The work of Wes Anderson has been dividing critics for years, ever since his short film, “Bottle Rocket” (later expanded into a feature), played Sundance in 1994, and announced the presence of a unique new voice in the indie world, as well as calling attention to a hotbed of talent in Austin, Texas. But despite his detractors, who fault him mainly for his fastidious attention to production and costume design at the expense of dramatic engagement, Anderson’s films have been casting a spell on the media’s most influential tastemakers from the beginning. In reviewing Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” one naysayer, the notoriously cranky Rex Reed of the New York Observer, asked huffily: “What is it with this guy and his awful movies masquerading as ‘original ideas’ that turns otherwise sensible critics into slobbering groupies?”
The new Abrams Books tome, “The Wes Anderson Collection,” by film critic, fellow Texan and arguable groupie Matt Zoller Seitz, goes a long way in a sort of elegant scrapbook fashion to lay out, and dissect all the peccadilloes, influences and obsessions of Anderson in a way the director might have done had he undertaken the task himself. Seitz calls the work “a book-length conversation interspersed with critical essays, photos and artwork,” and admits that over the years, he’s “felt too close to the subject to officially review any of his features.”
In an introduction by author Michael Chabon (which Seitz, in Anderson-fashion, labels as precisely 1,265 words), the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist expounds on the “thorough schooling in brokenness” that lies at the heart of the filmmaker’s best work: “The most we can hope to accomplish with our handful of salvaged bits — the bittersweet harvest of observation and experience — is to build a little world of our own. A scale model of that mysterious original, unbroken, half-remembered.” And that’s what “The Wes Anderson Collection” deconstructs, what Chabon calls the “miniature” quality of the worlds Anderson builds. Here are a few edited excerpts from the book.
Seitz: Do you recall a moment where you made a conscious decision that you wanted to be a filmmaker?
Anderson: Well, I remember I always kind of felt that that was what I was working on. But then I decided to be a writer, and then when I went to college, I sort of switched back.
What happened was, in the library at the University of Texas at Austin they had a very good collection of books about movies. And they also had several different libraries. There was the fine arts library, and then there were two other big libraries. Each had a movie-book section, and they also had movies you could watch there. I had much better access to books about movies than I did before. So I started reading books about filmmakers I was interested in, and then watching their movies, going back and forth.
Seitz: What sort of books?
Anderson: A lot of the books were about Fellini, Bergman, Truffaut and people like that, and then there were books about Scorsese and Francis Coppola and some ’70 movies. One of the biggest sections was European movies of the ’60s. Plus, there were some books on John Ford and Raoul Walsh, but that seemed to be related to the French New Wave and to the Americans who followed. The library had Peter Bogdanovich’s littler books about directors. They had Peter’s John Ford book and his Allan Dwan book, and I think a Howard Hawks? And they had a collection of his articles about movies — “Pieces of Time,” I think it’s called.
Seitz: Did discovering these directors in books spur you to seek out their movies?
Anderson: Sure! And also Pauline Kael — they had all her books. And I was reading all her reviews in the New Yorker by then. One of the reviews I remember most was her piece on “Casualties of War,” because she referred to “Grand Illusion” and “Shoeshine” and “The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.” And I went and saw them all, although “The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith” didn’t make as much of an impression on me as “Grand Illusion.”
On the influence of Charles Schulz:
Seitz: Let’s turn to the lighter side, and talk about “Peanuts.” “Peanuts” is a bit of a presence in “Bottle Rocket,” but I think that, in “Rushmore,” when you bust out the Charlie Brown hat with the earflaps, it becomes official. What have “Peanuts,” Charles Schulz, and Bill Melendez, who produced the Peanuts TV specials, meant to you as an artist?
Anderson: I loved “Indiana Jones” and whatever we watched on TV, like “Magnum PI,” but “Peanuts” always affected me more. We had all the collection of the strips. And in those, you could see the development of the drawings. We loved “The Great Pumpkin,” but the Christmas special was the one that really got me. There’s this wonderful thing that Charles Schulz invented, memorized the entire Bible.
Anderson: Doesn’t Tolstoy creep in, often?
Seitz: He does. “War and Peace” does, a lot, and you’ve got one little girl who’s offering psychiatric advice.
Anderson: For a nickel.
I feel Charles Schulz coming through very strongly in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” especially in the sequences where they’re kids. I remember, as a kid, being intrigued by how depressed Charlie Brown was, and also how unpleasant the strip was at times, that there would be uncomfortable story lines. There was a lot of material that had to do with defeat and failure and thwarted wishes — Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown again and again.
Charlie Brown. The best he gets, usually, is a glimmer of something after the total defeat.
Inspiration for “Moonrise Kingdom”
Anderson: For some years, I’ve spent time visiting my friends Maya and Wally on this island called Naushon. Wally is in many movies that I’ve done, and he’s had different small roles. In “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” he’s Kylie the opossum. They’re very old friends who are writers and filmmakers and so on.
Anyway, Maya’s family has gone to that island for many years, which is an island that is completely preserved in time — it’s not permitted that the place be changed. There are no cars. The houses are all very old. And everything in the houses is very old. It’s sort of enforced. There’s no place like it. So I wanted to do a movie on an island like that.
Which has nothing to do with my own childhood experience. I just thought the movie needed to be in the past, because places like that really don’t generally exist anymore.
And I wanted to do a movie about a childhood romance — a very powerful experience of childhood romance. About what it’s like to just be blindsided, when you’re in fifth grade or sixth grade, by these kinds of feelings. Along the way, I sort of mixed in some interest in “young adult fantasy” writing.
And I thought this girl, maybe, is a big reader, and at a certain point I sort of gave her a suitcase full of all these books. I started writing these little passages and kind of inventing what her books were, and somewhere along the way I started thinking, maybe the movie should be as if it were one of her books, you know? That the movie would not actually be fantasy, but if it could have the point of view of one of her books — that she could open that suitcase and take out “Moonrise Kingdom,” stolen from the library.
Hardcover Fan Book
“The Wes Anderson Collection” by Matt Zoller Seitz (Abrams Books; $40; 329 pp.), features a book-length conversation between the author and the filmmaker, interspersed with critical essays, photos and artwork. (excerpts reprinted by permission)