20 Years of Wes Anderson

February 21 2016

Twenty years ago to the day, the world was introduced to Wes Anderson, or at least some of the world was. His first feature film, Bottle Rocket, made it’s US debut on February 21st, 1996 and was a bit of a flop in theaters. But critics adored the comic naiveté of the trio of young Texan criminals, and the film helped launch a career that would give us one of cinema’s greatest living auteurs. His idiosyncratic visual style launched a thousand Etsy shops, but it is the empathy with which Anderson treats the characters in his films for which he is so continuously beloved. To mark the anniversary of his very first feature, we reached out to Andrew Blossom, general manager at our beloved Video Fan video rental shop (yes, they still exist!) , for his thoughts on the seminal Bottle Rocket.

I remember very well the first time I encountered Bottle Rocket. I must have been a junior in high school, that part I don’t quite remember, although it squares with the film’s release date. At the time I read the Washington Post  Weekend section every Friday, every film review, beginning to end. This was my education in world cinema—read the reviews in the paper, then go see the movies that interested me, or find them later at the video store.

I think the Post’s review of Bottle Rocket was a good one, although it almost didn’t matter. The scenario it described—three guys shambling around, trying to be criminals, mostly ineffectively—and I thought, this movie is for me. But I blew it, probably because it was February and I was in high school. I didn’t make it to the one screen in DC that was showing the film. I missed it in the theater. So, when it came to the video store however many months later, I was really, really ready to see it.

Due to my education in video stores, I was a fan of a lot of American independent filmmakers. Hal Hartley, Richard Linklater, Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, the Coen Brothers, their work probably primed me to like Bottle Rocket. Bottle Rocket had the same kind of energy as these films that I loved, but it was entirely original, a wholly unique expression, wonderfully written and whip-smart. The first time I watched it, my enjoyment of the early scenes transformed into a kind of wonder. Anthony “breaking out” of the hospital for Dignan’s sake, Dignan’s fifty-year plan, Anthony’s kid sister reluctantly lecturing him on what a disappointment he had been. By the time Dignan sent Anthony off and ran back into the cold storage facility to the tune of The Rolling Stones’ 2000 Man, I was in love. That scene immediately pushed its way through everything else I previously loved to become, at that moment, the greatest thing I’d ever seen.

In the two years that followed, the years before Rushmore hit, I tried to convince every person I could to go find Bottle Rocket and watch it. After Rushmore, you didn’t have to tell them about it. But before Rushmore, it took some convincing.

When I got to college, I had a Bottle Rocket poster, Anthony, Dignan and Bob firing their guns in a field. I easily befriended anyone who liked the film. One woman told me she didn’t enjoy it because she hated Owen Wilson’s teeth. That friendship did not last. I ran a repertory film series for a while in college. We showed it, on 35mm, no less. My good friends and I would break out quotes from the film whenever a situation required, particularly if they involved Kumar Pallana:
“I blew it, man.” “I don’t know, man, I lose my touch.”

“Who’s that man?”

“That’s Applejack, come on!”

I revisit Bottle Rocket every few years. If I were smart I’d watch it once a year, just because it gives me so much joy. I do spend a lot of time in a video store, and lately it’s struck me that Bottle Rocket is not just an expression of the flowering of independent American cinema in the 1990s, it also falls into a vein of filmmaking that began to came out of Texas in the 1970s. A loose series of likeminded films, all of them smart and a little quirky, a little funny, a little tense, a little sad. The Last Picture Show, sure, but also the Coens’ Blood Simple, Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2, Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero (the Houston scenes, anyway), David Byrne’s True Stories, Linklater’s Slacker and Dazed and Confused. Texas movies. And there, almost like a period at the end of the sentence, Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket. Whenever I’m in Texas, I drive around and think about these movies. In Dallas and Fort Worth, I always, always think about Bottle Rocket.

I stood in line behind Kumar Pallana once, at the Jackson Diner in Queens. We were waiting for dosa. This was before everyone had a camera in their phone, I certainly did not. I may not even have had a phone. And I didn’t bother him. It was about the time The Royal Tenenbaums came out, and there were two girls who were doing that already. But at one point he looked over at me and smiled, and I smiled back. That’s it. It was probably the best thing that happened that year, Kumar, man! Come on!

Andrew Blossom is the founding editor of Makeout Creek, the author of I’ve Got a Message for You and You’re Not Going to Like It and a co-editor of Richmond Noir. He works at the Video Fan in Richmond, Virginia.

The illustration originally appeared as a part of a set of postcards from designer Mark Dingo Francisco.