It's a slow time for theatre around the holidays, so I often do a bit of catching up on films, though I'm not in any rush to the cineplex this year.
A viewing of Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou confirmed something I've noticed for some time now: that the films of such wunderkinds as Wes and Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, even David O. Russell, feel a lot like student films writ large. I don't mean to disparage the artistry of these auteurs—PT Anderson in particular seems to have a keen eye and an interesting point of view. But too often their films feel like arbitrary exercises in wouldn't-it-be-cool-if filmmaking—i.e., wouldn't it be cool if this scene all played in one take, or if we made up our own brand-name products, or if all these guys walked down the street in slo-mo while this bitchin' song was on the soundtrack, or if this one guy had a taste for really obscure foreign movies, etc. I've found that this aesthetic can actually be rather inviting, or at least a pleasantly inconsequential way to spend a few air-conditioned hours—after all, very often the things that these guys find cool I happen to enjoy, too: the formalist romanticism of Anderson's Punchdrunk Love, for instance, or even the agreeably pointless comedy of Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin's "existential detectives" in Russell's I Heart Huckabees.
Or, for that matter, Anderson's fascination with seafaring arcana, and the inarguably cool Portuguese guitar renditions of Bowie songs throughout Aquatic, adapted and performed by actor/signer Seu Jorge. I had fun playing the game of identifying each of his selections (the most obscure being the very early "When I Live My Dream"), though I can't say this had much to do with the film's ostensible central story. What these filmmakers seem to share is a delight in creating the "world" of their films—constructing pop-fantasy simulacra that are an end in themselves (the Canadian Guy Maddin shares this trait to an almost monomaniacal degree that puts him in his own class of artist). I think I first noticed this in such films as Pulp Fiction and Boogie Nights, which took an inordinate amount of pleasure in their production design and soundtrack.
I would contrast this approach with that of another auteur of their (and my) generation, Richard Linklater, whose first film, Slacker, had a baldly film-schoolish conceit but whose subsequent films have been marked less by their baroque or willfully quirky production design than by their leisurely, generous storytelling and character touches. Dazed and Confused, for instance, is among my favorite films, and not for its soundtrack or design (matter-of-factly right-on) but for its warmly witty take on adolescent life—the best on film, in my opinion. I haven't seen his recent Before Sunset but I was charmed by its predecessor, Before Sunrise, which took a simple conceit—two characters, one 24-hour-period, lots of talk—and made an authentically youthful and yet circumspect romantic comedy of it. There wasn't an extraneous shot in that film, and its often bold long takes weren't formal experiments but natural byproducts of the film's conversational, almost improvisational feel.
I was a film student once, too, and while I can envy the budget and imagination of the Andersons, Tarantino, et al, for my money a filmmaker like Linklater is the kind I admire, and once would have aspired to emulate, before journalism and theatre (more or less) happily hijacked my career.