The Great Debate: Wes Anderson, White Purveyor of Twee Uber-White Whiteness, or Genius Visionary Craftsman?
All rise for the honorable Judge Me.
We are gathered here today to bear witness to the settling of the great debate of our time: ‘Wes Anderson. White Purveyor of Twee Uber-White Whiteness, or Genius Visionary Craftsman?’
We are also gathered here to bear witness to me not having any idea what people in a courtroom talk like, so let’s just roll with it shall we?
Writer-director Wesley Wales Anderson (yes, really) was born on May Day, 1969, in Houston, Texas. He showed a keen interest in film-making even as a child, shooting movies starring his friends and relatives on his father’s Super 8 camera. Working as a cinema projectionist while attending the University of Texas at Austin, he eventually graduated with a degree in philosophy. It was during those college years that he would meet his good friend and future collaborator, Owen Wilson, with whom he would co-write his first feature, Bottle Rocket, and in which Wilson would also star.
Bottle Rocket is a great little movie. Based on a short film Anderson had made earlier with Wilson and his brother Luke (who also stars in the feature version), it’s a relatively simple heist movie, albeit with the overtures to family—real or surrogate—and the poetically melancholic tones that would come to be two of the defining characteristics of a Wes Anderson Movie. The others—the sprawling ensemble casting, the meticulous, wide angle, storybook compositions and slowly panning cameras—weren’t quite fully formed here yet, though glimpses of things to come are visible if one looks with the correct eye.
Anderson has now made eight feature films. He is working on his ninth. That movie, Isle Of Dogs, will be his second stop-motion effort after 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. When the movie was announced a little while back, some controversy followed in its wake, specifically over its casting. The poster for Isle Of Dogs, a Japan-set story of a boy looking for his lost dog, looked like this:
it says a lot abt hollywood that this shows up in my inbox just now and my first thought is, "i am not ready for the thinkpieces." pic.twitter.com/AcKRj2zAv3— Pete Souza Petty (@KendraJames_) April 25, 2017
Now, at this point we know very little about the movie other than the brief synopsis and that poster. The end result may well be another case of a white director using a culture foreign to them as curious backdrop to a white-centred story; or it may be a sensitive, respectful tale to which the location is essential, and which doesn’t cheaply exploit it. We will have to wait and see.
One of the main reasons that so many alarm bells were set immediately ringing by this announcement is the (understandable) apprehension of having the wrong person tell a certain story. But what does that mean, exactly? How can a person who chooses to tell a story be the wrong person for telling it? All art is to some degree an exercise in empathy, and there are no actual rules as to what kind of story anyone is allowed to tell. A white person is allowed to tell a story set in Japan; a cis person is allowed to tell a trans story; a straight person is allowed to weave a gay tale. By telling and listening to each other’s stories, we grow. We learn. We empathise. The complications appear when we zoom out and appreciate the larger picture of industry, of power structures, and of hierarchies of exploitation. The narratives a society tells reflect its values and its norms, but they also reinforce them. And while there has been some good progress, in our patriarchal, white supremacist culture, most stories told are still being told from that specific perspective, reflecting and reinforcing its values in the process. Sometimes—more insidiously—they can encroach on other perspectives. They can pretend to be an outsider looking in, resulting in not only a skewed, often-damaging version of things but also—in the zero-sum game that is the market—a forcing out of any voices that might more authentically be able to tell those stories. Power is having the ability to tell your own tales. You take away a people’s ability to weave their own stories, you take away their strength.
Whatever Isle Of Dogs might end up becoming, Wes Anderson—middle class, college-educated white Wesley Wales Anderson—tells stories that come from a specific place. A place he knows and understands the rhythms and nuances of. For the most part he tells these stories incredibly well. The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Grand Budapest Hotel are all wonderful creations, crafted with an expert’s eye for cinematography, an obsessive dedication to set design, and emotionally resonant script work. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou too, often unfairly maligned, is much better than people give it credit for. And Rushmore? Colourful, hopeful, hilarious Rushmore is pure perfection. The joyful humanity found in unlikely bonds. The ability to make dreams, however small, come true through humble persistence. And the ability to serenely accept, which comes with and marks maturity. All told with an already fully developed, unique visual sensibility. If you cut me I bleed Rushmore.
What all of Anderson’s movies have in common—even more so than Bill Murray—is that aforementioned fundamental whiteness. Not just in terms of casting (although that’s true too), but in the actual stories they are telling: An eccentric private school; an aristocratic clan of New York geniuses; F Murray Abraham in a central European hotel—the dazzling whiteness is enough to make you reach for your Ray Bans. That’s not in and of itself a bad thing. As already stated they are wonderful movies. But fuck me they’re so white. They’re whiter than my Eastern European legs in the middle of an English winter. They’re whiter than that ancient jar of pickled eggs that my grandma used to keep in the cellar.
I have infinite time for Wes Anderson movies, but I am also acutely aware of their provenance. The two are not mutually exclusive. One of his mid-period movies, The Darjeeling Limited, illustrates neatly the limitations of the director’s perspective. Set aboard a train travelling through India and concerning itself primarily with the emotional journey being undertaken by the three American brothers aboard it, it tells a quite resonant story about loss, regret, and family. The trouble is that India—the country, the history, the culture—becomes almost as much of a backdrop to these white people’s journey as its landscape. It’s reduced to a decorative detail. This isn’t to say that every story set in another land has to give a PowerPoint presentation about that country’s customs and values while finger-wagging at the audience to Respect Other People, but there are ways to integrate other identities into proceedings that ensure that respect and understanding flow naturally from the progression of the narrative.
Circling back to Anderson’s upcoming Isle Of Dogs, which is currently in production in preparation for a 2018 release, only the finished work will show us just what kind of story he is telling. As for what he does after that—well, it could be a joint feature co-directed with Sofia Coppola about the existential ennui faced by two twins, one retired astronaut and one ageing folk musician (both played by Bill Murray), set on Martha’s Vineyard, and I’d probably still be there on opening night, watching the shit out of that gorgeously shot, well-written bleached nonsense.
Just, you know, as long as there are other writers and directors out there too, telling stories from other perspectives.
Having heard the case put forward by both sides, the jury, in answer to the question ‘Wes Anderson, White Purveyor of Twee Uber-White Whiteness, or Genius Visionary Craftsman?’, is forced to conclude:
Also, here’s a subreddit called ‘Accidental Wes Anderson’. You’re welcome.
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