Wes Anderson’s “Bottle Rocket” (1994)

Years Active: 1994-present

Alma Mater: University of Texas

Associated Movements: New American Independents

Key Influences: Hal Ashby, Satyajit Ray

A few years ago, I was working as an assistant at a well-known commercial production company, and I was charged with transcribing notes from pitch calls that our directors would conduct with advertising agencies.  Do enough of those calls, and you’ll notice a recurring set of distinct references that agencies employ as a form of shorthand for an idea.  They’d make such references, like the (not-an-actual-word) word “aspirational”, so frequently and obliviously that the other commercial assistants and I developed several inside jokes about their usage.  The most egregious offender was whenever an ad agent invoked the name of filmmaker Wes Anderson– and it was a fairly common occurrence.  The irony of swiping a high-profile independent filmmaker’s visual style to hawk juice boxes surely wasn’t lost on me, nor was it entirely unexpected.  Anderson’s style is so easily commodified because it’s so immediately identifiable— just look at any one of the countless “______ If It Were Directed By Wes Anderson” parody videos that litter the internet.  While there are many imitators, there is only one Wes Anderson, and his one-of-a-kind aesthetic has fueled one of the most distinctive and fresh filmographies in recent memory.

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The surface aesthetics of Anderson’s style are highly identifiable– camera movements that play out in flat space (only laterally or vertically), symmetrical widescreen compositions, rack zooms, twee art direction- and their ubiquity and popularity amongst the younger population has earned him scornful titles like “The Hipster Director”.  In a cinematic age characterized by the inorganic perfection of CGI, Anderson’s films stand out like bespoke artisan crafts– the product of actual human hands.  His mise-en-scene appears as a precious diorama brought to life by old-school techniques that harken back to the cinema’s early association with magic.  He electrifies his work with music from a wide variety of eclectic sources, from British Invasion rock to the scores from Indian Bollywood films (an artistic conceit that has earned him comparisons to Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino).  Of course, anybody can (and often do) adopt this combination of traits and techniques, but what makes Anderson’s films particularly effective and emotionally resonant is the undercurrent of melancholy that runs beneath his stories.  Despite their breezy, fast-paced comic affectations, his stories wrestle with heavy thematic ideas: grief, abandonment, broken family dynamics, sibling rivalry, and the loss of innocence.  Anderson’s unique brand of alchemy can be imitated, but never duplicated, and his influence on the art form is simply unrivaled.

Anderson was born in Houston, Texas, on May 1st, 1969.  He was the second of three boys– Mel Jr., who would grow up to become a doctor, and Eric, who’s illustrations would become an integral component of the marketing of Wes’ films.  His father, Melver Leonard, worked in advertising and his mother, Texas Ann, was an archeologist.  As easily evidenced by viewing his work, Anderson has always had a literary flair about his worldview– a trait that was arguably passed down by his great-grandfather, Edgar Rice Borroughs, who wrote the novels “John Carter of Mars” and “Tarzan”.  His first foray into filmmaking was, like so many other brilliant directors, via shooting little shorts on his father’s Super 8 film camera that starred his brothers and other childhood friends.  As he became more serious about the idea of filmmaking as a career, he looked to the works of European cinema as well as Hal Ashby for inspiration.  In 1987, Anderson collected his high school diploma from St. John’s School (where he’d later shoot his 1998 breakout, RUSHMORE) and set off to Austin to study philosophy at The University of Texas.  It was there that he met a shaggy-haired blonde boy with a crooked nose by the name of Owen Wilson, and when Anderson wasn’t in class or working as a part-time projectionist at the local cinema, he and Wilson would excitedly daydream about all films that they’d one day shoot together.

After graduating in 1990, Anderson and Wilson decided to get serious about one particular idea, which followed a ragtag trio of aspiring thieves as they endeavored to establish their careers in crime, only to be derailed by rookie mistakes and their own incompetence.  They called this short film BOTTLE ROCKET, and in 1992, they recruited indie producer Cynthia Hargrave to help them realize their vision on a $4000 budget.  Naturally, being amateur filmmakers with no formalized education in the craft, they ran out of money after producing about eight minutes’ worth of the finished film.  Those eight minutes, however, were enough to convince people that Anderson and Wilson had some actual talent, and in short order, the pair were able to finish their film and get it programmed at one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world: Sundance.

The story of BOTTLE ROCKET concerns Dignan (Owen Wilson) and Anthony (his brother, Luke), two enterprising wannabe-crooks bumbling their way forward with only famous heist films and Hollywood movie logic to guide them.  They start out small and safe, like stealing from their own parents’ house, before determining that levelling up requires obtaining a gun and holding up a local bookstore.  BOTTLE ROCKET gives us a pair of charming, loveable characters whose eagerness and naivete is matched only by their own ineptitude.  Even at this, the earliest stage of his career, Owen’s eventual stardom is apparent.  The same goes for Luke, with his more-level-headed approach to Anthony.  The understated comedy and eclectic blend of characters goes a long way in creating a compelling film out of minimal resources, as well as establishing the types of character that Anderson would come to be known for.  An interesting facet of the short concerns Anderson’s use of dialogue that’s laden with pop culture references.  This speaks to a common film school cliche, the aping of popular storytelling trends– towards this end, Anderson is arguably aping the influence of Quentin Tarantino, who popularized the conceit with his then-recent hits RESERVOIR DOGS (1991) and PULP FICTION (1994).  This isn’t as bad as it sounds, however– it simply means that the young Anderson hadn’t yet found his own voice, and was simply experimenting with the techniques of others.  Obviously, we all know that Anderson eventually found his own unique calling card.

The precise, almost clockwork-like camera movements that define Anderson’s visual style aren’t so much on display here, but the seeds are certainly sown.  Shooting on black and white film in the 4×3 aspect ration in accordance with his budget, Anderson and his cinematographers Bert Guthrie and Barry Braverman shoot wide, covering most of the action in master shots, then punching in for strategic inserts.  The camera switches frequently between handheld and locked-down tripod shots, depending on whether movement is needed or not.  The low-budget is most apparent when what would normally be a dolly shot weaves and shakes with the imperfections of handheld movement.

Anderson and the brothers Wilson shot BOTTLE ROCKET in their native Texas, and the story’s everyday locales (back-alleys, small town main streets, run-down apartments) are a far cry from the increasingly fantastical settings in which he’d place his characters in later works.  There’s no sense of the preening control and preciousness that would mark later works like THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX (2009) and THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)– instead, the rough-hewn, lo-fi nature of Anderson’s short caper (and it’s boppy 40’s-era jazz soundtrack) suggests the improvisational influence of John Cassavetes.  Thematically speaking, however, BOTTLE ROCKET exhibits signs of Anderson’s future story conceits by placing considerable focus on the sibling dynamic between the brothers Wilson as well as their offbeat interests.

BOTTLE ROCKET’s Sundance premiere garnered Anderson a significant amount of attention, as well as a coveted slot in the Sundance Institute’s Directing Labs, where he would rework the story for his feature-length debut.  Foregoing the long, agonizing stretch of trial-and-error that most aspiring filmmakers endure, Anderson’s bonafides as a true auteur are apparent from the start.  As his most low-budget (and only black and white) film to date, BOTTLE ROCKET is a whimsical glimpse into Anderson’s psyche at its most pure— unadulterated by Hollywood cynicism, and driven by an innocent love for film.

BOTTLE ROCKET is currently available in high definition as a supplement on Criterion’s Blu Ray of the feature-length BOTTLE ROCKET (1996).  It is also available in its entirety on YouTube via the embed above.

Credits:

Produced by: Cynthia Hargrave

Written by: Wes Anderson, Owen Wilson

Director of Photography: Bert Guthrie, Barry Braverman

Edited by: Tom Aberg, Laura Cargile, Denise Ferrari Segel