The Substance of Style, Pt 3
This is the third 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 2 covers Martin Scorsese, Richard Lester, and Mike Nichols. Part 4 covers J.D. Salinger. Part 5 is an annotated version of the prologue to The Royal Tenenbaums.
In Wes Anderson’s pantheon of artistic heroes, Hal Ashby holds a special place. The former-editor-turned-director made most of his significant films in a 10-year period bracketed by two political satires, The Landlord (1970) and Being There (1979). In between, Ashby contributed some of the most unabashedly personal American films of an era that produced a disproportionate share of them, including The Last Detail (1973), about cynical sailors escorting a naive young military prisoner to jail; Bound for Glory (1976), a biography of leftist folksinger Woody Guthrie that demonstrated a palpable sense of time and place, and showcased the first-ever onscreen use of the Steadicam; Shampoo (1975), about a womanizing hairdresser screwing his way across Southern California and struggling to open his own place, set against the backdrop of the 1968 presidential election; and Coming Home (1978), a melodrama about a paraplegic antiwar vet, a hardline GI suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and the nurse torn between them.
What did Anderson draw from Ashby exactly? At first it’s hard to say. In terms of content, Ashby’s movies are distinguished by a kind of matter-of-fact political engagement that Anderson, with a few conspicuous exceptions, could not care less about. No matter what story Ashby is telling or what era it’s set in, he never sees his characters as purely autonomous individuals; he and his screenwriters are forever aware—and do their best to make us aware—that our personalities, goals, desires, and opinions don’t bloom into existence like orchids. The seeds of humankind are nourished by nations, families, and cultures, and when an individual comes into a new awareness and tries to act or think differently, it’s hard, often nearly impossible.
Think of the sailors in Robert Towne’s screenplay for The Last Detail becoming increasingly annoyed with the nonsensical judgment hanging over their prisoner and contriving ways to treat him like a human being rather than a nuisance to the state. Or the crippled warrior in the Waldo Salt-written war drama Coming Home—a onetime high school football star and clean-scrubbed Boy Scout type—rebelling against the military’s shabby treatment of the men who gave their bodies and lives for America. Even Shampoo, a seemingly lighthearted excursion into cute raunch, notes the changing mores in America circa 1968 and the fact that at that time—as always—the profit motive and pleasure principle trumped any moral code a person professed to have.
Ashby’s films are also about as aware of race and class differences as mainstream entertainment can be without turning into polemics.
In comparison, Anderson’s films are ahistorical fables that are virtually bereft of social consciousness. When he does demonstrate such awareness, the moment stands out—as in The Darjeeling Limited, which is chock full of situations in which the privileged Whitman brothers treat their spiritual journey as just another kind of shopping trip. His characters tend to be white and upper middle class to wealthy. And while there are characters of different races and social strata, they tend to be supporting characters—often clownish ones at that—and the filmmaker pointedly ignores most of the friction that might exist between them and the heroes, as if sending a utopian message that such differences are negligible compared to the fears and longings we all share. Hopeful as that may sound, it’s hard to hear it and not respond with Keith David’s great line from Platoon, “Sheeeit…You gotta be rich in the first place to think like that.”
Ashby’s movies send the same basic message but with many more qualifiers. It’s hard to find common ground in a nation dedicated to buying it up and fencing it off.
Given the fundamental disconnect between Anderson and Ashby, where does the affinity come from? In a Good magazine interview, the director indicated that, while he admired Ashby’s ability to make the personal political, he was most impressed by Ashby’s ability to jump from genre to genre with impunity and to make almost any situation seem perfectly natural.
Ashby did have those knacks and many others—including a genuine affection for underdogs, losers, and eccentrics, a vivid sense of the absurd, an ability to intertwine comedy with tragedy, and most of all a conviction that not just movies but life itself can be musical.
There's nothing inherently wrong with Anderson's selective adoration. But when you look at the totality of what Ashby accomplished—the social and political dimensions that all his films explored, the blunt honesty of their expression—Anderson's work can't help but come up short, just as the work of Anderson's imitators is overshadowed by the genuine article.
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FURTHER RESEARCHBeing Hal Ashby, by Nick Dawson
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.More articles by Matt Zoller Seitz
Author's Website: The House Next Door