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Not Your Average Comedy Flick
It was once part of my weekly ritual to visit the local video store, scan the shelves of their ‘comedy’ section and come away feeling significantly less inspired than before. In my downtime, I would also find myself fixated by chains of homogenous movie trailers, which left me in a state of monotony. Never could I understand how these comedy movies were ever viewed as forms of ‘art’; that is, until the summer of 2012, when I encountered my first Wes Anderson film.
The one DVD cover that grabbed my attention was filled with familiar actors amidst aquatic colours and an abundance of yellow Futura typeface. The movie in question was The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004); a striking film for my untrained eyes, illustrating the endeavours of the Jacques-Yves Cousteau-like oceanographer Steve Zissou (played by Bill Murray). During the production of his latest documentary, Zissou had captured the death of the faithful Esteban du Plantier to a murderous ‘Jaguar Shark’. This incites Zissou’s pursuit of vengeance on the shark in his next production; however the journey, as with most of Anderson’s narratives, spirals into a rollicking, humorous adventure.
Previously, I had not seen comedy presented in such a whimsical and idiosyncratic fashion. The film is saturated with concepts that mock some of life’s most bleak (and often tragic) affairs. The Life Aquatic incorporates domestic disputes, death, and fatherhood, in a manner that parodies reality, through the incongruous and flippant behaviour of Anderson’s characters. I believe that this is a highly unique representation of individual characters within film. After a taste of this somewhat artificial world, I was desperate for more.
Anderson’s films exemplify the term ‘aesthetically pleasing’ through his refined visual style. This is formed through his colourful sets, costumes and props, along with his remarkable approach to cinematic storytelling. His characters and sets are always dressed so that they stand comfortably within the selected colour palette which best conveys Anderson’s fictional realms. His most recent feature, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) is a fine example. The film is primarily set in the fictitious republic of Zubrowka; a land of quaint pastel-coloured terraces and snowcapped mountains. Audiences explore the workings of the hilltop establishment known as ‘The Grand Budapest’, run by the illustrious Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). In order to reach the central time period of the film’s narrative, the viewer must first travel through a series of colourful eras from present to past. Within the first nine minutes, viewers are introduced to the three key eras: 1985, 1968 and 1932. When depicting ‘Zubrowka’ in 1932, Anderson saturates the costumes, props and sets in bold shades of purple, pink and blue. When moving forward to 1968, we see orange, grey and gold emerge. Finally, Anderson explores the setting in 1985, through his display of neutral and fleshy tones. All this is done to assist the viewer in differentiating between the three time periods of the film. The attention to detail within this colour-coordinated production design is not only par excellence, but also a crucial element in Anderson’s aesthetic.
Anderson consistently presents a pocketful of specific film techniques to enhance the representation of his handcrafted worlds. Generally, a film school will encourage budding filmmakers to avoid the ‘unconventional’ locked-off and centred shot composition, as these techniques offer a very staged tone, as opposed to a filmic one. In Anderson’s case, this technique is one of his most identifiable trademarks. It would seem that he exploits the method to emphasise the importance of key conversations, objects and actions. It is this staged appearance and behavior of his characters that is so refreshing and unlike any average, mediocre comedy film.
To give his scenes energy, Anderson also places the camera on rails, which produces his fabled camera movements. His whip-pans, dolly shots and zooms will typically draw the audience’s attention to the subject’s emotions or actions, while the tracking shot usually encompasses a long procedure acted out by a particular character. In Moonrise Kingdom (2012), Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton) performs a spot-check on the scouts of ‘Camp Ivanhoe’. To capture this routine in Anderson’s unique style, the camera follows the subject through a series of long tracking shots. Sure, every other filmmaker has employed these techniques in their films at some point, but none have emphasised the comedy and energy of these camera movements in the way Wes Anderson does.
Anderson’s filmic signatures are both remarkable and inspiring. When observing his eight feature films in chronological order, viewers will notice the blossoming of his world, along with his self-realised aesthetic. His trademark ‘style’ is the result of these key elements jumbled together to paint his artificial realms and the individuals that occupy them. Wes Anderson’s approach to comedic cinema is not only refined and unique, but also highly artistic. When I think of the tedious and dry comedy films that occupied most of my time before that enlightening summer, I still regard them as film artistry in its simplest form. When I ponder the films of the industry’s most offbeat and notable creators, I regard them as masterpieces.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, 2004. Courtesy Touchstone Pictures.
The Grand Budapest Hotel, 2014. Film still. Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Moonrise Kingdom, 2012. Film still. Courtesy Indian Paintbrush.