The Grand Budapest Hotel
seen @ Regal Union Square Stadium 14, New York, NY
I don't recall the name of the hotel I stayed in when I spent a summer in Barcelona during college. It was on a side street just off of Las Ramblas, which is kinda like the Fifth Avenue of Barcelona. (I think it was even in the local red light district!)
It wasn't huge. It was fairly old. I remember it had a courtyard in the center, around which the rooms were arranged. You could walk out of your room, lean out over the wrought-iron railing and look down into not only the courtyard, but at other rooms on other floors.
The elevator was the old-fashioned type, with an outer gate opening up onto the inner car. I think it was the type that didn't need an operator. On the ground level, there was a kind of rec room or lounge with a big TV, where some of us in our party would watch the Tour de France or Wimbledon. There was also a small dining room where the hotel would serve what Europeans call a "continental breakfast" - croissants, juice, fruit, that sort of thing. It was nice to have spent my European vacation in a hotel with some style, some character - a throwback to an earlier age.
I've stayed in my fair share of hotels and hostels and B&Bs over the years. I won't bore you with too many stories, but I remember incidents such as wandering through the outskirts of downtown Pittsburgh, trying to find a hotel that would take cash; watching gay couples getting married on TV in my San Francisco hotel room; freezing my butt off for a night in a tiny room in a Washington, DC hotel; getting drunk with friends in the bar of a Chicago hotel after the train ride from hell; even sharing a bed in a Columbus hotel for a night with a dude! (I suppose one day I'll have to tell you that story, at least.)
From a production standpoint, I don't think there's been a hotel in movie history quite like that in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Why? Because it's real and not real at the same time. It's a meticulously crafted work of artifice that's meant to give off the impression of a real place, but you can still see the seams, so to speak.
I suspect this is deliberate: writer-director Wes Anderson has put together this elaborate bit of artifice, yet at the same time, he's not going out of his way to make it look like the real world. The GBH is a detailed, small-scale model that he uses for establishing shots. It looks like a model. But Anderson is okay with that. There's no attempt to use camera trickery or computer-generated effects to make it look more "realistic." That's clearly not what he's going for, and there's something kinda quaint and charming about that.
But then, that fits the movie in general, which in construction reminded me of those Russian nesting dolls - you know, you open it and there's a smaller one inside; you open that one and there's an even smaller one inside that, and so on until you're left with a tiny little doll at the heart of it all. GBH opens in what could be the present day and then retreats further and further back in time through multiple flashbacks - normally considered a poor literary trick, yet here it works. Anderson even switches aspect ratios of the picture to indicate the different time periods.
The cinematography, the art direction, the production design, the costumes, the colors, the music - everything contributes towards creating this unique world, but unlike the digital dreamscapes of Cameron and Jackson and Lucas, the world of the GBH feels closer to one you could actually inhabit and still have it be distinct from our own, which I find marvelous. And it's an amusing, entertaining story as well, the kind that encourages multiple viewing.
I paid fifteen goddamn dollars for this movie... but this is one instance where I know I got my money's worth. I would've seen this someplace cheaper, but this was another outing for those of us in Vija's movie club. The lineup this time was me, Vija, Franz, Andi and Susan, and we all loved it. Vija, in particular, was drawn to the fine art aspects of the film: on Facebook today, she posted links to a bunch of articles, such as this one, describing how visual art factors in GBH beyond simply the painting that acts as the film's Macguffin. I probably would've figured out some of the art-related motifs on my own. but it helped a lot more to have someone around who's much more learned than I am at these things.