The Substance of Style, Pt 1

Wes Anderson and his pantheon of heroes (Schulz, Welles, Truffaut)
by Matt Zoller Seitz  posted March 30, 2009
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In conjunction with the publication of Matt Zoller Seitz's book The Wes Anderson Collection by Abrams, and a screening of The Life Aquatic with Seitz, cinematographer Robert Yeoman, and production designer Mark Friedberg in person at Museum of the Moving Image on Sunday, October 27, 2013, the Museum is reposting this five-part video series.

This is the first in a five-part series of video essays analyzing the key influences on Wes Anderson’s style. Part 2 covers Martin Scorsese, Richard Lester, and Mike Nichols. Part 3 covers Hal Ashby. Part 4 covers J.D. Salinger. Part 5 is an annotated version of the prologue to The Royal Tenenbaums.

With just five features in 13 years, Wes Anderson has established himself as the most influential American filmmaker of the post-Baby Boom generation. Supremely confident in his knowledge of film history and technique, he's a classic example of the sort of filmmaker that the Cahiers du cinéma critics labeled an auteur—an artist who imprints his personality and preoccupations on each work so strongly that, whatever the contributions of his collaborators, he deserves to be considered the primary author of the film. This series examines some of Anderson's many cinematic influences and his attempt to meld them into a striking, uniquely personal sensibility.

After the release of his second film, Rushmore, in 1998, it became obvious that Anderson was, love him or hate him, an idiosyncratic filmmaker worth discussing. In the decade-plus since then, dissecting Anderson's influences, and Anderson's influence on others, has become a bit of a parlor sport among cinephiles. Sight and Sound and Film Comment have been particularly rich resources. More recently, the Onion A.V. Club contributed a couple of playful, astute lists. Anderson himself has gotten into the act by paying tribute to his heroes in interviews and magazine articles.

This series will take the process a step further, juxtaposing Anderson's cultural influences against his films onscreen, the better to show how he integrates a staggeringly diverse array of source material into a recognizable, and widely imitated, whole. It will examine some, but certainly not all, of Anderson's evident inspirations. Along the way, it may incidentally illuminate why Anderson-esque movies—from Garden State to Son of Rambow—can seem, no matter what their virtues or pleasures, a weak substitute for the real thing.

Anderson’s scavenger-hunt aesthetic stands him in good company, alongside Quentin Tarantino, David Gordon Green, James Gray, and the other Anderson, P.T. But what makes Wes Anderson distinctive is the sheer range of art that has fed his imagination—not just recent American and foreign films, but films from 30, 50, even 70 years ago, plus newspaper comics, illustrations, and fiction. The spectrum of influence gives his work a diversity of tone that his imitators typically lack. It is a style of substance.

Charles Schulz and Peanuts

When I interviewed Anderson for a 1998 Star-Ledger article about A Charlie Brown Christmas, directed by the late animator Bill Melendez, Anderson cited Melendez as one of three major influences on his work, so we’ll start there. Anderson told me that he and his screenwriting collaborator, Owen Wilson, conceived Rushmore hero Max Fischer as Charlie Brown plus Snoopy. He said that Miss Cross, the teacher Max adores and will draw into a weirdly Freudian love triangle with the industrialist Mr. Blume, is a combination of Charlie Brown’s teacher and his unattainable love object, the little red-haired girl. Anderson and Wilson even made Max a working-class barber’s son, just like Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, and gave Seymour Cassel, the actor playing Bert Fischer, glasses similar to Schulz’s.

But Schulz’s impact manifests itself in deeper, more persistent ways—particularly in Anderson’s characters who, regardless of age, seem, like Schulz’s preternaturally eloquent kids, to be frozen in a dream space between childhood and maturity. Think of how Rushmore’s Blume pauses during a phone conversation to run across a basketball court and slap down a student’s would-be layup; the now-adult children in The Royal Tenenbaums navigating adult emotional minefields within the confines of a childhood home crammed with toys, grade-school art, and nostalgic knickknacks; Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic transforming a submarine into a gigantic clubhouse and rec center; and the brothers of The Darjeeling Limited turning a supposed spiritual voyage through India into a more affluent, adult cousin of a summer camp stint.

Orson Welles

Anderson's career has a Wellesian quality, and not just because they both started young. Welles was as much an impresario as a director; Anderson has inherited Welles's mix of super-artist's chutzpah and showman's swagger. He exercises Wellesian control over every aspect of his movies (right down to the choice of a particular font for all signage, Futura). And he tends to cast the same performers in film after film, a floating repertory strategy Welles perfected with his Mercury Theater Company. (The roll call of actors at the start of The Royal Tenenbaums seems a straightforward lift of the roll call that ends Citizen Kane.)

From Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons through Othello, Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil, and Chimes at Midnight, Welles evinced a fascination with the decline of men once thought to be great. Anderson is similarly intrigued. Mr. Blume in Rushmore, the whole Tenenbaum clan, Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic, and the splintered family of The Darjeeling Limited are all wrestling with real or perceived decline. Anderson and Wilson’s script for The Royal Tenenbaums contains many acknowledgments of Welles’s second feature, Ambersons, an adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel about a prominent small-town family in decline. There’s a similarly palatial, cone-topped family home, significant action blocked on and around imposing wooden staircases, and a sense of collective anxiety born of the feeling that time has passed a once-important family by and the community knows it. Both movies feature novelistic third-person narration, by Welles in Ambersons and Alec Baldwin in Tenenbaums.

Both directors prefer to use wide-angle lenses that distort screen space and make it seem almost more figurative than literal. Most of all, Anderson, like Welles, is a visually bold, wunderkind director who has an affinity—some might say a weakness—for virtuoso shots, shots so logistically impressive that they momentarily and perhaps purposefully take the spotlight off the movie and shine it on the director. Think of the elevator-style crane shots that rise into the stratosphere of the opera house in Kane—a move that finds its horizontal equal in The Life Aquatic when the camera tracks Steve Zissou across the entire length of his boat, the Belafonte, dollying backward until the captain is a mere speck on the prow.

François Truffaut


Anderson draws much inspiration from French New Wave filmmakers, including Jean-Luc Godard, a clear influence on his cutting, and Louis Malle, whose Murmur of the Heart heavily influenced the tone of all his films. But towering over the rest is François Truffaut, an impresario in the Welles tradition, but a warmer and more earthbound auteur.

There’s a Peanuts connection here too. Truffaut’s autobiographical Antoine Doinel series maps the internal terrain where childhood and maturity meet, clash, and coexist. Anderson pays tribute to Truffaut by quoting shots directly, but reversing their screen direction. Think of the lateral tracking shot through the classroom in The 400 Blows mirrored in the first scene of Rushmore, and from that same Truffaut film, the shot of Antoine in a chain-link cage, an image repeated in the penultimate shot of Bottle Rocket.

There are, of course, other influences beyond those three, and we’ll look at some of them in future installments of this series, starting with Part 2, which focuses on Martin Scorsese, Richard Lester, and Mike Nichols. 

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THE AUTHOR

Matt Zoller Seitz is a writer and filmmaker whose debut feature, the romantic comedy Home, is available through Netflix and Amazon. His writing on film and television has appeared in The New York Times, New York Press, and The Star Ledger, among other places. He is also the founder of The House Next Door, a movie and TV criticism website.

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Author's Website: The House Next Door