By Ben Quainton
The Tower (Princeton, NJ)
There’s a house with no walls, no windows, but only the scaffolding laid bare. The interior of the house is plainly seen: the rooms, the furniture, and the people within the house are unsheltered, open for an onlooker to see.
This is not a house — this is a Wes Anderson movie.
Wes Anderson, behind movies like Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Fantastic Mr. Fox, has just released Isle of Dogs — a bizarre, self-referential story set 20 years in the future about dogs being deported to a grim, trash-filled island after overpopulating a dystopian Japan, all told through a fastidious stop-motion animation style. Hold on…what? Is that a real plot synopsis?
Yes, it is; and it’s authentically Wes Anderson.
PART 1: “The Counter Natural Storyteller”
Typically, we think of great movies as having an immersive quality to them, transporting us so fully that we forget we’re even watching a movie, drawing us into an experience so visually powerful that the world of the movie, even if for just a moment or two, transcends its place on a screen and becomes our world.
But then, there’s Wes Anderson: a director who deliberately and counterintuitively brings attention to the fact that he’s making a movie and telling a story. In an Anderson film, there’s no effort to blur the line between fiction and reality. Anderson says: this is a story, here are the characters and this is what’s going to happen — we have narrators directly addressing the audience, and characters self-aware that they’re characters within the story constructed.
And Anderson’s characters are peculiar, to say the least: they’re distorted caricatures of real people, emotionally alien at times. The effect of this should be distancing to the viewer: how should I connect with these characters and root for them if they’re two-dimensional and flat? Moreover, his films have plotlines that, on paper, are so fantastical and absurd you would think nobody would buy into them. I mean, come on, an autocratic, futuristic Japanese government deporting English-speaking dogs in Isle of Dogs?
So, based on the criteria that a movie succeeds the more transportative and immersive it is, Anderson’s films, with their unbelievable plotlines, far-fetched characters, and self-aware plotlines, should be flops…right? Well, they’re not flops. In fact, they’re wildly successful and critically acclaimed, and Wes Anderson is probably one of the best and most recognizable directors alive today.
PART 2: “What It All Means”
It is clear that in Isle of Dogs, and with each new movie, Anderson is pushing his creative limits. He asks the question: Is it possible to evoke genuine emotion through a story and style so totally unbelievable and wacky? And I think you’ll find that the answer is yes; it’s not only possible, but it works incredibly well.
With all of Anderson’s films, he does something counterintuitive to what we think movies, and art for that matter, should be. Instead of depicting the world as it is realistically, Anderson does it in this distorted, somewhat artificial manner that leaves everything feeling caricatured and hyperbolic. But, the form remains. A Picasso painting is off putting at first glance; the faces and bodies appeared mangled and horrific — take the Guernica or Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. However, beneath that initial shock is the form of a human being, dehumanized, but all the more human and relatable in that dehumanization. By seeing our flaws, strengths, emotions, and perceptions exaggerated, contorted, and distorted, but still perceivable as human, the emotional response is more powerful than it would have been otherwise. Where Picasso uses a canvas, Anderson uses a camera.
One Anderson scene in particular comes to mind that illustrates that point. In Moonrise Kingdom, arguably one of Anderson’s best films (and my personal favorite), Suzie and Sam, run away from home to be alone and in love together; they are chased across the fictional island of New Penzance by Suzie’s parents, a scoutmaster, an island police chief, and a group of khaki scouts armed with pitchforks, bludgeons, crossbows, and guns — yes, it’s as insane as it sounds. But, what Anderson is really trying to get at is the fragility and the intense emotion associated with young, adolescent love. When you’re young and you feel like the world is trying to stop you from being in love, khaki scouts aren’t literally hunting you down, but it sure as hell feels like it.
That scene encapsulates the beauty of Wes Anderson — it’s a mix of magic realism, humorous absurdity, and an imaginative creativity you can’t help but smile at. Anderson knows he’s doing something crazy in his plot; in fact, he’s putting the spotlight on it — exposing his constructed artifice and reveling in it. Instead of being alienated by the fiction-reality dissonance Anderson creates, you’re drawn in to the story, allured by how masterfully he’s created this storybook for you to dive into.
And then, there’s something else: when you’re done with an Anderson film, and he closes the last page of the storybook, you realize you’re back to reality, only that feeling and place Anderson took you too lingers on. It’s as if Anderson is letting you out into the world for the first time, with whatever he showed or taught you in his films to guide you for the future.
And, at the expense of sounding dramatic, I hope that what I’ve written today has made you appreciate Anderson a little more, whether you’d been a fan, a critic, or you’d never heard of him before.
Until next time, that’s all I’ve got to say.
Photo Credit: John Liang