Bibliophilia – Books in the Films of Wes Anderson

A visual-essay by Luís Azevedo

There were two main starting points for this project. The first one was form. At the offset, I tried to use solely the moving image to convey ideas. Hence, the use of as titles as possible and no voice-off, which distances it from the heavily narrated predominant format – the works of Kevin B. Lee, Tony Zhou, Matt Zoller Seitz, or Kogonada (whose work I love!) – while at the same time it’s also not a supercut.

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In a 2014 interview with Paul Holdengräber, Wes Anderson talked about both François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, in respect to the materiality of the books in Truffaut’s and the act of reading in Godard’s:

“(…) almost every Truffaut movie is his adaptation of a book he loves, and his movies are full of books. Their physical presence is a part of so many of his movies and, you know, probably no movie has more books than Fahrenheit 451. You know, they’re being destroyed, but it’s filled with them (…) I share that affection for books just even as objects as well as, you know, great stories (…)
(…) in Godard, we see this thing where people just read, they just there reading to us and there are long passages and you know there are words on the—there are words used in so many visual ways. But I think with Rohmer they’re not reading to us but people are often reading and the movies often take the form of sort of journals. Sometimes they’re divided into days and there is a kind of literary aspect to his work.”[1]

This influence is noticeable in Wes Anderson’s work. Books are constantly in the frame, often in the hands of characters. Its material presence is pervasive throughout his filmography.
The reference to Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966) was also essential, because of its possible interpretations and how similar they are of my interpretation of Wes Anderson’s relation to art, literature, and books.
An adaptation of the homonymous work by Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit tells the tale of Guy Montag, a fireman in charge of burning books, whose reading and ownership are forbidden in a dystopian society. One of the outcomes of people stopping to read, is the erasure of memory:

“The books are to remind us what asses and fool we are. They’re Caeser’s praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, “Remember, Caeser, thou art mortal.” Most of us can’t rush around, talking to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven’t time, money or that many friends. The things you’re looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine per cent of them is in a book.”[2]

Since in Fahrenheit 451 books are forbidden, there’s a loss of memory, metaphorical and otherwise – Montag’s wife tries to commit suicide one night and forgets it the next morning.
In the work of Wes Anderson, books and art in general have a strong connection with memory. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) begins with a homonymous book, as does Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) begins and ends with a book.  Moonrise Kingdom (2012) ends with a painting of a place which no longer exists. These movies have a clear message: books preserve stories, for they exist within them and live on through them.
Another idea that arose with the development of the video-essay was the personified narration as a filter. In Tenenbaums, the narration is done both visually and by voice-over. In Moonrise, the narrator talks directly to the camera. In Budapest, there are three narrators. They talk directly to the camera, in voice-over, and to other characters.
Wes Anderson Narrators

Figures 1, 2 and 3: Visual narration in Tenenbaums, personified narrator talking to the character in Moonrise, and voice-off in between dialogue in Budapest. Frames captured by the author.

With the segment on narration, I’m interested in showing the consistency of Wes Anderson’s vision of the narrator as a starting point for the story and as a filter for both viewers and characters (in the case of Rushmore and Budapest). Matt Zoller Seitz calls it “frames around the stories”[3] which call attention for the fictionality of what the spectator sees. In the case of the narrators, they bring out the idea that everything might be happening inside a book.

  • Form and Content: the articulation of ideas

Now that I’ve explained the main ideas of the video-essay, I’ll describe how I tried to articulate form and content.
With a scene contemplating the burning of books of Fahrenheit, I intended to show what I’ve previously described as a trait of the work of both Truffaut and Bradbury. This I contrasted with Wes Anderson’s work, and its array of books which remain intact. The books burn and from the flames emerges the title “Materiality of Literature”.

  • Fonts and Titles

The font chosen for the title and for most of the video-essay was Futura Bold, heavily used throughout Wes’ filmography. Another one is used further ahead, with the intent of making it look handwritten.
The second title was made in the image of Moonrise Kingdom’s opening credits. The third one copied The Grand Budapest Hotel first title’s style. Moonrise is the movie most heavily narrated, thus the choice for the segment “Narrators”. Budapest is the last movie, thus the choice for the last segment: “Physical Books as Memory”.

  • Materiality of Literature

This first segment was divided in two. The first part shows the hands of characters handling the books. I wanted to introduce the idea of the feel of the book and the book as object, by putting together shots of books being held by character’s hands. The segment ends in opposition with the second one, introducing the difference in the incentive to reading shown in Budapest – with someone stopping the activity of reading – and Rushmore – with a character reading to children.[4]
In the second moment, I wanted to show the previously mentioned influence of Godard’s theme of characters reading. Due to its pervasiveness throughout Wes’ filmography, I tried to saturate the image, by introducing four frames at the same time and having the characters interlock eyes and exchange looks.

wes1Figures 4 e 5: Playful looks between characters reading. Frames captured by the author.

It ends with Max Fischer finding his teacher narrating to children, holding a book. This shot bridges the materiality of books and the segment about narration.

  • Narrators

In this section, I present the three main narrators visually with a title on top. After that, I introduce the narration of Alec Baldwin comparing the printed page which in the movie appears before the scene it describes, with the scene, in the same frame. At first, the shots have enough duration to show how they work in the movie. The shots vary in speed, so that only the narration as visual and literary is perceptible.
Bob Balaban’s narration in Moonrise Kingdom follows. Again, the speed of the cuts and speech increases, and the image and sound becomes saturated to convey the idea of the omnipresence of narration. I interrupted it with the first and only appearance of the narrator as character, which adds complexity to his relationship with the audience and other characters.
The last section shows the first narrator of Budapest, the old writer. He’s presented as narrator, but he’s just one of three. I used text to convey that and adulterated the sound, so that at the end the narrator contradicts the text by saying “In fact, the opposite is true.” The young writer is next, with voice-over narration between dialogue. I accentuated it by zooming-in and moving the frame while using handwritten text accompanying the literary narration. He introduces the last narrator, who tells the story to the young writer, the previous.

  • Physical books as memory

On this section I went back to the initial theme. At the end of Fahrenheit 451, Montag is introduced to characters who memorize the forbidden books, thus reverting their destruction. I coupled those shots with reverse shots of books being burned in the movie to heighten the prevalence of memory.
Then I compared in succession the moments in The Royal Tenembaums, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Moonrise Kingdom where something that ends or no longer exists is shown to be conserved in memory. By a book in Tenembaums, a bust and a book in Budapest, and a painting in Moonrise.

  • Credits

With the credits I tried to maintain the consistency of form, by not using titles, but by searching and using the moments where the characters themselves say the name of the movies. But mostly I did it because it was fun!

Bradbury, Ray. (2013). Fahrenheit 451. New York: Simon & Schuster. (original work published in 1953)
Seitz, Matt Zoller (2013), The Wes Anderson Collection. 115 West 18th Street, Abrams.

Holdengräber, P. (2014). “LIVE from the NYPL: Wes Anderson | Paul Holdengräbe”, available at: Filmed interview. [consulted in May of 2015].

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). Wes Anderson. USA.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012). Wes Anderson. USA.
Moonrise Kingdom – Animated Book Short (2012). Wes Anderson. USA.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). Wes Anderson. USA.
The Darjeeling Limited (2007). Wes Anderson. USA.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Wes Anderson. USA.
Rushmore (1998). Wes Anderson. USA.
Bottle Rocket (1996). Wes Anderson. USA.
Fahrenheit 451 (1966). François Truffaut. UK.

[1] Wes Anderson, Interview with Paul Holdengräber, February 27, 2014.
[2] Bradbury, Ray. (2013). Fahrenheit 451. New York: Simon & Schuster. (original work published in 1953)
[3] Seitz, Matt Zoller (2013), The Wes Anderson Collection. 115 West 18th Street, Abrams.
[4] I understand that some of this ideas will not be easily – or at all – understandable to the viewer, especially with a single viewing. I describe them mostly to explain the creative process.