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Monday, July 14, 2014

Hollywood Book Club: The Wes Anderson Collection

Since making his debut with 1996's Bottle Rocket, Wes Anderson has emerged as one of the most distinctive filmmakers of his generation. He's one of those filmmakers whose signature can be identified from nothing more than a still from one of his films because the look and feel of his work is so uniquely his. Examining Anderson's films from Bottle Rocket to Moonrise Kingdom (but, sadly, not including this year's The Grand Budapest Hotel), critic Matt Zoller Seitz's "The Wes Anderson Collection" is a combination of essays about each of the films and an interview with Anderson in which each film is visited and discussed at some length. As a casual read, "The Wes Anderson Collection" is great, as it is full of little odds and ends such as behind the scenes pictures, art work, storyboards, and shot to shot comparisons of scenes from Anderson's work with the work that inspired it. But those looking for insights from Anderson into his work may well end up a bit disappointed, as the collection is really far less revealing about Anderson's thoughts on his own work than it is about Zoller Seitz's experience of the films as a fan, critic, and friend.

The book is divided up into sections devoted to each of Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom, with each film introduced via an essay by Zoller Seitz. The essays are the best part of the book, offering critical analyses of each individual film as filtered through the author's personal experience. Any fan of Anderson's - and I can't imagine anyone but a fan picking up this book, if only because it's dimensions are unwieldly enough to scare off those who are merely curious - should find some pleasure in reading the essays, which are thoughtful, engaging, and ultimately quite affectionate towards the the filmmaker. That affection goes beyond a simple appreciation for Anderson's gifts as a filmmaker, as the relationship between the filmmaker and the author goes back to 1993, when the author became an early champion of the short form version of Bottle Rocket and the first to interview the director. It's the familiarity between the writer and the subject that will give the interview portions of the book their loose, conversational feeling, but it will also expose what is ultimately the book's great flaw: the author's comfort with sitting down and talking to the director at times allows him to get so comfortable that he's not drawing any particular insight out of Anderson, but instead just telling Anderson about his own films.

The interview segments, published in question and answer format, are often striking for how much space is taken up by Zoller Seitz's questions and thoughts compared to how little space is required for Anderson's responses. In fact, there are a number of instances where Zoller Seitz expounds on some element or theme of one of Anderson's films and the director's response is a succinct and enigmatic, "Hmmm." Nothing more, just "Hmmm." Other times Anderson responds with a simple, "Yep," and the result is that at times these sections feel less like an interview of Anderson and more like an extension of the essays, only essays that have been transcribed after being read aloud to an audience of one (Anderson), who occasionally mutters a word under his breath. This isn't to say that the interview sections are bad (Zoller Seitz might do most of the talking, but what he's saying is usually pretty interesting), just that Anderson sometimes comes off as very reticent when it comes to discussing the thematic elements of his films. When it comes to the technical process of making the films, particularly the hows behind some of his more complicated and ambitious shots and sequences, Anderson seems more engaged and open, and when interviewer and interviewee are discussing the things that have inspired Anderson (from other filmmakers to the comic strip Peanuts), it reads much more as a conversation between two equally engaged participants.

Still, while the interview segments illuminate little with regard to how Anderson came to many of the decisions he has made over the course of his filmmaking career, they nevertheless make for a mostly entertaining read. Of all the chapters, those dealing with Rushmore and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou come across as the two about which both the author and the director are the most enthusiastic to discuss and dissect, though every film is ultimately given its due through Zoller Seitz's rigorous examination of each. I've been an Anderson fan for a while now and though I've seen all of his films, most of them multiple times, the greatest take away I had from this book was that I needed to go back and rewatch them all again so that I could pick up some of the elements and references pointed out here that I had previously missed. Overall, "The Wes Anderson Collection" is a good read worth the attention of any Anderson fan. It falters slightly when it comes to drawing Anderson out and getting him to reveal the proverbial man behind the curtain, but it is nevertheless an interesting and wholly engaging book.

Next Month: Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

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