Anderson vs. Stillman

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In recent years director Wes Anderson has assumed the rank of auteur in the filmmaking community. Film students all strive to be him, citing The Royal Tenenbaums among their favorite films of all time (trust me, I was there to hear it myself). Even Stylus ran an article listing our 50 favorite films of the new millennium on which that film secured the top position (yes, I did contribute to that article, but The Royal Tenenbaums did not appear on my individual list). In Hollywood, the push toward his quirky style has become quite prevalent in the mediocre films of Jared Hess and I’m sure others will be joining the ranks as well in the coming years. Hell, Anderson himself even appeared in an American Express commercial!

Personally, I find it surprising that so young a director with such outlandish idiosyncrasies has become so respected. I mention this not because I do not enjoy his films, but because I think that, for the most part, they’re a bit overrated. First of all, we can all agree that Rushmore is his undisputed masterpiece – the one film where everything that defined him came together perfectly. To that extent, Bottle Rocket and The Royal Tenenbaums play as above average comedies, certainly refreshing to watch, but nothing I’d include on a year-end list. That leaves only The Life Aquatic to assume the position of failure, a film that already indicates that Anderson’s formula is running thin.

I’ve been thinking about all this lately because I recently viewed a little film called Metropolitan and it struck me how much Anderson borrowed from this film in terms of dialogue, editing and narrative. It’s comparable to someone who has listened to Belle and Sebastian all their life one day discovering Nick Drake. Not that I believe there’s anything wrong with wearing your influences on your sleeve, but one has to be prepared to admit under the circumstances when the original outdoes the copy.

This lengthy digression is by way of recommending Metropolitan to an audience that already embraces the wit of Wes Anderson. I should warn interested parties, however, that the dialogue of director Whit Stillman is a bit denser in theory than Anderson’s playful exchanges. This isn’t because Stillman attempts a more pretentious route with what he conveys, so much as he approaches his material from an outsider perspective. I think it’s safe to say that Anderson admires his characters – one could even imagine him modeling Max Fischer after his younger self. Stillman’s position isn’t as clear, but it nevertheless remains probable that he does not share Anderson’s identification. As a result, Metropolitan’s characters come off as a bit more unlikable and self-obsessed. Not too surprising since it focuses on spoiled Manhattan youths who attend debutante balls and sit around playing bridge and discussing lengthy theories on society, literature, art, etc.

Their conversations are at once repulsive and intriguing. One character criticizes Buñuel’s film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie for portraying the bourgeoisie unfavorably. Another derides novels he has never read based on the literary criticism he has read, justifying it be explaining that by reading solely the criticism, the reader obtains both the underlying theme of the author and the perspective of the critic. Two birds with one stone, eh?

Sometimes the dialogue is elusively amusing, like, for instance, when one character references a guy who forced a woman to “pull a train” (thankfully, a lengthy message board on IMBd concerning this topic has given me plenty of possible explanations for that phrase). Other observations are right on the money, like when one character explains men’s relation to women. They see us as either dates, potential dates, or date substitutes. These moments help enhance the comedic angle of the film since its pompous characters must overanalyze everything, even the most puerile of topics.

I could go on endlessly about the brilliant interplay between the characters, but I’d hate to ruin the fun of watching it yourself so instead I’ll leave you with the observation that resonated most with me. An older gentleman, who laments growing older, explains to the young protagonists what it means to be a failure. It concerns whether or not you take pleasure in answering the question “what do you do for a living?” It is a question that should weigh heavily on our protagonists, since the question directly addresses the main concern of their existence. Sure, there are many people who could be considered successful because they have a good job and make a lot of money, but does that mean they have not necessarily failed? The characters in Metropolitan are all guaranteed financial stability (save for the main character, who isn’t as well off), but deep down inside, have they really achieved anything in life or do they just talk about it? Sometimes I fear we suffer from the same affliction.

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6 Responses to “Anderson vs. Stillman”

  1. Adrian Says:

    I thought Lil’ O (aka Da Fat Rat Wit Da Cheeze) taught you the meaning of running/pulling a train…

  2. craig Says:

    I believe the film is called Bottle Rocket, you half-witted piece of shit!!!

  3. Erick Says:

    While “Metropolitan” certainly seems to be an influence on Anderson’s films, the former’s exclusive focus on society vs. the latter’s disdain for it via its surreal elements sets them considerably apart. Anderson is far more indebted to John Irving than he is to “Metropolitan.”

  4. Erick Says:

    I don’t know if I see a lot of style or technique simularities. Anderson’s films use heavy musical accompainment, unusual title cards, and a great deal of narration. “Metropolitan,” conversely, is presented almost entirely through dialogue with few stylized moments at all (the brief dream sequence near the end of the film is the only one that comes to mind). “The Royal Tennenbaums” and “Metropolitan” may both address the issue of an absentee father, but they could not do it in more radically different ways.

    Certainly there are simularities (particularly in that “Rushmore’s” Max speaks and possesses mannerisms that combine elements of the three main male characters in “Metropolitan”) but even that doesn’t approach a Nick Drake – Belle and Sebasatian sort of relationship by any means.

  5. Ryan Says:

    One particular writer/director who deserves to be mentioned here is Noah Baumbach. His first film, Kicking & Screaming, weighs heavily upon its Stillman influence. Baumbach even employs Eigman as the main irritated character, almost an older version of his character in Metropolitan.

    Baumbach can also be seen as the bridge between the two as he went on to help Anderson write The Life Aquatic.

  6. gokinsmen Says:

    Whoa, I encountered this post several years after the fact, so I don’t know if anyone will ever read this…

    I pretty much agree with everything you said about Wes Anderson and his films until the Metropolitan:Rushmore :: Nick Drake:Belle & Sebastian analogy (which is a great line, though). Though I think that Stillman probably influenced Anderson a great deal, that comparison doesn’t really jive. On the other hand, it works if you replace Metropolitan with Harold & Maude…

    But your larger, more implicit point is seriously worth noting. It’s fine to enjoy the films of Wes Anderson, PTA, Tarantino or whomever…but people need to keep in mind that those guys borrow HEAVILY and DIRECTLY from not-too-distant predecessors who paved the way (and often remain relatively anonymous). Personally, that’s what makes me balk at calling them great film artists.

    Finally, a couple of observations that have been kicking ’round my brain. Nick Smith is who Max Fischer WANTS to grow up to be. Tom Townsend is who he WILL grow up to be. And finally, Metropolitan is the kind of film a more mature Max would grow up to make (I think someone might have said this elsewhere as well…).

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