Sunday, February 23, 2014

Wes Anderson Roundtable #1: Bottle Rocket (short and feature)

Individual Reviews are useful, but criticism is a dialogue, not a monologue. I’m Max O’Connell of The Film Temple, he’s Loren Greenblatt of Screen Vistas, and we’ve got some things to say in our Wes Anderson Roundtable.

Loren Greenblatt: The thing that strikes me about Wes Anderson in comparison to the other directors we’ve talked about is that while Cameron and Del Toro are certainly very stylized, they are also among the small percentage of directors with public personas that are separate from their films. Cameron is famously prickly and arrogant, whereas Del Toro is a happy 10-year-old on a sugar binge. Anderson, on the other hand, has a sort of invisible persona. He does interviews galore but I feel the general public knows him primarily as an extension of his visual style than as his own person, and I think that’s by design.

Max O’Connell: Well, he’s a very private person, and I think he wants to be known for his work more than his personality. And his work is well known: for a while in the early 2000s, he spawned more imitators than anyone on the art house scene since Tarantino. It also makes his work ripe for parody, both good (Wes Anderson Spider-Man) and terrible (SNL’s The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders, which makes references in place of jokes). But before Wes Anderson was the most idiosyncratic comedic director working today, he was just some kid from Austin, Texas.

LG: He went to University of Texas where he met two of his most important collaborators, Luke and Owen Wilson. Soon, they started planning a feature film called Bottle Rocket, which eventually became a delightful 13-minute short. The short is self-contained but it’s meant to be part of a larger story. The idea was that this was part one, and they’d keep making them, like installments in a serial. The story centers on Dignan and Anthony (Owen and Luke Wilson, respectively), best buddies planning a house burglary.

MO: The short played at Sundance, where it got them noticed by a lot of people, most noticeably Polly Platt (the ex-wife of Peter Bogdanovich who had worked as a writer or production designer on most of his notable films) and one of her frequent production partners, none other than James L. Brooks.  And it’s easy to see why. Clearly Anderson and co are on a budget, and it’s much rougher and looser than we’ve come to expect from him, but I love how from the beginning of his career, he mostly knows what he’s doing. The editing is really crisp. Everything feels very exact.

LG: It’s rough, but it derives certain energy from that roughness. His music choices are already really interesting; the use of jazz throughout almost makes it feel like a more high-energy Woody Allen movie. Also you can already see a lot of his personal quirks – there’s already his very peculiar type of close-up and insert shots and his whimsical, freewheeling characters, particularly Owen Wilson (who co-wrote the short).

MO: You talked about his visual quirks. Obviously, he doesn’t really have the money to do those dioramas or the anamorphic widescreen he’s known for, but he’s also got a lot of throwbacks to a number of French New Wave movies he’s a fan of. I’m fond of a shot near a pinball machine that deliberately evokes The 400 Blows, which has similarly likable (if much younger) troublemakers. But there’s also nods to more peculiar influences: he uses Vince Guaraldi’s “Skating” theme from A Charlie Brown Christmas when the characters have target practice. And that’s really charming, because it gets to the heart of these characters – they’re crooks, but they’re essentially a bunch of kids.

LG: It’s a very interesting juxtaposition: these people are setting out to do something dangerous that does have victims, but they approach it with childlike innocence. It hints at the reality/fantasy struggle that defines many of Anderson’s films. I wish that idea was fully explored in the feature, but it is clearly there in both incarnations of Bottle Rocket, like many of Anderson’s characters, everyone in here is either bigger than life, or trying to be.

MO: To me, something that struck me in the fantasy/reality divide is how much they’re playing at bigger than life. We don’t see the bookstore robbery that’s shown in the feature version, but they’re kind of playing themselves up as cool criminals, but the movie ends with them betting on a race and Owen Wilson’s character cheating. They’re just a couple of innocent goofs at heart, really.

LG: I really like that scene. It really encapsulates something essential about this material and I wish there were some version of it in the feature.

MO: What are the differences between the short and the feature that strike you, aside from the fact that the former is in black-in-white and the latter is in color.

LG: Well the most comparable section is the feature’s first act, which is more or less a remake of the material in the short. The main difference is that the feature tells that part of the story with more focus. Again, we get Luke and Owen Wilson planning the house robbery, but it’s colored by a new scene where we see Anthony leaving a mental institution. In the end Anthony is much more stable and down to earth, though melancholy, where Dignan is the goofy, wildcard dreamer who’s introduced trying to break Anthony out of the institute, hilariously not realizing that it’s a voluntary stay. Of the two, Dignan is also the ringleader who has a 50-year plan on how the two will become internationally renowned criminals.

We get a better sense of their dynamic. There’s this sense of obligation between the characters. You get the sense that Dignan is doing all this intense planning not just to satisfy his own boyish urges, but to pull Anthony out of his funk in a very misguided way that Anthony doesn’t really want or need. Likewise Anthony goes along with Dignan because he thinks it’ll be good for him, but it in the end it really serves no one and that’s the gag. This complicated tension isn’t there as much in the short, which features a long conversation where they argue over the details of a Starsky and Hutch episode which has a more aimless flavor we associate more with Linklater and Tarantino than Anderson and while it’s fine for the short, it’s ultimately one of the more fortunate casualties of the focus the team brought to the film version.

MO: Yeah. You get hints of it in the short where they start talking about the plans they’ve got, and Dignan compliments Anthony on the things he thought of that wouldn’t have come to mind for Dignan. That’s great, but here, the plan is comically exaggerated. Wes Anderson’s characters always make elaborate plans to try to get themselves out of trouble or sadness. I feel like the diorama thing that we joke about, while we don’t see it visually in Bottle Rocket

LG:  Which might be because he hadn’t come into that as a style. He’s become much more confident over time. And initially, he wanted Bottle Rocket to be much grittier, more like Mean Streets or Drugstore Cowboy (both of which have whimsical touches but aren’t thought of as whimsical films) but as it went along, the writing got more whimsical.

MO: But I feel like during the writing process, he found what worked for him, and I feel like he found his voice more than you do, I think. What I was getting at with the planning was that it’s a kind of way for Wes Anderson characters to make sense of their lives that don’t necessarily make sense. It’s a way for them to try to control things that they can’t really control. Dignan’s 50-year-plan…it’s absurd that he could possibly plan that far ahead, and with purpose.

LG: I think we can identify with that. We’ve had that, “OK, we’re gonna start lifting weights and do that thing we’ve never done,” and it’s a nice exaggeration.

MO: As with a lot of other Anderson narratives, this is to some degree a sad story, because while Dignan’s a big kid, he’s a big kid with a lot of failure and no direction. Anthony’s sister says he’s a liar and worries that if he follows Dignan, he won’t end up going anywhere. His plans don’t really work out, ever. It’s because of the playfulness of Anderson’s style that this isn’t completely downbeat throughout. That’s always been to his credit. Some of that playfulness comes through the music. The target practice scene isn’t as striking, because they don’t have “Skating” again, but some of the other songs are really delightful. They use a song called “Zorro Is Back” after they buy firecrackers after a successful robbery. There’s such life to it. They’re getting a kick of bringing themselves up.

LG: The thing that I think doesn’t work about Bottle Rocket is that undercurrent of melancholy. There’s a little bit of it there, but it’s so much more present as a counterpoint to the whimsy in his later films, where the whimsy is about masking the melancholy, and there’s this cycle of joy and depression, and there’s some teeth to that. I don’t think they get into that enough here. A lot of the characters here are just much flatter than most Wes Anderson characters.

MO: I don’t agree. Granted, it’s going to grow in his next films, but Dignan especially works for me. He’s always been the most loyal friend to Anthony (and vice versa), and as soon as Anthony finds more direction in his love interest Inez (Lumi Cavazos, in a very sweetly handled subplot), Dignan reacts to that very negatively. It’s not just that he’s jealous – Anthony’s the only one who’s there for him. Their other friend, Bob (Bob Musgrave), is sort of part of the gang, but he’s much less committed and much less willing to put up with Dignan’s need to control things.

LG: Also, I get the sense that Dignan doesn’t really like him, that they’re only friends because of Anthony, and he never quite settled in.

MO: I don’t think Dignan dislikes him; they’re just clearly not as close.

LG:  I think the trio is well developed, but when I say some of the characters are flat, I mean a lot of the tertiary characters don’t feel like they’re there at all. Every other film he’s made is so deliberately an ensemble that it’s kind of disappointing coming back to his first film and not seeing that. I feel I’m watching a film that could have been so much richer.

MO: Ok, I see what you mean. Some of them are types, like Bob’s brother “Future Man”, who’s funny in bits but is kind of a cartoon asshole. That’s not terrible necessarily but not at the same level he’s going to operate at later.

LG: How about in Rushmore, where we have another bully who has a humanizing moment or two.

MO: Yeah. And here’s the thing: that bully has a similar turnaround as Future Man, but Future Man’s is off-screen and isn’t as convincing because we get less of him.

LG: Exactly.

MO: What do you think of James Caan’s character, Mr. Henry, the landscaper/thief who mentored Dignan once upon a time?

LG:  He didn’t make much of an impression on me, as a character or a performance, which is a problem because he’s built up so much as this bigger-than-life father figure to Dignan that he wants to be emulate.

MO: And for me, it’s a bit of an odd complaint, because most of these sketched characters are funny, but they’re not at the level we hold Anderson’s later works at. I do think a lot of the style is still there, though. The conversational rhythms are classic Wes. Like right before the bookstore robbery, where Dignan puts a piece of tape over his nose, and his friends look at him and ask, “Why are you putting tape over your nose?” His answer: “Exactly!” And then during the robbery, he loses patience with the bookstore owner and calls him an idiot, and when the man gets touchy over being called an idiot, he’s sincerely sorry about it. Because he really is just a big kid playing at being the tough guy. So much of it is there, he’s just growing still.

LG: That part is fantastic and it’s important to note there were a lot of issues during filming that might have inhibited what Anderson/Wilson were trying to do. In my research I got the sense that it was a contentious production between Brooks and Anderson. For instance, Anderson wanted to shoot it in the anamorphic widescreen format that’s become his signature outside of Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom (and the upcoming The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is at least partially in Academy Ratio), but wasn’t allowed to because the process is more expensive and would have slowed down the production with the added lighting concerns.

MO: And it’s understandable that Brooks might balk, but it is clearly something that’s missing from Bottle Rocket, and it limits what he can do, visually.

LG: One of the things that his particular use of that aspect ratio signals is that they don’t take place in the real world, they take place in Wes Anderson Land, this magical, primary colored place, where everything is dioramas, fantasy and depression. This film, you can see bits of that style peeking out, especially in the final heist, which is the most Andersonian bit in the whole film. But it’s not all the way there. It’s on the border of Wes Anderson Land.

MO: A little bit, yeah…I think part of it is him still figuring out his style and working on a budget. But I feel like the primary characters and the relationships are there. A lot of the influences are there, too. We mentioned Truffaut, which is still there, but I also see a lot of J.D. Salinger. I see a lot of that in the more withdrawn, sad aspect of the characters, especially Anthony. He’s trying to protect his younger sister, his sister’s cynicism takes it out of him…

LG: I do like that the little 10-year-old sister is clearly the more mature of the two. It’s a fun bit I wish there was more of.

MO: It’s a fun bit, and it’s indicative of what Anderson’s going to be doing for a long time with these people who are stuck because of emotional trauma. With Anthony, we hear bits about a bad relationship that sent him to check into a mental hospital. It’s nice that he’s able to get taken out of that. Dignan’s version of getting out of arrested development is being able to pull off – well, not pull off, because it’s a total failure, but he tries, damn it.

LG: I do love Kumar Pullana, the older Indian actor who Wes Anderson cast a lot before his recent death. He plays an old safecracker who can’t remember how to crack the safe.

MO: My understanding was that he never actually knew, which to me might be even funnier.

LG: I get the sense that he’s done it before. I do love the exchange, “I lost my touch, man! I lost my touch!” Dignan: “Did you even ever have a touch?” To me that’s one of the more interesting exchanges in the whole film. As he goes on, he gets better with subtext and dialogue. I feel in the better version of this film, “Did you ever even have the touch” would be the thesis statement for a few of Anderson’s films, including this one.

MO: Maybe, but that’s an older man’s movie, and this is a younger man’s movie, so I don’t think that really fits. I see a lot of Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson in the whole tale of upstarts trying to break in and one of them wondering if it’s even for him. It’s a nice parallel to them trying to break into Hollywood and not knowing if they’re going to make it.

LG: Absolutely, it’s hard not to view it that way. It’s a first film about people trying to make it in something and struggling to do it. It might have not been conscious, but you can’t help but take it from there.

MO: Are there any other things that are formally impressive to you? It is a pretty striking debut.

LG: Oh, absolutely. I don’t think it’s all there, but there’s a lot of interesting stuff in it. He’s starting to use these dolly shots, colors are a big thing. There are these themes of mental illness and arrested development that he’ll continue to develop. And outside of Martin Scorsese, there are very few filmmakers who use music as surprisingly. It’s not just that he uses a Rolling Stones song. He uses “2000 Man”, a really wonderful song from Their Satanic Majesties Request, probably one of the least regarded classic-era Stones albums. It fits so wonderfully.

MO: I love the use of “Over and Done With” by the Proclaimers when Dignan and Anthony have to leave Inez behind. That brings me up so much, to the point where it almost feels like “Judy Is a Punk” in The Royal Tenenbaums. It makes me so happy that he has such imagination on how to use songs and finds the perfect commentaries on his scenes.

LG: The other thing I really love is Owen Wilson. That character is the most successful thing in the movie. He’s such a Wes Anderson character, right up to the animal noises he makes for signals, or the line “Let’s get lucky!” that he shouts before robberies. It’s infectiously joyous. He and Luke Wilson haven’t been served well by Hollywood as well as they should have. He’s a wonderful presence on screen. To me, there are some other things that are off. It’s a bit aimless structurally, and not in a way that really works. And you like that romance more than I do. There’s a sweetness to it, but it is a relationship where they sense each other’s innate sweetness and dignity, but because there’s a language barrier they’re doing a lot of projection onto each other. That’s something a more mature Wes Anderson would have gotten into more.

MO: Maybe, but that didn’t bother me nearly as much. Maybe it’s because they’re less complicated characters, but it’s a simple thing of lonely souls connecting for me, I think. At any rate, Anthony’s relationship with Dignan is more important, it’s the conceit of the film. One of them has outgrown this goofball stuff, where the other knows he won’t have much left when his friend moves on. That leads to a lot of great moments. Much as I like the romance, the stuff that comes out of it is a lot more interesting. There’s a great shot where Wes plays with deep focus: Dignan is in the background playing pool while Anthony and Inez are romancing on the front porch. And then in the background, Dignan gets the shit kicked out of him, and Anthony isn’t able to protect him. And then there’s a great cut to Dignan having to put ice on a bloody lip, and there’s a growing distance between the two. I also love Dignan’s reaction of pure, tantrum anger after Anthony gives the money they stole to Inez. He throws a rock, punches a friend, and fumes. It’s understandable, more so because Anthony is moving away from his plans.

LG: And I don’t think Anthony was ever that committed. He’s doing it for his friend. There’s a great bit in the beginning where he sneaks out of a mental hospital he voluntarily checked into, because he wants Dignan to feel like he’s helping him escape. One thing I do want to make sure we hit is that visually, it doesn’t fit into Wes Anderson Land, but conceptually, it’s one of his more archly stylized pieces. In his other films, especially his next two, his characters are living with a recognizable reality in some way. In his later films, the balance tips back the other way. They’re deep-sea divers or something dealing with real problems. Fantasy trappings for real problems, and there’s something similar going on here, we got this fantasy gang of wannabe crooks who are sorta dealing with real issues. He won’t try something this out there again until he reaches a more confident place.

MO: Hmm. I see it being more archly stylized, maybe, because Dignan’s trying to escape the realities of his life.

LG: But we never see those realities.

MO: Yes we do. He has nothing else to live for. When he goes back into town after making up with Anthony and he’s planning to pull off a big job, he’s got that great yellow jumpsuit that feels like it belongs in a Wes Anderson movie. Future Man comes along and mocks him, saying he looks like a rodeo clown or a banana, which stings because Dignan actually really likes this getup. And Future Man mentions that Dignan used to mow lawns, which he doesn't anymore. Dignan couldn’t make it in the real world. This is his way of getting out of that.

LG: Yeah, but he was mowing the lawn as a front for the robberies. He couldn’t do that right. That’s a nice bit, but I never felt enough of that simmering pain.

MO: You talked about how Dignan’s robbery is one of the best bits. How about his sacrifice to save Anthony?

LG: By the end, it’s become a proper Wes Anderson film, but a lot of the rest is phasing in and out. Some bits are there, some bits don’t hit like they should.

MO: Then I’m also curious how you interpret the last shot. Anderson does that great slow-motion thing at his films’ endings or in another key moment. Here, the film ends on a slow motion shot of Dignan, in prison, being led back in after Anthony and Bob visit him. He’s looking back at his friends, and I feel like now he’s dealing with the real consequences of his fantasy, even though he did get to do something good for his friends. How do you interpret that shot?

LG: Huh. You know what, you’re starting to change my mind on this movie as we talk about it. There is this really sad moment, I don’t know if it’s him facing the consequences, or just being sad because he’s separated from his friends. He’s doing it for them, but there’s also an interesting selfishness in his need to help his friends that I’d have liked to see more. That is an interesting moment, part of the proper Wes Anderson film it turns into at the end.

MO: Okay. Anything else you’d like to add?

LG: I do like it. It’s not my favorite of his works by a long shot, but it is a nice film. For me it falls squarely into the category of messy first films by great directors that show a lot of promise but are still figuring things out.

MO: I feel like had we seen this before his later films, we would’ve been over the moon for it. He’s so confident, and so clearly on the verge of even better things. I’m more impressed with it I think in part because the Dignan character is one of my favorite Wes Anderson characters, and he’s the heart of the film. I think Wes really nails it there.

LG: I’m watching it on mute as we talk here, I agree with you. Dignan makes the movie. The film didn’t do very well, it tested poorly, it was dumped in theaters. But I’m glad Anderson got another shot. Even in this flawed first feature, you can tell this is someone worth watching.

MO: How do you think it compares to the short?

LG: I kind of like the short better. Even though it’s less focused, and the feature does some things better. But I’m so surprised to see this rough style in the short, and that really floored me. I think I’d go A- to the short, and B- to the film.

MO: Wow. I like the short for the same reasons, but the emotional content of the film does get it for me. I’d give an A- to both (using my stupid 100 point scale, it'd be an 82 for the short and an 85 for the feature). 


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1 comment:

  1. A thoroughly enjoyable review. I'm not a huge fan of Wes Anderson at all, but I found BOTTLE ROCKET to be the most accessible of his work and the only one of his films that I really enjoyed.