I went to the see the Grand Budapest Hotel last year. I liked it, but I can’t say that the pleasure of the experience induced any kind of critical afterlife in me – I forgot it almost immediately. Except for the Royal Tennenbaums, all of Wes Anderson’s films have this effect on me.
So I was surprised by the virulent criticism of The Grand Budapest Hotel and Wes Anderson in general that was published in the Jacobin a couple weeks ago. Although the film left me without any compulsion to think about it after I walked out of the the rancid butter smell of the lobby, turned to A., and asked her where she wanted to go to dinner, the screed against Anderson did make me think an old thought, which I could entitle the problem with Kaelism.
Kaelism, as Pauline Kael, the movie critic, practiced it, is a critical form that concentrates firstly on the audience that one imagines is being enticed to a movie, or enjoys it; secondly, on what other critics have said about the movie; and only thirdly on the thing itself. It is envious of those pleasures it cannot participate in. It is exclusive about those pleasures it does experience. It is an amalgam of uninformed sociology and prejudice, and at its best creating negative images of what it dislikes.
Of course, seeing a film or reading a book or any entertainment experience will have a moment of distinction – a moment in which the experience becomes more important for what it says about the audience for the entertainment. What it says, here, is very much refracted by the person making the judgment. To give an example: one of my worst movie experiences ever was seeing Horrible Bosses 1, or I think it was !. The film was so bad, to me, that it really embarrassed me. I could hardly bear to see what was happening on the screen. Because I’d come to see it with a group of people, I couldn’t just walk out. So I concentrated on hating the audience, because clearly, the audience, in the great majority, was loving it. They were howling with laughter.
Now, I had no intention or desire to review that movie. But if I did, according to my reviewer’s creed, I’d have to give up my notion that the audience was a buncha idiots. In fact, they were having fun and I wasn’t – but I can’t really hold that against them. Kaelism, however, allows me to wreak my revenge on them by triangulating from the film to the audience, and review the audience into the film.
The problem is, of course, that I don’t know that audience, except through some drive by sociological generalisations. I can’t go all formalist and pretend that there isn’t an audience, but if I am going to talk about the audience, if it is the medium to the medium I am supposedly reviewing, I should make an effort to see them without falling prey to cliché.
So onto the review, by Eileen Jones, in the Jacobin.
Jones begins her review by saying that death is central to Anderson’s work. What central means, however, is pretty unclear. She says there a lot of death, or death becomes the motivation for certain action sequences, or wraps up the film – but I am not sure that this makes death central, as, for instance you could say it was central in many Bergman films.
On this death trip, she plunges into her cry against the whole Wes Anderson thing:
“Consider that Anderson kills a beloved animal for laughs in almost every film. Usually it’s a dog, but in The Grand Budapest Hotel he switches it up and kills a cat. The corpse is carried away by his loving owner inside an impromptu bag made out of fine-looking cloth marred by a single, artful blotch of blood. Then the owner, played by Jeff Goldblum with his usual self-amused irony, passes a garbage can on the street and abruptly tosses the bag into it with a slapstick comedy thump.
It was at that moment that I became officially sick of Wes Anderson, and of the gleeful laughter in the theater that accompanies every Wes Anderson-ish move he makes. The audience even anticipates the move he’s going to make and begins guffawing ahead of time, just to be sure to appear maximally Wes-savvy.”
It is that last sentence that rubbed me the wrong way. It seems to me that every comedy exists by creating the anticipation of mirth. It is the rhythm of comedy – a comedy that made you laugh thoughtfully, and only when the joke or gag was finished, would not be a funny film at all. That the audience was gleeful, and began guffawing ahead of time, means, simply, that the audience took the film to be a comedy. I could say the same thing of Horrible Bosses, or Duck Soup, or Medicin malgre lui, or Midsummer Night’s Dream.
What is really happening here is revealed by the term Wes-savvy. The audience is being reviewed through the film. And the audience is unbearably hip. They are hipsters. They think they are cool. They are the type of people who think disposing of a beloved animal in a trash can is funny, except perhaps not in real life, perhaps, because there it probably isn’t cool.
I’ve mentioned the sociological problem with reviewing the audience – the aesthetic problem is that audiences are pretty, well, reactive. They laugh, or they don’t, they are silent, or they aren’t, but my bet is that anybody watching a film of an audience watching a film (in this thought experiment, the sound track of the film being watched would have to be muffled) would have a hard time knowing what film the audience was watching. Audiences, in other words, aren’t mirrors of films.
Jones ostensibly larger point is that the poisoned political motive of Anderson’s films comes out in the way that fascism is defanged, de-historicized and miniaturized in the film. Which is all true. But this is almost always true, in one way or another, of American films featuring fascist bad guys. Jones scores one fair hit, which is a genuine piece of non-Kaelism:
“Anderson’s film evokes several classic ones by talented writer/directors trained in the pre-Fascist German film industry who managed to get out in time, such as Ernst Lubitsch (Trouble in Paradise,To Be Or Not to Be), Max Ophuls (Letter From an Unknown Woman,Earrings of Madame D. . .) and Emeric Pressburger (working with British partner Michael Powell on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp).
All created characters featuring a remarkable zest for life in the form of fine food, broad-minded sex, and witty conversation combined with excellent manners and admirable toughness. Lubitsch and Pressburger engaged directly in anti-fascist film propaganda by presenting fond portraits of such endangered Good Europeans. M. Gustave is clearly meant to join this pantheon, announcing himself as the last vestige of civilization in “this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.
Only here’s the problem: Wes Anderson’s Old Europe is just like a modern Andersonian world we know so well, mannered, decorative and nostalgic, with slight additional flourishes in the form of fancier pastries and adorable funiculars for traveling up and down cartoon-cute mountains. Newly fascist Europe on the rise looks to be wonderfully Wes-like, only with slightly severer uniforms.”
Undoubtedly it is true that fascist Europe is wonderfully Wes-like – that is, that it is buffoonishly stylized. But is it a criticism of the films she mentions that they look wonderfully Lubitsch-ish, or Pressburgerish, or Ophuls-ish? Sure, they have an extra authenticity, but this is because, after all, they were dealing with fascism as a contemporary and dangerous event. Anderson isn’t; in fact, the villains exist to topple the doll house, or at least threaten to. In as much as fascism is a much bigger and nastier thing than this, Anderson’s film is totally inadequate to portray it. In fact, the aesthetic of fascim has a way of tripping up directors who try to confront it, from Visconti’s the Damned to Cavani’s The Night Porter to, even, Fosse’s Caberet (although Caberet does have its great moments). Anderson simply decided to avoid the whole issue by making fascism a Ruritanian farce. I’m not sure whether using this bat upside Anderson’s head is the damning criticism that Jones takes it to be – from another point of view, the creation of these toy boxes is a way of disclaiming, rightly, any attempt to understand fascism on a deeper level. American directors, with their fetish for WWII, don’t often display this humility.
Still, I don’t think Jones’s hatred for Wes’s work, which the review officially proclaims, is due to his insufficient or ever reactionary politics so much as for the Wes-savvy audience she associates with him, and that seems, by association, to be the type of people who giggle at easy ironies. The Indie film audience, in other words.
I don’t have a lot of sympathy for that audience, I’ll admit. For one thing, I, too, am not into easy ironies. I want massive, upfront tedium in a film, ironclad boredom, minutes dripping by as the camera slowly pans, say, a white wall, or a rain puddle. I want things to be hard, goddamn it! But I’m not a monk. I don’t mind things that are easy. I do mind not wrestling a bit with how one’s feeling about an audience effects or should effect one’s feeling for the film. I am not a fan of Kaelism.