Friday, September 7, 2012

The Anderson Brothers (Part 2)

A continuation of Part 1, we continue the somewhat tedious process of comparing the overlapping themes within the work of Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson.

In Part 1, we discussed how themes of family and growing up play large parts in the two filmmakers' movies. This time, we take a couple more themes to further show just how cohesive these two Andersons happen to be.


For two storytellers who tend to stray from strict genres for the most part, both started off their feature film careers with crime stories. Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket involves three friends trying to pull off a complex robbery. As it already may seem, they are not exactly equipped to pull of this kind of crime and things don't go exactly as planned. But there are never really a whole lot of stakes when we see the crime in Wes' films. We are very casually shown Royal participate in dog fighting twice in Tenenbaums, but it's treated like a  throwaway joke (a joke I don't think could've been pulled off had the film been post-Michael Vick arrest). In Life Aquatic, the submarine crew casually strips an observatory lab of all its equipment. None of this is considered with much seriousness, and the resulting theft from the observatory is treated with ironic humor when we learn that the observatory was run by Alistair (Jeff Goldblum), Steve's rival.

P.T.A., though, fills the criminal activity of his characters with enough tension for the both of them. Hard Eight's protagonist, Sydney's past as a criminal is brought to the forefront when John hold a man hostage when he won't pay his prostitute wife, Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) for a job. When Sydney comes to help the young newlyweds, it's a scene with taut, rigid emotion. In his very first film, P.T.A. establishes that he does not treat violence as a laughing matter. Scorsese has always been a pretty obvious influence for P.T.A., and it shows most when we see violence occur. Consider this scene toward the end of 'Boogie Nights', which isn't necessarily a crime film or a particularly violent one, but it's an obvious example of how P.T.A. uses a stark, unflinching reality in the face of violence in a very Scorsesean manner, treating it with the utmost seriousness. Now, consider the pirate shootout in Life Aquatic, where there's significantly less blood and the actual combat is so flippant. All Steve does is fire a few bullets, kill one of them, and the entire flock runs out of the boat. Significantly more playful (and even scored to the tunes of Iggy Pop and the Stooges) than anything we'd catch from P.T.A.

Now, there is the Punch-Drunk Love chase scene, in which the "four brothers" are sent to extort money out Barry and then chase him through the streets of his town. This is far from Scorsese, and more like something out of Kubrick. But even here, where there seems to be little danger (at the end of the scene, one of the brothers even remarks how silly it is that Barry is running to begin with), P.T.A. uses a swelling, histrionic score combined with Sandler's manic reactions to create a real fear that Barry might actually be running for his life. Compared, again, to the gunfight in Life Aquatic, where real lives are at stake, but there is never any real cinematic effort to create a tension that any of those characters are in real danger. There's a natural tension that an audience feels in those situations, but let's say the pirates had actually killed everyone on board - then that would have been very, very surprising. Again, what we come down to here is their main divide. Wes treating a pretty serious topic with whimsy, while P.T.A. goes to great (sometimes extreme) lengths to accentuate the seriousness.

Let's take one more example from each filmmaker. In his latest film, Moonrise Kingdom, the two protagonists have a stand-off with a group of scouts (from Sam's former scout group) who've come to take them back. Now, Wes cuts away from the actual action, but we learn that Suzy defended the two of them by plunging a pair of scissors into one of the scouts' back. And we later see that a dog, named Snoopy, met his end via the end of an arrow (which is just one of many unnerving instances of canine violence throughout Wes Anderson's work). This scene stands out for Wes, because even though it's still light, there is still a very ominous feel here. Perhaps this is the beginning of the end of these children's innocence. Meanwhile, there is the murder of Henry in There Will Be Blood, in which Daniel kills the man who pretended to be his brother. A scene of pretty extreme, heartbreaking violence, which is treated as dry as any scene of violence in any P.T.A. film. And even the act - Daniel shooting Henry in the temple - happens so quickly and without blood, it's as if the act itself is an afterthought. So, they do show that they are both filmmakers that are willing to depart from their norms, but even when they depart from their own styles, they still stray holding onto their own sensibilities.


Where this comparison piece becomes most interesting (for me anyways), is how the two of them tackle the often-tackled subject of love. Both filmmakers meditate on the subject with an active contradiction, but they do it inversely. For Wes, his characters are often lush romantics, seeking out romance in areas uncommon and falling for the beautiful a lot quicker than any sensible person should. Consider Anthony (Luke Wilson) in Bottle Rocket, who falls into deep love with Inez (Lumi Cavazos), a motel cleaning woman, almost instantly and even interrupts his friendship with fellow novice criminal, Dignan (Owen Wilson), to try and be with her. Then, in The Royal Tennenbaums, the character of Richie (again, Luke Wilson) is so madly in love with his adopted sister Margot - but is so afraid of what his family will think of his unorthodox affection - that he tries to kill himself. The most obvious case of this is Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) in Rushmore, who falls completely in love with the much older Mrs. Cross (Olivia Williams), a teacher at his school.

Yet, for all the overflowing emotion from Wes' characters, Wes' films themselves go out of their way to avoid romance and sentimentality. Anthony's lust for Inez is brushed aside for the robbery, and Max's obsession with Mrs. Cross also becomes a side-bar for the zany square-off between Max and Herman Blume (Bill Murray). In a lot of ways, Wes introduces these mushy, sincere people and then ignores their main emotional instinct, perhaps sticking his nose up at the impulsive infatuations that spring up so often in his screenplays. The only love story that isn't downgraded to sub-plot status is Richie in Tennenbaums, whose attempted suicide helps him admit his love to Margot. But even the connection between the two isn't treated with much romance, but sterile directness (capped by the unforgettable line from Margot: "I think we're going to have to be secretly in love with each other and leave it at that, Richie"). It's one of Wes' very best scenes, but not because of any sentimentality. The emotion between the two characters (and the incredible performances of Wilson and Paltrow) creates such a brilliant volley of bare emotion that feels more to real life than most of Wes' altered reality tones.

For P.T.A. characters are much more harsh and cynical about love, scared to act upon their emotions. The most obvious example is Barry in Punch-Drunk Love - P.T.A.'s only true romance - whose extreme social anxiety issues make it hard for him when the matter of him meeting someone is even talked about. This is a common trait in a lot of P.T.A. characters. Consider Linda Partidge (God herself, Julianne Moore - HOW HAVE I GONE THIS LONG WITHOUT TALKING ABOUT JULIANNE MOORE!?) in Magnolia, who suffers a nervous breakdown just by admitting that she's falling in love with the dying man she once loved only for money. Or Sydney in Hard Eight, who's obvious attraction to the waitress/prostitute Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) is subdued heavily because he is so much older and he knows how much she is admired by his friend John. This differing approach is another nod to Scorsese (where Wes' instant love approach is obviously influenced by Woody Allen), who always had characters with deep subdued emotions (ie, Travis Bickle's suppressed insanity in Taxi Driver or Rubert Pupkin's not-so-veiled passive-aggressiveness in The King of Comedy).

But where Wes places romantic characters in unromantic worlds, P.T.A. enjoys cracking the thick shells of these cynical, anxious peoples. Punch-Drunk Love is the absolute example in this thesis, where Barry's self-inflicted isolation is disrupted by the charms of the modest but lovely Lena (Emily Watson), leading to one of the most odd love scenes in the history of cinema. P.T.A. tries to side-step the mushy love with all of the face-smashing/eye-scooping dialogue, but let's be honest: this is a scene steaming with sentimentality and devoted love speeches, no matter how odd they might be. In Magnolia, the character Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) falls almost instantly in love with the strung out Claudia (Melora Walters), in a scene that's much closer to Wes than P.T.A., but this is taken away from him later in the film when Claudia walks out on him during dinner. These are two very unsentimental things to happen to Jim - Magnolia's only major love plot. So what does P.T.A. do? He ends the film by having Jim crawl back to Claudia and give her a speech about how great she is and how much he wants to be with her. This is a scene of almost John Hughes-like sentiment, that's only rescued by the decision to drown out most of Jim's monologue with Aimee Mann's "Save Me".  So, once again, we have the lives of the unromantic pierced by the most cinematic types of love.

To Conclude

So there you have it. There are definitely more overlapping themes that run through their films, but I think we can agree that this has gone longer than it should. In the end, these two are always linked for some reason, whether it be their name or their beginnings. I would say (as I've written through these two parts) that they are linked because they are making films essentially about the same thing, but in almost completely different ways. In our minds, we find ways of making these connections, and their careers will always be paralleled as long as they tell the stories that they do, as well as they do. So which is better? Who really cares. P.T.A. has gotten a lot more critical acclaim, but Wes has had at least three domestic hits to P.T.A.'s zero. If I have a gun to my head, I'd probably go with Paul Thomas Anderson. But it has nothing to do with the stories he tells. Just the way he tells them.

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