“In a climate where coolness reigns and nothing matters, the toughest stance to take is one of engagement and empathy.”
Anticipation for Wes Anderson’s new film Moonrise Kingdom (2012) is reaching stratospheric heights since the announcement that it will be opening the 65th Festival de Cannes on May 16th. The festival describes Anderson as a sensitive, independent, and brilliantly inventive filmmaker; a powerful and influential figure with an uncompromising personal vision. Anderson has not always been so highly praised though; his first feature film Bottle Rocket (1996) was scorned by Sundance Film Festival and abandoned by its studio soon after release. Despite Anderson’s popularity, Bottle Rocket still remains fairly unknown to a wider audience. However, it is in fact one of the key films of American Independent cinema from the end of the twentieth century alongside two other Cannes sensations – Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989) and Pulp Fiction (1994). Whilst we all wait for the release of Moonrise Kingdom it is a good time to look back at Bottle Rocket and consider how it is a response to the cynicism of films like Pulp Fiction and how it relates to Anderson’s later films.
The release of Pulp Fiction was a major turning point in American cinema and marked the arrival of a new film style that revolved around looking ‘cool’. Obviously it is quite hard to define what is cool about the film, but it revolves around its deconstruction of genre, its break with narrative convention, the quotable dialogue, and the presence of drugs and violence. But the most striking thing about the film is summed up by American author bell hooks who argues that the film is the ultimate hard-core cynical vision of the world in which we see racism, sexism, homophobia, violence, and drug-abuse but we behave as “though none of that shit really matters… ‘cause none of its gonna change’.” Pulp Fiction made breaking taboos look (and sound) cool.
The film spawned an army of imitators and made the studios in Hollywood look again at how they created narratives, found new talent and even financed their films. Non-linear and ‘I-need-to-watch-that-again’ narratives became more popular, Traffic (2000) and The Sixth Sense (1999) being prime examples. Hollywood also started to look for young independent directors to make films for them, Sundance became a talent spotting event leading to Kevin Smith being hired after the success of Clerks (1994) to make Mallrats (1995). The success Miramax had with Pulp Fiction and Sex, Lies and Videotape led to many other studios opening their own ‘Independent’ companies including Fox Searchlight, Paramount Vantage, Focus Features that could churn out films that would benefit from the cultural cache that came with the label ‘Indie.’
“Bottle Rocket reflects the reality of a liberal society where sexual orientation should be of no concern at all.”
Aside from the imitators there was also a second group of American directors who came to prominence after the success of Pulp Fiction. This informal group includes, but is not limited to, Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, Noah Baumbach and Sofia Coppola who would work inside and outside of these Indie studios. This group of filmmakers challenged the rejection of sentiment that was occurring both in the marginal and mainstream American cinema. Bottle Rocket stands out from the crowd as being one of the first to take this stance and can be seen as quite confrontational in its outright rejection of cynicism.
Bottle Rocket follows three young men, Dignan (Owen Wilson), Anthony (Luke Wilson) and Bob (Robert Musgrave), who have a plan to do some elaborate heists in order to get accepted into a gang headed up by Mr. Henry (James Caan). The film begins with Anthony’s escape from a mental health clinic, a plan masterminded by Dignan despite the fact that it is a voluntary clinic that he could just walk out of. The effort of faking an escape is worth the pleasure that Dignan will get from the experience. This sequence not only explains the relationship between Anthony and Dignan to the audience but it also displays the form in which Anderson’s films operate. His characters may be slightly off-kilter, but they are treated generously and empathetically. We can see this sort of sympathetic drive in each of the character’s motivation for trying to join the criminal gang. Dignan craves the family environment that Mr. Henry provides, Anthony wants to facilitate and help his friend to achieve this goal, and Bob wants to escape from his bully of an older brother (Andrew Wilson), known as Futureman. Mark Olsen sees this as the primary difference between Anderson and other directors of the 90s:
“Wes Anderson does not view his characters from some distant Olympus of irony. He stands beside them — or rather, just behind them — cheering them on as they chase their miniaturist renditions of the American Dream.”
Another key aspect of the film is its status as Independent, or perhaps as it was financed by a major studio describing it as Indie would be more suitable. How the film was financed is not the only indicator of how independent a film is. For a film to be described as Independent it often needs to have some social engagement; the films of John Sayles are clearly independent because of their social engagement and production method. Lone Star (1996) seeks to break down prejudices about immigration and Mexican-American relationships, it preaches from the margins of American cinema to the mainstream in an attempt to change the point of view of the audience. At first glance Bottle Rocket seems quite fantastical, it is not set in the world we live in, so how can it can have any social engagement that is compatible to films likeLone Star? Sayles’ view, and that of many other Independent filmmakers, can be simplified to a liberal viewpoint; one in which equal rights, regardless of gender, race, sexual preference or age, are strived for. This viewpoint is shared by Anderson and is evident in his work. The difference is that his films do not speak to the mainstream in order to convert or politicize his audience – his films are merely examples of worlds in which this liberal situation already exists and is affirmed.
We can see evidence of this in the variety of readings that Bottle Rocket can receive. Some critics think the film is clearly a gay narrative, in which Dignan, too naïve to realize that he’s gay, is motivated by his love for Anthony who is straight. The certainty with which these critics identify Dignan as a naïve gay character is questionable, but what is important is that the sexual orientation of the character is neither clearly stated nor a necessity for the narrative. Bottle Rocket reflects the reality of a liberal society where sexual orientation should be of no concern at all, rather than arguing about the issues involved the film just does it and shows us what it could be like.
“It marks a turning point in the American cinema of the 90s, one which was a protest against the cruelness of films like Pulp Fiction.”
Another example of the realized liberal world in Bottle Rocket would be the treatment and presentation of Inez (Lumi Cavazos). She is a hard-working immigrant from Paraguay who works as a maid in the motel that the other characters are using as a hide-out. In a lesser film she would just be another damsel in distress that the affluent, young, white men can ‘rescue.’ But in fact she has a full context; we see the Latino subculture of the motel; the local bar they visit; the specific information that she is from Paraguay, not just an unnamed South/Central American country. Inez is in fact shown to be the only character who doesn’t need rescuing. Anthony and Dignan can only afford the luxury of gallivanting across Texas hiding from “Johnny Law” because of their position as white males, and the film doesn’t shy away from this point.
Bottle Rocket’s rejection of the postmodern cynicism that was so popular during the period led to its rejection by the festivals and studios, it pleased neither camp. Olsen praises Anderson for this; he states that “in a climate where coolness reigns and nothing matters, the toughest stance to take is one of engagement and empathy.” The film is not only incredibly funny and charming it marks a turning point in the American cinema of the 90s, one which was a protest against the cruelness of films like Pulp Fiction where the characters are punished by the director, and instead showed us an idealised world where every character should be cheered on. This feeling of empathy and fondness towards the characters continues throughout all of Anderson’s films and from the looks of the trailer we can expect much the same in Moonrise Kingdom. So if you need that inevitable fix of Wes Anderson then give his bravest film a go and watch Bottle Rocket.