The Life Operatic with Wes Anderson

A Filmmaker Uses Classical Music and Opera to Tell Quirky Stories

Monday, May 21, 2012 - 09:00 AM

When Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson’s seventh feature-length film, opens in theaters this Friday, what we may see is Anderson at his most operatic.

Set in the early 1960s, "Moonrise Kingdom" traces the summer of a young boy (Sam) who escapes his summer camp to run away with a young townie (Suzy). The two 12-year-olds find shelter on the eponymous cove on the fictional New Penzance Island (a Gilbert and Sullivan nod for those of you playing the home game; for another sly Sullivan reference, the camp is called Camp Ivanhoe), and live as a sort of virginal Siegmund and Sieglinde: Two misfits finding solace in one another's company, living away from the confines of conventionality.

The movie’s soundtrack includes a heavy amount of Benjamin Britten, a composer who wasn’t shy about incorporating young moppets into his operas. And this only serves to heighten the relationship between Sam and Suzy. The trailer is bookended by the composer’s “Cuckoo!” (taken from Songs for Friday Afternoons) and his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. It opens on a church performance of Britten’s children's opera, Noye’s Fludde. The first moments of the trailer show Sam ambushing the dressing room and asking Suzy, costumed as a raven, “What kind of bird are you?”

Noye’s Fludde, or "Noah’s Flood" was, in turn, one of Anderson’s earliest exposures to opera. The Houston-born director first encountered the opera as a student at St. Francis Episcopal Day School and it helped in part to fuel the plot for Moonrise Kingdom. Yet Anderson, long-regarded as a quirkier-than-thou cineaste with a catalog of idiosyncrasies (sporting custom-made suits deliberately a half-size too small, relying even in the 21st century on ocean liners and trains for international travel), has cultivated an operatic persona that can be consistently spotted in his works. In a Puccinian sense, as a 2007 New York magazine profile detailed, Anderson has seemingly “constructed a life almost preposterously conducive to the pursuit of fantastical whims” which in turn are reflected through his film characters. Whether or not he lives for love is debatable, but he is undeniably a man who lives for art.

Following the cult-classic "Bottle Rocket" (1996), the director’s sophomore effort in "Rushmore" (1998) became one of those films symbiotically linked to its soundtrack. There was Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh’s score, terminally hip and slick, but more meticulous was the use of songs like Cat Stevens’s “Here Comes My Baby” that supplied emotional cues where dialogue remained cloistered and coded. (Who could also forget the operatic revenges that Anderson regulars Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray exact on one another as they vie for the affections of the same woman?)

Anderson continued on similar variations to this theme in his 2001 hit, "The Royal Tenenbaums." In a way, the film that remains his most famous, most Anderson-y, to date, is also his most innately operatic. In the director’s commentary on the DVD, you get the sense that Anderson fashioned this as a cinematic pastiche, culled from personal stories (we have the Wilson brothers to thank for the bee-bee-lodged-in-a-hand story) and films seminal to Anderson. Like interpolated arias in a Handelian hybrid, nods to "The Magnificent Ambersons" and "The Red Shoes" are seamlessly stitched together.

Like "Moonrise Kingdom," the inspiration for "The Royal Tenenbaums" initially stemmed from a musical image: That of a woman (later to become Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, Margot) exiting a bus in slow motion, bearing a soft gaze, in time to the music of Nico’s “These Days.” It’s a whisper of a moment in the film, but from that one brief shot, the entire film unfurls. Anderson also notes that there is some leitmotif action in the score, which he compares to Prokofiev’s Peter and the Woolf in how different characters are represented by different instruments. Two classical pieces in the soundtrack are George Enescu’s Sonata For Cello and Piano in F Minor (from which Mothersbaugh drew inspiration for his original score) and Ravel’s String Quartet in F major, which plays during an opening title sequence modeled after "Death Takes a Holiday."

Through both works, we see the characters at their most impenetrable. Ravel shows each player during their morning ablutions, applying layers of artifice that will later be stripped throughout the whole of the movie. Enescu is primarily heard as Margot refuses to engage with her much older husband, preferring instead to lock herself in her bathroom with a small television set and a clandestine pack of cigarettes. Eventually, rock takes the lead—such as when the Rolling Stones plays against another Wagnerian interaction between a brother and his adopted sister—where performances remain mellifluously muted (Gene Hackman, upon getting stabbed, reprimands the assailant with the line, “That’s the last time you put a knife in me!”).

On the other hand, however, classical music in Anderson’s world can show his characters at their most human. In 2007’s "The Darjeeling Limited," which features a soundtrack dominated by the Bollywood scores of Satyajit Ray and music written for Merchant-Ivory films, there are two lone Western instrumental wolvesthe fourth movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and Debussy’s Clair de Lune—which point out the characters of three American brothers traveling through India at their most naked and honest.

The latter is played by Schwartzman’s character on his iPod, after the three have been booted off their train. In the dark, in the middle of nowhere, they sit around a fire, down a host of prescription medications and talk openly after spending the majority of the film squirreling secrets from one another.

"Maybe this is how it’s supposed to end… Maybe this is where the spiritual journey ends,” muses Schwartzman at one point, when in fact we’re only at the midway point. Later, as the three reflect on the funeral of their father, the spirited finale to Beethoven’s Seventh underscores a frenetic attempt on their part to rescue their late father’s Porsche from a repair shop and drive it to his funeral, even at the risk of missing the burial altogether. With three characters so obsessed with maintaining appearances, their grief-stricken obsession comes as a breath of fresh, truthful air.

However, vocal classical music has previously eluded Anderson, perhaps because his characters—for all of their musical obsessions—rarely sing. "The Darjeeling Limited" features one of those rare moments with a chorus of orphans singing, in tentative English, a hymn of praise. The only other primary example is seen in 2004’s relative flop "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," which features a character (played by Seu Jorge) who frequently sings David Bowie songs in Portuguese. This is also what makes Anderson a film director in the truest sense: His scenes themselves, with all of their multifaceted visuals, are what truly sing.

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