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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).

While his movies may be about "Bad Dads," he loves characters too much to let them fail in a way that would keep us from sympathizing with them. The injuries they inflict never quite match their ensuing judgment (or lack thereof).

In fact, until Fantastic Mr. Fox's Rat, there really wasn't a truly evil character in any of his films. Instead, his stories are full of hurting, generally-decent-if-somewhat-misguided people. While some filmmakers inflate the wicked and the heroic, Anderson flattens them.

Caring for God's Image

Part of what we feel, then, when we watch a Wes Anderson movie is empathetic care. He sees the broken bits in everyone, and senses that they might have been fixed. Perhaps without realizing it, Anderson has run smack into the fact that humans are made in God's image, broken reflections of his glory. As Gordon Spykman puts it, "We are imagers of God. Imaging God represents our very makeup, our constitution, our glory, and at the same time our high and holy calling in God's world."

Anderson can't really decide if his characters can redeem themselves, or if they are just rats in a garbage pail behind a Chinese restaurant. But he knows people are valuable. And this value demands a response.

That's why I wish I'd stopped and watched the movie with my fellow counselors that summer night. The few weeks after my talk with my camper were full of prayers and long conversations. I wouldn't admit it at the time, but I wanted to fix him. Some of this was good. I confided to a trusted group about him and we did our best to put pieces in place that would help him when he returned home.

But if I had joined in the movie night, I'd have found guidance from a director who does not share my ideals, but is more willing to sit in people's pain than I am. I abstractly claim that the teenage camper is a glorious ruin, a mirror of God chipped and scarred by the Fall. And yet too often I give such people the dignity of a sixty-piece puzzle.

Now that I reflect on it, Job's friends did do something right. They came, they sat, and they suffered quietly until Job was ready to listen. And, for as long as he brings his stories to the screen, Wes Anderson will do the same.

Andrew Barber is in his final semester at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis and spends his time rooting for the South Carolina Gamecocks to win the SEC Championship. He has written film reviews and editorials for various sites including The Gospel Coalition and RelevantMagazine.com, and you can follow him @flybarber14.

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Wes Anderson: King of Empathy