Wes Anderson, the Quirky Comedy Director

 

Image Credit: Buena Vista Pictures

My personal hero, Wes Anderson, is finally receiving the attention and respect he deserves with his last film Moonrise Kingdom (2012). One of his main characteristics and strengths is his quirkiness. But what does this actually mean? Is quirky just a buzzword, or does it actually say something useful?

The term “Quirky” has been used several times in numerous articles to denote a certain type of film which involves a sensibility linked to Anderson’s cinema. As James MacDowell states in his interesting article “Notes on Quirky”, the word recently has become so omnipresent in film criticism that it is unavoidable. Almost every review of a Wes Anderson film uses this term to pin down what kind of film we are dealing with. The definition the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary suggests for quirky is “unusual in an attractive and interesting way.” This, however, does not even begin to sum up what the term means in terms of film critique. Considered to be a lazy term, quirky is nonetheless useful when it comes to analyzing the films of Wes Anderson.

Like the American smart film and the New Sincerity film, the quirky film is a subcategory of Indie. Until there is found a better term, I side with MacDowell in saying that quirky, when used right, can be a useful utensil in analyzing the films of Anderson and contemporaries. That there has not been proposed another term for these kind of films proves that they are radically new and innovating. The film market has also found this term useful because it is a term that sells. As MacDowell puts it, “quirky” suggests a film to be unique, and therefore desirable product – though simultaneously not so unique as to discourage those who might be repelled by descriptions such as “strange” or “avant-garde.” For critics, the word conveniently allows them to express both a film’s distance from one assumed ‘norm’, and its relationship with another set of aesthetic conventions.” Quirky will be a useful term to examine how Anderson’s humor works and to place him in a new cinematic sensibility.

Besides Anderson’s films, MacDowell also names films such as The Unbelievable Truth (1989), Being John Malkovich (1999), Punch-Drunk Love (2002), Napoleon Dynamite (2004), The Squid and the Whale (2005) – co-produced by Anderson, Me, You and Everyone we Know (2005), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Lars and the Real Girl (2007) and Juno (2007) as quirky films, or at least that is how they are described in the media (1). Also television series can be quirky: Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000), Arrested Development (2003-2006), and New Girl (2011), starring queen of quirky Zooey Deschanel, can be described as quirky comedy shows.

Zooey Deschanel (Image Credit: Dewey Nicks/FOX)

Besides the critics and the film market, the audience has also embraced the term quirky. As MacDowell notes, the acceptance of a term like quirky “may help provide fans with a ‘sense of belonging to a particular kind of interpretative community’ (King, 2009: 31), specifically one that is ‘at beyond the margins’ (Barker, 2008: 1)”. Anderson, despite of his so-called shyness, puts a lot of energy in creating a bond with his audience, because he knows how important it is to give them the feeling of belonging somewhere.

MacDowell acknowledges the fact that as a term, quirky has become a “tedious buzzword” in some contexts, but defends the term nonetheless because it denotes the new American comedies and tragicomedies so well. He has made a case in his article “Notes on Quirky” for the term by summing up the shared conventions of what he calls “the quirky sensibility”. These features turn out to capture the sensibility of Anderson’s films quite well, and therefore I will use the term, as MacDowell intended it, as a “sliding scale” to define what makes Anderson so unique and appealing to the generation Y.

To add “sensibility” to the term “quirky,” does not make it less vague. “Sensibility” is similar to “tone” and “structure of feeling”, which does not clarify much, but a presents a footing. All three terms refer to a combination of shared stylistic and thematic features and the sociocultural imbedding of these films (Sconce 351-352). MacDowell refers to Susan Sontag’s explanation of sensibility: “‘a sensibility is almost, but not quite ineffable” (Sontag as quoted by MacDowell 2). Like film noir and nouvelle vague, quirky is not a genre yet it is drawn to certain genres (ibid.). “Similarly, it may often contain particular kinds of characters and settings, yet this doesn’t seem a necessity. It is associated with certain stylistic conventions, yet is not reducible to them. It may express particular themes, though – again – this is not essential” (ibid.). MacDowell suggests that the quirky sensibility manifests itself mostly “in the perspective it takes to its characters, world, and conventions, and the corresponding relationship that this perspective encourages between film and viewer”.

The quirky comedy, or tragicomedy, is not only popular because of its relation to its audience, which feels part of a unique group of people, but also because of its attachment to an “essentialy comic mode” (MacDowell). In his article, MacDowell asks what kind of approach to comedy, the quirky film takes. He distinguishes four features of the quirky comedy that are all relevant for Anderson’s cinema.

DEADPAN

The first characteristic MacDowell names is a deadpan style, one that is ubiquitous in Anderson’s work. Deadpan “achieves its effect through deliberate incongruity, juxtaposing histrionic subject matter with dampened execution, draining expected emotions from the potentially melodramatic” (MacDowell 3). Max telling Mr. Blume in a dry tone that he was going to try to have a big tree fall on him, Ned calmly telling Steve he is going to fight him, Sam responding to Suzy “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about” without showing any emotion, Suzy’s father who answers “that’s a loaded question” after his wife asks him if it concerns him if his daughter has run away from home, Margot uttering the line “Eli just crashed his car into the front of the house” while sucking on her nicotine inhaler, and many more deadpan moments prove that Anderson employs this technique on a regular basis (Moonrise Kingdom & The Royal Tenenbaums).

PRETENSION

MacDowell links this deadpan comedy to a second type of comedy, namely the “quirky’s fondness for playing inflated artistic pretension for laughs”. Rushmore’s Max Fisher is with his semi-intellectualism and poetic way of saying things the embodiment of this comic tone. But, this deadpan approach does not mean that the quirky comedy’s style is a “cold and detached” one (MacDowell).

EMBARRASMENT

Deadpan comedy is alternated by another type of comedy, namely the comedy of embarrassment, which encourages the audience to empathize with these quixotic characters. Painful and uncomfortable moments which make the audience both cringe, laugh, and feel empathy for the hero at the same time. “This kind of awkward emotional comedy is evident across many quirky films” (ibid.). This combination of deadpan and embarrassment immediately reminds of one of Anderson’s greatest cinematic influences, namely The Graduate. An example in Anderson’s oeuvre is, of course, the dinner scene in Rushmore when Max, genuinely hurt because the dinner did not turn out as he had hoped, starts yelling and insulting his guests. But there are many more examples to be found in Anderson’s films. For example, when Sam and Suzy are discovered in their tent, only partly dressed and clinging together while everyone is staring at them. You cannot help but laugh, while at the same time feel sorry for the young lovers and cringe because of the embarrassment.

SLAPSTICK

The fourth comedic tone employed by the quirky director is that of slapstick. It is not the prevailing type of comedy in the quirky film, but appears in “isolated instances” and “completely unannounced”(ibid.). As opposed to slapstick comedies, which are filled with physical humor, slapstick moments in the quirky film “surprise us with their suddenness and seeming inappropriateness in a manner not usually available to more conventional ‘slapstick comedies’ […], and thus help establish a faint sense of surrealism through their incongruity” (ibid.). The absurdness of these slapstick moments remind us that the quirky film is located in a “special kind of ‘artificial’ world in which slapstick like this may occur without any real consequences ” (ibid.).

As Bordwell and Thompson explain, “some of the most popular directors and stars [between 1913 and 1919] were associated with the genre of slapstick comedy” (“Film History” 75). The slapstick genre, based on physical action, became more common in its feature-length variation in the twenties (154).

This comedic genre has not lost its popularity over the years, but the quirky comedy does not rely heavily on this kind of humor. The solitary moments of slapstick thus work together with its other comedic modes to confuse the audience and will rather bring a subtle smile on their faces than the typical slapstick’s roar of laughter. An example of this isolated physical humor can be found in The Royal Tenenbaums when Mr. Henry suddenly falls into an archeological site while romantically strolling with Etheline. When he climbs out of the hole, he appears to be fine. The only physical proof of him falling in the hole is the dirt on his jacket and the somewhat bewildered look on his face. At the end of The Royal Tenenbaums, there is a series of slapstick moments following from Eli’s crash into the house. Lying on the floor of the living room between wedding gifts, the first thing he asks is where his shoe has gone. When Chas finds out that Eli almost ran over his children, he starts chasing him all over the house. In a typical slapstick sequence, they push the priest – who was carrying a first aid kit – down the stairs, open the door of an occupied toilet, push Richie to the ground and ruin the wedding set up. Their fight ends when Chas throws Eli over the neighbors’ garden wall and climbs over it himself. What follows is an emotional – though played in deadpan – scene where Eli and Chas admit to each other they need help to deal with their problems.

The Royal Tenebaums (Image Credit: Touchstone Pictures)

An absurd slapstick moment in The Life Aquatic occurs when team Zissou is exploring the pirate’s island and Steve, after running through a puddle, is attacked by swamp leeches. He cries out, “oh, shit! Swamp leeches. Everybody, look for swamp leeches, and pull them off! Nobody else got hit? I’m the only one? What’s the deal?” (The Life Aquatic). The fact that he is wearing an extremely tight diving suit makes it all even more ridiculous.

As MacDowell suggests, it is the innovative combination of these comic genres “and the common decision to combine them into one film”, that makes the quirky comedy so unique. The duality of the distancing deadpan and the comedy of embarrassment which encourages to genuinely empathize is omnipresent in Anderson’s work and in that of his fellow quirky directors (ibid.). The quirky comedic address “requires we view the fiction as simultaneously absurd and moving, the characters pathetic and likeable, the world as manifestly artificial and believable. The tension resulting from this effect are very important for the construction of tone” (ibid.). The quirky film seems to combine certain aspects of the American smart film and the New Sincerity sensibility and is therefore a milder and more subtle reaction against postmodern irony and disaffection.

As MacDowell implies, Wes Anderson is the king of Quirky. When asked to define what a quirky film is, it is easiest to refer to Anderson’s films because they are the best and most complete answer to this question. Analogous to Richard Maltby who has said that “whatever film noir is, Out of the Past is undoubtedly film noir,” MacDowell states that “whatever quirky is, The Royal Tenenbaums is undoubtedly quirky.” But not only The Royal Tenenbaums can be considered as the chief example of “the quirky sensibility,” Anderson’s entire oeuvre seems to “provide us with the most consistent as well as probably the most extreme, embodiment” of this sensibility (MacDowell). His aesthetic, style and tone all display what it means to be quirky.

PLANIMETRIC SHOTS

When describing the style of The Royal Tenenbaums, and thus all Anderson’s films, MacDowell notices the planimetric framing, without actually calling it that. He claims that the “static, flat looking, medium-long or long shots that feel nearly geometrically even, depicting isolated or carefully arranged characters, sometimes facing directly out towards us who are made to look faintly ridiculous or out-of-place by virtue of the composition’s rigidity” are quite common in the world of the quirky film, but names Anderson as its main source.

The most striking aspect of these shots in which characters often face the camera and the style pulls attention towards itself, is their self-consciousness. Although Anderson only literally breaks the fourth wall in Moonrise Kingdom, all these frontal shots remind the audience of presentational performances such as plays, musical performances, soliloquies, and so on (MacDowell). This presentational acting goes out directly to an audience and thus has the same effect as Anderson’s meticulously constructed sets, namely that all of it – the acting and the framing – has been constructed especially for us, the audience (ibid.). It is as if Anderson and directors influenced by him are “forthrightly asking us to appreciate [the] staged and artificial nature” of their films (ibid.). MacDowell rightly associates this self-consciousness with the philosophy of the smart film, though stating that the extreme dispassion the smart film exhibits cannot be found in the quirky. The distancing aesthetic, however, is definitely present in the quirky film and is linked to “the sensibility’s frequent eagerness to be seen as in some sense ‘self-aware’” (ibid.).

Moonrise Kingdom (Image Credit: Focus Features)

ORDER AND INNOCENCE

The overly and artificial neat style of Anderson’s cinematic world represents, as always in Anderson’s cinema, its themes. The quirky world is an innocent, orderly world, absent of chaos and messiness. This neatness is not to be confused with the sterile, cold neatness of some postmodern works which goal it is to criticize for example the emptiness of a suburban lifestyle. MacDowell suggests that the quirky neatness “encourages us to see the compositions not only as excessively calculated, but also as somehow intentionally purified.” It shows a longing for a less chaotic, simpler world which is unaffected instead of disaffected. At first, the chaotic and dysfunctional families inhabiting this simplistic world seem to be out of tone, and thus ironic. But this is only partly true because the organized film world also shows us the character’s longing for life to be pure again. Children of divorced parents often wish to go back to a phase in their life when everything was structured, clean, simple and “normal.” It is as if Anderson is already showing us, the audience, and his characters what life can be like when everything falls into place. The quirky neat and innocent world is thus a forecast of the films’ happy or semi-happy endings. Their endings are usually “characterized by an extraordinarily balanced rhetorical combination of an ironic detachment from, and a sincere engagement with, its ‘happy ending’. In other words, we are never allowed to forget the potential for ironic appreciation, yet are encouraged to be genuinely moved nonetheless” (MacDowell). Anderson’s slow motion endings, for example, are so obvious that they seem to be parodies of the typical Hollywood happy end, but at the same time they are also encouraging us to see the characters as true heroes and profoundly believe in their happiness.

Anderson’s films have a high cartoon or comic book quality. But also the recurring paintings and drawings are echoed in Anderson’s style. This appears to be typical of the quirky film, for their orderly world is highly influenced by comics and cartoons. MacDowell names the “alternative comics associated with artists and writers like Harvey Pekar and Daniel Clowes, whose works have been adapted into the films American Splendor and Ghost World respectively” as big influences on the quirky film. Their aesthetics are, like more simple cartoons such as Peanuts’ Charlie Brown, “simplified and two-dimensional” (ibid.).

Something cartoons and the quirky film have in common besides their frontality and simple two-dimensional shots, is their ability to render “familiar and ‘realistic’ spaces ‘unrealistic’ […] via the imposition of this style” (ibid.). Examples of the influential simple and simplistic style of cartoons in the quirky can be found in their advertising as well as their props, use of stop-motion animation and soundtracks (ibid.). The quirky movie often spreads film posters with a cartoonesque look, but also promotional fan art is often made in the style of cartoons. The occurrence of childish drawings and paintings and other creative props such as dioramas also remind us of the simplicity of the cartoon. The Life Aquatic exhibits a whole array of stop-motion animals and Anderson even made an entirely stop-motion animated film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, consequently participating in the artificial, cartoonlike look.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Image Credit: Touchstone Pictures)

SWEET TONES

MacDowell also names the sweet poppy songs used in the quirky film as allusions to the simplicity of the cartoon world. The compositions of Mark Mothersbaugh’s, the composer with whom Anderson has repeatedly worked, are representative of the kind of music MacDowell alludes to . The author of “Notes on Quirky” compares the soundtracks of the quirky film to children’s music:

“The pitch, repetitiveness, and insistent prettiness of much of this music often lends it a sound and feel reminiscent of the tinkling purity of a child’s music box. Songs that are either actual children’s songs, songs about childhood, or which take a childlike view of romance are also occasionally featured in the films […]”(MacDowell).

These sweet tones bring a naïve and innocent feel to the films, related to its pure world and innocent heroes. Anderson’s retro aesthetic takes us back to “those days when we were young”, or even to a time before we were born – which may or may not be fictional. Everything was brighter then, and more importantly, better structured. The constant allusions to childhood in Anderson’s films are also present in other quirky comedies. Children, but also grown-ups dress up in costumes – often animals – and even their “real” clothes have a high dress-up party feel. Eli Cash, for example, who is a grown man constantly walks around dressed like a cowboy and puts on Indian war paint when he crashes into the Tenenbaum house.

CHILDHOOD

MacDowell’s focus on childhood adds to the ubiquity of thematic, aesthetic, and stylistic allusions present in Anderson’s cinematic forebears such as Truffaut and Salinger and Anderson’s own films, but also to Generation Y’s vision of life. The Peter Pan generation finds no fault with withdrawing to the mother’s nest or trying to be pure, innocent and sincere by playing children’s games and fleeing from the difficult world of grown-ups. They want to belong and be loved, but also be themselves. Although mostly living in cities, they have romantic ideas about nature. Drawn to the sweet, retro worlds of the quirky film, they are inspired to wearing vintage clothing or fashion that has been inspired by a return to the past. MacDowell suggests that the characters in quirky films [but also their audience] “often cling to objects and artifacts from childhood”. In Anderson’s films these artifacts often have a link with a loved one who has passed away. Max’s typewriter or Sam’s brooch which were presents from or belongings of their respective mothers are examples of these artifacts.

The tent Richie sleeps in, Ned’s letters from his childhood and the Perfect Attendance Award and the Punctuality Award (I should get one of those!) Max received at Rushmore are all examples of such artifacts that define the character’s personality.

Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore (Image Credit: Buena Vista Pictures)

 Furthermore, there is a lot of interaction with (little) children in the quirky comedy – and again also in the films by Anderson’s cinematic heroes – which points our attention towards childhood in a direct manner. There is Bottle Rocket’s Grace, Rushmore’s Dirk and the toddlers in Mrs. Cross’s class, the young Tenenbaums in The Royal Tenenbaums, Klaus’s nephew in The Life Aquatic, the young Indian boys and Peter’s unborn child in The Darjeeling Limited, Ash and Kristofferson in Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Suzy’s little brothers and the protagonists themselves in Moonrise Kingdom. But, the adolescents and adults of the quirky film often behave in childish ways or alternately show behavior of both children and adults. They are, at first, unable to engage in or maintain adult relationships because they have not mentally grown up yet.

One of the reasons why these adults exhibit childish behavior might be because they “are still plagued by some form of trauma they experienced as children” (MacDowell). But also traumas acquired later in life can scar the quirky heroes to such a degree that as a reaction they start behaving in an emotional immature way. These traumas can also be caused by a general feeling of being misunderstood; a familiar feeling to virtually all Anderson’s characters. Rushmore’s Max has not healed from the loss of his mother at an early age and feels attracted to Mrs. Cross partly because of her motherly qualities. Ned Plimpton grew up without a father, and although his mother has done a great job raising him on her own, this has left him insecure and wondering why his father never came to look for him. When he loses his mother to cancer, he feels it is time to go looking for his absent father, partly because he is not ready to be without a parent yet. But also Steve Zissou himself is traumatized. He still wears the physical proof of the failure of his first marriage on his arm in the form of a tattoo and on top of that feels that he is losing his second wife as well as his successful career. The recent loss of his best friend Esteban was the fatal blow which has caused Zissou to sink to his lowest point. The children of The Royal Tenenbaums are traumatized because of their parents’ separation, their father’s leaving and their disappearing status as prodigies. They all carry physical proof for their traumatized minds. Margot’s wooden replacement finger symbolizes her separation from her biological family as well as from her adoptive father, Chas still carries the bullet of a BB gun in his hand from when Royal shot him, Richie hides behind his long hair, beard and seventies sunglasses and Eli childishly dresses up as a cowboy.

The Royal Tenenbaums (Image Credit: Touchstone Pictures)

In Fantastic Mr. Fox, the protagonist is traumatized by not being the leader and champion he used to be and not being able to do what a fox does, namely kill chicken. His son, Ash, is traumatized because he does not fit in at school, but also not at home. Ash looks up to his father, but feels as if he is not proud of his son. He will do anything to get his attention, and in the end, Mr. Fox will understand that he has ignored his loving son and finally tells him how happy he is to be his father. The Whitman brothers are traumatized by their parents divorce, the death of their father, and the disappearance of their mother. Gradually they learn how to deal with these traumas and are able to mentally and “spiritually” grow. Sam, who is an orphan, is traumatized by his parents death, but also by his bad experiences with foster homes and orphanages. His girlfriend, Suzy feels like an outsider and is traumatized by her parents ignorance of her depression. Luckily, all characters are able to overcome their traumas when their stories develop and are freed of their loneliness and depressions.

To sum up the sensibility of the quirky film, MacDowell states that the quirky has a complex relationship with irony which makes it possible to exhibit “sincerity”, “positivity” and “passion”. He also claims that the potential of seeing the quirky films within quotation marks does not lessen its power of “sincere emotional engagement”. The ebbing and flowing of these tones and their interaction with each other is what makes them unique and worthwhile. The different comic genres have a similar effect, for the “quirky’s comedy works by distancing us from character’s emotions through deadpan, and occasionally undermining the credibility of its fictional world through slapstick, yet also through encouraging empathy via an awkward comedy of embarrassment” ( MacDowell).

The term “quirky” is thus loaded enough to be of use and covers Anderson’s sensibility quite well. And apart from that, it’s just a damn cute word.

 

For Lotte’s original posts on the wonderful Wes Anderson, visit Ways to Make You See.

4 thoughts on “Wes Anderson, the Quirky Comedy Director

  1. Bart Philipsen says:

    I think this is a damn quirky essay and whoever wants to say or write something relevant about Wes Anderson in the future HAS to refer to it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s