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Wes Anderson: King of Empathy

"Andrew, can we talk?"

I was almost asleep. But one of the campers tugged on my shirt, his face barely visible in the darkness.

We weaved through a horde of snoring teenagers, gently cracked open the screen door, and sat down on the front porch of our cabin. Over the next hour, he poured out story after story of familial catastrophe, and I grew overwhelmed by his pain. Despite my camp counselor training, I sensed that anything I contributed at this moment would sound more like Job's friends than Jesus. All I could do was sit and mourn.

I went through the next day in a daze. Sometimes you see into the dark a little more clearly—sometimes your simplistic paradigms are shattered. It can come through a painful trauma or a near-death experience, but it can also happen between nine and ten o'clock on a cabin porch.

That evening, a few camp counselors gathered in the staff area to watch a Wes Anderson film. I walked by with just a glance. But while I couldn't have known it then, a lesson at the feet of Wes Anderson was just what I needed.

And maybe just what my camper needed as well.

Even if you haven't seen his movies, you've felt Wes Anderson's impact (his latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, releases on March 7). The writer/director's style and his actors' deadpan delivery have become familiar in the past decade or so. From The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou to The Darjeeling Limited to Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson leads audiences on hunts for mythical sharks, spiritual journeys through India, and a lone Khaki Scout's search for adulthood. No matter the story, his characters, after wrestling bravely to control the outside world, must accept the relational fracture inside themselves.

This struggle makes Wes Anderson the modern king of empathy. Anderson mourns the wounds we carry because he believes that people are valuable. Even if he can't explain why.

Taking "Not Mattering" Seriously

It's one of the climactic scenes in Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox, a stop-motion flick based on the children's novel by Roald Dahl. Mr. Fox's nephew has been taken captive by some dangerous farmers. As Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is attempting to solve the dilemma, the villainous Rat (Willem Dafoe) attacks the Fox family. A quick and bloody fight ensues and Mr. Fox emerges victorious. Standing over the wounded Rat, Mr. Fox and his son, Ash, witness Rat's final moments.

Rat: The boy is locked in an apple crate on top of a gun-locker in the attic of Bean Annex. It's a set-up.

Fox: All these wasted years. What were you looking for, Rat?

Ash: He's trying to say something, Dad.

Rat: (fading) Cider.

Fox: Here you are, Rat. A beaker of Bean's finest secret cider.

Rat: Like melted gold. (dies)

Ash: He redeemed himself.

Fox: Redemption? Sure. But, in the end, he's just another dead rat in a garbage pail behind a Chinese restaurant.

In the words of Michael Hirschorn, "Quirk takes not mattering very seriously." And Anderson is nothing if not quirky.

Each of his films noticeably lack a glorious, overarching purpose. Nobody's fighting injustice or working in orphanages or warning governments about incoming Roland Emmerich movies. They are more like Charlie Brown to Lucy's football. The best they can do is accept that no matter how big the windup, they are going to end up on their back.

Anderson is interested in people as victims, rather than victimizers. His universe is clearly broken, but he never gives the infamous "Bad Dads" of his movies an impossible-to-redeem death blow. Herman Blume—depressed Bill Murray from Rushmore—doesn't actually get desperate enough to do something truly awful; Mr. Fox's nephew isn't killed—just captured and rescued; Steve Zissou may lead his team through pirate-infested waters, but none of his crew will really suffer for his decision (except maybe that poor intern, who stays with Team Zissou anyways).

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Wes Anderson: King of Empathy