Rant: Quirky Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson is a genius. I won’t argue with that… I can’t argue with that. I like to imagine he gets his ideas from a misanthropic unicorn with pink wings and lonely eyes. His style is both concrete and dreamlike; whimsical production design with a camera that traps his characters in its symmetrical frame. When it comes to auteur directors, nobody creates a world quite like Wes.

Unfortunately, style alone does not make a movie. Style must be supported by something more important… the glue that keeps the audience in their seats… the screenplay.

“Quirky” is a word that many use to describe Mr. Anderson’s characters and plots. I take it a step farther by suggesting it’s the only word that describes his work.

Margot Tenenbaum from The Royal Tenenbaums is the perfect example of “quirky.” Margot was adopted. As a child, she wrote and directed elaborate stage plays about dead animals. She seems perpetually sullen. She ran away from home, lived in a museum, then lost a finger to a misplaced ax. Now, she wears the exact same clothes and thick eyeliner, and sports a wooden finger on her right hand. She smokes. She once married a Jamaican recording artist. Now she’s married to a psychologist. She seems perpetually sullen.

Oh. And her brother is in love with her.

The question I would like to pose to Mr. Anderson is this: what do these quirks add up to? The answer is not “character.” Characters are created by THE DECISIONS WE WATCH THEM MAKE, not the weird things that happened in their past. Margot doesn’t become a real character until the end of the movie when the writers finally force her to chose between two bad things.

In order for quirks to work, they need to be loaded. But how exactly do you load a quirk?

Consider the show Arrested Development. Similar to Margot in Tenenbaums, Buster Bluth loses a hand. This could easily become a one-time gag. But in the hands of skillful writers, this “quirk” plays a pivotal role in Buster’s life, the comedy of the show, and the plot as a whole. For one-and-a-half seasons, the missing hand is the source of numerous jokes. There’s wordplay (“Hand to God,” and “He’s all right”), slapstick, foreshadowing, metaphors, and more. The writers manage to squeeze every last drop of comedic and dramatic value out of this silly missing limb.

This makes me wonder… why was it important for Margot to lose a finger? It’s not that funny. The way she loses the finger isn’t relevant to the story. It doesn’t make her character grow or change. It doesn’t provide new insight into other characters or story lines. And if it works as a metaphor, it’s above my head.

Consider this change. Little Margot Tenenbaum is a spunky child who loves her life and her adoptive family. She writes happy stage plays about cute animals, and she performs them for her friends. But then it happens. Margot’s father slips with an axe and lops off her finger! Her world is turned upside down. She becomes detached. She runs away from home. Her depression pushes her closer and closer to her brother, who then begins to form unhealthy feelings for her.

Now, when we cut back to the present day, her wooden finger has meaning. It reminds us that Margot used to be a fun-loving girl. It builds tension between her and her father. And guess what? It’s still quirky!

I could rant for weeks about the problems with Wes Anderson’s screenplays, but today we stop at empty quirks. Despite the awesome design, original concepts, and hilarious dry humor, Wes Anderson movies lack the drama and depth needed to keep me interested.

(Want more of Buster’s hand?)
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6 comments

  1. Kallie Colton

    I love your rants. They crack me up. And I definitely see what you mean. I hate when characters don’t have to make, like, any choices. -_-

    • jakevanderark

      That’s actually my problem with The Hunger Games too… but I’ll save that for later : )

      And to be fair, I really did like his newest movie. It uses the same quirks, but I felt a deeper connection to the characters than I did in his other movies. Maybe I need to see it again to figure out why!

  2. Laura Neale

    Whoa whoa whoa, hold it right there.

    I wince every time someone used the adjective “quirky” to describe a Wes Anderson movie. It seems like such a reduction. They are quirky, certainly, but they are so much more. Sometimes, in other movies, a character with a quirk is defined by that quirk, he/she has it to save the director from having to flesh him/her out in some other way, and as a result it feels gimmicky, two-dimensional. I have never felt Anderson once treat his characters this way. His characters have quirks *because* they’re fleshed out. His characters have oddities, and those oddities are extra-visible, but I think mostly that is because Anderson takes the trouble to get to know the person he is writing in every tiny detail, and then gives the viewer the opportunity to notice them in their all their exquisite particulars. Through the telescope of an Anderson film, we are given the space and time to really LOOK at the little things that make up a person, the things that represent facets of their inner selves to the outside world, the things they’ve collected around themselves like a decorator crab does, the things other directors blow past because there isn’t time in a more plot-driven film. The oddities of Anderson’s characters usually aren’t created to serve as plot devices, they are just there to describe – and I prefer it that way, because that’s the way real humans are.

    And here’s the beating heart, I believe, of each Wes Anderson film. A profound appreciation, a gentle humor, a not-at-all naîve sense of wonder, a reflective exultation in people, in each person with his or her own complex, vulnerable, surprising individuality. A relatability, a sort of bemused resignation, an acknowledgement that life is damn hard, but we have each other, and that’s damn hard too, but thank God anyway. As organized and meticulously arranged as his sets are, the people in them are just the opposite. Their lives are tangled with loose ends, unresolved feelings, insecurities, decisions made & then second-guessed, glaring flaws, wounds old & new, and as we watch them act and interact and feel and think and talk, we realize that Anderson’s telescope has been set up from the vantage point of compassion. Across a great distance, but with sharp clarity, we can reflect on love – both as we see it in their lives, and as we see it through them into our own lives. The things that are odd about his characters, the unique little things that don’t always make one-to-one sense, the things that separate them from their peers, are the very things that endear them to us, or at least to me, because they are the things that anchor them, that call them out of vagueness into specificity. It trains me to look with the same humor and kindness at the people in my own life, on their quirks and oddities. Because we all have them. I’d rather have characters who make me think about what it means to be human, how relationships work, the many ways there are to be broken and beautiful, and how to love and respect with an eye to grace and forgiveness, than a neatly-tied, cliché-rife blockbuster any day (well, most days – those kinds of film have their place & time too, of course).

    So, I respectfully disagree. There *is* drama and depth in Wes Anderson’s movies, of a quiet kind, but all the more serious & sincere for that.

    But we can still be friends. I guess.

    • jakevanderark

      Let me begin by saying that I actually have a lot of respect for Wes Anderson. I love auteur directors, even when I may disagree with their filmmaking philosophies. I tried to make it clear that I think he’s a clever, whimsical, and brilliant visionary. Also, I really liked Moonrise Kingdom.

      Having said that, I stand by my initial argument. As a screenwriter, Mr. Anderson has major problems.

      Now we can argue all day about the necessity of a good screenplay… and that, I believe, is where our biggest difference lies. I LOVE experimental films, existential dramas, and meandering plot-lines… but I only like them once. This is how I feel about Rushmore, Tenenbaums, and especially The Aquatic Life. They were great movies to watch one time. But if a director wants me to return to his world, he needs to captivate me with a killer screenplay. If that’s not a requirement for you (or the bagillion other Anderson fans), then the debate simply ends here; we agree to disagree. And I can live with that : )

      If, however, you’re arguing that his screenplays are actually good in the traditional, dramatic, engaging sense, then we can throw down right on this forum >: D

      The thing that’s missing is DRAMA. Characters need to make decisions. There needs to be dilemma. Questions need to be raised in the minds of the audience. This doesn’t create a cliché blockbuster… in fact, most “blockbusters” are even worse off than Anderson films. I want to know something the characters don’t know so I yell at the screen, “Don’t tell her that!” I want one character to know something another doesn’t, so during the entire conversation I’m on the edge of my seat. I want something beneath the “profound appreciation, gentle humor, and sense of wonder” that engages me on a gut level. And Mr. Anderson rarely delivers that.

      I should also point out that I’m not attacking his movies because I read a lot of screenplay books and now I’m recognized things he did wrong. But I watched Tenenbaums for the first time, and I was horribly underwhelmed. I asked myself over and over what I was missing. And the more I learned about writing, the more I discovered the things he was doing wrong… the reasons I wasn’t engaged. And besides a lack of drama, I still firmly believe that he mistakes quirk for character.

      Finally, I need to commend you on your poetic response : ) Seriously… I really enjoyed your analysis. I agree with just about everything you said… I only think that these things would shine brighter if they had a stronger script to hold onto.

  3. Laura Neale

    I guess we will have to agree to disagree. Granted, I don’t have any experience with behind-the-scene scriptwriting & film-making, so my analysis is perhaps less well-equipped than yours. And I respect the fact that you stand by your point. But likewise, I shall not be moved.

    I love Wes Anderson’s films from every angle. When you say his screenplays aren’t “actually good in the traditional, dramatic, engaging sense,” I’m not sure what you mean. There is plenty of drama for me in the characters themselves & how their relationships play out, through circumstances, in all their glorious subtlety & painfully honest lines. They engage me to the point that when I was leaving the theater after my first viewing of Moonrise Kingdom, I thought “It’s like I finally found a whole island of people who speak my dialect, and I want to live there.” In Anderson’s films, his characters DO make choices, and live with the consequences! They do come up against dilemmas, sometimes life-and-death! The narrator is omniscient, but selectively so, and I enjoy that, it lets the viewer keep pace with the story from a more empathetic perch. One-two-punch plot twists are less my thing than introspection, and I’ll admit I am probably in the minority there. But honestly, his films thrill me, they delight me. My emotional & rational response to them is off the charts compared to most other films I see, and they will always be well represented in my Top 10 list. Part of the reason is certainly the attention to detail & the living shadowbox ambiance, but the burden of it is the honesty & the fear & the bravery of the characters. I don’t think he “mistakes quirk for character”, on the contrary, I think he’s one of the few who doesn’t. To me, other directors’ characters sometimes feel cobbled-together over against the holism & honesty of a good Anderson character. I say “good” because they aren’t all, I recognize that. His career follows a curve too. But what he gets right, he gets so right. And I think he gets it right more often that not.

    Also, I find repeat viewings of his films richly rewarding. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve seen Tenenbaums, I’ve got Rushmore checked out from the library right now, and The Life Aquatic is next on the list for a re-view. They’re chock full of meaningful minutiae, dialogue that astonishes me anew, shades of real-life humor. Each viewing just digs me deeper in love. And that’s entirely me, that’s entirely subjective, but I feel like it’s not unexamined. Though it is possible I’m weirder than I thought. If his movies aren’t your thing, they just aren’t. But fair warning, I will defend him to the death. And then who will be Alli’s 5th bridesmaid?

    • jakevanderark

      Haha, well I don’t want a fight to the death over Wes Anderson. I think we both make valid points, and again, I really do agree with everything you’re saying. I just wish it had everything you describe, plus the extra push of an engaging screenplay.

      As far as the “quirks,” I see something like the wooden finger (one of literally hundreds of examples), and I wish SO MUCH that it was tied to a dramatic component in the film. I wish it had a through-line. I wish it had some effect on the story. I wish Mr. Anderson saw it as a creative opportunity. But he didn’t. The finger was chopped off by an unrelated character, we see the wooden finger in close-ups a few times after that… and that’s all. Again, I agree these details enrich the atmosphere of his worlds… I just wish they also served a purpose in the story.

      Last thing… I absolutely recognize this is just a personal preference thing. I get more excited by something like “Breaking Bad” which never wastes a quirk, set-piece, character, or line of dialogue. Every element fits together… and if it doesn’t help the story, the writers leave it out. Walter White has lung cancer… but it’s not just to enrich his world, it’s to motivate his actions.

      Good discussion! I’m so glad somebody finally took the time to argue with me. That’s what this blog is for : )

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