Salute Your Shorts: Wes Anderson's "Bottle Rocket"

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Whatever else he may be, Wes Anderson has been a large figure in American filmmaking for the past decade. When the AV Club put out its list of 10 Films that Couldn’t Have Happened Without Wes Anderson two years ago, the publication could’ve kept the list going for ages, and since then the number of films and filmmakers he’s influenced has only grown longer. Especially of late, Anderson tends to have apologetic fans who love whatever he puts out and an equally rabid group of haters willing to decry his every move as a failure and a misstep for cinema. Really, it’s a tribute to how important his works have been that you must have an opinion on Anderson. He’s polarizing like no one else and it’s as much because of his influence as his movies themselves. It’s ironic that while Anderson himself largely stays away from controversial subject matter in favor of aesthetic concerns, he’s become such a polarizing figure.

But that’s all after more than a decade of hindsight about Anderson, and as his newest film, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, comes out this Friday, it’s interesting to take note of how much his filmmaking has in fact changed and grown since his original short, “Bottle Rocket,” in 1994.

Anderson and Owen Wilson met in a playwriting course at UT Austin. While the two never spoke during the class, Anderson apparently noticed the guy sitting in the room’s opposite corner, and when his play from the course went into production the next semester, he asked Wilson to be in it. Wilson had never acted before, but needless to say, things went well and the pair bonded over their love for classical Hollywood and art-cinema films. For their final year of college, the pair got an apartment together and continued to write.

During that year, they were hit with the initial inspiration for “Bottle Rocket.” Without any required courses left, the pair was relatively aimless but left with a lot of energy. The apartment they shared had windows that wouldn’t shut and their landlord refused to fix them, so they decided to take matters into their own hands. Not by fixing the windows, but rather by breaking into their apartment, stealing some of their own stuff and reporting the incident to the police. Of course, the plan didn’t work when their landlord noted that it looked like “an inside job,” but the idea remained: Why would someone break into their own house and who would these robbers have to be?

According to the original press notes for Bottle Rocket, the pair soon completed a feature-length script and simply didn’t have the means to finish their film, thus resulting in the 13-minute “Bottle Rocket.” This seems pretty unlikely, though, considering how well the resulting short fits together. A random selection of scenes from a feature isn’t going to work very well, and “Bottle Rocket” is cohesive, perhaps more so than its feature-length cousin. More convincing is Jim Brooks’ explanation, which is that the film was first a thirteen-minute short that showed at Sundance, where it finished third at a shorts competition. The feature-length script came later.

The pair showed this short to producer Polly Platt, who showed it to screenwriter Kit Carson and so on, down to Brooks, who noticed a unique voice in the short and decided to cultivate it. This eventually led to the feature-length Bottle Rocket and the rest is history. But more importantly, what exactly was it about that short that got so many people interested?

Bottle Rocket doesn’t really look like any other Wes Anderson film, and “Bottle Rocket” even less so. It’s shot in black and white, for one thing, with an extremely high contrast film stock that leads to few grays and many stark lights and darks. Anderson’s usual, almost technicolor palette is nowhere in sight. Even in Bottle Rocket, certainly the most improvised and least formally determined of Anderson’s films, there’s still time spent on color schemes and visual motifs. There’s also a level of sheer speed and movement by film’s cameras, which would be repeated in Bottle Rocket but rarely afterwards for Anderson. Some shots are clearly done handheld, and there’s not a single slow-motion sequence to be found. Also noticeable, but certainly not a bad thing, is how many shots aren’t composed on a ninety-degree axis, something Wes began doing with more and more frequency beginning with his second feature.

Other trademarks are there, though, from the use of wide-angle lenses to cut-away detail shots of what the Wilson brothers are stealing or the pinball machines. Although there’s no readily-recognizable music yet, its score is still very effective and it has an early montage that would be repeated stylistically for the rest of Anderson’s career. It still is licensed music, even if it’s not yet classic or indie-rock based. If the cinematography is less certain here than it would ever be again, the editing is already typically Anderson, which lends the film an odd sense in retrospect. It has a nice, improvisational feel, and is about as close to neo-realism as Anderson would ever get. Something’s not quite right with how the pieces fit together, but it’s not in a bad way.

“Bottle Rocket” looks good, but not distinctive, and I suspect that it’s really the film’s writing and characters that got it noticed rather than anything noteworthy about the filmmaking itself. Oddly enough, the script doesn’t feel much like later Anderson either so much as it does a more fun-loving, humanist Quentin Tarantino. In particular, the Tarantino of Reservoir Dogs, which was released to little fanfare two years before “Bottle Rocket,” but had a level of cult success already, and though this debt has gone unacknowledged by Anderson or Owen, the film’s line about thieves wanting to be “professionals” seems like a small tip of the hat.

When “Bottle Rocket” begins, the Wilsons are talking about Huggy Bear from Starsky and Hutch. Its title sequence and music seems pulled from a pulp heist movie, and their subsequent entry into Luke’s mom’s house is done with a searching intensity that would pop up soon in Pulp Fiction. The difference is that with Anderson, these are two college-aged men in suburbia rather than real gangsters. The film’s dialogue continues with its sort of Tarantino-lite trappings, but with an affection towards its characters that imbues the short with some empathy in their frequently bungled petty crimes.

In brief, “Bottle Rocket” just doesn’t take itself so seriously and because of that, is a lot of fun. If others filmmakers taking Tarantino-esque impulses and making them grittier, creating a whole genre of bad Tarantino knock-offs in the wake of Pulp Fiction, Anderson took a heist movie and gave it as low stakes as it could have and then had fun riffing on the entire situation. That Wilson reportedly improvised much of his own dialogue, which it’s hard to imagine getting into an Anderson film from the past decade, isn’t a surprise given the film’s generosity with its characters and the whole filmmaking endeavor. Bottle Rocket has been written about as self-reflexively about filmmaking, but here there’s just the film itself. It’s not the making of the heist, it’s just the heist.

Bottle Rocket is an odd film to watch now, given the weight of Anderson’s later films that it contrasts against, referencing Terrence Malick rather than Hal Ashby and focusing on its subtle character studies rather than family struggles. “Bottle Rocket” is even more so, showing off a time when Anderson really was just about having fun without all the pretension and emotional baggage he tries to weigh every film with now. No finicky design, no crane shots or elaborate montages, just an amusing view of life and who people are. The short has aged very well, and while it might not convince you to dub Anderson a genius, it’s also impossible not to enjoy.

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