In a scene from indie auteur Wes Anderson’s 2007 film The Darjeeling Limited, the strained relationship of three brothers torn apart by their father’s death comes to blows on a train trudging through India. Francis (a battered and bruised Owen Wilson) declares Peter (Adrien Brody) to be selfish for using their late father’s old knickknacks for himself, leading Peter to strike Francis with a belt. Francis tackles his brother to the ground, and the miniature third brother Jack (Jason Schwartzman) professes his love for his brothers while blinding them with pepper spray. In an effort to escape from the tiresome squabble between his two brothers, Jack makes a run for it through the train car until he runs into a glass door that shatters upon impact.
If this scene sounds like heavy stuff, just know that this scene, like countless ones throughout Anderson’s body of work, is quite hysterical and Cornell students will have the opportunity to experience Anderson’s timeless quirky classics once again on the big screen, courtesy of Cornell Cinema starting on January 26th. It is this combination of betrayal, estrangement, slapstick and heartfelt humor that can only be attributed to Anderson’s filmmaking. Whether he has a father faking illness to get closer to his family in The Royal Tenenbaums or a classmate’s older parent stealing the love of a precocious 15-year-old student’s life in Rushmore, Anderson has created a genre all his own: dark and tragic while also hilarious, tinged with a killer ’60s rock soundtrack and a citrus color palette.
Anderson’s reign as the resident indie oddball of Hollywood began with 1996’s Bottle Rocket, a little gem of a crime caper starring a noticeably younger Wilson and his brother Luke. Part heist and part road movie, Bottle Rocket introduced the world to Anderson’s gloriously under-achieving characters and dialogue with a bite so subtle that each of his films requires multiple viewings. In fact, it would be a crime not to watch his next feature, Rushmore, only once. Featuring a star-making turn from frequent Anderson collaborator (both onscreen and off) Jason Schwartzman as a teenager competing for an elementary school teacher’s affections with none other than Bill Murray, Rushmore is perhaps the most defining work in Anderson’s young career. It’s the classic tale of trying to find your place in the world, no matter what stage of life you might be in. Throw in some tracks from “The Who” and some of Anderson’s infamous slow motion shots, and you’ve got a coming of age story for the ages.
What really got Hollywood to turn its head was Anderson’s 2001 Oscar-nominated The Royal Tenenbaums. Boasting an all-star cast including some Anderson regulars (the brothers Wilson, Murray, and Anjelica Huston) and others new to the Anderson territory (Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Stiller), The Royal Tenenbaums is the account of a dysfunctional family unmatched by contemporary filmmakers as of yet. Tenenbaums is the real deal; it’s funny and heartbreaking, while also managing to be relatable. Each character has become an iconic pop culture mainstay, from Paltrow’s sullen Margot whose favorite accessories include a mink coat and heavy eyeliner, to Stiller’s neurotic widow Chaz who sports matching red track suits with his sons, Ari and Uzi. If those names aren’t enough to convince you of Anderson’s sharp humor, take note of Gene Hackman’s title character, whose idea of father-son bonding includes watching dog fights and riding on the back of city garbage trucks.
Featuring much of the same Tenenbaums cast, 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was a star vehicle for Murray, as well as a tribute to Anderson’s idol Jacques Cousteau. It was also Anderson’s first venture to sea, and the aquatic color scheme proved to complement Anderson’s attention to detail beautifully. The Life Aquatic wasn’t the only Anderson project to possess a color palette that has become typical of all his films to date; the ornate culture of India seen in The Darjeeling Limited plays against Anderson’s warm affection towards his characters and the audience.
Anderson’s most recent invitation to the depths of his offbeat world, 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, marked his plunge into an entirely different world. First it was his first stop-animation feature. Second it was the first of his films that was based on a novel. Third it was a children’s movie. But despite the skeptics, Anderson pulled off a version of Roald Dahl’s classic story that was so Anderson-esque, he may as well have written the book himself. Teaming up again with Schwartzman and Owen Wilson, Fantastic Mr. Fox had the uncanny ability to make the kids stare at the screen in awe and make their parents chuckle at the peculiar characters akin to typical Anderson fare.
Anderson will likely restore his prominence in the indie film crowd with the release of his upcoming summer camp adventure, Moonrise Kingdom. But while we wait for what feels like an eternity to catch a glimpse of this genius’s latest feature, we have the unique opportunity to view Anderson’s exquisite filmography from start to finish over the next few weeks thanks to Cornell Cinema. If only Rushmore’s Max Fischer was around to stage an elaborate grand opening spectacle in the Willard Straight Hall theater.