The Wes Anderson Collection (and a signing tonight!)

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I have followed Matt Zoller Seitz’s writings “ever since the dark days before Pearl Harbor” when he was one of the principal film critics for the New York Press. Today he does the same for New York magazine and Vulture.com, and is Editor-in-Chief of RogerEbert.com, entrusted with that task after the recent passing of the site’s titular founder. He’s also written for The New York Times, Salon.com, etc.

He also happens to have been the first person ever to review a Wes Anderson movie. Seitz was scribbling for the Dallas Observer in 1994 when he reviewed Anderson’s first, 12 minute black and white version of Bottle Rocket at a local film festival. In the intervening time he maintained periodic contact with Anderson and his frequent collaborators the Wilson Brothers, Texans all. He knows their entire oeuvre inside and out, and he knows more than a little about the behind-the-scenes. He was thus uniquely situated to create The Wes Anderson Collection, a unique book published by Abrams a couple of months ago. The book is simultaneously a long form, in depth one-on-one interview with a film-maker in the manner of Hitchcock/ Truffaut or Hawks on Hawks…and a big coffee table style art book full of production stills and related images from the director’s seven features, cleverly formatted in the same highly presentational style of many of Anderson’s films.

We are huge Wes Anderson fans around our house, the Duchess particularly. The Royal Tenenbaums is one of her favorite films, which she expounds upon here, but I have seen and love all of his films too. His extreme formalism and love of artifice appeal to me, not per se but because he has an eye for Beauty, and Beauty pursued as a Platonic Ideal converges with Truth. His movies share this quality with the art of many of the great silent directors, and with the few who’ve held on to that fundamental, like Hitchcock, Kubrick and Welles. If he didn’t have an eye and an ear, we might resent the artificiality, but he does, so we don’t.

And while he clearly has a brain (and I think this is the key) he doesn’t let it get in the way of his gut.This is my main takeaway from Seitz’s relentless, extensive interview. Much like the great directors I mentioned, despite Seitz’s heroic efforts to pin him down to certain intentions and prevailing themes, Anderson remains for the most part stubbornly unwilling or unable to concede that anything motivates his artistic vision beyond inspiration or instinct. He applies himself mightily and methodically to the delivery of the aesthetic product, but that’s in the service of the germ of what came first, which just amounts to a gut feeling. In Darjeeling Limited, for example he essentially says knew he wanted to make a movie about brothers, with a train in it, and set in India, and it all just kind of came together. Seitz’s (quite necessary) journalistic efforts to psychoanalyze are generally resisted or questioned, though sometimes Anderson will open the door a crack and allow that there might be some validity to his speculations. But overall, his most frequent response to such probing is “Hmmmmmmm….” which rather hilariously reminds me of Hitchcock when Truffaut presses him about certain revealing aspects of, say, Vertigo or Marnie. (Rear Window emerges as one of Anderson’s favorite films, by the way. Does that surprise you?)

Anderson’s command of cinema history, the depth and breadth of his working knowledge of the masterpieces of film, turns out to be encyclopedic. He also knows more than most people about related arts like theatre and photography. This makes Seitz’s conversation with him far-ranging and endlessly fascinating as it twists and turns through his life and career from his childhood through his body of work. In addition to the many directors we’ve mentioned above, he also mentions Satyajit Ray as a particular influence. But the book also gets us into the mechanics of the film-making process: how Bottle Rocket was expanded from a low-budget short into a feature; how the A list star Bill Murray worked in Rushmore for scale; the scheduling challenges of pulling all the stars together for Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson’s love for stop-motion animation which fully flowered in The Fantastic Mr. Fox, his preference for film over video (he used super 16mm for Moonrise Kingdom, which is one reason why it looks so much like a home movie from the 60s or 70s), his love for maps and models, etc etc.

You want your own copy now, don’t you? Or perhaps want to give one as a Holiday gift? Well, you can get one tonight, signed by the author. He’s doing an event tonight at Book Court in Brooklyn at 7pm. Directions and all the details are here: http://bookcourt.com/events/wes-anderson-collection

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