The Grand Budapest Hotel and Wes Anderson's World by: Michael Egon Schiele
An old lover of mine and I used to joke that we knew something was actually good if it made us cry. I remember the video for Beirut's “Postcards From Italy” specifically highlighting this fact perfectly. I’ll even use it as a kind of ‘test’ for others I meet --- if the video makes an impact, it can be trusted that they ‘get-it,’ whatever ‘it’ may be.
I feel the same way about Wes Anderson films. For a long time, I tried to explain my fascination with his movies by his attention-to-detail, the visual cohesion they all possess. Wes Anderson’s films are places where nothing is out of place. Visually, they are a world I wish I inhabited. But there’s more to his allure, and more to be said about the gratification imparted by Anderson’s curated worlds. In his films, his characters act with a certain refinement that doesn’t exist in today’s movies. Rarely, if ever, do his characters interrupt one another while speaking, and nearly all of them seem to carry a certain grace and dignity that is strangely uplifting in its own right.
Take, for example, the proclivity of Anderson’s characters to operate alone, comfortably. It speaks to their inner-actualization, and to a commitment to duty, honor, and a simple respect to self. Granted, a lot of this stems from a kind of sick fetishism of the past, a recognition to outdated etiquette and worldview. Anderson’s movies could be faulted for being masculine-centric and bourgeois oriented: servants, concierges, and maids are common and important characters in his films despite the vanishing (and oppressive) nature of these positions. The wealthy, and their concerns, are given far too much weight.
But I would argue that this preoccupation with the elite comes not from an endorsement to a classist structure, but as noble salute to the dying practice of respectability. It is less Pride and Prejudice and more The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha. Max in Rushmore is not after wealth, or even recognition, but the exhumation of a time and demeanor that no longer exist. Max sought the image of refinement. Even Anderson’s villains (if it can be said that there exist villains at all in his movies, most all the protagonists’ face their own hubris as the antagonist) all carry themselves with an air of dignity that the saintliest of our action heroes couldn’t begin to imagine. Think of Jeff Goldblum’s character playing cards with his pirate captors in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou or of Tilda Swinton’s curt and serious Social Services in Moonrise Kingdom fitting all of our requirements for villain status, but always carrying herself with the restraint and honor of a respectable human being trying to do her job. Again and again, I keep coming back to this idea of personal dignity, or at least it’s pursuit, when I think about Wes Anderson. I think this is why Moonrise Kingdom made so much sense, there is a bit of the boy scouts’ oath to these movies --- “On my honor I will do my best…”.
M. Gustav (Ralph Fiennes) in the newest film The Grand Budapest Hotel may be the most shining example. “His world had vanished before he had entered it,” and he was, “a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity.” Really, M. Gustav succumbs to all of Anderson’s bad traits: the romanticization of the past which leads us blind to its travesties and too easy to fall into whimsy, ignoring the true state of reality, but he is also saved by them as well. Often in The Grand Budapest Hotel our fantasy is irrevocably and instantly shattered by one well placed line, or instance, the cleaver of reality. Throughout the film, “the war” creeps into the dreamland of the hotel, acknowledging the horror and inescapability of human nature. Zero, M. Gustav’s protegé ‘Lobby Boy’ who narrates the movie, has his story broken over-and-over by the bluntness of reality, losing loved ones swiftly and without remorse. Yet, his story is told so lovingly, we feel the pain of the real without becoming cynical. Our sorrow for Zero is sincere. Perhaps Nathan Gelgud of Indy Week said it best, “The sadness comes from what Anderson, the audience, and the characters all know to be true beneath the surface: that we're longing for a past that never really existed.”
As much as many visit the theater to see fantasy scenes of aliens and spaceships, transforming robots and lasers, and outlandish warriors and death tolls I watch Wes Anderson’s movies for the fantasy of honor, the fiction of respect, and the wish of dignity. These traits excite me more than any expensive CGI fiction. And just as his Director of Photography Robert Yeoman keeps an implacable attention-to-detail in the framing and filming of the movie, Anderson keeps the same attention to his story arcs, set design, and aesthetics. It is out of a respect he does this. Anderson’s attention to detail is out of respect for himself and his creation, but also, out of respect for us, his audience, that we want and demand to see a fully realised production that seeks to affirm the most exalted parts of the human condition while still accepting our fallibility, with the belief that while we may fail and falter, it is possible to fail without surrendering ones pride, holding onto our dignity with a spray of air d’ panache. It is possible for our failures to bestow upon us grace, so long as we greet them as we would any other dignified guest.