‘Moonrise Kingdom’: the Anderson formula

Jun 18th, 2012

When you ask people in the industry what makes a good film, one of the most common answers is ‘a good story’. This is what is missing in most of Wes Anderson’s films. I remember watching other audience members walk out of “The Life Aquatic” early on, just as I was getting my teeth into its delightfully retro, childishly colourful world. It was then that I realized that Wes Anderson’s endearing style is not for everyone, something Peter Bradshaw conceded in his generally positive review. But perhaps it’s more exact to say that for some people, Anderson’s distinctive style is just not enough. After “The Darjeeling Limited” and “Moonrise Kingdom,” I too have started to feel annoyed by the way that Anderson’s films replicate the same type of world over and over, always with a narrative that feels flat. Some films make a point of being uneventful, but Wes Anderson’s films don’t pretend to be above narrative: rather, they give an impression of a narrative that is simply underdeveloped.

Other directors have successfully cultivated an aesthetic that is popular but not to everyone’s taste. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Amélie” managed to charm almost everyone, but the director’s earlier cult films are too baroque for some tastes. Some may find the work master animator Jan Svankmajer to be disturbingly grotesque. I don’t mention these directors as proof that you can’t please everyone: this is always the case. The reason Jeunet and Svankmajer come to mind is that their work is just as distinctive as Wes Anderson’s—a shot from any of their films is enough to tell you whose work you are watching. Jeunet and Svankmajer differ from Anderson in important ways, though: for a start, their work is far darker and less reassuring. More importantly, in spite of their unmistakeable signature style, Jeunet and Svankmajer have successfully avoided making the same films over and over, and this is because their films rely on more than just style.

Of course, I don’t mean literally that Anderson’s movies are all the same: it’s just that I no longer watch them for the story, but to immerse myself in their aesthetic, like poring over the pages of a beautiful storybook. Yet, even that aesthetic ultimately annoys me, as it has become so predictable as to be formulaic. To prove the point, here is my free set of instructions for anyone who would like to make the next Wes Anderson film.

Start with a cast that includes Bill Murray and the Wilson brothers, a svelte female actress with a lot of eyeliner, and a token ethnic minority (fully American in attitudes, if not in accent). Older men should sport moustaches; ironic facial hair is permitted for younger men. Develop a set of offbeat and eccentric characters who care little what others think of them, and whose default mode is deadpan. They will be so earnest and take themselves so seriously, that when they say something funny they will appear unaware of it. Whether the film is set in the present or in the second half of the twentieth century, decors, props and costumes should evoke a setting no earlier than the 1950s and no later than the 1980s. A restricted palette should be used, favouring primary colours: bright, like children’s toys, for 1960s-80s settings, or for the 1950s, softer like watercolour illustrations. The soundtrack should showcase at least one French 1960s pop song; otherwise, gentle string instrumentals are the rule (harp, harpsichord and acoustic guitar). As to the visual style, think right angles: characters should be filmed head-on, centred in the frame, even if you film them from high above, or from directly below. Be sure to use on-screen text to identify important aspects of the characters’ lives. Above all, at least once, the characters should walk toward the camera in slow motion.

Get cracking soon: if past output is anything to go by, you have a maximum of 3 years to make Anderson’s next film before he does…

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