the legend. Watch him go from The Graduate to Midnight Cowboy to Papillon. Stunning. Did you know that to get the role of Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy, Hoffman phoned the producer and asked him to meet on some street corner in Brooklyn. Hoffman dressed up like a beggar and begged the producer for change 3 or 4 times, without being recognized. When he disclosed who he was, the producer knew that he had found his guy.

    Not to essentialize versatility or anything..

  25. James you are wise. Daniel Day...in his down time, he's a cobbler in Italy. He is absolutely amazing. And it was the same two films that Joe mentioned that are my favorite and sealed him in the realm of untouchable, but I will add: Last of the Mohicans. And I agree with Joe I would add Hoffman to that short list. I saw Midnight Cowboy and Paillion for the first time last month and was amazed with his diversity, capped off with Rainman, very impressive. And what a great story about him getting cast.

  26. Hoffman, yes indeedy. He's brilliant, brilliant. Tootsie remains one of my favorite movies. Death of a Salesman, stunning as well.

    Let me back up a little bit. It's not that versatility is a bad trait. Geoffrey Rush, Val Kilmer, Hoffman, of course. All great actors with a lot of range.

    While I enjoy versatility, I don't value it more than other traits that I feel are equal: emotional honesty, consistency, presence, and the portrayal of nuances of intensity and subtlety.

  27. This comment has been removed by the author.

  28. I truly felt no such hostilities, in fact my first thought was, “I like this James character, I think we should be friends.”

    I don’t want it to be assumed that what we are really debating here is taste and preference, which is inherently irrational (taste and preference that is, not a discussion there of), because I think we both like Owen Wilson and his comedic acting. Perhaps to different degrees, but never the less we share a mutual appreciation.

    This discussion really revolves around the salience of versatility in an actor and whether or not some of Anderson's films would be better if other characters were cast in place of Owen Wilson.

    James, I find your logic sound and your argument well thought out. I agree that I am probably “putting way too much stock in versatility.” However, may I suggest you are probably not giving versatility enough credit for convenience of the discussion, and to defend your intrinsic appreciation for Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson films.

    We seem to define versatility much differently; I do not believe that “If versatility is the goal, the true actor would be unrecognizable from one role to the next.”

    I never expect Owen Wilson, or any actor for that matter, to be unrecognizable from one role to the next. I apologize if I led you to believe that I do. Rather, as you aptly point out “They can never fully quell their speech patterns, mannerisms, expressions.” But I do expect a level of versatility that distinguishes the characters they play from each other, as well as different emotional attachments to each character. I don’t see or feel that in Wilson.

    While I can appreciate the poetic sympathies this statement elicits: “Because we can see the actor as himself within the role is the beauty of it, not the imperfection of it”, I can in no way endorse it.

    You make this assertion, “While I enjoy versatility, I don't value it more than other traits that I feel are equal: emotional honesty, consistency, presence, and the portrayal of nuances of intensity and subtlety.”

    I would argue that your alternate list of good acting traits would actually fall under the umbrella of versatility. In other words a versatile actor would possess emotional honesty, consistency, presence, and the portrayal of nuances of intensity and subtlety throughout their entire film career and in each role they play. The difference being that they are playing different characters in each role.

    I still feel that Wilson plays the same character in each role, which is neither, emotionally honest, consistent, or nuanced.

    My contention remains overt; Owen Wilson is not incredibly versatile (to which we agree) or a brilliant comedic actor. He is essentially playing himself in each role. And most importantly, and this I believe is where we disagree most, if other (more versatile) actors were cast in his place for some of his roles, Anderson’s films would be better served. We would get characters far more emotionally honesty, consistent, and nuanced in intensity and subtlety

    Verbosity is no enemy of mine.

    Chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry?

  29. Well argued. Mstt, I think we indeed shall be friends. And even more so because we don't agree on all things.

    You bring up a fine point about Anderson's films. What if Wilson hadn't been cast? Would other actors have brought different sorts of depth to the character? Sure, I agree they would.

    I think that could be argued in a lot of films. Bill the Butcher could have been someone other than Lewis and still been good. Venkman could have been played by Chevy Chase with a different flair than Bill Murray and still been good.

    And that might not even do justice to your argument because those seem like irreplaceable roles and you're saying the Wilson could have always been replaceable. I do like Wilson but I wonder.

    As far as versatility goes, I don't agree that the elements I described are within versatility. Keisha Castle Hughes plays her role in Whale Rider with an emotional honesty that is breathtaking. But I would say that Geoffrey Rush's greatest tool in Shine is his versatility, his ability to portray a character so unlike himself. To see him in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers and realize how versatile he is blew my mind. But once again, not anymore than Keisha Castle-Hughes stark portrayal of disappointment in the school play scene.

    Chocolate, my friend. I'm predictable.

  30. James, you make a great point regarding Keisha Castle Hughes role in Whale Rider. Even if she proves not to be an incredibly versatile actor, that performance was fantastic, it should be recognized as such, and no future performance should take away from that.

  31. Also, as Darren recently informed me, I must publicly apologize for driving Owen to suicide.

    And yes MTV is where I go for all my world news.