“His world had vanished long before he entered it. But he sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.”
–Zero Moustafa on M. Gustave, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Last week I wrote about the nostalgia underlying the work of Gabriel García Márquez, which gives me a nice segue to talk a bit about Wes Anderson, who is the platonic ideal of a nostalgic artist. Whether they nod back to childhood (as in Rushmore or Moonrise Kingdom) or noticeably heavier affairs (Darjeeling Limited, The Grand Budapest Hotel), the basic theme is not hard to miss. Anderson carts his viewers into a past world; an absurd one, and sometimes a very depraved one, but always a funny one that develops a curious warmth to it.
That’s how nostalgia works. The time we look back on with such fondness wasn’t all love and roses. Childhood is often tumultuous and awkward, but in retrospect its struggles seem like novelties, so we forget those and remember only the supposed freedom and innocence. (For somewhat different reasons, I’m a pretty big high school nostalgic—I love high school sports and coming-of-age stories and am fiercely loyal to my alma mater for what it did for me—but a trip back into my high school journals is still pretty terrifying.) Historical nostalgia is often even worse; yes, grand old hotels and British country estates look pretty, but that prettiness is often only possible due to an absurd concentration of wealth, and forgets that most of humanity is toiling in the muck while a handful of lucky ones live in luxury.
Anderson knows all of this. His nostalgia certainly isn’t a shiny, happy one, and one gathers from his childhood-themed films—which do have autobiographical elements—that he had a rather bizarre childhood. The films wrestle with that, and with any number of struggles great and small. His coping mechanism, clearly, is humor: he takes reality and embellishes it with nutty flourishes and over-the-top satire. Indeed, his films’ greatest weakness may be their tendency to lapse into a theater of the absurd and lose everyone in the goofiness. It’s a way of laughing off past injury, and it’s wonderfully postmodern in its rejection of anything too earnest, but beyond that façade, one really has to look for anything concrete.
It is there, though. The escape from postmodern emptiness comes in a return to the past. In a return to roots, and to acceptance of reality not as it’s been idealized in theories, but as it has become through history. That means heading back to roots and acknowledging them, even if there is a fair bit of mockery involved, too. Rushmore Academy in Rushmore may be a strange and in many ways unappealing place, but it’s still a source of dignity and pride.
Likewise with the world created in The Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s easy to take civilization and refinement and decorum for granted, and forget how tenuous they often are. Yes, they may seem more than a little silly when you look at their core, but ritual need not make complete logical sense to be sincere. When framed against the invading fascists and bloodthirsty heirs, the Grand Budapest looks wholesome and innocent, and M. Gustave’s exploits are a sort of child’s play; the triumphant tinkering of a man who’s gamed the system and won. He may seem an absurd character, but he’s so alluring because he has something figured out about life; something that ropes in everyone around him and makes them believe in him.
This brings us back to the quote at the top of the piece, and it’s one that applies to Anderson as well as his protagonist. He’s not exactly trying to bring back the past, nor is he even trying to create a fantasy past that never really was. He knows it wasn’t. Instead, he creates an homage to the past through his work, and gives it a timeless life of its own. Wes Anderson characters become masters of their own little realms, and run them with honor and dignity. I don’t really buy the claim that these traits are rarer than they used to be, but they certainly don’t come around every day, and that is probably why they endure. Sure, it can often be a façade; all of Anderson’s heroes have their foibles, and one could certainly claim that this is enough to condemn them. But there is also a sense that class and presentation matter, and that this is the way to build a legacy.
Does that alone go far enough? No; not in my mind, which is why Anderson will likely remain a hipster curiosity, and not an enduring icon of cinema. But it is a start, and a thoroughly enjoyable one for those of us whose minds are prone to search history for guides to the present.