Wes is having trouble with the reception


Those familiar with the back-catalogue of (live action) Wes Anderson films will know what to expect from his sixth, Moonrise Kingdom. The meticulous art direction, character “uniforms”, dialogue rhythms, muted performances, themes of familial discord and self-destructive obsession, tracking shots, wide-angle lenses, slow motion endings (I could go on) are all well-established elements of the Anderson world. So consistent is the Anderson aesthetic that the director’s departure in this new film from the Futura font we have come to associate him with became a talking point upon the release of the film’s trailer. We have certain expectations as viewers of Anderson’s films, but then again I have certain expectations as a reader of Anderson’s reviews. These are no less characterised by familiar tropes, and divergence from any of these is far more startling to me than Anderson’s new font.

I turned to Variety for the first word on the film proper. Peter Debruge’s effort did not disappoint. In fact, in the one-sentence abstract-summary of the review we see the abiding journalistic-critical reception of Anderson’s films perfectly distilled into just 18 words: “while no less twee than Wes Anderson’s earlier pictures, ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ supplies a poignant metaphor of adolescence itself”.¹ Debruge proceeds to further articulate the supposedly competing forces at the heart of an Anderson film: “a universally appealing tale of teenage romance cuts through the smug eccentricity and heightened artificiality with which Anderson has allowed himself to be pigeonholed”. And then again, a paragraph later: “the love story reads loud and clear, charming those not put off by all the production’s potentially distracting ornamentation.” Each of these examples voices the same complaint: there are some real, valuable characters and emotions to be found in this film, but they are obscured by all the artifice.

¹ Peter Debruge, “Moonrise Kingdom” (review), Variety, 16 May 2012.
²  Todd McCarthy, “The Royal Tenenbaums” (review), Variety, 4 October 2001.
³  David Amsden, “The Life Obsessive With Wes Anderson“, New York Magazine, 24 September 2007.
⁴  A.O. Scott, “A Seagoing Showcase of Human Collectibles“, The New York Times, 10 December 2004.

Forgive me if I seem cynical in my dismissal of Debruge’s take on the film; it’s just that I’ve heard it all before. In his Variety review of The Royal Tenenbaums, Todd McCarthy chided Anderson for his “brittle, highly artificial style that constricts character and emotional development”.² In 2007 David Amsden wrote in New York Magazine that The Royal Tenenbaums was “a little too curious with its curiosities” and that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was a “beautiful failure, a study of style stripped of substance”.³ Other critics have couched their distaste for Anderson in an argument that he betrayed the promise of his early films Bottle Rocket (1996) and Rushmore (1998) through an increasing preoccupation with artifice. On the occasion of the release of The Life Aquatic in 2004 the New York Times‘s A.O. Scott retrospectively marked The Royal Tenenbaums as the beginning of Anderson’s slide “into preciousness”.⁴

Were we to perform a keyword search for a review of an Anderson film, “contrived”, “artificial”, “mannered”, “confected”, “stylised”, and “smug” would each stand in effectively for the director’s surname. No matter how these critiques are framed, they are unified in their view of Anderson as having failed a test of realism. These critiques see Anderson’s increasing self-confidence and maturation as an artist, and the accompanying crystallisation of his sensibility and aesthetic, as a devolution. As such these critiques are best viewed as symptomatic of normative understandings of realism within the journalistic sphere of film criticism. They certainly cannot be read as genuine engagements with Anderson as an artist.


Complicating Realism

⁵  Terry Eagleton, “Pork Chops and Pineapples“, London Review of Books, 23 October 2003.

In his review of Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, Terry Eagleton makes several points about how realism is conventionally understood that help to explain the journalistic-critical reception of Anderson’s films. He first notes that the terms “unrealistic” and “non-realist” are often conflated, although they relate to very distinct concepts. He distinguishes them thus: “you can have a work of art which is non-realist in the sense of being non-representational, yet which paints a convincing picture of the world”.⁵ This distinction is evidently not observed in those reviews that struggle to reconcile Anderson’s “non-realist” aesthetics with his attempts to portray a “realistic” world.

⁶  Deborah J. Thomas, “Framing the “Melancomic”: Character, Aesthetics and Affect in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore”, New Review of Film and Television Studies, Vol. 10, No. 1, 2012.

Concepts of realism are also highly subjective, varying between cultures and between individuals within a culture. Here Eagleton cites Bertolt Brecht, who located realism in the “work’s effects”, rather than “whether it recalled something familiar”. In this sense “one person’s realism is another’s fantasy”. In light of such complications, Eagleton claims that

Artistic Realism, then, cannot mean “represents the world as it is”, but rather “represents it in accordance with conventional real-life modes of representing it”. But there are a variety of such modes in any culture [...].

Deborah J. Thomas’ formal analysis of Rushmore catalogues the ways in which Anderson’s formal techniques can distance audiences accustomed to conventional mimesis. These include “extensive use of wide-angled lenses” and “high or low angled shots” which can “create spatial and perspective distortions” and “lend a slight surrealistic effect to characters; creating ironic exaggerations or minor distortion of features that resist the verisimilitude of realist modes of representation”.⁶ Furthermore, “disorientating bird’s-eye or overhead camera angles” and jump cuts“create a momentary dislocation, both temporally and spatially, from the diegesis”. Finally she observes instances where “characters are framed by a long telephoto lens, creating a shallow depth of field and a flattened aesthetic”.

In terms of performance, too, Anderson’s films break with mimetic norms: “minimalism and precision of actor movement”, “gesture in relation to the camera’s field of vision”, “deadpan or impassive facial expressions” and “a relative sparsity of dialogue enunciated with ‘flat’ vocal intonations” are all to be found in Rushmore. However, these distancing “Brechtian” performance techniques are contrasted with “shifts into a more naturalistic mode” that creates “a play between empathy and distance [...]soliciting an unstable and paradoxical range of emotional responses in the spectator towards both character and text”. Ultimately, says Thomas, Anderson’s formal qualities evident in Rushmore “challenge the greater certainties offered by… the realist aesthetic”.

⁷  André Crous, “True and False: New Realities in the Films of Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman“, Acta Universitatis Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies, 2010.

In his article examining mimesis in the films of Anderson, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman, André Crous presents a scene from The Life Aquatic as an example of Anderson’s “playful refusal of strict mimesis”.⁷ As Zissou traverses his ship, the Belafonte, “the camera pulls back to reveal the entirety of the model ship, cut open to show the interior.” For Crous this recalls a moment from Godard’s Tout va bien, but with a difference:

the effect on the viewer is not one of shock or confusion, in the vein of modernist filmmakers like Godard. Anderson doesn’t seek to estrange the viewer, but reveals the artifice of his production in a way that serves to conflate his own film with the films inside the narrative – a postmodernist gesture instead of a modernist one.

Postmodernism is a vital framework for understanding the nature of the stories Anderson tells. Anderson’s cinema is very concerned with mimesis and its problematics. As Eagleton states, “represenationalism has its limits” and for the modernists “these are resolvable only by irony – by representing and pointing to the limits of your representation in the same gesture”. Postmodernism begins for Eagleton at the point where “we come to realise that reality itself is now a kind of fiction, a matter of image, virtual wealth, fabricated personalities, media-driven events, political spectaculars and the spin-doctor as artist”.



When Form and Content Deserve Each Other 

Far from indulgent flourishes that distract from the “real” emotion of Anderson’s films, Anderson’s formal choices match perfectly with his narratives and characters. We begin to understand this once we begin to understand the nature of Anderson’s authorship and that of his characters. Anderson’s films might seem artificial, contrived and mannered, but this is highly appropriate to stories about characters who are deeply concerned with artifice, contrivance, and mannerism. These are, after all, real human traits and impulses. Shouldn’t films about self-conscious authors be self-reflexive about their authorship?

Anderson’s films are Russian dolls of authorship, with Anderson authoring characters who are themselves authors of creative work. Authorship is a framework applicable to all of Anderson’s characters; we might think of Dignan in Bottle Rocket and his 75 Year Plan, writing a script for his life decades into the future; or Royal Tenenbaum, contriving scenarios and blocking the actors in his life so that they move and interact in ways that please him. But most of Anderson’s films (Bottle Rocket is perhaps the exception) contain at least one character (usually more than one) who is an actual author of a substantial text that features in the film. We can think of Rushmore‘s playwright/actor Max Fischer; The Royal Tenenbaums‘ playwright Margot Tenenbaum; The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou‘s titular wildlife documentarian, or The Darjeeling Limited‘s short story writer Jack Whitman.

I will focus here on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and its author-character, for he is in most need of critical rehabilitation. Zissou is a world famous oceanographer and the star of the once-lauded series of documentaries The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Anderson’s film of the same name opens with Zissou exhibiting his latest documentary at an Italian film festival, where it is received coolly by an audience that questions its authenticity and relevance. The community at large has become disillusioned with Zissou and his films. Even the sensationalism and emotiveness of his First Mate and oldest friend Esteban being eaten by a shark fails to stir a response.

In the question and answer session following the screening, Zissou is asked by an audience member whether it was a deliberate choice not to include footage of the “Jaguar Shark” that ate Esteban. His response, “No, I dropped the camera,” is met with a chuckle from the audience. Zissou turns to the host of the Q&A session and, off-microphone, asks, “why are they laughing?” Here we see a serious disconnect between Zissou’s non-ironic reading of his own creative work and that of the audience. When Zissou states that he intends to hunt down and kill the Jaguar Shark on his next voyage the audience is disturbed and baffled; Zissou has truly lost touch.

Two new additions to Zissou’s crew on Adventure No. 12: the Jaguar Shark (Part 2) are representative of the audience he has alienated. Jane Winslet-Richardson is a heavily pregnant journalist covering the voyage for the Oceanographic Explorer and Ned Plimpton is a pilot with Air Kentuky who believes that Zissou may be his father. Although Zissou was a childhood hero to both Jane and Ned, the Zissou they meet falls far short of their expectations. Jane requires a positive role model as she contemplates life as a single mother, while Ned craves the father he never had. Zissou is initially lecherous and self-absorbed, viewing Jane as a public relations opportunity and prospective sexual conquest, while it soon becomes apparent that Zissou enjoys the idea of having a son more than the realities of fatherhood. Rather than fulfilling the roles that Jane and Ned require of him, Zissou casts the pair into the filmic roles that perpetuate his own celebrity persona. As always Zissou is in the hero role, while Jane becomes a love interest and chronicler of Zissou’s glory. Ned is slotted into a sidekick role, an aspiring Steve Zissou with whom he can share a “relationship sub-plot.”

⁸  The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou audio commentary, 2004.

The line between fiction and reality has become problematically blurred in Zissou’s world as he attempts to perpetuate his self-authored persona. Zissou’s contrived documentaries cannot accommodate the nuances of character that Jane and Ned require of him. Anderson himself refers to Zissou as a character who “has to get in touch with his own humanity, his own past, to strip away some of the layers of identity that he has created for himself”.⁸ Only by learning to subsume his own desires in favour of the emotional needs of others does Zissou grow beyond his two-dimensional film persona. Incrementally over the course of the film, Zissou comes to appreciate Jane’s value beyond the carnal, and Ned proves a more important male role model to Zissou than Zissou could have ever been for Ned. Zissou’s process of maturation is completed in the film’s emotional climax, when he finally confronts the Jaguar Shark. The resultant film of the expedition, which screens at the same festival a year on, earns Zissou the top prize. Jane’s article on Zissou, which makes no attempt to hide his foibles, makes the front page. Zissou’s personal and professional redemptions coincide when his creative work is stretched to accommodate genuine emotion and renewed passion for his work.

Like Rushmore, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou features an author main character, lacking in maturity, who finds redemption only when he tempers his creativity with the emotional needs of others. Unlike Max Fischer (whose plays are always a great success), Steve Zissou’s crisis is artistic as much as personal. The fact that Zissou’s work suffers as a result of his self regarding insularity represents a strengthening of Anderson’s resolve that emotional engagement is more important than the author’s creative vision. Ironically, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a film in which an author main character is accused of artifice, and resurrects his art through emotional reconnection, was itself accused of being highly artificial with little emotional resonance.


Choose your Criticism, Choose your Critique

Having suggested that the journalistic-critical reception of Anderson misses the point entirely when it complains about “realism” in relation to his work, it only remains to offer some explanations as to why these complaints exist and endure. Deborah J. Thomas concludes her study by considering the various receptions of Anderson’s work. She suggests that the “subjectivity of the spectator” ultimately determines whether Anderson’s reality is palatable or not: “irony and affect/s are intensely subjective modes of recognition, mediated by various cultural and social factors, which vary from individual to individual.” Put simply, “an ironic tone can immediately divide audiences between those who manage to comprehend the nuances of meaning and those who don’t”..

Certainly this is true for the broader filmgoing audience, but the critical complaints against Anderson seem to be more institutionally bound, rather than occurring on a case-by-case, critic-by-critic basis. “Realism” problems with Anderson, it should be noted, are limited to journalistic-review criticism and critics, while essayistic (or cinephilic) film criticism, and academic film criticism, have no such concerns. Were we to observe the common distinction between “review” (consumer report) and “criticism” (long form essays, articles, books) then we could say that Anderson has always received mixed reviews and excellent criticism. That would be a neat way of putting it, but I don’t regard reviews as undeserving of the name “criticism”.

⁹ Peter Travers, “The Darjeeling Limited“ (review), Rolling Stone, 26 October 2007.

It is, however, important to make a distinction between the expectations at work in reviews compared to other criticisms, as treatments of Anderson’s films indicate a significant divide. While there are reviewing critics who champion Anderson, they do so labouring under the weight of the opinions of their colleagues. In 2007, Peter Travers dedicated the first paragraph of his review of The Darjeeling Limited to refuting the idea that Anderson’s stylistic and thematic “obsessions” are problematic.⁹ This year, Andrew O’Hehir’s piece on Moonrise Kingdom was less a review of that film and more a treatise on why the “realism” complaints against Anderson should be retired:

ᵃ  Andrew O’Hehir, “Moonrise Kingdom: Wes Anderson’s mid-‘60s love story“, Salon, 24 May 2012.

here’s what I reject completely: the idea that the artificiality or hyperrealism (a better word, I think) of Anderson’s worlds – which is admittedly cranked up pretty high here – is fundamentally pretentious and insincere, or that it reflects some kind of “kidult” refusal of grown-up emotion.ᵃ

These aberrant reviews are indicative of just how established the prevailing discourse is. Meanwhile, critics writing in essayistic and academic journals such as Film Comment, Sight and Sound and Cinema Journal have no such concerns. Partly, of course, this has to do with the differing industrial conditions of review and longform criticisms. Essayists and academics largely choose their own object to interrogate, whereas reviews have very little choice in what they critique. Long-form criticism of Anderson, therefore, is more likely to be written by his partisans. This explains the positive longform reception of Anderson, but not his middling reviews.

ᵇ  Tom O’Regan, Australian National Cinema, London: Routledge, 1996.
ᶜ  Nöel Carroll, On Criticism, New York: Routledge, 2009.

Tom O’Regan usefully distinguishes between separate film critic “personas” which are partly characterised by their attention to separate “publics”.. The “cinephile” persona is addressed to “a public for whom the cinema is a goal in itself – an internally conceived politics of the ‘film world;”.ᵇ Some reviewers may be cinephiles,  but film reviewing is not a cinephilic comportment. Reviewers tend to answer to a very different public with very different expectations. In his philosophical treatise On Criticism, Noël Carroll distinguishes between two schemes within which the critic might evaluate an artwork.ᶜ If she is considering an artwork’s “success value” then she is considering what has been achieved artistically through the work. If she is considering an artwork’s “reception value” then she is considering what value the audience can derive from experiencing the artwork.

“Success value”, then, is what longform criticism of Anderson, addressed to a public concerned with “cinematic” values, finds in his work. Through this lens we see Anderson’s diversions from mimetic convention as consistent with themes and narratives concerned with the nature of authorship (to name but one of his “successes”). “Reception value”, meanwhile, is what reviewers take into account when describing a film to a less politically coherent public. Through this lens, Anderson’s films might be viewed as an unfamiliar experience that could potentially leave you cold. Is it any wonder that his reviews, at best, come with a disclaimer?

ᵈ  Claudia Puig (2012), “Gaze upon an enchanting Moonrise Kingdom“, USA Today, 24 May 2012.

Happily, Moonrise Kingdom is enjoying the best reviews of any Anderson film to date. However, these positive reviews (apart from brave departures such as O’Hehir’s) do nothing to counter the received wisdom regarding Anderson’s shortcomings. Claudia Puig tells us that this is Anderson’s best since Rushmore because “it has none of the self-conscious smugness of The Life Aquatic or the empty eccentricity of The Royal Tenenbaums”.ᵈ If he cares about such things Anderson will hope in future for more “success” and less “reception”, but at this point it seems like it will always be more of the same from Anderson’s empty, confected, meaningless reviews.

Commissioned with funding from Copyright Agency Limited.

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