Took me a long time to get through this, as I kept hitting rewind and pause to savor every detail. It must either thrill or horrify Anderson’s designers, the way he has them make these incredibly attractive and intricate sets, many of which appear on screen for about two seconds. (One of Anderson’s strongest comic methods is the quick cut to and away from something absurd or delicious, like a editorial eye-roll.)
I’ve coincidentally been reading a lot of Stefan Zweig in recent months and have written about him below, so I’ll skip that here, except to say that it makes every sense in the world that Anderson too has come under his spell. (I’m pretty confident he must have read The Post Office Girl before working up this script; the Grand Budapest is the spitting image of the crenellated resort hotel in that novel.) Anderson is always up for mourning and celebrating beauty gone to seed, genius under-appreciated, elegance coarsened by modernity’s boring (and/or murderous) efficiencies. So was Zweig. They’re a nice pair.
It’s not my favorite Wes Anderson (I have a longstanding and slightly mysterious, even to me, obsession with submarines, so that’s that), but it is delightful as always, and it even, very uncharacteristically, permits a tiny germ of historical consciousness to creep in, so that pleased me too.
Some movies you know you’re going to cry through so you have to wait until your housemate’s out of town to watch them. Big Star is for me the saddest and most beautiful band that ever existed. There are many, many bands that I like more than Big Star, that I think are more accomplished than Big Star, that I would much rather listen to than Big Star, but Big Star is the infinitely dense collapsed black giant in my pop firmament. One of its polestars, Alex Chilton, has a big pop hit (“The Letter,” with the Box Tops) as a child and then commences a career that must qualify as the most varied and ambivalent wander in the pop wilderness ever. The other, Chris Bell, our American Nick Drake, desperate and desperately talented, dead at 27. There’s the diffidence of the band, but then there’s also the diffidence of Memphis, a nowhere/everywhere in American life — so full of resonance and so drained of content — that’s become weirdly symbolic for me as my years as a fake or aspirational Southerner tick by. They couldn’t have done it in New York or Los Angeles. They maybe could have done it in Chicago.
And then there’s the music, simultaneously exquisite and disastrous, filled with junk elation and pain so real it bleeds. Absolutely American in its Delta soul, and yet so far beyond any vernacular satisfactions, so utterly louche and nihilistic, that it’s probably, bizarrely, more comparable to Celine than anyone else. Compared to a song like “Kangaroo,” the Doors’ gestures at decadence seem like something out a Family Circus cartoon.
It’s a pretty good movie. Hagiographic, for sure, and sometimes the filmmakers take too much for granted that we already know the basic outlines of the story, but it’s well worth watching and crying over.