Unlike the 1970’s, where rogue cinephiles roved in packs while using big studio money to make intimately personal and brazenly bizarre works of art, the auteurs of today prefer to stay the course solo. David Fincher continually directs gloomy, stylish commercials and music videos so that he can finance his gloomier, more stylish feature films, valley wunderkind Paul Thomas Anderson toils away on Scientology-based screenplays that no one wants to touch, David O. Russell makes a commercial bid with “The Fighter” so he can continue to make irascible, talk-crazy psychocomedies about the meaning of life… the list goes on.
Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach have bucked this trend and then some: not only do they write and produce films with each other, they’ve also managed to forge an alliance with a golden-age-of-cinema icon in the form of “Paper Moon” director Peter Bogdonavich. Anderson and Baumbach have both been fairly successful on their own respective terms: Anderson has fashioned a meticulous and sublime style of understated human comedy and storybook whimsy in his films, some of which are transcendent (“The Royal Tenenbaums”, “Bottle Rocket”, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”) and some of which are wildly uneven (“The Darjeeling Limited”), while Mr. Baumbach employs his sharp wit and East coast education to study the cluttered, neurosis-driven heads of people who are by turns frighteningly intelligent and also unbelievably lonely. Both men profile white, upper-middle class families wracked by petty dysfunction and both use snappy dialogue and melancholic 70’s rock and pop as a contrast to the mental and emotional warfare we see onscreen. Recently, I watched Mr. Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale”, starring Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney, a third time and was struck by how keen the film was in the attention it paid to the slightest behavioral tics of its characters and how much that said about them. The depth of characterization is remarkable; Baumbach fully sympathizes with his kooky Brooklyn bohemian clan but never lets them off the hook even once, showcasing their infidelities, screaming matches and personal quirks without judgment but not without close scrutiny.
We live in a post-“Avatar” world of CGI humdrum and endless sequels and remakes. James Cameron’s overrated epic was indeed, as many of the industry suits predicted, a “game changer” but not in the way that true film fans such as myself expected. It has long been the case that shameless spectacle takes precedence over emotionally nuanced storytelling and sharply observed dialogue. But in 2011, nearly all of the twenty tent pole films we will see this summer (“X-Men: First Class”, “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”, “Cowboys and Aliens”, the fourth installment of “Pirates of the Caribbean”) are sequels, reboots or films based off a comic book. Indeed, there are directors who are working from within the confines of the studio system to create genuinely exciting art pictures- I, for one, cannot wait to see what Darren Aronofsky does with “The Wolverine”, his first foray into comic-book cinema- but they are few and far between.
So let us be grateful to Mr. Anderson and Mr. Baumbach for giving us films that are more akin to traditional European cinema then modern American film: films that are rich with intimate characterization, visually deft and with an ear for words that can be simultaneously uproarious and heartbreaking. The most common blow leveled at Mr. Anderson is that his films are self-amused and do not bear any resemblance to what we, Johnny Moviegoer, know as reality. Mr. Baumbach has come under fire from critics, meanwhile, who claim that his protagonists are completely and wholly unredeemable (although anyone who sat through the entirety of “Margot at the Wedding” would be forgiven for wanting to repeatedly bludgeon Nicole Kidman’s wretched antihero). Since when are we so formless in our stances as curious, involved moviegoers that we need to be force-fed morals about what it means to “be a good person”? Do we need to watch the heroes of our films pet puppies and save babies from burning buildings? The greatest film of all time? “Citizen Kane”? About a complete monster: a monster not without dimension and depth, but a monster nonetheless. And apropos to the detractors of Mr. Anderson who decry the fantastical elements of his films, since when does escapism have to be lowbrow? “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”, a film ravaged by many a critic and misunderstood by many an Anderson fan, is in fact a rip-roaring high-seas adventure imbued with the peculiar rhythms of a character comedy. It’s a beautiful, intelligent film on one level, but on another level, it begs to not be taken seriously. I mean, look at those hats! Ditto goes for Mr. Baumbach’s underrated “Greenberg”, which takes the exoskeleton of a typical sub-par Ben Stiller romantic comedy and turns it on its head.
So let us thank these men, for helping restore a wit and breathlessness to American cinema of which we are in dire need. The two are currently working on Peter Bogdonavich’s new film, which I, for one, cannot wait for. Godspeed, gentlemen.