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From Dallas To Zubrowka: The Imagined Worlds of Wes Anderson

The Playlist By Charlie Schmidlin | The Playlist March 17, 2014 at 3:34PM

Books, architecture, costumes, and curio items: they fill the busy frames of Wes Anderson’s work (in collaboration with longtime DP Robert Yeoman and production designer Mark Friedberg), and in part serve to make the writer/director’s eight feature films and four shorts so rich, rewatchable, and increasingly successful with audiences. But as much as the emphasis on Anderson’s work tends toward the visual, it’s the way he uses his fictitious universes, details, and cast dynamics to support a human emotional base that elevates his films.
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Moonrise Kingdom

A New England Island of Adolescents – “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012)
Three days before a ferocious and well-documented storm strikes the fictional island of New Penzance off the coast of New England, two preteen lovers leave their families to behind to start a new idyllic life together. Even before the incoming weather enters the equation, the tale of Khaki Scout Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and bookworm Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) is fated for disappointment, but Anderson balances that melancholy fate with a genuine optimism in the end.

The director based New Penzance on Naushon, an island near Massachusetts where some of his friends live; though “Moonrise Kingdom” is set in 1965, Naushon prides itself on staying timeless. “There are no cars, you’ve got to take a ferry there, and there are only about 20 houses,” Anderson says. “It’s a place that is institutionally protected from any change, and when you go there, it feels like stepping back at least 40 years into the past.”

New Penzance Island, Moonrise

More so than any of Anderson’s other films, there is a real effort present to freeze New Penzance as a place of fading summers and earnest emotions—a sly nod to that idea exists in Fidelity Island and Honesty Rock, seen on the oft-displayed map (via The Big Think). Stacks of belongings also fill every frame of the various foster homes that Sam escapes, and in the geometric angles of the Bishop House (brought to life within a defunct Linens N’ Things in Newport, Rhode Island). In Suzy’s case especially, Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola take much care and pleasure in creating the various book titles in her possession (even going so far as to animate sections of each—see the Short Film/Commercials section).

Grand Budapest Hotel

Glory Faded In Zubrowka - "The Grand Budapest Hotel" (2014)
If you wanted to find one consistent theme that’s nearly omnipresent in the films of Wes Anderson, it is faded glory. You’ll find traces of it everywhere, and it is perhaps his most resonant and meaningful theme. The Royal Tenenbaums are a once-renowned family that’s presented in their decline, the “sic transit gloria” (“glory fades”) line from “Rushmore,” speaks to Max Fisher’s melancholy memory of his mother and how the underachiever has potentially hit his peak even before his adult life has even begun. Steve Zissou of “The Life Aquatic” is also is also presented on the downslope of a once celebrated career, and so on and so forth. This theme once again raises its head in Anderson’s latest, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which is, on its surface, a delightful comedic caper and murder mystery, and on the inside a much darker and sadder tale of a glorious era of civility that no longer exists thanks to an encroaching age of fascism.

And so Wes Anderson's fascination with imagined worlds arguably reaches its logical apex with his latest pastry-pink delight. And yet like "The Royal Tenenbaums," the movie presents a familiar world slanted through Anderson's imaginative lens. Set in an invented Eastern European nation called The Republic Of Zabrowka ("It… is part Czechoslovakia, part Hungary, part Poland,” Anderson once said), the story ostensibly takes place within a history we know: the calm before the storm of WWII and the aforementioned menace of tyranny about to hit Europe. Yet Anderson's milieu is not only the “slightly fantastic” version of Eastern Europe heightened, but also free from the as-we-know-them points of historical reference. As Anderson put it, he just mixed and matched elements of history as he saw fit. “We’re in a made up country, we’re mixing wars together, we’re mixing up nationalities and cultures,” he said. “There’s a war starting in 1932 and that’s not exactly lining up with [our history], so I just felt like we’ll make our own experience however we want.”

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The film’s political backdrop is an amalgamation of the two world wars, and instead of Nazis there is an unnamed militaristic regime represented by the words “ZZ” (which could be a stand in for “SS,” but this form of tyranny is not labeled as Nazi or German).

Perhaps one of the more inspired and moving elements of "The Grand Budapest Hotel"—given how nostalgic it is for periods in history that no longer exist (or in the case of Anderson’s world, never actually properly existed)—is how it’s all filtered through a melancholy prism of memory, and passed on like the tradition of storytelling. The story is based on the work of Austrian author Stefan Zweig, and just as Anderson enters Zweig's world via his novels and the writer’s recollections of pre-WWI Austria (a time when art and culture are everything), all the characters in the movie are reflecting back as well. Set in three different time periods (including a brief flash of the present at the beginning and end). You have the 1960s, when an older Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) looks back fondly and yet sadly on his friend Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), his wife Agatha and this golden-age period of his life (which takes place in 1932), and the 1980s, when the author (now played by Tom Wilkinson) passes down his story of meeting Mr. Moustafa in communist-era 1960s through novel form. Briefly, we later see a young girl at the author’s tombstone later with a copy of his book (this is what some argue is “present day”). Presumably she’s passing on this story too. (It sounds much more complicated than it is; here's a graphic which explains it, plus the aspect ratio for each section of the film and instructions on how it should be screened by projectionists.)

Grand Budapest Hotel

On top of an imagined country, there are also a million little invented baubles within it including the numerous hotels, the “Boy With Apple” painting Ralph Fiennes’ character is supposed to inherit, the Egon Schiele-like parody painting “Two Lesbians Masturbating,” and perhaps the most elaborate: “The Society of the Crossed Keys” which is like a secret order of hotel concierges in Zubrowka (a featurette on the latter below). One could spend an endless amount of time in this world, and it’s a testament to Anderson’s eccentric and fantastic imagination.

Hotel Chevalier

Short Film/Commercials
As we discussed last year in our feature piece, Anderson has made the increasingly necessary and lucrative avenue of commercials his distinct own—the American Express ad, run in 2007 and built around a “Day For Night” tribute sending up the director’s neurotic tendencies, is a perfect example of marketing craft, and the recent Prada ads written with Roman Coppola are a strange bit of surreal candy featuring Léa Seydoux.

But aside from another collaboration with Prada in the charming short filmCastello Cavalcanti," which sees Jason Schwartzman playing a race-car driver crashing into a city center from Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita," Anderson has chosen to use the short format to flesh out his existing universes even further. “Hotel Chevalier," a 13-minute, Paris-set prologue to “The Darjeeling Limited," wonderfully provides depth and context to Jack’s longing for his ex-girlfriend played by Natalie Portman (echoed later in 'Darjeeling' with the song “Where Do You Go To [My Lovely]” by Peter Sarstedt). Then there’s the accompaniment to “Moonrise Kingdom”, in which Bob Balaban plays a librarian speaking directly to camera about Suzy’s favorite books, and then narrating a brief animated section from titles like “Shelly and the Secret Universe” and “The Light of Seven Matchsticks”. Check them out below.
 

What’s your favorite imagined item or element from Anderson’s work? Let us know in the comments below. -- With contributions from Rodrigo Perez

This article is related to: Wes Anderson, Features, Feature, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Fantastic Mr. Fox


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