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Me, on A and E: The Andersonian Memory Play

By Pete Barell18 - Petes column

Wes Anderson –the King of quirk. An idiosyncratic idol. The ultra-stylistic filmmaker whose work offers bounds of offbeat moments, family dysfunction and a lingering feeling of melancholic sentimentality. It’s no secret that the man has a unique way of presenting his stories, but what the hell are we actually watching? Is Mr. Anderson just indulging himself? Is this “style-over-substance”? Is there a deeper reasoning here?

What I propose is that nothing we see in an Anderson film is supposed to be reality as it happened, but actually the memory or mind’s eye of one or more people combined into the expressionistic rendition
of the story at hand. A distinct, purposeful unreality.

His world is firmly set within the limitless confines of memory and the mind, free to be as brightly colored and exaggerated as can be, adding up to punctuate the story in a specific way. Before you think I’m crazy, consider how Anderson’s films are presented.

Several Anderson films have a framing device. In the opening of The Royal Tenenbaums, we see the hands of a man checking out a library book by the same name. The film is divided into chapter segments, with a narrator guiding us — as if we are following along with a reading of the book. What we are seeing, then, is a visualization and an interpretation in the mind’s eye of those words (in that fictional book-within-a-film) and not something meant to be wholly the truth.

In Moonrise Kingdom, a seemingly all-knowing, tiny bearded character aptly named “Narrator,” guides the audience in the film. He clearly establishes the events we are about to view: the runaway love story of two preteens on a small New England island, which coincides with the arrival of a historic storm in the mid 1960s. This character is omnipresent, going as far as popping up to spew knowledge before events happen, and even physically interacting with the other characters.

Since the events have already happened, we may assume that this character is bringing us a mere retelling of those events. It is a rendition, in effect. He is like some bard telling a tall tale to a bunch of drunken folks down at a pub. Maybe he’ll over-pronounce some bits of the story just to make it that much more interesting and entertaining. Hence the bright colors and offbeat, only somewhat realistic ways in which the characters interact.

And then there is The Grand Budapest Hotel — where the Andersonian framing device is taken up a notch. The story, separated into six sections via title cards, begins in a rather subdued-looking (for Anderson) modern time: a young woman approaches the statue of a famed writer and then sits down in the park to read from the pages of perhaps his most lauded work… The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The book is a memoir, in which the author describes (we cut to a short scene of him in the ‘80s speaking to the camera) a time in 1968, when he stayed at the famous hotel and shared a dinner with the enigmatic, aging owner, Mr. Zero Mustafa. The mysterious Mustafa then recalls to the author the history of how the hotel ownership fell to him some 35 years earlier. Commence the main plot.

Let’s boil this down. A young girl is reading a book written in the ‘80s about a conversation the author had in the ‘60s, in which a story was told to him about events that happened in the ‘30s. Layers upon layers. Since the film opens and closes with the young reader, we can assume what we are seeing is her imagining of the events, as told by the author. This explains the distortion, drama, and expressionistic qualities of the visuals.

Not convinced? Well, think about our own human memory.

It is safe to say that the mental images brought up when telling a story, or reading a book, are not always the most realistic. For example, if you read a book where the author describes the birthmark of a character, one that looks a bit like Mexico, this image may become blatant and even over-pronounced in how we visualize them for the remainder of the book.

Think about all of the channels and layers The Grand Budapest Hotel is being told to us. Not only that, but in the film it is revealed that Mr. Mustafa is a semi-unreliable storyteller, leaving out some details about his relationship with the character Agatha, as it brings him too much pain to mention. What we are seeing is a distorted version of the events, not the true reality.

It cannot be disputed that Anderson is influenced by theatre. Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom all either feature a theatrical production, a playwright character, or both within their stories. Regardless, the over the top ways in which his characters interact, as well as how they rapidly fire out dialogue all hint at this influence. (Note: Anderson met recurring actor Owen Wilson in a college playwriting class).

During Anderson’s studies of theatre, he may have stumbled upon Tennessee Williams (The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof). The classic American playwright wrote about something he called Plastic Theatre, which was an expressionistic way of presenting a play through setting, props, music, sound and visual effects — everything adding up to parallel the emotional lives of the characters and theme. The world of the play reflects and transcends the story itself, rather than being plainly realistic.

Williams’ The Glass Menagerie is openly described as a memory play, the narrator Tom Wingfield guides us much like the bearded narrator from Moonrise Kingdom. He describes the story as having already happened, something in the past that he is recollecting. Here is an excerpt from the opening scene description.

“The scene is memory and is therefore non-realistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart. The interior is therefore rather dim and poetic.”

Does this sound familiar? Here is a segment of Wingfield’s opening monologue, after he describes the social and historical background of the story:

“The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic. In memory everything seems to happen to music. That explains the fiddle in the wings. I am the narrator of the play, and also a character in it.”

Are Anderson’s films his interpretation of the memory play philosophy? Are they memory films?
I think that they are.

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