On Formalism, Apocalyptic and the Grand Budapest Hotel

I like symmetry, though I rarely achieve it myself. I’m not the tidiest of people, truth be told. Obsessive about some things and a little slapdash about others. But I appreciate symmetry when I see it. When others achieve it and offer it up for me to marvel at.

I love moments in art where sound and sight match up more perfectly than I could ever imagine. Soundtrack and action coalesce like a well-aged meat and an expertly selected wine. So beautiful that the chef and sommelier can’t resist a mutual congratulation.

I adore films where you feel that every hue of every visible fragment has been hand-selected; not a single colour left to chance. Each and every gesture meticulously studied, and yet deployed as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

I find myself frustrated by the fact that I have just begun four consecutive paragraphs with the letter ‘I’. There is a slightly obsessive part to me, though it’s not dominant. I also feel guilty about the fact that I know I’m quite likely to start the next two paragraphs in exactly the same way.

I love the films of Wes Anderson.

I vividly remember the first time I watched The Life Aquatic, finding myself mesmerized by its hypnotic underwater scenes and suitably quirky Portuguese-Bowie-infused soundtrack. Then came the delight of catching up on a brilliant back catalogue: Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Bottle Rocket. And ever since, I have awaited each new release with eager anticipation; Fantastic Mr Fox brought a childhood favourite to life in a fresh and unexpected way; Moonrise Kingdomwas a quirky ray of light that burst delightfully into my 2012. In fact, the only one of Anderson’s films that hasn’t yet ‘clicked’ for me is The Darjeeling Limited, but I think it deserves a second chance when I can find a spare few hours and the perfect single malt…

So it was with great anticipation that I got tickets for the opening weekend of The Grand Budapest Hotel, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Some criticise Anderson’s films for being formulaic; for valuing style over substance; for being beautiful but ineffectual. I couldn’t disagree more. Formalism may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I think it is a mistake to assume that lines, colours and OCD-cinematography are all there is to a Wes Anderson film. Arguably the plot of The Grand Budapest Hotel is Anderson’s most well-rounded yet. But there is something hauntingly powerful about the fine attention to detail and the painstakingly-perfect framing of every shot. Through his films Anderson invites us into a world that is concurrently both recognisable and yet quite unreal. And he invites us to relook at our own world with fresh eyes.

That said, I hadn’t quite been able to put my finger on what it is that appeals to me about Anderson’s world. So I found J.K.A. Smith’s post ‘Reframing the Imagination: On Wes Anderson’s Formalism’ and the article he linked to by Michael Chabon, ‘The Film Worlds of Wes Anderson’ hugely clarifying.

Here are a few paragraphs that particularly leapt out to me from the two posts. First, Chabon, summarised by Smith:

‘“The world is so big, so complicated, so replete with marvels and surprises,” Chabon observes, “that it takes years for most people to begin to notice that it is, also, irretrievably broken.  We call this period of research ‘childhood.’” It is a difficult education.  “Everyone, sooner or later, gets a thorough schooling in brokenness.  The question becomes: What to do with the pieces?”  Some hunker down atop the pile of brokenness and “make do;” others take out their frustration by breaking the fragments that remain.  But “some people,” he says, “passing among the scattered pieces of that great overturned jigsaw puzzle, start to pick up a piece here, a piece there, with a vague yet irresistible notion that perhaps something might be done about putting the thing back together again.”  Wes Anderson, he argues, is one of those people.’

Then Smith himself:

‘I would suggest that Anderson’s films tell the truth on the register of the imagination in ways that we might not realize, or even be able to articulate, and yet nonethelessfeel.  A Wes Anderson film plays the strings of your imagination in a way that has you sort of grinning and longing and smiling and mourning, all for reasons you know not why; and yet you can’t stop. 


The unapologetic artifice of Anderson’s frame is an aesthetic form of hope—a form that bears witness to order, harmony, perhaps even peace. Despite the chaos that is capturedin the frame, the framing of the shot registers that someone is in control. And that is a truth that we absorb on the register of the imagination.’

Beautifully put.

But after watching The Grand Budapest Hotel, it dawned on me that there is another genre that leaps to mind when I consider Anderson’s filmmaking; that of apocalyptic.

There is something about the highly-stylised nature of his work that reminds me of the feeling I get when turning the pages of Ezekiel or Revelation. Each scene is so deliberately-depicted that it seems kind of beautiful, even when the picture is one of immense brokenness. You find yourself having an emotional reaction to the form, even when narrative or meaning feel elusive. The complexity of the genre makes ‘comprehension’ difficult, and yet there is ‘feeling’ in abundance.

Do you know what I mean?

I taught some lectures on Revelation two years ago, and found myself strangely captivated by the description of the throne room in Revelation 4. I remember putting pen to paper and drawing out what it may have looked like, in a series of rough, unskilled, geometric scribbles! As the shapes came together, a feeling of awe began to hit home. Thrones, elders, lampstands, and creatures arranged in a meticulous order. Maybe I read the symmetry into Revelation 4 as a manifestation of my own need for order? But as I drew, I found that the formal elegance of it began to make sense of shards. Competing themes and powers came together in an elaborate dance.

When teaching the lecture, I had the chairs in the room set out as per my drawing, to the amusement of the attendees and bemusement of the conference centre staff, who were used to a rather more predictable theatre style! But from form came meaning and as I invited people to walk among the chairs, taking seats where they wished and adopting the characters of those upon whose thrones they sat, we got a feeling of what the passage was about, even if it had been previously hard to articulate. The immersive experience of exploring the form gave rise to a sense of cohesion and order, as if powers were being drawn into submission before the one to whom every knee must bow. 

As Smith puts it, despite the chaos that is present in the frame – trumpets, flashings, lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder – the framing of the shot registers that someone is in control.

The Lamb is on the Throne.

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