Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon's first short story collection is titled A Model World. The title works in two directions. With one glance it means an ideal world, one to be imitated. But shift your perspective and the title comes to mean a three-dimensional representation of a world, a little papier mâché planet hanging in a child's bedroom.
Keep this in mind when reading film and TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz's first book, The Wes Anderson Collection, for which Chabon penned the introduction. A labor of love drawing on years of studying Anderson's movies and speaking with the director himself about his work, Seitz's study of one of the most idiosyncratic American filmmakers is a small world unto itself. Original illustrations and bright collections of behind-the-scenes photos and ephemera fill the pages of this hardbound book-cum-art-object. The Wes Anderson Collection is divided into seven chapters, one for each of the director's films. Every chapter contains a small essay from Seitz, and then a longer interview between the critic and director. Reading the book, you feel as if you're disappearing into the miniature world of Anderson's movies, like you're playing around in the files and fastidiously kept dossiers assembled for each project. In this way, the book mimics the work.
Seitz, the television critic for New York Magazine and editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com, has been writing about Anderson since Bottle Rocket was just a short. Complex spoke with Seitz about the book, which is out today, and why there aren't definitive answers when it comes to art.
Interview by Ross Scarano (@RossScarano)
Why do the book as a series of interviews?
I’ve always been a fan of books where the artist was interviewed at length by someone who knew their work. I feel like that gets you a lot of insight into the artist's process. Hitchcock/Truffaut, in which Francois Truffaut interviews Hitchcock, is just great. There’s a book called Altman on Altman by David Thompson, that's great, too.
I’ve known Wes for 20 years. We’re not fishing buddies or anything but we have stayed in contact. He was there at the beginning of my career, and I was there at the beginning of his, so it's fair to say there’s a personal connection that goes beyond some critic interviewing some filmmaker.
How do you see that manifested within the content of the interviews?
Wes has told me that I was the first critic ever to review anything he made as a filmmaker. It’s a little combination interview of him and Owen Wilson that I did for the Dallas Observer after I saw the short “Bottle Rocket.” The short really jumped out at me. The style was very assured. It felt like work of people who, if their style wasn’t fully formed yet, at least they had a good idea of what they wanted to be eventually. And that’s unusual for filmmakers in their early 20s. He had a style that was informed by a lot of filmmakers but also particular visual artists, a couple of animators, and clearly some literary influences as well. This all came through in that short and it became even more clear when he turned it into a feature and then then went on to make Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and the others.
How do you conceive of an interview between an artist and critic? What’s the best analogy for it?
I don’t know what analogy I can come up with, but I can tell you what my goal was. The real purpose of this book is not to give you a biography of Wes Anderson, or to explicate his movies and give you some sort of definitive interpretation of everything he’s doing—I don’t want that as a critic. I don’t think Wes wants that as a director, either. The purpose of this book is to explore a particular artist’s style and show how that style came to be. I wanted to get into what his influences were, what they meant to him, why he was attracted to them, what itch they scratched in him, and most importantly, how he sorted of transmogrified them and made them into something unique to him. In other words, how do you get to the point where you are Wes Anderson, you’re influenced by Jacque Cousteau, Peanuts, Star Wars, The Graduate, the maybe apocryphal anecdote in which John Frankenheimer is informed by Michael Bay that he is his son, and the stop-motion cartoons of Rankin/Bass—how do you turn all of that stuff into The Life Aquatic? How does that happen? Does the artist even know how that happens?
The biggest surprise in spending all of these hours interviewing Wes was learning that he’s really not as much of a control freak as his movies suggest.
It’s always an educational process for me as a critic. I kind of separate being a critic from being a journalist because I feel like I’m maybe more of a journalist when doing a project like this. I think there’s a fallacy of intentionality on the part of critics and journalists in analyzing a work of art. Sometimes this fallacy, it effects everyone’s judgment even if they know that they should be on guard for it. And that’s not to say that artists don’t do things because they meant to do it, because obviously they do that. What I mean is that sometimes artists do things without knowing that they meant to. And sometimes they do things that they did not mean to do, they say things that they did not mean to say, and sometimes artists don’t know what the hell they’re doing and they just cross their fingers and hope that it turns out OK. And you see all of these things in the discussion that I have with Wes. This is particularly interesting to me because he's known as a control freak. There’s a quote by the critic Fernando Croce about The Darjeeling Limited that at first seemed derogatory but now I’m so sure that it was. He said, "Give Wes Anderson credit for hygiene: The deeper he crawls up his own ass, the cleaner his movies become."
From a Freudian perspective, that’s fascinating to me because Wes is very, very meticulous when he makes his movies. Even when he’s winging it, he’s very meticulous. If you look at the themes of his films, they're almost always about people fighting to control life, and ultimately beating their heads against the wall coming to terms with the fact that they can’t really do that. There’s that tension between form and contact that gives his films a lot of their energy. And I feel like that is very possibly his main theme. Just as a main theme of John Ford was the tension between civilization and the frontier, and the main theme of Scorsese is the tension between the needs of the community to perpetuate itself and the need of the individual to go his own way. That’s not to say that the theme that I just mentioned is the only thing that Wes Anderson’s movies are about, but I feel like that might be the spine. And I got the impression that Wes guardedly agreed with me.
Guardedly is the right word. He’s very self-effacing in these interviews.
He is very self-effacing and I also think that as confident as Wes is, he is a human being. And he is an artist. And as a human being and as an artist there’s got to be a part of him that is terrified of repeating himself, or maybe one day realizing that yes, he really is only about one thing and people will actually get bored with it. Who wants to contemplate that? I think it’s brave of him to even agree to sit down with me and talk. It took me a year to convince him to do this. I approached him with this book in fall of 2009, and it took a year to convince him to do it, to reassure him that it was not going to be too much about him. He's a Texas boy like me, and some Texas boys are very boastful and swaggering, but others are deeply uncomfortable with making anything about them. Wes is the latter. He’s very upfront with his style, he’s very upfront with being the impresario, but as a man he’s very, very private.
I want to circle back to talk about intentionality. Ultimately, how important is intentionality if the film stands on its own, and if you can read it in a certain way—what does it matter whether the director intended it or not?
I personally don’t think intentionality matters at all. I find it interesting in a way that an archaeologist might find the discovery of a particular jar or plate at a dig site interesting, but I don’t get hung up on it. It informs my appreciation of the work, but you have to be careful with it because sometimes it can diminish the work. But I know that a lot of viewers and quite a few critics do get hung up on intentionality, where they ascribe everything to a certain point on the part of the filmmaker. Part of it comes from a feeling that the artist is more sophisticated, more poetically minded, more instinctual, more everything than the average person. And if we can successfully guess what something means, why it was done this way, and have the artist say, “You’re correct about that,” then we get to say, “Yay, victory! I’m smart.” And that’s OK, that’s fine, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but I feel like you’ve got to be careful that you don’t turn art into a puzzle. The worst example would probably be the films of Christopher Nolan. It's gotten to the point where I can’t even read articles about Nolan, no matter how intelligent the writer is, because it’s like they’re decoding how to win a video game. I find that a little bit repulsive.
It goes back to what Susan Sontag talks about in her essay "Against Interpretation." If Sontag could see what was happening with Christopher Nolan she’d be vomiting on herself.
Yes! To quote Hannah and Her Sisters, she would never stop throwing up. There’s not a right way to watch a movie, so long as you’re engaging with it, you’re not texting anybody while you do it. But I certainly was disabused of certain preconceived notions about Wes Anderson that I didn’t even know that I had. And I consider myself a guy who knows his films better than a lot of people.
You talk a lot about the tension between the idea of Anderson as a control freak and the reality of him as someone whose style has been shaped by things outside of his control.
Yes, very much so. Honestly, the biggest surprise in spending all of these hours interviewing him was learning that he’s really not as much of a control freak as his movies suggest. He’s very open to accidents and chance. In fact, he kind of goes looking for it. Maybe the greatest example of that: He was on tour in Europe promoting The Royal Tenenbaums, the first movie of his that had had any kind of international success. This was also his first time traveling extensively outside of the United States. Two things happened. One, is that he got bit by the travel bug and he wanted to travel and travel and travel. And the other thing is, he was visiting these foreign countries where people didn’t speak his language, places with their own histories and customs, and he started to think, "Maybe not every movie needs to be set in the United States."
His next film was going to be The Life Aquatic and originally he had envisioned that being set off the coast of the United States. But then he found himself in Rome, touring Cinecitta, where Federico Fellini shot most of his films in the '60s. And Anderson said, “Maybe this movie could be shot in or around Italy and maybe the set could be built here, and it could be modeled on issues of Italian Vogue and the films of Fellini." What if he had had that revelation in Tokyo? Who knows what would have happened. But lightning stuck, and that’s why The Life Aquatic looks that way it does, and that’s why he made The Darjeeling Limited. He wanted to travel. The Darjeeling Limited, although it is very much about three brothers and their complicated relationship with their family, it’s also about being an American abroad and how you carry yourself like a cock of the walk when in fact you’re kind of an asshole. I don’t think that The Darjeeling Limited ever got enough credit for how scathingly it portrays ugly Americanism.
Around the time of Darjeeling and Life Aquatic, and you allude to this a bit in the interview, the critical tide started to turn against Anderson. And it was around that time I started to see writers criticizing Anderson's use of "race as novelty.” What's your reaction to that criticism?
We discussed that, but it was between interviews that it came up. Wes’s response is that he was upset. He’s not a racist, and he’s very aware of white privilege. He deals with that, in his own way, in The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited, within the context of his cartoon, fantasy universe. But he's as aware as anybody that he’s a white dude who grew up reading The New Yorker. So I think his feeling is that it's a work in progress.
I think it’s possible to let your white privilege show even if you aren’t meaning to. I think that Wes’s films struggle with that just as the films of Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, and Woody Allen struggle with it. But there’s a consciousness about that and I think that manifests itself in scenes like the one in The Darjeeling Limited when the brothers go to visit the temple and the sequence begins with a god’s-eye shot from the point of view of the templie, as if god itself is looking at these three guys. They get out of their cab and they look at the temple and then immediately go off into the bazaar to buy things. I don’t feel like they’re completely transformed by the end of the movie, but there's a little sliver of hope. They’re still assholes but at least they know it.
Reading the book, I was struck by a particular photograph of Anderson on the set of The Royal Tenenbaums. It’s during the prep for the suicide scene, and Anderson is down on his knees and he's placing beard and hair trimmings on the bathroom floor. That image encapsulates Wes Anderson for me.
If Wes Anderson were put on trial for being a control freak that photograph would certainly be entered as evidence. But on the other hand, look at the sequence. Every composition in that sequence is just aces. And the placement of the razor, the placement of the individual snippings of hair, and the direction in which the blood runs down the sink, those things matter. I think anybody who has ever directed a movie of any kind will appreciate that photo. I’ve shot a few fiction projects myself and there have been moments where I became that anal-retentive person.
How did Michael Chabon become involved in the book?
I wanted somebody to write the introduction who wasn’t me, and I wanted it to be somebody who either knows Wes or has an affinity for his work. I made a list of filmmakers that included Martin Scorsese, James Ivory, Mike Nichols, and others. I emailed that list to Wes and said, “Here are some of the people I’m thinking about to write the intro.” He said, “Well, would it be possible to ask somebody who’s not a filmmaker? Those people are friends, and I’m not comfortable asking my friends to write an introduction to a book that’s all about my work.” And so I thought of Michael Chabon. And it turns out not only is he a big Wes Anderson fan but he sort of knows Wes. They’re admirers of each other’s work.
It was remarkable how close Chabon's readings of the films is to yours.
I was rewatching The Life Aquatic the other night and there's that line at the end, where he’s sitting on the steps outside of the film festival with the little boy, and he says, I think, “How old are you?” and the kid says, “Eleven and a half.” He says, “That’s a great age, a perfect age.” I think Chabon gets the extent of which we are all still kids inside. Wes’s movies are about that as well.