The Wes Anderson Collection
By Matt Zoller Seitz, introduction by Michael Chabon Abrams
336 pages, $40
Five Came Back
By Mark Harris
The Penguin Press
511 pages, $29.95
By Jeff Simon
NEW BOOK REVIEWER
When, in 1954, the Mekas Brothers used it as the name of an underground periodical, it was considered an oxymoron (like jumbo shrimp) and a comic and pretentious one at that. By the time the phrase stopped being the slightest bit oxymoronic in the late ’60s, we might have wondered in the next few decades if we were drowning in the stuff – so much of it alike, at best, and with its most extreme theoretical wing as hopelessly cloistered and unreadable to anything that might pass as a “common reader” as medieval theology.
But then, like all tides, it receded.
Here, in the second decade of the 21st century, are two terrific pieces of evidence that there can be contributions to film culture that are unlike any we’ve seen before.
Gorgeously illustrated coffee table film books have been with us for well more than a half a century, but you won’t really find one quite like Matt Zoller Seitz’s “The Wes Anderson Collection,” studying the filmmaker whose “The Grand Budapest Hotel” opens in area theaters Friday.
Books about Hollywood and World War II are far from rare, but Mark Harris’ powerful and revelatory “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War” finds one riveting story of it that seemed to have been hidden in plain sight and explores it in one of the masterful film books of our era.
Wes Anderson is probably the most oxymoronic of current American filmmakers – a big screen miniaturist, an absolute original in the art of “moving pictures” whose constant preference is to show us extraordinary compositions on screen that don’t move at all. They are tableaux strung together cinematically.
His is a cinematic world all his own. When critics want aesthetic correspondences and analogies to it, they constantly search outside of film to literature (Borges, Nabokov, Salinger all over the place in “The Royal Tenenbaums”) or to the fine arts (the boxes of the great Joseph Cornell, above all).
Even if you don’t like all of his films uniformly (I frankly dislike three of his eight films), you’re powerless to dispute the singularity of each film vision. I’d probably resist seeing “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” again with every bit of kicking and screaming I could muster, but you’d have to be blind, deaf and very dumb indeed not to see its obvious DNA match to such cinematic marvels and wonderments as “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “Moonrise Kingdom” and now, “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”
He is a great American filmmaker for a postmodern ironic age. Every second of his films seems to come to us encased in ironic quotes. In the case of the succession of frame tales within frame tales of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” to come, that is literally the way Anderson tells his story – as an older man telling his grandson a story he’d heard in his youth from a man telling the story of HIS youth. It’s a succession of Chinese boxes revealed in the final frame to have been one box.
And in “The Wes Anderson Collection,” we have a piece of decidedly unconventional “film culture,” doing everything that a lavish “film culture” coffee table book is supposed to do (analyze, interview) but does it with a self-conscious playfulness obviously, and quite ingeniously, inspired by its subject. We are then not only reading the definitive current study of a wildly creative modern filmmaker but contemplating what his inspiration might do to a critic and scholar.
That would be Matt Zoller Seitz, whose two day jobs would be to 1) write for New York Magazine about television and 2) to operate the Roger Ebert website to brand film and TV writers perceived to be gemutlich with Ebert’s memory (many of them disenfranchised by journalism’s myopic and senseless putsch of “name” critics).
What it means is that our film culture ironist in his marvelously intricate (and reasonably priced) coffee table film book begins with an “896-word Preface,” continues with an “1,082 Word Essay” on Anderson’s film “Bottle Rocket,” which is followed by a “6,553 Word Interview” with Anderson on the same film (Q: “Do you remember the first film you saw?” A: “I think it might have been a Pink Panther movie. I remember a lot of Disney movies. … There was one called ‘The Apple Dumpling Gang’ with Don Knotts that I liked a lot.”)
Seitz and Anderson do the traditional film culture thing – skate from film to film – in a nontraditional way illustrated as if it were an Anderson collage (by Max Dalton) and always conscious of itself as a sort of meta-book and not just a succession of film stills and on-set candids. The result is a rather brilliant dialogue between a brilliant critic and a brilliant filmmaker illustrated by people who seem inspired by the filmmaker himself.
Implicitly, then, the book presents quotes within quotes within quotes within quotes, etc.
Mark Harris’ “Five Came Back” is, on the other hand, a stunningly traditional book about an American film subject that cried out for decades to be treated exactly this way but had to wait until now for it to happen.
Harris is a very busy critic and writer (also for New York Magazine as well as Entertainment Weekly and Grantland online) who is, in life, the husband of playwright Tony Kushner.
What he has done definitively in “Five Came Back” is tell the stories of the World War II documentarian lives of the great and already successful American filmmakers of the last century – John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler and Frank Capra. Men, in other words, who joined the war at Washington’s behest (in Ford’s case, largely the behest of “Wild Bill” Donovan, the famous founding father of the CIA, raised and educated in Buffalo) and used their filmmaking talents to make documentaries and propaganda (at the time, far from a dirty word, given the perceived need to win the American public over to the “war effort”).
The resultant story – which Harris tells with remarkable amplitude and complexity – affects the greatest American film directors in ways both profound and lasting during the experience and after. By the time you get to George Stevens – so famous before the war for his comedies – trying to both film and assimilate the horrors he saw at the liberation of Dachau, you understand that Harris has, indeed, seen something whole in this always visible but previously fragmented story that no one saw before, despite all the decades that the story just lay there waiting to be told this way.
A truly important book of American film history – a reassertion, in fact, that such a thing without irony is not only still possible but revelatory.
Jeff Simon is the Arts and Books editor of the News.