Roger Ebert, the recently deceased but forever reigning film critic, once wrote a series called “The Great Movies,” in which he examined some of the greatest motion pictures ever made. In order to pay him homage without ruthlessly ripping him off, I’ll be instituting something similar, yet quite different. Every now and then, I will devote a column to one of “The Greats,” one of the myriad visionaries of stage, page, screen or song. The goal of said columns is simple: in 500 words or fewer, explore what it is that makes our greatest artists so, well, great.
I choose director Wes Anderson for my inaugural article for two reasons. Firstly, the trailer for his new film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” came out not too long ago, and it looks to be—like many of his pictures—a masterpiece. The movie will come out on March 7, 2014 and will feature many of his stock players like Ed Norton. Bill Murry and Owen Wilson Secondly, this 44-year-old filmmaker reminds us that not all the greats are dead and buried.
I have no idea if Wes Anderson has seen “Mary Poppins.” But, consciously or not, he has taken one of its most famous phrases, “just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” and made it into a dictum that defines what he is about as an artist.
Some see only the sugar. Anderson’s visual style is among the flashiest and most recognizable in recent movie history. Every colorful scene and shot is engineered with a Swiss-watch precision that some understandably deem showy and insufferable. In “The Royal Tenenbaums,” for example, Gwyneth Paltrow’s character does not just get off a bus—she descends from it in slow motion as an indie song plays in the background and hotel valets move around her like back-up dancers in an Astaire-Rogers picture.
Yes, this scene proves that Anderson knows his way around movement, which is, of course, crucial to movies. But is it all just superfluous razzle-dazzle?
Not in the least.
You see, the bus scene is from the point of view of Jason Schwartzman’s character, who has an unrequited crush on Paltrow’s. Because of Anderson’s visual ingenuity, we see her as the Schwartzman character sees her—beautiful, otherworldly and out of reach. This is raw heartbreak, and Anderson’s stylistic touches make it real to us. His spoonful of visual sugar makes the thematic medicine go down.
Take a scene from “Moonrise Kingdom,” an Anderson masterpiece. As the disturbed child at the film’s center picks a fight with another kid, Anderson pays visual and verbal homage to old film-noir classics. It sounds cheesy and a little twee, but what he gets at here is that, to these kids, this business is just as serious as solving a murder was to Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade. Once again: Sugar. Medicine. Voilà.