DECEMBER 10, 2013
THE WES ANDERSON COLLECTION is a big book — a hefty, formidable thing, cumbersome to cozy up to, unwieldy to lug around. Prospective readers may be advised to invest in a new set of shelves: it’s twice the size of anything on mine, heavier than my volumes of Proust in paperback or my hardcover Infinite Jest, at the moment left sprawled expansively across my floor until I can find it a more permanent home. The book is so colossal that at one point, while taking notes for this review, I managed to lose a ballpoint pen in the trench of a flipped page’s inner margin. But such accidents are to be expected. It seems only reasonable that a novelty item should impose itself so spectacularly, commanding whatever space it enters. If the success of a coffee table book is measured by its aesthetic appeal, by how strikingly its glossy surfaces are rendered, then this is an exemplary model: the author, film critic Matt Zoller Seitz, has assembled a deluxe package in vibrant color, the whole thing extravagantly crafted, its every page lavishly adorned. In fact, it seems like everything about The Wes Anderson Collection is impressive — until you get around to actually reading it.
Now, it may seem neither appropriate nor particularly fair to apply the same degree of scrutiny to a coffee table book that one might to, say, a compendium of essays and interviews or a book-length critical study. But it quickly transpires that The Wes Anderson Collection, unnecessarily and much to its detriment, aspires to present itself as precisely these endeavors. Though it has been likeably (if somewhat flamboyantly) furnished with all manner of production stills, storyboards, original illustrations, candid behind-the-scenes photographs, visual referents, and its subject’s collected juvenilia, the book adopts a framework that stringently, even stubbornly, resembles a work of film criticism. Fans of Wes Anderson will gravitate to the Collection for its dazzling pictorial offerings; Seitz wants them to come for the pictures and stay for the words. And so, arrayed among an assortment of Peanuts comic strips, lobby card mock-ups, and pictures of auteur inspirations like Orson Welles and François Truffaut, the reader will find a vast body of text: a 1,265-word introduction (by novelist Michael Chabon), an 896-word preface, an essay of somewhere between 1,100 and 1,300 words for each of Anderson’s seven feature films, and seven attendant interviews which run from 5,000 words to a little over 11,000. That’s quite a lot of talking and writing. The trouble is that it isn’t very good.
In his preface, the author describes the Collection as “a book-length conversation interspersed with critical essays, photos, and artwork,” though he doesn’t “feel comfortable calling it a book-length ‘interview.’” You may be wondering what exactly constitutes the difference between a book-length interview and a book-length conversation. The author doesn’t elaborate, but, reading through these chats, the distinction soon becomes clear. The purpose of an interview is to allow an artist to illuminate his work. But the only thing illuminated by the conversations in this book is that Wes Anderson gives a terrible interview. Of course these are “conversations”: Anderson has so little to say about his life and work that Seitz has to keep talking to fill in the gaps. The author calls the result “a tour of an artist’s mind, with the artist as guide and amiable companion,” but it seems to me that the artist is merely tagging along, and with an air of agreeable resignation. And where does this tour take them? Nowhere personal, naturally — as the author duly concedes, “Wes is an intensely private man.” That leaves “the substance of Wes’s style,” but in truth we don’t see much of that crop up either. A question thus remains: what does Wes Anderson want to talk about?
The word counts for the essays listed above have been generously provided by the book itself, informatively printed above each piece in what I suppose is a nod to the many on-screen classifications and annotations of Anderson’s films. I decided to do some counting of my own, and the final tallies tell us much about Anderson’s habits as an interviewee. Over the course of their seven conversations, Seitz asks Anderson 209 direct questions. Anderson’s responses are often limited to one or two words: he answers “Yep” 20 times, “Hmm” 37 times, and “Right” a whopping 39 times. Such replies, as you might expect, are rather deflating. This is a typical exchange:
SEITZ: So your interest in European art cinema from the fifties and sixties blossomed at the University of Texas?
Now, it should be obvious to anybody who is familiar with journalistic standards even in passing that the sort of yes-no question posed by Seitz here ought to be avoided for precisely the reason demonstrated by Anderson’s response — that’s simply poor form. But a veteran interviewee ought to know better than to answer that way, too. It isn’t difficult to imagine Anderson using this as a platform to elaborate further on his interest in European art cinema for the benefit of Seitz and his readers, who presumably want to know more about it. But Anderson proves frustratingly reticent throughout. His responses represent a veritable thesaurus of short-form affirmation: “Apparently,” “More or less,” “Maybe so,” “Well, I suppose,” “That’s true,” “Well, you know…,” “I guess so,” “Nope,” “Sure,” “I don’t know,” “Ah” (twice), and my personal favorite, “[WES SHRUGS].”
True, Anderson does manage to string together more than a few words in succession every so often. On such occasions he betrays his true perspicacity. Consider, for example, his insight regarding the greatness of Hitchcock’s Rear Window: “Mainly I think I just like the writing and the story, and the cast is the best. James Stewart and Grace Kelly. They’re the best in it.” His reflections upon his own work, meanwhile, are vague to the point of nonexistence. Here he is on the genesis of Bottle Rocket: “There wasn’t really a story. I don’t really remember.” The author often confronts Anderson with some fact or anecdote about one of his productions and, Anderson, as if he’d slept through them, responds with bafflement: “Oh really? Interesting …. I have no recollection of that.” “I have very little recollection of where that could have come from.” “I don’t remember. I guess you could draw those conclusions.” Sometimes Anderson struggles to even recall the content of his own films. Here we find him piecing together the ending of The Royal Tenenbaums: “Does Richie go to Royal or something at the end? In the last part of the story? … But do we see him go to him? Or is there a scene before? …. What are they doing there? I just don’t remember.”
Well, The Royal Tenenbaums is a little over a decade old now, and I doubt any among us could hope to remember what we were doing 10 years ago. The author, slowly grasping the paucity of his subject’s recollections, tries instead to get Anderson to comment on his methods and motivations — that “substance of Wes’s style” he was going on about in the preface. Here he fares no better. Anderson on what accounts for the specific tone of Bottle Rocket: “The performances are just those guys saying the lines. It’s not very conceptual. It’s like, maybe this is the lens? And this is the shot? And this is the angle? This is the feeling?” On his predilection for the anamorphic widescreen lens: “I don’t know if I have a very analytical answer. It’s more like, ‘what a wonderful shape to makes these pictures in.’” On the use of stop-motion animation in The Fantastic Mr. Fox: “I’m probably not articulating it well. The answer to the question ‘why stop motion’ is ‘because I love stop-motion.’” On what attracted him to the Roald Dahl book: “Just that I liked it.” And, of course, on why he wanted to work with George Clooney: “The simple answer is that I wanted to work with him.” Anderson has no shortage of simple answers. At his most honest he doesn’t even bother: “Yeah, I’m not exactly sure what my comment is on that.” Right. No kidding.
Through all this the author remains undiscouraged. Indeed, forced to contend with his subject’s intractable brevity, Seitz scarcely seems phased, and when he doesn’t receive an appropriate answer he simply provides one for Anderson to confirm. Yep, hmm, right: the one-word answers recur as Seitz keeps the questions coming. On occasion these responses crop up together in the space of a single page, separated only by speculation and conjecture on the part of Anderson’s ever-garrulous interlocutor. To wit:
SEITZ: And also just a whole sense of Royal Tenenbaum introducing people, introducing the grandchildren, to a less managed way of life, a more dangerous time.
SEITZ: He’s bringing the danger back.
SEITZ: He’s a visionary character, this guy, in his way. I mean, he’s certainly a strong-willed character.
SEITZ: And there’s no other character in the movie who has that degree of outward-projected force.
SEITZ: Other characters in the movie are intense, but they’re not projecting it outward all the time the way he is.
SEITZ: You have those types of characters in your movies a lot.
While reading such passages you have to ask yourself what, if anything, you’re meant to take away from these conversations. Is this a sly portrait of a taciturn artist? Surely the author doesn’t believe that these exchanges offer his readers anything like critical elucidation — the insufficiency of Anderson’s contributions ought to be self-evident. The question I found myself asking most often was this: Why didn’t Seitz edit a lot of this out? Why didn’t he cut the “yep,” the “right,” the “hmm”? An interview, it should be said, is not the same as a transcription — a reader expects that an interview has been sculpted to some degree, shorn of slips and solecisms, bestowed an editorial coherence and shape. Much as you wouldn’t expect an interviewer to retain his subject’s conversational “ums” and “likes,” you head into an interview with the understanding that the utterly extraneous has been cautiously and judiciously excised.
In the case of The Wes Anderson Collection, I can see two possibilities. The first is that its author has for whatever reason decided not to take any liberties with his transcribed interviews. The second is that he has, and what remains has been selected as worthy of inclusion. If it’s the former, I deem it a miscalculation. If it’s the latter, I can’t imagine what was bad enough to cut out, especially when an exchange like this was left in:
SEITZ: Is it a long process getting from what you put on the page or what you see in your head to what you see on the screen?
SEITZ: Is that part of the process pleasant for you, or is it something you’ve just learned to endure with a smile?
ANDERSON: I like it.
SEITZ: You really like it?
ANDERSON; I like it very much.
SEITZ: Some filmmakers don’t.
ANDERSON: Some filmmakers don’t.
SEITZ: They talk about directing, the actual making of a film, as their least favorite part.
ANDERSON: No, I like it.
So Anderson likes that part of the process — of that the reader has been resoundingly reassured. A conversation like this suggests that Anderson’s meager answers may not be entirely his fault: surely there’s some blame to be laid on the questions posed by his interviewer. This seems an opportune time to address the seven critical essays that round out the Collection. Now, if Seitz has proven nothing else about himself through his many laborious interviews with Anderson, it’s that he is very much a Wes Anderson fan, and one of the more appealing qualities of the book is that it betrays the hallmarks of a genuine enthusiast. The essays tend unabashedly toward the personal, inflected with a sort of friendly nonchalance and possessed of an admirer’s fondness and zeal. What they do well is reflect the intensity of their author’s affection — and given that this is a book by a Wes Anderson fan written for Wes Anderson fans, that’s hardly the worst function they could serve. What they do less well is engage with Anderson’s films critically. And this proves to be a problem.
When Seitz looks, for instance, at Bottle Rocket, he sees “not just a notable 90s comedy, but a stealth documentary that captures a certain time and place.” Are there any films ever made about which this could not be said? He continues: Bottle Rocket also “fixes the most important moment in an artist’s career: the beginning.” As opposed, I guess, to all of those first films that fix the middle or end of an artist’s career. Seitz often recedes into such generalizations. Take this oddity: he writes, toward the end of the book, that The Darjeeling Limited is “a dialectical movie, filled with opposing forces locked in a never-ending battle that will be decided, if at all, in tiny increments.” Between the vaguely academic jargon (“dialectical”) and the embarrassing use of cliché (“locked in a never-ending battle”), it’s hard to know what, if anything, this sentence actually means.
I know from reading his criticism elsewhere that Seitz has a strong understanding of cinema history. And yet he makes strange, baseless comparisons as if they don’t require substantiation, as when he claims that Anderson’s “sensibility has more in common with such 1940s filmmakers as Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger than with most of his generational contemporaries.” Leaving aside the fact that “1940s filmmakers” is a strange way to describe directors whose careers spanned more than that decade, it’s unclear what exactly Sturges, Hawks, and the Archers had in common other than the fact that they made films during the same era. But here Seitz seems to suggest not only that they share a defining sensibility, but that the nature of this sensibility and its connection to Wes Anderson is so obvious that it doesn’t require any further explanation. This is the sort of statement a professional critic couldn’t even tweet without raising a few eyebrows. And yet Seitz has confidently committed it to the page.
Seitz, of course, is a populist critic writing for a mainstream movie-going audience, so perhaps these essays should be excused their lack of historical rigor. But what are we to make of it when, in his piece on The Royal Tenenbaums, he describes it as “more comedic and dramatic,” only to change his mind a few paragraphs on, deciding that it is actually “a drama rather than a comedy”? This is such straightforward contradiction that it’s surprising to find it in the final draft — for even if The Wes Anderson Collection is intended for a more casual readership, surely it doesn’t want to trip over outright gaffes. The assortment of pedestrianisms and clichés that follow are wearying, but after a while we come to expect them: images are variously “dazzling,” “lyrical,” and “exuberant”; the films are “chock-full” of “kinetic bursts of action,” and so on. Strange adverbs abound: “hilariously right,” “horribly perfect,” “goofy intensity,” “extravagantly silly.” Sentences contradict themselves midway through: Max, the hero of Rushmore, is followed by “unruly offspring who live to serve a visionary dad,” because of course “unruly” things “live to serve” others. Oh, how the clichés stack and topple: “their awkward love triangle creates a hall of mirrors that blurs boundaries.” Though original metaphors are even worse: things “bloom rather explosively, like irradiated sci-fi flowers.” Yes, this is casual criticism. But it’s also just bad writing.
I suppose it doesn’t really matter. Readers of The Wes Anderson Collection will doubtless emerge at the other end satisfied by the more sensational miscellany on display, which was the book’s central attraction all along. This isn’t The Wes Anderson Reader or Wes Anderson: A Critical Biography, and it needn’t try to be. As a “book-length conversation” or a work of long-form criticism, perhaps, the book is a failure. But on the terms its scope and style set out for itself, the book is pretty obviously a success: it is still a marvel to behold, a work of impressive grandeur. That isn’t anything to scoff at. Like Anderson’s films, the book is immaculately assembled, crafted with a peerless attention to detail. And, like Anderson’s films, this detail rewards a kind of scrutiny of its own: the kind you luxuriate in and linger over.