At first glance this makes sense. Their styles are vastly different: Wes makes nostalgia-drenched hipster fairytales with an ornate visual style, while Paul’s movies are emotionally exhausting and intellectually dense. But look closer and one can see the two Andersons as cut from the same cloth: artists relentlessly focused on personal and national histories in an era when many of their peers are far more concerned with our present or future.
Their first films – Wes’s “Bottle Rocket” and Paul’s “Hard Eight” – are deeply rooted in film history, specifically the filmmakers’ fascination with crime movies. In the former, Dignan (Owen Wilson) is gleefully obsessed with a life of organized crime, and the casting of James Caan seems to reference the actor’s long history playing criminals, while Paul has stated that he came up with the idea for the story of “Hard Eight” — a washed-up gangster seeking redemption — while imagining what the lives of the hard-nosed villains of film noir would be like when they grew old.
Of course, the characters in these films are also trapped in their own personal histories, a theme that dominates both Andersons’ filmographies. Their heroes are often seeking surrogate father figures to counter some sort of parental abandonment, and their sophomore efforts – Paul’s “Boogie Nights” and Wes’s “Rushmore” – explore the displaced Oedipal impulses of the male adolescent. Dirk Diggler engages in a twisted dynamic with frequent co-star Amber Waves and his director Jack Horner, Amber’s husband, whom Dirk comes to resent as he matures and becomes a star in his own right. Meanwhile, Max Fischer of “Rushmore” falls in love with the older Rosemary Cross and befriends a weary millionaire, Herman Blume, but when he discovers they are having an affair, he decides to destroy Herman so that he can have Rosemary’s affection for himself. Neither filmmaker goes the route of Sophocles, however; they both resolve their stories on positive notes.
In their next films, we get a sense of what happens to the male adolescents in the Andersons’ world when their childhood issues go unresolved. In “Magnolia,” Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise) learns that his emotionally distant father is dying and rushes to reconnect with him. “Tenenbaums” finds its emotional center with Chas (Ben Stiller), grieving from the recent death of his wife and long-held feelings of resentment towards his father, Royal (Gene Hackman). I would be remiss if I did not point out that both storylines resolve in precisely the same way – with the estranged son reconnecting with his father on his deathbed. Subsequent films, such as “Punch-Drunk Love” and “The Darjeeling Limited,” also feature characters struggling to transcend the combative dynamics they forged in childhood. In other words, they may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with them.
In the context of their era, however, the Andersons’ fixation on the past could also be considered a subversive artistic statement. Most directors of their generation have spent their careers documenting the present and looking to the future. In the late 1990s, when films like “The Matrix,” “Fight Club,” and “Being John Malkovich” portended a cultural newness tied to our collective fear, anxiety, and excitement over the transition of the 21st century, and those filmmakers continued to explore our era as their careers blossomed.
With “The Social Network” and “Gone Girl,” David Fincher has become one of our finest chroniclers of our present, while the Wachowskis and Spike Jonze have spent some time in both our present and our future.
Why have the Andersons cast their gaze backwards? In the case of one of them, looking to the past can be the best way to understand our present. After “Punch-Drunk Love,” Paul changed his thematic course, and his next two films, “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master,” combine his interest in paternal abandonment with a profound inquiry into what he perceives as key eras in Americat’s history. With “Blood,” one can obviously extrapolate its themes to the corruption in today’s oil industry, but it also speaks to the violent underpinnings of unfettered capitalism and the dangers of worship – be your deity ethereal or material. The narrative of “The Master,” where a World War II vet whose troubled mind is further perverted by the horrors of war, could also function as an allegory about post-9/11 America, in which many of us sought the certainty of patriotism or partisan politics just as Freddie Quell sought the certainty of Lancaster Dodd.
However, there’s one way in which the two Andersons diverge: Although they focus on the past, none of Paul’s films – maybe with the exception of “Boogie Nights” – feel nostalgic in a way comparable to Wes’s, which instead seek to recreate the past without commenting on its significance. When asked what inspired 2013’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” he explained that he was “trying to recreate [the feeling of] being twelve years old.” From “The Royal Tenenbaums” on, his films are defined by this pervasive nostalgia. They are set in realities that rarely resemble our own and seem consciously designed to avoid political interpretation.
But this year, both Andersons came into magnificent alignment. Their newest films – “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Inherent Vice” – serve as dual elegies for a simpler, sunnier time. Both films feature a character – Gustave and Doc Sportello, respectively – fighting to keep the forces of darkness at bay.
Wes’s “Budapest” can be read as a response to his critics who claim he favors style over substance. Here, the style is the point. His protagonist Gustave is more than a concierge; he is an aesthete, an aficionado of style and art like Anderson, and the film’s encroaching fascism that threatens to shut down his beloved, ornately decorated hotel is the true villain.
Adapted from an esoteric, madcap novel by Thomas Pynchon, Vice follows private detective Doc Sportello, as he investigates a mysterious case in 1970s Los Angeles. Just as in “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master,” it’s the transitional nature of the era that Anderson seems most interested in. The surface details of the sunny, ‘60s counterculture vibe are all present, but the tone is more nefarious, capturing the paranoia and “hippie fear” that Charles Manson and the Zodiac killer initiated, and even hinting at the pending corporatization of America in the Reagan Era, which is personified in the final reel by Martin Donovan as a shady businessman who tries to buy off our hero.
In 2014, both Andersons wrote about a moment when the dark won out over the light, with their lead characters serving as sacrifices thrown to the bonfire of modernity. What does it say about our current era that these artists who have dedicated their creative lives to the past are now creeping up into the present – and have little good to say about it? If the world has really turned as dark as they imagine, perhaps our only solace is that that both magnificent Andersons will continue working hand in hand, brightening our present by exploring the past.