Friday, October 02, 2009

Wes Anderson and Peter Greenaway: Discovering a strong influence

Wes Anderson has a unique vision. His aesthetic is one of banality, and yet it's severely aesthetic, emphasizing composition and symmetry. His characters are markedly underdramatic, but his films still have a strong undercurrent of sentimentality. He emanates a sense of detachedness and sterility, but his films are about messy, confused family and romantic relationships. His aesthetic seems such an island unto itself that it can be hard to form a sensible reaction to him. However, this past week, I've discovered that Mr. Anderson DOES have precursors in cinema... I found one of them, and I sensed an overwhelming kinship. This kindred movie was Drowning By Numbers, a twisted little opus by celluloid artiste Peter Greenaway.

You should really see Drowning By Numbers. I can't pretend it isn't weird, and it's bleakly pessimistic, but it's also such a fascinating mental puzzle of a film, full of interlocking curiousities and remarkable characters. It has the stamp of British humor upon it -- the witticisms that simply slip past, the exchanges of understated mockery and absurdity -- but its real appeal is thoroughly universal.

The film revolves around three women, all named Sissy, who undertake the murders of their respective husbands. They have an unsettling sense of solidarity, and though they seem motivated by sexual frustration at first, it eventually starts to seem like they commit murder simply because they were tired of not committing murder. During this cynical and subversive process, they manipulate the local coroner into covering up their evidence. The story is the coroner's, as much as the womens'... he is a goofy and susceptible man who spends most of the film explaining the rules of strange, folkish games he has invented, and taking care of his son Smut, who has a similar fascination with games, but whose preoccupation is noticably more morbid. The film is a cracked unity, a fragmented braid of woven themes.

Does this sound like Wes Anderson? Not really. Murder and morbidity aren't themes central to his work, and his plots don't have the complex opacity of Drowning By Numbers. However, if you go and watch Drowning By Numbers right now, you'll sense the influence it's had on Anderson. I'll go ahead and try to articulate this influence, real quick like.

The camerawork and composition of shots in Greenaway's film are a direct precursor to Anderson's unconventional style. Greenaway likes long takes and a stable camera; any motion is usually slow pans, following a character's movement through a landscape. His frames are decidedly distant and minimally expressive, with a range of medium and occasional long shots, but few close-ups. The effect of his compositions is often to flatten the background and present the action in another flat plane in front of it, and he'll remain in this position and let a series of events or a conversation unfold in front of the lens. Like Anderson, Greenaway favors symmetry in his frames, and strong foreground/background gestalt. There's another shot of Greenaway's that Anderson shares: the unadorned, straight-on shot of a face showing understated signs of emotion (a single tear, a twitch of the cheek).

I've included a bunch of frames to compare the two styles. They're a pretty good illustration of the similarities I'm talking about... you can find them at the bottom of the post.

Add to this a penchant for quirky characters whose quirks are represented simply as the texture of everyday life... and a portrayal of family relationships that suggest underlying affection, even though they're caught up in a world of awkwardness and disconnection... and you start to see why these two filmmakers are so similar.

Interestingly enough, although Greenaway is less recognized than Wes Indie-darling Anderson, Drowning By Numbers could actually be seen as more marketable than something like Life Aquatic. It's certainly a strange movie, but it doesn't have Anderson's ironic tendencies (intentionally bad special effects on the fish, high-intensity spy music during a comically awkward rescue scene). Drowning By Numbers may have been a weird aesthetic and experimental exercise, but it felt dramatized, and the characters and plot were certainly engaging.

Greenaway's work is both more symbolically complex (the counting, the stars, things happening in three's, etc) and more dramatically conventional (it's an honest crime drama, at least) than Anderson's. As postmodern cinephiles looking back at Greenaway, we can see how he developed his experiment, and how Wes Anderson took that detached aesthetic and made it evolve. In a sense, Anderson's movies are a purification of Greenaway's aesthetic banal -- it's the same tone, but Anderson's movies don't have all the opacity and symbolism to get in the way. His stories are purely about the characters, and the plots and dialogue all fit into the quirky, banal, humanistic aesthetic, which he brings into a unity.

So in that sense, seeing Greenaway's work has given me a new appreciation for Wes Anderson's. I hope some of you Anderson fans out there will try to rent Drowning By Numbers. See if you see the influence as clearly as I did.

Frame comparisons, with Drowning By Numbers on top and The Royal Tenenbaums on the bottom:

Faces at despairing moments

Hapless patriarchs

Preoccupation with symmetry

Horizontal movement on a flattened background

Slow pan, following characters in conversation

Fixation on a significant gesture


PleasantGuitar said...

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JeanRZEJ said...


You know not the relevance of these two terms until you've seen A Zed and Two Noughts. Believe me on that one. Also, see it! Believe me on that one, too! But, yes, I've noticed their similarities, very much so.

Truth of the matter... said...

Wes has taken Greenaways 'quirks' and completely missed the point and purpose of them. He has NOT evolved Greenaways aesthetic, he has dumbed it down and used it as dressing. In 50 years, PG will be studied and admired, not Wes Anderson.

Anonymous said...

I'm really surprised that there hasn't been more widespread comparison of these two directors. I think early Hal Hartley must surely have been an influence on Anderson - the stilted dialogue in particular. I like them all.

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Anonymous said...

I noted the similarities long ago and you're exactly right! But you've not even included the best shots from DBN that are the most pre-Anderson: the sheep/chairs/teacup scene, the beach party, pretty much every interior room scene with Madgett and Smut with their clutters of distracted hobby interests and eccentricities. Such fun. Both directors are wonderful in that regard (WASPy Leisure Class eccentrics and oddballs) and DBN is definitely my favorite Greenaway film though probably not his most accessible or successful one. It reminds me of Kit Williams art a bit as well, and the whole Whit Stillman Metropolitan ethos perhaps. Anyway great post and many thanks :)

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Anonymous said...

Having grown up in the 80s and watched stunning Greenaway films, I saw the connection even before I watched the Anderson Film. But there does not seem to be any acknowledgment Greenaway was an influence. I came away feeling frustrated that the camera shots were not long enough to enjoy the symmetry and balance.

Anonymous said...

You should watch Greenaway’s first film The Fall for an even more obvious example of a film influence on Wes Anderson.