As I eagerly await my chance to see Wes Anderson’s new release, Isle of Dogs, I look back on how seeing the trailer for his previous release sparked my interest in film and, eventually, gave rise to this blog.
It wasn’t long ago that I would tell you I didn’t watch movies. I didn’t watch TV either. This was not a conscious choice. Rather, I was raised in the kind of household where sitting in front of the TV for unregulated hours was forbidden. By the time I was in middle school I noticed a clear differentiation between myself and my peers. I watched the odd TV show or family movie that my family went to together because it was a good fit for all of us and/or because it was culturally significant (eg Pixar and Harry Potter films). By contrast, my peers were beginning to binge watch live action TV dramas like Lost, Heroes and various crime shows.
My alienation from film viewing was further developed, however, by the movies I did see. The movies that were supposed to excite me didn’t. I got no thrill out of watching action sequences, or the sappy endings to mainstream comedies.
I was twenty years old when my mind began to change. I don’t remember what film I was watching (Dallas Buyers Club would be my guess), but I remember seeing a trailer at Varsity Cinema that struck a unique emotion in me. That trailer was for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. I remember thinking “I’m going to make a point of seeing that movie.” Yet that film was not an adaptation of a young adult series I’d enjoyed. It wasn’t a straightforward comedy with an easily explicable humorous hook either. It wasn’t even about a historical event or subject matter that was important to me. Rather, what struck me about it was precisely that I could not articulate what excited me about it. Sure it seemed amusing: the clips of Ralph Fiennes yelling “lobby boy!” gave off that impression, but I didn’t remember individual jokes. I remembered a melange of things: actors, colors, moods and that word “lobby boy.” In other words, it struck me as impressive as a, well, “film.”
Seeing The Grand Budapest Hotel for the first time was a mixed experience for me. I certainly found parts of it funny, but I also had questions. Why, for example, was the film’s opening narration about a writer, who appears in a flashback telling of how (in a flashback) he met the film’s protagonist (“lobby boy”) Zero Mostel, who (via a long flashback) tells the story that is essentially the whole movie? In short, what was the point of the writer, who in no way factors into the story’s action? I probably wouldn’t be bothered by this aspect of the film today, but at the time this narrative unconventionality was something I hadn’t yet acquired a taste for.
Around the same time as The Grand Budapest Hotel came out, another film hit theatres. This one, Inside Llewyn Davis, attracted me for less mysterious reasons. It was a film about a folk-singer (I like to think of myself as a folk-singer). It was also written/directed by the Coen brothers, who I knew because they’d directed an adaptation of The Odyssey (O Brother Where Art Thou?).
In short, I was drawn to see The Grand Budapest Hotel, because of its many qualities as a work of art and Inside Llewyn Davis because it was a work by a known writer/director(s). Of course, had my life story been only slightly different, I could reverse those descriptions and they would equally be true. My discovery of Wes Anderson was as important as my re-acquaintance with the Coens. More important than my relationship with either of these directors, however ,was the new way they taught me to appreciate film.
In watching Inside Llewyn Davis, I found a bit of the old me. I liked the movie because of what it was about: because there were characters based off of Jim& Jean and Tom Paxton. Yet there were also frustrating elements to the film in that regard: Llewyn’s interest in pre-Dylan folk and the film’s anti-climactic ending. There were also things that the burgeoning new film fan in me enjoyed. The film incorporated a not yet famous Adam Driver as character that was very memorable, despite being insignificant to the plot. The film also used John Goodman in a similar regard. Goodman’s character has an eerie feel to him that briefly makes him seem like the film’s villain. In fact, however, he’s simply a quirky, self-promoting man with dehabilitating health problems.
Much like Driver’s character, Goodman’s character doesn’t “matter.” Then again, no character in Inside Llewyn Davis really does: the film’s frustrating ending is the revelation that Llewyn’s story is cyclical (a trait also seen in the Coen’s An Irrational Man). As such, Inside Llewyn Davis is not just a narrative, but a diorama: a depiction of Greenwich village and the universe around it from the perspective of one of the numerous folk singers who did not get to be Bob Dylan. Therefore, it doesn’t matter that John Goodman’s curmudgeony, jazz musician does not serve the function of a traditional villain. He fills an important place in the diorama, sitting in his sunglasses behind his chauffeur, and waiting to capture the viewer’s eye and imagination.
Speaking of dioramas, what film better embodies that metaphor than The Grand Budapest Hotel? While it is a story that takes its protagonists to numerous places, its true soul comes out in every utterance of that phrase “lobby boy!” It is the adventure of a purple uniform as much as it the adventure of its unassuming protagonist. The uniform dashes through an exquisite pink hotel, which itself exists with in the mind of a man buried in a beautiful, key covered monument. Furthermore, while The Grand Budapest Hotel is not a thoroughly non-traditional story (unlike Inside Llewyn Davis it features a traditional villain), it too is peppered with characters who briskly come in and out (including Owen Wilson’s “Monsieur Chuck”), making them more funky-dolls in a diorama than characters in a story.
By the time I started film-blogging over three years had passed since I watched these films. They changed me, yes, but it wasn’t a change I became aware of at once. In the year following my seeing those titles I continued to see the occasional flick at the suggestion of a film-student friend of mine. It took me 10 months before I truly began consuming film on my own. I lived near Toronto’s Bay St Video at the time, and when I had to watch Children of Men for an assignment, I decided to sign up for membership and rent the DVD.
Then, I began to rent more. I rapidly went through all of Wes Anderson’s filmography. I rented Linklater’s Boyhood, the Coen’s A Serious Man as well as a lot of Jean–Luc Godard. Having never received a formal film education, I’m sure I missed out on some of the key innovations in Godard’s work. I did however come to appreciate its blatant characteristics: long shots of natural and industrialized environments, philosophical monologues often peppered with references to Marxism and history, and a lack of a traditional storyline: In other words, the oddness of Wes Anderson and the Coens’ approaches to narrative pales in comparison.
The challenge of learning to appreciate works like Godard’s Goodbye to Language, left me with a strong desire to parody. For me the mindsets of wanting to parody something, and having genuine sense of affection for it are not too far removed from each other. Therefore, when I made a makeshift, imitation Godard film called “La Mort et la Famille” in the summer of 2015 (just under a year and a half since the two titular films of this piece came into my life, and just under two years before I started blogging), it wasn’t just a joke: it was a moment of self discovery. There was (and still is) a lot for me to see, but suddenly I could say it: “I liked movies.”
There is a reason I realized I liked movies then and couldn’t before. For me, my ability to enjoy films is often rooted in my sense of connection with their director and/or writer. I cannot simply be an audience member being entertained (which is why generic, big budget fight scenes don’t do it for me); rather I wanted to admire and philosophize about the idea of crafting the movie before me. In parodying Godard I awakened a way of thinking that had been stirring in my head since I first saw The Grand Budapest Hotel trailer. I was now finally seeing films not as standalone pieces of entertainment, but as intertextual expressions of writer-directors’ imaginations.
It took another year and a half for me to first articulate this relationship, however. Moonlight and La, La Land were competing neck-and-neck for best picture, and in my social media world the competition was tense. This tension was of course political, with the #OscarsSoWhite movement motivating some of the support for Moonlight. To be clear, I agree with this cause and have no interest in arguing with its proponents, however, I did feel that this politicized environment lead to some misguided statements about La, La Land. For those judging the film through a political lens, La, La Land was a predictable repetition of the Hollywood-celebrating-itself trope. If that’s how one saw Damien Chazelle’s movie, I can indeed understand why one would feel it was inferior to Moonlight: a ground-breaking indie film about the intersections of race, sexuality and poverty.
For me, however, La, La Land was far more than its theme. It was, well, a dazzling
diorama: a magical realist extravaganza that guides its protagonists around a world so wondrous and vast that they end up with happy endings while still being miserably lost. That it was about Hollywood and dreams coming true was not what made it entertaining: Chazelle’s world-building skills were.
I used to be the guy who didn’t like movies. Then I became more like “everyone else” and learned to like movies. The 2017 Oscars reminded me that maybe I was still in fact not like everyone else. I never learned to watch movies in the way that others do: I’d rather developed a distinct hobby that was like that of the regular movie goer in that it also involved looking at a film on a screen.
I suppose I could have named this blog post after La, La Land or Godard’s La Chinoise. Other works including Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows, Sean Baker’s Tangerine, and Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson were also part of that process. That said, I’m going to take the Coen brothers’ approach of going full circle. I started blogging in May 2017, roughly within one month of my re-seeing and re-appreciating The Grand Budapest Hotel and Inside Llewyn Davis. I still have a lot to work on: seeing more classics, improving my cinematic vocabulary, and finding more non-white male directors to count amongst my influences. That said, in this regard, I’m not the same person I was 4 years ago, so “…p…p…please Mr. Kennedy, don’t shoot me into outer space,” I hear they don’t have video stores up there.