‘Bottle Rocket’ and the tragedy of the weirdos
Wes Anderson has perfected the ‘misfit-syndrome’ over the years through his scripts.
‘Beastie Boys Story’ recently started streaming on Apple TV+. A documentary based on a hip-hop group by the same name (Beastie Boys), the film was directed by their long-time collaborator, Spike Jonze. The director, who is known for his joint efforts with Charlie Kaufman besides the seminal romance – ‘Her’, had started working with creating the music videos for Beastie Boys. “It could have been just any three white guys”, the two members jokingly mention in this documentary. In their opinion, the music studio formed this group in order to get just any white guys being the face of their album. This popped out like an opportunity into the bigger market.
While the group loosely started out on their said marketability (which is evident by the groundbreaking sells of their debut album), their group presented a certain identity besides that. They were the weirdos who often got bullied for having different interests than those of the crowd. They hardly thought of themselves as heroes if any story was written on them. They were not the stereotypical heroic-kind nor were they pretending to be hyper-masculine icons. The earlier mentioned ‘epiphany’ - of realising that there is nothing particularly special in them to be worthy of that opportunity, made them musically reinvent themselves – while keeping this identity alive – the identity of ‘misfits’. They became a voice for oddballs from a whole generation and inadvertently helped Spike Jonze to rise and become the filmmaker that we now know him to be.
Wes Anderson roughly belongs to the same generation. And there is at least a semblance to this relatability (with such misfits) that gave a gigantic push to his career. Throughout his filmography, he has largely worked on the characters that are a result of their dysfunctional families and/or troubled childhood. This is apparent to a level that it has almost become a defining trait of his films. Despite the lack of variety of subjects making it difficult to separate his works from one another, his films are known for their distinctive visual and narrative style. There are already numerous essays about the central framing or the candy-coloured glossy art-direction from his films. Thus, one can easily grasp the stylistic distinction of his later films. Bottle Rocket- his first feature film, was just a beginning towards building his individual universe.
This debut, that he had co-written with Owen Wilson (who also stars in the film), has the similar quirky nature. The narrative is about a group of friends planning to pull off a bank robbery, without realizing the real-life consequences and the challenge that they will need to face. E.g. getting a smoke-bomb for this plan without a clear judgement when to use it! Their whole understanding revolves around the pop-culture ideas that they had consumed. Be it planning out a heist or masquerading as the high-on-adrenaline thieves.
That reminds me of a particular dialogue in Bottle Rocket – ‘There’s one thing that we learned from this is that crime never pays.’ These fairly-privileged white teenagers get a sense of thrill – like what they see on screen, being portrayed in the crime/gangster dramas. That brings me back to how the makers like Wes Anderson or another New Yorker, Noah Baumbach seem to be mesmerised by the films of De Palma or Scorsese. The seeking of adrenaline rush and curiosity for the unseen world is clearly noticeable. That seemingly inconsequential line from the conversation can be mapped into the personalities of those who have written them.
Speaking about this particular film’s characters, these friends have much of their plans visualised because of said influences. They seem to have an alternate idea of themselves, being devoid of their usual insecurities. The insecurities that generally possess them- of not fitting with the considered norms or of being the freaks who are constantly bullied. So their ‘pretend-adventure’ just makes those anxieties reveal themselves even more.
There is a childlike innocence attributed to the characters – like how it is evident in most of Wes’s films. Just look at Luke Wilson’s character being terrified while trying to propose the hostess or Owen’s character being overtly jealous - for now, their friendship will be shared with someone else. These characters speak with a plain face – with no facial expression attributing what goes on inside their minds. Their strangeness sets them apart from the ‘popular’ bullies that despise them. And at the same time, they are just a bunch of young adults who are in their stage of growing up just like anyone else. So it becomes a ride into their side of the world – without being insular about their condition. We can feel compassion for the confusion – which most of us would have felt irrespective of our social status.
There is a certain charm associated with Wes’s style of storytelling, which you can either fall head-over-heels for or find the very ‘quirk’ entirely repugnant. Such polarizing reactions have a few more reasons besides that quirky element. His films star a predominantly white cast and generally lack representation. His characters are financially well-off in their lives and some of their behaviour appears plain erratic as a result of that. And the same conflict being pitted over and over is eventually bound to see its own death.
Yet, there are so many admirers for Wes’s individualistic vision and the way he narrates these bittersweet dramas. Bottle Rocket is often cited as the most un-Wes-like film for the lack of aesthetic appeal. That is largely because of the lack of vibrant colour-palette or again, the approach to framing not being centrally aligned. The lighting is clearly more realistic – with their faces not being well-lit as their surroundings. That may have to do with the budget-constraints, but there are still a few signature-Wes shots – the focus on their colourful belongings (like the comically sketched-out plans of papers or merely their drawers) and the way camera swiftly sweeps to create a montage.
Bottle Rocket, as a result of much of this, clearly serves as a foundation to how Wes Anderson-universe is – both thematically and aesthetically. Without letting the personal opinion cloud the merits of his films, one can easily conclude that he has created a niche for himself.