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Modernism for the Masses: The Wes Anderson Paradox

What Wes Anderson films reveal about the psychology of watching movies.

A new Wes Anderson film is out. Good times for movie buffs again. Half of the film aficionados will love the film and will spend hours marveling the asymmetrical symmetry of its every frame. And the other half will throw shade because of its lack of social engagement, simplicity of plot, and its alleged pretentiousness. But Wes Anderson's films — and their success or lack thereof — in fact tell us a lot about the psychology of watching films.

The most important psychological activity feature films are trying to trigger is identification. It was discovered very early on in the history of cinema (and before that in the history of theater) that audiences are more likely to come in (and stay) if they can identify with one or more of the characters. When you watch a Tom and Jerry cartoon, you will identify either with Tom or with Jerry. It is not really an option to stay neutral.

Identification amounts to aligning yourself with one of the characters. It can involve putting yourself, imaginatively, in this character's shoes. Seeing the world of the film from this character's point of view. Identification is more likely if the character is trying to achieve something, if we know what they want and if they are — generally at least — likable.

There is a tradition in 20th century filmmaking, often labeled as 'modernism', that goes against this way of triggering engagement from the audiences. Mainly in the 1960s, mainly in Europe, film directors started to make films that deliberately worked against any possibility of identification. The aim of these directors — Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Bresson, Michelangelo Antonioni, to name just a few — was not to bring in huge crowds with blockbusters. They wanted to create art and they deemed identification to be a cheap and vulgar way of engaging the audience. They deliberately created characters that are extremely difficult to identify with — often because we have very little information about what they actually want.

And this is where Wes Anderson comes in. He makes Hollywood blockbusters with literally dozens of A-lister celebrity actors in each of his films. So he is trying to make money. He needs to bring in the crowds. On the other hand, he very explicitly and self-consciously takes himself to continue the modernist tradition of cinema. His Castello Cavalcanti is an ode to Michelangelo Antonioni, he references Jean-Luc Godard very explicitly both in his Prada TV-commercials and in his new film, The French Dispatch. And, even more importantly, he relies on Robert Bresson's way of treating actors in a non-expressive manner. This is something Wes Anderson has been mocked for and it is also part of what makes his films so immediately recognizable (and easy to spoof): The actors and actresses deliver their lines in his films in a deadpan, emotion-free manner. Not easy to identify with them.

This is, then, the paradox: On the one hand, Wes Anderson's films try to appeal to everyone to be as commercially successful as his Hollywood celebrity cast deserves. On the other hand, he is not willing to resort to the cheap trick of triggering identification — in fact, he actively works against it.

These are conflicting demands, but Wes Anderson is remarkably good at keeping a balance. Most often this is achieved by keeping the deadpan delivery for the whole cast except for one central main character. This strategy is the clearest in The Grand Budapest Hotel, where the main character, Gustave H., acts in a remarkably non-Andersonian manner. The audience has someone they can identify with, but the modernist integrity of the film is still upheld.

The new film, The French Dispatch, is very revealing in this respect. There is no shortage of characters one may feel drawn to identify with – Timothée Chalamet’s Zeffirelli being a prime candidate. The problem here is that the audience doesn’t have enough time. The film is really three unrelated short films back to back. And identification requires lots of things: that we can relate emotionally to the character and that we know something about their predicament. What is less obvious, but is made very clear by The French Dispatch, is that it also requires time.

Wes Anderson is trying to bring modernism to the masses and he’s remarkably successful at it. But he’s perfected the trade-off between these conflicting demands (modernism vs. the masses) for the feature-film format. I am skeptical that the three half-hour short films that are strung together in The French Dispatch will have the general appeal of, say, his The Grand Budapest Hotel. By the time we could start getting into identifying with one of the characters, the short film is over and another one begins with new characters to get used to. There are still a lot of reasons to go and see the film — the framing, the alternating use of black-and-white and color, the 1960s French Nouvelle Vague references and also the the psychological insight about just how fragile cinematic identification can be.

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