The Substance of Style, Pt 2

Wes Anderson and his pantheon of heroes (Scorsese, Lester, Nichols)
by Matt Zoller Seitz  posted April 3, 2009
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This is the second in a five-part series of video essays analyzing the key influences on Wes Anderson’s style. Part 1 covers Bill Melendez, Orson Welles, and François Truffaut. Part 3 covers Hal Ashby. Part 4 covers J.D. Salinger. Part 5 is an annotated version of the prologue to The Royal Tenenbaums.

Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese’s intellectualized sensuality and flamboyant kineticism are inscribed on Wes Anderson’s films. Scorsese has returned his disciple’s admiration, all but anointing Anderson his artistic heir and naming Anderson’s debut, Bottle Rocket, one of the best films of the ’90s. Orson Welles, François Truffaut, and animator Bill Melendez (A Charlie Brown Christmas, et al.) may have taught Anderson how to paint, but Scorsese taught him how to dance. Setting aside for a moment their very similar use of music, there are enough shared visual tells to make Scorsese and Anderson seem like a street-tough dad and his college-bound favorite son.

Exhibit A is their use of slow motion. Slo-mo became fashionable in the 1960s as a way to draw out violent action. But while Scorsese has used it for this purpose, he also deploys it for another reason: to italicize emotion. We can see Anderson drawing directly on Scorsese’s example in film after film. Johnny Boy’s slowed-down arrival at the bar in Mean Streets—walking forward toward the viewer as the camera dollies backward—finds a visual equivalent in Rushmore when hero Max Fischer makes his triumphant exit from a hotel room elevator after terrorizing romantic rival Max Blume with a swarm of bees. Think also of how the memorable slow-motion close-up of Jimmy Conway in GoodFellas smoking at the bar, his eyes lighting up malignantly as he contemplates whacking his cohorts in the Lufthansa heist, is echoed in the penultimate montage of Anderson’s Bottle Rocket in the shot of thief and playboy Mr. Henry puffing on a stogie after robbing Bob Mapplethorpe’s house.

Another shared signature is the God’s-eye-view insert shot, looking down at significant objects from an overhead position roughly parallel to the floor. Scorsese was by no means the first director to look at things from this angle—Alfred Hitchcock often employed the God’s-eye view shot to stunning effect, and it may be that Scorsese’s affinity for the angle comes from a close study of Hitchcock. But Scorsese personalized it by applying it to close-up inserts—often somewhat disruptive inserts placed within an otherwise conventionally edited dialogue scene. Think of the moment in Taxi Driver when Travis Bickle, attempting to charm the campaign worker Betsy, sweeps his hand over her desk to indicate the “all this” that shouldn’t preoccupy her; Scorsese very briefly cuts to an almost-overhead shot of the tabletop, then cuts back to the conversation. There are numerous similar examples throughout Scorsese’s filmography, and Anderson’s own deployment of the overhead insert is strikingly Scorsese-esque, from the composition and lighting to the duration of the shot. Think, for instance, of the overhead shot in Rushmore of Miss Cross grading papers on her desk or the overhead shot of Etheline Tenenbaum’s desk in The Royal Tenenbaums displaying the Sunday Magazine section with a cover story about cowboy novelist Eli Cash.

Also notable is Scorsese’s use of whip pans, often taken from eye level, that split the difference between first person and third. They seem to simulate the perspective of a theoretical, invisible witness to a scene—someone who’s in the room with the characters and can look at whatever is most significant at any given moment. Anderson’s own use of this distinctive whip pan is highly Scorsesean. To give just one example, the whip pan that notes the arrival of Johnny Roast Beef at the post-Lufthansa heist party in GoodFellas is echoed in the “hardest geometry equation in the world” moment at the start of Rushmore, Anderson’s camera darting toward the chalkboard with much the same rhythm as Scorsese’s.

Richard Lester

Richard Lester, the filmmaker who brought the Beatles to the big screen in A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), is not a major component of Anderson’s style, but what traces there are stand out: buoyant, engaged editing that acts as the soundtrack’s aesthetic dance partner, an appreciation of physical action as a thing of beauty in itself, and an unabashed love of shenanigans. Royal Tenenbaum’s crosstown romp with his grandsons in The Royal Tenenbaums contains what seem like numerous primary or secondary echoes of Lester’s filmmaking, from the Beatles-like shots of the three troublemakers zipping around the streets in go-carts (simultaneously a reference to the white-knuckle el chase in The French Connection, the film that won Hackman his first Oscar) to a shot of the characters rushing down a hallway and leaping into a rec center pool (which has a quality reminiscent of shots in Lester’s 1968 film Petulia).

Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols’s second film, The Graduate, must have hit Anderson like a bullet; bits and pieces of it continue to ricochet throughout Anderson’s filmography, from romantic pairings separated by more than the usual number of years to the droll yet oblivious delivery of dialogue, imported by Nichols from his stage work with Elaine May. No wonder The Onion A.V. Club, in its list of movies without which Anderson could not exist, placed The Graduate at No. 1.

Another debt Anderson owes to Nichols is structural. As adapted by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham from Charles Webb's novel, The Graduate audaciously mixes seemingly incompatible modes, from deadpan comedy of manners (the celebrated “plastics” moment) to dark-night-of-the-soul melodrama (Ben’s revelation to Elaine that he’s sleeping with her mother, the high point of which is an unfocused close-up of Elaine that slowly sharpens again as she absorbs the reality of her predicament) to over-the-top farce (the climactic melee at the church, ending with Ben grabbing a huge cross, swinging it at the wedding party as if warding off vampires, then using it to seal the doors and trap them inside the building).

The Graduate template combines generic structure with nearly unlimited emotional range; as such, it has proved immensely useful and durable. No wonder Anderson returns to it again and again—notably in The Royal Tenenbaums, which segues smoothly from cartoonishly absurdist tall-tale mode to doomed romance (Richie and adopted sister Margot’s platonic affair) to grim family melodrama (Richie’s bloody suicide attempt), and in The Life Aquatic, a Jacques Cousteau fantasia that makes room for the hero’s midlife artistic and personal crises, his vengeful fury over the death of his partner, and the arrival of the son he never knew he had—a son who dies randomly and tragically in a helicopter crash.

Also of note is The Graduate’s highly influential use of music, an aspect that clearly had a profound effect on Anderson’s sensibility. Here we can trace a direct line of influence from Lester through Nichols and on to Anderson. The Graduate’s musically elegant editing, fondness for snap-zooms, and love of bodies in motion is Lester plus one, but Nichols’s use of music represented an evolutionary advance over his predecessor.

Nichols didn’t simply play full-length songs and devise situations and visuals that complemented them (a pre-music-video approach). Nor did he employ music mainly as editorial comment or ironic counterpoint, an approach perfected by his peer Stanley Kubrick throughout the ’60s. Rather, Nichols took a more subjective approach. He gave the movie over to the song, almost as if surrendering to it and letting the music direct the movie. The most striking example of this is the section 40 minutes into The Graduate depicting Ben’s deepening depression as he carries on a secret affair with Mrs. Robinson. Audaciously scored to back-to-back Simon & Garfunkel songs, shorn of all dialogue, and using only sparing sound effects, this section employs very long shots, precise zooms, and canny transitions (utilizing black backgrounds to confuse the viewer) to render time and space irrelevant and make it seem as though Ben’s affair has annihilated whatever admittedly paltry sense of self he had at the beginning of the story. This musical montage and the others in The Graduate are visually and rhythmically unlike anything else in the film and as such are indicative of the film’s journey into Ben’s interior life.

Anderson employs similarly subjective montages throughout his filmography, and in Rushmore, pays Nichols the ultimate compliment in a sequence scored to The Kinks’ “Nothing in This World Can Stop Me Worryin' Bout That Girl.” The song itself has an acoustic guitar-driven dreaminess reminiscent of Simon & Garfunkel’s mid-’60s work, but Anderson makes the homage official by setting the significant action at poolside. Mr. Blume’s despair over his wife’s infidelity, capped by a cannonball off a high diving board, echoes Ben’s actions at the end of The Graduate’s two-song montage: the depressed hero plunging into chlorinated water. But what makes a side-by-side comparison even more intriguing is Rushmore’s rack focus from a profile close-up of Blume to his wife sitting on the other side of the pool, brazenly feeding a lover who appears to be significantly younger than herself—perhaps even Ben Braddock’s age. Mr. Blume’s story, then, is The Graduate from the cuckolded Mr. Robinson’s point of view. 

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Courtesy The Criterion Collection
Robert Musgrave, Luke Wilson and Owen Wilson in Bottle Rocket, directed by Wes Anderson

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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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