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The Mark of a Director: Wes Anderson’s Idiosyncratic Style in The Grand Budapest Hotel

Whether Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” or Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the author’s name remains intertwined with his work, in the title and in our minds. With movies, the discussion becomes slightly more complicated.

When we discuss Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare, instantly and almost exclusively, comes to mind. When we mention The Godfather (1972), perhaps Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, and the rest of the incredible cast come to mind. Behind the scenes, maybe we think about Mario Puzo, the author of the book which forms the basis of the movie and co-author of the screenplay. But when discussing a movie’s full authorship and identity, we call it Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, crediting the director of the movie.

The director’s job and his involvement in the final artistic creation remains an issue of heated debate among film critics. The director’s job seems superfluous, while concurrently the most important role. Many different elements comprise each scene of a movie: the acting, the script, the cinematography, the score, the transitions between scenes, the sets, the costumes and more. Each of these elements fall under different job descriptions, none of which remain solely in the purview of the director. The director must combine all of these elements and instruct the cast members performing these jobs how to execute their roles. Therefore, measuring a director’s involvement, and his importance, becomes extremely difficult, because every scene of the movie belongs fully to the director, while simultaneously belonging solely to the cast members they instruct. How can we measure how much of the acting or cinematography we should credit the director and how much to the individually talented actors and cinematographers? If we only see the final product, how can we determine the role of the director in the intermediary stages?

Francois Truffaut, with his seminal article “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema,” published in 1954, argued that the film industry must increase the influence of the director, and that critics should understand that movies represent the director’s vision. This evolved into “Auteur Theory” which grants sole authorship of the artistic creation to the director. Auteur theorists argue that talented directors, with artistic abilities and ideas, (whom they call “auteurs,” or authors in French) strongly influence the direction of the movie, and although they work with gifted cast members, these cast members’ creations result from the director’s ideas and guidance. Therefore these creations, and the movie overall, belong to the director alone. It follows that critics should analyze films by their composite wholes and how much they contribute to themes and messages the director tries to convey. These themes result from the intentions and distinct style of the director.

Since the article’s publication, this theory has generated many heated debates, with detractors of the theory arguing that the screenwriters, actors, and others play large roles in the artistic process and contribute significantly toward the overall product. They believe the humanity present within the characters belongs more than partially to the actors who embody those people. Despite these critiques, “Auteur Theory” catapulted film into the realm of art and began a new age of film criticism. Film had long been denied the identity of “art,” due in part, to its collaborative process and business-model approach. “Auteur Theory” argued for the transfer of film from business producers and screenwriters to the artistic directors. “Auteur Theory’s” largest contribution involved transforming film into a personal art, much like novels or painting, cementing film in the genre of art.

Auteur Theory remains a topic of controversy, but certain directors consistently create films with their own unique and distinctly recognizable style, including Quentin Tarrantino and Wes Anderson. Their films contain certain aspects and quirks which easily identify their directors (these examples also slightly disprove auteur theory; Tarantino and Anderson often write the screenplays to their films, which helps foster this impressionable influence of their style upon the films).

Tarantino’s style derives not from his creation of a unique element of film, but rather his artful combination of two previously heavily separated styles. Tarantino’s films acquired a reputation for their intense gore and violence, which result from their imaginative plots. Inglorious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012) represent historical fiction movies, where Tarantino retroactively takes revenge on Nazis and slave-owners, creating stories where he grants the oppressed freedom and they take gruesome revenge on their oppressors. The idea of re-imagining history and the glorification of violence belong to the genre of “B-Movies,” usually reserved for movies with little artistic contributions. Tarantino’s genius lies in his combination of these immensely entertaining plot devices with meaningful dialogue, and truly artful cinematography. Tarantino uses a field of film previously devoid of any meaningful artistic contributions, and creates true works of art.

His most well-known work, Pulp Fiction (1994) relates this fact in its title. Pulp Fiction refers to the immensely popular “pulp-magazines” (named after the cheap material used to produce the paper) of the 1930’s and 40’s. These magazines, published pieces of fantastic fiction, written by underpaid writers with no attention paid to their artistic meanings or contributions. Tarantino’s film used these elements of ironic violence, but combined them with a non-linear yet thematically coherent film founded on intensely clever dialogue, which simultaneously entertains, establishes the personalities of interesting characters, and lays the groundwork for later scenes. Tarantino’s style aims and succeeds, to prove that movies can entertain, even using uncultured techniques, and still be intellectually stimulating and meaningful.

While Tarantino’s contribution lies in his combination of two rather familiar types of movies, Wes Anderson created a truly unique style, which pervades almost every scene of his movies. In short, Anderson’s films convey his extreme quirkiness, but this description masks the great artistry, enjoyment and meaning of his movies. Most directors create worlds which closely resemble our own (excluding the genres of sci-fi and fantasy) and fill those worlds with characters who move and talk like we do. Anderson creates his own world, filled with a very similar, but distinctly different species. Anderson knows that films represent an imaginary world, and he meticulously constructs a noticeably different world and enjoys reminding the viewer of the film’s fictional aspects.

Most Anderson films don’t simply break the fourth-wall; he and the viewer revel in the glee of smashing this wall, often repeatedly. The Royal Tenenbaums (2002) opens on a book with the same name. Alec Baldwin narrates the prologue of the movie in third person, and we can see the first lines of his narrative written on the pages of this book. The movie moves from chapter to chapter of the book, each time showing us the corresponding line from the alleged novelization of the film, constantly reminding us of the film’s fictional identity. Moonrise Kingdom (2012) features a narrator, who surprisingly appears on screen, and talks towards the camera. Anderson toys with the concept of the omnipresent narrator further, when this narrator begins talking to the characters in the film, and indeed furthers the plot. Anderson unsettlingly and hilariously questions the viewers’ concepts of the operations of narrative fiction.

Anderson’s newest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) bears the familiar Anderson quirks, many displayed in their extreme and most hilarious forms. The film opens on a woman walking through a cemetery, and overhead the score plays a soothing medley, seemingly composed of a choir of yodeling men. The camera follows the woman through the cemetery, and sitting on a bench, the yodeling choir alarms and amuses the viewer. The fourth-wall hilarities continue, and indeed the story begins with an Inception-like layer of intricacy. This cemetery scene leads us to an author speaking to a camera, amusingly interrupted by his water-gun spraying grandson. The films travels back in time, where the young version of this author stays in the run-down Grand Budapest Hotel. Here he meets the owner, Mr. Mustafa, who brings us even farther back, to our true storyline: the story of M. Gustave (a comically perfect Ralph Fiennes), the former concierge of the Grand Budapest during its glory days, and his protégé, the teenage lobby boy, Zero Mustafa (portrayed with amusing awkwardness by Tony Revolori).

M. Gustave follows a long line of absurdly idiosyncratic main characters in Anderson films. The Royal Tenenbaums features a family of genius children, each completely defined by a single career or personal obsession, which affects their clothing and actions. The love interests of Moonrise Kingdom talk and act rather amusingly straightforward with each other and those around them. Anderson uses these idiosyncrasies, the inherent weirdness and differentness of his characters, for great comedic effect.

Anderson elicits laughter through these quirks. Anderson belongs to a school of comedy along the lines of 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Arrested Development and Brooklyn Nine-Nine among many others. These shows painstakingly create different and strange characters. A great deal of their humor comes from these absurd characters’ reactions to the scenarios they encounter. Ron Swanson, Kenneth Parcells and Lindsay Bluth don’t often make quick or witty comments. But they each react strangely and uniquely to their surroundings. We laugh not at the characters’ cleverness, but at their humanity, at their simple reactions to the world around them. These shows ask the viewer to admire and laugh at the difference and beauty of each person, in their personality, attitudes, and behavior.

Anderson enjoys using this humor, and in his movies it operates on two levels. Within the characters he created, he emphasizes--many say to a fault--their idiosyncrasies. M. Gustave, the concierge, embodies a large array of personality ticks. He enjoys reciting poetry to his lobby boy, often at the most mis-oppurtune times, and circumstances interrupt every single one of these poetry recitals. His obsession with a specific cologne follows him throughout the movie, evoking many comedic scenarios including at the end of a jail-break scene.

This scene represents a paradigmatic example of Anderson’s second level of idiosyncratic humor: the idiosyncrasies in his direction, in the feel of the movie, evoked through the score, the cinematography, the plot, and indeed echoing throughout every aspect of the movie. The scene feels like a youtube video entitled “If Wes Anderson Directed The Shawshank Redemption.” Instead of focusing on the emotions and struggles of the prisoners, the viewer laughs throughout the scene. Much of this humor comes from the Anderson-esque feel of the entire scene, which the viewer perceives far sharper, when reminded so strongly of Shawshank. The characters in this section, and indeed throughout the movie, often seem to move slightly differently. Using camera angles and the way the actors move, they appear to run supernaturally fast, yet extremely awkwardly. They escape not from a simple jail, but an absurdly high security jail, unnecessarily placed atop a steep mountain. Anderson fills the scene, and indeed the movie, with many similarly humorous yet utterly Anderson moments.

While Tarantino takes non-serious plot techniques and creates serious movies from them, Anderson performs the opposite. He takes serious and artistically oriented films and uses them to examine the modest side of our lives, our small yet distinctive actions, instead of our great beliefs and aspirations. This style of directing highlights the importance of the simpler side of our humanity, our actions unmotivated by any deep-seeded beliefs, yet the actions which to a great extent define our personality.

But Anderson’s movies also carry a second message. Anderson’s films often focus on the concept of escape: Moonrise Kingdom features two children who escape from their families to an island, Fantastic Mr. Fox features foxes who escape, and Grand Budapest Hotel features a jail-break. But these escapes carry a deeper message. Towards the end of Grand Budapest, Zero remarks that Gustave’s world never existed. He always lived in a fictional world, living in a perpetual state of escape. Anderson enjoys making films about these escapes, and which in their simplest sense, allow their viewer to escape. Anderson wishes simply to alert the viewer, to remind the viewer, that the film represents an escape, not the real world. Just like Gustave, we can live in worlds which never existed. Movies allow us and Anderson to escape to these worlds. By highlighting their fictional nature, Anderson increases the effect of this imaginary world, reminding us of its beauty and glory.