Thursday, 11 October 2007

Pushing Daisies into Wes Anderson's face

Yesterday we saw the second episode of Pushing Daisies, and as expected, Sonnenfeld was mostly on auto-pilot, this time with 24 emphasis dollies, 9 overhead shots and 6 overheads shots. That's not counting the repeated shots from the first episode. However, he did include a few amusing visual gags, and a nice little musical number with Kristin Chenoweth singing Hopelessly Devoted To You while being interrupted by cleaners and customers. Chi McBride was, again, the only non-cutesy thing in the whole show, and Lee Pace and Anna Friel are beginning to grow on me.

And yet, and yet... While I laughed, Canyon sat stonyfaced throughout, and when it finished brought up Wes Anderson. I love Wes Anderson movies. No, I lurrrve Wes Anderson movies like a pig loves pooping. Rushmore is one of my favourite films of the last decade, and even though I had minor reservations about The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, I still heart them and watch them relentlessly. Though I don't want to speak for her, I will just say that Canyon is no fan of Anderson. To say the very very least.

[I know I'm not alone in thinking Anderson is ridiculously overrated. Stephanie Zacharek has my back. To quote her:
Anderson is the kind of director who, with his quirky awkwardness, puts distance between his movies and the audience instead of collapsing it. Some people enjoy his style and bridge the distance easily; others, like me, may feel that he's more interested in his own precocity than he is in his characters.

And that's exactly it. He is so concerned with the intricate details of his movies that he makes his characters so precious and whimsical that they no longer become recognizable people but caricatures. I cannot care about what happens to them because I find it impossible to empathize with characters so stylized, so removed from real human experience. The only moment of The Royal Tenenbaums that rang true to me was Ben Stiller's character saying, at the end, "I've had a hard year, Dad" -- it was an earned moment of real poignancy. But that small payoff was not worth the effort. That's why, for me, Pushing Daisies is walking a very thin line, and might soon fall on the wrong side of the Wesometer. -- Canyon]

For my part, I just seem to be able to accept that in the WesAndersoniverse, this preciousness is just the way things are done, and that we're looking in on a world where intellectuals are lauded and able to make a living off their musings, and surreal and ineptly made nature documentaries are treated like event movies. These people act like this because that's the way this world works. All of the characters in all of his movies act in the same stylised way, and it pleases me greatly. ::makes temple with fingers and wears imperious expression::

That's before we get into the incredible craftsmanship of his films. I'm always thrilled by the atmosphere Anderson creates, and their unusual tactileness, if that's a word (and the wavy red line that just appeared under it tends to suggest it isn't). His palette of colours, the beaten-up sets, the anachronistic props; I don't refer to it as the WesAndersoniverse for nothing. It's as if he has made a world from the bottom up, and it all feels real even though it cannot be.

The paraphernalia and alien-ness of the world doesn't take over, at least to my mind. It allows the characters to act in a heightened manner and not seem to be doing anything wrong (because they're behaving by the rules of their world), so that when they have a real moment (like the one listed by Canyon above), it makes an even more powerful emotional point than it normally would. Oh, their world is like mine after all! At least, that's how I see it. I can tell this is not the way a lot of people feel when they watch.

The problem with Pushing Daisies (beyond the fact that its self-satisfaction is potentially show-killing) is that the style overwhelms everything else, whereas Anderson's movies are a melding of style and substance. There is some fun writing in Pushing Daisies, and some very likeable performances, and the central concept is resonant and appealing (let's leave aside the possible plagiarism thing). Sadly, most of that barely registers thanks to the fiddly silliness jumping in the way and screaming for attention. When I think about the show, I don't remember Chi McBride's funny line-readings, or the scene with Kristin Chenoweth dangling from her window so she can spy on Ned and Chuck, or the adorable Ned/Chuck-Mobile. I just think of the obnoxious colours, and the cloying narration, and the actors looking into the camera (guaranteed to annoy me unless it's in a Jonathan Demme movie, for some reason). I can't blot out the chirpy music, or the busy character details (the cheese-obsessed aunts, the bulimic flowergirl, etc.), which are also evident in Anderson's films, where they range in effectiveness from clever and character-revealing to annoyingly whimsical. All the ephemera of the Pushing Daisies world just piles up and overwhelms. There's no plan to it, or coherent aesthetic. It's just stuff piled in because it adds cuteness to the show.

It doesn't help that Pushing Daisies looks so out-of kilter. Another thing that I like about Anderson's movies is that they're filmed in the real world, but feel like another planet, mostly because of the imaginative set design, which takes our world's styling and heightens them several points. Pushing Daisies is almost entirely set-bound or filled with effects (The exterior of The Pie-Hole, the yellow fields of Couer de Couers), and that artificiality (in terms of the production values) puts a distance between the viewer and the characters. Of course this is subjective. I don't have this problem, but Canyon and Zacharek do. I'm sure they're not the only ones.

Perhaps the main difference is that Anderson's movies are tempered by the melancholy of the characters. Yes, Ned and Chuck are separated by Ned's supernatural gift, but the tone of the show is hopeful and uplifting, choosing to show them making the best of their predicament. However, death and crime are presented as jokey events, with some often very effective black humour thrown in. It's just not enough, though, at least as far as I'm concerned. The show is mostly sunny, and with the narration (often sounding patronising) and the colour scheme (like a paint factory vomited), it gets to be too much, as if it's overcompensating for the potential darkness at the heart of the concept.

Anderson's movies, on the other hand, are relentlessly deadpan, and feature depression, suicide, pirate invasions, death by shark attacks (presented as a dark joke and as a tragic event), and all sorts of bleakness. Any sugariness or sentimentality in his movies feels earned, as there are nastier things lying in the periphery of this world. The inciting incident in Life Aquatic is a horrible shark attack, and the middle of the film is a half-funny, half-shocking pirate attack. In Pushing Daisies, the sentimentality is unavoidable. Yes, I'm sure the show would not get made without that air of chirpiness; most executives would be scared of making a show that was dark enough to alienate the audience. I can't blame the showrunners for that, and I applaud them for getting away with murder (snerk). It's just unfortunate that I have trouble watching that kind of thing.

This doesn't mean I'm going to stop watching it, and I'm not faulting the show for not trying to do what Wes Anderson does. It's got its own plan; I just don't like it as much as I like Anderson's. I'm also aware it's early days yet, but it doesn't seem like a show unsure of its template and willing to change things around if its not working. It's so distinctive and vivid a show that I can imagine any large deviation from that template will not be tolerated. Who knows, if the show doesn't change, perhaps I will. This time next year I could be a fully paid up fan. After all, I'm enjoying the cast greatly, and it has made me laugh, and if the narration is pushed further into an Arrested Development, post-modern anti-narration direction, it will be a lot less twee. I'm also glad the mysteries are suitably demented, though dandelion-powered cars threatened to blow the quirk-o-meter off the scale. So far, though, I just can't join in with the rabid enthusiasm I've seen in other parts of the net. That's okay. Lost will be back soon, and nothing else on TV will matter. [/obsessive] [/lame -- Canyon]


sjwoo said...

I recently saw Five Easy Pieces for the very first time, and I must say, I think Wes Anderson owes Mr. Rafelson some props.

Loved Five Easy Pieces, by the way, enough that I'm ready to see his followup, The King of Marvin Gardens.

Jaredan said...

I didn't watch Pushing Daisies closely this week as I was busy at the time but I do feel it might grate on me soon.
And btw a belated happy birthday mate, yes I'm rubbish I know.

Admiral Neck said...

Jaredan, my good friend, don't worry yourself. If I recall correctly, I forgot yours earlier this year, so we're even. Ilf forgot too, though. Him I cannot forgive.

Mr. Woo, what specific part of Five Easy Pieces reminded you of Wes Anderson? Jack Nicholson's screwed-up family? They're certainly Tenenbaumian in nature. AV Club did an excellent feature about movies that possibly inspired Anderson:

You can find it here.

Some great movies on that list. They also did a feature about movies inspired by Wes Anderson. They were almost all dreadful. C'est la vie.

sjwoo said...

It was that scene of ping pong between Nicholson and his brother, the one who was in a neck brace. The whole feel of the scene seemed very Wes Andersonian. Both Rafelson and Anderson cite the French New Wave as influences, so their commonality doesn't come as a surprise.

We caught A Mighty Heart last night. What a sad film. Angelina should get a nomination -- she was fantastic, as usual.

Anonymous said...

Anderson style is great and every body likes him.I like to watch pushing daisies episodes and also have watched this one also.i found its as interesting as others of this show.