Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Wes Anderson: playing with dolls

     I tried to watch Wes Anderson's latest film, Moonrise Kingdom,  but had to stop after twenty minutes. It was unwatchable. I finally understand why.
     Moonrise Kingdom is the latest iteration of a style of filmmaking that Anderson has been perfecting since The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, in which the director plays with expensive dolls in expensive doll houses, and makes us watch.
     It wasn't always this way. Actors were once allowed to act in Anderson's films. Let's compare a scene from Bottle Rocket, his first 
feature film, to one from Zissou, his fourth:

     The Bottle Rocket clip captures fluid action and dialogue. It's funny. The camera allows the audience to pick up visual cues for themselves, such as the child-sized scooter and the yellow jumpsuit, before they are mentioned or ridiculed by actors. The actors emote naturally. Some things are left to the imagination. For example, I imagine the Lawn Wranglers are child-like adults who wear cowboy hats, lassos, and toy guns while seated on riding mowers.
     In the Zissou clip, the papier-mâché shark is more animated than the actors. By framing his actors in the windows of the sub -- his submersible dollhouse -- Anderson intensifies my feeling that he is remotely manipulating them within a confined space. We can feel each of the sympathetic hands on Zissou's shoulders being gently lifted and placed by Anderson himself. Every feeling is explicitly represented by an adjustment to an actor. For example, we know that Anjelica Houston's character is happy that the shark will not be blown up, because the camera pans to her, zooms in, and she smiles. Got it.
     There is nothing amateurish or even less than brilliant about Anderson's style. When he plays with actual dolls in actual dollhouses, as he did in the stop-motion animated film Fantastic Mr. Fox, the result is watchable, likable, even enjoyable. The trouble is that Anderson reduces his real life actors' (Oscar nominees and winners) natural acting abilities to the limits of what dolls can do. It's creepy.
     Where do Rushmore and Tenenbaums fit in? I suspect that reexamination will show them to be his transitional pieces, with Anderson giving in unwittingly to primal urges of his attraction to dolls and their homes. Think of those kids in Rushmore. Think of that house in Tenenbaums.

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