Baumbach and Anderson: A Discussion Prompt

03/24/2010 4:12 PM |


Among fans and critics, and perhaps among devout acolytes as well, writer-directors Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach are often compared, sometimes conflated, and maybe even occasionally confused. And with good reason. Aside from the fact that they have collaborated on at least a couple projects, they are also both rather young directors whose most ardent followers inhabit similar spheres; they both bend the loose genres in which they work to similar degrees; they share a similar flair for the creative intermingling of comedy and tragedy; and they have both entered an arena of greater mainstream distribution, or at least awareness, at around the same time.

A great deal more could be said about such claims—to further them or, conversely, to tear them to shreds—and a great deal could be done to differentiate between these directors. However, after seeing Baumbach’s Greenberg a couple days ago, I offer the following discussion prompt:

While Anderson and Baumbach share certain thematic and stylistic tendencies, one could perhaps distill their differences by focusing on the subtly contrasting details in one film by each. Namely, Anderson’s Bottle Rocket opens with a young man being released (and feigning escape) from a mental institution, giving way to a sort of quirky, comedic pseudo-tragedy, while Baumbach’s Greenberg opens with a not-quite-so-young man being released from a mental institution, giving way to a somewhat less quirky and somewhat more dramatic tragicomedy.


3 Comment

  • Well, both filmmakers have taken as their subject the often difficult relationship between (self-considered or objectively) exceptional/sensitive/creative people and the real world. (For this reason, they make sense as collaborators.)

    Whether their characters are writers (as they frequently are for both filmmakers) or musicians, or sportsmen, or poultry thieves, Anderson and Baumbach seem interested in their sort of privileged separateness from the world, and its implications.

    As for the respective gentleness and savagery with which Anderson and Baumbach question the basis and justification for their characters’ sensitivity, I’m quite sure I don’t care to search for motivation.

  • This isn’t really the question you’re asking, but I’m not so sure I see a lot of stylistic overlap between Baumbach and Anderson. Baumbach seems a little more restless with his aesthetic, while Anderson comes off more like he has a technique he loves, and tries to tinker with it and perfect it via logistical challenges (the not-quite-NYC of Tenenbaums; shooting on the water in Life Aquatic, or a train in Darjeeling; and finally stop-motion animation in Fantastic Mr. Fox). Baumbach’s movies are much smaller, but he seems less invested in a distinct visual voice — or rather, he wasn’t afraid to scrap the tastefully stylish directing of Kicking and Screaming or Mr. Jealousy (the latter probably his closest to Anderson territory in terms of style, with plenty of Woody Allen in there, too) for the more handheld and/or color-drained faux-seventies look of his last three movies.

    I love them both a lot, as both writers and directors, but I have the sense that Baumbach is more of an incisive solo writer as needed — Anderson always works with at least one collaborator: Baumbach, Owen Wilson, the other Darjeeling boys. Accordingly, Baumbach’s characters often define themselves by what they say or think, while a lot of Anderson characters cling to more visual signifiers for their identities.

    To Mark’s point, I rewatched Fantastic Mr. Fox recently, and it does come off a sort of a glum cousin to The Incredibles (an Ash to Pixar’s Kristofferson, say).

  • Thanks to you both for your thoughts. Notes have been dutifully taken.

    I offer yet another parallel that could be explored similarly: tennis as metaphor, or at least as narrative element, in The Royal Tenenbaums and Squid and the Whale. In the former, it is portrayed with humor though the character’s afflictions are grave. In the latter, it is a rather non-humorous analogy to the family’s quite serious conflicts — rendered more pitiable, if not pitiful, by the transition into table tennis.


    Another good discussion point, at least, perhaps.

    (Mark: I hope this didn’t complicate your otherwise Baumbach-relevant hubbub!)