(It's the small things that matter)
(Arrgh why doesn't this programme have Futura!!!)
I chose Wes Anderson because I find his work beautiful and it brings some interesting questions to the table.
Anderson usually both writes and directs his films and even stars in them sometimes. What I like about his films are that he clearly cares about every single component. When I watch them again I always notice new parts of the set, props and dialogue which I didn't before.
Sometimes there is even a feeling of forced contrivance about his films because everything is clearly so planned and controlled. It's like he creates doll houses in which to tell stories. He also doesn't use many close ups, he likes to show what is going on in the whole room/ scene, like a painting. This is a scene from The Royal Tenenbaums.
This is a life size model (set design actually - but it looks small doesn't it!?) which was used in the film Life Aquatic, so you can see the level of detail, of thinking through that he does.
He consciously uses symmetry and repetitive motifs in his shots like this man in a red coat who appears through out Moonrise Kingdom as a narrator. He makes a complete world, and everything in it is beautiful and follows particular rules and often a restricted colour pallet. For example, in Moonrise Kingdom it is all greens, yellows and browns, where as in his most recent film The Grant Budapest Hotel there's a lot of the same pink, purple and light blue.
As time has passed, I think his style has become more and more pronounced, and the visuals seem more deliberate.
This is a miniature model of the hotel made by set designer Adam Stockhausenh. It is from Anderson's most recent film The Grand Budapest Hotel. It was based on re-coloured turn of the century photographs of aristocratic European dwellings that Anderson had sourced and been interested in.
I did a bit of research into Anderson's influences for the story and design of this film and I read this book The Society of the Crossed Keys. It is about the life and writing of Austrian Zweig who grew up in Vienna at the turn of the century and lived to see both world wars.
In the book, Anderson's discusses with academic George Prochnik, some of the ideas and images that resonated with him:
"There are many, many of these spots where you can see a little terrace that's been created, just because people would walk to this place and look out. It's wonderful and really it really influenced our movie... The thing we learned when we visited all sorts of places that we found on this collection of pictures was that none of them were enough like what they once were to work for us. But the photochrom images seemed to tap into a truth about Zweig's vision of the world that I was able to draw on in developing a visual aura for the film." - Wes Anderson p 25
"It's interesting - when you described going around looking for a place in the real world to film, and not finding one, I thought also of the sentiment expressed near the end of your film, when the possibility is raised that the world M. Gustave (the main character) inhabits may really have ceased to exist even before he entered it. There is the suggestion that the whole thing was a feat of the imagination... It... moves... towards the idea that [Zweig] just had a huge desire to live in the imagination so fully that it would diminish the impact of the real" - George Prochnik p26
He was also from a Jewish family and so he saw the contrast between his contemporaries' lives and expectations before and after the wars. This quote is from Zweig's memoirs describing his parents' generation in Vienna:
"The people of the time scornfully looked down on earlier epochs with their wars, famines and revolutions as periods when mankind had not yet come of age and was insufficiently enlightened. Now, however, it was a mere matter of decades before they finally saw an end to evil and violence, and in those days this faith in uninterrupted, inexorable 'progress' truly had the force of a religion. People believed in 'progress' more than the Bible, and its gospel message seemed incontestably proven by the new miracles of science and technology that were revealed daily." - Stefan Zweig, Society of the Crossed Keys, p31
This view of pre-war, idyllic Europe is a little chilling when you realise how this world was soon to be shattered by the first and second world wars in quick succession.
In fact, there were signs of anti-semitism and political extremism around, but according to Zweig the people of Vienna were untouched by it - or perhaps chose to ignore it. Here is a prop, a newspaper from the film (in fact, Anderson wrote every article for it!). In the scene the lobby boy Zero rushes in with urgent news, and proceeds to ignore the threat of war completely and tell M. Gustave about the death of his wealthy and refined patroness Madame D.
This is an interesting moment because it shows Anderson's consciousness of how such industriously curated worlds - like his elegant Grand Budapest - are fragile. Even in his earlier films there seems to be a recurring theme of people trying to preserve an imagined, idealised world, and his visual style echoes this. For example in Rushmore, the main character Max Fischer decides his favourite place to be is at school and so he'll stay there forever, and in Moonrise Kingdom two children believe they can find the perfect life by running away from home and evading capture.
There's a kind of childlike innocence about his work that I think he is trying to distil. I love how in this scene Suzie has brought all the things she needs in life - including her cat, several library books, a battery powered record player.
In an interview on another occasion, Prochnik expanded on Viennan culture at the time Zweig was young:
"This was a group of people who lived so entirely in their imaginations that I think it was a kind of pathology, it wasn't healthy. It created some beautiful things but it was, it was such a strained and relentless reliance on worlds of the mind, that, the physical city I think was always something lapping at the edges of people's consciousness and often lapping in a very dark a deleterious fashion." - George Prochnik
Iceskating in Vienna just before the First World War
This is another image that I think resonates with Wes Anderson's work and with the fragile Viennese culture he drew inspiration from for The Grand Budapest. It is called Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimpt 1907. It is of a young, jewish lady who's family were well off and could afford to patronise the arts. After Adele died and her husband had to flee to Switzerland leaving all his possessions, the painting was confiscated by the Nazis (for more info see the film Rape of Europa). Its ownership by her American niece has only just been re-established through a court case (2006).
This painting shows how when we create something beautiful, no matter how much effort we put in it can still, unexpectedly and/or unavoidably be lost. Perhaps these things become more valuable because of this.
I think this idea of suppression through cultivating high culture and beauty with the subconscious (Freud) perilously close to the surface is a very interesting one too. Here are Anderson's thoughts on the matter:
"There's a word I use to describe it, which is "psychological". When I've occasionally said that to describe Zweig I always want to say "Now what do you mean by that?" Because I don't really know what I mean by this... There's something unconscious that's always brewing, and the beahviour that people don't really want anyone to know about is kind of forcing it's way into view." - Wes Anderson, The Society of the Crossed Keys, p12
Here is a still from a scene in which M. Gustave and Zero the lobby boy are interrupted by rather scary and inconvenient soldiers on their way to pay their respects to Madame D. Suddenly M Gustave's decorum is ruffled. He later he tells Zero " You see there are still faint, glimmers of civilisation left in this barbaric slaughter house that was once known as humanity. At least that's what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant - oh fuck it!".
The film feels like it is so deliberate and detailed it is only just holding together a coherent and beautiful narrative. Just as a culture like pre-war Vienna was barely holding together it's sense of purity and refinement. Ultimately the more destructive, suppressed elements of human nature broke through.
It's interesting and disturbing what human beings do to each other when another is de-humanised, when one group feels they have superiority or control. This image is from Marina Abramovic's performance of Rhythm 0 in 1974. She laid out various objects and a statement saying she was responsible for anything that happened between the audience and her in a 6 hour period.
It must have been quite a disturbing experience for her; some of the actions people took were quite destructive, for example getting her to hold a loaded gun to her own head and writing the work 'END' on her forehead. Though on other occasions members of the public stepped in to help. It shows how people's unconscious and unhealthy desires only need to be given permission in order to reveal themselves.
In an interview, Abramovic said that at the end of the 6 hours, when she began to move again everyone ran away. They were confronted with her as a person and she seeced being an object to them.
I think it is interesting that people surround themselves with things that make up a kind of performance of the every day. A narrative that is visible to other people in the clothes we wear, the way we talk, our activities etc. It's essential, especially because we use it to make sure others see us how we would like. It is a kind of control and a paranoia and it is never totally stable.
The characters in Anderson's films also feel very controlled in this way, like heightened versions of real people. It is like someone has turned the saturation levels up on an image. Tilda Swinton's character here for example is only know to us as 'Social Services'.
In my opinion, the Grand Budapest Hotel, along with several other examples of Wes Anderson' work are about trying to hold onto childlike innocence or an ideal that we risk loosing. Like making a 'dolls house' or rigorously tending a garden in order to cultivate something pure and complete.
In real life though I much prefer the idea that beauty is incidental, it can't be prevented anywhere, but neither can sorrow or pain either. We'd better talk about it all over a good cup of tea/ glass of champagne!