Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Notes on Empathy in the Quirky: Bunny and the Bull

In his book Wes Anderson: Why His Movies Matter, Mark Browning objects to Anderson's supposed occasional shifts from 'ironic' detachment to moments of 'sincere', melodramatic engagement with characters' emotions:

It is very difficult to maintain a dominant tone of detached quirky irony and then expect audiences to engage emotionally with characters to the level where tears are expected. This kind of tonal seesaw does not really work. (62)

I remembered this passage whilst watching one of the first British films to be transparently influenced by what I've defined as the quirky sensibility of American indie cinema, Bunny and the Bull (2009). If Wes Anderson is guilty of mismanaging his tonal ironic detachment to the point of seriously endangering our ability to empathise with characters at moments of pain and suffering, then Bunny and the Bull should be convicted ten times over.

In my view, Anderson is on the whole extremely skillful in the way he envelops his entire films in largely the same melancholic, yet gently amused, tone. Comic moments tend always to still be slightly sad, sad moments still slightly comic. Even the funeral in Darjeeling Limited (2007) is dealt with using the director's trademark slow-motion-and-retro-song combination, which encourages us to reflect on the extent to which the film is in a significant sense performing this gesture of transcendence and seriousness. (I'd need more time to get across this completely convincingly, but allow me to take this point as read...)

Bunny and the Bull, by contrast, is a film which most certainly for the most part strives to "maintain a dominant tone of detached irony". Strongly cribbing from the quirky - and particularly Michel Gondry/Jared Hess - most of the film is told via a flashback that takes the form of highly stylized cut-out-cartoon locales and unreal landscapes. See, for instance, the restaurant near the opening:

There's nothing to say that, just because the places they inhabit are always patently artificial, we couldn't empathise with this film's characters - it could mobilise any number of conventions or devices to try to bring the viewer into a close empathetic relationship with its central figures. However, despite the seemingly clinically depressed nature of the movie's main character, Stephen, the film is determined always to undercut the integrity of its world and the feelings it potentially has at its disposal - often via either absurd surrealist humour that places us near the realm of Monty Python (see: Julian Barratt's dog-suckling cameo), or through bathetic bawdiness (at the moment when our hero finally goes to bed with the girl of his dreams, the camera pans away and we hear "Hmm, nice penis!"). Basically, this seems to be a film that is unconcerned with placing us into a relationship of empathy with its characters and reality - more Mighty Boosh than anything else.

And that would be fine. Except that, very close to the end, the film reaches the primal scene it's been hinting at throughout: Bunny's fateful encounter with a bull in the field. And at this moment, the film really wants us to feel something. The problem is that the trauma comes so suddenly, emerging unheralded from beneath the veneer of "detached irony", and doing so all but literally.

The sequence begins with us in the artificial, naively-rendered fantasy world that the majority of the film has taken place in, with Bunny on the field with the (at this point mechanical) bull...

...and Stephen watching from the wings by a nearby fence:

However, just when it seems that Bunny might have bested the beast, dark music begins. At this, we begin quickly intercutting shots of what we have till now seem only as a Mechano-like toy (on a patchwork rug) with a real-life bull (in a real-life field)...

As it begins to charge Bunny, this pattern continues - frantic cuts between the stop-motion animal and its real-life counterpart...

From the moment it makes contact with Bunny, we're exclusively in the 'real world' - a world we've never before seen in this film. Stephen scrambles terrified over the fence, pursued by a handheld camera (a further aesthetic signifier of 'real'), over to his fallen friend, who is now dead...

So, seemingly believing that - if it wants to elicit empathy from the viewer (which it quite clearly does) - it is necessary to strip away 'artifice' wholesale, the film at this moment transforms itself into an entirely different sort of aesthetic object than it has previously been. The result is a huge tonal lurch which the movie cannot handle, feeling entirely unearned - precisely the kind of "seesaw" effect Browning claims takes place in Anderson's films.

But no Anderson film attempts anything as clumsy as this. Indeed, Bunny and the Bull makes you realise quite how impeccably nuanced and coherent Anderson's approach tends to be, reminding us that the reason the quirky sensibility works (at least, when it does) is that it is concerned above all with tonal balance, not tonal shifts. While clearly a descendent of the sensibility, Bunny and the Bull doesn't have enough faith in this fundamental lesson of quirky cinema: empathy doesn't require a 'real', merely consistent relationships and attitudes towards the 'real'.


  1. A friend of mine and I recently discussed how similar we found Anderson's films to Greenaway's films. If the influence comes back to the UK by way of Anderson I don't think that it would be a great leap to say that it is merely returning from whence it came. The major difference seems to be that Greenaway is more of a choreographer of humans within an installation whereas Anderson acts like more of a conductor of emotions, but their compositions, story structures, and highly specific and intently focused upon mise en scene are more similar to each other to me than they either is similar to any other filmmakers who are not entirely derivative of one or the other.

  2. A very strong observation, nicely put. Anderson is definitely influenced by a few filmmakers who we think of as arch aesthetic ironists concerned with 'distanciation' - I'd suggest (early) Godard as another one, and Discreet Charm-era Bunuel too. As you say though, he's also more concerned to be 'sincere'/'emotional'/engaged'/whatever than these touchstones, which is one of the things that gives his films their particular tonal tension. I've always thought of Hal Ashby as a key precursor, and as someone else who navigates a similar line.