Friday, August 17, 2007

Married to the Sea - Part 2

One of the most discussed and notable aspects of Anderson’s misè-en-scene is costume; it is idiosyncratic and often highly stylised to the point of absurdity. But this technique is not random or shallow; the costumes convey important information about the characters and the world in which they live – or rather, the worlds that they would rather believe in. Throughout Rushmore, the protagonist Max Fischer rarely changes from his beloved Rushmore Academy uniform, except for a few exaggerated clichés for his extra-curricular clubs; a red beret for the French club, all-black for his drama club (‘The Max Fischer Players’), a checked scarf for the flying club, etc. Max does change his clothes when his life goes downhill – he wears a large woolly hat and clothes that are too small – as if he is trying to avoid his problems by returning to his peaceful, increasingly distant childhood.

This trend of idiosyncrasy is continued in the next two films: in The Royal Tenenabums, the central characters wear variations of the same costumes from their childhood, trying to recreate their child prodigy days by forbidding themselves to move on with time. Ben Stiller’s widower, Chas, dresses himself and his two sons in identical Adidas tracksuits and black perms. This choice of costume – highly irregular, were it not for the film’s cartoonish tone – instantly tells the audience about Chas’ neurotic grief, and reflects the kind of stilted, troubled family relationships that define the film.

The crew of The Belafonte, Steve Zissou’s ship in The Life Aquatic…, are constantly dressed in matching uniforms (even with equivalents in swimming costume and pyjama form). With their matching red woollen hats, blue shorts and ‘Z’ insignias, Team Zissou have been dressed by Steve in order to emulate his style and (expired) fame. He has trapped everyone around him in his own glorified, nostalgic vision of himself.

Hyperbolic costumes such as these are intended for more than the comedic effect; they tell us about the characters’ convictions in their own efforts, and give us the sense that the mythical realities in which they live – be it Rushmore Academy, a retro-cool New York or an ocean full of cartoon fish – are in fact ones that they have created for themselves. It is as if the characters, like Anderson, have crafted their world especially to suit their needs, and, often, their professional work.


All three of Anderson’s latest films are separated into chapters, using some kind of structural framing device. The Royal Tenenbaums uses the conceit of an on-screen novel (like in the books written by the characters), including chapter headings, The Life Aquatic… uses documentary episodes (like in the films of Steve Zissou), and Rushmore announces each month with a theatrical curtain (like in the plays staged by Max Fischer). As well as providing a convenient and pleasing structural device, this technique wraps the audience up in the minds of the films’ protagonists; the way the film is made and presented is parallel to the way in which the characters work, and live their lives. They are so committed to their convictions that they do view the stories of their lives as plays, or films, or novels. Like Anderson, they see no reason to compromise their actions for any niggling details such as reality. This chaptering device draws the audience into their world – or rather, Anderson’s world – and away from our own.

In addition to establishing an individual style of authorship, Anderson is regarded to be part of a New Wave of Hollywood films, shared by other auteurs such as Sofia Coppola, Charlie Kaufman, Alexander Payne and P.T. Anderson. In fact, the Wave includes a vast number of films and filmmakers, the links between them being sometimes tenuous – but recognisable characteristics are definitely shared between them. These include stylised visuals, compilation soundtracks, complex characterisations and black, ironic humour. Another important trait is ‘blankness’ – utilising the filmic style to lend the films a sense of detachment or dampened effect. In The Life Aquatic…, one scene shows a cross-section of The Belafonte, the camera guiding us between the rooms while Zissou narrates. The visuals are obviously artificial and fantastical, complete with two smiling dolphins and a yellow mini-submarine. Despite this, the sequence maintains a sense of irony, due to Bill Murray’s mundanely deadpan voiceover (“The bearing cases aren’t supposed to look like that, but we can’t afford to fix them this year”).

This sequence demonstrates a juxtaposition that explains why Anderson has a place of honour among a New Wave of ironic films. The stylised aesthetic is off-set by the blank narration; the sweeping scale of the visuals is off-set by the prosaic details. The effect of this is to create a 2D comic-book style, the kind of fantasy we associate with childhood, and the playful, theatrical comedy in the films provide an adolescent charm. Anderson has been described as an ‘auteur of arrested adolescence’, which is accurate, as it seems that his inspirations – and ambitions - lie primarily in his youth. Like his characters, Anderson has created his own world, the consistency of which can definitely give him the auteur label.

12 comments:

Arabella Dream said...

Insects? I don't know what you're talking about, Joel. What insects? There aren't any insects in those photographs!

Arabella Dream said...

Wait, you didn't mean the snails did you?? Because snails are gastropods!

OH MAN THAT FELT SO AWESOME AND I DON'T CARE THAT THE WHOLE WORLD HATES ME NOW ... OR DO I ... OH WAIT, ACTUALLY YES, YES I DO ... :'(

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