The frames-within-frames Wes Anderson uses in his work show his filmography’s obsession with memory.
The artist Joseph Cornell took glass-fronted boxes and placed things such as birds, springs, ice cubes, and balls inside them, turning these everyday and otherwise benign objects into microcosms for something bigger than any of us can ever be. These boxes were referred to as “shadow boxes”, “memory boxes” and “poetic theaters,” and with each box the viewer is given an invitation to enter a new world. This world is not unknown to the individual viewer, but instead a collective and shared world in which memories exist. As the artist’s website states: “using things we can see, Cornell made boxes about things we cannot see: ideas, memories, fantasies, and dreams.” The boxes, both tragic and beautiful, present an artist trying as hard as they can to turn something intangible, something that will inevitably fade, into a physical realm that could be preserved.
In Wes Anderson’s work, the same conceit from Cornell’s art can be seen. While the director is known for things like his use of symmetry and Futura font, it’s his frames-within-frames that show the audience both the inner psyche and memories of Anderson’s characters and those of Anderson, himself, as an artist. Anderson’s films are often interested in nostalgia, be it the director’s preoccupation with homages to French New Wave directors (his color palettes call to mind Jean-Luc Godard) and Orson Welles (beyond the the titles and themes of each film, the central houses in The Royal Tenenbaums and The Magnificent Ambersons are remarkably similar), or a character’s unwillingness to let go of the past, for example, take the significance of Richie’s falcon in Tenenbaums. But, the director’s use of frames-within-frames shows how this interest in nostalgia and memory becomes an even more vital part of the narrative.
Anderson’s first feature Bottle Rocket is about a group of three men who plan to pull off a robbery. In the film, he uses the frame-within-frame motif sparingly and, in the short film of the same name that preceded it, the director doesn’t use it at all. From Botlle Rocket’s successors, such as Rushmore, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom, the increasing use of characters framed within a frame correlate with Anderson’s increasing number of films. With each new film the director makes, he has a new work to look back on and contain within a constructed and represented memory.
In Rushmore, this attempt at preservation-of-the-fleeting is realized fully for the first time. The first shot of Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fischer places him in the centre of the frame, framed by a school window behind him. Fischer continues to be framed by the school and everything that inhabits it, as the opening sequence, and the film, continues; once Fischer has walked up to the chalkboard he is framed by two of his classmates and, in later scenes, everything from windows to fish tanks to theatre curtains and spotlights continue to contain him. Like the protagonist’s school uniform, these shots enable the school to frame Fischer and signify the attachment he has to Rushmore Academy; the film could have been called “Max Fischer,” but Max Fischer’s world revolves around Rushmore and, therefore, so does the film. This frame-within-frame imagery is seen throughout the film and tells us that Fischer can never move on from high school, that his extracurricular activities and saving Latin are mere attempts at ensuring his memory is preserved once he eventually does leave.
Paintings and literal frames play an important role as well. From the painting of Steve Zissou’s boat to Mrs. Fox’s water colors of her new home, it’s clear it’s not just only the camera that is concerned with framing. The most ubiquitous example would be Richie’s portraits of Margot in The Royal Tenenbaums, and their escape into Richie’s yellow tent. Both Richie and Margot use Anderson’s recurring image of the yellow tent to metaphorically travel back in time to a past they once knew. Moreover, as Anderson’s use of red and yellow show, Margot and Richie stepping into the yellow of the tent from the red of the room connotes a temporary journey from adulthood to childhood. What the portraits of Margot represent, then, is this attempt at preserving a period of time: preserving a memory. Just as the tent represents childhood, Richie’s portraits signify his attempt at framing and showing in a physical form his (almost fatal) emotions.
However, the passing of time is emphasized through the juxtaposing of the siblings as children and siblings as adults. When at the dining table with their father, Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), the children are placed at one end of the table and Royal at another. Margot, Richie and Chas are placed between candelabras, foreshadowing the later distancing of the Tenenbaum children. Returning to this table with the children as adults, no one is on the opposite end of the table; Royal has no one to look back to, with the memory of the earlier scene left in a ghostly reminder through the candelabras.
Anderson continues this motif of characters framing other characters and places in Moonrise Kingdom. The first shot of the film begins with a frame-within-frame image, with the framed painting of Suzy Bishop’s house in New Penzance establishing the theme of memory present in Anderson’s work. As we watch the film, we see a mirroring between Sam and Suzy. Both do not want to remember their home life and use creative means in order to escape: Suzy uses her books and Sam uses his camp tools. By the time the film comes to its conclusion, Anderson mirrors the opening frame-within-a-frame shot by focusing on Sam’s painting of the cove that they call Moonrise Kingdom. Like with Rushmore, the place where the memories of the protagonists exist is used as the title of the film; these are shared memories preserved in fiction.
Sam’s painting is framed by the room that surrounds it, which is framed by the camera; this style of shot connotes Sam and Suzy’s attempt at preserving their memories of Moonrise Kingdom. Like their island’s fictional name, the transferal of memory to a framed painting signifies the death of that memory in the minds of its owners, yet, for the observing strangers, it lives on. The director does not finish this motif of shared memories with the painting, either, and, instead, finishes the film with a dedication to his partner. The fictional memories merge with the real memories of the film’s creator, as Moonrise Kingdom-the film serves the same purpose as ‘Moonrise Kingdom’-the painting and fictional place, both attempting to immortalize a memory through a physical form, turning it into a shared experience.
It’s in The Grand Budapest Hotel that Anderson uses the frame-within-a-frame shots least sparingly. From the recurring theme of framed paintings, lampshades framing villains, windows framing heroes, and boxes from Mendl’s bakery capturing Zero (Tony Revolori) and Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), the paintings and windows these characters are framed within are Anderson’s own versions of the memories Cornell captures in his boxes. One reason for the surge in Anderson’s use of frames-within-frames in The Grand Budapest Hotel is because the whole film is submerged in memory, namely, the memory of Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). As Joseph Cornell’s boxes have been described, The Grand Budapest Hotel is both a series of stories within stories – much like Sam’s painting in Moonrise Kingdom – but also a representation of “the longing for something that happened long ago and far away,” as represented through the director’s choice of framing.
Anderson has long been criticized for valuing style over substance, yet the Cornell-esque memory boxes he creates establish that this is not true. The director’s frames characters within an already intricately-planned frame showcases the same dichotomy Cornell presented in his boxes. On the one hand, they are both turning something fleeting into a piece of art, but, at the same time, each of his characters are either trapped inside memories that can no longer be lived: such as Max Fischer and Mr. Moustafa, or, like Suzy and Sam or Richie Tenenbaum, left with physical representations rather than the real thing.