Laughing Matters: The Max Fischer Players

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

“She’s the smartest person in the world, general. I think we ought to listen to her.”

I love this with an intensity I’ll never be able to truly convey.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

The Art of the Sell: Wes Anderson, “My Life, My Card”

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

Wes Anderson is rightly earning a fleet of social media raves for his new Christmas-themed ad for H&M. Thankfully, it’s far better than what he came up with the last time he pointed his camera at Adrien Brody on a train.

It also got me thinking about other commercial spots Anderson has directed, including his contribution to the American Express “My Life, My Card” campaign. The meticulous detailing that can swerve towards preciousness can get wearying across a feature — and I type that as someone who unabashed loves several Anderson films — works beautifully in the briefer format. There’s no cause to root for Anderson to abandon the big screen, but he sure can work marvels on a smaller scale.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

 

From the Archive: The Darjeeling Limited

Usually I’d fill this space with some collection of observations about the film or the review, but I’m highly distracted today. So I’ll stick with just the older words.

More than any other current director I can think of, Wes Anderson is crafting a series of films so distinctive, so stylistic unified and, yes, so redundant that it sometimes seems as if he’s making one big movie, one wide-ranging artistic statement, spread across a batch of two hour chunks. For example, there may be a way intrinsic to this film itself to interpret the opening featuring Bill Murray as the generically-named “The Businessman” running after a departing train called The Darjeeling Limited only to watch it accelerate beyond his ability to catch up just as Adrien Brody, gangly legs pumping in slow-motion, charges past to clamber onto it. It’s somehow more satisfying, though, to view it as a little fake-out with Anderson’s primary acting muse surprisingly left behind as a total newcomer to the troupe jumps aboard the forward moving storyline, the train and the film significantly sharing the same title. It becomes an explicit transfer of focus from Anderson’s previous film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which featured Murray in the title role. The Darjeeling Limited even makes this sensation more explicit with the recent inclusion of the short Hotel Chevalier with all screenings. Anderson and the studio may have initially felt it was inessential, but removing it would be like reading a novel after arbitrarily disregarding the first chapter. The different components of Anderson’s work here have a clear, vital through line. This winds up serving as yet another indicator of how connected all of his work feels.

One problem with this–and there are a few, to be sure–is that Anderson is doing more than skirting self-parody. He’s beginning to reach the point where his entire oeuvre is some precious thing held up for admiration rather than work that hits you in the mind and heart the way the best films do, the way that his own Rushmore did. Darjeeling is amusing and interesting enough, but it’s rarely compelling. The themes feel familiar, the arch tone too distancing. With little to no inclination to upend his standard methodology, Anderson is finally running the risk of quirking himself into insignificance.

In fact, the most exciting moments in Darjeeling are those that feel most detached from the well-established Wes-iverse. When the three troubled brothers central to the film’s story reach arguably the lowest point in their spiritual pilgrimage across India, the film suddenly shifts to a flashback sequence showing where this trio was at almost exactly a year earlier. It is, to my recollection, the first time Anderson has used a flashback as a vital, integral piece of storytelling, letting it live and breathe on its own and import something to the viewer rather than set it up as some sort of cute insert (think back to The Royal Tenenbaums which is nearly smothered in its infancy as these moments pile up in the first portion of the film). Here the scene has bite and is brimming with fierce emotion. It is effectively jarring in the context of this film, contrasting sharply with the wounded characters we’ve been spending time with, holding the world dispassionately away. Held against the entirety of Anderson’s work, it is finally, triumphantly different, perhaps hinting that he can create a film that’s not rigid with unyielding precision and chilled by judicious use of slow-motion and other filmmaking tropes that serve as a constant reminder that all the raw emotions that the characters exhibit onscreen aren’t actually that painful because, after all, it’s only a movie.

Anderson’s skill and expertise at crafting visual images should be well-established to anyone who views his films, but it’s beginning to have a lulling quality. Darjeeling, with it’s tentative forays into potent surprises and more grounded moments, may be a portent that this ongoing creation of his is beginning to transform. Anderson has started the train moving down the right track. Now he just has to catch it.

What a beautiful dream that could flash on the screen in a blink of an eye and be gone from me

At this point in the director’s career, it may be easier and more instructive to catalog how a new Wes Anderson film is different than its predecessors. For example, his latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is packed with all the same ornate, beautifully-realized art direction and costume design, intricately framed images, and absurdist, deadpan humor that has been his hallmark for the bulk of his career. But there’s also a creeping darkness to the humor, like edges of paper blackening against pronounced heat. There’s coarser language and flashes of unabashed sexuality that are somewhat unfamiliar to the director (though that’s not quite true, all of Anderson’s films were rated R until playing to the junior set with The Fantastic Mr. Fox necessitated dialing it back a bit), but there’s also the employment of comic violence that is straight out of the Coen brothers’ toolkit. Even central character M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) recalls the work of the Coens in his use of complicated, almost pompous language to prop himself up in an existence of refined sleaziness. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a sort of offhand caper, a yarn spun by a gentle ruffian with an aspirational appreciation for the finer things.

Despite observations about potential new kindred peers, The Grand Budapest Hotel is unmistakably the work of Anderson. The title setting itself is exactly the sort of mammoth realization of softly-colored, highly detailed beauty–touched with a hint of squalor–that stands as the director’s specialty. Largely taking place in a nineteen-thirties, as the fictional European country that is home to the splendiferous hotel is falling prey to a continental militaristic control that strongly recalls certain German incursions of the time, the film is a farce putting on airs of a genteel drawing room comedy. Gustave is the concierge of the hotel, serving to the every need of his wealthy clientele, including the sexual and emotional gratification of many elderly widows. One of them, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, throwing herself into Anderson’s broad fakery with expected gusto), meets her end in a manner that is somewhat suspicious, a situation further complicated by her callous family’s ire when they discover she’s left a priceless work of art to Gustave. With that story foundation foundation, Anderson and his co-screenwriter Hugo Guinness indulge in a dizzying array of side plots and supporting characters, many played by Anderson’s ever-expanding stock company. As with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Anderson seems to be engaged in a wager with himself to see just how much he can pack into a single film.

If The Grand Budapest Hotel lacks the heart and soulfulness of Anderson’s best work, it has a restless playfulness that’s irresistible in its own right. Some of that is directly attributable to Fiennes’s performance as Gustave, in which the actor is clearly taking great delight in the chance to do something lighter. He’s charming, graceful, and imbued with a pleasingly prickly politesse. No matter how Anderson’s popping confection risks spinning off into oblivion, Fiennes hold it in place, a reliable core. With so much that’s deliberately, forcefully remarkable in Anderson’s film, Fiennes achieves the feat of being grandest of all.

Top Ten Movies of 2012 — Number One

There are some movies that inspire adoration from their very first moments, that simply feel exactly right. That’s what happened when I saw Wes Anderson’s sophomore effort, Rushmore. I truly thought that would be a one-of-a-kind experience from the director, especially as his very particular brand of pinched emotion and tightrope whimsy became a little more strained with every outing. Oh me of little faith. From the very beginning of Moonrise Kingdom, with Bob Balaban calmly, sagely explaining the world of New Penzance, Anderson offers a pitch-perfect delivery of an enchanting tone, spirit and rhythm that is uniquely his own, as if the boundless freedom of French New Wave was swirled together with the plasticine Americana recognizable to any survivor of the seventies. When he’s on, no director combines energy with placidity like Anderson. And when he’s really on, he infuses that with a surprising depth of emotion.

In the case of Moonrise Kingdom, the emotion comes from the fugitive romance between Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), a couple of kids on the cusp of adolescence who abscond to a secret cove where they can listen to records and read fantastical books, swapping stories of their own personal sadness along the way. As with Rushmore, the impetuousness of youthful romance suits Anderson. All the emotions are so intensely out in the open, every last moment carries so much weight. There’s also a different resiliency in place within the kids, an ability to ride the currents of life that eludes those in adulthood, exemplified by the characters played by Bill Murray (Suzy’s father) and Bruce Willis (the local police captain), both of them cloaked in their own version of smothering disappointment. By trying to escape their fates, Sam and Suzy are ahead of their elders.

Beyond these elements, Moonrise Kingdom is also terrifically funny, skating between truthful humor and the exaggerated tomfoolery of fable, where lightning can strike at any moment and a treehouse might be built at an unsafe altitude. The writing by Anderson, co-credited alongside Roman Coppola, is beautifully precise, immersed in character and enraptured by language. They continually find their way to beautiful oddities, moments that somehow manage to be piercing, no matter how unlikely it may seem. Making a twelve-year-old pointedly asking, “What kind of bird are you?” into the most splendid pick-up line to be heard in a movie in ages is the sort of little miracle that only Anderson could conjure up. I may have been disappointed before, but I clearly never should have doubted his unique wizardry.

Spectrum Check

And so we come to the end of another calendar year of reviews for Spectrum Culture. The site is already in the process of downshifting ahead of the holidays, so there was a little less new content going up this week. I still took my turn in the film review rotation, however, with an evaluation of a new drama that got wobbly wheels but is finally made steady by a couple of very fine performances.

Most of my words this week were expended on our various “end of the year” lists. For the Favorite Books feature, I wrote about Richard Ford’s Canada, although I also considered expounding on the continuing astonishment that is Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson biography. Matthew McConaughey’s turn as Dallas in Magic Mike was my pick for the Best Performances list, in part because I thought it would be immensely fun to write about. It was. For Best Films, I opted for Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, being sure to plant my flag on that one early since I figured it might be in high demand among our staff. On our Top 25 Songs list, I was assigned the track that landed at #10 and I got the task of writing on the entries at #6 and #5 on the Top 20 Albums tally. In keeping with a fairly new tradition, I’ll have more on my picks for the best music on the year popping up in this space sometime in the next couple of weeks.

In the spiritual kingdom of love, you’re the one that I’m thinkin’ of

Falling in love can be treacherous business. The flush of excitement when interest clicks over to happy infatuation is undeniably thrilling, but it also foretells all the moments in the future when it won’t quite live up to the earlier highs, when reality comes striding in with disappointment clinging to its arm. That’s true of romance, but it also applies to falling in love with art. I became fully committed to the work of Wes Anderson within the first reel of his 1998 film, Rushmore, completely enraptured by the bold inventiveness, the visual precision and the filmmaker’s uncanny ability to merge exaggeration with piercingly true emotions. Even though I’ve greatly admired some of his other films, I’ve also had a nagging worry that his extremely particular style was becoming a self-defeating problem, as if his films would continue to be drawn in tighter and tighter circles until the characters within them couldn’t even move any longer. His last live action film, 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited, became so cloistered in Anderson’s cinematic tics that it started to operate in an intellectual and spiritual languid stiffness that matched the pace of the director’s trademark slow motion shots.

Whatever worry I had that Anderson set his raft on a creative whirlpool that he’d never manage to paddle free from is completely eradicated by Moonrise Kingdom, easily his best film since Rushmore, and an effort that proves he can still find the comic truth in wrenching emotions and the pathos within whimsy. The movie concerns young love, following the sweet, troubled bonding between a khaki scout named Sam, played by Jared Gilman, and a moody girl with a flashpoint temper named Suzy, played by Kara Hayward. Set in the 1965, all the better to capitalize on Anderson’s brand of hip nostalgia, the film finds the star-crossed tweens running away from the respective summer residences on a New England island, evidently to strike out on their own for good. They are pursue by the various woebegone adults in their lives, including Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), Sam’s troop leader (Edward Norton) and the head and apparently sole member of the island police force (Bruce Willis).

The poignancy, directness and relative simplicity of the core relationship is freeing to Anderson, who co-wrote the film with his Darjeeling collaborator, Roman Coppola. Because these are ultimately children that are play-acting at an adult relationship, the careful placing of every element is recontextualized. It begins to feel less like a director with a overly controlling hand over his scenarios, and more like the cautious efforts of kids (and the adults that are, in a way, as lost as the kids) putting everything into a place that might not be right but feels close enough to their perception. Anderson also made a point of casting novice actors for the various kids’ roles, reportedly drawing inspiration from François Truffaut, who took that approach with the 1976 film Small Change. It loosens up the film, lending it a blessed naturalism that Anderson’s instincts can sometimes bypass. The quiet normalcy of their interactions–as they talk about books, siblings, records and any of the other things that exit apart from the connection between the two of them–only make the fable-like invention of the other parts of the film all the more charming.

I may still feel like I had reasonable cause to doubt the endurance of Anderson’s largely unchanging style (he will probably never make a movie that doesn’t include a shot of a large group of characters walking in slow motion), but Moonrise Kingdom revives my excitement for his work. There’s a kind loveliness to the way stories and character spill out of his imagination, a generosity to Anderson’s world that still manages to acknowledge the presence and pull of sadness. Anderson’s cinematic world is its own unique place, but when its fulsome spirit shines through clearly, that very uniqueness is a pure treasure.