Bright Lights Film Journal

Book Review: Fucking Innocent: The Early Films of Wes Anderson, by John Andrew Fredrick

Wes Anderson during the filming of Rushmore (1998). Credit: Touchstone Pictures/Photofest

Fucking Innocent: The Early Films of Wes Anderson, by John Andrew Fredrick. $15.95, 288 pp. Rare Bird Books, 2017.

The first thing to note about John Andrew Fredrick’s book is the way it unceremoniously announces that Anderson’s career now extends far enough to mark out an “early” phase in his catalog. For Fredrick’s purposes, “early” refers to Anderson’s first three films, Bottle Rocket, (1996), Rushmore (1998), and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). There’s a case to be made for the films comprising a distinct period in Anderson’s development – the increasing formal sophistication across the three, as well as the origins and development of so many Andersonian trademarks – but Fredrick, unfortunately, forgoes an introductory chapter that might’ve put such a framework in place. There’s also no connective tissue joining the three chapters (each on one of the three films).

What he does offer, though, is a trio of spirited essays. It quickly becomes apparent that Fucking Innocent is criticism-as-grinning-jaunt. Fredrick’s attitude toward the value and success of Anderson’s larger project is unclear, but he’s a clear admirer of the first three films. He classes Anderson as an “auteur whose scripts are word-driven.” Fredrick’s layout is unadorned. He forgoes the scholarly trappings – no footnotes, no introductory essay – and examines the films head on, charting Anderson’s development as a filmmaker. The good news is that this leads to a lean, focused book, one that remains attentive to the three films. It also leaves open the question of what justifies treating Anderson’s first three films as distinct from his later output, and what shortcomings (if any) mark the later work. He responds to the looseness of Bottle Rocket, calling it Anderson’s masterpiece, and the emerging formal conceits that anchor Rushmore. By comparison, The Royal Tenenbaums gets something of a short sell (the last 21 of 140 pages), but Fredrick does pronounce it “a very great and very sentimental film – therefore good and bad.”

There’s such ease here, though, that the oversight is easy to forgive. Fredrick’s critical eye floats from, say, a scene in Bottle Rocket in which Anthony and Ines make love while Love’s “Alone Again Or” plays, to the observation that the song is “brilliant mood music. I could be in love with almost everyone, Arthur Lee sings. Which,” Fredrick concludes, “is the lovely effect Love and love has on one.” A round of practice shooting takes place at “a bucolic, impromptu, Rube Goldberged-up shooting place near a North Texas ranch or farm house.” He contemplates the question of whether the Tenenbaum kids’ genius is a credible plot point and cites Margot’s reading Chekhov and Shaw, “two artists that’d be way over the head of any kid, even a geniusy one,” as part of the case against any type of child-geniuses in any field other than music or mathematics. Fredrick doesn’t refrain from passing judgment, but he also has a far longer leash in this regard than writers whose books arrive via academic presses. He takes full advantage of the leeway, and the resulting freedom finds him sizing up Rushmore’s Miss Cross as “any artist/dreamer/nerd’s dreamy dream girl,” and Cormac McCarthy “one of the greatest (of) American pretenders.” There are also moments when he threatens to abuse the privilege, as when he writes, “I remember Anderson saying somewhere” that the kids who played Ronny and Donny in Rushmore were in fact similar to the characters.

Anderson and James Caan on the set of Bottle Rocket. Credit: Columbia Pictures/Photofest

Fredrick, a novelist and musician himself (he’s fronted LA indie rockers The Black Watch for nearly three decades), is especially good on Anderson’s use of music in the films. “In a way, it’s good that [Anderson’s] team couldn’t get the original of the opening number ‘Hey Jude,’” Fredrick writes, “a, to say the least, transcendental/fucking amazing song about a lost kid who needs consoling for an absent parent; it’s good that it’s a cover, a fake or ‘fugazi’ in the slang sense, in that were this family and their story of ‘failure, betrayal and disaster’ ‘real’ and/or realistically portrayed, it’s be way too much for us to take, an act that’d overwhelm us, and not necessarily in a good way.” And he’s in on the jokes, even the ones Anderson may not have intended: “Wes Anderson, did you have the crew rob a cold storage place just so that you can have the cops say ‘freeze!’ when Dignan gets deservedly nabbed?”

Fucking Innocent is the kind of book I’ll have dog-eared and at the ready the next time I watch one of Anderson’s early films, and not just because it could pass for a prop from one of them. There will be moments to grin and nod along with Fredrick, like his account of when Anthony asks Ines where she’s from. “‘Paraguay,’ she says, lilting it with her beautiful little half-lisp.” But really, fair enough: critic, viewer, reader (this viewer-reader, at least) are no more immune to her pull than Anderson’s doomed Anthony. There will of course be others to fling it aside and say, “No, I don’t see that at all,” but the fact the book inspires such animated reactions is where its real value lies.