The Wes Anderson Aesthetic

Craig McCarthy defends the distinctive visual storytelling of director Wes Anderson.


After watching the trailer for Moonrise Kingdom, Slate’s David Hagland wrote, “we have taken one step closer to the Platonic ideal of a Wes Anderson Movie.”

While I’m not quite sure if this is meant as a compliment or an insult, the point is well taken. The trailer contains the same Wes Anderson aesthetic we have come to recognize. There is quirky dialogue with a deadpan delivery, symmetrically framed shots, close-ups that go on a beat too long, meticulously detailed mise-en-scene, whimsical imagery, and slow-motion sequences. I noticed letters written on elegant stationary shown against a checkered backdrop, which harkens back to The Royal Tenenbaums, as does the film’s young female star (Kara Hayward) whose dark eyeliner and vintage dresses evoke Gwyneth Paltrow’s Margot Tenenbaum. And of course there is the familiar muted color palette, a soundtrack featuring ‘60s psychedelia and Mark Mothersbaugh, and even a few old friends in Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman. But while these familiar elements serve to excite fans like me, they also give ammunition to the bevy of Wes Anderson haters.

I’m surprised by the amount of backlash that Wes Anderson gets. There are few directors today who are considered “auteurs” in some capacity that the casual moviegoer can recognize by name. Of those directors, it seems that the ones who garner the most criticism are the ones who have the most distinctive visual styles. In the last decade, I’m thinking of Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, and Tim Burton. I understand the disapproval toward the latter two, even if I don’t agree completely with it: Tarantino “borrows” styles and tropes from other genres and Tim Burton has recently just been inserting his own psuedo-gothic aesthetic into remakes of more popular material. But with Anderson, he has created his own visual identity and universe, which is unlike anything else coming out of mainstream cinema.

When reading articles about Wes Anderson, or just hearing random people wax-off about the director, the key phrase associated with his criticism is style over substance. There is this prevailing thought that Anderson’s filmmaking process consists of nothing but costume and set design. His detractors imagine he spends more time finding taxidermied animals than he does on character development. However, I’ve always disagreed with this sentiment. The quirks never overpower the characters, and his visual style and world is always the constant throughout his movies. In fact, his strongest films are the ones where the characters are fleshed out as fully as his universe (Rushmore and Royal Tenenbaums). It’s a rebuff that has followed him most of his career. In an interview with New York Magazine, Anderson seems genuinely confused and annoyed by the criticism: “When they say a movie is ‘too smart for its own good,’ as if we’re trying to show how great and cool we are… well, that’s just not the case.”

I’ve always felt that Anderson receives an inordinate amount of hate for someone whose films do not take themselves so seriously. His movies involve Bill Murray falling down a flight of stairs and Owen acting wacky. He is not exactly Terrence Malick, crafting these difficult-to-approach passion projects, which understandably alienate a large portion of the viewing public. He never forces the audience to struggle to understand some profound truth that he is trying to convey. His characters are occasionally pretentious or precocious, but those qualities are often accentuated as their foibles (think Rushmore’s Max Fischer or Royal Tenenbaum’s Eli Cash). But even someone like Darren Aronofsky, who has crafted some of the most intentionally difficult to watch scenes I can remember (Requiem for a Dream’s ass-to-ass scene, anyone?) and produced possibly the most notorious big-budget, overly artistic flop of the past decade in The Fountain, still hardly garners much criticism.

But there is one more aspect of his aesthetic that feeds the detractors as much as any color scheme: his fans, and the perception is that his followers are hipster, New York elitists. Therefore, criticism towards Anderson flows more gleefully because it also becomes criticism against a stereotype. Detractors pat themselves on the back because they weren’t “duped” by Anderson’s quirks and eccentricities unlike the spoiled, hipster man-children. But it’s a lazy critique and it says more about the speaker’s problems with a specific set of Brooklyn hipsters which he projects upon to Wes Anderson. It always feels good to disparage people who think they’re superior to you. It’s one thing to rip on the Twilight books, but you seem more sophisticated if you rip on David Foster Wallace (though Wes Anderson’s literary equivalent would probably be Haruki Murakami: similar fan base and criticism about reusing quirky character types).

With even the most respected of directors, people will look for any chance to pounce. I remember this distinctly with The Departed. In the very last shot of the film, Martin Scorsese shows a rat scuttling across a railing and cross in front of the State Capitol building. It was one of those moments where a majority of people could point out that the great director of our time had used such an egregiously obvious metaphor. It felt a little silly after such a brutal and violent ending, but it was slightly tongue-in-cheek and fairly inconsequential to the plot, considering the film had a few more important flaws (Vera Farmiga’s character was so terrible). But the rat was an obvious mistake that everyone could hold over Scorsese’s head.

Returning to Terrence Malick, there was a similar instance in last year’s Tree of Life. While the movie got plenty of press for being incredibly dense and avant-garde, there seemed to be a huge amount of attention given to a few very brief scenes involving some CGI dinosaurs. While watching it in theaters, the dinosaur scene elicited the film’s only laugh from the audience, and every conversation I had about the movie had an obligatory “the dinosaur scene was pretty silly” moment. With all the odd elements to that 20 minute creation of the universe preamble, it was the dinosaurs that people decided to latch onto for a chance to ridicule an “intellectual” film.

Returning to Wes Anderson, despite my problems with his haters’ simplistic critiques, it would be equally obnoxious to declare that he is above criticism. It is a completely valid argument to merely say that his style doesn’t jibe with your personal tastes or that you have a tough time relating to his collection of privileged, white, intelligently quirky characters (here’s a great example of criticism towards his not-so-enlightened portrayals of other races)

There seems to be a disproportionate amount of vitriol spit at a director who is so well regarded in so many circles. We seem to be in a more or less bland era of mainstream American filmmaking where some of the most celebrated and decorated directors are ones that are almost invisible from a visual standpoint. You have someone like Sam Mendes whose films do not appear to possess one single discernible characteristic. Even worse is Ron Howard, whose films’ only linking attribute is constant and egregious manipulation. And then there’s James Cameron who could easily be described as spectacle over substance, though has no signature traits to hang his hat on. Yet these are the directors that win Oscars, make huge profits at the box office, and while they receive their share of criticism, it doesn’t compare to the amount that’s heaped on Wes Anderson who has the courage to stick by his visual world even when a movie flops financially.

Have we got to a point where we want our directors to be invisible? There was a time in film history where we applauded John Ford for putting his own stamp on the Western, Alfred Hitcock for the thriller, and Douglas Sirk for the melodrama. Yet now it seems that people get annoyed when they are reminded of who is directing the movie they’re watching. So when Wes Anderson puts out another movie that is unmistakebly Wes Anderson-y, he puts a bullseye on himself because he failed to fall into the Hollywood fold. But I for one appreciate a director’s ability to create a distinctive aesthetic, and look forward to watching the next tale to come out the universe that Wes Anderson worked so hard to create.

Craig McCarthy was a writer an editor for Dickinson's alternative monthly, the square, and has written reviews for the Philadelphia Film Society.