By Matt Zoller Seitz
[The following is an excerpt from Part 2 of a five-part documentary analyzing the style of Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums), commissioned by Moving Image Source, the online magazine of the Museum of the Moving Image. Part 1 is here. Part 3 (on Hal Ashby) is here; Part 4 (on J.D. Salinger) will be published April 8; Part 5 (an annotated version of the prologue of The Royal Tenenbaums) will finish out the series April 10. By visiting the Moving Image Source website, you can read the series in transcript form or watch the documentaries by clicking on the "video" button in the right-hand column of the page.]
Martin Scorsese's intellectualized sensuality and flamboyant kineticism are inscribed on Wes Anderson's films. Scorsese has returned his disciple's admiration, all but anointing Anderson his artistic heir and naming Anderson's debut, Bottle Rocket, one of the best films of the '90s. Orson Welles, François Truffaut, and animator Bill Melendez (A Charlie Brown Christmas, et al.) may have taught Anderson how to paint, but Scorsese taught him how to dance. Setting aside for a moment their very similar use of music, there are enough shared visual tells to make Scorsese and Anderson seem like a street-tough dad and his college-bound favorite son.
Exhibit A is their use of slow motion. Slo-mo became fashionable in the 1960s as a way to draw out violent action. But while Scorsese has used it for this purpose, he also deploys it for another reason: to italicize emotion. We can see Anderson drawing directly on Scorsese's example in film after film. Johnny Boy's slowed-down arrival at the bar in Mean Streets—walking forward toward the viewer as the camera dollies backward—finds a visual equivalent in Rushmore when hero Max Fischer makes his triumphant exit from a hotel room elevator after terrorizing romantic rival Max Blume with a swarm of bees. Think also of the memorable slow-motion close-up of Jimmy Conway in GoodFellas smoking at the bar, his eyes lighting up malignantly as he contemplates whacking his cohorts in the Lufthansa heist, is echoed in the penultimate montage of Anderson's Bottle Rocket in the shot of thief and playboy Mr. Henry puffing on a stogie after robbing Bob Mapplethorpe's house.
Another shared signature is the God's-eye-view insert shot, looking down at significant objects from an overhead position roughly parallel to the floor. Scorsese was by no means the first director to look at things from this angle—Alfred Hitchcock often employed the God's-eye view shot to stunning effect, and it may be that Scorsese's affinity for the angle comes from a close study of Hitchcock. But Scorsese personalized it by applying it to close-up inserts—often somewhat disruptive inserts placed within an otherwise conventionally edited dialogue scene. Think of the moment in Taxi Driver when Travis Bickle, attempting to charm the campaign worker Betsy, sweeps his hand over her desk to indicate the "all this" that shouldn't preoccupy her; Scorsese very briefly cuts to an almost-overhead shot of the tabletop, then cuts back to the conversation. There are numerous similar examples throughout Scorsese's filmography, and Anderson's own deployment of the overhead insert is strikingly Scorsese-esque, from the composition and lighting to the duration of the shot. Think, for instance, of the overhead shot in Rushmore of Miss Cross grading papers on her desk or the overhead shot of Etheline Tenenbaum's desk in The Royal Tenenbaums displaying the Sunday Magazine section with a cover story about cowboy novelist Eli Cash.
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