Sunday, March 30, 2014

Wes Anderson's Visual Fairy Tale

By Tyler Friedman
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"There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforward there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray."

Had he waited a few decades to deliver this pronunciamento, Jean-Luc Godard could have added another category: Wes Anderson is contemporary cinema's virtuoso of fairy tales. The designation is carefully chosen. I don't say 'fabulist,' since that would imply an indulgence in moralizing. I don't say 'epic poet,' since for all their grandeur, Anderson's worlds convey a sense of cozy confinedness. I don't say 'storyteller,' since every filmmaker tells stories and thus the label fails to capture what is distinctive about Anderson. 

That we send our children to sleep with fairy tales is illuminating of their meaning. A fairy tale facilitates the transition from consciousness to hypnagogia to dreaming. And in doing so, the fairy tale reduplicates this structure. The tale begins within the realm of possibility, albeit often in a minor key. Hansel and Gretel are turned from their door by an evil stepmother to fend for themselves. A young girl, clad in a red riding hood, sets out to deliver victuals to her sickly grandmother. Soon enough, however, things take a turn for the weird and the dream begins.

A teller of fairy tales is content to entertain, but does so on a grander scale than would be necessary to merely amuse us. The narrator invents a world - not unlike our own, but intriguingly askew - as the element of the fairy tale. The typical immutable laws are in place, but in the fairy tale these laws have a bit more give than in reality. This world is set in motion and allowed to unfold according to its own momentum, like an intricate gestalt of dominos. In the case of The Grand Budapest Hotel, the first domino is set in motion by a MacGuffin of a priceless work of art.

The world of The Grand Budapest Hotel has been washed of the mundane. There is no waiting around. Action is perpetual and transitions are seamless. Characters boast robust and realized personalities. Never would a conversation disintegrate owing to social awkwardness or incompatible temperaments. There is evil but without banality. It is, in short, a world that far surpasses our own in charm, lent in large part by Anderson's indefatigable eye for detail, which he is not bashful about exhibiting. Tymoshenko-style hair braids, twine-tied pastry boxes and perfume bottles with squeeze bulbs are just a few examples of the abundant alluring niceties.

But all these elements require actualization in Anderson's distinctive visual language to beget the signature quirk that has come to be associated with the auteur. Anderson liberally takes cues from art forms other than film. If Anderson composes his screenplays as fairy tales, he also conceives his shots with the eye of a painter or photographer. There is hardly a frame that could not stand alone as an absorbing photo. His preferred framing is so frequently utilized that it has had the dubious honor of being... satirized? pointed out?. In addition to centering his shots, Anderson also favors an immobile shot, allowing the world to shift about in the frame, as would be the case in an enchanted painting.

In final analysis, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a compelling film. It is always visually engaging. The plot is realized with panache and consistency. It is a fairy tale that sets you to dreaming without putting you to sleep.
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