``I ALWAYS WISHED I WAS AN ORPHAN. I THINK YOUR LIVES ARE MORE SPECIAL``: TRAUMA, TIME AND TONE
The devoted follower of Wes Anderson’s career will have been shocked and somewhat appalled by Jack Whitman’s (Jason Schwartzman) use of an iPod dock in The Darjeeling Limited (2007). Prior to this momentous event, Anderson’s films were noteworthy for the distinct lack of any signs of modernity or period specificity. The presence of grounding cultural references such as computers, contemporary vehicles or any forms of modern technology, fashion or interior design were conspicuously absent from the director’s work. The lack of temporal and cultural markers in the New York of The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) or the Italian Riviera of The Life Aquatic… (2004) suggest that these films exist in a world parallel to ours, and could have transpired at any point from the 1970s up to the present day. In his paper on Andersonian time and space, Jason Davids Scott observes that “in a commercial cinematic landscape where product placement, in-jokes about other cultural forms (television, music, internet-memes), and other devices are used to bridge the gap between text and audience, drawing the viewer in to reassure him or her that the world on the screen is the same one as the world outside the Cineplex, Anderson’s films consistently reject that easy assumption on the most basic of levels.” (78). If any cultural references are conspicuous (such as the Tenenbaums games closet filled with 1960s board games like Risk and Operation, or Max Fischer’s stage adaptions of Serpico and Apocalypse Now), they are anachronistic, and employed to deliberately obscure the film’s temporal setting. These references to antiquated pop culture do not merely illustrate the characters’ lack of emotional development, but also offer “astute viewers a glimpse into an aesthetic modality that also governs narrative and visual structure” (Davids Scott, 85). Furthermore, the lack of contemporary music on the film’s soundtrack and the filmmaker’s use of acts from the 1960s reinforce this temporal ambiguity. Anderson’s films exist in nostalgic, hermetically sealed environments. However, this timeless quality and absence of cultural and temporal markers can disrupt the spectator’s ability to orient themselves within the fictional diegesis.
Taking these factors into consideration, it is curious to note that both of Anderson’s most recent films remain grounded within a specific temporal period. While Moonrise Kingdom (2012) transpires over the course of a specific three day period in September 1965, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) is an elaborate era-spanning chronicle, and is inarguably the director’s most structurally ambitious work to date. Moreover, the broadly comedic humour of The Grand Budapest Hotel also marks a noticeable shift from the quirky tone evident in the director’s prior work. On the matter of tone, James MacDowell writes, “where in certain circumstances a film’s mood could be dictated by a character’s emotions, tone will instead be a matter of the attitude we are encouraged to take towards those emotions – which can of course, in turn, affect mood” (“Wes Anderson, Tone and the Quirky Sensibility,” 14). Rather than shifting tone from one scene to the next, MacDowell reasons that Anderson creates tonal tensions “which allow for a forthrightly mongrel mood even at his films’ ostensibly melodramatic moments (18). These tensions can prove problematic, as they force the spectator to continuously alter their mode of reception. However, such tensions are largely absent from the grand farce of The Grand Budapest Hotel, where the director picks an absurdly comedic register and adheres to it throughout.
Moonrise Kingdom offers a variation on Anderson’s recurring theme of damaged adults attempting to recapture the innocence of youth. It evokes the remembrance of awkward adolescence; a period growth marked by frustration with the trappings of childhood, and lack of experience necessary to fully embrace adulthood. It is the story of two troubled 12-year olds and their struggle to escape the overbearing hegemony of adult society through a quixotic attempt to create their own private utopia. The two protagonists are “lumps of clay, inexpertly trying to mold themselves after years of being shaped by others” (Zoller Seitz, “The Wes Anderson Collection,” 273). The director’s seventh film sets up a dichotomy between the boundless optimism of youth and the crippling disappointment and responsibility of adulthood, with a marked division between those adults that feel a genuine burden of care for the runaway children, and those that merely affect the pretence of duty.
Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) is a child without family, and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) desperately wants leave hers behind. Sam is an orphan and ward of the state. Since he was a young child he has been passed from one guardian to another. As the film begins, he is abandoned once again by the latest in an endless series of foster parents. Membership of the boy scouts should provide an alternative structure of companionship and a degree of levity, but Sam is the least popular scout in the troupe (“by a significant margin”). The extent of Sam’s popularity is demonstrated when his fellow scouts set out to “rescue” him armed with maces, cudgels, hatchets and an assortment of other vicious weaponry. On three separate occasions he is described as “emotionally disturbed” by his foster father and two of his young scout companions. Suzy’s feuding, uncommunicative parents are too preoccupied with their own problems to properly address their daughters’ trauma. When she discovers a self-help book entitled “Coping with the Very Troubled Child,” the disorienting but perfectly normal changes of adolescence are ascribed the label of very troubled depression. Whether her parents have read this book is not clarified, but nevertheless demonstrates that this is how they view their daughter. Sam discovers a kindred troubled soul in Suzy. Thus, their connection is engendered through alienation from their peers, and strengthened by a shared disaffection from societal norms.
In the opening sequence, Anderson employs an elaborate tracking shot to emphasise the compartmentalised isolation of the Bishop family, with each member occupying a separate zone in the sprawling home. Suzy stares wistfully from her bedroom window while her brothers play under the kitchen table and her parents, Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand), brood in adjoining but separate rooms. Laura communicates with her children through a loudhailer due to the vast expanse of this isolated environment. The familial segregation is underscored through the diegetic use of Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.” Britten’s piece of educational music isolates individual sections of the orchestra, mirroring the discord and disconnection of the family unit.
Both children release their emotional pain through bouts of sudden violence. Sam’s trauma of abandonment manifests as unpredictable episodes of somnambulism resulting in subconscious acts of destructive arson, while Suzy’s rage is directed at her mother. This commonality is demonstrated in a montage sequence depicting the young couple’s back-and-forth correspondence. The visuals show the preludes and aftermaths of their outbursts rather than the acts of violence, while their voiceovers are cut off before the audience hears anything too incriminating:
SUZY: Dear Sam, Now I am getting suspended because I got in a fight with Molly. She says I go berserk. Our principal is against me. Why do…
By omitting the unsavoury acts and showing the emotional repercussions instead, Anderson forestalls the problematic characterisation of these anti-social characters by alluding to their aggression rather than showing it. More problematic for the viewer, however is the scene where Sam and Suzy share their first kiss. Any suspicions of the inappropriate sexualisation of two 12-year olds are reinforced by the prepubescent actors playing the scene in their underwear. However, the couple’s clumsy sexual overtures are marked with awkward, stilted dialogue that renders the sequence as antithetical to conventional cinematic representations of sexual intimacy. The scene could be read as a natural progression of Anderson’s adult characters acting like children, and vice versa.
Sam and Suzy’s nascent relationship can be considered as the genesis of one of Anderson’s alternative family units. The pair’s unorthodox marriage, and indeed their entire relationship, represents “a desire to actively create alternative formations of collectivity that might heal past pain” (Rybin, 40). Like Team Zissou or the Max Fischer Players, these surrogate familial structures provide a source of therapeutic support and catharsis unobtainable within the confines of the director’s biological family units. Curiously, the lack of parental guardianship and guidance has left Sam unburdened with the traumas inflicted by the typical Andersonian parent. He is seemingly oblivious to shame or embarrassment. Sam proudly displays his birth mother’s brooch on the lapel of his scout uniform amongst the masculine merit badges, and shows no shame in wearing this item of women’s jewellery. Nor does he exhibit any embarrassment when he informs Suzy that there is a possibility that he might wet himself in his sleep. He raises this not out of shame, but to put her at ease (“just in case, I don’t want to make you be offended”).
If Moonrise Kingdom is at all emblematic of Jeffrey Sconce’s “blank style” (359), then it is a consequence of the first-time actors’ inexperience, rather than a deliberately disruptive strategy designed to distance the spectator from the plight of these characters. Anderson’s quirky tone is evident in Sam and Suzy’s ambitious yet ultimately futile attempts to live outside of societal norms. In witnessing the overly earnest manner with which Sam compiles an extensive inventory of Suzy’s belongings, or proudly demonstrating his unnecessary survival skills, we are encouraged to laugh at their folly. The naïveté of their escapade is doomed to failure, not least because they expect to remain undetected on a small island with no means of escape. However, like Sam’s troupe leader (Edward Norton) commending him for his skilful construction of his utopian camp, we are simultaneously encouraged to admire the conviction with which they commit to their endeavours, however absurd they may be.
The narration device is common throughout Anderson’s body of work. However, in contrast to the omniscient narrator of The Royal Tenenbaums, the narrator of Moonrise Kingdom (Bob Balaban) occupies an unspecified, mercurial role. While Balaban’s character is certainly part of the fabula, he also appears to have the ability to step out of the narrative and has knowledge of elements that form parts of the past, present and future of the overall syuzhet. Even Anderson himself remains unsure of Balaban’s function in the narrative. “Is he a real person? That part, I don’t know. And I don’t know what tradition that comes out of, except maybe [Luis] Buñuel” (Zoller Seitz, The Wes Anderson Collection, 284). For example, in the narrative present, the narrator conveys information on the location of the two runaways to Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). However, at another point he addresses the camera directly to explain that a hurricane will land on the island within three days; knowledge impossible to have access to in the narrative present. In another to-camera scene, Balaban stops, moves from his mark and corrects the source of lighting before returning to his mark and continuing his speech. This narrator appears to have the ability of moving between the diegetic and non-diegetic realms, and has control over elements of the mise-en-scène. This complicates the mode of reception and functions to actively confuse the spectator.
In contrast, the narrator or “author” (Tom Wilkinson/Jude Law) of The Grand Budapest Hotel is utilised to aid the audience’s understanding of what is occurring and when. This is fortuitous, as the narrative structure of Anderson’s recent film is as layered as a Russian nesting doll. Again, the filmmaker uses the framing device of a novel to break his film down into chapters, but by utilising some clever visual markers he offsets any disruption or confusion that the spectator may experience in following the serpentine narrative path. The author remains firmly part of the diegesis and acts as a guide for the audience. Set in the entirely fictional Eastern Bloc Republic of Zubrowka, this story-within-a-story-within-a-story begins with a prologue set in 1985. The narrative then jumps back to Cold War 1968 when the deserted, forlorn hotel wasn’t quite so grand. The bulk of the narrative takes place in 1932 during the hotel’s golden era, when the shadow of fascism and the looming threat of war and portends the demise of the old world glamour exemplified by the Grand Budapest.
Fig. 9 – A wide shot in 20:40:1 emphasises the loneliness and isolation of the Grand Budapest
David Bordwell’s essay, “Wes Anderson Takes the 4:3 Challenge,” highlights the problems of The Grand Budapest’s complex narrative structure and multiple embedded flashbacks. “What motivates a character to recount the past at this point? The trigger might be a situation of crisis, a tranquil phase of life, or a moment when what happened can still arouse pain” (The Grand Budapest Hotel, 246). As the viewer moves further down this narrative rabbit hole, the director utilises period-specific aspect ratios. The 1985 and 1968 sequences are shot in subtle variations of widescreen CinemaScope 1:85:1 and 2:40:1 respectively, while the 1930s sequences are shot in 1:37:1 Academy ratio. These variations obviously reference the cinema of the relevant periods, but also function as specific visual markers that ground the viewer within the temporal diegesis. These markers offset confusion arising from other disruptive factors, such as the use of multiple actors portraying the same characters (Tom Wilkinson/Jude Law as “the author,” F. Murray Abraham/Tony Revolori as Zero). “When one performer portrays a character in his childhood and another actor represents the same character in later life, the spectator is supposed to be tolerant about physical differences that appear to contradict the character’s physical continuity” (Livingston, 159). The widescreen 2:40:1 ratio emphasises the isolation of the Cold War era (Fig. 9), while the tighter frame of the Academy ratio brings the characters closer together during the halcyon days. The compressed canvas also allows Anderson ample opportunity to indulge in his proclivity for symmetrical shot compositions. The use of near-antiquated techniques, such as iris wipes and miniature models, contributes to the overall impression that The Grand Budapest Hotel is Anderson’s homage to the golden age of Hollywood.
Fig. 10 – Zero’s presence is often used for symmetry rather than importance
If accusations of blank characterisation are frequently levelled at Anderson, then the protagonist of The Grand Budapest Hotel is his blankest yet. It is curious that, in a narrative so embedded in history, Anderson has realised his most postmodern creation to date. The aptly named Zero Mustafa (Tony Revolori) is a cypher. He displays a complete lack of charisma and emotional depth which makes his appeal to the charismatic Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) or the artisan baker Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) difficult to fathom. From an aesthetic point of view, the spectator could be forgiven for assuming that Zero’s existence is merely to aid the symmetry of the director’s frame (Fig. 10) rather than for narrative importance. Like Sam Shakusky, Zero is an orphan. He is a character without parents, a homeland or a past. When the extent of his wretched personal history is finally revealed, it is suitably abject. “My father was murdered, and the rest of my family was executed by firing squad. Our village was burned to the ground and those that survived were forced to flee.” These events are rife with traumatic potential, yet Zero presents as untraumatised and devoid of the emotional damage evident in Anderson’s favourite protagonists. It is Gustave’s reaction rather than Zero’s revelation that is of narrative importance. “This is disgraceful and beneath the standards of the Grand Budapest. I apologise on behalf of the hotel.” Zero’s tragedy is merely used as a precursor to Gustave’s punchline.
While The Grand Budapest Hotel still exhibits moments of melancholic tragedy, the film adheres to a predominantly comedic register. The villain Jopling (Willem Dafoe) is of the distinctly pantomime variety, without any apparent motivation for his actions. Moments of peril, such as the high-speed slalom chase, abandon all pretence of realism and instead evoke the chaos of Hanna-Barbera’s Wacky Races (CBS, 1968-69). Narrative beats occur in the manner dictated by the classical mode. The revelation of tragedies – such as the deaths of Gustave and Agatha – are disclosed at the denouement of the film, thus the audience is spared the confusion of a shifting tonal register. Revision is unnecessary, as the appeal of The Grand Budapest Hotel is evident from the first viewing.
Fig. 11 – Anderson’s career in box office figures (Source: Box Office Mojo)
The Grand Budapest Hotel is something of a curiosity in Anderson’s body of work. The director has received a fair share of critical acclaim throughout his career, yet this recognition has largely been unmatched at the box office. After three consecutive financial failures, Moonrise Kingdom was the first piece of work from the director to produce a domestic profit since The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) eleven years earlier. This upward trend continued with The Grand Budapest Hotel, which can be considered as the director’s first bona-fide box office hit (see Fig. 11). This commercial success was matched with a level of unprecedented critical acclaim. The Grand Budapest Hotel would go on to collect four Academy Awards and five British Academy Film Awards, making it Anderson’s most rewarded film to date. After the critical and commercial failure of The Life Aquatic… (2004) the director’s increasingly modest production budgets will go some way in accounting for this turnaround, but the fact that the film retains the director’s nostalgic tone while remaining grounded within a specific temporal diegesis, combined with a steady, unwavering tonal register cannot be discounted. Anderson has achieved this feat by steadfastly adhering to the eccentric aspects of his style rather than tempering any of his fastidious idiosyncrasies, thereby defying the body of criticism accusing the filmmaker of self-parody in the process. The Grand Budapest Hotel is not evidence of a director parodying himself, but of a filmmaker honing and perfecting a style developed over a twenty-year career. In doing so he has been rewarded with the most critical and commercially successful film in two decades of filmmaking.