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Pain in Pastel: Violence in the Worlds of Wes Anderson

"It'll grow back, won't it?" "Tails don't grow back."



When the beige façade falls, we see in defiant red, the blood. In running pour it gushes to the sink with frightening speed. Never in cinema has a red been so red. In its full-frame royal panic, it flows away so quickly we have but a half breath to inhale before lucidity fades and we forget what charmed pastel we once found so inviting. From an ocean stretching forever in ruby sleep to Fila-striped arms bathed in crimson-striped slashes, the world of Wes Anderson is quietly drenched in a violence unseen, with only a fleeting glance; pretty dreams of the world, hued and stitched together with fine thread, gravely funny and whimsically depressed, elegantly complex and twistedly simple. Every tale he has spun skips through romance, holding tenuous hands with happiness, casually and with immaculate care.


Yet a glance towards cinema is rarely fleeting, both its eyes and our own can hover infinitely; and from this vantage, we begin to see the shapes of despair, anger, and death. The characters that once seemed comedically in a rut now appear desperately clinging to whatever reason they have to live. Lovers once perfectly placed now stand alone from each other; families, once happy and blissful, writhe in old hatred and broken trust. The emotional toll is high, and the price of acceptance is a dive into that old swamp we call tragedy. The volume of his violence may vary but through every film it slithers subdued.


The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), dir. Wes Anderson

Rushmore is perhaps the quietest, play violence and performed war; a precocious love balanced on unnerving want, the circling revenge a symbol of the emotional impotence of these fuckwitted boys wrestling in the murky green sediment of sex, both grasping to feel warmth in a world of old money ivy and steel smelting state schools. The language their masculinity understands in competition is one of torment, their emerald hate boiled through identity denial and defence of the characters they have made of themselves. Their acts, more glorified pranks than true evil, take to the stage of the film; while true horror, murderous, Serpico pastiche and a verdant Vietnam slaughter, become the light entertainment of their fragile egos. Max Fischer never fought, never killed, he is a coward who swims in the mythology of his own societal failure as a man, never aware that the man he was trying to be through his violent acts was already dead. The French Dispatch, the loudest; in both style and substance, takes an opposite approach, colour in clash with monochrome as police tear through the red barricades of youth; art chained and beaten, sold and defeated as we lecture on its freedom; a rejected man within an institution bent on his destruction as it fights for its own future. A man who helps in a small, sad way, his only ‘comrade’ an empty table. Where Rushmore performs pain between curtain closures, The French Dispatch shows real violence plainly. From moment to moment the violence is shown in tableaux, every detail visible.


Beyond physical acts the violence throughout is institutional and its bureaucratic beatings pummel the characters from all sides. It is a world where the very language of reality jars at breakneck pace against carmine-hued city streets full of playful music; where realism batters style, ever-changing, to dust. The typical formalism of Anderson’s visual style fights against aggressive handheld camera work; the lighting rages harsh through its changes. It’s the click-clack of type here that hounds, and the ballpoint brutality of news told as fairytale or memory. Time heals no wounds for the lonely flaneur who has seen too much, it is tragic in the mind, and we all bare the scarlet scars of moments lost in their capture. Maybe that’s why the camera holds; why time slashes itself forward and back; why action is presented in simple cartoon. In unreality, Anderson expresses our darkest desires, the animated master stroke Fantastic Mr. Fox, is perfectly inhuman in its cruelty. Gnarled plastic and glue-chewed fur against painterly skylines moments after thunder and seconds before the sudden snap of lightning. The personified plasticine, masquerading in auburn fields as man, is in constant battle with animal, carnal, natures. The characters discuss and reckon with these natures, the mediocrity of real estate purchase explodes to fur-ripping cries before reconciliation with the chivalry these creatures conduct themselves with. Mr. Fox is at once a man, more so than any human character in the picture, and also a beast. His greatest fear is manifested in the wolf, a wild animal, untamed, free, and violent and Mr. Fox through the film is able to accept the violence of what he is and the kindness of what he wants to be. Here, violence is within everyone, everything. The violence in Fantastic Mr. Fox must be rejected and accepted for peace to be found.


Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), dir. Wes Anderson

The Life Aquatic, an adventure across the cobalt oceans of the world, a search for the biting, devouring sea beast of old age, washed up on the midnight shores of regret and fame. An impotent father figure, absent to his mortal son, and a son; whose sacrifice (more so a pointless death at the hands of that father’s pride) shows to the absent father his sins. Was Jesus killed for our salvation or for the sins of his Father? Anderson shows us again a world where violence can be accepted or rejected, where it’s through the letting go of rage one can be forgiven. Dredging the oceans of screaming tears, the salt chokes, and the shark’s circle; a typhoon and a tidal wave together collapse what was left abandoned on a small island in the Pacific. What talented failure has gone with the vine-ravaged hotel of a broken and forgotten honeymoon? It is the chaos of failure, shipwrecked on blind ambition and savaged against sharp grey rocks. It is a violent apathy and a soulless quest for petty revenge against what has so bountifully given to you the purpose of your existence. Cruel mistresses you can see only for what they take and not what they continuously give; a wave of masculine anger against a female world, the sea and the ship and knowledge you continuously claim to have. In the end, only humble apology can be given when you think it is yourself and not the moon that orchestrates the azure tide. Here is a violence mixed with archaic gender forms; an old man and the woman sea (Zissou belongs to the atavistic and shallow superstitions of sailors past).


It is a violence of self-destruction, a violent hubris. It is pride and male ego, fatherhood and pathetic self-aggrandising arrogance. All Anderson children are failed by their fathers. Royal Tenenbaum twists his family into ugly conflict as they help or hinder his redemption; his desperate attempt to reinstate himself as the patriarch he never was. A family impaired by its own genius into self-serving pettiness and violent end (the cut wrists and white blood-soaked sportswear); the children never able to recapture the bright majesty of their youth and a mother unable to find long searched-for happiness until the false father is interred in cold ground. Unstable success and again ever-present failure confound these prodigies who never believed the world would end up the way it is. Violence is the truth of this world. Cigarettes unknown, love masked, and addiction hidden. Only in lies and memory were they ever happy. The Darjeeling Limited shows disappointed children too; hurtling through the cycles of vermilion grief and the countryside of India. Together they search for something more than an honesty and affection tainted with inhospitable relationships, suicidal car crashes and lies. From broken families come all of Anderson’s protagonists. The artifice of these films acts as the first vantage to see these stories and when that disappears all that remains is sincere cold sympathy.


The Grand Budapest Hotel, once grand but now crumbling, against the black boot of fascism and tasteless sixties decor. A world of closed borders and railside executions, a place of conspiratorial murder and prison shanks. Just as the family, un-nuclear and deranged, is broken; the world too splinters at its edges and frontiers. The violence stands disgusted with Gustave’s sweet indigo sent; his floral trail, a path to be followed by killers, leads you down from the status of grandeur to the finger-filled gutter around the back of history. It is shame that dominates here and denial, a desire to be beautiful in a place that never again will be the postcard you once thought it was. This film, unlike any other, has a villain; someone from whom violence sprouts forth in aristocratic ravings. Here, violence is given meaning from its use not from its existence. This use of violence has been entrenched since Anderson’s first, Bottle Rocket. Damaged dreams and idealistic success, dirty motels, and the mental health institutions of the American South. It is a violence of boredom that Anderson explores here; it is an escape. For those that inhabit this world, violence is a cure to the mundane routines of the chartreuse suburban horror that awaits youth without passion. These characters use chaotic aggression to wrench open the world to walk in its drained wake; it is a place that must die and must break for happiness to be found. These men live in pain, screaming awake a sleeping giant that holds their strings. For them, there is little hope in the futile paracetamol schemes cooked up to dull the agony of boredom.


Bottle Rocket (1996), dir. Wes Anderson

Pain has been with Wes Anderson’s characters since the beginning; before the curtains are pulled back and with them still as the credits roll; but maybe then, there is some peace for his creations. The performed war leads to a rekindling of love and the birth of a platonic one; a supermarket dance signals the dawn of plenty; an old sea captain, humbled, comes to accept time, finding within it mercy and forgiveness; a family finally able to move forward from legacy and past; brothers able to re-become brothers; lightning-struck youth, falling, dead from a tower, able to live forever on the t-shirts of the future. In a small cove, unmarked but named, a kingdom provides a paradise. A place for freedom and love and dance. Moonrise Kingdom is not without its share of blood, scissor cuts in scout khaki and the raging wind. Yet it is the one from which the characters are able to escape. Hanging tenuously above the torrent and the swirling seas what begins in chaotic disarray ends in symmetrical unity. A man without a son finds a son without a father. A marriage, cruel and pathetic, is transformed, maybe only slightly but changed to an old familiar routine; one that can heal, one that can grow.


All of Anderson’s characters are searching for that cove. We can picture them there, all together. Sitting along the shoreline. A record hums the rolling stones; a sandy canvas is painted. They look out together finally, completely able, to mourn, able to be honest, able to forgive. The world of Wes Anderson is a quietly drenched one. It is one of betrayal and bodily harm, regret, and redemption in violent demise. That first invitation to the pretty pinks and deep purples comes with a cost, that those colours cannot be made without vivid reds and disquieted blues.

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