Throughout a career spanning almost two decades, Wes Anderson has cultivated a reputation for creativity and originality which is not always matched with critical approval. His films have often been compared to the boxed assemblages of Joseph Cornell (The Wes Anderson Collection, 22), as the work of both artists is fastidious, intricate, and self-contained. Yet it is this meticulous attention to detail that gives Anderson’s critics the ammunition to argue that he is simply remaking the same film over and again. As he has perfected his singular style over the course of eight features, Anderson’s films have progressively polarised critical and popular opinion. He has become a figure both admired and derided in equal measure. Negative criticism of his work generally falls into two schools of thought. The first school focusses on Anderson’s inherent quirkiness, adherence to a distinctly refined mise-en-scène and his overuse of stylised tropes, while the second addresses his predilection for deadpan performances and blank line readings which manifest as emotionally barren characterisation.
Although Anderson’s harshest critics are likely to concede to his technical proficiency, I would argue that the critical tendency to misinterpret Anderson’s style as superficial and his characters as cold, insincere and unsympathetic is misguided. This critical consensus is epitomised by Maximilian Le Cain’s review of The Royal Tenebaums: “The characters do not develop sufficiently and the actors remain helplessly straitjacketed in the one-dimensional mannerisms Anderson has assigned them. [The film is] content with simply cataloguing a series of events in a way designed to show off the smartness of its author instead of the feelings of its characters” (“Storytime”). Ian Gittell explains his disdain for Anderson’s hard-to-read characters thus; “I feel shut out of a world I can glimpse but can’t find a way into” (“The Case Against Wes Anderson”), while Christopher Kelly’s assessment of Anderson’s world as “an elaborate dollhouse, populated not by characters but by ambulant figurines” (“Wes Is More…”) displays a disdain for Anderson’s style and lack of substance. Kelly goes on to suggest that the director and his cast “are much too busy amusing one another to bother connecting with an audience.” These interpretations are a small example of a commonly held critical consensus of Anderson’s characterization, and it is this consensus that I intend to examine.
In spite of holding a deep admiration and affection for Anderson’s work, I can appreciate some of these opinions as they are thoughts I have often shared myself. Since the appearance of his second feature, Rushmore (1998), the release of a new Anderson has become an event and I am compelled to view each new film at the earliest opportunity. However, from The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) onwards, my initial response to each successive film has been steadfast and unwavering. That is, underwhelming disappointment and slight bewilderment. Despite this consistent reaction, something compels me to re-examine each text, and my appreciation grows with each viewing. Therefore, I hope to dissect this reaction and thereby explain the aforementioned critical consensus of Anderson’s oeuvre.
To briefly return to the Cornell assemblage analogy, each of Anderson’s films transpire in distinctly unique and self-contained settings. The Rushmore Academy, the Tenenbaum house, the Belafonte, and the titular train and hotel of The Darjeeling Limited (2007) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) are all exceptionally singular settings that share a commonality only in craft and attention to detail. Yet this diversity of setting belies a recurring theme evident throughout Anderson’s oeuvre; that is the theme of trauma and loss. From Max Fischer and Rosemary Cross, through the Tenebaum and Whitman siblings, to Ned Plimpton, Steve Zissou and Sam Shakusky, Anderson consistently returns to characters burdened by loss and defined by emotional repression. These individuals are operating under the trauma of bereavement associated with the loss of a parent, spouse, loved one or lost love. The problem for the viewer (and the critic) is that he or she does not bear witness to this initial source of trauma. Although these traumatic character-building events are part of the fabula and inform the overall tone, they are not part of the syuzhet. Therefore, the viewer is denied the opportunity of empathy through witnessing the trauma. Or to put it simply, we are shown the result, but not the cause. It is for this reason that Anderson’s characters are often misinterpreted as “blank.”
The trauma I refer to is not a physical wound inflicted on the body that can be determined, diagnosed and treated. Nor is it the type of psychological trauma associated with prolonged exposure to warfare. The trauma I am referring to is the emotional trauma that affects the psychological health and, therefore, behaviour of the character. Cathy Caruth defines this type of trauma as “an overwhelming experience of sudden or catastrophic events in which the response to the events occurs in the often delayed, uncontrollable repetitive appearance of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena” (11). Caruth observes that trauma “does not simply serve as a record of the past but precisely registers the force of an experience that is not yet fully owned” (151). As Roger Luckhurst explains, the original traumatic event “can only be understood as traumatic after the fact, through the symptoms and flashbacks and the delayed attempts at understanding that these signs of disturbance produce” (5). Time and again, we are introduced to Anderson’s characters in the midst of their trauma, before they have made the transition to acceptance and ultimate resolution. Anderson’s grief-stricken characters will either repress their trauma or direct their pain towards a substitute for the primary, initial cause, and therefore do not yet own the experience.
The long-established conventions of classical narrative cinema have trained the spectator to rely on clear, unambiguous character motivation. The goal-oriented protagonist of the classical mode communicates his or her emotional development primarily through the performance of the actor, but is also conveyed in concert with shot composition, framing and other aspects of the mise-en-scène. As David Bordwell explains, characters of the classical narrative model are “psychologically defined individuals who struggle to solve a clear-cut problem or to attain specific goals […] The reliance upon character-centred causality and the definition of the action and the attempt to achieve a goal are both salient features” (Narration in the Fiction Film, 157). As such, a character’s behaviour and personality traits should be easily readable by the viewer at all times. Emotional development needs to be highlighted and underlined before we can react with appropriate empathy. When this mode is relinquished, the effect on the audience can be confusing and alienating. The presence of narrative disruptors throughout Anderson’s texts complicates the readability and, therefore, the ability of the spectator to empathise with the text. For example, if we compare the unambiguous verbal and visual communication of Raging Bull’s (Martin Scorsese, 1980) Jake la Motta (Robert De Niro) with the blank performance of the uncommunicative, suicidal Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson), we may begin to appreciate why so many of Anderson’s characters are considered to be cold and unsympathetic.
Anderson consistently employs characters that cannot conceal a deep melancholy and break with these well-established conventions. The difference between Anderson’s characters and the classical model can be demonstrated with a simple hypothesis. Had Anderson directed Casablanca (1945) instead of Michael Curtiz, his film would probably have begun a year after Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) had left for Lisbon with her husband, and Rick (Humphrey Bogart) would be in the midst of a deep existential crisis. The Andersonian Rick would ruminate in his office, where he would compulsively draw quirky, childlike sketches of his lost love set to an (anachronistic) soundtrack of The Kinks, The Small Faces or some other British Invasion band (probably the Stones). Rick’s defining characteristic would be moral ambiguity, and the spectator would be cast adrift. The audience would be denied the relevant information surrounding Ilsa’s disappearance until late in the narrative. However, the framing, shot composition and art decoration would undoubtedly be impeccable.
During his early career, Anderson was often cited alongside other “Indiewood” contemporaries such as Alexander Payne, Hal Hartley and Spike Jonze, and some viewed the emergence of this style of ironic detachment and rejection of classical characterization as evidence of a new cinematic movement. In his influential article “Irony, Nihilism and the New American ‘Smart’ Film,” Jeffrey Sconce includes Anderson alongside the nihilistic postmodernism of Todd Solondz, Neil LaBute and Todd Haynes. Sconce argues that these directors all share “a predilection for irony, black humour, fatalism, relativism and […] nihilism” (358). This new “smart” cinema manifested with “the cultivation of ‘blank’ style and incongruous narration, a focus on the white middle-class family as a crucible of miscommunication and emotional dysfunction, and a recurring interest in the politics of taste, consumerism and identity” (358). Although his work retains some of these elements, I believe that Sconce has misinterpreted Anderson’s delicate whimsy for ironic disengagement and emotional sincerity for black humour. As this blank style is a particularly overt characteristic in Anderson’s texts, it is the one most often singled out by his critics.
Mark Olsen recognises that it is on the level of sincerity that Anderson differentiates himself from the work of other “smart” directors. “Wes Anderson does not view his characters from some distant Olympus of irony. He stands beside them – or rather, just behind them – cheering them on as they chase their miniaturist renditions of the American Dream” (12). In comparison with Sconce’s new “smart” cinema, I would consider Olsen’s thesis as a better fit for Anderson’s sincere tone. However, it is James MacDowell’s definition of “quirkiness” that comes closest to describing how the filmmaker’s unique sensibility can act as a barrier between character and audience. MacDowell describes quirkiness as “a contemporary comedic sensibility that is intimately bound up with the tonal combination of ‘irony’ and ‘sincerity’” (“Wes Anderson, Tone and the Quirky Sensibility,” 21). Anderson does not exploit or satirise his characters’ trauma from a position of ironic detachment like some of his postmodern contemporaries, and though they may be broken, they are never beyond redemption. Though we might initially laugh at Anderson’s tragicomic characters, we do not laugh for long.
This compassionate sensibility for character is conspicuous from Anderson’s first feature. Bottle Rocket (1996) is the story of privileged masculinity in a state of transition. Anthony (Luke Wilson) and Dignan (Owen Wilson) are a pair of privileged, directionless twentysomethings apprehensive over their uncertain future. As the film begins, Anthony is discharged from a voluntary psychiatric institution and is experiencing a crisis in identity. His friend Dignan believes that the answer to their predicament lies in winning the mentorship of a local small-time crook, Mr. Henry (James Caan). A series of inept, ill-considered heists become progressively farcical, but Dignan’s ambition is earnest and his struggle sincere. At first, Dignan’s ineptitude and misguided enthusiasm is a source of humour, but mockery gives way to empathy as we share in Dignan’s frustration when his ambitions are thwarted.
Over the course of his subsequent films, Anderson cultivated this compassionate tone to assimilate concealed trauma betrayed by an inherent sadness and melancholy. The following articles will explore the effects of trauma and affect on characterisation in the recurring trope of emotional repression throughout his work.