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First Flight

by Published on
photo courtesy of the Criterion Collection

Fifteen years ago, the independent film Bottle Rocket was released with little fanfare. The movie barely made money at the box office. Instead, it insinuated itself into the alternative consciousness by word of mouth. Fans spoke passionately of its wry, uncynical sense of humor, and of director Wes Anderson’s keen eye and confident sense of visual purpose.

Bottle Rocket was a tribute to life as artistic flight of fancy. Its story, co-written by Anderson and the film’s breakout star, Owen Wilson, follows three amiable losers-turned-criminals who go on the lam in rural Texas after committing a minor robbery. Far more convinced of their outlaw prowess than he should be, the gang’s leader and fount of optimistic irrepressibility, Dignan, leads his friends blithely into catastrophe. To tell this tale, Anderson, a Houston native, developed an original approach. Sure, he borrowed a few deadpan cadences and camera movements from the Coen brothers. He stole quite a bit of the French New Wave’s casual vitality. But he blended his influences in a way no one had seen before, creating a new language that was at once comical and artistic. Here was a true movie: a collection of moving pictures, each sculpted and labored over, but none static or an end to itself.

Watch a scene from Bottle Rocket

Flash forward, and Anderson has allowed his technical expertise to paralyze his artistry. Gone are the daring days of Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, when Anderson built stories and then created a visual world to complement them. His most recent films, like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited, are frozen edifices with storylines and characters that seem like excuses for elaborate set designs, color sequencing and choreographed camera movements. Anderson’s one-liners used to act as absurdist bulwarks against a world ready to drown his heroes with disappointment and resignation. Now they’re like paint swatches you hang on a wall and design a room around: First you write the clever line, then you come up with a character to say it.

Bottle Rocket’s anniversary gives us an opportunity to appreciate how great and adventurous Anderson used to be. All his signature stylistic tricks are on display—the camera jolting awake suddenly and sprinting across a room, the wide shots with all the characters crammed far to one side and, of course, a shot of a man walking in slow motion to the strains of a perfectly chosen pop song. They all have a dramatic purpose; they mean something. They haven’t been frozen into empty rituals.

Anderson would soon become one of Hollywood’s fussiest directors, wasting his prodigious talent trying to turn movies into slide shows. Back in 1996, when he was shooting Bottle Rocket with the optimism and daring of youth, Anderson was something to behold. He was a painter who recognized that life will always burst through the frames you construct around it.

Josh Rosenblatt writes about film from New York City.