Wes Anderson & Analog Nostalgia

Wes Anderson’s fictional worlds are outside of history. Or rather, they are mostly beside history. My personal favorite, The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), shows 2001 dates in the frame several times, but the material world of the film can’t be historically identified. It’s obviously a New York City film, but unlike some film presentations of the city (say, the obsessively accurate period scenes of Madmen) it is not a historical Manhattan; rather, it is one made of second-hand impressions gleaned from children’s books and back issues of the The New Yorker. It contains non-places like “the 375th St. Y” and “111 Archer Ave.” The costumes could fit in from the 1940s to the 2000s. Anderson’s subsequent film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), makes an homage to 1960s Jacques Cousteau but blends it with nearly modern appliances (e.g. computers and an automated espresso machine stolen from Jeff Goldblum’s character). Moonrise Kingdom (2012) stands out for taking place over about a week in the year 1965. But it takes place on a fictitious island called New Penzance, somewhere in New England, while a storm which never occurred bears down. 1965 is a fictional year as much as The Royal Tenenbaums fictional New York City.

Of course, this modification of real places and real history is not unique to Anderson. It’s common to all stories in one degree or another. Yet Anderson’s films offer particular attention to the worlds of the films. They are material places, vividly imagined and then built. According to published interviews, his process involves both drawing on the films and books that have influenced him (J.D. Salinger, Stefan Zweig, the films of Francois Truffaut, Orson Welles, and Steven Spielberg) and creating drawings and watercolors. He insists on finding actual buildings (Royal’s house on 111 Archer Ave. is actually on the corner of Covent Ave. and 144th street in Harlem). Sets are meticulously built--even the improbably teetering tree house of the Khaki Scouts in Moonrise Kingdom. The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) takes this impulse to its logical conclusion: stop motion animation with puppets (The Life Aquatic featured stop motion animation as well). And of course Anderson shoots on actual film, in CineScope--an old fashioned large format camera.

111 Archer Avenue: 144th Street and Covent Avenue, Harlem. Photo Credit: Max Zahradnik

This insistence on stuff seems like gross materialism. Perhaps it’s a sort of curatorial consumerism transposed into art. Wes Anderson is beloved of hipsters, sure. But somehow, despite seeming to fit perfectly into the consumer-narcissist narrative--all perfectly-styled and filtered images meant to signal the achievement of some ever-receding cultural desire--his movies are not like Instagram. They are stylized, and they rely on the deep desire to belong, but unlike the social media that imitates them, they are insistently non-networked. They present worlds that exist pretty much without the Internet. [1]

Why? For Tenenbaums the answer could still plausibly be that the Internet wasn’t culturally important enough yet. Facebook and Youtube were still several years in the future. Amazon and Google were barely older than toddlers. Maybe it just wasn’t on Anderson’s (or his co-writer Owen Wilson’s) mind. But by the time the later Wes Anderson movies were made, all set more and more squarely in a fictive past, this coincidental explanation of the analog nostalgia seems unconvincing. So what is the nostalgia doing?

Jaime Brunton has argued on this blog that nostalgia can be damaging when it is used as a tool of exclusion. Nostalgia’s danger lies in its resemblance to “false consciousness,” and the ease of warping reality. Jennifer Ladino rehearses further charges:

Nostalgia’s scapegoat status stems from a range of admittedly problematic traits: its easy cooptation by capitalism, which critics like Fredric Jameson say generates a postmodern cultural paralysis in which old styles are recycled and marketed without critical effect (or affect); its ubiquity in the media and the arts, which signifies a lack of creativity, alienation from the present, and complicity in consumer culture; its tendency to romanticize the past through imagining an origin that is too simplistic; and its reactionary bent— the use of nostalgia by right-wing forces to gloss over past wrongs and glorify tradition as justification for the present. (5-6)

But such condemnations of nostalgia seem too easy. It’s easy to feel self-righteously cynical and congratulate ourselves on “realism” and “sophistication” whenever narratives of the past take on golden hues. Yet at the same time, it seems to me obvious that there is a danger in going too far. Surely there are things about the past worthy of affectionate memorial. Surely the heart cannot be faulted for harboring desires that point backward. This is especially true in the realm of things. As Ladino goes on to point out, nostalgia rests on “material components.” Because, quite literally, the past sticks around. Strictly speaking, it makes up all of the world around us.

The damning interpretation of the nostalgia in Anderson’s meticulously crafted sets and costumes could be called the “retro critique.” This is the idea that late capitalism is cannibalizing the past for profit--and Wes Anderson is one individual churning out a niche upmarket product for graduates of liberal arts schools. From the perspective of a populist on board with the status quo, this makes the films elitist and annoying. In the critiques most radical version, from the far left, the desires fanned by such obsessive control are machines for the control of selves and are weaponized by the state and/or capital in order to achieve hegemony in every corner of culture, emptying it of the potential for resistance. That might be correct, but it doesn’t leave much room for me to justify my enjoyment--the viewer has no way out, and I would have to retreat into an endless mirrored hall of guilt.

A more hopeful reading gives me an out through a seeming paradox. Wes Anderson’s movies direct attention to the analog world and in doing so are trying to build a type of story that is not networked but analog. His films are thickly layered with connections to other texts: allusions and visual quotations abound. Particularly to books. Suzy (Moonrise Kingdom) carries around a suitcase full of stolen, invented library books. Most of the characters in Tenenbaums have authored books (shown in mosaics which fill the screen and required the creation of a dozen copies of each fictional title). The films even present themselves self-consciously as books. The Royal Tenenbaums opening sequence is an invented book of the same name being stamped with a due date (by Anderson’s hands in a sort of directorial cameo) as it is checked out of a library. The Fantastic Mr. Fox begins with the book being held up. The Grand Budapest Hotel starts with the authors tombstone and a book, only to go deeper into the narrative frame within that book. Even the physical DVD case of The Royal Tenebaums is made to look like a book.

Wes Anderson’s cameo. Image Credit Buena Vista Pictures.

Why all this bookishness? Why so much focus on the the book as object? In a digital world, the very meaning of “book” has enlarged to mean not just the physical thing, but somehow the immaterial “content.” The boundaries that kept a book physically in space have been seemingly dissolved--we can carry around thousands of eBooks on a Kindle. We are left with information, always in motion, always pointing outward through links, through the ubiquity of The Internet. It’s a type of intertextuality that is both virtual and literal--though not, phenomenally speaking, physical.

After watching Werner Herzog’s new documentary on the internet, Lo and Behold: Reveries of a Connected World, I was discussing the film with a friend. After ninety minutes of wry Teutonic profundity, I was still trying to pin down a definition: what is “The Internet?” I offered an analogy: Could we imagine a library? Servers and other computers hold the “information” just like books, web protocols help us navigate the “stacks” to find them, something like the Dewey Decimal system. And “the internet” could be the architecture of the library itself--the building that houses the books and the “hardware” that supports them? Users (even computer programs or robots) can arrive and navigate connections within the building to find and extract information. My interlocutor said no, that’s not how it works. The analogical path I’d tried to build was a failure. But I started to look down it in the opposite direction, into the past. What did my analogy tell me about how I understood libraries? Books as things?

I don’t understand the internet. I just don’t get it. But I do know that before I was conditioned by the total presence of digital information, I had a different relationship to stuff, to places, maybe even to time. When I am able, despite addict-like cravings, to unplug, I can unearth traces of that prior relationship. To the way I used to interact with stuff, with the world. I used to check out books from the public library, and they were mine only after the stamp thumped down into them, and the blue ink dried on the due date card. The book had weight, and it had covers. It had edges. Sure, it also had all sorts of connections--but those connections relied on me and other people for their reality. Even the connections and connotations that existed prior to me, that I found (given as a “free gift from nowhere” to use Hannah Arendt’s phrase), were only realized through the communal experience of them, the hard-to-focus-on thing that is neither individual nor apart from individuals.

The digital world reifies connection. Digital things aren’t really things so much as vectors--cables, routers, modems, etc. The connections themselves are made physical. The contents--what is being connected--are less stable, and certainly not physical in the same way as a book. When I check out a book on my Kindle, I simply “click” a “button” on a “screen.” But, of course, that's only what appears to happen. And the “book”--or at least, the contents of a book--appears in the list on my Kindle, where it will disappear again when the lending time is up. The connection itself is the book, and controls the book. Google and Wikipedia lock us into the connections created by search algorithms and hyperlinks. I can find books from the library that are available from Amazon, having been paid for. There isn’t a history to how they came to me, or a column of stamps above mine showing the last time another person took the book home with them. The digital, for all its seeming emancipation, locks users into limitations, and away from certain types of connections.

Offline, in the analogue world, connections are more nebulous, more human. Things endure, and they are inseparable from their content and ultimately unique. A letter typed on a typewriter can’t be instantly replicated or stored safely in “the cloud.” The letter is not reducible to the paper, but the letter wouldn’t exist without the paper, either. Destroy the paper, and you’ve destroyed the letter. And it is full of the traces of its becoming--corrections, errors, periods delivered with gusto that punched through the paper. Of course, the complexity of a typewriter is orders of magnitude less than a laptop. A paper letter is flawed in ways that make it difficult to use. It doesn’t have the “affordances” of an email. But I am more in awe of the little hinges and levers of the typewriter than the invisible and inscrutable guts of my Macbook. I can comprehend the Royal Standard’s mechanism. And the historical connections that surround the typewriter are held to it with something more like gravity than pathways. These gravitational connections aren’t purely subjective--they don’t just come from me, but arise from the cultural world that I have been thrown into. And nostalgia is one affect possible while affirming that history.

I think that my nostalgia in using a typewriter now and then is something like Wes Anderson’s nostalgic stories. It is not merely a temporal longing, but a spatial one. I don’t want to inhabit a romantic past, but I do want to be unable to leave the task of writing, to be stuck where I am. Anderson doesn’t set his movies exclusively in an analog past, but in an imagined place that is analog. The stories put characters into a structure of relationships that are analog in being resolutely non-fungible. Instead they are idiosyncratic, bodily, material. The physical traits--color, texture, sound, position--are intensified. And the histories and affects of the things cling to them in that strange, human-activated way. The artifice of the representation points toward the reality of the inherited (analog) world.

I don’t think this analog nostalgia is reactionary or necessarily conservative. At the least, it seems to me that it twists away from the neoliberal mode of increased exchange velocity--which does seem to be the default tendency of the digital structures in our world. The internet functions based on free flowing (and accelerating) information, massive aggregation of individuals into data, the separation of bodies and meaning, of experience and information, and it disciplines us to desire within various marketing categories--all packaged as a supposedly liberatory experience that at the same time forecloses all possibilities other than the ones that can be captured by the “affordances” of programs or code.

Anderson’s analog stories highlight not statistical models or the flow of global capital, but the physical relationships--the laws of geometry over the rules of algebra; the possibilities of a sheet of paper not the limitations of a Word document; the untraced privacy of a letter rather than the searchability of an email. In his films, artificial and allusive as they are, Anderson uses idiosyncrasy and embeddedness in history and place--especially invented places and histories that depend on a long, given tradition--to turn the viewer’s attention from the screen into the physical world. They are, for all their artifice, intensely human stories. And, despite (because of) their fiction, they push viewers, or me at least, back into the material world.

Perhaps this analog nostalgia and digital futurism can be distilled with an image of two screens. The digital screen creates its own light, and forms a lonely window pulling its viewers out of the world around them and into a fragmentary narrative of anxious desires, even when it links them with those who are absent. The analog movie screen reflects light back onto a group, uniting a present crowd of viewers who come together to share a common story. Walter Benjamin saw this communal aspect of film as containing revolutionary potential. Wes Anderson seems to push into this potential, nostalgically, yes, but not emptily. The fakeness, the stylized image, the winks and nudges of these films point warmly to something both communal and individual: the experience of living as a unique body amidst a world of bodies. He is not out to start a revolution--unless valuing physicality itself becomes a revolutionary act.


[1] The short film “Hotel Chevalier,” which is a sort of prologue to The Darjeeling LImited (2009), is an exception. The short features the Apple iPod, which Jason Schwartzman’s character uses to play “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)” a 1969 song by British singer-songwriter Peter Sarstedt. Despite great critical reception, this scene has always struck me as odd. I remember being perplexed at the time. Apple allowed users to download the short for free for one month from the iTunes store (I did). Perhaps one reason this short was so well loved was that it appeared to play by more of the commercial rules with this type of product placement, instead of one for imaginary brands of typewriters or bazaar slippers. Still the short was unfunded, and the actors worked for free. This messy example muddies my argument, but I think it’s the exception, not the rule. The Darjeeling Limited itself features a personal assistant who takes care of all the technology (Brenden, who suffers from alopecia). He seems to serve to distance technology from the plot, as well as implying that engagement with it can be somehow pathological and deleterious.

Works Cited

Anderson, Wes. Most of his films.

Ladino, Jennifer. Under the Sign of Nature : Reclaiming Nostalgia : Longing for Nature in American Literature. Charlottesville: U Virginia P, 2012.

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