Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Wes Anderson and cineliteracy

So we managed to find a couple more Wes Anderson flicks in the local video rental place, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with etc. etc.

After seeing them, I started poking around online for reviews of them. I usually do this after I see a film: I have just enough of an anti-intellectual streak that I have, at certain times in the past, railed against critics and/or the critical project as a whole, but I don’t do that now. I read critics as another way of bouncing my reactions off someone else’s, to see what they’ve perceived that I missed (and, once in a blue moon, vice versa).

One thing that struck me reading reviews of these films, and some other Anderson-related things I stumbled across, was the persistent linking of him to the traditions of cinematic high art—the French New Wave, etc. This article about his American Express ad from a few years ago is a good example: it points out that the spot is a full-on homage to Truffaut.

Okay, I’ll admit it: I didn’t get it. And that’s the subject of this blog post: I didn’t get it. (Okay, that could be the secret subtitle of every post on this blog.)

What does it say about me that I like Wes Anderson (so far—haven’t seen Rushmore or Bottle Rocket yet) but don’t get his cinematic references? This isn’t necessarily about Wes Anderson—I like Tarantino even though I haven’t seen most of the Hong Kong action, blaxploitation, b-movie horror, and other movies that he references. I love the Coen brothers even though I get virtually none of the winking references to previous films that early reviews of their work obsessed over. What does this say about the Tanuki?

That he’s not cineliterate? Certainly. We’ll call him, maybe, functionally cine-illiterate. A decent average level of knowledge about some areas of film that only achieves average by balancing a few patches of more detailed knowledge with broad swathes of stinking ignorance. But that’s not something that bothers me a whole lot—I suspect most of us amateurs who like to watch films, think about them, talk about them, and maybe even write about them share a similar profile, each of us with our own blind spots. Each of us still learning.

I guess what this raises for me is old questions of contextualizing art. Do we look at a work of art in isolation, or do we see it as part of the web of intertextuality? And if the latter, how much intertextuality do we have to be able to identify before we say we “get” the work? Or, do you have to have read Ian Fleming to dig James Bond, or Tolkien to appreciate Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings? Can you enjoy a comedy if you don’t get the jokes?

I don't have simple answers; I suspect there aren’t any. I’m just sort of mentioning these as some of the things I end up thinking about when I think about art, and that will no doubt crop up from time to time on this here blog.

BTW, we liked The Royal Tenenbaums and loved The Life Aquatic, and thinking about them provides some specific answers to the general questions I mention above. Like: I probably enjoyed Tenenbaums more having read enough Salinger to spot the similarities to the Glass family. On the other hand, I also enjoyed it for the acting: Anjelica Huston and Gene Hackman are simply pleasurable to watch work, in just about anything. No external reference points necessary. And: I watched enough Jacques Cousteau documentaries on TV as a kid (I’m Anderson’s age), and am just familiar enough with David Bowie, to more or less get what The Life Aquatic is doing. On the other hand, you don’t need to know anything about anything to delight in Bill Murray’s little dance.


Mike Walley-Rund said...

Can you be color blind and appreciate abstract art? Probably, but it's a different experience. Context is like that. Which is probably why I like a bunch of songs on Pet Sounds, but in general don't get what all the hype is about--because I'm 27, not 47.

Also, this.

Tanuki said...

Interesting cartoon! That's pretty much the definition of high art I settled on for my students when I was helping teach a pop culture course a couple of years ago: it's whatever society and its institutions define it as, and there ain't a damn thing you can do about it.

Funny you should mention Pet Sounds. I finally bought it a few weeks ago, precisely to see if I could figure out what all the hype is about. I like it well enough, I guess, but so far it just doesn't click with me in a masterpiece sort of way.

I'm not even really sure what the context is on that one. I know everybody says Paul McCartney was really moved by it, but other than that oblique influence on this blog's sorta namesake, I feel like the Pet Sounds aesthetic didn't really make itself felt in a big way until the '90s. Then suddenly it was the first influence every hip alternative musician listed in interviews, in a way that always struck me as vaguely obnoxious. And these were people of my generation. I just didn't get it. Or maybe I got it, and rejected it. Anyway.

I do love "Sloop John B."