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In Defence of Wes Anderson: The Horizontal Tracking Shot in The Royal Tenenbaums

August 27, 2010

In Defence of Wes Anderson: The Horizontal Tracking Shot in The Royal Tenenbaums

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Over the last decade, Wes Anderson has cultivated one of the most recognisable and distinctive bodies of work of any director currently operating in the American film industry. Often referred to as a Noughties version of Woody Allen, Anderson matches Allen not only in prodigy of output, but more prevalently as a director of urbane pictures that privilege the tragicomic mores of a disaffected (upper) middle-class cohort. As with Allen, the common tag Anderson receives is as an insular and hermetic director, content to replicate the same film over and over again, only slyly ‘rebranding’ the constituent elements each time – from the Upper East Side locus of The Royal Tenenbaums, and the zany, sea-bound adventures of The Life Aquatic, to the pastiche of Indian spiritualism that was The Darjeeling Limited. The most specific complaint against Anderson is that his work is somehow literary and not cinematic, and that his ‘signature style’ consists purely of indulgent design motifs (take the Louis Vuitton suitcases of The Darjeeling Limited), a juvenile and precious sense of humour, and an over-reliance on ironic intertitles and voiceover.

While there is an undoubted literariness to Anderson’s work, I would actually counter-argue that he is one of the most purely cinematic of contemporary filmmakers, and that if he is to be accused of anything, it is an over-assault of the cinematic elements (sound, cinematography, mise en scene and editing) rather than their under-use. In particular, Anderson has made a trademark of one of the most distinctive and compelling of cinematic brushstrokes – the tracking shot – which even more hallowed directors such as Orson Welles, Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick have regularly employed to sensualise their cinematic worlds.

The best example of this is in the near-climax to The Royal Tenenbaums, when a destructive car crash calls an abrupt halt to Etheline Tenenbaum and Henry Sherman’s wedding ceremony. The ensuing tracking shot traces the aftermath to the chaos, as the emergency services get to work, and all the assorted members and associates of the Tenenbaum family use the situation as a means to resolve longstanding grudges and misunderstandings. Although the scene works on conventional dramatic lines as a source of resolution after conflict; by employing the tracking shot directly, Anderson finds a brilliant and ingenious means of engendering that necessary moment of reconciliation in the narrative that would not have worked nearly as well had it been conceived as a series of stilted, dialogue-heavy sequences.

The tracking shot is not solely a means of narrative shorthand though, but also denotes a certain thematic sophistication. With most of The Royal Tenenbaums’ running-time detailing the dysfunctions and neuroses of this most unhappy of New York families, in one fell swoop, Anderson is able to out the undertow of sentimentality and regret that blights these characters, and lend the proceedings their necessary air of catharsis, as relationships are reconciled (most notably the previously estranged father-son duo of Royal and Chas Tenenbaum). The sequence also gives pleasure to us as spectators or ‘readers’ of the narrative, because its concision and eloquence succeed in unifying all the major arcs of the characters we have followed over the preceding ninety minutes.

The tracking shot also justifies the irreverence (some might say, indulgence) of Anderson’s humour, as seemingly baffling and minor narrative threads (Seymour Cassel’s Dusty posing as a doctor earlier in the film, and the boy receiving bizarre psychiatric treatment from Bill Murray’s doctor) get exquisite pay-offs as their characters appear for witty skits while the camera tracks its way along the crash scene.

Where the sequence ultimately shines though and justifies Anderson’s claims as a proper film director, is in its pure engagement with the filmic medium and the notion of spectacle. Although on a vastly different scale, when Alexander Sokurov filmed his single-take opus on the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg for Russian Ark, he called it a film in “one breath”, and there is something of this in the tracking shot in The Royal Tenenbaums. Irrespective of whether the other aspects of Anderson’s work are to one’s taste – and admittedly Anderson’s choice of background choral music helps set the atmosphere here too alongside the cinematography – there can be no denying the sheer dazzle and sense of emotion that this simple glide of the camera engenders. (May 2010)

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