The Distillation of Wes Anderson’s Creative Project
At the end of September, I watched the four new Wes Anderson short films that Netflix released and here’s my hot take: both individually and collectively, these four films might be the best thing Anderson has made.
I’ve been a fan of Anderson’s since first seeing The Royal Tennenbaums fifteen years ago and, aside from his new feature Asteroid City, am an Anderson completist. I’ve seen most of his films multiple times, some probably dozens. His films, to me, have felt always felt Kubrickian, in that they are movies that have been fully designed. (When I teach auteurism, he’s the example my students understand.) This, of course, is the knock again Anderson too: his movies are too stylized, too controlled, to flat, with little substance. At his greatest excesses, it can be too much. I get that too and at times I sympathize. That’s why I think these short films work so well. In doing what he does best under tight constraints and a smaller scale, his project becomes clearer, his goals more obvious.
Anderson is one of the two most original inventors of cinematic forms since the heyday of the late Jean-Luc Godard. The other is the late Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. Where Kiarostami undermined the artifices of fiction with documentary elements, Anderson overmines fiction by overloading it with intricate artifices that nonetheless have a quasi-documentary aspect—in that they reveal the contrivances on which filmed fictions depend. Anderson’s Dahl shorts go further than ever in foregrounding his conceptual work, but the results are more than just theoretical; they embody a vision of human relations, of society at large, that is properly understood to be political.
This should be no surprise, given the centrality of Dahl in Anderson’s artistic development. The director’s 2009 adaptation of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is the hinge in his career, the point at which he perceived and heightened the political implications of the stories he was telling, albeit in a way of his own. He expanded Dahl’s brief story of cruelty (the murderous mania of its trio of farmers, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean) to emphasize the Foxes’ family life—not just their emotional conflicts but also the stylish nobility of their resistance. In effect, what nearly everyone loved about Anderson’s 2014 live-action feature, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”—expressly a story of a resistance and one in which high style emerges as a crucial tool in resisting Nazi oppressors—was already there in “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” Anderson’s first great political film. At the same time, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” also brought an aesthetic renewal: in discovering the joy of total control that stop-motion animation afforded, he learned lessons about how wild emotions could be combined with even more precisely calibrated performances, even more copiously ornamental designs, and even more aphoristically literary scripts. Since then, Anderson—with an even keener awareness of directorial power—has endowed his live-action features with ever more reflexive narrative framing devices, which make the telling of stories the subject of his stories.
The knock against Anderson is that his movies are too artifical. But, to me, this was always the point. The title cards, the staged interventions, and the in-character narration is all a reminder that you are watching a movie. In highlighting the artifice, Anderson is, paradoxically, making something more authentic. In the introduction to The Wes Anderson Collection, Michael Cahabon compares Anderson’s films to Joseph Cornell’s assembled boxes, writing:
The things in Anderson’s films that recall Cornell’s boxes—the strict, steady, four-square construction of individual shots, by which the cinematic frame becomes a Cornellian gesture, a box drawn around the world of the film; the teeming, gridded, curio-cabinet sets at the heart of The Life Aquatic, Darjeeling, and Mr. Fox—are often cited as evidence of his work’s “artificiality”, at times with the implication, simple-minded and profoundly mistaken, that a high degree of artifice is somehow inimical to seriousness, to honest emotion, to so-called authenticity. All movies, of course, are equally artificial; it’s just that some are more honest about it than others. In this important sense, the hand-built, model-kit artifice on display behind the pane of an Anderson box is a guarantor of authenticity.
The four films in this new collection are based on a series of Roald Dahl short stories. Dahl, of course, is a central figure in Anderson’s development as a storyteller (made even clearer in this collection); he previously adapted Fantastic Mr. Fox as a stop motion film in 2009. The first in this new collection, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, is the longest and most complex of the bunch, clocking in at just under forty minutes. This is followed by three more short films, all under twenty minutes: The Swan, The Rat Catcher, and Poison. Each film uses the same small cast and similarly styled sets. The stories are narrated by a character in each film, using the exact prose from Dahl’s original stories (Ralph Fiennes, in every film, plays Dahl, occasionally taking us out of the story to hear the story being written.)
Because of the shorter run-times, the small overlapping cast, and straight-forward narration, Anderson is able to lean into his artifice tendencies, pushing them further without sacrificing story. The characters narrate their own actions, we see the edges of the set, stagehands enter the frame to hand props to the actors. In an especially fascinating scene, Ralph Fiennes, playing the titular rat catcher acts as if he’s holding a rat that isn’t there. I loved a scene in Henry Sugar where Benedict Cumberbatch is driving along a country road, except we can see the edge of the screen the country road footage is being projected on behind him. Brody writes we can think of them less as short films as dramatized audiobooks: “The four stories are, essentially, dramatized audiobooks, something like music videos for literature,” Brody writes. “The characters deliver their narration into the camera, addressing viewers head on, and then, with deft timing and theatrical precision, turn their heads (or even just shift their eyes) to address one another.”
In his review of Anderson’s 2014 film The Grand Budapest Hotel, Brody wrote:
This isn’t Anderson’s most personal film, in the strict sense, but it is, alongside “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” his most reflexive one—even more so because the new film exposes the inner workings not just of his practice of filmmaking but of his sensibility.
These four short films, I think go even further. They are, in this sense, the culmination of his artistic project, distilled and clarified in a way we haven’t seen him produce before. I’m curious to see how these experiments manifest themselves in his future work1.