Total Recall: The Life Cinematic with Wes Anderson

A look at the influences of the postmodern filmmaker.

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

Jen Yamato

Jen Yamato

This is one of my favorite Total Recalls to date. Wes Anderson is pretty awesome! He's also one director whose film soundtracks are always must-haves.

Oct 24 - 07:04 PM

jacketman

Brian Thatcher

I guess I am a 'hipster'. I really liked Life Aquatic. Looking forward to this one.

Oct 24 - 09:20 PM

zachatach

Zach Hart

I really hate it when the casual film writer breaks down the work of a director by pointing out similar threads in past cinema. The similarities between Rushmore and Harold and Maude are few and far between. The connection, according to Ryan and Vo, is the use of Cat Stevens in the soundtrack, the tone of detachment, and panoramic shots. Well%u2026Cat Stevens has songs in twenty-seven films (including Kingpin, must be a BIG Anderson influence), almost every film with a rebellious teen (there must be hundreds) has a tone of detachment, and panoramic shots!?%u2026can you be any more vague%u2026comparing two films because they have panoramic shots does not build a case for influence since it%u2019s a cinematic technique used in every third film made. My favorite, and most obvious display that Ryan and Vo have no idea what they are talking about concerning Wes Anderson is their comparison between The Graduate and Rushmore%u2026because Bill Murray (Blume) is in plastics%u2026a homage to the classic party line from the graduate. Well, the character is not in the plastic business, he is in the steel business. But, hey, it%u2019s ok to manufacture things to make what would have been a weak point to tie two films together. I suggest that these writer%u2019s do a little research before their next article and for those who want to see some films that influenced Anderson, go to the source, Anderson himself. (He claims these are what influenced, not his films, but him as a filmmaker: The Last Detail, Murmur of the Heart, and The Man Who Loved Women.

-Zach (Wes Anderson Historian)

Oct 24 - 09:34 PM

dahluzz

joe shmo

the point was not that cat stevens had a song in harold and maude, it was that he did the entire soundtrack (which clearly he didn't do for many of the films you're likely talking about, incluing kingpin), so to use cat stevens songs in rushmore, a movie that is similarly shot, similar in its offbeat tone and features seemingly mismatched romances, is an homage to harold and maude.

"wes anderson historian"? why, because you've seen his movies and read an article in which he stated some of his influnces? I understand that haters is gonna hate, I mean that's what you guys do, but why go off on one of the better articles of the week? this is an obvious case of you wanting to make everyone think you're smarter than the writers -- AND FAILING MISERABLY. it's really a shame.

Oct 25 - 07:12 AM

Segkee

Lochhead Seth

This is the most heartbreaking work of staggering genius I've ever seen in my whole entire life. Not because I was engaged by the story, but because I wasn't. It was hella lazy in the writing department. I blame the Coppola and the 1/2 Coppola.

Notice the only POV break - Jason's romantic subplot. The other characters don't breathe without Jason around and yet Jason can run off, bang a local, sneak a *** and we have to watch him do it.

They open, brilliantly, on Adrian. And you%u2019re thinking, %u201CThis is Adrian's story. Yes. I want to watch this story.%u201D But instead of being with him, feeling his extreme emotions (he has the most horrific event occur to him on screen), we have to watch Jason lick his hand like a kitten.

And that's not even getting into the unnecessary use of repetition (the "baggage", commenting on whose calling who, Angelica Huston).

Wes Anderson broke my heart. I will forever be a fan, but this is my warbling loyalty.

Oct 24 - 09:52 PM

Segkee

Lochhead Seth

Zach,

Harold and Maude is an obvious influence. Bud Cort was in LIFE AQUATIC. And the camera work is technically similar to Hal Ashby's. Also, the absurdist tone. To say Harold and Maude did not influence Rushmore is to say Raging Bull didn't influence Boogie Nights. "I'm a star, a big bright shining star."

Oct 24 - 09:57 PM

zachatach

Zach Hart

I'm not saying that it didn't infulence it somewhat...my argument is more in the tone that if you are going to make a comparison, make points that only apply to the two films in question...similar camera work can be found in many films. If I was forced to make such a stupid comparison I would go with the Hal Ashby directed The Last Detail...a film that is much closer in the viusal aspect of Rushmore.

Oct 24 - 10:06 PM

dahluzz

joe shmo

the point was not that cat stevens had a song in harold and maude, it was that he did the entire soundtrack (which clearly he didn't do for many of the films you're likely talking about, incluing kingpin), so to use cat stevens songs in rushmore, a movie that is similarly shot, similar in its offbeat tone and features seemingly mismatched romances, is an homage to harold and maude.

"wes anderson historian"? why, because you've seen his movies and read an article in which he stated some of his influnces? I understand that haters is gonna hate, I mean that's what you guys do, but why go off on one of the better articles of the week? this is an obvious case of you wanting to make everyone think you're smarter than the writers -- AND FAILING MISERABLY. it's really a shame.

Oct 25 - 07:12 AM

Xynotyro

Rob Wadleigh

How come I've never heard Peter Greenaway mentioned when looking at Anderson's influences?
"The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" contains some of the most aesthetic similarities with Anderson's films, especially Rushmore. The use of the curtains throughout the film alone make this pretty obvious.

...and thanks for saying what needed to be said dahluzz...

Oct 25 - 08:21 AM

pgibso

pgibso .

If your going to dissect a director,especially one with the kind of originality and conviction as that of Mr. Anderson, the least one could do would be to get their facts straight.
Wes draws so much from his own real life experiences that he goes as far as to include non-actors who just happen to be in his life such Kumar Palana, and others. Now I could go into how Steven Speilberg actually lifted Kumar and put the non-proffesional ex-vaudeville performer and in one of his own films(The flacid sleeper, The terminal)- but I won't.
But Wes' own, real-life friend, who's last name is actually Tenenbaum(Appears as Clay in the film Bottle Rocket, and other low-key roles) actually works in a real-life steel manufacturing business. That is where Wes actually got the Steel Plant Job for Mr. Blume, not PLASTICS worker, as the writer above tried to pin as an homage to the Graduate.
On another note, the more I look at seventees art and cinema, really EVERYTHING kind of reminds me of Wes Anderson. Parts of Taxi-Driver even remind me of Wes Anderson.It's Just the era.
Aside from a few deliberate nods(Bud Corts Life Aquatic appearance) Wes'vision is that of a person who grew up influenced by the seventees, as well as his-own day-to day surroundings and has thus developed it into a new original voice and not just some boiler room,focus group approved script . If you want to start citing glaring influences, start with Bruckheimer or something.

Oct 25 - 10:59 AM

flamingbagofpoo

Nate Baustad

I think I am going to go to the University of Phoenix online and get my phD in History of Wes Anderson. Anyone with me?

Oct 25 - 02:24 PM

NibbCNoble

Jeffrey Noble

Wes Anderson's bizarre brand of comedy is unique as it gets. The first movie I saw of his was The Royal Tannenbaum's. at first I thought "what the F$#% ?" The story grew on me quickly though, by the time Ben Stiller and his kids with matching outfits were working on their fire drill, I WAS HOOKED. I loved Harold and Maude. I can sort of see a similar style of comedy in Wes Anderson's work, but his movies are only truly a-like to themselves alone. Can't wait to see the new flick.

Oct 27 - 06:57 PM

Jen Yamato

Jen Yamato

Sign me up too, poo!

Oct 25 - 02:57 PM

NibbCNoble

Jeffrey Noble

Wes Anderson's bizarre brand of comedy is unique as it gets. The first movie I saw of his was The Royal Tannenbaum's. at first I thought "what the F$#% ?" The story grew on me quickly though, by the time Ben Stiller and his kids with matching outfits were working on their fire drill, I WAS HOOKED. I loved Harold and Maude. I can sort of see a similar style of comedy in Wes Anderson's work, but his movies are only truly a-like to themselves alone. Can't wait to see the new flick.

Oct 27 - 06:57 PM

homemadealliance

Adeline Smith

i'm so glad i got to meet him. :)

Oct 28 - 03:06 PM

homemadealliance

Adeline Smith

Oct 28 - 03:08 PM

christmas125

Paul Kemmler

Bud cort, who plays Harold from Harold and Maude was cast in The Life Aquatic too.

Oct 7 - 08:32 PM

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