Asymmetrical screen: Wes Anderson 2020s

July 18, 2023

Collage created and sourced by Aidan with photo by Alex Batonisashvili on Unsplash

Aidan Monks explores the impact and legacy of the indie superstar’s unique cinematic style

There are so many ways to describe Wes Anderson’s visual style. He is perhaps most renowned for his devotion to symmetry. Every cinephile can spot one of his films immediately, even if we can’t necessarily describe what we see.

Whether browsing Disney+ (where his filmography is located these days) or perusing daytime TV, as I sometimes do, the first frames of Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox give as much away about the filmmaker behind them as about the film itself.

‘Auteur theory’ – meaning that the director is the sole author of the film – is in my opinion a problematic concept. To say that a film production is the result of the vision of just one creative is nonsense (no matter what Quentin Tarantino says). Filmmaking is a collective enterprise, it always has been, and Anderson has never been arrogant enough to paint himself as an auteur.

However, the utterly unique visual and narrative make-up of his cinema means that he is one of the closest Hollywood has to the auteur ideal; to an all-knowing, all-powerful nucleus of a film production.

Anderson’s influences can be traced to New Wave radicals like Jean-Luc Godard, and to visionaries Max Ophüls and Jacques Tati. Drawing upon the decadence of Ophüls, the Godardian editing style, and throwing in some original thinking, he creates something innovative and distinctly ‘Wes Anderson’.

Whereas, Tarantino, another so-called auteur, essentially reproduces other directors’ work in his ‘copycat cinema’, the filmic equivalent of thoughtless sampling in pop music.

Anderson does exactly what a director, with over a century of filmmaking preceding him, should. He pays homage to his idols, overlapping their visions and enmeshing them with his idiosyncrasies: i.e., symmetry. His style straddles past and present tenses, as if making a fresh argument within a footnote.

Whether you love it or hate it, you can’t say you’ve seen anything like a Wes Anderson movie. But what exactly is his style?

We call Anderson a ‘formalist’ because of his emphasis on the formal or technical aspects of film like lighting and colour to world-build. You may have watched The Grand Budapest Hotel and thought it felt staged or artificial. That’s because it is, and that’s the point. The flat, symmetrical framing, for example, creates a feeling of artificiality because of the visible effort (to the millimetre) put into its construction.

The colour palettes are highly saturated and intensified depending on what Anderson wants to stress. Take an example from Grand Budapest in which the same hotel is depicted in different time periods.

In the 1960s, it’s painted with warm oranges and browns whereas its Depression-era incarnation is pink, red, purple, and white (like a seven-storey velvet cake). We associate each colour palette with different worlds so the film can slip seamlessly between eras.

I’ve always found Anderson’s aesthetic complemented his substance. The artifice within Grand Budapest matches its theatricality and metanarrative, being a story about storytelling.

Sometimes there’s harmony in the contradiction of style and substance, the sadness in his films is visually repressed, and so reinforced by its opposite. A character, suffering loneliness or grief, can be subsumed in the most vibrant, 2.35:1 aspect ratio picture with a breezy Kinks soundtrack, yet their negativity still persists.

In his latest film Asteroid City, Jason Schwartzman’s character epitomises this. The film’s air of wonder is counterposed by its barren landscape, enveloping Schwartzman’s vain attempts to reconcile himself and his kids with the death of their mother.

There is much to praise in Asteroid City. To expect anything less than sensational from this armada of acting talent would be ludicrous. The film contains Anderson’s standard balance of tragicomic with some laugh-out-loud moments and a healthy tally of tear-jerkers.

Unlike his 2021 film, The French Dispatch, its structure is untidy and disorganised, and seems to offer more of an impromptu vibe. The film’s plot is in fact a play in the process of being written by a fictional playwright performed by Edward Norton. The actors are blocking their performance in rehearsal. Where The French Dispatch formats itself like a magazine anthology, Asteroid City attempts to comment on the playwriting/production process and the chaos of creativity.

Nothing has changed about Anderson’s aesthetic over the last few years. He follows the same rules and regulations he has obeyed since The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, 2004. The difference between his 2020s films and his prior work is not visual but thematic.

I’m grateful to be alive to witness Wes Anderson’s cinematic evolution

Anderson has chosen media commentary, on journalism and American drama, as the anchor of his latest films. It isn’t a matter of style-over-substance, but style-as-substance, as he abandons more universal themes for niche topics and self-aware postmodern logic.

However, this seems to be leaving audiences dissatisfied. I’m not saying his latest works lack emotion, I’m saying Wes Anderson haters are wrong to blame their disappointment on his visual style as it hasn’t changed that much. What has changed is his object of exploration, his centre of focus.

I think a closer look at what Anderson actually says in his films, undistracted by his idiosyncratic imagery, reveals this.

His films feel different now, not because he is becoming too ‘Wes Anderson’, as some claim, but because he is incorporating the means with which he tells his stories within the stories themselves. I don’t think it’s an issue of style side-lining substance, but of style becoming substance.

While I find this intriguing and am grateful to be alive to witness Wes Anderson’s cinematic evolution, it’s unsurprising that some of his fans are feeling alienated.

Asteroid City is now showing in cinemas. Go see it!

Aidan currently studies at the University of St Andrews studying English and Philosophy. He is an avid reader, writer, and film-watcher. His favourite film is Fanny and Alexander by Ingmar Bergman, best book is Nadja by André Breton, and, as well as anything by Daft Punk, he loves Lou Reed’s album Street Hassle.

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