Notable Film Festivals: Rotterdam
Inducted into the Criterion Collection: 2008
A cursory glance at director Wes Anderson’s filmography suggests an artist who sprang forth with a fully-formed aesthetic. From his breakout film (1998’s RUSHMORE) onwards, the filmmaker’s work has retained a consistent, immediately identifiable style. We know, however, that an artist’s voice doesn’t manifest itself in mature form overnight— it agonizes and toils itself into shape through years of trial, error, and experimentation. Some are lucky to undergo this very vulnerable, sometimes-humiliating process out of the public eye, achieving their breakthrough when they’re good and ready. Others aren’t so lucky, forced into the unenviable position of displaying their artistic growing pains for all the world to see. Anderson has had such an illustrious, celebrated career that it’s easy to forget that he was one of the unlucky ones, with his first professional work received as something of a creative disaster. As time has passed, however, it’s become increasing clear that the problem with Anderson’s feature debut wasn’t him. It was us, and our unwillingness to recognize the arrival of an important new voice in American cinema.
When Anderson and his co-writer/star Owen Wilson took their 1994 short film BOTTLE ROCKET to the Sundance Film Festival, they made some new friends in powerful places. Their fresh comedic voice found an ardent fan in producer Polly Platt, who brought the short to executive producer James L. Brooks’ attention. Brooks, who creatively shepherded the landmark television cartoon THE SIMPSONS, was taken by these charming, eccentric kids from Texas, and immediately put them to work developing BOTTLE ROCKET as a feature film. After a short stint at the Sundance Institute Directing Lab, Anderson and the brothers Owen were lifted up out of their Texas comfort zone and flown to Los Angeles, where Brooks set them up in an office on the Columbia lot. It was Anderson and Wilson’s first time writing a feature screenplay, and they struggled through the process for a couple years before they emerged with a shootable script. For a couple of young, wide-eyed Texas, this alone would have been a tremendous feat— but their job was only just getting started.
The feature version of BOTTLE ROCKET follows the same basic beats as its short-form counterpart, but Anderson and Wilson have elongated the plot to give greater depth to the characters while allowing for more comedic opportunities and situations. Luke Wilson reprises his role of Anthony, a burn-out reeling from exhaustion who’s given himself over to the schemes of his friend Dignan (Owen Wilson). Dignan has fallen in love with the idea of living on the lam as a wanted criminal, and has recruited Anthony to assist him in pulling of a series of small-time heists to catch the attention of his mentor, a professional crook named Mr. Henry (James Caan). After pulling off the successful robbery of a local bookstore in Dallas, they hit the road to begin their destinies as outlaws. For all Dignan’s meticulous planning, however, the plot is derailed by the one thing he didn’t anticipate— Anthony falling in love with a Mexican motel maid named Inez (Lumi Cavazos).
Luke and Owen may be some of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood today, but at the time of BOTTLE ROCKET’s release, they were complete unknowns. BOTTLE ROCKET kickstarted their careers by giving them a platform to show off their off-kilter chemistry. Much has been written about Owen’s debut as Dignan, a relentlessly-idealistic dreamer who believes in himself and his friends to a fault. He steals the show from his lower-key counterparts at every turn and blesses the film with some of its most memorable moments. His boyish energy is endlessly infectious, helping us to forget that he’s also a deluded, manipulative control freak. As Anthony, Luke plays to his comedic strengths as the straight man, serving as the perfect foil to Dignan’s hopped-up excitement. Robert Musgrave plays the disgruntled getaway driver Bob Mapplethrope, going above and beyond what is required of him to become one the film’s greatest charms. BOTTLE ROCKET was also Musgrave’s debut as an actor, but sadly his great performance here didn’t translate to a bigger acting career like it did for the Wilson brothers.
The film’s most recognizable face— veteran tough-guy actor James Caan— ironically gets the least screentime. He plays Mr. Henry, Dignan’s mentor and a local criminal mastermind who offsets his rather-eccentric style of dress with a boisterous, wise-guy confidence. His presence helped to raise BOTTLE ROCKET’s profile significantly, but not even Sonny Corleone himself could save the film from the magnetic pull of obscurity. Other cast members of note include the third Wilson brother, Andrew, (yes, there’s a third one) as a cocksure bully known only as Future Man, and Kumar Pallana (in the first of a recurring series of cameos in Anderson’s work) as Kumar, the space-case safecracker who inadvertently derails the film’s climactic heist.
BOTTLE ROCKET marks the first collaboration Anderson and his regular cinematographer, Robert Yeoman. Owing to its status as a low-budget indie, the film is easily the director’s most realistic-looking work in a career defined by its precious music-box aesthetics. While Anderson initially wanted to shoot in the anamorphic aspect ratio (like he would do for the majority of his later features), it was ultimately decided that BOTTLE ROCKET would shoot in the Academy 1.85:1 frame– likely for budgetary reasons. The film is supremely interesting in the context of the development of Anderson’s visual aesthetic. There are only hints of the symmetrical precision and flat diorama-esque depth that would come to define his composition, presenting instead a somewhat unwieldy mise-en-scene with uncomfortably claustrophobic close-ups and a long sense of depth afforded by the sprawling Texas horizon. In building up his own voice, Anderson borrows liberally from the style of established influences, like Martin Scorsese’s whip-pans, or the punchy insert shots popularized by Quentin Tarantino. The use of these techniques, as well as the incorporation of considered and smoothly precise camera movement, would be instrumental in forming the backbone of his own style. The cumulative effect is that of a young artist with impeccable taste fumbling his way through to the finish line— uneven and messy, sure, but beautiful to behold.
Anderson and production designer David Wasco use a mix of outdated set dressings, props, and costumes to bestow a general feeling of timelessness on the picture. In not calling attention to any era in particular, Anderson’s work essentially becomes its own self-contained universe outside of time, beginning in earnest with BOTTLE ROCKET’s sleepy, nondescript buildings and midcentury vehicles. This conceit is also echoed in Anderson’s choice of music, which recklessly mixes together classic rock from bands like The Rolling Stones and The Proclaimers with other tracks spanning the gamut from punk to salsa. This varied musical landscape is grounded with a consistently jaunty, high-energy score from composer Mark Mothersbaugh that perfectly captures the childlike, innocent tone Anderson has established here. BOTTLE ROCKET also marks the beginning of one of Anderson’s highest-profile signatures: sending out the audience out on an emotional high via a slow-motion closing shot set to an upbeat rock track.
While Anderson’s artistic aesthetic had yet to solidify during the production of BOTTLE ROCKET, several of its components can be seen manifesting on a thematic level. There’s an air of mischievous innocence to the piece, with an optimistic, almost-childlike outlook towards malaise and the consequences of a life of crime. This interesting juxtaposition creates an unexpected feeling of whimsical melancholy, a tone that Anderson has used to great effect in his later works. More often than not, Anderson’s child characters are smarter (or at least more perceptive) than the adults– his 2012 feature MOONRISE KINGDOM is predicated almost entirely upon this conceit. In BOTTLE ROCKET, this is evidenced by Anthony’s kid sister, who possesses an almost-supernatural ability to cleave through the bullshit politics of adulthood with staggering clarity. The inverse is true for Dignan, whose mission to make it as a career criminal is driven by juvenile fantasies that cloud his awareness of the world outside of himself. While he’d never admit it, he believes the world revolves around him– just like a child would. This outlook also translates to Anderson’s treatment of the character dynamics. Anthony and Dignan aren’t brothers (well…not in the film, anyway), but their relationship exhibits the qualities of sibling rivalry. They bicker and argue constantly, at times even coming to physical blows, but never once do we suspect they won’t end up together in the end, for the foundation of their friendship is the kind of bond shared only by family.
Finally, Anderson’s own eccentric sartorial affectations are reflected in the costuming choices for his characters. One of the funniest sight gags in the film is the image of these naive criminals executing a heist while clad in canary yellow jumpsuits, looking like (to paraphrase Future Man) “little bananas”. This attention-grabbing outfit is the brainchild of Dignan, who in his off hours, has no shortage of peculiar shirts to putter around in. Bob dresses like a member of the Reservoir Dogs who accidentally slept in and missed the robbery. Mr. Henry is easily the most eccentric of the bunch, slipping in and out of oversized pooka shells, turtlenecks, driving caps, Japanese kimonos, and power suits with ease. Not even Anthony– the supposed straight man– is immune to Anderson’s off-kilter sensibilities, appearing for much of the film in a candy red fleece pullover. Again, this all circles back to the childlike outlook that Anderson imbues in his films– the characters dress in an exaggerated fashion, as if they were children dressing up in the ways they perceive adults to dress.
BOTTLE ROCKET holds valuable lessons for first-time filmmakers, not the least of whom was Anderson himself. One of those lessons is that past performance is not a reliable indicator of future success. After the 1994 short knighted them the wunderkinds of Sundance, they reasonably assumed that the 1996 feature would be received similarly. To the shock of everyone– even the critics– BOTTLE ROCKET was rejected by Sundance. This development would be disappointing enough for any film, but for a project that was developed directly inside of Sundance’s prestigious talent incubator, it must’ve been downright heartbreaking. Adding insult to injury, the film bombed so badly at the box office that Owen reportedly almost joined the Marines because he didn’t think he had a future in the movies. But as time has gone on, the film community has slowly caught on to what only a handful of critics initially knew: BOTTLE ROCKET is a deliriously charming little film whose spot in Anderson’s filmography is every bit as worthy as his later, more successful works. Throughout the 90’s and 00’s, BOTTLE ROCKET slowly gained a cult following among Anderson aficionados as they traded well-worn DVD copies amongst each other. It all culminated in 2008, twelve years after its release, when that highly respected distribution label, The Criterion Collection, inducted the film into its library– bestowing upon it a level of prestige that the film could have never possibly imagined during its failed theatrical run. Criterion’s move enshrines BOTTLE ROCKET for what it really is– a brilliant, if flawed, debut, and the first expression of one of contemporary cinema’s most original and influential voices.
BOTTLE ROCKET is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via The Criterion Collection.
Produced by: Cynthia Hargrave, Polly Plat
Executive Produced by: James L. Brooks
Written by: Wes Anderson, Owen Wilson
Director of Photography: Robert Yeoman
Production Designer: David Wasco
Edited by: David Moritz
Music by: Mark Mothersbaugh