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Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Entries in Wes Anderson (6)


In Which We Visit The Grand Budapest Schmotel

Delicious Frosting


The Grand Budapest Hotel
dir. Wes Anderson
100 minutes

Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) is an apprentice baker at Mendl's, a famous patisserie in the greater Zubrowka area. She is ostensibly content; she has a boyfriend and a caring mentor at her workplace. She sleeps in an attic room that occasionally becomes cold during the winter, but that is when the warmth from a wood stove fills the room with a comforting heat. Still, something troubles her placid existence: she is the only female character of any note in Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel.

There is something profoundly satisfying about Wes' movies, since you know no one will ever change or be altered by the events around them in the slightest, except possibly a small note of recrimination or exuberance at the completion of their tale of woe. This rejection of the traditional satisfaction of narrative turns The Grand Budapest Hotel into a sort of vapid picaresque, something like eating the frosting off the top of a cake.

The masterstroke here is casting Ralph Fiennes in the role of a bisexual concierge who seduces rich old ladies. At first we are disgusted by this frothy caricature, but we soften to him like we do to so many other Wes Anderson protagonists, who succeed merely on the enthusiasm of their love of their world: its elevators, booby traps, perfumes, handsoaps and keys.

Fiennes has a protege of his own, the precociously-named lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori). The two travel to the home of a Dowager Countess (Tilda Swinton) who Fiennes has masterly seduced in the confines of his hotel. She is a disgusting creature, basically a less ambitious Cruella de Ville, and in the wake of her death Fiennes hopes for a bequest from her estate.

The concierge discovers she has been murdered by her family, and the rest of The Grand Budapest Hotel concerns itself with what will now happen to her ample holdings. In a particularly disturbing scene, Willem Dafoe pursues and executes the family's Jewish lawyer in an allegorical fable of anti-Semitism. Attorney Deputy Kovacs is the most virtuous character in all of Wes' movies, for he is the only one who gives a shit about his duty.

The hotel itself is rather deprived of joy before and after the war, and the other major set, a prison camp, is also a design disappointment. It would be weird to repeat the detailing of the Life Aquatic's submarine on a concentration camp, but it is hard to believe there wasn't a better prison movie here. What the director is really in love with is how style should overwhelm anything, and nothing will survive when pitted against it. He proves this so often we must agree it is mostly true.

Abandonment of people and places is foremost on Wes' mind here. "I can't go back to prison," the subtly ethnic Fiennes whines about his tenure in a Harvey Keitel-infested jail, but he could equally be talking about the hotel itself.

Rather than a celebration of anything, the hotel is a cauldron of bad memories and unexpected feelings, just like every long lived-in place. When we move on from painful environs, The Grand Budapest Hotel points out over and over again, they are never the same upon our return to them. This is an ancient, romantic theme; but then most of Anderson's recent movies feature an intense aversion to anything contemporary. It is only his best work which tell us something about the world we live in, rather than the one they lived in.

In his debut as young Zero, Tony Revolori's laconic expression makes the most of his unforgiving role as Fiennes' refugee lackey. He is never given very much to do in the part; he only really changes his clothes once or twice in the entire movie. The full depth of his affair with Agatha is avoided at all costs: we are never permitted to watch anyone show real love to each other in The Grand Budapest Hotel, as if that would violate the sanctity of the place. Ronan offers even less in her slim role. We are mostly told, in grating, purposeless voiceover, about what a remarkable and brave person she is.

Despite this coldness, there is some kind of underlying sympathy in The Grand Budapest Hotel, although it takes great pains to really locate it among dark jokes about dead cats and Jews. You actually have to admire the director for not pulling the heartstrings more, since both of the protagonists of the film are poverty-stricken orphans. But had we been informed of that at length, we would have instantly forgiven them anything. Forgiveness and pity is never what such people want, and they are loathe to accept any.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

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In Which We Meet In The Meadow

The Kids Table


Moonrise Kingdom
dir. Wes Anderson
94 minutes

From above, it’s easy to imagine Wes Anderson’s production of Moonrise Kingdom resembling a fine scale model railroad: coastal New England homes landscaped with ferns and red cedars, with nearby inlets and a pebble beach, and flanked of course by a series of rails for tracking shots. As per Anderson’s request, trailers were not allowed on set and actors were expected to show up camera-ready. The effect? Dioramic. The opening sequence? A dolly shot through a dollhouse. And the director? In a manner, Gulliver-sized. Picture Anderson poking one eye through a window as his finger pokes through another, readjusting the needle on a miniature record player or using tweezers to fill a runaway girl’s picnic basket with books. His airtight world shaped by the romance of expressing first-time feelings with a hobbyist’s delicate, near-crazed hand.

Set in 1965, Moonrise Kingdom is the boy meets girl, girl meets boy, both meet world, story of Sam and Suzy, played by newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward. Together they hatch a plan to flee their respective families and summer camp, and be together. Suzy leaves behind her brothers and her parents, Walt and Laura Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) while Sam escapes his Khaki scout troop led by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton).

Upon discovering both of their disappearances, a search team is organized — a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Search Team or something from an Hergé comic. Sam’s foster parents are quick to tell local sheriff, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), that they no longer want Sam back. An epic storm begins to brew and Social Services shows up, played by caped-crusader Tilda Swinton. Jason Schwartzman and Harvey Keitel (written perhaps with Seymour Cassel in mind?) make appearances. Bob Balaban narrates. Meanwhile, Sam and Suzy play house, in a tent. Like Pierrot and Marianne without the primary colors. Like Kit and Holly without the killing.

Suzy is the sum of her parts — which at twelve consists of prized possessions, her imagination, growing suspicions about her parents and parenting, and a preoccupation with love. Her nose, slightly turned, gives the impression that if she tried, like Samantha in Bewitched, could twitch and perform a spell.

In the company of boys — her three little brothers or the Khaki scouts — Suzy becomes Wendy. Her inexperience more elegant and less brooding than theirs. We learn that she has an aunt who brought her back a Françoise Hardy record from Paris. Suzy hugs it because it is foreign, feminine, and free; her expression of early onset desire. She will move on to Anna Karina and eventually, Anaïs Nin.

Hayward, who has been a member of Mensa since she was nine, will likely be courted by Miu Miu and invited to audition for Mad Men. Coincidently, time wise, Moonrise occurs almost in tandem with Mad Men’s current season: Suzy Bishop, Sally Draper’s freewheeling, blue eye-shadowed foil. Go-go boots vs. Saddle shoes. Running away to her father vs. Running away from her father (among others). In this way, Hayward could play Sally’s first real best friend. They could pass notes to each other in their shared copy of The Bell Jar. Or ditch class and wander to Tompkins Square Park where someone will offer them mescaline.

In one of Moonrise’s scenes, after setting up camp, Sam proposes they list an inventory of everything the two have brought; standard scout practice. As Suzy catalogs her books, three cans of cat food for her cat, her binoculars, no brush (she’ll use her fingers to comb through knots, no big), I was reminded of Joan Didion’s essay, “On Keeping a Notebook.”

She writes: “Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentment of loss.” Sam, an orphan runaway whose foster parents have disinvited him back home, is exactly that. And while his impulse to account for their belongings is due in part to his scouts training, it also seems deeply necessary to Sam. A brief moment in which he can list what is his, and hers, and theirs to share.

Time and again our childhood presents itself as a tribute to past events rather than a remembrance of them. We bestow it with our present day’s understanding of how things work. I do not recall once using the word ‘adventure’ as a kid, but I certainly went on a few. Imagination, fictional heroes, a sense of enterprise, and an older brother reluctant to play — indispensable.

But to try and congeal our childhood, to make it exact, is much like staring at one’s reflection for too long. The familiar grows unfamiliar. It is best, I imagine, to keep the blur. As a kid, the Pulitzer seemed far more praiseful when I thought it was the “Pulitz Surprise!” As though a man in a suit knocked at Philip Roth’s door with balloons and a giant check. The alphabet too, enjoyably sped up and somehow richer when perceived as Elemeno-P! Still, I am forever envious of anyone who can identify his or her first memory with clarity.

Because we cannot re-learn newness or re-experience the seconds before our first kiss or first cruelty, we keep kernels. That’s what Moonrise does. While the conversation might be lost, we do remember where we were sitting when an adult, perhaps feeling especially vulnerable, spoke to us for the first time as if we were one too. Or how during that one summer, there was a bad lighting storm and a girl named Suzy who wore her mother’s perfume. Or the way our parents looked on especially hot days in various states of undress.

In Didion’s essay, she refers to her childhood note-keeping as a “predilection for the extreme,” spinning stories not from “accurate, factual record,” but from some intersection of what is familiar with what is unknown— perhaps the writer’s truest romance. I imagine Laura Bishop speaking to her family through a megaphone as Anderson’s exaggeration, his “predilection for the extreme,” of parents and their sometimes yielding, droopy effort. But also, of those widening gaps that exist between some parents — a love that knows no better than to wear itself out. Halfway through the film I imagined down and out dads, Walt Bishop and Royal Tenenbaum, at a nearby dive bar, while Frances, Bruce, Angelica, and Danny Glover, dine and gab at the Bishop house. Both parties, bittersweet.

In his 1962 manifesto, “White Elephant Art Vs. Termite Art,” Manny Farber reproves Truffaut’s  “reversal of growth” in his films, stating that the filmmaker’s passage, “back into childhood,” depicts youth in a false, insincere manner. It’s feasible that Farber on Anderson would sound much like Farber on Truffaut: “…the critic-devouring virtue of filling every pore of work with glinting, darting Style and creative Vivacity.” After all, Moonrise does shy from momentum. At its most violent — emotionally and physically — naïveté emerges unbreakable. At their most desperate, characters remain taut.

Similar to an aerial view of Anderson’s set resembling a model railroad (which incidentally reminds me of Farber’s painting, entitled “My Buddy”), Moonrise Kingdom adapts the real into curio-type make-believe. Pinocchio storytelling, reversed. The world and its troubles, as Farber notes about Truffaut, are shrunken. “Suicide becomes a game, the houses look like toy boxes — laughter, death, putting out a fire — all seem reduced to some unreal innocence of childhood myths.”

However, there is absurdity and a fondness for the silly in Anderson’s portrayal of childhood. It’s of another world entirely. A group of Khaki scouts build their tree house a few stories too high. Like something from a Shel Silverstein illustration. Wobbly it soars and yet, the scouts see no problem with it. Some embellishments are more subtle. Suzy, an avid reader, sits with her back straight, rarely slouching, and with her book held upright directly in front of her face. Only cartoons, spies, and kids who are pretending to read, read like that. In Wes Anderson’s world, unnatural posture comes off as whimsy. 

During production, Billy Murray taught Gilman how to tie a tie and McDormand showed Hayward what a real typewriter looks like. Both images could pass as scenes in the film. Both images, a child’s first. Casting two kids whose faces and voices we’ve never seen or heard before, who were suddenly sharing scenes with legendary actors, certainly adds to the film’s offbeat charm. While his films have many clear influences, Gilman and Hayward are brand new, imperfect and not yet easy to place. Without his scout uniform, glasses, and Davy Crockett hat, I can’t be sure what Gilman even looks like.

Owing to Anderson’s penchant for trinkets, Moonrise appears too dear in parts. One “Jiminy Cricket!” comes very close to being one Jiminy Cricket too many. But there is comedy and tragedy, and parents who fail. There are gestures that declare love and choices that are brave. Ear piercing in the wilderness accounts for both. In some scenes and in small portions, the dialogue is wonderfully defenseless. In this way, Anderson, who co-wrote the script with Roman Coppola, expresses feelings as if they were an English translation of a foreign proverb: clumsy, a bit chunky, but just right. A brand new way of saying something tired but heartfelt.

Durga Chew-Bose is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about Seventeen. She tumbls here and twitters here.

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In Which We Enter The World of The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Robots In Disguise


The Fantastic Mr. Fox

dir. Wes Anderson

87 minutes

It never occurred to me that someone would want to adapt Roald Dahl's hateful children's classic The Fantastic Mr. Fox, but Wes Anderson for whatever reason felt the need. He rewrote it with Noah Baumbauch to become more generically like the rest of his films, which was a fine idea from anyone's point of view.

Wes Anderson and Baumbauch are able to write two kinds of jokes. Both are generally funny, although they are hitting at levels down from previous years. This is probably due to our slow economy and cannot be blamed on either of the writers.

The first kind of joke involves adding slightly more information than is necessary. The excess amount of speech creates the humor, because the speaker is extending the nominal goodwill of his compatriots. An example of this kind of joke in The Fantastic Mr. Fox occurs when Mr. Fox begins to plot out his mischief. He repeatedly references the fact that he is recording his own speech on the subject to his opossum colleague. The comedy proceeds largely out of the unexpectedness of the comment and its placement in the scene.

Woody Allen is generally acknowledged to to have invented this kind of joke, although others argue that he stole it from Neil Patrick Harris by using Julie Kavner's vagna as a time warp.

The second kind of Wes and Noah joke revolves around some physical or emotional tic and the ensuing reaction. Although some people believe this variety of humor is unrealistic because it ignores the previous knowledge familiars should have with each other, a movie is perfect for this because the audience itself is genuinely unfamiliar. I mean, some people still don't understand The Sixth Sense or Godard's Week End.

In Rushmore, Anderson's second feature, these elements were blended into a swarthy protagonist and an incredibly new feeling aesthetic. In The Darjeeling Limited, these elements were largely included as a means for disrobing Natalie Portman and making the horrifying task of viewing Adrien Brody act more palatable.

Although Wes is an incredible master of production design, making a stop-motion animated feature would seem to strand him impossibly out of his depth. Then again, the guy prefers to be photographed with Marc Jacobs whenever possible, it is best not to underestimate this sort of person not matter how many retarded profiles of he and his assistant one is forced to consume.

Wes seemed to determine to tighten his occasionally florid directing style here, and except for the inevitable drag of trying to extend a short book into a feature, he does a nice job. At a budget of only $30 million, the film is a bargain, and although he had to abandon his collaboration with Henry Selick, the visuals of The Fantastic Mr. Fox (from the team behind the criminally underrated Corpse Bride) are predictably awesome.

His self-effacing yet wildly overconfident Dignan of a protagonist this time is voiced by George Clooney, which is incredibly distracting. (Clooney's about as good a voice actor as he is an actual actor.)

Mr. Fox moves into the base of a tree after consulting with a realtor, but it isn't long before he wishes to relieve the local farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean of their chicken, geese, and cider. His battle against three farmers isn't too interesting. The Fantastic Mr. Fox is more about the interplay between his family, highlighted by the tender but contentious relationship between his adopted nephew's wild talents and his son's lack thereof.

Mr. Fox's teeth are insanely creepy, and there's something downright scary about the entire cast of rodents - cute as they can be, at times they seem more likely to cause nightmares in children than to provoke any kind of wonder. This incidentally was the complaint about the Dave Eggers-Spike Jonze adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. On the surface it would be ludicrous and bizarre to make a movie that neither children or adults can enjoy fully, especially since the essential point of the incredibly high grossing Twilight series is the exact opposite. On the other hand, at least it keeps Bill Murray from turning into Hunter S. Thompson.

The poster for the film touts "Dig the Life Fantastic." In the actual film, this credo is disposed of fairly quickly. Perhaps without knowing it, Wes made a film about the degrading nature of poverty. Wisely understanding that films on that subject rarely attract viewers, he tried to make the film as joyful as possible. For the most part, he succeeds. There are moments of utter abandon that are sure to become iconic: the complicated variation of baseball and cricket the foxes play, the battle with a rat voiced by Willem Dafoe, the film's magical wolf scene.

No one makes the kind of movies Wes Anderson makes. He now has more than a coterie of fans who have caught his films on television and go see his movies out of a sense of duty. In The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes has strayed from what was ostensibly a personal sequence of films and applied the genius of his attention to everything: donuts filled with goosemeat, kids reading comic books, radios on their hips.

Such an act is startlingly compulsive, but this again is no surprise. Only after he has made something familiar into something unrecognizable can he find some equivalent of peace.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He tumbls here and twitters here.

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