Saturday, March 7, 2015

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" by Wes Anderson

I just checked, and I've confirmed that I've never seen a Wes Anderson film before this one, so you'll excuse me if I don't recognise any of his usual schtick. I've been a bit desperate for something interesting to talk about on here for a while; the usual subjects of "New Who isn't much good" and "people on the internet are stupid" haven't seemed worth writing about lately, so I was glad to strike upon a film which captured my interest. I don't intend for this to be a review, per se - more of a reading, but I'll at least say that I enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel, although I wasn't completely amazed by it. Nonetheless it's a recent film which I'd actually recommend, and they seem to be few and hard to come by lately. The reason The Grand Budapest Hotel fired my imagination in particular was because I've been reasonably interested in Late Modern European history recently, a topic with which I feel the film rather substantially engages. I've particularly been interested in the bits that don't make it into one's school education; I regrettably lacked the space on my university timetable to read History, and in any event was foolishly uninterested in it as an undergraduate to my possible loss. Nonetheless a recent revival of interest on my part has allowed me to pursue subjects of personal curiosity at my own leisure, and particularly the goings-on of Central Europe over the last two hundred years or so. Thus my reading of the film is as follows: that it questions the particular concept and representation of interbellum Europe and the concept of Europe in the first half of the Twentieth Century, interrogating how reliable and authentic modern culture's image of that place and period in history is. I'm sure this is a subject which other writers have discussed, but I wanted to express my thoughts on my own. For what it's worth, The Grand Budapest Hotel reminded me of two texts in particular: the Tintin comics by Hergé, and particularly the instalment "King Ottokar's Sceptre," in regards to the cultural-historical representation of the film, and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James in regards to the manner of the narrative.

The narrative itself is one which presents multiple layers of narration: the story is the recollection of youthful experiences by an old man, relayed to a young author, who himself recorded this information as an older man in a piece of writing being read by a young woman in the present day. Thus there are, to my reckoning, four levels of narration: the book being read by the young woman, the older author's recollection of the story, the narrator's recollection of the story to the author as a young man, and the narrator's actual experience of events as a youth. This obviously affects how the story is presented; for instance, the protagonist, one of two, named Zero Moustafa, actively delays discussing his long-dead wife Agatha, and introduces her abruptly. There is a question of reliability. This is just one part of how Anderson, to my mind, evokes the notion that the modern, arguably nostalgic, vision of Europe in the first half of the Twentieth Century is fundamentally an unreliable one.

Further evidence accumulates in terms of the film's presentation. The heavy use of modelwork on, for instance, mountain cable cars, the hotel's lifts and indeed the hotel itself all convey a sense of artificiality. This is further accentuated by the quasi-historical nature of the setting. It is primarily set in a fictional Central European nation, "Zubrowka," during a Fascist uprising in 1932, one year off from the Nazi's seizure of power in Germany. The Fascists themselves border upon reality without fully duplicating it, evoking the awkward status of German-aligned Nazi imitators in Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and the like during the Second World War. The names are a complete mish-mash of Germanic, Slavic and Francophone referents, and similarly the characters' accents simply retain those of their actors, combining English, Irish, American and French accents and more besides without any particular consistency. This is particularly embodied in the character of the other protagonist, Zero Moustafa's employer Monseiur Gustave, an English-sounding man with a French name who runs a Central European hotel. Combined with the bright purple hoteliers' uniforms, the Fascist military garb, the really quite Alcatraz-like prison inmates and the mountainous, snowy geography an image emerges of this period as a hazy and chaotic hybridisation of innumerable cultural and historical signifiers which serve to highlight the artificiality of the stereotypical image of this era in Europe. It is of course further emphasised by the state of the hotel in the "1968" era, in which Zubrowka has clearly been subsumed into the Eastern Bloc, and its Soviet-brutalist external architecture is matched by the tacky orange plastic-and-vinyl interior as a contrasting and reflecting historical stereotype. The effect is to throw this cultural picture of "chocolate-box Europe" into stark relief by exploring the idea that completely fictional historical and geographical images are just as capable of signifying a particular time period in the cultural consciousness as real places and events.

Thus the film considers this imaginary construct of a real time and space. It is further referenced in the screenplay by the juxtaposition of the notional setting to the frequent use of modern idiom and colloquialism in the screenplay. The language of several characters in the "1932" era is even more modern than most of the language in the framing "1968" setting. As such the film serves to propose how utterly disconnected from reality artistic representations of the past generally are, such that a moustachioed Ralph Fiennes in a "1932" prison can earnestly inform his visiting partner in crime Zero of his familiarity with the necessity of avoiding being a "candy ass" while claiming that he derived such knowledge from reading Penny Dreadfuls. Thus is established a juxtaposition of the cultural perception of this time in Europe, as a sadly-lost period of fine living crushed by Fascism and Modernity, with the more accurate historical argument of its status as part of the extremely drawn-out death rattle of the Nineteenth Century and the Victorian Era. This is put forward by the older Zero, who claims that Fiennes' Monsieur Gustave "sustained the illusion" of a world which truly perished before Gustave's own time. Gustave's character, whose swearing and seduction of aged noblewomen is juxtaposed to his graciousness, friendliness and public propriety, underscores the notion of the interbellum's supposed glamour and decorum as a facade, albeit not one without its own virtues. This is also on another textual level underscored by Gustave's love of Romantic poetry, which in real literary history had completely fallen from grace by this time in favour of Modernism. Romanticism was in fact viewed as a badly ageing movement before the end of the Nineteenth Century and even blamed in certain quarters for promoting and enabling the kind of careless attitudes which were held responsible for the unprecedented wastefulness and destructiveness of the First World War. Gustave's failure to ever completely recite any of his poems, and the fact that many of them aren't very good, symbolise the concept that Romantic Europe was already dead, but that society had not entirely come to terms with it by that point, and perhaps still hasn't. Dmitri's desperate desire to recover the "Boy with Apple" painting similarly represents a vain wish to cling to the Romantic past: in Dmitri's case the painting symbolises the immense wealth, status and dignity of a bygone age. The fact that it later hangs forgotten behind the counter in the hotel attests to the ultimate futility of this desire to keep that period alive for whatever reason, and Zero's replacement of it in Dmitri's house with a piece of confronting erotica further reinforces the notion that the Romantic age was just as "improper" as any other time and simply pretended that it wasn't. Thus the film also draws attention to this regretful dream that Romantic Europe was killed by Fascism: it wasn't - it had died a decade and a half earlier in the trenches.

In this way The Grand Budapest Hotel also engages with the modern cultural image of the 1930s adventure narrative. It thus evokes not only Tintin, which is actually from the period, but also later representations of cultural significance like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It particularly draws attention to the idea of interbellum Europe as a place of adventure and derring-do, represented by, for instance, Gustave's ridiculous escape from prison and Zero and Gustave's sled-chase of Willem Dafoe's skiing SS-style enforcer Jopling, after which they, as such adventure characters so often do, stand around lightly clothed in the snow unaffected by the freezing conditions. The ultimate encapsulation of this is when Adrien Brody's Dmitri and a crowd of alarmed Fascist soldiers shoot up a hotel balcony in confusion while hitting no one whatsoever, such that Zero is capable of running through the fusillade to attempt to rescue Agatha. This serves to emphasise how unrealistic this perception of the period is, while simultaneously reminding of those virtues and values which can and will survive in the face of mindless violence and persecution. The success of Zero and Gustave's absurd adventure serves to mock Fascism while reminding that it was the ugly truth of the era. The Fascists' intrusions, above all other unwholesome elements presented as lurking beneath the surface of European society at that time, function as a reminder of the ultimate tragedy of the period and its doomed nature, represented by the abrupt, off-screen execution of Gustave, the surly but comical Fascist thugs of the first train confrontation being replaced by a filthy, humourless "death squad" with no interest in discussion or investigation, the fundamental empty ugliness of Fascism emerging through its thin veneer of outward respectability. Yet respectable it nearly is in the early parts of the film. The original uniforms, which partially evoke the more decorative Imperialist garb of the First World War, and the reasonable nature of Inspector Henckels, remind modern culture that the Interbellum and Fascism are one and the same. They are products of the same historical motion which occupy the same historical space, both arguably, and in part, the corrupted vestiges of the mouldering remains of long-dead Romantic Europe. The execution of Gustave as such strikingly declares that Europe at that time was not, really, a nice place to be in many respects. The description of the event is abrupt and darkly comical, however, consoling us with the knowledge that it was brutal but that it is also over.

The final component I wanted to mention is one of equivalent interest to me but one which I hadn't myself previously fully connected with the film's other ideas. That is the concept of what I might describe as, for want of a better phrase, "islands of time." What I mean by this entirely inadequate phrase is the idea of specific, especially short, historical periods which nonetheless genuinely were, or are inaccurately perceived to have been, distinct historical entities with their own peculiarities. The interbellum period is obviously a prime example of this: twenty short years which are nonetheless perceived as sort of "sticking out" rather sharply from the history around them, almost this notion that because of the First and Second World Wars the 1910s didn't really flow organically into the 1920s and 30s, which themselves "jolted" into the late 40s and then the 50s. I think the film manages to somewhat draw attention to this notion as well, without necessarily criticising it. This is particularly represented by the idea of historical inertia in the face of the sudden and unexpected. It is shown, for instance, in the hotel maintaining in a sense its normal operation despite being overrun with Fascist officers who have essentially turned it into a headquarters, or the white-garbed monks in the mountains carrying on their monastic life despite the country being completely revolutionised. Of course the most substantial image of this is the fact that Zero, thirty-six years on, has essentially bribed the local Soviet government to keep the hotel operational as a tribute to his long-lost wife and child: "We were happy here, for a little while." Thus the film conceptualises the innate contradiction of periods of history and periods of life which are structured, routine and substantial, but which are only ever temporary, and sometimes are very brief. Thus Anderson rounds out his exploration of the cultural image of the period, explaining why it is so enduring: because of this personal human tendency to perceive these "islands of time."

To conclude I ought to explain the textual comparisons I made at the beginning. The Grand Budapest Hotel of course evokes "King Ottokar's Sceptre" because both feature intrigue centred around a historical or culturally significant artefact in a fictional Central European nation under threat from fictional Fascists. HergĂ©'s comic is period satire, of course, reflecting the political situation of the time, using fictionalised regions to enable the point he is making. Anderson's presentation of the inaccurate and nebulous modern conception of 30s Europe may therefore be compared to how such representations once had enormous relevance and purpose, but that modern culture has more or less lifted away the surface of the time period and left most of the reality behind. The Grand Budapest Hotel draws attention to this insubstantiality in modern representations and adaptations. An awareness of this very insubstantiality explains  how, for example, Steven Spielberg's 2011 "The Adventures of Tintin" spectacularly misses the point of its source material. To turn to Henry James, the film evokes The Turn of the Screw in two ways: firstly with the use of multiple layers of narration, which also involve the recollection of experiences long past, and secondly in the theme of the tension between Romantic notions and reality. What Anderson achieves in The Grand Budapest Hotel is to question the intersection of layers of history, memory and culture, and speculate upon where reality lies, and where reality intersects with beauty and fairness and happiness. Perhaps all these things are to be found mingled amongst each other, and many worse and better things beside.

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