The majority of my work has purely focused on style, almost entirely through imagery/cinematography. The Domino Effect had a very simple story of a train of bad news colliding with an innocent little girl, derailing her onto a new track of even more lies. What interested me though was this cool, jumpy, fast-paced, colliding-domino style I had seen in a video on Vimeo. Diagnosis started simply with the idea of spiraling around this girl in a chair, slowly revealing more information through the camera movement, until the reality of that scene gets intermixed with her mental lack of clarity as the spiraling movement seamlessly transitions to a different time but the same place, causing us to question if this continuous motion that we have taken as our only constant is real or just what she has made up because of the entrapment she feels. Only in the subsequent Diagnosis Extended did I try to make sense of the story. At first, it was just about the cool camera move. And I can keep going with pretty much every short film and music video I have made to date.
What I have created are these technical, visual metaphors. But they aren’t stories. They don’t feel like reality. They do not connect with us. Instead, they force us to analyze. T.S. Eliot created puzzles that gave us an impression even on the first read. I created puzzles that had little impression except for “a kid having fun with his camera and editing software.”
I wouldn’t compare myself to Wes Anderson. My style has not been concrete nor finessed. And I struggled to tell stories in my visual poems that I called short films and music videos. However, I do think there is a similarity. Wes Anderson does not seem to care about story. For him, filmmaking is about style. It is about the telling of the story, not the story itself.
When our parents tucked us in and sat at our side recounting the quest of a knight in shining armor or even their day at work turned into a war of legend, it wasn’t so much the story that interested us. We simply wanted to hear them tell a story. To have them sit at our side and speak words excitedly, in a magical way, to take us on a journey: that is what we enjoyed. This is what Wes is interested in.
His latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel did not leave me on the edge of my seat. I did not cry when the characters died or were married. I did not yearn for change or fear the villain. My watching of the film seemed more at a distance. I observed it. And that gave me a very unusual experience.
It was like we were looking at our own world through a lens, through Wes Anderson goggles. It wasn’t like the rules of our world didn’t apply which is usually what looking through a lens means. It was just our eyes that had changed. All gore and death was shocking but so shocking that it was comical and cute (like in Django Unchained plus an element of cute–and see how even Quentin Tarantino has to break the laws of gravity. Wes doesn’t). Harvey Keitel played your typical tough guy in prison. But he was so stereotypically that character that it became comical. All the tattoos on his body, which would make the real life version of that character scary, instead become children’s drawings, satirizing the idea that all this ink actually makes you look tough.
So does all of it work? Critics praise Wes Anderson. And on the surface, it is true that he has created a style that is uniquely his and received critical and commercial success with it. Few filmmakers can be both mainstream and artsy. He is definitely one of the few. But what is the purpose of storytelling? Of film? Of art?
Art is the world seen through someone else’s eyes. Check. Film is an art that combines all the others: movement, imagery, sound, story. He definitely has all those things and brings a unique touch to them. But storytelling…
The stories we most remember are ones that moved us, reaffirming or making us question our view of the world. A great story can be told poorly, causing us to forget it very quickly (as is the case with many films that are literary adaptations). A terrible story can be told very well, often tricking us into thinking it is great (as is the case with most art films and something like Citizen Kane). The former bores. The latter makes our minds work but doesn’t move us. It is rare that we find a great story that is well told. But when we do, we watch it again and again. We tell our friends about it. We read about it online. We write about it. We buy it as soon as it comes out. And we forget about all the movies we have seen before as it feels like our favorite, like no other movie has ever existed.
Wes Anderson does not do that. When we walk out of his films, we are not moved. But we are tickled. And it is a tickle that sticks with us. A tickle that brings us back to the movie theater for his next film. A tickle that reminds us of how it feels to be a child when we see things the way we want to see them. A tickle that keeps on tickling. But his films do not impact us. They might make us laugh a little more. Or not take things so seriously. We do not walk out of them changed though.
The reason for it is that he is focused more on the telling than the story itself, as I have often done. He is one heck of a teller but tellers work at banks. He is missing the story.
What is the point of the birthmark shaped like Mexico on Saoirse Ronan’s cheek? There literally is no story behind it.
I’ll probably make a short someday that tries to mimic the Wes Anderson style. I am actually developing a short right now that only has the purpose of creating tension, with no story beyond the cinematic trickery enabled through editing and cinematography. But when I make a feature, I will focus on story. Form will follow function. I will let the story dictate the style. And I hope that people walk out of the theater a little more than tickled.
But don’t get me wrong, I love a good tickle. And Wes can tickle like no one’s business.