Total Recall: The Life Cinematic with Wes Anderson

A look at the influences of the postmodern filmmaker.

by |

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 The 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 Trilogy, 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 Rushmore (86 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 The 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 Pressberger's The Red Shoes (100 percent), like The Royal Tenenbaums, begins with the opening of a book. In The Graduate (88 percent), 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.

Comments