Wednesday, May 21, 2014

I Saved Latin!: Wes Anderson, Randall Poster, and the Undeniable Influence of a Really Great Soundtrack

by Christine Campbell
On May 13th, American Laundromat Records-- an independent record label based in Mystic, Connecticut-- released a 23-track album of songs featured in Wes Anderson films, covered by a variety of contemporary folk and indie artists. Titled I Saved Latin! A Tribute to Wes Anderson, its release coincides with that of Anderson’s most recent project, The Grand Budapest Hotel, which tells the story of a hotel concierge and his Lobby Boy on a quest to claim an inheritance from a wealthy older woman. Though the soundtrack of The Grand Budapest Hotel primarily features instrumental folk music pulled from the Russian and German traditions (it’s partially set in Europe in the 1930s), which is not particularly easy to repurpose in the form of a relatable, modern cover, the new film nevertheless deserves its own place in the Wes Anderson musical catalog, and the album’s release is a well-timed tribute to Wes Anderson as a director with an often cult-like following.  For his most passionate followers, the release of any new material, however tangentially related to the films themselves, is cause for great celebration. One critic summarily explains why his fan base is so admiring and persistent in its devotion: “the way in which people view [Wes Anderson’s] work frequently involves either fierce loyalty or passionate antipathy… with very little space in between. Watching his films involves very little neutrality because Anderson’s capacious curiosity and the definitive style he’s cultivated represent a sense of human normalcy that either resonates with you or doesn’t.”  Regardless of a viewer’s like or dislike for Anderson’s style, one can’t help but to admit that you’ll know his movies when you see them.
In a sense, it is easy to write off Wes Anderson’s projects as purely visual experiments—his film sets are meticulously planned out or constructed in miniature, actor dialogue is often wry and purposefully contrived, and his costumed, stylized characters constantly threaten to become silly and unbelievable caricatures of themselves.  Because Anderson repeatedly works with actors like Luke and Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Bill Murray, we come to expect familiar behaviors and attitudes from his characters before we even submerge ourselves in the world of a particular film. For better or worse, this can have the effect of removing us from a sense of total immersion.  Many directors, like J.J. Abrams, in the upcoming Star Wars film, use this rationale as a justfication for choosing a cast of ‘unknowns’ when fans are always looking to see big names and billboards, but Wes Anderson refuses to shy away from his favorite collaborators.  The cast of The Grand Budapest Hotel is perhaps his most impressive yet—with actors as diverse as Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Juff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, and Ralph Fiennes, the movie feels a bit like a play—you are constantly aware that you’re watching actors act, but you learn to suspend disbelief just long enough to be swept up in all the visual grandeur and carefully presented content.
With this delicate balance between character and caricature in mind, Wes Anderson’s style is in many ways very easy to imitate (or at least very easy to parody). A writer from the Huffington Post, taking advantage of this, has compiled a rather amusing list of “15 Absolutely Necessary Ingredients for making a Wes Anderson Film,” as though each story could be constructed in as formulaic and routine a fashion as baking a cake.  Among these so-called ingredients are a  “prevailing use of the font Futura,” “(at least nine) scenes that feature Bill Murray, preferably smoking a cigarette,” “a child-like enthrallment with boats and/or tree houses,” and “a penchant for endearingly polite slapstick,” all tied together by “an aptitude for endowing live-action films with an illustrative, story book quality.” Each of these criteria has some basis in reality, to be fair, but fans of Wes Anderson are fans of his recurring quirks and jokes, unswayed by the argument that “we’ve seen this before.” Twins Ari and Uzi in the Royal Tenenbaums, for example, are something like cartoon characters—they wear the same red, swishy tracksuits and curly brunette coifs as their on-screen dad, played by Ben Stiller, looking like little gentlemen with somber expressions. They only change, briefly, when they don identical black tracksuits for a funeral at the end of the film. 
Details like these seem silly, playful, and unrealistic, like Charlie Brown in his perpetually yellow T-shirt, because in many ways they are. But as Michael Chabon stresses in “Wes Anderson’s Worlds,” an introduction to the Wes Anderson Collection, the self-aware and consciously constructed ‘quirky’ details of Wes Anderson movies  are often cited as evidence of his work’s “artificiality,” at times with the implication, simple-minded and profoundly mistaken, that a high degree of artifice is somehow inimical to seriousness, to honest emotion, to so-called authenticity. All movies, of course, are equally artificial; it’s just that some are more honest about it than others.”  Wes Anderson makes no attempts to conceal the fact that we are viewing a work of art—each frame considers proportion and color, each move of the camera is calculated to render an effect precisely how it was imagined, and he wants us to recognize that.
Since Wes Anderson’s feature-length film career began in 1996 with Bottle Rocket, he has produced a total of 7 films, all of which (apart from his first) have enjoyed a generally warm critical and box-office reception.  Both Moonrise Kingdom and The Royal Tenenbaums were nominated for Academy Awards  in the category o Best Original Screenplay, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox was nominated for Best Animated Feature. Though the title of the newly released cover album, I Saved Latin!, refers to a defiant scene from schoolboy Max Fischer in 1998’s Rushmore, the compilation also includes music from various other Anderson movies, including The Life Aquatic, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox--  It is a tribute to his entire career thus far. Clocking in at a lengthy 73 minutes and spanning two CDs, the compilation album features a wide range of artists, genres and instrumentation, though as critic Patrick Robbins wisely and importantly notes, there is one notable commonality among the listed tracks: “all but two of the songs here were originally recorded between 1965 and 1972.”
 Those familiar with Wes Anderson’s work will no doubt be left unsurprised by this niche chronological detail; he is publicly known and admired not only as a director, but as something of a musical tastemaker, with a penchant for reviving old and forgotten songs from some of the 20th century’s greatest bands and performers. Lior Phillips, from Consequence of Sound, argues, “as far as a cultural influencer professing his unique worldview, Anderson really is about as zeitgeist as it gets.”  Though his cinematic style is almost immediately recognizable in its visuals—with meticulously designed sets, symmetrically framed shots, and stylized, quirky outfits as discussed above, an emphasis on older, slightly off-the-beaten path music is an equally defining and significant characteristic of Wes Anderson’s directorial approach.  Even American Laundromat Records have embraced this necessary pairing of visual and auditory experiences; the release of their cover album coincides with the offering up for sale of various badges, pins, beanies, and decals that reflect significant elements in the worlds of Wes Anderson.  Granted, these bits of merchandise might more realistically be used as a sort of inside joke between those who are cool enough to be “in the know,” the markers of some not-so-secret society, but the ability of a plain red beanie to immediately signify a moment or moments in film, such as the adventures of Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic, is a testament to the strength and pervasiveness of Anderson’s unique film aesthetic. It’s my opinion, incidentally, that every single character in all of Wes Anderson’s films would make a first rate Halloween costume.
Just as a host of visual symbols—like a hat or a glove with a missing finger-- can conjure visions of particular Anderson scenes and characters, his musical selection has the less common but equally forceful ability to serve the same function.  The effect is stronger, perhaps, because his movies change the meanings of songs in everyday life, for myself and I imagine for many viewers.  If Nico’s version of  “These Days” emerges out of the background on the radio, in a car or in a 7-11 in the middle of nowhere, I can’t help but to picture Gwyneth Paltrow descending the stairs of the Green Line Bus in slow motion, with a caramel fur coat and dark, serious eyes.  When I first listened through the tracks of I Saved Latin!,  visions of trains shrugging themselves into motion in The Darjeeling Limited instantly sprung to mind as Kinks covers began, and Juliana Hatfield’s cover of Needle in the Hay by Eliot Smith recalled the fluorescent bathroom lights in the Tenenbaum household—the lights that throw Richie’s face into sharp relief in the mirror before an attempted suicide.  The songs, even If they stood independently and not in a compilation, have become inextricably linked with their use in film.
 And though Wes Anderson certainly has a heavy hand in all of his films as an auteur sorts, taking part in screenwriting, directing, and supervising nearly all of the minutiae of his films’ production, the important task of music selection has consistently been entrusted to the hands (and ears) of one man other than Anderson himself—music supervisor Randall Poster.  Poster has worked with Wes Anderson since the very beginning, helping to choose a few songs for Bottle Rocket’s soundtrack right out of college, and remaining by Anderson’s for the following 18 years. Poster collaborates brilliantly with film composers like Mark Mothersbaugh and is tasked with the significant challenge of acquiring the licenses and rights for recorded music that many others have tried--and failed-- to obtain. His work as a music director has involved him in a wide number of projects, spanning from smaller indie films to major blockbusters like The Hangover, The Wolf on Wall Street, Up in the Air, and Revolutionary Road. The sheer variety of music he draws from is something astounding to consider. 
Both musically and culturally, however, the 60s and 70s seem to be Anderson’s directorial sweet spot, and Randall Poster is clearly glad to oblige. I Saved Latin! offers a diverse sampling of covers from this variable era, from punk to pop to rock and the things between. Regrettably, no songs on the album come from the soundtrack for Moonrise Kingdom, which was set in the 60s on a island off the coast of New England and features the instrumental and choral compositions of Benjamin Britten throughout.  What I would have liked to see most, I think, would have been an homage to the scene in which the underwear-clad pair of leading tweens dance to Francoise Hardy’s sultry “Le temps de l’amour” on a grey and drizzly beach, free from adult supervision.  The scene is undoubtedly one of the film’s greatest musical moments—one that perfectly summarizes the innocence and awkwardness and aspiration of growing up, and growing up in love. Hardy’s voice is a grown and womanly contrast to the somewhat silly dance unfolding on the screen; we see gangly limbs, floppy hair, a wide rift between bodies that one might expect to see in the sixth grade—all laid out in front of us.
 The scene is one of the most charming and tender throughout all of Anderson’s films, but also serves to demonstrate his and Poster’s mastery of incorporating song and film; Suzie, the female lead, crouches down to drop the needle on a small, portable record player that she has brought with her after running away from home, and the musical stage is set.  That she has chosen to bring this unwieldy and cumbersome survival tool as opposed to, say, food, or a tooth brush, speaks volumes to Anderson’s views on the importance of one’s favorite music— a good album is an essential element of life’s first aid kit.
 Record players are a recurring visual element in most of the Anderson films; Moonrise Kingdom opens with a shot of a young boy (Suzie’s brother) in a bathrobe, sitting down and playing a Benjamin Britten record about the instruments in an orchestra, and Margot plays records in a small indoor tent after Richie comes home from the hospital in The Royal Tenenbaums. When questioned about this common thread in an interview with Pitchfork Media, Anderson seemed largely focused on the visual benefit and intrigue provided by a spinning record.  “I'm not really a vinyl guy. But, just as a visual to go along with music, digital numbers ticking off is not quite as romantic as watching something that spins. I've always been drawn to that a little more and, in [Moonrise Kingdom], I have a perfectly valid excuse.”
Given the narrow recording range of the songs featured on I Saved Latin!, therefore, we might expect the music from a film set in this era to appear, but nevertheless, the album features an impressive range of originals by classic talents like David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, and Cat Stevens, reimagined and newly interpreted by modern indie bands like Freelance Whales, Matt Pond, and Someone Still Loves You, Boris Yeltin!.  As a fledgling admirer of folk music (I think most college students are, at one point or another), I have learned to love the art of covering more generally; the greatest songs in the folk canon, as it were, don’t really belong to anyone anymore-- they exist only in their various iterations, reinterpreted and reevaluated by artists throughout history. “This Land is My Land” could, for all intents and purposes, just as easily inform the listener that this song is their song, no matter who’s singing it. As I write this, I’ve just received an email linking me to a web-based compendium of Dylan covers, released in over 40 volumes--It seems the word has spread. Given an apparent fondness for obscuring his own lyrics and melodies at live shows, I think even Dylan likes to cover himself.
Thus faced with an ever-growing range of songs I won’t have time to listen to, when I first heard the news that a Wes Anderson compilation album was coming out, I was relieved to have a temporary respite from the constant process of browsing and poring over blogs like Cover Me Songs, or listening in on recurring radio cover segments like Triple J’s “Like a Version.” The work of compilation had already been done for me.  Though the songs on the tracklist do share a common decade, they work well together, primarily, because they embody the worlds and atmospheres so vividly imagined by Wes Anderson in film and by Randall Poster in sound. I Saved Latin! is the first compilation I’ve seen that is centered around a love for a particular film director, though I am sure there are others out there; covering a band, for a recording or at a live concert, expresses a certain degree of gratitude and appreciation for the original—it’s like of a cultural tip of the hat towards influences and musical peers, across genres and generations.
Kurt Cobain famously covered Leadbelly originals, for example, citing the folk and blues singer as a major player in Nirvana’s development as a band, and though he is a filmmaker and not a traditional musician in any sense, Wes Anderson’s films are undoubtedly a source of musical inspiration for countless fans—he might as well be a rockstar. Randall Poster explains the fulfilling ability that film has to inspire and captivate young audiences, particularly from a musical standpoint:  “In the course of the 16 years that we've worked together,” he says,  “a lot of bands have been born, and I think there have been some inspired by Wes, to a certain degree. And when kids come up to you and they're like, "Rushmore really opened me up to a whole world of music," that's the absolute greatest. Both of us have shared the experience of being the kid in the dark, watching the movie and just saying, "Oh my God, this is the greatest thing I've ever seen." And when you feel like you've affected another kid sitting in the dark, that's a great reward.” 
A group of those kids sitting in the dark, incidentally, have found themselves included on I Saved Latin; Margot and the Nuclear So & Sos, a chamber pop group from Indianapolis, were once called Archer Avenue, a band name based on a street from The Royal Tenenbaums’ neighborhood. They perform a serene and dreamy cover of Ziggy Stardust that blends seamlessly with the rest of the compilation, demonstrating first hand the impact that music in film can have on audiences big and small.  In all, I Saved Latin! is more important as a tribute to a great director than it is as a standalone compilation of songs.  It’s a way of expressing thanks and admiration through music that successfully bridges the gap between fiction and reality.

1 comment:

  1. Christine,

    Congratulations on a fine piece. You address Anderson's career film by film, you give a fine sense of his methods and quirks, you characterize the opposition to his films fairly (I'm a dissenter, except for Rushmore!) and even include Chabon's rebuttal (which I find unconvincing). The piece is really about the picturesque as a constant seduction for filmmakers, and how that impulse to overload the frame with visual confections can be counteracted--here, by an equally lush and gorgeous and ingenious score. I think what deepens Anderson's work, even if I don't love it, is its commitment to a distinct filmic lexicon of his own devising, patched together from bits of the past but embellished and heightened according to his own vision.

    What do others think? I wonder if the piece gets too immersed in the album, losing, slightly, the thread--the more interesting conflict between an exceedingly, decadently lyrical sensibility and forms of seriousness not reliant upon style.