Matt Powers is a contributor to The Onion, Onion Sports, and Onion News Network. He is the editorial/writers assistant at Adult Swim dot com. He used to work as writers assistant and contributing writer to Onion Digital which brought to the world delights like "Sex House" and "Lake Dredge Appraisal". He has been asked several times but refuses to leave your driveway.
No director is so tied to and defined by his own aesthetic as Wes Anderson. Indeed, his newest offering, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, follows true to his whimsical, airy style. But within the carefully-curated frivolity, Anderson briefly depicts a gritty, black-and-white scene on a train where, unlike the rest of the film, the characters’ fates are unknown and their problems not solvable with a debonair and delightful scheme. This serves to highlight the far-fetched nature of both GBH and Wes Anderson films, but also film in general. While Anderson always gets the most pronounced reactions to his actively-not-real aesthetic, even films that try to be the most realistic anti-whimsy are unavoidably creating Anderson worlds themselves. By being a far-afield example of reality, GBH reminds viewers that film is inherently far-afield, no matter how much gore and grit.
For 99% of ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’, delightful events occur rigged like a Rube Goldberg machine. Even the chaos of new lobby boy “Zero” racing to keep up with the energetic concierge Gustave looks like a neatly choreographed dance. Additionally, bottom halves of people comically stick out of snow drifts, prison window bars give way after being chiseled tenderly, and an extended gun barrage involving 10 out-in-the-open combatants ends without a scratch or tousled hair. Even fingers being cleaved off in a door or cat guts spread on cobblestone are quirky and well-spaced. This part of the film is all in color.
The brief black-and-white interlude toward the end of the story literally drains the color out of Anderson’s whimsical story. Our characters are on the same train that deftly avoided a tense situation earlier in the film after Gustave improvs some high-minded rhetoric on Zero’s right to travel as an immigrant. Satisfied with this poetry, the inspector and his guards exit and the train starts again in a literal instant, as if by magic. The reprise of this setup offers no such magic. Here the audience, like Zero, is bludgeoned with the butt of a riffle, awaking us to the boundary between Andersonland and reality. The Nazis this time are terser, grimmer, and utterly disinterested in poetics. Gustave’s eloquence seems out-of-place and pathetic in black-in-white; it is less charming than it is delusional. Zero must join the Nazis outside—what happens to him? He clearly does not die, but in this moment his future is dreadful and uncertain, in the hands of racist, uncaring death troops. In this great scene, Anderson is calling attention to just how airy and dream-like setting of the Grand Budapest Hotel really is, but also how films in general fail to fully realize the brutality of reality.
Anderson makes no attempt to make his world of “Zubrowka” at all realistic…the prison break sequence comes to mind as particularly fanciful, specifically when the convicts literally hop over their slumbering jailers, a sequence Anderson could have inserted floating Zzzz’s above their heads and it would not have seemed out-of-place. The backdrops and wide pans of settings are purposefully unrealistic and stylized. They are made of real-looking elements but the elements are mismatched from different perspectives and lighting treatments. Characters turn into silhouettes and behave almost inhumanly with leaps and bounds. This clearly demarcated bright world of fun is the surrogate for all film. This includes, and perhaps especially highlights, movies that deal liberally in blood and gore (your “Die Hard”s, your torture porns, etc). Film can never mirror the harsh reality of life. For example, at least a million people died at The Battle Of Stalingrad. How can a film relay that? Or on a smaller human scale, how can a film relay what it feels like to watch a loved one die of cancer? The answer is, they can’t. Even a revered, gritty film like ‘Saving Private Ryan’ doesn’t capture 1943 France—but it does do something else, and whatever that may be it does very effectively.
What films can do is offer refracted emotions that get at something interesting about life. They can be a reminder of a tough time of loss, but they certainly can’t provide that emotion for someone who hasn’t been through that. For this second person, that film will provide a different experience—more like imagining how that situation would make them feel. Or perhaps this scene of a sickly family member reminds them of losing a cat. Good film is not just a reminder or contextualizer, but a prism which alters and refracts these feelings into something familiar but distinctly different. “The Grand Budapest Hotel“‘s black-and-white train scene is Wes Anderson’s reminder that film is whimsy in it’s essence, even when it tries so hard not to be.
I only want to think about speedboats for the rest of my life. I’m not interested in thinking other thoughts. They are taking up mental bandwidth I could be spending solely on speedboats. Even now, writing this, I am thinking almost entirely about speedboats. But I’m also thinking about commas and paragraphs and all that junk and my preference would be that I just focus on the speedboats. In fact, the only reason I’m writing this at all is the hope that it will hone my concentration in reaching some sort of speedboat-thinking nirvana.
Ok, here goes nothing:
I’m no rookie in this only-thinking-about-speedboats game. My now six-year-old plan to think only about speedboats didn’t come without sacrifice: I quit my job (couldn’t convince my boss to make a “speedboat thinking” division); I changed my name (old name didn’t contain the word “speedboat” even once); and I moved (old house reminded me of dead ex-girlfriend, not of speedboats).
When I told my banker I only wanted to think about speedboats for the rest of my life, he asked me if I had any business I wanted to conduct with the bank. I told him I was only talking about speedboats because it is my favorite topic of thinking. I have no interest in buying or leasing a speedboat. If I had a speedboat, I would have to fix it occasionally and then I would have to think about tools and nails and those are distinctly NOT speedboats. I’m not sure if they make speedboat-shaped nails but I do know I’ve never seen one.
Sometimes, despite my best efforts, I’ll think about things other than speedboats, like death. When that happens, I say “get out of here, thoughts-about-death!” and if I shut my eyes real tight and clench my fists and sweat profusely, I can usually make those other thoughts go away in 8 to 9 hours. But thoughts-about-death will be back soon enough, although sometimes I can manage a compromise where death just kind of rides around in a speedboat for a while. That little trick took years of practice.
I also hate falling asleep because sometimes my dreams aren’t about speedboats. Or they’re just tangentially related to speedboats, like I walk by a speedboat showroom but I’m running late and can’t really look in and then my late ex-girlfriend reads from a book in Latvian for a while. It’s like come on Maura, let’s double back to that showroom!
So to combat dreaming, I gave some of the crueler neighborhood kids my house keys so that they can sneak into my condo at any time and poke with me with a stick or implement of their choosing. This way I’ll never know when I’ll be assailed and always have to be on high alert, reducing the likelihood of sleep and the uncertainty of dreaming. Sometimes they have loud parties here and I barricade myself in the pantry until they leave.
I am very frightened of children.
During the school year, the kids can’t come between 7:00 and 3:00 so my body usually crashes from exhaustion in that interval. It subconsciously learns the school schedule and knows when it can sleep. Sometimes I dream of speedboats anyway, but again, sometimes not. We’re probably talking 70/30 on a good week.
Sometimes I awake from my dreams screaming “Maura” over and over again. It usually only takes me 8 to 114 hours to calm down. Then it’s back to speedboats ripping over the surf. White speedboats, green speedboats, speedboats covered in blood, purple speedboats. All speed, all boat!
Last week, a speedboat crashed through my living room roof right in the middle of a great solid block of me thinking solely about speedboats. I was pretty upset because then I started thinking about crashing and roofs and even though I had the speedboat visual cue (which was nice), my mind was still filled with some non-speedboat thoughts. Through the hole in my roof, I saw a cargo plane flying overheard, so this particular speedboat must have slipped out the back of it and landed on my condo. Just my luck. I climbed up on the speedboat to investigate, and found my way down into the hold and wouldn’t you know it Maura was there in a bathtub saying how she pranked me pretty bad and how clean she was getting from being in a bathtub for the past six years in a speedboat on a plane.
Then Ronny, one of the scariest of all the neighborhood kids, smacked me across the face with my spatula, in which he had stuck nails in the little slats. The pain was not inconsequential. But at least I wasn’t thinking about dumb ol’ roofs anymore! He took off laughing his head off and I sat back in my chair, wide awake, and waited for the speedboats to return to my thoughts.
I think he took my wallet too.
The Wolf Of Wall Street is a 3 hour film and like any film of that length it inherently must explain why it deserves so much of our time. I think most viewers would agree the most fun part of TWOWS is watching people act badly. And not just any people: rich people—rich people who have staggering means to act badly in staggering ways. I did find this very large chunk of the film interesting, at first. I, like most people, don’t (and can’t) act that way so watching is an amusing voyeuristic experience that at the end I can walk away without needing a considerable stint in rehab or a new set of friends. The problem is, I think Martin Scorsese liked these scenes a lot too. In fact I know he did, because he put a lot of them in his movie.
Leonardo DiCaprio gives a great performance as a noveau riche upstart gone mad with excess, and I think that is an double-edged gift for the man in charge with putting the movie together. Scorcese is obviously a very talented and capable director, and because of that he knows when actors are giving him great stuff (as DiCaprio does in this film) and I think he had a very hard time parting with it. It was midway through the third or fourth repetitive rah-rah “us vs them” Jordan Belfort companywide speech that even a fraternity brother might shy away from that I started to wonder why such a huge section of the film depicted a rather static section of Belfort’s life. Indeed, it was pretty fun, but it wasn’t effective storytelling. If I’m going to see a three hour movie, I want more than just gratuitous fun. For example:
-I couldn’t tell you anything substantial about any female character other than they very rarely do drugs or get off a sales call and yell primally.
-One woman was referenced as a very talented salesperson, but then she cried and later harangued an FBI agent who was grabbing her: “this is Versace!”
-The other top dogs at Stratton Oakmont all more or less ran together for me. One of them had funny teeth, another had a funny toupee—all liked money and partying. I think the actors did a good job at those parts, I was just not particularly made to care about any of them.
-Watching people in movies be high for long periods of time is tiring. I already have to do that too much in real life.
-There were occasions where DiCaprio’s voiceover would literally say “you don’t care about this explanation, we were getting rich and doing drugs” (cue party sequence). Overall, the VO seemed to be used as a shortcut to get to more parties or displays of wealth more quickly.
-There is a split-second plane crash scene (concurrent with a boat crash scene) and I could not explain to you why or how that happened.
I’m not trying to take down this film—I did largely enjoy it. It just could have been so much better if Scorsese could have chopped down the thing he so obviously loves (and he loves rightfully so). My favorite scenes were not the dark laugh-lines (e.g. calling a small person “it” repeatedly) nor the shocking partying. What stood out to me was the horrifying scene where a very high Jordan grabs his daughter and puts her in his car, the short scene of the FBI agent riding the subway, anything involving the Swiss banker, Belfort talking to the FBI agents on his boat—none of these involve partying or screaming business advice. The scenes that really popped were excellent, and were far too often buttressed by endless scenes of people screaming into phones or ingesting drugs as fast as humanly possible while a harem of beautiful naked women traipse around. Scorsese knew what the most sinfully fun part of his film would be, and when he got the footage back he realized it was more fun than even he imagined. I think he got caught up in his own creation and put out a product that doesn’t try to earn the audience’s three hours but it comes across as expecting the audience to be grateful to experience such fantastic revelry (see: “Project X”). I get that this easy money and even easier greed made these previously nobodies into tribal, chest-pounding neanderthal junkies and I think that is interesting. Now let’s move on to a new scene.
I may not have any kids, but I thought of a great parenting tip I’m going to share with you:
If I’m ever shopping for clothing with my toddler, the first thing I’m gonna do is put one of the store’s shirts or coats (or anything with a security tag) on my kid so that if s/he wanders away or gets kidnapped the door security alarm will be set off. This way I can be negligent without worrying about losing my kid. Imagine how stupid that kidnapper is going feel when he thinks he’s home free with a neglected kid and that alarm goes off.