It's easy to forget that the '90s had its own unique look and vibe -- just like the '80s, '70s, and '60s before it. It's not until we throw a film into the player that we remember just how rampant the flannel was, how many sexy women were swathed in over-sized clothing, and how the cinematic landscape was rife with raw and emerging indie talent. It was a decade kicked off by Richard Linklater's $23,000 Slacker, which then inspired the whirlwind that was Kevin Smith and Clerks.
From Cameron Crowe's Singles to Chasing Amy, the '90s were fueled by ties to indie culture and a feverish DIY sense. I'm not referring to today's DIY littering magazines and blogs, but the moments when fledgling talents bravely set out not only to relish the alternative scene, but to create their own art, maxing out credit cards and renting equipment before it became all too easy with YouTube and DSLR movie cameras. The movement produced a lot of intimate, gritty, and unpolished features that rose beyond their modest means. But one often gets lost in the '90s shuffle, perhaps because it was a film free of the low-budget feel -- Wes Anderson's fumbling thief film, Bottle Rocket.
If we weren't familiar with Owen Wilson's now-flowing locks, or brother Luke Wilson's now short hair, or with the slight wrinkles that now line each face, we might think Bottle Rocket is a modern film. Unlike its '90s brethren (it came out two years after Clerks), Wes Anderson's first feature has the look of an experienced eye. Rather than focusing solely on the content and journey of his characters, he frames each shot, imbuing it with just the right angle, vibrancy, and amount of snappy editing. The way we view the film is just as important as the content inside. One of the best examples is when Dignan (Owen Wilson) -- our thieving mastermind -- gets beat up inside a bar, as Anthony (Luke Wilson) -- his mellow accomplice -- sits in front of the window. Anthony's obsessed with himself and completely unaware of the fight on the other side of the glass. It's funny and eye-catching, while also the perfect embodiment of these two men and the scenario they're in. Dignan's tied to detrimental disaster, and Anthony's mind is elsewhere.
Anderson's eye seems quite mindful of the ultimate result, as if he wants to create a world free of '90s constraints. Even the wardrobe, which isn't quite modern, is still timeless enough that age doesn't scream from each cell of the film. If one saw the feature blind, no idea of the filmmakers, stars, and release date, one might think it was a current film going for a Twin Peaks timelessness -- not quite right with current times, but not entirely tied to any other period.
But that's not to say that it's entirely different from the other new directors working in the '90s. Like Linklater, Anderson is a Texan filmmaker. He met collaborator Owen Wilson at the University of Texas, and filmed Bottle Rocket in the Dallas area. But the most distinct similarity is the stream-of-consciousness story with no finite and specific end in sight. Though it has a greater narrative structure than Linklater's Slacker, for example, there's the same sense of whimsy to the storytelling. Just as Anthony (Luke Wilson) is not absolutely dedicated to the robbery lifestyle Dignan (Owen Wilson) cooks up, and prefers to relish his new relationship with Inez (Lumi Cavazos), Anderson is more interested in how his characters interact than how they plan to become criminals.
In his review, Roger Ebert wrote:
Bottle Rocket is entertaining if you understand exactly what it is: if you see it as a film made by friends out of the materials presented by their lives and with the freedom to not push too hard. Its fragile charm would have been destroyed by rewrites intended to pump it up or focus it; it needs to meander, to take time to listen to its dialogue, to slowly unveil character quirks, particularly Dignan's.
Where Clerks and Slacker received three stars, despite the kind words, Bottle Rocket received two. All three films are intimate affairs made with friends and acquaintances. Is the lower grade because Anderson's isn't speaking distinctly to a slacker culture, nor focus solely on discussion and thought? Is there something missing from the feature, which was stretched from an original 13-minute short? Does visual scope, perhaps, hurt the outcome?
To an extent, I can understand it. I never got to see Bottle Rocket in the '90s context, and now, it doesn't resonate like Clerks, nor throw me into a cerebral thought vortex like Slacker. However, It's a film of great moments, and flair. Within the context of Anderson's trajectory, and how he learned to craft his quirk (never better than The Royal Tenenbaums), it's also an excellent and fun appetizer before the cinematic skill that followed.
- Why, in a time of self-made indies and quirky films like Dazed and Confused, did the film receive "the worst scoring that Columbia Pictures had ever seen," according to Film School Rejects?
- There were many great, singular moments in the film, like the encapsulation of new love/new sex exuberance between Anthony and Inez. Which is your favorite?
- In what ways could the film improve, and what keeps it from greater love?
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