“I wonder if it remembers me”: Wes Anderson, auteur

Film authorship is a way that allows us to group films in meaningful categories and make certain conclusions about how those groups work, in terms of stylistic and narrative aspects. Although this does not apply to all films – for instance, experimental cinema – this approach pays particular attention to the director’s name and uses his name as an organising principle. The concept of film authorship can be addressed with a focus on its historical context, particularly its origin of the auteur theory. In addition, the idea of auteurism can be explored as a commercial, textual and critical category. To properly study this concept, I would be referencing works from Wes Anderson to determine the true nature of auteurism.

The association of a film with its filmmaker began with the release of American pioneer film director D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in 1915. However, it was not till 1954 where the theory of film authorship became recognised by French cinefiles. In the influential film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, François Truffaut coined the term ‘la politique des Auteurs’. Truffaut viewed cinema to be an art of personal expression, similar to ‘an art form like a painting or poetry to raise the cultural status of cinema, particularly American cinema by elevating its directors to the ranks of the artists’ (Buscombe 22). According to Truffaut, a film auteur is one who brings his own personal voice to the subject, adding his personality and life to the original material (Buscombe 23). This implies that a true auteur transcends past the collective film production process, and transforms the material to his personal creative vision.

Film auteurism is also of a multi-dimensional nature that can be further explored as a commercial, textual and critical category.

Auteurism as a commercial category can be viewed as an issue of industrial production, particularly in terms of commerce. Since the 1980s onwards, a new economic shift has taken place in cinema, particularly in the commercialisation of directors’ name such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Francis Coppola. Corrigan (105) argues that today’s commercial practice of the auteur has resulted into the modern conception of the ‘auteur-star’. This means that in contemporary society, the ‘auteur-star’ is acknowledged as a brand name and integrated into commercial infrastructure, for instance marking theatrical posters with the title ‘A Film by Wes Anderson’. Crofts (322) reinforces this point, that the ‘auteur-star’ has become a central mean for the Hollywood marketing approach – its publicity has been widely spread via cross-promotional advertisement methods and powerful global distribution.

Corrigan (107) suggests the interview as an example of the ‘contemporary auteur’s construction and promotion of a self’. Through interviews, the auteur can address his audience and critics, by appointing and diffusing his own organizing agency as an auteur (Corrigan 108). An interview in New York Magazine remarks on Anderson’s appeal to studio executives is not only in his films but in his ‘persona of the eccentric auteur’ (Amsden). Anderson cleverly crafts his public persona as a peculiar but relatable oddity. He also makes use of DVD technology advancements by adding abundant behind-the-scenes documentaries and commentaries to manufacture his ‘unusually open and equally self-aware authorial image’ (Orgeron 43).

In recent years, commerce has progressively absorbed the filmmaker’s action of articulation and expression (Corrigan 104). Today’s filmmakers have to struggle with their artistic expression and the commercial performance of the business of being an auteur. For many directors, shooting a commercial is simply a means to earn quick money, but for Anderson, he makes use of the experience to ‘allow him to further the storybook life he was delicately lampooning’ (Amsden). Ironically, Anderson makes use of the 2007 American Express ‘My Life, My Card’ campaign as a means to enhance his auteur status, rather than hinder it. In the commercial, Anderson addresses the camera on the set of a mock Wes Anderson film, surrounded by his stylistic trademarks – a cluttered mise-en-scène – and his usual collaborative support – Jason Schwartzman and Dipak Pallana make cameo appearances. Orgeron (63) suggests that in this advertisement, ‘directorial authority is mocked, perhaps, but a romantic notion of the author is maintained precisely because of this gently humorous questioning.’ This clip has given a glimpse into the Anderson lifestyle, where he simultaneously deprecates and exaggerates his artistic facade portrayed to the media and audience. Through this campaign, Anderson tackles the issue of individuality and artistic integrity of an auteur within the commercial realm.

Auteurism can be seen as a textual category where the key relation is between the text and the reader. Crofts (313) suggests reading ‘certain textual characteristics as signifiers of a particular signified, called the director’. By analysing Wes Andersons’s work in terms of his stylistic elements and narrative aspects, we can explore auteurism as a textual category.

Figure 1.1–1.2 (Left to Right) Anderson’s use of widescreen composition in stationary frames from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited

When considering Anderson’s contribution to cinema, his most significant quality is as a visual stylist. With his grand attention to detail, it allows his ‘personal voice’ to shine through. Anderson’s films all contain symmetrical widescreen compositions that embody multiple functions. These flat setups are constructed with the camera aligned perpendicularly to the background and a wide angle lens is used to distort screen space (Figure 1.1). The overwhelming attribute and rigidity of these shots serves as a huge contrast against the carefully arranged isolated characters (Figure 1.2). They depict the characters’ fragile state as opposed to the harsh stringency of reality. Furthermore, the central perspective and static setups give a theatrical feel to Anderson’s work and have become a distinguished trademark of his. The visually bold director’s affinity for dynamic shots demonstrates his confidence in camera technique and film history. His shots are logistically inspiring as they illustrate his great attention to mise-en-scène. They range from his usage of the top shot – the God’s eye view (Figure 1.3 and 1.4) – to his playful whip pans. Together with his use of long, graceful camera movements, these stylistic shots have become the visual heart of his movies. His ability to have his artistic voice shine through the collective film production process is a novel paradigm of Truffaut’s vision of a true auteur.

Figure 1.3–1.4 (Top to Bottom) God’s eye view in The Darjeeling Limited and The Royal Tenenbaums

As with many auteurs before him, like Truffaut and Godard, Anderson’s work contains clear autobiographical content. Rushmore (Wes Anderson, USA, 1998) was filmed at Anderson’s alma mater in Texas and his other films include many personal influences. For instance, Anderson’s extensive use of music in his films could be drawn from influence by Nichols or Hitchcock. This is most apparent in Rushmore with his inclusion of British Invasion rock tunes that reinforces Max’s teenage attitude and the delicate Portuguese David Bowie acoustic covers set the mood of a journey abroad in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson, ITA/FRA, 2004). He also has frequent collaborations with alternative rock musician Mark Mothersbaugh on original musical compositions. His bold use of sound elevates specific emotions and captures a particular atmosphere appropriate to a scene. He makes extensive use of soundtracks, and sometimes lets the music take full reign, allowing it to drive the film’s plot. Furthermore, the music in his films often turns out to be diegetic sounds. This can be seen in music by The Rolling Stones playing on Richie’s record player in The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, USA, 2001), Steve Zissou’s music comes from his underwater music player (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) and The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, IND/USA, 2007) often has Jack Whitman playing songs from his iPod speakers. This intentionally adds on to the layer of theatricality in his work, ‘an aesthetic dialecticism that does not exist outside of the frame per se’ (Hills 86).

The role of the characters in his films seems to take on the role of the author themselves. These include the thematic concerns that recur in Anderson’s work, unravelling tales of family dysfunction and the disappointing quality of adulthood through flawed but redeemable characters. They are apparent in Mr. Blume’s estranged marriage with his wife and his disobedient children in Rushmore, the dysfunctional Tenenbaums family, the inverted father-son relationship of Steve Zissou and Ned Plimpton in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and the Whitman brothers aboard The Darjeeling Limited. The deteriorating, disconnected family relations explore universal themes like failure, regret and grief. Orgeron (42) remarks that Anderson’s films ‘imagine the author as an almost inscrutable entity’. Anderson’s consistent and coherent cinematic voice is similar to auteurs who work within a rich but somewhat restricted theme, like Ford, Hitchcock and Lynch (Hill 87).

Textual auteurism involves an analysis of the textual characteristics of a director’s films and whether his authorial vision has been successfully implanted. The evidence of Anderson’s creative authority can be found in the expression of a personal, vision found consistently throughout his films. His aesthetic style, particularly in terms of mise-en-scène, and recurring narrative concerns shines through the collaborative process and are appropriately articulated in his cinematic features.

Lastly, auteurism can be perceived as a critical category. Critical auterism explores the matter of reception, dealing with audience expectations and knowledge, and recognition from film experts or institutions. Crofts (311) notes on the importance of auteurism to film critics and reviewers, stating that it maintains the ‘artistic respectability of cinema’. Anderson’s work is easily recognised by audience members. Be it in his aesthetic details of mise-en-scène or his repeated narrative elements, an Anderson film has achieved recognition from audience and critics alike.

Crofts (311) believes critical discourse on auteurism attributes ‘the status of creative artist to those working within the industrial system of Hollywood’ as well. This can be exemplified in the critical reception of Anderson’s work. Some film experts cite Anderson’s notorious attention to detail as a ‘quirk’ and that his stylistic elements are too exaggerated. Hirschorn claims that Anderson’s quirk ‘can quickly go from an effective narrative tool to an end in itself’ (Amsden). He criticizes his overt attention to style, claiming it overshadows the narrative elements of his film. Hirschron’s criticism though harsh, shows the respected notion of viewing Anderson’s work as a collective and recognises his distinguished style. Therefore, critical reception of Anderson’s films has been largely dealt in an auteurial approach. Corrigan (102) states of auterism as ‘a model that would dominate and stabilize critical reception for at least thirty years’. Its appeal can be due to the romantic notion that a single person is ultimately responsible for the artistic value of a film. In addition, it invites comparisons of the films directed by the same director making it an evaluative and easily accessible concept.

darjeeling

In conclusion, by combining auteurism as a commercial, textual and critical category, film auteurism can be regarded as a multi-dimensional form in approaching films. In the commercial realm, an auteur has to struggle with his artistic integrity and his brand name of the ‘auteur-star’. As a textual category, an auteur imbues certain significant textual characteristics in his work that transcends the collaborative process. Critical auteurism generally deals with reception and discourse based on the auteur theory. There is still a considerable European tradition of the auteur theory that film-makers develop distinguished styles that are unfettered by the studio system. However, it is still difficult to draw the line between the auteur’s singular creative vision and the collaborative process of film production. Perhaps an example from Anderson can be used to clarify this doubt. In an interview, Anderson helps his frequent writing partner and friend, Roman Coppola in doing a crossword puzzle (Amsden):

‘He gives the sense that everyone is participating, working together, and yet—as he fills in one answer after another—it becomes clear that the end result would be the same if Anderson were sitting there alone.“I think we’re just being entertained,” jokes Coppola. “Oh, no—I couldn’t do this without you guys,” says Anderson, a statement that comes across as both true and false. It is perhaps not unlike his collaborative process.’

This excerpt holds true for the combined effort in film production. An auteur’s collaborators could act more as conductors for his imagination rather than instigators. This way, his authorial vision can truly shine through. Nevertheless, this is probably only present for one scenario and auteurism still holds a complexity, regarding the indistinguishability between the director’s creative imprint and his collaborative partners. Its debatable nature makes it open to dissimilar interpretations and differing concepts, including studio authorship and the structuralist model. Auteurism as a film theory is frequently challenged and transformed, proving its multiplicity as a predominant discourse with respect to films.

Bibliography

Amsden, David. “The Life Obsessive with Wes Anderson.” New York Magazine. 24 Sep 2007. Web. 12 May 2011.

Buscombe, Edward. “Ideas of Authorship.” Theories of Authorship. Routledge/Kegan Paul: British Film Institute, 1981. 22-34. Print.

Corrigan, Timothy. “The Commerce of Auteurism.” A Cinema Without Walls: Movie and Culture After Vietnam. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1991. 101–36. Print.

Crofts, Stephen. “Authorship and Hollywood.” The Oxford Guide to Film Studies. Ed. John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. 310–26. Print.

Hill, Derek. Charlie Kaufman and Hollywood’s Merry Band of Pranksters, Fabulists and Dreamers: An Excursion into the American New Wave. UK: Kamera Books, 2008. 81-90. Print.

Orgeron, Devin. “La Camera-Crayola: Authorship Comes of Age in the Cinema of Wes Anderson”. Cinema Journal 46.2 (2007): 40-65. Print.

Staples, Donald E. “The Auteur Theory Reexamined.” Cinema Journal 6.1 (1966-67): 1-7. Print.

Tobias, Scott. “Interview: Wes Anderson.” The Onion. 10 Oct 2007. Web. 12 May 2011.

Note: This is an edited version of an essay I wrote for my Film Studies class. Do not plagiarise, thank you.  

My previous critical essay was on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks

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