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Review: Matt Zoller Seitz’s The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel

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Review: Matt Zoller Seitz’s The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Matt Zoller Seitz’s The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel is fueled by a sense of escalating invention and exploration. Nothing is taken for granted in this book. You might be glancing through an interview, skimming before taking the cover-to-cover plunge, only to be side-swept by a footnote that’s a self-contained mini-essay pertaining to, say, the brief rise of narration in fiction films in the 1940s, or by a remark about an actor that segues into a brief encapsulation of their notable roles. The book is charged by an obsession that recurs in both Anderson and Seitz’s work: with getting to the bottom of something, thoroughly and resolutely. Any sentiment expressed by either man is liable to be treated as a thread to be pulled so as to initiate a new investigation, which might reveal another sidebar (or illustration, or detailed diagram, or storyboard, or book of sheet music, or painting), which will feature other gems of information and beauty. These gradually accumulate to offer an immersive portrait, not just of The Grand Budapest Hotel, but of life as an ongoing gesture of education as route to refining a sense of empathy.

Because there’s only one film to directly discuss this time (though every Anderson film, and many more films, are floating around in the subtext), The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel is allowed to be even more reassuringly Anderson-y than Seitz’s previous volume, which covered the director’s first seven films. There’s a freeing sense of expansiveness and depth. There’s room, for instance, for an entire section devoted to a brief sampling of the writing of Stefan Zweig, which enormously influenced the film, and for a surprisingly explicit concern with the political fall-out from World War II, which disproportionately affected a splintered and demoralized Europe—a theme that colors every moment of Anderson’s most recent film.

Which is to say that reading this book won’t simply apprise you of the making-of particulars of The Grand Budapest Hotel, though those are intricately elucidated (most interesting for this critic were the details of the elaborate timing of the line readings). If you possess even a rudimentary sense of curiosity, and this book’s intended audience almost certainly does, then you will take with you from this project a reading list, a viewing list, a list of places to visit should money ever materialize, and even a blossoming interest in pre-war European architecture. Though this already partially went without saying, Anderson doesn’t appear to make a movie just for its sake; he takes on a prolonged exploratory living arrangement that will broaden the scope of his social and aesthetic awareness, and Seitz, who reliably evinces similar curiosities in his writing, responds to that with an enthusiasm that remarkably resists soft-balling.

This time, Anderson comes to play from the outset, with a sense of openness, and of shared intimacy with Seitz, that might be somewhat misleading, but is nevertheless revealing.

The heart of this book, like the last, is composed of the interviews between the filmmaker and the author. In the first Wes Anderson Collection, the director played his version of the role of elusive wunderkind, and Seitz prodded him, with a gentleness intended to distract from the structural repetition of the inquiries, until he really answered the initial questions. This isn’t to say that Seitz “fooled” Anderson, but rather that the author provided his subject a suitable sense of gamesmanship that eventually compelled him to play along. This time, Anderson comes to play from the outset, with a sense of openness, and of shared intimacy with Seitz, that might be somewhat misleading (one tends to assume, as one does about the public personalities of most artists, that “Wes Anderson” is mostly just another Wes Anderson character), but is nevertheless revealing.

Like many of his characters, the filmmaker has a way of quite deliberately unceremoniously dropping details that scan as strikingly significant, such as sentiments pertaining to his girlfriend’s influence upon Zero’s ethnicity, or to God’s involvement in his cinema’s world, or to the influence of the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger on The Grand Budapest Hotel. (I was surprised, however, to read no mention of Alain Resnais.) There are also plenty of Anderson’s dry, deadpan witticisms, my favorite being a reference to Method acting, which he likens to “the Russian way. Not that they do it in Russia, but you know what I mean.”

One could spend quite a bit more time poring over the phenomenal attention to the nitty-gritty that the book pays its subject. There’s an unusually and refreshingly detailed analysis of the film’s score by Olivia Collette, which is complemented by Seitz’s interview with composer Alexandre Desplat, as well as a humbling discussion of the film’s blocking by David Bordwell, a charming interview with actor Ralph Fiennes by Seitz, and so on. But the overall impression, what renders the book so exhilarating, is its devotion to democratic, attainable erudition.

Seitz is one of the sharpest film critics working, and that sharpness derives as much from his sense of inclusion as it does from his intelligence. He can break complicated concepts or elaborate plot specifics down into lively stanzas that invite the uninitiated to join the party without losing the nuances that are sought by the initiated. His writing evinces more than generosity, as there’s also a boldness and a braveness to Seitz’s directness and transparency: He doesn’t use, as a crutch, the assumption that you don’t know what he’s talking about; he doesn’t indulge a feigned superiority that lets him off an explanatory hook. This emotional directness abounds in Anderson’s films as well, which is why it’s frustrating to see them consistently misread as fussy or pretentious. Almost immediately after seeing The Grand Budapest Hotel for the first time last spring, as the initial sensory rush was receding, I wondered what Seitz thought of it. He’s gotten himself into an enviable position with Anderson, as he’s now the critic who completes the filmmaker’s work, complementing it with the force of his own imagination in a manner that recalls Pauline Kael’s influential seasoning of the reputations of Robert Altman and, particularly, Brian De Palma.

Matt Zoller Seitz’s The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel will be released on February 10 by Harry N. Abrams; to purchase it, click here.