(a response to James K.A. Smith’s thoughts on the films of Wes Anderson)
First of all, as an artist for whom aesthetics and theology literature has been an essential part of my work and faith, I am wholeheartedly in favor a turn away from imagination as a self-originating emanation or creatio ex nihilo. Somehow even the most canonical (and even tired) advocates of theological imagination within Christianity – Lewis, Tolkien, et al – have lost among many to the overwhelming attractiveness of a more romantic understanding of imagination as self-expression. With the rise of “creativity” as an almost compulsory aspect of 21st century citizenship, Smith’s call for understanding imagination as an orienting process is all the more urgent.
That said, I have a lot of doubts about Wes Anderson’s formalism as a place to re-imagine imagination.
If The Royal Tenenbaums was the only film Anderson had made – and to be sure, it is my favorite, and the most enjoyable – I might see the work differently. But with every new Anderson film I find Tenenbaums to be less true.
Anderson’s formalism – and I would contrast this with Joseph Cornell’s – not only manifests an order, but persistently presents that order as neutral. So the nostalgia in these films not only pines for another less broken time, but presents wholeness as self-evident, self-contained, dependent on nothing. That’s high-modernism for you, as manifest in Anderson’s once favorite typeface of Futura. Anderson’s films accomplish this self-evident and autonomous sense of order through not only compositional means, but semiotic ones. The result is that Anderson’s order appears as wholly non-contingent.
I’ll borrow from children’s lit for a minute to make a comparison. I am very fond of two very different bodies of work within children’s lit – the work of Richard Scarry, with its famous semiotic strategies of naming everything and setting it apart along the way, and the work of Virginia Lee Burton, with its beautiful unfolding clockwork worlds, staged landscapes and cities appearing like movements in a symphony. Anderson’s work combines these strategies to ill effect.
Imagine if the Richard Scarry work followed its famous semiotic strategies with Burton’s logics of origami-like staging. The result would be a world where formal beauty draws its justification from “things meaning other things” rather than from mere being. Richard Scarry books are both semiotically constructive and abundantly chaotic, while Burton’s books are instructive about order, while releasing us from semiotics to narrative.
Anderson’s films try to combine compositional and semiotic strategies to the effect of a staged, source-less neutrality. They also do so with a somewhat pedagogical tone that renders this neutrality something of a threat.
When I see such appeals to neutrality as self-evident, I want to insist on looking closer to discover what orders are served by such aesthetics. In the case of Anderson’s films, I can only conclude over the whole corpus that such neutrality supports, above all else, a mourning of lost power. There’s a deep colonialism about these films for me, one that grips me and attracts me in ways that give me pause. It’s that appeal that turns me not towards suspicion of pleasure, but towards a probing of why its particular orientation is so pleasurable. What is lost or mourned in these films seems to be not only a sense of childhood order, but a time when aristocracy made sense, and ruled through that sense. That’s a sense that I benefit from, as one of the wealthier white men in this world.
If I were to continue a conversation on the role of filmic aesthetics in imagining order, I might go to a more intentionally situated formalism such as that of the Japanese director Ozu, or even the comedic work of Jacques Tati.
For that matter, your excellent exhortations to re-orienting imagination’s role in collective sociality make me want to go back and watch Killer of Sheep again.