Sady Doyle,  January 20, 2015

Wes Anderson’s Class Acts

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Wes Anderson, illustrated by JuTa
Wes Anderson, illustrated by JuTa

I don’t know a single person who’s really satisfied with this year’s Oscar nominations. The most exciting movies of the year are almost unilaterally shut out. The slate of nominated directors is, with the exception of Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu, depressingly white and male.[*] Perhaps worst of all, the favorite to win—The Grand Budapest Hotel, by Wes Anderson—seems to represent the final entombment of a once-great director’s style.

There’s not much honor in winning a Best Picture Oscar. The Academy has predictably tame tastes: Forrest Gump won over Pulp Fiction, The English Patient over Fargo, and Crash over Brokeback Mountain. So if Anderson wins this round, it will be, among other things, proof that Wes Anderson is no longer cool. But it’s not just his cool that he’s lost.

Anderson’s movies are built on a core of seething class anxiety. He has a fascination with inherited wealth that is so intense that it approaches worship, and which (like all obsessive loves) can tilt over into cruelly sarcastic hatred. Coupled with this is his keen fear of not being able to impress the upper class. His finicky directing style seems to spring from self-consciousness: he always gives the impression of a man who wants to be not good, not good enough, but perfect, like a too-stiff guest at a dinner party who’s terrified of offending the host.

This quality has both fueled Anderson’s best movies and killed his bad ones. Think of Rushmore, whose hero Max Fischer was basically Anderson’s class neurosis distilled into human form. There’s real sadness in Max’s willingness to deny the existence of his working-class barber father so as to fit in with his wealthy classmates, and there’s a tenderness in the scene where Max makes dual amends by giving one of his friends the gift of a haircut and a shave from his Dad. Hell, the movie opens with Bill Murray instructing working-class scholarship kids to “take dead aim on the rich boys. Get them in the cross-hairs and take them down.”

Rushmore made Anderson a very rich boy indeed, and he soon stopped calling for their heads. But even in The Royal Tenenbaums—where Anderson (along with co-writer Owen Wilson) was already beginning to write from the perspective of the wealthy—he seemed self-aware. When an eight-year-old boy asks his mother for several hundred dollars, and she simply hands it over, Anderson sells it as a joke.

That’s a joke Grand Budapest never tells. The famous Wes Anderson style—twee, pastel, fastidious, expensive—which was once mere icing on the cake is now laid on so thick that you can’t taste any actual movie beneath it. Believe it or not, Grand Budapest is a Holocaust movie. But it’s so concerned with displaying all the pretty, expensive things in the titular hotel that, when two main characters die, the loss Wes Anderson seems to register most profoundly is the fact that the post-war hotel now has an uglier carpet.

Film is a visual medium, and there’s nothing wrong with a director being an aesthete. But this year saw plenty of people—particularly marginalized people—using great visual style to tell equally great stories. Leaving aside the overwhelming relevance of Ava DuVernay’s Selma in the year of Ferguson, there’s the beautifully art-directed (and also woman-directed) The Babadook, shunted into the disreputable “horror” genre and overlooked by the Academy, just as Kubrick’s The Shining and Hitchcock’s Psycho were in their day; it uses monsters to utter taboo truths about mental illness and maternal rage.

In fact, we got a lot of feminist monsters this year, from sociopathic Amy in Gone Girl (scripted by a woman as an expression of rage against traditional wifely duties) to the nameless alien in Under the Skin, played by Scarlett Johansson, who uses disembowelment and baby-drowning to make the viewer more than a little uncomfortable with objectification. Gone Girl is polarizing, but it’s at least interesting enough to evoke passionate reactions. Under the Skin is the most original and disconcertingly beautiful film you’ll see all year, but that doesn’t stop it from making its point. Even Birdman, though overly earnest and sometimes clumsy, manages to balance virtuoso cinematography with a genuine argument about art and why one should make it.

The Academy isn’t really interested in awarding filmmakers, though. They’re interested in conveying the relevance of the Academy Awards, whether that’s throwing a token nomination (or, once in a dog’s age, an actual victory) to a film about social justice, or finally recognizing great directors years after their best work is behind them (poor Martin Scorsese). The Grand Budapest Hotel is not a great movie, but it’s a safe one—and an appealing one to the wealthy folks calling the shots.

This might be the final nail in Wes Anderson’s coffin. But, my God. The inside of that coffin must look fantastic.

[*][Correction: This post previously misstated the first name of the director of Birdman; it is Alejandro, not Jose.]

Sady Doyle founded the blog Tiger Beatdown. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Salon, and In These Times, among others. She writes about women on the Internet. A lot.

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