The Madness to Wes Anderson’s Method

CRITICAL CONSENSUS HOLDS that Wes Anderson movies are about loss. For some artists, aestheticism acts as a kind of spider’s silk: a complexly structured beauty proves best for binding and healing whatever wound. As with a play by the unloved Wilde or a mazurka by the exiled Chopin, the sheer symmetrical precision of an Anderson film knits up and covers over trauma the way that Richie Tenenbaum’s bandages knit up his slashed wrists.

But Isle of Dogs, the director’s most recent stop-motion effort, is not a movie about loss. It’s not even about losing, nor about the ethical and aesthetic miracle of sustaining a marvelously well-ordered fantasy in the face of devastation — you know, that whole Anderson thing.

By contrast, Isle of Dogs is a movie about finding: finding a dog, finding your friends and family, finding your purpose and your identity. So it is slightly difficult to integrate it into the Anderson oeuvre: its primary affect is not sorrow or melancholy but anger, its aesthetic a kind of closely controlled, roiling ickiness: packs of grimy dogs explode into fights, samurai heads fall off, planes burst into immaculate balls of cotton-fluff smoke, sushi fish are hacked up squirmingly alive. At every point in the film (and the film is surprisingly unpleasant to watch for precisely this reason), Anderson seems to ask what forms, what styles, are commensurate to rage — and not just to rage but to a double-pronged, rage-driven teen quest to defeat the patent unfairness of the world.

A first answer would appear to be taiko drumming: in a well of light, surrounded by darkness, three well-fleshed, bare-chested adolescents hammer out a theme by Oscar-winner Alexandre Desplat. We are then drawn into an epic expository sequence about a centuries-old conflict between the dogs of Japan and the cat-loving Kobayashi dynasty, which still controls the fictional Uni Prefecture, which in turns contains the fictional city of Megasaki. Cut to the issuing of a municipal decree by the mayor of Megasaki, who is also the current head of the Kobayashi dynasty, 20 years in the future, as measured from our heterodiegetic present: infected with something called “Dog Flu,” all of the city’s dogs are to be quarantined on Trash Island, now known as the Isle of Dogs. The mayor’s ward, Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), aged 12 — granted, not quite a teen, but pissed as hell, a classic Anderson pubescent — watches from the shadows as his beloved guard dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber), is sent off in a crate as proof that his guardian means business.

Revealed mostly in flashbacks, Spots’s fate furnishes one of the film’s intricate, Andersonian subplots; just as crammed with reversals, the A story details Atari’s quest to find Spots on Trash Island. He’s helped by a pack of alpha dogs voiced by regular Anderson collaborators: former house pets Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum), plus Chief (Bryan Cranston), a former stray. If this sounds cute, well, it isn’t. The film’s violence is remarkably violent. Chief’s a scrapper: in his first scene he chews off another dog’s ear. It sits like a hot-sauced chicharron in the center of the screen, vaguely horrid and blood-spotted, until it’s dragged away by a rat. As they journey, the dogs pass through a series of gorgeously bleak landscapes, arguing among themselves all the while. The group’s conflicts usually center on Rex, head of the pets — who wants to help Atari — and Chief, sole gutter spawn, who’s keeping an open mind on the question of whether the dogs should just eat him. Cranston-as-Chief sometimes sounds so threateningly grumpy his performance sometimes loses its comic touch.

The B plot follows Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), a foreign exchange student from Ohio and the second prong of Anderson’s preteen anger force. Tracy is a cub reporter on the Megasaki Senior High newspaper; she is also very noticeably pissed. She declares she’s angry at several points. She hates the mayor, hates that he’s corrupt, hates that no one in Megasaki can see how corrupt and unfair the treatment of its dog population might be. She chews her gum so hard you can hear it — that’s how pissed she is. As she discovers that a massive conspiracy lies behind the dogs’ expulsion, she only gets madder. On the hunt for a serum to cure the dogs of Trash Island, she bursts into a bar and screams down a bereaved scientist voiced by Yoko Ono. The scene is almost unwatchably unpleasant: anger is, based on the scantiness of its representation, more unsettling than fear or grief. On the other hand, there’s a certain bravery in showing us a character’s outrage, even at the cost of showing — or trying to show us — things atrocious enough to outrage both the character and the audience.

Unlike cats, who conspire with the corrupt Kobayashis, the dogs of Megasaki are fundamentally innocent — and so, of course, people would send them to hell, misdirection of our own pain or culpability onto the nearest possible Other being the single great talent of humankind. Thus scapegoated, the dogs form their own raggedy community. And again, an ugliness, an ickiness, holds the day despite the ingenuity, the sheer (and familiar) beauty of certain of Anderson’s shots. The emaciated, dirty, insomniac creatures we see in an early montage flirt with the Burton-esque. The atrocities perpetrated on another subcommunity of Trash Island dogs — the survivors of a medical facility where they were experimented on — leaves many of them with glass eyes, tubes sticking out of their necks, or, in the case of the old, much-bereaved dog Gondo (Harvey Keitel), a face that’s half-bald and decorated with medical tattoos. (Keitel’s monologue about the loss of his own fellow canine best friend — riven by instinctive howling — is the film’s best performance.)

Anderson has never shied from medical horror, torture, arterial blood, knives, arrows, severed heads, severed fingers, small arms, pepper spray, flamethrowers, sabers, shoves out of windows and down stairs, punches to the nose, and bigtime scuffles of the squad-of-baddies-on-squad-of-hapless-heroes or bro-on-bro or even the kid-on-kid kind. In Moonrise Kingdom, Social Services threatens 12-year-old Sam Shakusky with electric shock for refusing to betray his true love, Suzy Bishop; Anderson’s previous stop-motion film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, also sports with amputations and gory gallows humor. But Isle throbs with a much darker and more disturbing intensity than any of Anderson’s other films. It flirts with the thin representational line between slapstick and cruelty. In two different instances, we are left to think that our favorite characters — sweet innocent dogs — have either starved to death or been incinerated. Audible gasps of adult discomfort accompanied both scenes both times I saw the film. Not for nothing is its PG-13 rating for “violent images.”

But that makes the film a challenge — its nearest animal-tale analogue, so far as I can tell, is Art Spiegelman’s Maus. At the very least, it helps furnish some internal answer as to what to do about movies that, like this one, seem to make people very mad.

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Upon the film’s release, some heralded Isle of Dogs as prescient; they celebrated it, for example, for its celebration of student protest. But the idealism of the pro-dog movement as headed by the gum-snapping, conspiracy-busting Tracy doesn’t much resemble anything that young people might find to protest. In a certain sense — although no one in the film can know this, since the humans and the dogs in Megasaki don’t speak the same language — Chief and co. are quirky but loyal old-fashioned, white-sounding dudes who want nothing more than to find masters. Counterpoised against this wholesome if utterly outdated modus vivendi is a vision of fascist evil decidedly incomplete — a vision of camps and complete dog extermination that conjures up the Holocaust but that leaves aside other ways that fascism has expressed itself in any moment closer to Tracy’s and Atari’s or our own.

Whether it is appropriate to aestheticize the Holocaust is one question (shades of Maus again — but the film has none of the comic book’s claim to history); strong views on both sides would make for a real conversation. But the film has attracted even stronger takes. Though the critical dust has mostly settled, the film’s reception was hampered by charges of cultural appropriation: Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times wrote a scathing review of what he saw as Anderson’s failures. But as a recent piece at The New Yorker rightly points out, Anderson did not invent the commodification or appropriation of Japanese culture, and Japonism was often aided and abetted by the Japanese. Indeed, the mayor of Megasaki is a thundering Asian dictator — very close to racist stereotype — but then again, he looks not a little like the thundering dictator-to-be who runs our country. And if Anderson’s fictional Megasaki is no more than a Japanese-ish place outside of history, that’s for better and for worse, too. We learn that Trash Island was repeatedly destroyed by the natural disasters to which the Japanese archipelago is in fact susceptible — volcanoes, tidal waves — but the film’s Japan does not seem to have known the unnatural disaster that killed twice as many people as the nearest natural contender. There is something moderately disturbing about a Japan that has never known the American atomic bomb — and then again, there’s something beautiful about it, too.

To me, there is nothing (or maybe only one thing) about Isle of Dogs that seems finally vehemently unjust. In many of its aspects — perhaps especially in its complex idealization of a universal emotion — the film is a reminder that our representations can adopt a playful, inter-cultural permeability. One hopes that at the same time, though, we are still pursuing, honing, and revising a better understanding of what kinds of representations by what kinds of people are just. This knowledge — which is made and assembled and broken down and reassembled collectively, like all other forms of knowledge — involves an awareness not only of race or ethnicity or nationality but of the intersections of those constructs with gender and class and then, too, with history and with the way that historiography is shaped by power relations. And at the same time, a person has to grapple with the idea that elite internationalist culture of the kind Anderson now incarnates exploits anyone who has no access to the free movement of capital between countries.

Which is to say that that process is long and complex as hell. No one artist can be expected to manage all of these relations; no one artist ever has. Ideally, too, no critic should fly off the handle without understanding what the purpose of their flying off the handle might be.

So here I go flying right off the handle. Watch me.

Wes Anderson might or might not want to know that his film’s vision of gender struck me as frankly awful. We have Tracy and Yoko in Isle of Dogs‘s human population, but there are only three “bitches” in the film. And yes, “bitch” is the word the dogs use. It’s a joke that never lands anything but awkwardly, the kind of obsolete and embarrassing joke my dad would make to utter silence at the dinner table. One, the pug, Oracle (Tilda Swinton), is sexless; the other two, Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson) and Peppermint (Kara Hayward), function purely as love interests for alphas — or rather, and more grimly, as prospective mates. Nutmeg’s character arc consists solely of reversing her original objection that no one should bring puppies into the world of Trash Island and becoming a mother. (The change? The dogs escape from Trash Island.)

Nutmeg is a fancy show dog, and she sometimes does amazing tricks for Chief — balancing on her front paws while juggling invisible bowling balls or bowling pins — but this finally incomplete attempt to make her seem interesting only makes it too easy to imagine that with slightest story tweaks she could, er, actually do something. As it is, she exists solely to suggest to Chief that he should help Atari find Spots — that is, to use her sexual magnetism to help an emotionally stunted alpha male remember what’s important about life. And yes, Chief does eventually find a job and become a family man, a bizarrely schlocky outcome for any Anderson protagonist. Worst is that the proposition and subsequent worship of these sorts of faux-interesting female characters is an easily solvable problem, one that could have been fixed in any number of ways without altering the film’s vision.

Unless that vision is finally and most importantly the sad, worn-out vision of indomitable American masculinity. Chief can’t make a good house pet because, as he reminds us frequently, he bites. And why does he bite? He doesn’t know. He’s aggressive, he’s never known love — and even when he does, at film’s end, become a “good boy” and agree to serve as Atari’s new guard dog, he still struggles not to bite the shit out of visiting dignitaries. His ultimate virility is verified at the end of the film by Nutmeg, who assures him that she isn’t attracted to tame animals. Fine: Wildness is a virtue. But the film’s characterological structure suggests that Nutmeg only understands Chief because she is the tamest possible animal (that is, a show dog). The story of Chief and Nutmeg feels like a warmed-over Lady and the Tramp — when so much more might have been possible in terms of either character and in terms of their relationship.

Then again, their love could be read as an incarnation of the two central columns of Andersonian filmmaking and of Isle of Dogs itself: the unpredictable and chaotic in Chief, his rage and sorrow, is elaborated out into the exquisite comical expertise of Nutmeg’s tricks. And that is neither objectionable nor regrettable but rather the mark of a mature film, one that figures its own making inside itself.

The point, I think, is that any film is only ever the film that it is. But it also lives differently in each historical moment and persists or dies differently in the way that, not just each culture, but each one of us remembers or forgets it — how much we choose to argue and about what. For now, Isle of Dogs is, for me, memorable as one of the few testaments to how important it is to be pissed, how it is surprisingly possible to make and explore within a state of outrage, of conviction usually considered too much, too large, and too loud for complex and careful thought, much less for beautiful form.

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Marc Dragon lives and works in Los Angeles.

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