Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Monday, June 16, 2014

Wes Anderson vs. the Trust Fund Marxists + 10 Classic films for fans of THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)

From top: Grand Budapest; Life and Death of Col. Blimp

If you're as keen as I am for pre-code Lubitsch like The Love Parade, Trouble in Paradise, The Smiling Lieutenant, One Hour with You, and The Merry Widow (this Tues on TCM!), and love Wes Anderson's previous films, then you surely can/have/will appreciate the icy frosting splendor over-melancholy birthday cake of their combined flavor in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), released this week on DVD. Those enthralled by Renoir will appreciate oblique references to Grand Illusion; there are also the McGuffins of Hitchcock to be found; clues and puzzles too, like The Riddler might tell on Batman; the gorgeous colors of Powell-Cardiff-Pressburger float about; the candy coatings of McGonigle are notable, as are the epic swirls of modernist Cy Twerlington --all are swirled together as if by an overexcited boy using his sister's dollhouse and tea set to relay a tale within a tale to agog younger siblings.

Seems this dollhouse hotel is run like clockwork by assiduous major domo Ralph Fiennes and his deadpan Muslim lobby boy (Tony Revolori), the latter earning the film's romantic angle, the only woman protagonist (the ubiquitous Saoirse Ronan) in the film. She dies somewhere along the time line and he grows up to be F. Murray Abraham, narrating the tale to writer Jude Law in the now gone-to-Communist bloc grey hotel, decades later. Law writes it all down, and in the future it's read by a bright young Slav girl - in the final, outer layer of the narrative Russian doll.

Anderson's previous film, Moonrise Kingdom (see my best of 2012 list) surged with young outlaw lovers' momentum detached cool and fervent devotion. It marked real progress forward for Anderson, whose past films all focused more on an emotionally-stunted father-son bromance compromised by rivalry over girls generally too mature and/or damaged for either of them to handle. Moonrise was like if Max in Rushmore hooked up with Gweneth Paltrow in Royal Tenenbaums - his two coolest characters --and neither was tongue-tied or awkward around the other but pre-possessed with the refreshing eerie confidence that the first flush of mutual attraction can bring.

But the relationship at the heart of Budapest indicates a racing away from the palm sweat stress of first love, the dangerous thrill of romance bringing confidence rather than fear. Wes heads back to the safety of the father-son surrogate bromances of his pre-Moonrise films. But--as are all attempts to climb inside the tattered remains of an old cocoon (take it from me)--it's kind of sad this reversal of progress, the capering and gamboling are less vital this time. The word on the street is that you need to see this film a few times to get all the little details, but the thing is, I don't want to. I'm not even sure I want to see Moonrise Kingdom again, at least not at the moment. What if a second viewing dims my love? Better the safety of one more viewing of The Expendables 2. Stallone, now that's a "mature" man's man! Movies about 18 year-olds in 60 year old bodies, rather than 13 year-olds in 30-40 year-old bodies, you see the grand difference, my son?

That said, the critical and financial box office success of Grand Budapest is a good sign for future auteur "quirk" art, which isn't necessarily great for "art" art, or that last bastion of hardscrabble art world outsiders, 'folk art.' Lovingly ornate tracking shots, quaint train set miniatures, impeccable 30s costumery and decor (bright pinks and deep purples) and wistful rainy day isolation hint of some deep meaning within its message about how fascism, Communism, and Nazism destroyed humanity's confidence in itself, and cakes stopped being decadent, risks trivialization. In the end it leaves one wondering if Anderson has anything left to say, other than that he wants to go back in time and live in a grand hotel before the world wars destroyed such places. Must be nice to be rich enough you can stay in the few that are still standing, and bring your whole crew, too. Must be nice.

I don't blame Anderson for wanting a nice empty safe place where no one knows his name, where cavernous steam bath facilities and snowy mountain tops give him (and we the viewer) hot and cold extremes for maximum coziness. But just because Anderson uses a self-reflexive fractal inward spiral narrative doesn't mean his films gets to shirk the cumbersome duty of meaning something. For all its feints at political relevance, Anderson's film is just a delusional reverie imagining how nice it would have been to be a first class traveller in the days before the Nazis destroyed most of fancy Europe. It's all dressed up and does have a few worthy places to go, so why does it feel still lost?

Viva La Revolution! 
Putting one's own private nostalgic wistfulness on the big screen is the purview of the rich, who can afford to create their pet time travel realities, as Woody Allen does in Midnight in Paris (see: Oscar Picks of the Bourgeoisie - in Salieri Shades). These dreamers can afford to create their own past worlds to vanish into. So while a state-funded auteur like Bergman could create vast worlds of resonance out of two women's faces in black and white close-up, he couldn't afford to build an escape-into past (unless you count Smiles of a Summer Night). For Bergman, stripping down his style only deepened his resonance, proving that where art cinema is concerned, more is less and Bibi and Liv's faces are timeless. But Budapest illustrates how unlimited freedom allows for laziness; excessive details undermine resonance. Anderson can only reap a few chuckles from the vast quantity of faces and minutely-painted flea circus settings, so it seems only fair that the military uprisings that bookend portions of this film should occur, the Iron Curtain evening up the playing field. No more rich folks getting treated like kings. Let them all eat bread. No cake!

As for Communism's good side, Anderson never shows us the starving, huddled masses who aren't willing or able to work and scrape obsequiously in 24 hours a day service for rich tourists. They might like the uniform grey and suppression of the individual, because it means they eat regularly, and are suddenly the equal of any rich punter.

It's them, the workers, Anderson should be scared of!

That said, I'm on congressional record railing against the Trust Fund Marxist movement (see: Sullivan's Jet Travels: Rich Kid Cinema) and as much as Anderson seems to be railing against spoiled rich kid collaborators in Budapest, I respect his frivolous whims. Evoking the big pre-code split during the Great Depression between social message films like Wild Boys of the Road and Heroes for Saleand musicals and escapism like 42nd Street, the Sullivans and Andersons of the world often don't factor in that their glorification of the poor might be just the imagination of a lonely Little Lord Fauntleroy, whose only friends are the household servants, and how important it is for him to feel he's bringing joy and fullness he brings to their lives by giving them the chance to serve his every need.

As one of the middle class, I can vouch that the our fantasy of being rich seldom includes having servants. But servants are an inescapable part of real wealth. And as Hegel knows, never having to ever have to fend for oneself gradually leaves the rich so unprepared for life that it's critical to their sense of self to believe there's a bond other than their room, board, and paycheck, by which their household staff are bound to them, that the servants and hoteliers love serving them hand and foot, for service's own sake, and would never abandon their 'betters' to starve or have to pack their own bags, even if said betters never tipped a dime.

Reality is surely different, but in Anderson's world these usually tertiary characters all work their fingers to the bone, 24 hours a day, to make the Grand Budapest excellent --why? Because they love to serve the jet set? Non, monsieur, because Wes Anderson's camera transcends both the trust fund 'present of liberty' Kane-ism and the socialist hand-wringing of Sullivan, and does so without careening into the life-is-a-circus Fellini-ism, just barely. So what else is left in its stead?

Let us recall that quote from William Powell as Godfrey Parks (left), the rich scion who finds his mojo by becoming first a forgotten man and then a butler for a spoiled dingbat family in My Man Godfrey. "You're proud of being a butler?" asks a bewildered Eugene Pallette. "I'm proud of being a good butler, sir," Powell says. "And  if I may so, sir, one has to be good to put up with this family." In other words, excellence of service is its own reward, even when those being served are undeserving. This pride in performance sets vast karmic chains in motion wherein even labeling someone as undeserving of special service is forgotten, as unless all judgment is suspended, there can be no good fortune. As with cult leaders, there's absolutely no difference between finding pure freedom through selfless service and being an exploitable dupe. As with the 'glorious' martyrdom offered unwed mothers in soaps of the 1930s-50s after they work their fingers to the bone for undeserving illegitimate D.A. sons, there's the dubious aftertaste that this martyrdom is really in the service of some nefarious evil 1% patriarchy, one that plays up the grace and nobility of being a second-class citizen in this, the greatest of all possible worlds, but would never be sucker enough to believe it themselves.

On the flipside of that, there's the trust fund Marxist, who blames "the rich" (i.e. his dad) for sucking the blood of the proletariat in his own (parent-funded) films. He's glamorizing the poor - but must I reach for my frothy tome of 'wise old sayings by butlers?' to find out what Burrows said to Sullivan in Sullivan's Travels (above) in order to dissuade him from his grand slumming odyssey, that "only the morbid rich would find the subject glamorous"?

Godard's La Chinoise 
Godard is my boiler plate for my Trust Fund Marxist theory, but I still love him because he's French, and so remains hilarious despite and even because of his leftist propaganda; he's trying so hard, awww, to connect the New Wave with Eisenstein, that he actually takes his own bullshit seriously, which is great. Because unless a Frenchman is actually trying to be funny, he's intrinsically hilarious; that's why the more Jean Pierre Leaud tries to look politically serious, the funnier he is. He's like Harpo Marx crossed with Young Trotsky in Love. But when he tries to be funny, ugh.... kill me.

That's the strange rich kid cinema angle that is both transcended and indulged by Anderson's film. The leads of Grand Budapest become rich because they are tireless, loyal, fearless servers of the rich, as apt an illustration of bootstrap capitalism as you're likely to find. They reject the communist ideal of equality as a given, due perhaps to proximity to the wealthy (and ample leftovers back in the kitchen) making privilege seem ever obtainable. Their jobs are frivolous -- bellhopping and major domoing aren't necessary as we all know from carrying our own duffel into a Ramada-- and so their indispensability must be underwritten by adoring old lady residents leaving them fortunes in their wills for sexual services rendered. Meanwhile the unwavering subservience of the hard-working baker (Saoirse Ronan) laboring under the callous gaze of the owner seems a bit strange. A girl this hot and fearless wouldn't need to sweat her days away in a bakery making ornate sugar-coated little cakes for the rich and imprisoned! She'd be a first-rate government agent or high-end prostitute. And is there a difference? Not according to Hitchcock or Josef von Sternberg!


1. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
1943 - Dir. Powell and Pressburger 
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's tale covers a similar 'decline of old Europe' canvas in its chronicle of of a German spy in pre-WWI Vienna, a duel with a German who will become his best friend, and World War I as recalled in the mind of an old general wrestling his younger secretary's fiancee in a Turkish bath in the early days of WW2 England. Jack Cardiff's eye-popping colors and the superlative set design make even the war ravaged countryside beautiful, and it shares Budapest's melancholy air as the onrush of mechanized warfare slowly obliterates the sporting codes and artistic splendor of old-world class.

2. The Love Parade
1929 - dir. Ernst Lubitsch
One of Lubitsch's less-revered works, this has Maurice Chevalier as a romantic soldier who winds up marrying the queen of his small country, the sort that would cease to exist when the map was redrawn at the end of WWI and then be completely obliterated by the end of WW2.

3. Shanghai Express
1932 - dir. Josef Von Sternberg
What better place to ride from Peking to Shanghai than in a first class train compartment with two cultured high fashion courtesans like Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong, especially if they take such languid pleasure in shocking an MGM-style fussbudget boarding house matron. Dietrich is at her most luminous and morally ambivalent, and incredibly cool and the Chinese civil war (that left them susceptible to Japanese invasion) makes an intriguing backdrop.  See: 1933, not 1939 was the greatest year for Hollywood Movies...

4. Trouble in Paradise
1932- dir. Ernst Lubitsch
It took awhile for this pre-code Paramount to resonate with me, but now I dig that it doesn't 'Americanize' the dialogue like so many lazier Hollywood films, instead playing up the linguistic difficulties where everyone in Europe is constantly searching for the one language each of them knows just a little bit of, as in the excited way the Italian hotelier translates EE Horton's story of how he got robbed in his room. Like in BUDAPEST, a great fuss is made of getting the first-class hotel experience exactly right, and while Herbert Marshall isn't Cary Grant, or even Ronald Coleman, he's also not George Brent. When the situation demands it, he swoons with the best of them and even convinces you--through two layers of subterfuge--that he's genuinely in love with the moon (he wants to see it reflected in the champagne)  (See: Pre-Code Capsules 9)

5. Grand Hotel
1932- dir. Edmund Goulding
Greta Garbo is the melancholy ballerina who finds a reason to dance again after she falls for the down-and-out baron (John Barrymore). In another room a ravishing young secretary (Joan Crawford) succumbs joylessly to the advances of an arrogant industrialist (Wallace Beery, with a terrible buzz cut). In yet another thread, a fatally ill office clerk (Lionel Barrymore) drains his life savings in a desperate effort to derive some first-class pleasure from this bleak and brief existence. Downstairs at the bar, a disfigured doctor (Lewis Stone) dispenses wry commentary as people come and go. (MUZE) 

6. The Saragossa Manuscript
1965- dir. Wojciech Has
Like the narrative framework of an Eastern European girl reading a novel at the graveside of an author whom we meet in flashback who in turn hears the story from one of its participants, this Eastern European film is told via an ever-more-innate story within a story within a story structure and set in a colorful past that may never have existed but at any rate is now certainly gone,

7. Secret Agent
1936 - dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Set in the Alps (via Gaumont's finest painted backdrops), this tale of intrigue is a fine companion to Hitchcock's original version of The Man who Knew too Much. John Gielgud doesn't make much of an impression in the lead but he looks a bit like Ralph Fiennes and hey! Peter Lorre's in it. The ever- saucy Madeleine Carroll makes a fine femme fatale (though is way too flippant and disagreeable to make a good spy) and there's a memorable chase through a Swiss chocolate factory. One of my favorite $10 public domain titles I got as a kid, from Waldenbooks at the mall, in the early years of VHS. I've seen it 200 times, but not once in the last 20 years. It needs to be on Criterion!

8. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
1969 - dir. Peter R. Hunt
Bond in the Alps, and a great skiing downhill chase, slalom, ski jumping, cable car rides, as well as the cool vibe of having to take long cable cars to visit the evil Telly Savalas' lair. He hypnotizes a bevy of socialite debs as they sleep using colored lights and his own grinning, cigarette-congested voice uttering instant mix CD-worthy lines like "You love chickens..." That part has no bearing on Budapest, but I love it. And the Alpine adventures and clues and skulking are all on point.

9. Torn Curtain
(1966) - dir. Alfred Hitchcock
This later period Hitchcock film doesn't get the love it deserves, but Wes Anderson is beholden to it for the flavor of Eastern European intrigue and the near-silent museum chase scene (just the sound of footsteps for suspense, etc.), and the anxiety of being asked to present your papers and/or discovered on some Communist bloc public conveyance. It's worth revisiting, and I wrote about it way back in '04 here

10. Million Dollar Legs
(1932) - dir. Edward F. Cline
Co-written by Citizen Kane scribe Joseph L. Mankiewicz with uncredited touch-ups by the great Ben Hecht, Million Dollar Legs is the nationalism-satirizing predecessor of Marx Bros' Duck Soup, which makes sense since the heroine in Legs was married to Harpo Marx. Cockeyed Caravan's Matt Bird calls her "absurdly deadpan." Centering around the fictional nation of Klopstockia with its majordomo who can run faster than a speeding car, the president (W.C. Fields) stays on top of his plotting cabinet through games of toss wrestling, and there's a Mata Hari-style hottie spy (doing a great Garbo impression, "I'm wery fond of yumpers!"). Budapest fans will dig the colorful cast and pre-WWII fictionalized little mountain nation vibe.

1 comment:

  1. Just as films about the future are always about the present, so it goes for films about the past, and revisiting TGBH two years after the fact (and in light of the rather horrendous turn of events post 11/8) I am not struck by the feeling that the world Anderson was mourning was not some fantastical Europe of yesterday but of today's America. I think Anderson (just like that other Anderson, Paul, with his vastly under-appreciated and misread Inherent Vice [under-appreciated and misread on my part, not yours]), as with all great and sensitive artists, had an inkling that something wicked this way was coming.


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