Wes Anderson: A world of his own

Fred Rowson 22 November 2007

In 1966, Sergio Leone had finished making Westerns. For him, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly was the definitive statement on the genre, and he wanted to begin making films in America. Hollywood, however, had different ideas, and wanted more Westerns out of him. Hence, 1969’s Once Upon A Time in the West: his elegiac epic. The film opens with three gunmen at a railway station, whom we take to be the protagonists, only to see them shot down minutes later. Originally, they were to be played by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach, the three stars of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. With this, Leone was to signify the end of the Spaghetti Western. In the end, the stars couldn’t make the roles, but the feeling is still there.

Wes Anderson’s latest film, The Darjeeling Limited (2007), also begins at a railway station, and has Bill Murray, who is as much a part of Anderson’s oeuvre as Clint was of Sergio’s, fail to catch the train on which the film is set. Is Wes Anderson setting himself up for a departure from his old ways?

Well, no. The Darjeeling Limited is a continuation not only of Anderson’s favourite themes – the dysfunctional family, redemption, and deep melancholy – but also a continuation of his aesthetic – the comic whip pans, perfect framing and meticulous production design – and this is no bad thing. Anderson’s films are simultaneously unique entities unto themselves, and also acutely aware of their cinematic touchstones.

His films combine the acutely minimalist performance of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (see, for example, Margaret Yang (Sara Tanaka) delicately craning her neck in Rushmore (1998), or Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray) and his inability to eat a biscuit in 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums) with the dusty retro sensibilities of an old copy of the New Yorker. In short, Wes bares comparison to so many filmmakers, films, styles, books and paintings that he is justifiably a true original.

When The Darjeeling Limited is released tomorrow, there are several things that both the Anderson aficionado and the Anderson virgin should look out for. First is the use of text. There is a skill in the way that Anderson uses letters and notes as an extension of character, both in terms of presentation and content. Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), uses a secretary to type up his dictation, demonstrating his detachment. Anderson also uses a unified font in order to tie his worlds together (The Royal Tenenbaums is Sans Serif, in the style of Ed Ruscha).

Secondly, look for the shot of characters under water, which has been included in all of Anderson’s films, with the number of characters submerged increasing by one each time. In Bottle Rocket (1996), we began with Anthony Adams (Luke Wilson) going for a solo dip. By Anderson’s rule, the Darjeeling Limited should feature 5 sunken heroes.

Thirdly listen out for The Kinks on the soundtrack. One of the director’s favourite bands, The Kinks share his yearning for a world bathed in the sunshine glow of yesterday. Which leads us to the fourth and final item to watch out for: period. Or the lack thereof.

His films exist in a world of their own, without modern technology beyond the record player and the walkie talkie. A battered kitsch is, for Anderson, evidence of a warm heart despite any outward flaws. The modern world, as is demonstrated by Alastair Hennessey’s chillingly clinical ship in The Life Aquatic, is a sign of a seriousness that Anderson strives to replace with a passionate poignancy.

Fred Rowson