Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Triumph of Wes Anderson, or Sympathy for John McCain

Slate's got a nice little slideshow up about the rise and fall of Wes Anderson: his fantastic debut, his two masterpieces, his two lesser but still wonderful films, and then (the primary subject) the ubiquity of his imitators. You can check out the slideshow yourself here:

On the way, though, something wonderful happened, for me at least. One of the slideshow videos is a set of faux John McCain ads made in the style of three directors Woo, K. Smith, and Anderson. You can check out the Anderson clip at minute 2:21 of the video - and I do highly recommend it.

Something weird happened to me while watching the Anderson parody: I came to feel enormous empathy for John McCain. Here's what Slate has to say "Tweaking the surface pleasures of Anderson's work, the ad unwittingly (or, who knows, maybe intentionally) highlights the director's drift toward a cinema of extravagant artifice and the diminishing returns it offers."

First, I think the "extravagant artifice" of "diminishing returns" was certainly intentional - this video clearly takes some shots at Wes Anderson surface-obsessed quirkmaster. But I had a completely different reaction. Watching a John McCain semi-lookalike glumly acknowledge that he has no chance in the matter, then gamely stroll through a classic Anderson sequence, complete with pitch perfect Bowie and track suits, gave me the first twinge of sympathy I've had for McCain in years. This was a man who had real principles, who abandoned them to try to win an unwinnable election against the most gifted politician in half a century, and went to his inevitable defeat. For abandoning those principles and engaging in pathetic pandering I hated him. But when this actor deadpans that he probably won't win, then walks off to his failure, I finally felt sympathy for the man.

And that, as far as I'm concerned, is the bottom line with Wes Anderson's style: it works. Say what you want about The Darjeeling Limited and the Life Aquatic, Juno and Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite and the American Express ad (and granted, none of them reach the peaks of Rushmore or Tenenbaums), all of them have something going for them. That's because Anderson's style - the quirk, the colors, the props, the perfectly integrated pop music, and the heartfelt but off-kilter emotions - just plain works. In fact, it works so well that an obvious parody backfired to the point that I felt real sympathy for a man I've intensely disliked for years now.

Of course, the incongruity of the actual "I'm John McCain and I approve this message" bit snaps me out of it to a certain extent. It serves as a reminder that the Anderson aesthetic - the distillation of real emotional pain into whimsical scenes that retain emotional heft - is deeply in contrast to the look and sound of a real political campaign. Which, I think, just makes my point stronger: cutting through all that bullshit and making McCain a truly sympathetic figure is a seriously tough task. Faux-Anderson, though, was up to the job.

Just for fun: A Mike Gravel Campaign Ad