The Grand Budapest Hotel - Child's Play

Thoughts On: The Grand Budapest Hotel

The tale of M. Gustave's who, assisted by his lobby boy, Zero, fights to retain the word of a dear and lost friend's will.

One of the most mechanically precise projections of Wes Anderson's directorial style, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a whimsical, borderline absurd, but consistently captivating picture. In being such an idiosyncratic movie, it is practically impossible to find fault in the design of this narrative nor its projection. As a film that must be judged unto itself, one that can't really be compared to many others, The Grand Budapest Hotel is arguably perfect; I can't even summon a personal gripe with this movie. This almost impervious nature is inherent to many of Anderson's films as it is so readily understood that these films are what they are, they do what they do, and so exist in a niche of cinema all of their own. This all implies that a developed style not only defines the rules of your film, but the rules of viewing, which puts the audience on the side of a filmmaker and, quite literally, in their world. So, as many have already and many are sure to do, I want to discuss Anderson's style and define the major elements of his 'cinematic rules'. Added to this, however, we'll be exploring a philosophy of, or approach to, cinema that is exercised by Anderson's films - one of the most expressive examples being our focus today: The Grand Budapest Hotel.

To start, you only need to recognise a fundamental pattern that begins to construct the style of Anderson's movies. This, as is very clear to anyone who grew up with paper and crayons, is related to the pictures we drew as children...

For some reason, all children seem to stumble upon this kind of drawing. I myself was never this talented and so would resort to stick men, but almost every child seems to draw their family by their house like this - complete with trees, an ambiguous stretch of grassland and the sun (maybe the family dog). In fact, I'm pretty sure most children, like me, never lived in a house like this--a cottage of sorts next to a tree in a field--but, they nonetheless draw their family, organised in a nice straight line, before it. Whilst this paradigm is incredibly fascinating, in relation to Wes Anderson, this seems to be where his films find their basis...

It's wide shots like these that demonstrate the exact and flat composition a child would employ when asked to visually present some of their fist stories ever - pictures of family that define to teachers who they are. This composition is cubic and balanced, it is largely centralised with strong horizontal and vertical planes. This appeals to a fundamental human sensibility to organise things in a very mechanical way. However, what often has to be learned by a person as they grow up is a natural composition of the world...

This composition, as demonstrated by something such as the golden ratio, is hidden in plain sight, but instantly recognisable...

This suggests that beauty can be calculated mathematically. But, whilst nature often utilises complex calculation, people--children--stay away from spirals, circles and other odd shapes and appeal to the square or rectangle in their approach to composition. This is why a drawing like this is so cubic in terms of positioning and distribution...

As you can see, the tree at the centre of the drawing is the pillar of composition, it splits the sheet in half, sitting in the very middle of the page. The house and family are positioned flatly on either side to fill up the area, giving a cleaner composition due to a lack of negative space to be managed. The sun and grass are what entirely fill up the negative space - the sun being something of an add-on as it sits in the corner, a filler that doesn't really relate to the rest of the composition so well. Analysing something as banal and basic as a child's painting like this helps us understand two things. The first is the basic distribution of shapes by the human mind. This is clearly cubic and organised by two dimensional boxing, an approach to composition that has a hard time projecting the complex nature of a three dimensional world. The second thing that this child's painting gives us incite into are these images...

Anderson centralises a focus of a shot and then builds the scene around that in a boxed fashion. You see this in the literal squares or boxes in many of his frames - the windows and doors on the hotels; the metal strips on the back wall. What these boxes do is organise Anderson's shots by filling them, not in an organic manner, but a human and mechanical one - like a child may; without a firm grip of a three dimensional realm. This isn't criticism, but the essence of Anderson's pictures as they are all about the control he may hold over a cinematic world, hence revealing the contrived nature of cinema and exploiting it for stylistic effect.

What's so interesting about the design of Anderson's films is this unique nature, but also the subtle cracks in its skin that reveal influence from many greats of the past. In such, we can feel a lot of Kubrick and Bertolluci in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

We can feel Kubrick in the incredibly strong framing, zooms and some of the movement. A good point of comparison would be The Shining. Whilst Kubrick predominantly navigates the space with his steady-cam, there is his iconic use of bold composition coupled with loud zooms and sometimes rigid lateral movement - as seen when Jack enters the ballroom. Another great film to compare The Grand Budapest Hotel to would have to be Burtolluci's The Conformist. This is famously one of the greatest exercises in style in filmic history. Throughout The Conformist Bertollucci uses strong compositions as Kubrick may, but it is his use of light and colour that act as emphatic blocks in the frame which can be seen in a film like The Grand Budapest Hotel. What this means is that Burtolluci often allows one colour to consume his screen and then chisels figures into the canvas with hard shades - the blue against black above being a good example. We see Anderson's use of colour to be very much like this as it aids composition by drawing the eye's focus and almost splitting the frame into a grid. It must be noted, however, that Anderson's use of colour, whilst very stark is much softer than Bertolluci's. In such, Anderson's frames are much more unified and not always reliant on high contrast to be striking (though, they sometimes will do this).

Other comparisons may be made are to Bergman, Welles and Lang on the principals of mise en scène and blocking.

These are comparative elements we don't see as strongly as the Kubrick and Bertolluci ones. However, when not shooting in a simple single or two-shot, Anderson deals with close ups on the face in a flat, yet poignant manner - like Bergman. Moreover, the reference to Welles is one granted on the basis of deep focus. Whilst Anderson's frames can sometimes be without much depth, there is always a focus on the set design and so to express this in the shot, he often utilises a deeper focus. The reference to Lang is one that could have been made to Eisenstein or Kurosawa. This is because it is one that points out their use of sharp lines across and through the frame. These are often inhabited by many extras, but Anderson limits this to a few at most.

Another key aesthetic comparison to make has to be to silent films in general. Beyond the novel use of vignettes...

... the aspects of silent film in Anderson's movies are primarily in the simple design we've been discussing thus far.

Silent films, in large part, owe their aesthetic to vaudeville and the theatre. This is because the blocking of them resembles that of a stage - everything playing to the camera in a very flat manner as well as directed to us. In turn, Anderson owes his flat style to both silent films and the theatre. You see further comparison to silent films, however, through clowns such as Keaton and Chaplin. You see these influences in the very staccato, juddered and stop-start beat of comedy present in Anderson's films. Just like silent clowns would draw attention to their gags with this specific beat of comedy, so does Anderson.

This vast pool of aesthetic, technique and style is where we see Anderson's personal style come from. With the very sparse and minimalistic uses of a plethora of styles, he has thus built his own. In such, Anderson has essentially took the most rigid and contrived aspects of the many auteurs mentioned and combined them into a harmoniously artificial style. This is a style with key elements of cubicly constructed framing emphasised by a strong colour pallet and then brought to life with mechanical movement. The life brought to Anderson's frames is what truly defines his style. This is all in movement. Whether it is of the camera or characters, movement is almost always confined to side-to-side, forwards-backwards or up-down. This leaves the dimensional field of the film completely dictated by a model such as this:

Very rarely do we see any other movement that breaks these few lines of direction. There are a few moments in The Grand Budapest Hotel where we get diagonal movement, as well as a handful of shots following characters or mounted on vehicles, but whenever this is done, the camera movement is always played out in such a manner as to embellish a mechanical sense of dimension.

What we are left with having identified these elements of Anderson's style is ultimately a question of, why? And so, it's here where we can begin to question Anderson's visual philosophy of cinema. There are two components of this. Firstly, there is the purely technical and aesthetic component that we have been going over. Second to this, however, the overriding purpose of Anderson's style is in relation to his stories. And so, in the end, we will see the core of Anderson's visual philosophy to be one that encompasses his films entirely. Before we start towards this, it must be said that this will be an inferred philosophy, one that we pick up by association, not one that Anderson has explicitly outlined. So, to start, we have to consider the beginning again.

Anderson's films represent a visual and artistic fundamentalism derived from a crucially modern-human basis. If you look out into the world, you see this:

Most probably, you actually see something more like this:

But, there is nonetheless a unifying quality to almost all of modern western architecture, and that is boxes - a rectangular, straight-lined aesthetic. I know next to nothing about architecture, but, what is very clear about the way humans organise the world is that it's very unnatural.

Humans are industrious and creative beings, but not in the same capacity as nature. Humans always appeal to repeatable patterns, simple shapes and measurable design. Nature doesn't present itself in such a transparent manner. When you look at a rain forest...

... you see construction, but you do not see explicit order. The opposite can be said of people. This all points to something almost innate in the designing faction of the human mind. We need rigidity, predictability and transparency. We can learn to overcome this, but this seems to be our innate perceptual setting. This seems to be why children draw like this:

By Anderson's design reflecting this simplistic approach to composition, he seems to be drawing upon a uniquely human understanding of aesthetic and then projecting it. This is why Anderson's films are undeniably beautiful, but not in a manner that is at all what we're used to. This is because over the thousands of years of producing art, the form has evolved...

There has been a movement into complex, powerful and realistic styles. Having got very far with this and then invented the camera (making all the artistic development somewhat redundant) we then moved to other places - which somewhat explains...

Nonetheless, film, a relatively new art form, has developed its aesthetic from realists (probably because cameras and films deal with reality). We can understand this by recognising that this influence has lead to cinematic beauty of this sort...

The work that has gone into producing films such as Barry Lyndon is, in certain respects, a fight against a mechanical, cubic and basic idea of human deign - that which we see best in our construction, our everyday organisation and children's drawings. In Kubrick's frame there is a great play with light and lines to truly convey a natural three-dimensional and tangible space. Anderson means to reverse this, to translate the likes of this...

... into a filmic style:

The visual philosophy of Anderson's films thus seems to be a psychological commentary on people and their processing of cinematic aesthetic. Instead of dismissing the simplistic, contrived and unnatural, Anderson embraces it, fine tunes it and then projects it in a poignant and striking manner. In such, he indulges the contrived nature of cinema as an industrialised medium of art created by people.

This is a very interesting approach to cinema as it consequentially re-characterises a camera. The most significant example of this in The Grand Budapest Hotel is a shot following Gustave through the lobby of the hotel as he carries boxes of cakes in a disguise...

This is hard to depict with still images alone, but Anderson, with this shot, breaks a cinematic rule I have never seen broken before in such a way. As the camera follows Gustave and Zero, it pans left and then right to get reaction shots. But, the eyes of the actors don't line up with the eye line of Gustave or Zero, instead, they look straight at the camera. This, very bluntly, has all reaction shots be a breaking of the fourth wall for no clear reason. And this cannot be dismissed as a mistake as Anderson has clearly directed all actors to look at the camera, not just figure out their own eye lines. To understand why Anderson has done this, you only need to realise how he's re-characterised his camera. Instead of merely observing, invisible and distant, Anderson's camera is a centre-piece the story is played out to. This is why all actors in this shot look to the camera and not to each other. The camera does not simulate POV, instead just demands attention. We see this throughout The Grand Budapest Hotel with actors waiting for the camera to pan to them before they continue action and everything being very clearly choreographed around its presence. Further evidence for this can be seen in the constructed design of this movie that we've been exploring - all done for the camera--explicitly so. We see this to be true to an absurd detail...

Even fingers have to fall into perfect composition. Gravity must serve Anderson's camera. I have never seen any film play out in such a manner. The closest would possibly be Bertolucci's The Conformist or maybe something like Deadpool, but these movies don't approach an idea of contrived design or breaking the fourth wall like Anderson does. Whilst each of Bertolucci's frames are perfectly captured and designed, he does not demand such formal rigidity from his actors and from every single detail like Anderson does. And whilst Deadpool breaks the fourth wall, this is something of a gimmick. Anderson subtly designs fourth wall breaks into his films like no other - and often without direct comedic effect. All of this allows Anderson's films to live in a very unique niche of cinema that is so self-aware and so contrived, but successfully so.

One of the lasting points we'll bring up is then how this affects Anderson's narratives. Because the story of The Grand Budapest Hotel must play around a camera, it embodies the artificial nature of classical Hollywood films to an absurd degree. We see this, as mentioned, in the acting style, but also the pin-point dialogue, the cartoonish action and clockwork-like world. However, this is all masked with a surreal authenticity of madness. And by this, I mean to point to Anderson's insanely original plots and characters. The paradigm Anderson thus sets up in his narrative is a battle between two forces best summed up by a pivotal line in the film:

"You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilisation left in this barbaric slaughter house that was once known as humanity..."

Throughout The Grand Budapest Hotel, we see Gustave struggling to remain controlled, composed and civilised despite the calamity exploding around him - the exact same may be said of Anderson and his camera. This means that many technical aspects of filmmaking - camerawork, set design, editing, acting - are all fighting to retain composure in face of an absurd story. And it's this fight that marks the crucial game Anderson plays to make his movies. He seems to be spilling paint onto clockwork. This means he's injecting aesthetic chaos into a perfectly designed system. This is true of almost every element of every single one of his films, and Anderson seems to do this to pick up on the truth that belies this picture:

Whilst it is contrived, cubic and transparently manufactured, the child that made this drawing did so haphazardly, maybe blindly. He/she was told to draw their house and family and just did. This is also true of adults building cities or organising their desk. Whilst they're fulfilling a purpose, attaining a goal, there is a chaos surrounding them that is somewhat ignored. This means that all cities eventually meet an ocean, desert, field or forest, just like all desks are approach by someone about to work. In such, there is a great arbitrariness. People could live anywhere, in any way and with no terms of structure. However, we almost all choose not to. We go to work, sit at our organised desk, earn money in an orderly fashion, all so we can drive home down roads, stopping at lights and signs, to get to our clean and organised homes where we follow routine to bed, only to wake up in the morning to start all over again. We do this while thunder storms brew and our planet hurtles through space; we do this keeping conflict and utter purposelessness at bay.

This universal management of ones life, a fight for civility and personal control is what belies Anderson's narrative and is projected through his direction. And in such, we see his style articulated, his approach to cinema explained. Whilst universal entropy fights to tear us apart, we, like Anderson's characters and narratives, remain composed.

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