n the exhausting effort to keep ahead of the tides, young friends, Stylus has a new column to offer you. We’re calling it A Kiss after Supper, and in it we’ll be tracing the expert use of pop music through some of the more music-friendly films of the past thirty years. With directors like Spike Jonze, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson using their robust appreciation for music in novel ways to document their stories through music as well as cinema, soundtracking is perhaps more critical to a film’s emotional tone than it’s ever been. As such, we thought it about time we wrote a little something on the issue...
Wes Anderson’s first film, Bottle Rocket, occupies a strange place in his filmography. Straddling the line between cult-favorite and emerging film-maker’s rough first go-around, the film was famously selected by Martin Scorsese as one of his ten favorite films of the ‘90s. Others have looked back, post-Rushmore, and been quick to point out the film’s more obvious themes and slacker-with-a-heart-of-pewter storylines as merely another of the mid-to-late nineties charming loser-pics (films by Richard Linklater and Alexander Payne spring to mind). Yet, in this bold but understated premiere, Anderson was about as unashamedly comedic as he’s ever been. Sure, there’s the jaded curve to his cinematography and his shot-framing, as well as his peculiar talent for mixing the ribald with the depressive. He can make your skin tingle at the same moment your eyes swell, but here he’s working at his most downright ‘funny.’ The darker, tragicomic undertones are pared back, allowing his and co-writer Owen Wilson’s precisely askew brand of comedy to step to the fore. Witness the film’s masterful robbery sequence, in which supposed safe-cracking expert Kumar (a standard in all of Anderson’s films) realizes he has utterly no idea how to open the warehouse safe and is ultimately found standing in the freezer.
But for all the qualities that set it just a step-apart, and back, from the rest of Anderson’s films (barring the uneven and ultimately inconsequential Life Aquatic), Bottle Rocket shows Anderson developing as an auteur capable of making an acutely important film in an industry now driven only by of remakes, sequels, and third-rate comics. Of course, given the backing of director James L. Brooks and producer Polly Platt, who had seen what was initially a self-funded 13-minute 15 MM film that wound its way to Sundance and promptly convinced Columbia Pictures to put a major’s budget behind the film, Anderson’s job was slightly simplified. Still, it’s unquestionably rare these days to see a director given such a backing who maintains his slant.
For Anderson, many of the peculiarities we take for granted now first showed up in Bottle Rocket. The awkward children’s scrawl of Dignan’s 75-year-plan and the vague dream-booking of Anthony’s stick-figure pole-vault drawing presage the Charles Schulz-tone of much of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. An underwater pool scene very like Bill Murray’s in Rushmore is first used as escape and shelter, as Anthony (played with terrific subtlety by Luke Wilson) submerges himself to overcome the pressures of their first low-grade heist. Anderson’s use of vibrant primary colors to frame a scene and counterbalance his staid characters can be seen in almost any shot: Anthony’s bright red fleece, Dignan’s banana jumpsuit, the empty green field outside the band’s motel window, and the glowing red walls and doors of that same motel.
Also, we are first introduced to the Anderson archetypes. Like many of Anderson’s protagonists, Anthony and Dignan are wandering dreamers. They inhabit a rosy-cheeked dreamstate of permanent adolescence, the unfortunate by-product of the uncertain. Lost in an endless spool of half-baked schemes and unformed identities, the pair leads a sort of pick-up-sticks lifestyle. Dignan’s 75-year-plan not withstanding, they have no idea where they’re headed but are determined the make the getting there enjoyable. Dignan was fired from his job as a Lawn Wrangler. Anthony has just returned from Arizona, where he was in a self-admitted breakdown commune. As he himself tells one of his ex-girlfriend’s former sorority-mates, “I went nuts.” They are outsiders and hodgepodge grifters, never really comfortable with the hard-sell but willing to play along until something else dominates their energies. To paraphrase one of the film’s best lines, you can’t go home again; you’re an adult.
Of course, most importantly for our purposes here at A Kiss After Supper is Anderson’s burgeoning talent for using pop music to flush out the undertones and motifs of his films. After all, we started this column over a year ago with The Royal Tenenbaums, arguably his best film alongside Rushmore. It seems only appropriate to touch on this, his first film. While the original soundtrack was conducted by Devo co-founder Mark Mothersbaugh—as were all of Anderson’s other major films—we’re more concerned with the use of outside pop material. A budget of over six million dollars will buy you many things, and apparently the use of a lost Rolling Stones’ gem is one of them.
The first, and most overstated, way in which Anderson uses his pop music is by connecting lyrical content with the emotional backdrop of certain scenes. After pulling their first ‘heist’ at the bookstore, Dignan begins to let off fireworks from the shotgun seat of Bob Mapplethorpe’s blue Mercedes. Bouncing along with a similar jubilance, Anderson cues “Zorro is Back” By Oliver Onions. With its juggling handclaps and sunny-day chorus, the song tracks the gang as they buy the fireworks and set off along a lonely Texas two-laner. Later, in one of the film’s multiple uses of diagetic music (almost always from Inez’s own radio), Inez is listening to her radio after Anthony leaves the motel. She told Rocky to tell Dignan she loved Anthony, but she’s now certain she’ll never see him again. The Proclaimers’ “Over and Done With” plays its self-explanatory chorus as Inez’s eyes cloud with tears, and she’s forced to turn the radio off to the track’s heart-break woes.
Aside from this bond between lyrics and emotional tone, Anderson uses the fiery intensity and sedate, stoned-feeling of jazz, specifically bop and blues, to trace Anthony’s emotional state. For example, Anthony’s epiphany that Inez might be able to relieve him of his restless confusion and unhappiness is driven by ascending bass scales and manic jazz. His frenzied rush through the innards of the motel’s laundry room to tell Inez everything he’s realized while it’s still with him channels through the frantic jazz behind him. She is his solution, here and now, and he needs to get it out now, in a slush of confessions and plans. Finally, here, this is the clash of the dreamer and the hard-worker, one bound by responsibilities and one naked of any needs and requirements but those he just now realized. Rocky translates for Anthony, giving the scene a detached, surreal feeling. As Rocky informs him, “You have to understand. She’s a serious person, and she can’t just leave.” This is the selfishness of the lost, the need to rely on others to pull them out of their own void. It’s the same thing Dignan chided Anthony about earlier; he too would have loved to take time out in the sparse heat of Arizona, but he had to get things in order for the two of them. He had to plan.
Later, at Lawn Wrangler-owner and minor crime boss Mr. Henry’s (played by James Caan, another of the luxuries of Columbia’s larger budget and Brooks’s pull) white-washed sub-urban loft, as the gang prepares for the next morning’s big score, diagetic cocktail jazz splits into jittery Coltranesque bop that comes from off-scene as, on the phone from the motel, Inez tells Anthony that she loves him. The juxtaposition between the glow of that final night and the next morning hits hard. The bop cuts off abruptly to the cold skies, silence and lonely ferris wheel as Anthony oversees the robbery from his early-morning vista.
Elsewhere, Anderson uses Afro-Peruvian music as a theme-track to highlight, and in a way undo, the language barrier between Anthony and Inez. When they first meet, Inez is just learning to speak English, and she and Anthony communicate mainly by glance and voice more than language. Anderson uses Spanish-language tracks to mock the need for verbal communication, pointing towards the possibilities for such a relationship working out on a level devoid of word or sentence. Music is music, in Spanish or English, and Anderson reminds us off this throughout Anthony and Inez’s early courtship. When he first sees Inez, Anthony comes out of the pool to hear “Prendeme La Vela” on her radio, a beautiful song that sounds like a good-time South-American rum-spoil, all acoustic samba and Spanish chants. Later, as Anthony hosts a small party with Inez and the rest of the motel employees in his room, he pours daiquiris to more tinny Tequila-music, faded into the wallpaper of a room speaking only Spanish. Later that night, as Inez and Anthony swim in the chemical aquamarine of the motel pool, surrounded by steam and more of Anderson’s stark use of color, pre-dawn jazz plays quietly in the background. It’s a final reminder of our verbal inadequacies, this last song of Inez and Anthony’s short courtship now completely cut of lyrics.
Of course, there’s only so much the perfect alignment of emotional nuance and cinematic scope can accomplish. Sometimes, you just need a scene-stealer, a track that will pry into your cold viewership and make your knees knock. For that, presumably Anderson blew much of his wad for the film’s pinnacle scene on the Stones’ underrated gem “2000 Man.” Pulled from their unfairly maligned 1967 record Their Satanic Majesties Request, written off as a desperate answer to Sgt. Pepper’s and never able to recover, “2000 Man” starts its slow acoustic shamba-la as Anthony has just given way to Dignan’s leadership. With a quick quip (“They’ll never catch me, man. ‘Cause I’m fucking innocent.”), Dignan sets off back into the warehouse to rescue Applejack, who’s stuck in the elevator. Charlie Watts’s shuffling country beat sets the stage, and Anderson cuts to a shot of Mr. Henry robbing Mapplethorpe’s house of all its possessions, grand piano and all. Shifting into its frenzied psych-folk mode just as the cops arrive and Dignan takes off through the warehouse’s concrete guts, the song’s schizophrenic transitions in tone and scope seem tailor-made for the scene’s changing pace. More than that, it’s a slobbering, twisted sister-fuck of a song that fills its waning moments with a sense of absurd cool: Steve McQueen dressed in a banana jumpsuit and destined to fail. There’s something perversely elegant about the black sheep of pre-classic-era Stones highlighting this busted robbery by a club of charming misfits. Like the rest of the film, with its shy drollery and Anderson’s ripening touch for the dynamic endearment of the flunkie, the scene is like a foghorn cutting through a cloudless mid-day: a moment of confusion that swells into an increased appreciation for the beauty of the irony in accident.