Indy Datta is about as much of a Wes Anderson fan as it’s possible to be but finds Matt Zoller Seitz’s new book about the director charming, but too slight, and too polite.
In his introduction to Seitz’s handsome coffee table tome Michael Chabon compares the films of Wes Anderson to Joseph Cornell’s boxes – each example of both being a meticulously curated collection of ephemera. As Cornell’s art is in the act of collecting, boxing and displaying his objects, rather than in the objects themselves, so Chabon argues that the art in Anderson’s films is inherent in their miniaturism; their emotional power coming as much from the quotation marks Anderson places around his characters and the ephemera of their lives, as from their intrinsic dramatic qualities.
It’s hard not to see the introduction, bolstered as it is by Chabon’s official status as a Serious Novelist, as a pre-emptive defence by Seitz to one of the more common indictments against Anderson, that the style of his films (often characterised in such indictments as twee or self-consciously quirky) is to the detriment of, or intended to disguise the negligibility of, their content, which is, in the context of such indictment, to say: their narratives. Moreover, Seitz’s book itself presents as a skeuomorph of a Wes Anderson film; lovingly designed, filled with detail and taking significant design cues from Anderson’s work. For example, Max Dalton’s copious illustrations recall – without copying – the drawings by Eric Chase “brother of Wes” Anderson that feature heavily in the films production design, and his cover image is a riff on Staul Steinberg’s New Yorker cover “View of the World from 9th Avenue”, an image that Seitz adduces as influential on Anderson’s aesthetic.
Such occasional elements of indirect apologia aside, though, The Wes Anderson Collection is not primarily a work of critical analysis. Rather, it is a personal and somewhat fannish companion piece to Anderson’s films. It is fair to note that it never pretends to be the former but also legitimate to regret the unfulfilled potential for a more penetrating work on a subject that merits the critical scrutiny.
Although Matt Zoller Seitz comes from the world of newspapers, it is in the blogging era and afterwards that he has become an influential critic – when his daily blog The House Next Door first came to prominence, its blend of discursiveness, analytical adventurousness and unabashed promotion of pet causes (notably the long and fascinating series of posts by Seitz and others about Terence Malick’s The New World) was novel and exciting. Now, the early House (the title continues as that of Slant’s blog) seems more or less representative of the norm in serious non-academic internet film writing, and Seitz is the editor of Rogerebert.com – inheriting in some small way the mantle of arguably the last film critic to have much influence beyond the enthusiast community.
Seitz is a big hitter, then, and those essays about The New World showed that he was unafraid to pursue analysis and personal interpretation to the point where the needle was well into the red, without any evident fear of seeming imprudent or eccentric. But his writing about Malick had the advantage that Malick himself is conspicuously silent on the subject of his films – and Seitz’s voice in those pieces is appropriately quasi-theological. When Malick’s work latterly took a turn for the more expressly metaphysical, those essays seemed even more perceptive in retrospect.
Wes Anderson, on the other hand, has known Seitz cordially for his entire career (Seitz was the first newspaper journalist to interview Anderson and Owen Wilson, when the short Bottle Rocket played the USA Film Festival) and he granted him a series of interviews for this book. In-depth conversations between critics (or critic/film-makers) and film-makers have led to books as notable as Francois Truufaut’s Hitchcock: A Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock and This is Orson Welles by Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, but in this instance the end result is less substantial.
In the most banal sense, the resultant text is literally less substantial: although the book runs to over 300 large-format pages, much of it is taken up by pictures. The word count of Seitz’s introductory essays and interviews with Anderson totals less than 60,000 (Seitz helpfully provides a word count at the start of every chapter, for reasons I can’t divine). Much of the pictorial content of the book is worth having – there are extensive storyboards and examples of production artwork – but if the book is to be more than a middlebrow equivalent of those books of Ralph McQuarrie’s Star Wars production art (referenced in this book as an influence on Anderson) it’s the words that will count.
The trouble is that Anderson is reluctant to talk about many elements of his films, and that Seitz is too polite, discreet or sensitive as an interlocutor to get Anderson to open up. Banally, this may be a function of the relatively truncated interview time the two had together, but in that case the question arises of whether that interview time was enough to birth a book.
The picture of Anderson that he allows to emerge from the interviews is of an unpretentious, pragmatic film maker not given to grand aesthetic theories. Like an indie band being interviewed in the NME in the 80’s, he’s just making the kind of films he would like to see himself, inspired by the kinds of films he likes, and if anyone else likes them, that’s just a bonus. For example, the lateral tracking shot that is one of his signature moves was, in its first use, forced upon him during the shooting of Rushmore (approximately 2:30 in the video below) because the shot he had been hoping to achieve was impossible due to the weather on the shoot day. Anderson liked the shot, and has used it repeatedly since.
Although Anderson is happy to talk about the production of his films, and often with disarming enthusiasm for the process of film-making, Seitz’s forte as a critic is in interpretation, and here Anderson is considerably less forthcoming, and Seitz doesn’t seem to have the key to unlock him. A few extracts follow (all from within a couple of pages) from the interview about The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou:
MZS: I believe it was the year after The Life Aquatic that Murray appeared in Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, another film in which he plays a guy who has a son he didn’t know about – maybe. It’s weird. There must have been something in the air that made two filmmakers, independent of each other, decide to cast Bill Murray as a guy dealing with this specific issue.
MZS: I get the sense that there’s a bit of self-examination, on your part, going on in this movie. It’s the first movie you’ve made that is about a film director. I mean, he has a lot of other things going on besides, but first and foremost he’s a filmmaker, and everything else he does is with the goal of being presented to the audience in the form of a Steve Zissou film.
MZS: Zissou is also a character who has been confronted, at the very beginning of the movie with, to borrow the title of another Jim Jarmusch movie, the limits of control.
MZS: He has seen this mythic beast devour his best friend and mentor. And now he’s on a mission to kill Death. A good friend of mine, another film critic, said that what he liked most about this movie was that it was a comic retelling of Moby-Dick, with a key difference: In the end, the obsessed captain, who’s been chasing this beast that took away a part of him, stares the beast in the face and realizes it was nothing personal.
Although I have unfairly cherry-picked the extracts for comic effect, little that was revealed in the conversation (about Zissou or any of the other films) felt particularly thematically revealing to me. I would almost rather have read longer versions of the essays with which Seitz prefaces each interview, each of which gave me a nugget of insight that the interviews didn’t.
In the end, then, maybe this is a book for Wes Anderson fans only, for them to pore over in much the same way they may have pored over their Star Wars art books when they were kids. But for all its arguable failings, it has sent me back yet again to the films, hopefully with a fresh eye and new things to think about. Even The Darjeeling Limited.
The Wes Anderson Collection is in the shops now, and video essays based on the book’s chapters, along with some earlier video essays by Seitz on Anderson’s films, are viewable here.