The James Clayton Column: Wes Anderson and auteurs with an identity

Feature James Clayton 7 Mar 2014 - 06:08

As The Grand Budapest Hotel arrives in cinemas, James dreams of a world fabricated by Wes Anderson...

The Grand Budapest Hotel is directed by Nadia Cavalcanti. Actually it's not. That was a lie and Nadia Cavalcanti is a made-up person. Still, I'll say it again because if you say things enough times they eventually become tangibly real in your own physical world (it's a bit like Beetlejuice). The Grand Budapest Hotel is directed by Nadia Cavalcanti. How does that make you feel?

Of course, you're probably aware that, in truth, The Grand Budapest Hotel is written, co-produced and directed by Wes Anderson (full name, Wesley Wales Anderson). Now, how does that make you feel? Personally, I'm feeling very happy about this because I'm a Wes Anderson fan and I really like all his movies. In all likelihood The Grand Budapest Hotel is going to extend the winning streak and rack up as another Wes-work that gets me raving.

Given the opportunity, I'd love to live in a world fabricated by Wes Anderson and, without any hesitation, would happily take one of those he's already crafted over the course of his eight-film career.  Imagine exploring the India of The Darjeeling Limited, the marine depths of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou or the handmade stop-motion milieu of Fantastic Mr Fox.

Even if we're not frequenting his more exotic or fantastic settings, Anderson's 'mundane' American environments look equally appealing. The heightened aesthetics - full of colour and meticulous details - are like nothing you encounter in the everyday world or in other movies and that partly explains the potent charm of his pictures. 

The plethora of eccentric characters that populate his sets, the penchant for the Futura font, the whimsical flourishes, the pitch perfect soundtracks and the off-beat, detached tone all add up to make each movie a wonderful experience. What's more, the actual plots and subplots, dialogue, acting performances and thematic subtexts - surviving dysfunctional families, growing up, self-actualisation, accepting your own "wild animal craziness", etc - provide extra depth in films that may be mistaken as superficial exercises in style-over-substance.

In conclusion, Wes Anderson is an A-star artiste in my reckoning and it's my belief that he's one of the most important of all active filmmakers. That's not just because I rate all of his films as primo masterworks, though - what makes the Texan director so significant is his individuality and, whether you dig his own peculiar brand of cinema or not, Anderson should be celebrated for his uniqueness. True one-of-kind types are allegedly pretty rare in this ultra-postmodern seen-it-all-and-bought-the-imitation-tee-shirt age where real originality doesn't exist. At least, that's what we're told by bored people who are probably living in the past and wearing an imitation throwback t-shirt while they linger there. They should probably put a bandit hat on instead.

At this point, Felicity Fox (voiced by Meryl Streep) enters the picture and defiantly states, "We're all different... him especially. But there's something kind of fantastic about that, isn't there?" I agree and, Anderson definitely stands out as one of those exceptional individuals in the field and his unique (and fantastic) personality is all over every single inch of all his films. Without fail, each one acts as a refreshing antithesis to all that is homogenous, market-driven and character-free in the film industry machine and it's heart-warming just to know that Wes Anderson is still making movies  and making them precisely (oh-so precisely) just the way he wants to.

So it has been from Bottle Rocket right up to Moonrise Kingdom in spite of a few frostier receptions and pop-cultural trend shifts. That this quite singular filmmaker has stuck to his guns, retained his indie sensibilities and managed to keep firm creative control over his visions with no apparent compromise throughout his career is an incredible achievement.

I'm all for auteur theory and movie experiences that are intrinsically infused with and enlivened by their creator's DNA. The personal touch is appealing, and Anderson is perhaps the most distinctive of a number of directors whose works are easily identifiable as an auteur's creation. These directors tend to inspire their own adjectives -'Spielbergian', 'Cronenbergian', 'Lynchian' and 'Burtonesque' to raise a select royalty ("A royalty of film directors" is the official collective noun, by the way).  Those moviemaking names are known and appreciated worldwide, each complemented by a whole series of associations, acknowledged traits and trademarks. 

That kind of recognition is idealised by artists looking to forge a name for themselves and their oeuvre. Nevertheless, there are also possible downsides to being a moviemaker with an acknowledged maverick streak and remarkable style. What if that infamous stylistic identity starts to become something of a straight jacket? What if, instead of something that suggests great creative freedom, it becomes the exact opposite and works to your detriment?

Past success can be hazardous. I'm picturing scenarios where people end up like the prodigious Tenenbaum children - defined and constrained by past identities they'd rather dismiss or disassociate themselves from. It's a practical and psychological predicament that has the potential to grow into a massive Jaguar Shark-shaped problem that will perpetually taunt you and cause you to become a grief-stricken shade of your former happy self.

Though I can't think of any cases where a real-life moviemaker has gone into an extreme full-on Zissou-Ahab obsessive frenzy, there are definitely occasions when notable directors have found their famous name to be a hassle. Alfred Hitchcock once claimed, "I am a typed director. If I made Cinderella, the audience would immediately be looking for a body in the coach." He's probably right, and the 'Master of Suspense' - the iconic auteur of his era - is not alone in being a typecast filmmaker, neatly fit into a box of assumptions and expectations by critics and audiences for both good and ill. 

People double-take when, for instance, David Lynch presents The Straight Story or when Martin "Mean Streets" Scorsese makes a movie about the Dalai Lama or an uncharacteristic family-friendly feature in the form of Hugo. Battling entrenched expectations is an arduous business and there's definitely a sense that Steven Spielberg has constantly struggled against his Feelgood Popcorn Blockbuster King labelling every time he's tackled more sombre projects like Schindler's List, Munich and Lincoln.

The same goes for Quentin Tarantino who, in spite of his enthusiasm and obvious ability, never got to make his James Bond movie because he's Quentin Tarantino. Mention the name Tim Burton and, similarly, gothic imagery and a crowd of regular collaborators swirl around and have minds running "ah, he does that kind of thing because that's his thing". All the associations can also be a turn off for audiences and I'm not sure that any director would be happy knowing that cinemagoers are avoiding their work simply because it bears their stamp.

It begs the question, then - what if these iconic, idiosyncratic moviemakers changed their name and adopted an alias persona to produce something wholly unlike their usual output? Similarly, what if they wanted to remove their celebrity from something so it could be judged on its own terms and not against their notorious name? If a director just wants to cut loose and is tied-up by too many preconceived notions and tired of the same flavours and techniques, a pseudonym could be an excellent idea. 

Alan Smithee credits aside, film doesn't really have a pseudonymous alter ego tradition like other artforms such as literature and music. There's a long history of stage names - from Boris Karloff and Judy Garland right up to Natalie Portman and Michael Keaton who is the Michael Douglas who can't be Michael Douglas. There's not much evidence of darker nom de plume activity or secret sideline personas when it comes to directors, however. (Though, of course, the lack of evidence might highlight how successful their secret identities are.) It doesn't seem right that actors should have a monopoly on pretending to be other people.

I reckon it could work for the auteurs yearning to get radical and exemplary inspiration can be found in other mediums. For example, when hardcore punk band The Bronx want to flip the mood and make Mexican folk music they change their clothing and go by the name Mariachi El Bronx instead. Likewise, see how Green Day have adopted new identities for their side-projects - the new wave electric enigma The Network and vintage garage rock group Foxboro Hot Tubs (the latter of which features frontman Billie Joe Armstrong going by the name Reverend Strychnine Twitch).

Looking to literature, you could build entire libraries out of books knocked out by distinguished writers hiding behind a pen name. J.K. Rowling's recent adventures as Robert Galbraith - now revealed as being the Harry Potter author and not an unknown new novelist - is especially relevant. Freed from the famous moniker so closely aligned to tales of adolescent wizards, Rowling wrote an adult crime novel and described the exercise as a "liberating experience" free of hype and expectation. Even if that cloak of invisibility has been stripped from her, she still has the comforting knowledge that she can put on her Robert Galbraith persona any time and not worry about how her writing relates to her real identity or Harry Potter fans.

Moving back to the movies, it would be far more difficult for a director like Wes Anderson to dabble with pseudonyms because film is an industry that's not really conducive to anonymity. Plus, I'm quite sure that Wes Anderson is very comfortable in his own skin and happy with his creative style. Critics and cinemagoers are also very happy with his style and output but it's still interesting to wonder - what if the director did want to throw caution to the wind and set aside the standard shtick to do something totally different? 

Imagine going to see a Wes Anderson movie and finding that all his characteristic quirks are conspicuously absent. In fact, it's so unlike a Wes Anderson movie you find yourself struggling to actually believe that the film was produced by the same mind behind Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. How does that make you feel? 

Returning to The Grand Budapest Hotel, audiences are approaching this fresh release with a number of expectations simply because the name 'Wes Anderson' sits beneath the title. That excites Anderson enthusiasts and alienates those who don't dig the director's signature moves.  Remove that evocative autograph and put a different filmmaker's moniker alongside The Grand Budapest Hotel and everything changes. The envisioned aesthetic, familiar tics and figured casts of frequent collaborators all vanish and are substituted by a different set of conventions.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is directed by Nadia Cavalcanti. I've said that phrase three times now so, according to Beetlejuice rules, The Grand Budapest Hotel really is directed by Nadia Cavalcanti. What's amazing is just how much it feels like a Wes Anderson movie.

James Clayton is actually Max Fischer and, one of his pseudonyms now revealed, he would like to take credit for being the visionary director of Rushmore Academy's stirring, quite exceptional stage adaptation of SerpicoYou can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

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