Sunday, 13 April 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Photography in Motion and Interrupted Poetry

I had to learn to be a fan of Wes Anderson’s work. The first movie of his that I ever saw was The Life Aquatic with Steven Zissou. My father and I rented it when I was a young teen because it starred Bill Murray and he’s hilarious. The only problem is that my dad didn’t like it and I can’t say that I did either. It just wasn’t funny and Murray looked kind of pathetic running around with his speedo and red cap. The next movie I watched was The Darjeeling Limited which I bought because it starred Adrien Brody and Owen Wilson, two actors I quite liked (I wasn’t very familiar with Jason Schwartzman at the time). To make a long story short I really liked it and it announced my discovery of the rest of Wes Anderson’s body of work. I’ve been a fan ever since.  

When looking at Wes Anderson’s oeuvre, you can pull apart some very interesting themes as well as recurrent elements and techniques. It’s common to see dysfunctional families, larger than life characters, beautifully faux-designed set pieces and stop-motion animation. I need to clarify what I mean by faux-designed. The sets in his movies do not look designed. They feel natural and lived in as if you could stumble upon them in real life. It’s almost as if Anderson employs location scouts instead of set designers, sending them out into the world to find the most interesting rooms, buildings and locations. I’ve recently returned from watching his latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. To nobody’s surprise, I loved it. It was an excellent film and it incorporated a lot of familiar elements but for the most part they were presented in new ways. It’s a culmination of narrative and cinematic techniques all wrapped in a surprisingly dense and irregularly face-paced movie. It’s very much a mature Anderson at play, juggling the familiar and stylistic evolution to produce something new.

When Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fienes) turns around to talk to Zero, Anderson
doesn't give us an over the shoulder shot or even show Zero in the same shot. Instead,
Monsieur Gustave looks nearly straight at the camera as if he's being photographed, not filmed. 
Style and form can be very interesting for various reasons. Anderson is known for the unique style he brings to his movies and though some of his movies focus more on characters and their stories, some of his movies have an greater emphasis on style and form. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a wonderful marriage of both style and story but I have to admit, partway through the movie I was pleasantly distracted by the style and form of the storytelling that my focuses shifted to the what, the why and the how of what Anderson and his crew did with the movie. That’s not to say I stopped paying attention to the story itself, but I was taken aback by a powerful awareness of what kind of movie I was watching. I’ve come to the realization that The Grand Budapest Hotel is photography in motion and interrupted poetry.

I’ll let you browse the internet to read about the movie’s plot, production details and a list of the cast and crew. I’m not taking the time to list it all hear because that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to focus on the movie’s form. It’s essentially a live-action cartoon but like none other that I’ve seen before (and there is more than one out there; you just have to look hard enough to find them). The movie has a unique form of storytelling, it’s not so much a movie as it is a series of photographs in which parts of the photograph movie, most frequently the main characters of the story. I would love to provide screen captures of the movie showing various different examples but that will sadly have to wait until the DVD release. Still, not having the visual references won’t stop me from trying to explain what I mean.

It all boils down to photorealistic use of stop-motion animation. Most scenes start with an establishing shot which then leads to movement. But it’s not the camera that moves it’s the set itself or the characters that move through the set while the camera remains, for the most part, rather still. The camera frames the sets which vary from the lavishly decorated to pretty small and simple rooms that are made odd by their shape, their decoration or the characters that are in it. A good example of this is the prison cells. Monsieur Gustave is walking with a food trolly from one cell to the next. As he stops at each door, the camera gives us a look at the inside of the cell. It looks like a photograph because the camera is so still but the characters move around the room and talk back to Gustave. When the camera cuts back to Gustave he’s standing the doorframe and again, the only thing that’s really moving is him, not the camera. Other times, the camera appears to be moving but it’s either on the hood of a vehicle looking forward or looking back at the character as is the case when Willem Dafoe’s character is riding his motorcycle. There is a strange combination of immobility and movement. Dafoe barely moves but the buildings surrounding him and blurring by as he rides along. Part photograph but part film, it’s slightly disorienting when you first see it but it’s wonderfully charming. In the scenes that rely more heavily on narration, a voice over narration is used while a series of photograph-like segments of the movie pass by on the screen. This is used early in the movie when Jude Law’s character introduces the now decrepit Grand Budapest and its solitary residents. He speaks while we shots of the hotel’s many rooms slowly move across the screen.

Edward Norton spends this entire scene in the hole. He talks to the others from that
same position while the camera stays essentially immobile.

The technique I described as photorealistic stop-motion reminds me of traditional animation because of the limited movement of the camera, the details present in the sets and the movement on screen being limited to the main characters. The set pieces are made up of very large building exteriors and those buildings are made up of large and elaborate or very small, though still detailed rooms. There are many fine examples of large building exteriors such as the prison, Checkpoint 19, and the Grand Budapest. Some of the large rooms include the restaurant and the baths at the hotel, the service staff’s cafeteria, the individual prison cells and so many more great little sets. I particularly liked the repeated use of the train car. In fact, the repeated use of some of the sets which were always filmed from the same angle but presented different “pictures” was one of the pleasures of watching this movie.

The interrupted poetry from the title refers to the actual in-movie interruption of characters citing poetry. They’re cut-off mid-sentence by various events but I’m also referencing the quick cut from scene to scene. It also serves as a way to describe the comedy-drama (or dramady) of Wes Anderson fills. They are usually some very serious character driven stories at heart but seamlessly incorporate very humorous elements without entirely losing focus on the dramatic. A tense and serious chase seen occurs in this movie. A dangerous relative of Madame D. is chasing the executor of her will through a museum and when the chase is brutally brought to an end, I burst into laughter even though we were presented a rather gruelling end to the scene. The chase itself was a fine example of photography in motion: Kovacs, the lawyer, would walk through a room and the same room would be shown again but this time, instead of having Kovacs run through it, we only the shadow of his pursuer begin to walk into the room. Everything remained still in each room, corridor and stairway with the exception of an understandably alarmed Kovacs and the shadow chasing him down. It’s also a great example of interrupted poetry since the chase was carefully and beautifully put together but the end is so abrupt, it feels like an interruption.

While I enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel tremendously, it’s not a perfect film. I feel as though the triple layered framing device was unnecessary. In the first sequence, a young woman hooks a hotel key on the statue of The Author. She does so after having read a novel which shares its name with the movie in which the sequence takes place. The second sequence takes us back to The Author himself in his later years while writing his novel. This leads to the third and final framing sequence where an old Zero Moustafa tells the story of how he came to inherit the Grand Budapest which is really the story of Monsieur Gustave and the death of civility in the modern world. I enjoyed all of those scenes but I feel as though there were simply too many layers that really didn’t bring all that much to the party. They feel light in comparison to Monsieur Gustave’s story which moved along at an impressive speed and was a true visual storytelling feast which was made possible by the obvious joy the moviemakers and actors felt in creating the film.

More than any other Wes Anderson film before, The Grand Budapest Hotel concerns itself with exploration the form of film. It does so by mixing the art of filmmaking with other media, mainly but not limited to, photography, stop-motion, miniatures and animation. That is not to say there isn’t a story. There is and I have to admit it didn’t go in the direction I thought it would but that was part of its charm. As is always the case with Anderson’s movies, The Grand Budapest Hotel is populated by outrageous characters who I am convinced will remain engrossing after multiple viewings because the writing and the actors imbue them with such a strong sense of identity and, dare I say, pathos. These are grand characters and many of them are deeply flawed which heightens their humanity and makes them very believable despite their exaggerated oddities. The story plays it for laughs but the characters are all incredibly serious in what they do and who they are. This movie succeeds because Anderson brings that same combination of joy and seriousness to his work.

At first glance, the above picture appear to be marketing images of the movie. It looks like they were designed as a way
to show off the rather stellar cast. In fact, these are all screen captures! The movie is so picturesque in nature that
they were easily modified by the addition of the actor's name to make a marketing tool out of them. 

Note: My favourite moment in the movie is when Zero brings Monsieur Gustave a small bench on which to stand on and remove the Boy with Apple painting from the wall. In this little moment Zero does what he was trained to do as a lobby boy which is to give people what they want before they want it, in this case giving Monsieur Gustave not only the physical object that will help him take the painting but also the  very idea of taking the painting.

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