The “Dollhouse Aesthetic”: Wes Anderson as an Auteur
If auteur theory is understood as a legitimate means of understanding and critiquing certain directors, then it seems undeniable that Wes Anderson is one director who falls under the category of auteurs. Through analysis of The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Moonrise Kingdom, the claim will be to argue that Anderson belongs to this category of auteurs, and to cite precisely the formal and social elements of the film that provide justification for this categorization. Several formal justificatory elements of the two films will be generalized as qualities of a Wes Anderson film under auteur theory, and social aspects, such as popularity of the films and production costs/revenue will be analyzed in order to understand the public and industry’s perception of Anderson as an auteur.
The formal justificatory elements belonging to The Grand Budapest Hotel and Moonrise Kingdom (and certainly other films by Wes Anderson which won’t be addressed) can be generalized as follows.
- A “dollhouse aesthetic”, categorized by an emphasis on bright colors and a delicately crafted mise-en-scène in which the viewer is forced to perceive that settings are crafted rather than captured.
- Frequent symmetrical straight-on shots, ranging from extreme long takes to close-ups.
- A tendency to casting major roles to a particular set of actors.
Points 2,3 unlike 1, in a sense explain themselves. They are matters of fact about the films—the prevalence of symmetrical shots in Anderson’s films and actor choices can be understood quantitatively without explanation. Point 1, the argument for a prevalence of the “dollhouse aesthetic” in Wes Anderson’s films, requires explanation. In order to make explicit exactly what the “dollhouse aesthetic” is, consider the following shots. The first four are taken from The Grand Budapest Hotel and Moonrise Kingdom (the first two from GBH, the second two from MK), the fifth is taken from Barfly, a 1987 Barbet Schroeder film.
Stills 1 and 3 are both alike (in addition to the fact that they’re both taken from Wes Anderson films) in that they employ a symmetrical straight on shot. In shot 1, the audience, light fixtures, and aisle which runs through the center of the shot are all distributed equally between the left and right portions of the shot.
Stills 2 and 4 are both alike in that they employ a particular set of bright colors: predominantly pinks and yellows. Notice in still 2 the brightness of the hotel, as well as the brightness of the font used in conveying the film’s title. In still 4 a strikingly similar yellow, a yellow Anderson employs frequently, is found both on various pieces of luggage in the shot and as the font of the credits. In addition, the same tone of pink is used on the record in shot 4 as is used in portions of the hotel in shot 2. The elements of stills 1-4, containing both symmetry and bright colors, are two essential conditions of Anderson’s auteur personality.
In order to make it explicit how Anderson’s mise-en-scène is unique, consider the setting in still 5, from Barfly. The viewer cannot know, for certain, that the mise-en-scène was crafted by the director. Whether it was crafted by the director or not is irrelevant (this is an epistemological fact that we could only know given we asked the director himself), what is relevant is whether the viewer perceives the mise-en-scène as having been crafted. The argument is that in films like Barfly, the viewer doesn’t perceive the mise-en-scène as having been crafted (even though it is), because it resembles a realist interpretation of what an American dive bar looks like. When one walks into the bar depicted in Barfly, the idea isn’t that this bar is somehow special, or possessing significant individual qualities—it’s that it’s possessing a number of qualities that correspond to actual dive bars in America. The neon lighting above the bar, the arrangement of the bottles behind the bar, the L-shaped bar top, the Americana artifacts spread across the bar-top—these are all elements which the viewer should recognize as ordinary in a bar.
Contrast this still of the bar with the mise-en-scène from still 1. The viewer ought to be struck by the uniformity of the shot. Again, it is not significant about Anderson that his mise-en-scène is crafted—many films are. What is significant is that the viewer notices how well crafted the mise-en-scène is—it isn’t realism—it achieves a magical realism that I argue resembles that of a well-maintained “dollhouse”.
Point 2, as it is a quantitative fact, is show by a prevalence of shots with the same qualities as stills 1-4 within Anderson’s films. Point 3 can be addressed in the same manner. In both The Grand Budapest Hotel and Moonrise Kingdom, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, and Bill Murray all have prominent roles. These actors are collected frequently in Anderson’s movies—not only in these two but in other words as well (Rushmore, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, etc).
Having articulated that Wes Anderson’s films possess the qualities articulated in the aforementioned three categories, it is necessary to determine whether these factors are sufficient in defining Wes Anderson as an auteur according to the requirements outlined by Sarris’ notion of auteur theory.
The requirements outlined by Sarris for an auteur are given by Pauline Kael as follows:
- Technical competence of a director: one must be a good director before a great director.
- The distinguishable personality of the director
- The director who is concerned with interior meaning. “Interior meaning is extrapolated from the tension between a director’s personality and his material.”
Requirement #1 can be understood from an analysis of the social aspects of Anderson’s film by showing his increasing popularity in the industry. From 2007, where The Darjeeling Limited grossed nearly 12 million dollars, to his most recent film, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) that grossed 59 million dollars—it’s clear the public has recognized the greatness of Anderson as a successful director within the genre of indie films.
Requirement #2 has been satisfied by the analysis previously done on what has been called the “dollhouse aesthetic” in this paper.
Requirement #3 seems to be the trickiest requirement to satisfy. But if one is to understand requirement #3 in terms of Wes Anderson, the following procedure could be undertaken. By showing that this “dollhouse aesthetic” is prevalent within all the films Anderson directs (or at least predominant), one can show that the “tension between [Wes Anderson’s] personality and his material” is revealed in such factors as this “dollhouse aesthetic.”
The goal has been to show, through brief analysis of Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel, that Wes Anderson’s films all possess the essential qualities of a “dollhouse aesthetic” (categorized by a certain set of bright colors and a prevalence of symmetrical shots), and a recurring set of actors. Through this analysis, it has also been concluded that Anderson can be categorized as an auteur under Sarris’ conception of auteur theory.
 The Grand Budapest Hotel. Dir. Wes Anderson. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2014. Film.
 Moonrise Kingdom. Dir. Wes Anderson. Universal, 2012. Film.
 Barfly. Dir. Barbet Schroeder. Prod. Barbet Schroeder, Fred Roos, and Francis Ford Coppola. By Charles Bukowski. Perf. Mickey Rourke, Faye Dunaway, Alice Krige, and Frank Stallone. Cannon Group, Inc., 1987. Film.
 Kael, Pauline. “Circles and Squares.” Film Quarterly 16.3 (1963): 12-26. Web.
 The revenue of the films are all sourced from “Wes Anderson.” Movie Box Office Results. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Aug. 2014.