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Fantastic Mr. Fox is the Best Wes Anderson Film, Part 1: I Have a Phobia of Wolves

I WANT TO TREAT this scene as a first stepping stone in a series of reflections. I have an uphill battle to fight: I want to make case that Fantastic Mr. Fox—often overlooked or dismissed as a kid’s movie—is actually Wes Anderson’s best film, and is one of the most important films of the last ten years. I figure my favorite scene was as good a place as any to start.

The scene is both a literal and structural a detour: Mr. Fox, his son Ash, and Kylie the possum have saved cousin Kristofferson from farmer Bean. They are riding a motorcycle on their way back to their hideout to hatch a plan with the rest of the animals to get back at the farmers who have forced them underground. On the road Kylie spots a wolf. He says to the group, “Don’t turn around,” and comically all three heads turn (because, of course, in life, we do the very thing we’re told not to.) Mr. Fox stops the motorcycle to look at the wolf. “Where’d he come from?” Mr. Fox says. And soft choir music plays as Mr. Fox awkwardly comes to terms with his ‘phobia of wolves.’

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THIS IS FUNNY—I smile every time I watch this scene—but it’s also emotional. Mr. Fox too is on the brink of tears at one point but fights them back. Wes Anderson has a unique skillset as a director, one that enables him to hit beats of humor and melodrama at the same time, by complicating what would otherwise be a visually striking but superficial story with genuine discord between the appearance and what’s underneath.

Take for instance Mr. Fox’s attempt to communicate with the wolf. He states their Latin names, tells the wolf he has a phobia of wolves, speaks in different languages, but the wolf is silent. Wes Anderson’s obsession with the surface level composition does well to freight this interaction with meaning. Mr. Fox and the wolf are literally both animals but the wolf is not anthropomorphic, which brings tension to the attempts to communicate. We, as the viewers, are not sure whether or not the wolf will respond. And Mr. Fox, even set against his greatest fear, is ever a bullshit artist. He says all throughout the movie that he is a wild animal. That is taken to be the main subtext of the movie, the reason for the materialization of the main plotline: Mr. Fox cannot help but steal chickens and squabs: as he says to Kylie “And how can a fox ever be happy without, you’ll forgive the expression, a chicken in its teeth?” He thinks he wants to be a wild animal but isn’t prepared to deal with the negative consequences that go along with that. The wolf is a physical manifestation of the disparity between what Mr. Fox thinks he is and what he actually is.

The raised fist is meant to be ambiguous and funny; a symbol normally associated with political movements, it somehow fits. I don’t know why but this is the perfect way for the wolf to reciprocate—probably because it subverts Mr. Fox’s expectation that the wolf will know Latin or French, and instead, without words, this scene engenders the ironic feeling that although they are trying to express solidarity with one another, the two couldn’t be more different.

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WES ANDERSON IS THE PERFECT auteur to give expression to Mr. Fox because he too is something like a bullshit artist—but we are all bullshit artists in this sense. Mr. Fox wants both sides of the coin. He wants to live with the benefits of society and the benefits of a wild life with none of the downside, and without considering the effect that effort has on others. If this is not the underlying moral calculus for just about every modern day problem we face, I don’t know what would be.

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I APPRECIATE THE MORAL subtleties of Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is at least partially a movie made for kids. Disney & Pixar movies can be morally heavy handed, with overt messages and morals built in so obviously that it feels rigged from the beginning. Few ‘kid’s movies’ respect the intelligence of children and their ability to grasp complexity. The tested formula for conventional features seems to be: market to the parents instead of the kids, with messages the parents will want their kids to learn. This is fine. But my favorite movies and books of this genre (Willy Wonka, Star Wars, A Wrinkle in Time, & Fantastic Mr. Fox etc.) don’t necessarily pander directly to kids or to parents. Instead they become kid friendly by inviting kids to eat at the adult’s table and helping them come face-to-face with big ideas without spoon-feeding: they are accessible to kids and adults both by opening up the experiences of the characters and the general plotline in a way that is relevant to everyone.

This is no small task for the story teller. To be relevant to the widest number of people is to in some sense be universal, and a universal kids movie has fewer options at its disposal to reach such a level—being limited to what only is considered appropriate—so there is no choice other than to go deep, to delve into meaningful symbols, while eschewing the more gratuitous aspects of death or sex.

Rather than preach a specific message, this scene, and Fantastic Mr. Fox as a whole, lays out a way of thinking about the morality we all face. Even the surface is a symbol, the animals, which lends strength to Wes Anderson’s particularly stylized compositions as he plays with those metaphors.

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THE QUESTION, to my mind, is: how will we face those sides of ourselves that are driven by instinct? Avoid them? Explain them away? Run right for them, consequences be damned?

However we come to terms with this, we all have a little bit of fox in us.

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W.H. Auden’s The More Loving One: Simplicity & Depth

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W.H. AUDEN’S REPUTATION as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century is rarely questioned but many critics prefer ‘early Auden’ to ‘later Auden’. So much is the division between early and later that the demarcation even creeps into Auden’s own literary estate, as Edward Mendelson, Auden’s own literary executor, entitled his critical biographies of Auden “Early Auden” and “Later Auden.” The difference is classically summed up by the American poet Philip Larkin who criticized the ‘later Auden’ for ‘turning his back on political and social engagement in favor of the self-indulgent and the frivolous.’

“The More Loving One,” was written in 1957 when Auden was 50 and is considered to be one of Auden’s better later poems but has all the elements that some critics don’t like about his later work in general. There are no nods to his early far leftism (or any politics at all). It’s a poem about unrequited love, of all hackneyed subjects. John Fuller, in his “W.H. Auden: A Commentary,” says of “The More Loving One,” that it is ‘merely an extravagant way of coming to terms with unreciprocated love.’

Like the general critiques of later Auden, I think this take on “The More Loving One,” is unfair, or at least incomplete. Later Auden probably was frivolous and extravagant but “The More Loving One,” is upstream of politics, and is, in my opinion, more profound for it. And it’s not just a poem about love. It’s about our place in the universe and how that human idea has evolved over time. These are questions that can be asked and have been asked in any time, by anyone.

“The More Loving One,” is a series of couplets linked together with an AABB rhyme scheme, told from the 1st person point of view. This 1st person method is something Auden used in many of his most famous poems, (September 1, 1939; As I Walked Out One Evening, etc.) putting himself at ‘the moving center’ of his world. This gives the work a personal feeling and when read out loud can make the reader feel as if they are at the moving center of Auden’s world: going into a dive bar, walking on Bristol St, or looking up at the stars.

Don’t let the simple structure fool you. “The More Loving One,” is deceptively complex.

The first couplet de-romanticizes star gazing:

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well

That, for all they care, I can go to hell,

Stars are not the anthropomorphic gods/characters the Greeks superimposed upon them. They do not tell our fate. They are impersonal incidental fixtures of nature. The observer looking at the stars in this poem presupposes a modern scientific worldview. The stars are indifferent to us, beautiful as they are. But as Auden expresses the stars’ indifference to human activity, he uses ‘go to hell,’: a casual phrase expressive of human indifference which doubles as a sly religious injunction.

The second couplet grounds the observer and the reader, locating consciousness on earth:

But on earth indifference is the least

We have to dread from man or beast.

But it also informs the first couplet. Does the “I” looking up at the stars dread the stars’ indifference? It wasn’t clear at first.

The third couplet raises a question which expands these considerations into a new theme: unrequited love:

How should we like it were stars to burn

With a passion for us we could not return?

As humankind moved from ancient to modern times, we ‘discovered’ nature does not love us back. Auden is imagining this as a kind of classic love story. We are the spurned lover. Nature is the indifferent object of our affection. But in this is a kind of revelation: consciousness, being the sole enterprise of biologically ‘living’ things, is rare, and therefore valuable.

Would we give up this valuable consciousness in return for the dread, the heartbreak of loneliness?

Auden answers in the fourth couplet:

If equal affection cannot be,

Let the more loving one be me.

This is Tennyson’s famous line—Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all—as more than a riff on romance. Auden states it as a kind of universal law. Love is more valuable than indifference in a lover or in Nature. Even at the price of disappointment in either case.

THE THIRD STANZA continues to blend these two interdependent concepts so that it never becomes quite clear whether this is a poem about romance that uses Nature as a metaphor, or whether this is a poem about Nature that uses romance as a metaphor:

Admirer as I think I am

Of stars that do not give a damn,

I cannot, now I see them, say

I missed one terribly all day.

Auden overtly states his admiration for the indifferent stars in the fifth couplet while simultaneously calling it into question (“Admirer as I think I am”) which again smuggles in both ways of reading the poem. Is he getting over love lost? Are the stars a metaphor for an irretrievable human beauty he must learn to live without? Or is he feeling the loss of personal affection at discovering the demystified scientific picture of the universe?

Whichever it is, the doubts reach a personal level in the second couplet of the third quatrain: “I cannot, now I see them, say,” calls on the first couplet. We’re reminded that this whole train of thought is present tense. He is “Looking up at the stars” now and having all these thoughts now and upon remembering the previous day he cannot say he “missed one terribly[…]” In other words he admires the stars while he looks at them but does he really love them when it seems he doesn’t miss them?

Is this the old lover seen randomly in the marketplace after many years—still beautiful—awakening memories that are mistaken for feelings?

Or are the stars ghosts of old mythologies? Dead effigies to Zeus, Hercules, & Andromeda—disenchanted by modern science?

Or is it both?

THE LAST STANZA does not abandon the previous three in theme but does shift focus. Science is taken on as the new mythology, pivoting from the anthropomorphisms of ancient paganism to the final objective scientific event: the heat death of stars, and in this pivoting of subject, Auden also pivots to a future when stars will no longer be visible to human eyes.

Were all stars to disappear or die,

I should learn to look at an empty sky

And feel its total dark sublime,

Though this might take me a little time.

THROUGH WHAT SEEMS to be a simply structured aggrandizement of stargazing or unrequited love, W.H. Auden weaves together two metaphors that seem to be incompatible on the surface but were always meant to be together: Love & Nature. Modern science—or the world transparent to reason, i.e., Nature as it really is—has put old ways of interpreting the world on trial. Old story recedes. A new one replaces it. We are like a bug that continually sheds it’s skin. We moderns have adapted to our demystified world. We are used to it. We feel it’s ‘total dark sublime.’ But for those who remember the stars, it may take a little time.


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Works cited:

  1. Smith, Alexander McCall: What W.H. Auden Can Do For You. September 2013.

  2. Mendelson, Edward: Later Auden. April 1999.
  3. Fuller, John: W.H. Auden: A Commentary. August 2000.