It’s hard to think of two filmmakers less alike than Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson. Right?
Think of PTA—PTA, who went to film school for two days, whose smile can’t be described as anything other than mischievous, who got Paul Dano and Daniel Day-Lewis to agree to mud-wrestle on film.
Think of Wes—Wes, in his corduroy suits and shiny shoes; Wes, carefully arranging the individual hairs on the tiny, made-of-real-fur animal figurines who were the stars of his stop-motion adaptation of Fantastic Mr. Fox.
It’s true that we can’t think of the Andersons as the Andersons in the way that we think of the Coens as the Coens or the Wachowskis as the Wachowskis. They are not related; they do not make films together. There isn’t even a single photograph of the two of them together—at least not one readily available on the internet. (Believe me, if there were, it would be the background wallpaper on every electronic device I own.) However. I think the Andersons are united not simply in name, but actually have between them some unnameable but indisputable communion: some on-the-down-low meeting of minds that manifests not necessarily as aesthetic homage or dialogic in-joke, but rather as a strange, stunning, and unmistakable set of patterns in the emotional landscape of both men’s films. Their work revolves singularly around a core of emotional violence—of weird, raw love—of caring for another person or place or thing or idea so deeply that it manifests as actual pain. For all of their seemingly disparate aesthetic interests, strengths, weaknesses, writing styles, directing styles, and lifestyles, both Andersons have an innate and profound understanding of all the different things that could (and often do) happen when humans are pushed to the edges of their emotional capacities.
Think of the elder Whitman brothers, Peter and Francis, wrestling each other to the ground of their teeny train compartment on The Darjeeling Limited, wailing:
“You don’t love me!” “Yes I do!” And then their younger brother Jack chiming in: “I love you too, but I’m gonna mace you in the face!” And then think of him wincing, macing them both in the face.
Think of Barry Egan and Lena Leonard, locked in each other’s arms in a Hawaii hotel room, newly and deeply in love, whispering back and forth:
“Your face is so adorable, and your skin and your cheek— I want to bite it. I want to bite your cheek and jaw it’s so fucking cute.”
“I’m looking at your face, and I just want to smash it. I just want to fucking smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it you’re so pretty.”
“I want to chew your face and I want to scoop out your eyes and I want to eat them, chew them, and suck on them.”
None of this, by the way, is to say that a comparison of the Andersons’ work on a literal narrative level would necessarily reveal startling similarities in their treatments of love and violence. Obviously, the authorial or directorial view of love and violence in a film like Moonrise Kingdom is worlds away from that of, for example, Boogie Nights—and each Anderson has his own firm notions about how best to investigate what happens when emotionally charged people reach a breaking point.
The Andersons know violence and vengeance and they know love and compassion, and they know how to render these strange, often scary states of being honestly and gorgeously in ways that consistently surprise and confound. Think about how a viewer, after watching Rushmore and Magnolia back-to-back, would likely be hard-pressed to say with any real confidence whether Max Fischer loves his teacher Rosemary Cross any more than Quiz Kid Donnie Smith loves Brad, the bartender with the braces on his teeth. These mad and needy and bonkers-in-love relationships, among countless others that appear throughout each Anderson’s oeuvre, are never weighed or measured—rather, they’re rendered patiently and honestly, with compassion and complete openness in equal measure.
We connect deeply to the Andersons’ films because each envelops us in a world that has been built for us from the ground up—and as each film starts to make sense to us, it becomes a sort of touchstone that aligns aesthetic and emotion. The world of Boogie Nights looks and sounds like this; watching Fantastic Mr. Fox makes me feel like that. Together, their films begin to offer us comfort and structure and familiarity (doesn’t watching the opening sequence of The Royal Tenenbaums feel rather a lot like listening to a favorite bedtime story?). The deeper reason, however, that we respond to these films in the ways we do, is that they let us see a hidden sliver of ourselves and of those around us. They let us flirt with danger, speed-date the scarier parts of our personalities, and then emerge with a larger, fuller understanding of the real ranges of our emotional lives. They let us try on the skins of people who are murderous or meek or desperately in love (or just desperate) and see how we feel about it. See what fits us best.
Wes Anderson’s critics accuse him time and time again of shallowness—of being obsessed by perfecting the details of the physical worlds he creates while casting aside the people who inhabit it. In any review, positive or negative, of a Wes Anderson picture, you’re sure to see characters and scenarios described as repressed or deadpan or dysfunctional. Who, though, is to say that these quieter, odder modes of displaying feeling—Margot Tenenbaum wordlessly carrying her presents away from her eleventh birthday celebration; Herman Blume with a cigarette between his lips, aimlessly tossing golf balls into a dirty swimming pool—are inherently wrong or invalid or not quite enough? Wes Anderson’s characters that do make violent displays of their emotion become all the more vivid for their quiet counterparts. How would we understand Chas without Margot, or Suzy without Sam, or Ash without Kristofferson? Bill Murray as Steve Zissou, in particular, might be the most exciting Wes creation yet (or ever)—his quiet, terrifying rage is the obvious emotional core of the film, criticized as it was for (in many people’s views) making use of style over substance and puppets over people. But it’s impossible to deny the emotional resonance in the idea that Zissou appears to feel nothing until he feels everything all at once. To sit in the dark at the film’s climax and watch Bill Murray finally, quietly cry is in itself an act of violence—it feels like an intrusion, and it scares us.
Deaths in Wes Anderson’s films shock me every single time. Thinking and talking about death is not something he’s ever shied away from as a filmmaker, and yet, for some reason, it often feels as if Wes’s worlds aren’t bound by our natural laws or cognizant of the circle of life—until they are. Wes creates worlds that feel entirely complete, assembled with the help of intricate directions from some complicated manual written, perhaps, in invisible ink—every little piece is always accounted for. Perhaps it’s that sense of having everything unmistakably in its right place—of the world being orchestrated seamlessly and entirely from top to bottom—that causes every death to make us feel as if some tremendous act of epistemological violence has been visited upon us. By taking even one person out of the working order of his films—by removing a moving part from the carefully-created whole—Wes consistently overturns his own micro-managerial aesthetic. Snoopy, Khaki Scouts Troop 55’s mascot; Royal Tenenbaum himself; the small Indian boy, whom Peter Whitman fails to save and whose name we never get to learn—these deaths blindside us and rattle our sense of order. And although death is present in many of Wes’s films, it’s never part of the landscape quite the way that it is in PTA’s. Whereas Wes tends to render death as anomaly or tragedy, PTA chooses to feature death frequently, prominently, and almost always as a result of the physicalization of violent emotion.
PTA loves love and he loves violence. He loves them fine when they’re in contrast with one another, but mostly, he loves them when they work together. After all, his one attempt at a romantic comedy—2002’s roller-coaster-fast, scarily-beautiful Punch Drunk Love—is, by all accounts, a really violent movie. Watching Adam Sandler pick up a crowbar and beat the shit out of some pasty Mormons in the name of love is, in many ways, unambiguously more frightening than more obviously scary moments in PTA’s other films (like, half of There Will Be Blood, anyone?). What scares us most about Punch-Drunk Love, I think, is the notion that the relationship between love and violence is deeper and more entangled than we’d like to think. The film posits that the idea of violence, and the willingness to enact it on another’s behalf, is a necessary component of romantic love. This knocks us off our axis a bit, so to speak, because it’s easier and nicer to think that violence only enters the realm of love when it’s a last resort; that violence and love, while alike in the sense that they are two extreme states of human emotion, can easily remain separate from one another.
There Will Be Blood is arguably PTA’s most violent feature, and our era’s definitive filmic manifesto on greed and the American dream (sorry, Wolf of Wall Street). Moreover, this film marks the first time in one of PTA’s films that we see violence completely obliterate and obfuscate all traces of the sympathetic emotional core behind it (this certainly never happens in any of Wes’s films). Daniel Plainview is in deep and irreparable conflict with everyone who surrounds him, and his voracious, bottomless capacity to do harm to others can’t be stopped once it’s been tapped. By the end of the film, we realize that it’s not oil that he loves. It’s not his son, it’s not himself, it’s not his big empty house. Plainview’s great love affair is with violence itself.
What’s incredible about the way we watch Plainview rapturously, joyously succumb to violent impulse after violent impulse is that he’s not someone like Steve Zissou, trying to blow up a shark to avenge a dear friend’s death. He’s not even someone like Linda Partridge, screeching at pharmacists a livid screech from the very depths of hell—a screech that could only be born of true sadness and anguish. Plainview is violent because violence is the only means to his end, because violence is the only thing that’s ever worked for him, because he loves what it ultimately offers him every single time.
Wes works in miniature; PTA deals in scope and space. Wes wants to know just how much stuff can fit in a frame until it’s full to bursting; PTA wants to see what happens to an object or to an actor when there’s too much room, too much air. How this central and defining aesthetic disconnect relates to the ways in which each explores physical and psychological expression, outbursts of love or of anger, and the physicality of emotion is remarkable to see side-by-side. An example: there are motorcycle-riding scenes in both The Master and The Darjeeling Limited. In The Master, Freddie Quell hijacks Lancaster Dodd’s motorbike during an afternoon of taking turns riding through the vast desert. Dodd watches as his friend and mentee roars off towards the horizon—ecstatic at first, then concerned, then angered. The mountains wait in the distance, the sky is hot and bright, and there is the overwhelming sense of abandonment and escape. In Darjeeling, we watch the three Whitman brothers—stacked on their motorbike like toys on a shelf, hands around each other’s waists, smiling to themselves separately and somehow all together—speeding quite literally into the sunset, towards the Himalayas. Although these two scenes are different in almost every way except for the motorcycles, it’s clear that the driving force behind each is an emotional tipping point. For Freddie, it’s restlessness, it’s anger. It’s the impulse to flee. For the brothers Whitman, it’s not runningfrom but rushing towards that drives them—it’s having gotten off that train, it’s the news of Peter’s baby boy, it’s the idea that they are all going to be fine.
In both scenes, there’s the proverbial bursting well of feeling—of joy, of fear, of longing—that hits us in our guts and marks a moment in which love and violence can transcend and transform one another.
Past a certain point, all of the careful uncovering of similarities between the Andersons’ films that can be done is no longer enough. As viewers or admirers of one Anderson’s work or the other’s—or both—we have to ask: what exactly is it that draws us in to these strange and often difficult films? Why do we respond to these bizarre, stylized depictions of love as violence and violence as love? Why do we yearn to zoom in close on that fine little line between the two, and why are we so fascinated by the unpredictability of their relationship to one another?
The amazingly simple answer is that we have all, at some point, seen ourselves as versions of the people we see in the Andersons’ films. We have all been Scotty J., crying alone in a shiny car that we bought solely to impress the someone we love; we have all been Suzy Bishop, with a hand that’s bloodied and bandaged because we were unfortunate enough to be standing in front of a mirror when we finally lost our tempers with ourselves. We have emotional reactions to these films because they are films about the nature and the implications of human emotion itself—about why we feel what we feel, how we choose to express it, and what happens to us when we do.
Something I’ve learned: people like to tell other people not just what they should be feeling, but precisely how they should best prove that they feel it. There is a right way to celebrate and there is a right way to grieve. You are having too many emotions or not enough. You are hysterical or you are robotic. To all of this, the Andersons say pooh. (Edit: Wes says pooh. PTA probably says something out-there and unprintable.) The Andersons say to all of us: feel how you feel like feeling, in the way you feel like feeling it—and even if it’s ugly or strange or just kind of sad to look at, don’t forget for a second that it’s important, that it makes sense, that it’s good enough.
Alexandra Tanner lives, writes, and goes to the movies in New York.