Wes Anderson has always been a divisive filmmaker. There are those who revere him and those who think all his films are simultaneously overwrought and underdeveloped. But whatever you may think of him, it is hard to deny that he has style, and that he does what he likes. And most will agree that his successes (_Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums_) were films of both style and substance, portraits of unique collections of characters in slightly odd but still familiar settings that were evocative and affecting. Still just 41 years old, Anderson can expect much more to come in his career.
Recently a short story from Anderson’s college days at the University of Texas at Austin was released online. Fittingly, the story is presented as photographs of the pages as they appeared in a campus literary magazine called _Analecta_, much like _Tenenbaums_ is presented as chapters of an ongoing saga. Anderson’s cinematic vocabulary is present in the story: he employs quirky ruminations, a sort of dreamy, anachronistic protagonist, vibrant colors and specific references. But, like most writing done at such a young age, the story suffers due to the fact that Anderson is simply no master—he is only just learning how to tell a story. The plot and his protagonist are a sort of mix of Frédéric Moreau, narrator in Flaubert’s _Sentimental Education_, and Holden Caulfield of _Catcher in the Rye_ fame. Interspersed throughout are philosophical asides that firmly place the piece in the category of pompous college-student writing.
It begins predictably—that is, idiosyncratically. The protagonist, named Max, decides to try to balance an open can of Dr. Pepper on the back of his left hand, which he succeeds in doing for the very precise amount of time of 36 seconds, before losing his concentration and spilling the contents of the can into an air conditioner, short-circuiting it. He then catches sight of a Porsche double-parked outside his window, painted “African lotus blue.” The car, the narrator is careful to note, is not Max’s.
The story then transitions to another point of view, marked by italics, and we read Max’s interiority, a first-person reflection on Plato and his intersection with modern life. It is the type of passage you would expect from a college student who has just spent a good deal of time reading Plato for a class. Anderson finds himself straining to adapt Plato’s Theory of Forms to such fields as tennis. (Björn Borg is the Form of “baseline groundstroke passing shot tennis,” says Max.) It is quintessential grandiose collegian, and it is not the last time the device will be invoked.
Max then walks through a restaurant kitchen, where he adds half a cup of olive oil to a dish of mushrooms and proceeds to get into an argument with the chef, who wants them to be “crisp” and not “saturated.” This is a criticism one could level at almost all of Anderson’s work to this point, and certainly at this story. His hands are all over, and too many of his thoughts overlap and blot each other out.
The rest of the story continues in a similar fashion. Max is walking around, running into people, and withdrawing from the narrative to air his thoughts on life and living it. There is a bit of Baudelaire’s _flâneur_ in Max, who walks this environment in order to experience it. There is a good deal of cinematic language and imagery. At one point, Anderson suggests “a medium-close shot from the waist up” of Max opening a door would make a viewer believe Max had opened it with his mind. These details, which probably seemed gratuitous to Anderson’s college peers, demonstrate that all the ingredients were already there. Anderson was already on his way to being the filmmaker we can recognize today.
Perhaps what makes this feel most like a work of Anderson—more so than the aforementioned use of his standard tropes—is the feeling of an omnipotent puppeteer making the whole story work. Max’s thoughts are often so arbitrary and random that it seems the only reason they would ever come to be in his head would be if someone had planted them there for him to ruminate upon. This is a common criticism of Anderson’s cinematic characters, who hardly seem organic. But it is, I think, his greatest strength—the ability to make sympathetic the undeniably odd and zany characters who look in from outside the norm. Max is just this sort of character, and he might even be the seed for Max Fischer, the protagonist of Anderson’s most widely praised film, _Rushmore_.