A flustered father scrambles to get dinner ready while his children scamper about: one in a scuba suit, one dressed as a robot, one sitting in a cupboard, one wearing a witch costume and piloting a remote-control helicopter, one grating cheese while dressed as a fairy, and one playing drums (and providing a pounding soundtrack) while bundled up in winter clothes like a little Eskimo. The camera whips back and forth before tracking slowly out to the mother, sitting peacefully in the driveway—and within the frame, in the few seconds of stillness, viewers can see bubbling pots and a plethora of toy automatons.
This, unmistakably, is a Wes Anderson film. It’s also a car commercial.
Wes Anderson is a master miniaturist, who treats the motion-picture frame like a diorama. I’m not the first person to make this analogy, and I won’t be the last, because the comparison is so obvious that it’s impossible to avoid. Beginning with The Royal Tenenbaums in particular, Anderson has rendered even regular-sized objects as tiny, shrinking them down so his characters can tote them from place to place. Anderson’s movies are littered with tchotchkes, fitting his heroes’ entire lives onto shelves and into portable containers.
As a director-for-hire for advertising agencies, Anderson has been a miniaturist of a different kind. In the commercials he’s made for AT&T, Prada, American Express, and others, Anderson has reduced his techniques and preoccupations into mini-movies, each instilled with his personality.
Consider this American Express ad, which was the first big-deal commercial Anderson made:
The long cut of this commercial (seen above) runs two minutes, and was passed around online quite a bit when it was released back in 2006. It contains most of Anderson’s visual hallmarks: the long vertical tracking shots, the whip-pans, and the layering of quirky detail in the foreground and background. It’s also shot through with Anderson’s sense of humor. He casts himself here as a grown-up version of Rushmore’s Max Fischer, bossing people around on a movie set while addressing the camera as though he were really just a humble man of the people, doing something anyone could do if they had the gumption. Wes Anderson’s characters often remind me of the old Peanuts strip where Linus Van Pelt says, “When I get big, I’m going to be a humble little country doctor. I’ll live in the city, see, and every morning I’ll get up, climb into my sports car, and zoom into the country! Then I’ll start healing people. I’ll heal everybody for miles around! I’ll be a world famous humble little country doctor!”
What’s most notable about this commercial, though, is that even though Anderson had only made four feature films at this point, American Express is presenting him as a brand name. His 1996 debut feature, Bottle Rocket, marked him as a director to watch, and then 1998’s Rushmore revealed him as someone with a distinctive style. (One of Anderson’s first intersections with the advertising world came when he made a series of Rushmore-inspired versions of the various films nominated for the 1999 MTV Movie Awards.) But 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums and 2004’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou made it more obvious that Anderson was something of a phenomenon—and not one for every taste. The American Express ad acknowledges and spoofs this.
Anderson’s sense of himself as preposterously fastidious and even sort of silly is essential to the success of his work. He knows he has a way of making movies that some find off-putting, but he’d like people to take them in the spirit in which they’re intended. His mania for books, toys, costumes, and artificiality all come from a place of genuine affection and enthusiasm for what they meant to him when he was younger, but Anderson never denies their essential inadequacy when it comes to confronting adulthood. Michael Chabon puts this well in his introduction to Matt Zoller Seitz’s book The Wes Anderson Collection:
Anderson’s films, like the boxes of Cornell or the novels of Nabokov, understand and demonstrate that the magic of art, which renders beauty out of brokenness, disappointment, failure, decay, even ugliness and violence, is authentic only to the degree that it attempts to conceal neither the bleak facts nor the tricks employed in pulling off the presto change-o.
By contrast, look at Anderson’s 2008 SoftBank ad, starring Brad Pitt:
One of the major knocks against Anderson has been that he wears his influences on his sleeve, openly aping not just other directors, but also cartoonists, illustrators, and novelists. In his spot for this Japanese telecommunications company, Anderson is making his version of a Jacques Tati Monsieur Hulot film, casting Pitt as a bumbling tourist. But this is a case where—to me, at least—the ad is less effective because it’s such a straight steal. The commercial is fun, but not “watch over and over” fun, like the Hyundai and American Express spots. Anderson’s feature films are dense, fusing their inspirations into something more original; and the better Anderson ads do the same. Like this one:
One of the most charming qualities of Anderson’s films—post-Rushmore, anyway—is that their characters don’t really stand apart from the worlds they inhabit. Everybody and everything in an Anderson film is a little off-kilter, and not at all representative of our own drab reality. His preference for camera moves over cuts helps put this across. In the AT&T ad above, the character moves from backdrop to backdrop without any editing, which suggests that all the places he travels to are already prepared and decorated, awaiting his arrival. And yet there’s an undercurrent of mania (and subsequently, melancholy) to the way Anderson’s characters, even in commercials, move from one just-so location to another. Perhaps that’s because their fanatical control of the décor doesn’t extend to control of their own lives, which are often beset by unexpected death and heartbreak.
On a recent Dissolve podcast, we talked about filmmakers who started out promisingly and then took one too many “one for them” assignments, until they lost whatever personal qualities once made their work so impressive. (What, for example, makes a James Mangold film of today similar to the Mangold of Heavy and Cop Land? And what the hell happened to Kenneth Branagh?) Wes Anderson has never really had to make films he didn’t want to make, and aside from some negligible studio-mandated compromises on Bottle Rocket, he hasn’t had to tailor his work to fit anyone else’s vision. Only when he makes commercials does Anderson have a client who’s ultimately calling the shots. The Anderson ads nearly all hit a wall at the end, when the logos and voiceovers undercut the magic.
And yet look at this Sony Xperia spot—one of the least Anderson-esque ads he’s made—and tell me there’s no personal feeling there:
The stop-motion here isn’t as wonderfully hand-crafted as Fantastic Mr. Fox, and the kid narrator sounds a little too slick and rehearsed to be an Anderson protagonist. But the concluding cutaway of a robot dormitory is right in line with Anderson’s love of elaborate headquarters, and the brief shot of a robot zipping along a line while wearing a jet-pack is classic Anderson. The robot is rocket-propelled, and yet it’s attached to a wire, as though its journey through the air were just a stage effect, not an actual flight. This is an acknowledgment of fakery within a medium that’s inherently fake—a box within a box, containing the dreams and limitations of the person who created this tiny mechanical man.
This concludes our Movie Of The Week discussion of The Royal Tenenbaums. Don’t miss Tuesday’s Keynote on the film’s family values, as expressed through two perfectly chosen songs from its soundtrack, and Wednesday’s staff Forum on its views of depression, childhood, and adulthood. For our next Movie Of The Week discussion, we’ll be talking about how we get older, but Dazed And Confused stays the same age.