D. H. Lawrence believed that the proper function of the critic was to trust the tale instead of the artist, and ultimately to save the tale from the artist who created it; the purpose of the film scholar, I would add, is to save the tale from the critic, the artist, and, most of all, from themselves, while attempting to do justice to all of them altogether. In this Münchhausen trilemma, where the scholar obliged to save themselves from the mire by pulling her/his own hair, a rigorous methodology, and a clear vision of the aims and epistemological foundations of the analysis is quintessential to come out of the swamp intact and to carry out a discussion that does not appear as a circular repetition of subjective/interpretative assumptions.
After reading Warren Buckland’s latest book, Wes Anderson’s Symbolic Storyworld: A Semiotic Analysis, the reader has the optimistic sensation that scholars still have an opportunity to address this absurd and paradoxical challenge, and maybe can also manage to preserve and nourish the pleasure of watching films while providing the most scrupulous and detailed analysis of a body of case studies. In this sense, he offers a unique and surprising model for new scholars in how to approach and build the theoretical analysis of films, and how to investigate, detect, and discuss the style and the recurring paradigmatic/thematic motifs enacted by specific authorial figures.
As the book’s title reveals, the object of the study is Wes Anderson’s authorship (From Bottle Rocket  to The Grand Budapest Hotel ), the symbolic composition, structural evolution and re-definition of his storyworld (the fictional-aesthetic dimension enacted by his work considered as an integrated totality). One of the main theoretical premises of the book, which re-elaborates Peter Wollen’s auteur structuralism, is that each work of an author presents and expresses variations and re-interpretations of an underlying archi-film, of a unique system of symbols and signifying codes. This symbolic order is not, however, a set of hidden traces of meaning to be discovered under the veil of aesthetic appearances constituting the work of a film director. It is, instead, a network of syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations (but also kinship structures, rules of gift-giving, mediation, and exchange), and the very force that allows the participation in a storyworld, the recognition of the logic motivating it, and, consequently, of how roles and actions take shape and meaning in this fictional dimension. Buckland combines Saussure, Lévi-Strauss, Wollen’s auteur structuralism, and narratological theories of storyworlds and privileges the notion of paradigmatic relations over the syntagmatic construction of films due to the high transformability and adaptability of the first concept, which more adequately fits the purpose of observing the non-linear (but constant) development of an archi-film. We could argue that Buckland identifies the fictional storyworld operating throughout the work of Wes Anderson as an abstract machine of signification, or, as Furio Jesi would put it, a mythological machine, a transformative body of codes and paradigmatic interconnections giving shape, coherence, and internal reproducibility to a set of formal and semantic patterns. The analysis of the mythopoietic process enacting (and enacted by) Wes Anderson’s storyworld is, indeed, one of the main analytical strategies Buckland adopts in combination with the discussion of the paradigmatic codes resonating in his work.
The first chapter of the book outlines with extreme precision the theoretical ground of the volume, dedicating major attention to Lévi-Strauss’ analysis of myths, and highlighting the effectiveness and relevance of a structural paradigmatic study for the purpose of a consistent and taxonomically adequate examination of Wes Anderson’s cinematic mythology. In particular, Buckland remarks on the importance of Lévi-Strauss’ five-stages method, considering the identification of narrative units and their organisation into paradigms (while also recognizing binary construction and oppositions or mediation) as the main steps to arrive at a structural examination of a film. The investigation of a film is, then, to be related and critically observed in comparison with other works of the author. In chapter 2, Buckland presents in more detailed fashion his renewed form of auteur structuralism, reviewing and reassessing the importance and analytical strength of the invaluable enquiries carried out by scholars such as Laura Mulvey, Rick Altman, Raymond Bellour, and Christian Metz (among many others), which still represent some of the most solid taxonomies for the textual study of films. Indeed, the search for regular patterns, for a reliable and highly reproducible categorization, which allows the overall comprehension of the semiotic event generating Wes Anderson’s archi-film, is the most evident intention motivating the book. However, the construction and identification of formal regularities does not prevent, on the other side, the possibility of noticing and appreciating the stylistic uniqueness of each case study, and to evaluate the contribution of every film in the definition of the director’s mythology.
With chapter three Buckland starts the discussion of the films in chronological order, respecting the temporal succession of each title also in the examination and presentation of the paradigmatic patterns. Thus, on one side, the readers can clearly notice the evolution of the symbolic storyworld, and how early elaborated stylistic motifs and signifying structures have constantly returned or dynamically mutated across the later films; on the other hand, the book functions retroactively, allowing us to continuously go back to previous considerations and, therefore, perceiving the concreteness of Wes Anderson’s unfinished archi-film/symbolic storyworld.
Furthermore, all the sections dedicated to the case studies present an equivalent analytical structure; they are all introduced by a plot synopsis, which indicates and numbers pivotal moments in the narratives of each film to be mentioned and reused later on in the discussion, allowing the reader to comfortably travel within the narration and the analysis. The discussion, then, focuses on the recognition of paradigms, of their recurrence or singularity, to consequently highlight the patterns of kinship, opposition, and mediation in each film. There is also an essential mechanism accompanying all the work of Wes Anderson, which couples what for Lévi-Strauss was the basic function of myth: the description of fractures in the moral order to be recovered and the process of reconstruction and cathartic re-elaboration of a form of familial/social stability.
It is very well-known how outsiders play a central role in the fictional world of the American director, and how his distinctive mode of approaching and making viewers sympathise for melancholic, social unfit, and often peculiarly rebellious subjects has engendered a very popular and effective iconography associated also with the singular aesthetic of his films. What Buckland observes and addresses with accuracy throughout the book, however, are the dynamics that position and construct the roles of the characters within the moral order of each film. The world of Wes Anderson is post-Oedipal, describes the absolute fall of reliable parental figures, and recognises the collapse of identities in terms of the traditional structures defining them or separating them from other communities. Though noticing the absurdity, and intrinsic injustice of so-called traditional values and structures, the characters of his films suffer from the possibility of not finding a new stability, a new moral framework which allows them to “fit”, and to fulfil their roles, or sometimes to give a concrete dimension to their desires and feelings. The artist and the dreamer have to find the proper place and dimension to express and nurture their fantasies, and stop attempting to transform reality in accordance with their romantic expectations, as Max in Rushmore desperately tries to do. Un-fatherly figures, such as Steve Zissou or Royal Tenenbaum are visibly incapable of embodying their functions within the familial and social dimension, thus becoming destructive figures that leave their kin (kinship and different modes of lineage are, indeed, key terms in the analyses) in a state of uncertainty and constant frailty. The circular but not identical return of the order can come only through conflicts, thefts, painful negotiations, moments of exchange, and climactic confrontations, which allow for a more inclusive redefinition of the roles to be established.
The initial traumatic events of ruptures are, indeed, necessary moments engendering the required mutations of the relations between the characters; sometimes, as in the most established tragic and mythological tradition, the emergence of a new equilibrium requires the sacrifice of the post-Oedipal figures, which, at once, reconfigures the roles, and enacts the new possibilities for the characters. The redefinition of the family, nonetheless, links together elements that were separated or differently outlined within the previous and traditional order, and reframes the very notion of kinship. The three brothers of The Darjeeling Limited (2007) discover themselves as a proper familial unity against their preceding composition; the orphan and the bachelor of Moonrise Kingdom (2012) can join their anti-social loneliness in order to build new opportunities, thus allowing Suzy and Sam to live their love outside the pure realm of fantasy. In The Grand Budapest Hotel the despotic rules of familial descent are even overcome by the laws of inheritance, thus praising the possibility of building families and communities while renouncing the burden of blood ties.
In the final chapter of the book, Buckland sums up this meticulous enquiry, and re-organises the paradigmatic relations and mythological construction emerging from the various analyses, demonstrating the high adaptability of an invaluable toolbox for those who aspire to unravel the manifold traits of film director’s storyworld.
Among the many merits of this book, it is impossible not to mention the precision and formal solidity of the discussion, which makes the reader perceive the analyses of the films and the theoretical sections as perfectly and clearly integrated, always recursively and fruitfully dialoguing with each other. Indeed, the complexity of the analysis, and the extremely detailed observations on the symbolic storyworld and paradigmatic relations between the films do not make of this book an intimidating and inaccessible source. On the contrary, the book comes out also as a remarkable example of how to combine a very dense and consistent research with an unexpected level of stylistic simplicity.
I am quite sure that many readers will be surprised by noticing such a strong and explicit reprisal of structuralist motives and methods, particularly within an analytical and theoretical panorama that is enthusiastically focused on the body, on the material and affective nature of conceptual and intellectual processes (and I would like to include myself among the enthusiasts of this biological/affective turn). Buckland’s book is, nonetheless, a challenge to be accepted and embraced – especially by “us”. It is an excellent spur for further sophistication and enrichment of “our” embodied analyses. An implicit and strong “apology for theory”, which reaffirms the relevance of semiotics by presenting a systematic, scrupulous, and compelling examination of the work of one of the most admired and popular auteurs of our time, Buckland’s work invites us to expand our approaches, to look for the systemic dynamics governing film experience, while also being able to take into account singular signifying paradigms and patterns and to reveal their specificity. The last section of the book is a small coda on the “surface” level of Wes Anderson’s film style and mise en scène, concluded by the suggestion to connect the aesthetic features and techniques characterising his cinema and the semiotic structures determining the symbolic storyworld, focusing also on the affective aspects of viewers’ participation in this fictional dimension. Can we imagine an embodied analysis of Wes Anderson’s storyworld encompassing the study of its narratives, of its distinguishing stylistic traits, of the affects it builds, and of the recurrent thematic/paradigmatic patterns defining roles and actions of the characters? Considering the recent developments in the embodied, experiential, and affective study of films, I believe the answer to be absolutely positive, and the challenge is open for those who dare. We can be confident of one thing after reading this fundamental book: fortunately, “hardcore” theoretical analyses of films are not going to leave the scene any time soon.
Warren Buckland, Wes Anderson’s Symbolic Storyworld: A Semiotic Analysis (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018)