Total Recall

Total Recall: The Life Cinematic with Wes Anderson

A look at the influences of the postmodern filmmaker.

by | October 24, 2007 | Comments

Though no longer the critical darling,
Wes Anderson still
knows what it takes to draw in the hipsters: wild set design, a killer soundtrack, a
Wilson brother or two, and an epic story of familial discordance. Anderson’s
latest wears all these elements on its sleeve. Critics have been lukewarm on
Darjeeling Limited
(65 percent on the Tomatometer), but the film’s been doing
boffo box office in limited release and looks to continue drawing crowds when it
opens wide this Friday.

Featuring beautiful losers, sharply-selected British
Invasion tunes, and eye-grabbing psychedelic visuals, Anderson’s films have
gained a fervent cult following. But Anderson doesn’t create in a vacuum; like
Quentin Tarantino, he’s a skilled pastiche artist, filtering a wide variety of
cinematic reverences to fit his own quirky, melancholy sensibilities. Though
some have criticized Anderson for thematically repeating himself, even his
lesser movies contain a bounty of visual riches, often cleverly copied from a
wide range of other films.

For Darjeeling, Anderson draws upon the work of one
of cinemas unquestioned masters,
Satyajit Ray. The great Indian director’s films
take a humanistic approach to the social changes he saw; Ray made movies that
reflected the conflict between tradition and modernity, but never forgot to
filter such messages through compelling characters and family units. All of Ray’s
movies are worth watching, but his undisputed masterwork is
The Apu
, a profoundly beautiful film cycle that follows its titular
character from childhood (Pather Panchali, 97 percent) to adolescence (Aparajito,
93 percent) to adulthood (The World of Apu, 100 percent). (If you’ve ever
wondered where the Kwik-E-Mart proprietor on
The Simpsons
got his name,
look no further.)

In the first two films, Apu and his family struggle with
rural poverty during a period of profound change in India; in the third, Apu is
fully grown, and adjusting to life as an adult. During Pather Panchali’s
premiere at Cannes, the usually blameless
Francois Truffaut walked out,
declaring that "nobody wants to see a film about Indian peasants." Dear reader,
please dont make the same mistake; the Apu movies are a bit slow, and not
exactly loaded with incident, but they are some of the most beautiful, moving,
and powerful tales ever captured on celluloid. "The great, sad, gentle sweep of The
Apu Trilogy
remains in the mind of the moviegoer as a promise of what film
can be," wrote Roger Ebert. Ray was a remarkably multifaceted talent; in addition
to directing films, he was also a skilled author, graphic designer, and musician
(Ray’s compositions comprise much of Darjeeling’s soundtrack).

Anderson name-checks movies from all over, but if only one
could be considered the cinematic forebear to
percent), no doubt it’d be 1971’s
Harold and Maude
(86 percent). Bud Cort stars as Harold, a 20-year-old whose strange
interests (faking his death, anonymously attending funerals) overlap into his
taste in women (the septuagenarian Maude, played by
Ruth Gordon). The soundtrack
was provided by Cat Stevens, whose music Anderson would also use later to great
effect in Rushmore. And Harold and Maude‘s tone of ironic detachment and
panoramic shots would become Anderson staples.

Many reviewers despised the movie when it came out (Ebert
says "[death] can be as funny as most things in life, I suppose, but not the way
Harold and Maude go about it"), but it’s swelled in popularity since. While
Anderson’s films uses anachronistic music to recall times long past and
differentiate itself from contemporary cinema, Harold and Maude was a direct
product of its era. Yet, the film doesn’t age; it’s a sweet cinematic time
capsule that becomes more poignant with each passing year.

If you gave
Jacques Cousteau $50 million and an enormous
Italian studio to work in, no doubt you’d get
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
(52 percent).
Anderson modeled Zissou, played by
Bill Murray, after the legendary
oceanographer, right down to his blue suit and red beanie.  And the nature
documentaries Zissou shoots are virtual recreations of episodes from
Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau
. Airing from 1966 to 1976, the television
show chronicled Cousteau and his loyal crew as they traveled the globe,
discovering life above and beneath its ocean waves. The show was made all the
better with Cousteau’s deadpan narration accompanying some of the most gorgeous oceanic
images and creatures captured on cheap cameras.

When a critic in The Life Aquatic accuses Steve Zissou’s
documentaries as heightened and artificial, the implication runs deep. It’s a
criticism frequently lobbed at Anderson, but in Life Aquatic the director seems to
argue life is sometimes as strange as fiction. Steve Zissou’s life really
was as extraordinary as depicted in his documentaries. And by the same token, so was Cousteau’s.

Obviously, Anderson’s influences don’t stop there. In
Louis Malle‘s
The Fire Within
(100 percent), a friend of the suicidal hero
reminisces on his exploits, which include racing go-karts through the streets of
Paris — an echo of Gene Hackman’s extracurricular activities in The Royal Tenenbaums. Powell and
The Red Shoes

(100 percent), like
The Royal
, begins with the opening of a book. In
The Graduate
Benjamin is told to go into industrials; in Rushmore that’s Bill Murray’s
line. Anderson has drawn upon many disparate films to add spice to his
fantastical, quasi-real cinematic worlds.

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