Wes Anderson: The Importance of Being Retro


[At the end of this week Wes Anderson will release Moonrise Kingdom. That means all this week we’ll be celebrating by diving into his past films with a slew of features on the distinctive director and his films. Head here to see all our coverage during this week of Wes Anderson.]

Wes Anderson has a real obsession with the past, or at least things that evoke the feeling of the past. There are bits of it in Bottle Rocket, but the retro aesthetic really came to prominence in Rushmore. It’s in the score and the song selection, it’s the clothes and the color schemes, it’s even how the films are shot. Everything is consciously trying to reconstruct some sort of imagined past. For Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson told Entertainment Weekly that the film was heavily inspired by Ken Loach’s Black Jack (1979), Alan Parker’s Melody (1971), and François Truffaut’s Small Change (1976).

That vintage style has been one of the most influential things about Wes Anderson’s films. (Also, for better or worse, there’s the heavy doses of quirk — usually worse.) Wes Anderson week gave me an excuse to think about why his films are retro, and why looking backward has become more common in general. These are all preliminary and disorganized ideas on the subject, so keep that in mind and bear with me after the cut.

The Ecstasy of Influence

Finding one’s voice isn’t just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses. Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos.

— Jonathan Lethem, “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism” *

We can never quite escape our influences, and the retro style of Wes Anderson is a way to pay homage to the films and filmmakers who inspired him. There’s a lot of Harold and Maude in Wes Anderson’s filmography (hell, Bud Cort’s in The Life Aquatic), but he also owes so much to Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, the work of Jacques Tati, The Graduate, Martin Scorsese, and Orson Welles. His usual font of choice, Futura, was also the favored font of Stanley Kubrick. There’s also a lot of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts (overtly noted in The Royal Tenenbaums) and J. D. Salinger (maybe the Tenenbaums are a branch on the Glass family tree).

While some people use reference and retro style as an end in itself, I think the sheer amount of influences crammed into a Wes Anderson movie helps keep the films from just being mere collections of familiar stuff. It’s all about how they’re combined, and how much the clutter of stuff turns the whole into something unique — like the arrangement of multiple picture frames on wall, what seems a jumble turns into a Klimt.

You have other movies consciously cribbing from the past or a sense of the past as well, like I Heart Huckabees (2004), Napoleon Dynamite (2004), and The Brothers Bloom (2008). Anderson’s aesthetic isn’t necessarily responsible for all of these films, but that looking backwards is present in all of these films. It’s actually been present for years. Going back into the 90s, the not-too-veiled reference seemed to have gone mainstream thanks to the indie movies of that decade that eventually blew up, and that itself is just an outgrowth of collage, appropriation, assemblage, sampling, and other art movements of the 20th century.

We’ve gotten it a lot in music in the last decade as well (The Strokes, Amy Winehouse, The Decemberists, Vampire Weekend, Girl Talk etc.) and in gaming and in fashion. We’re even getting throwback sodas with real sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. Dr. Pepper’s riffing on its old “I’m a Pepper” commercial; Coke redid its Mean Joe Green ad from 1979 with Troy Polamalu in 2009. It’s like the past is never quite too far away, because tomorrow we’ll be seeing it or hearing it or wearing it or drinking it again. Maybe it’s just something about the 21st century finding its identity by dragging stuff from the past forward; like the titular dead father from the Donald Barthelme novel, but in Wes Anderson’s case it’s Hal Ashby, and he’s singing Cat Stevens.

* The Lethem epigraph is cribbed together from quotes by George L. Dillon, Ned Rorem, and Mary Shelley

A Storybook Case of Arrested Development

Character and storywise, there seems to be a lot going on with the retro vibe as well. In Rushmore there’s the motto “sic transit gloria” (glory fades) repeated a couple times. The full Latin phrase it’s pulled from is “sic transit gloria mundi,” which means “thus passes the glory of the world.” By freezing things in this retro state, there’s a preservation of past glories, and that makes sense because so many of Wes Anderon’s movies are about states of arrested development and hang-ups from the past.

So many of his characters seem like these precocious child geniuses in adult bodies. They all act the way child geniuses think adults should act; they even dress in the eccentric way that precocious children dress when they’re trying to look more mature. It’s not just the Tenenbaums; it’s also there in Steve Zissou and Herman Blume. Blume’s own recreation of the pool scene from The Graduate shows he’s an old man who’s really just Ben in stasis. They’ve retreated into past glories or reverted into memories or are held back by some previous event and remain these listless and trapped beings; prehistoric mosquitoes trapped in tweed rather than amber. Better to freeze and relive glory than fail again or allow yourself to fade even though neither can be avoided.

That may be why the sudden injection of Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay” during The Royal Tenenbaums stands out the way it does. Richie makes this sudden decision about the present and dying, and he divests himself of all trappings of his childhood. On comes a song from the mid-90s (which, funny enough, sounds like it could have been written and recorded in the 70s). It’s a moment of recognition about the present (or at least something close to the present), and afterwards Richie’s changed. His clothes are different, he looks different, he’s aged.

The retro style also gives a Wes Anderson movie an odd sort of fairy tale feeling. The movies tend to take place in an uncertain time that resembles the past. That uncertain time in the past is essentially shorthand for the invocation “Once upon a time…” When exactly isn’t necessarily important, but it happened at some point in time. If fairy tales have the feel of medieval and pre-Enlightenment Europe, these Wes Anderson tales have the feel of the French and American New Waves and New Yorker fiction from the 1950s. During Sleeping Beauty, the entire kingdom is put to sleep, frozen in that single state until something happens to shake them out of that spell. Maybe that’s the retro world of these Wes Anderson films: that fairy tale land peopled by adults who feel like precocious children inside.

Dioramas: The Shoeboxes of Wonder

"Let me tell you about my boat." - The Life Aquatic

I think the diorama-like compositions also have a part to play in the retro feel. Dioramas were the go-to book report projects I had growing up, and there’s something about arranging stuff in a shoebox that’s just right for creating a compact, concentrated world. The same goes for dollhouses, with that hinged facade that reveals the goings-on in every room, or special playsets for action figures, or Legos when you make a fortress, or when you make blueprints of something. It’s what’s going on in the above scene from The Life Aquatic, and the whole feel of The Fantastic Mr. Fox: model worlds that you can play inside of, action playsets for the precocious child.

Wes Anderson fills these model worlds with his influences, and its all chockablock with mental bric-a-brac. There’s the word “bricolage” which refers to work assembled from any available materials, and in Wes Anderson’s case it’s what’s in his head that came through his bookcase, his movie collection, his Kinks records, and his life experience. The films are then cobbled together and arranged in these tight spaces (kind of like this set tour by Bill Murray) and in imagined locations that may be tied to the real world. In Moonrise Kingdom, it’s the fictional land of New Penzance Island, and I wonder if Anderson drew the island map on graph paper initially.

To me it all sort of fits in an odd way since shoeboxes were where I stashed all that stuff I wanted to remember: old photos (some of them Polaroids), letters, mix tapes, pins/buttons, scratch paper doodles, ticket stubs. And if not a shoebox, then a filing box; and if not a filing box, then a cookie tin; and so on. (For a while I think my younger brother even kept his baby teeth in a box of some kind; maybe a box for my mom’s earrings.) All of these receptacles are places we can stash and organize memories, and all of them you can potentially build dioramas into. Thinking about it that way, the organized clutter of the Wes Anderson sets may just be a representation of the organizing principle at work in his head.

These are just childlike spaces for the mind to play, and all this mention of childhood and the past makes me think that young ideas of the adult world are what drive a lot of the retro vibe in a Wes Anderson movie. Or maybe it’s young fears of the adult world as well, and dressing up in the clothing of the past is a way to face this uncertainty, like a kind of armor or protective cloak. This is what grown-ups in the past wore, let’s try to be brave while we play dress-up and face the world.

“This Time Tomorrow” by The Kinks (1970)

This Time Tomorrow - The Darjeeling Limited OST - The Kinks

A friend of mine thinks retro is really big right now because people are so uncertain about the future. It’s not that there was a lot of certainty in the past, but today no one knows how the world economy is going to be fixed or if there’ll be decent jobs anymore. None of the utopias happened either, and people are cynical and disenchanted. And on a superficial level, there’s a fear of things seeming dated, and liking things now that won’t have cachet in the future. It’s this big anxiety about how we’ll survive and what will endure, both of which are essentially beyond our control.

She says the past is a comfort because it’s happened already. Everything’s been tested, written about, and had the embarrassment drained out of it (and what’s left can be addressed through ironic detachment). The internet has become this big archive of vintage palliatives. You can spend hours online looking up old movies, music, shows, games, and so on. All that cultural stuff you might have missed the first time around can be regained. And maybe by delving deep enough into the past, there might be an answer about how to live, or at the very least we can find something worth saving and sharing with people.

Those concerns are operating in Wes Anderson’s movies. (Ditto other movies steeped in the past where there’s more going on than just the retro sheen.) The past is a comfortable place and a comfortable thing, and maybe by dealing with all of the hard stuff of life in the garb of the past, the whole ordeal is a bit easier. We go back to action playsets and dioramas and the cloaking robe (probably pinstriped or polka dotted). Fairy tale retro is a safe place where you can transplant those potent concerns from the present. You can shrink down your worries until they are tiny, doll-sized, easy to manipulate. You arrange them in a small space. You sort things out free from fear. Adults at play. Maybe in that playtime, you figure something out.

And really, that’s what stories do, and this is just one way to go about storytelling. Not all stories are diorama fairy tales set in uncertain times, but to me this feels like Wes Anderson’s way of getting things done. And it’s fashionable and oddly contemporary because this hodgepodge of influences and ideas is where we’re at right now. No one knows what the future holds, really, but you can figure it’ll be something like the past. I think that’s comforting.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.