Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Indian Giving

Criterion's stunning Blu-ray release of Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited provides an opportunity to re-examine a movie that was received rather coldly when it was released in 2007 - or at least it should. Wes Anderson's film about three brothers on a "spiritual journey" through India may be his greatest work, one of his Salinger-esque tales of the disaffected wealthy, but here he puts his typically Anderson-ian characters into a global context, enriching our understanding both of his characters and of the world itself. Anchored by three great performances from Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman (who are completely believable as brothers in spite of looking nothing alike), this is Anderson at his best - gorgeous aesthetics, funny, poignant, sad, and incredibly moving.

Any discussion of The Darjeeling Limited must begin with the film's true beginning, the short Hotel Chevalier, a great film on its own that is even greater in the context of The Darjeeling Limited, as The Darjeeling Limited is greater, more powerful, and richer in the context of Hotel Chevalier. Hotel Chevalier focuses on the younger brother Jack, played by Jason Schwartzman, and as far as I know Anderson using the vessel of a short film as a prequel to the film that it precedes is unique. It's certainly an inspired an idea, at any rate, though a completely necessary one. Hotel Chevalier is, while an integral part of The Darjeeling Limited, very much its own film with a tone that differentiates it from the feature; there is an exuberance permeated by sadness in The Darjeeling Limited, whereas the tone of Hotel Chevalier is decidedly melancholic, though beautifully so. We are introduced to Jack as he sits alone in a hotel room in Paris when his one man party is crashed by his ex-girlfriend, who invites herself up to his room. Anderson, with his wide lenses and 'scope aspect ratio, makes the hotel room feel at once vast and confined, creating almost a feeling of claustrophobia in what is undoubtedly a 5 star hotel. The hotel room itself is eerie, like the zoo at the end of 2001, in that the room itself symbolizes a literal and figurative solitude. Jack prepares his iPod doc to play Peter Sarstedt's "Where Do You Go To My Lovely?" upon her arrival, and this feels almost like Anderson criticizing his own methods, that is using music as a kind of emotional shorthand. The reunion with his girlfriend, played in a coolly detached manner by Natalie Portman, when it occurs is extremely painful - not the passionate embrace of reunited lovers, but isolated people fucking out of loneliness, boredom, and desperation. When in bed, with her naked on top of him, they don't even have the meaningless sex that was the whole purpose of her visit in the first place, and, in an exquisite moment, he throws a robe over her (in slo-mo, of course) while, yes, Peter Sardtedt's "Where Do You Go To My Lovely?" comes in on the soundtrack. The characters finally leave their room and step out into the world, ignoring their own problems and appreciating the beauty of their surroundings; this is the key theme of The Darjeeling Limited, literally stepping outside yourself and gaining a better understanding of the world around you, and in turn gaining a better understanding of yourself.

A large part of the condescension towards The Darjeeling Limited when it was released resulted simply from its subject matter - white people (rich white people, at that) traveling through a 3rd world nation and "finding themselves" in the process. What this line of criticism ignores is that Anderson himself is critical of this so-called "spiritual journey", and he puts their materialism on display throughout the film and is sharply critical of it himself. The first stop on the three brothers' journey is an outdoor mall - the spiritual journey begins, as it were, with shopping. The brothers carry luggage (exquisitely designed by Wes' brother, Eric) that was previously owned by their dead father throughout, and yes, this is a bit of rather heavy handed symbolism - but it symbolizes much more than their family's emotional baggage, it's a literal representation of the brothers' attachment to possessions. They bicker over items of clothing, over which of their father's possessions belongs to whom, over the most petty, insignificant of things - yet Anderson mangers to be critical of them while never looking down at them. He has too much affection for, and understanding of, his characters to gratify a desire to put the bourgeois on display so we can all gawk at the immorality of those decadent rich folks. Anderson is a humanist, above all else, and a large part of humanism is trying to understand people we don't necessarily have an immediate, emotional connection with - of empathizing with the other.

And this is the key theme of Anderson's more recent work - while his films from Bottle Rocket through The Royal Tenenbaums (all of which I like, in varying degrees) are relatively inclusive - if we were going to level the accusation of Anderson being a white film maker who makes white movies about white people doing white things, I could almost understand that if you were judging solely by his first three films, though that's still a gross oversimplification, and it's hard to imagine these accusations being leveled at film makers of other races. But Anderson's films since The Life Aquatic have all been about, either directly or indirectly, understanding the other as a natural part of the world - even if it's scary, unusual, or both. In The Life Aquatic this was symbolized, naturally, by the Jaguar Shark that starts out as the Moby Dick to Steve Zissou's Captain Ahab, but by the end, when Zissou has the opportunity to kill it, he can not - he is awestruck by the creature's beauty, even if that beauty is threatening to our own existence. In last year's Fantastic Mr. Fox, the other is symbolized by the wolf - the film makes Fox's phobia of wolves clear throughout the film, and when Fox meets the creature at the film's end, he too is blown away by the creature's majesty, and can no longer fear it. This sublime moment was accused of being racist by some, because the wolf is black - but, assuming Anderson meant for this moment to symbolize race relations (I don't think it's that specific), that would make it the opposite of racism. The key theme of his work has always been understanding - loving, even - that which we don't understand; his characters have generally been obnoxious and petulant, yet earnest and lovable - though he's expanded that theme in recent years beyond what was previously a relatively narrow worldview. In spite of the fact that Anderson's films are largely divorced from a political context, empathy as he portrays it is practically a revolutionary concept.

The other manifests itself in two ways in The Darjeeling Limited - first, and most in line with the two examples I cited above, is the tiger that's haunting the convent where the boys' mother, Sister Patricia Whitman (Anjelica Huston), lives. The second is the people and country of India itself, and once the brothers are kicked off their train at about the film's halfway point, the genuine spiritual journey begins. To this point, they have been typical American tourists - visiting the towns, admiring the people, wasting money on frivolous expenditures, but a tonal shift occurs after they get kicked off their train for fighting like a bunch of 5 year olds - one of the film's most hilarious scenes, yet it is a humor that illuminates a profound sadness in terms of the brothers' relationship with each other. The Whitman brothers naively hope that this beautiful country with its beautiful people holds the answer to their problems - that's the rather patronizing attitude Owen Wilson's Francis has been trying to imbue the trip with, as it's easy to think that a certain place holds the answer to your problems when you are ignorant to their problems. They were amused by the quaintness of the country and its people while traveling on the train, seeing the country in only the most superficial of ways - "These people are beautiful", Francis says on one of their stops, and that about sums up the complexity of the brothers' perceptions of their spiritual journey. They go through the motions of a spiritual awakening, but leave out the important part - they go to Indian churches but pick petty fights with each other instead of pray (their ignorance is hilariously crystallized when Adrien Brody's character Peter says, after getting fed up with the bickering, "I'm gonna go pray at a different thing"), they focus more on their personal problems than learning to appreciate each other and their own life. Francis is recovering from a motorcycle crash that he reveals later to his mother to have been a failed suicide attempt, Peter is apprehensive about the fact that his wife is having a child, and Jack is recovering from the failed relationship we glimpsed in Hotel Chevalier. They finally get removed from the train for being so childish and disruptive throughout their trip, and as they set up camp in the Indian desert they have reached rock bottom - "Maybe this is where the spiritual journey ends", Jack says, and it does seem that the three of them are incapable of relating no matter how hard they try because they all, not to put too fine a point on it, have their respective heads up their respective asses - so much so that, when Francis reveals to his brothers that the real reason for the trip is to meet up with their estranged mother, all they can do is use this as an excuse to become even more withdrawn from each other.

While traveling the next day they encounter three children making way across a tempestuous river on a raft, and the raft capsizes and each brother quickly jumps in the water to save one apiece. Francis and Jack each save a child, but the one Peter was trying to save was killed on the rocks, "I didn't save mine" is his heartbreaking confession as he holds the dead child in his arms, covered in blood that is not his own. In an instance of parallelism typical of the famously meticulous Anderson, it was three brothers they encountered, and as they're leaving the village the Whitmans are informed that they're invited to the funeral. It is in this passage of the film that the brothers get a true glimpse into India - into their way of living, their beliefs, their social customs, and it is at this point that their sojourn to India becomes a genuine spiritual journey, not just a hollow, cliched idea of what a spiritual journey should be. The death of the child naturally strikes a deep chord with Peter, and this tragedy helps put his own problems, indeed the problems of all the brothers, into context; as the Whitmans march off to the child's funeral, with The Kinks' "Strangers" coming in on the soundtrack in one of those patently poetic slo-mo shots of Anderson's, they have transcended their small mindedness and are finally truly brothers. At this point the film flashes back to the last time the three of them were together, their father's funeral, and this masterful sequence detailing their experience at Lutwaffe Automotive - alluded to throughout because it's the subject of a short story Jack is writing - is like another Hotel Chevalier, another movie within a movie that, instead of focusing on one of the brothers, illuminates who all three Whitman brothers are as people, their motivations, and their relationship with one another.

At this point the Whitmans go to follow through with their plan to leave India, and they get as far as the airport tarmac. There is a wonderful sequence set in the airport lounge, and it's clear that the brothers feel more comfortable with each other, as they look happy to be together for the first time in the movie. The incident with the three brothers has clearly impacted them significantly, awakening them to the beauty and preciousness of their relationship with one another, but Anderson coveys that not with grandiose emotional moments but subtly through the brothers' mannerisms. They have a brief conversation right outside the airplane, though we don't hear any of it as the plane's propeller drowns it out - obviously we don't know what they said, but Anderson clearly wants you to imagine it, and I've always imagined Francis turning to his brothers and saying something to the effect of "Look, we don't have it so bad. We came all the way to India to see our mother, and we should". Whatever he said he must have made a strong case as Peter, who has to this point been hostile to all of Francis' ideas, takes their tickets and tears them up right there on the tarmac. The spiritual journey hasn't ended.

The passage at their mother's convent is perhaps the most extraordinary one in the film, as it gives Anderson a venue with which to more directly address the themes of family, spirituality, class, and materialism that have to this point only lingered on the surface. The ghosts of the past are made apparent immediately upon their arrival when their mother asks Francis, whose face is covered in bandages, what happened, and it's at this point that he confesses that the crash - which to this point he'd claimed to be an accident - was a failed suicide attempt. "There's a lot we don't know about each other" is their mother's reply, and this simply and eloquently expresses how much they've changed and gone down separate paths since the death of the boys' father. And, as the Whitman boys tend to, the bickering begins almost immediately - they can only ask their mother, like a bunch of neglected 12 year olds "What are you doing here?", and she responds that these people need her in a way her grown sons can't and shouldn't. They may have learned to appreciate each other more, but they still fail to grasp that there are people in the world whose needs are far greater than their own - they still think of Patricia as their mommy. She suggests that they stop feeling sorry for themselves and stop with this incessant bickering; she suggests they simply look at each other. So they shut up for the first time in their life (for the first time in the movie, anyway) and try to really see each other, to look deep inside these people that you have wasted so much time hating and bickering with. In the film's most stunning sequence - indeed, perhaps the most stunning sequence of Anderson's filmography - these characters look at each other and see the world, and Anderson expresses this with the most natural of visual metaphors considering the film's title, a train. But the train isn't just a train - it's a hotel room, an airplane compartment, indeed the whole world; and every compartment contains all the film's minor characters - it is The Darjeeling Limited. The train is life itself, and the tiger, the other that is a threat to our own existence, is a God in Anderson's micro-cosmic universe. This is Anderson's most concise expression of his view of humanity as ultimately one despite the language, class, and social barriers that separate us, and the result is eminently beautiful.

There is still one hurdle that remains on the brothers' spiritual journey, though they are themselves unaware of it until the moment presents itself. They leave their mothers' convent the next day after she mysteriously disappears, which they are told she is known to do from time to time. They get to the train station just as their train is departing, and in one of the great liberating moments of modern cinema, they dispense with their luggage in order to make the train on time. Again, this may be somewhat obvious symbolism, but it's also extremely rich symbolism; not only are they dispensing with their father's baggage, but with their mother's, their own, dispensing of their pettiness and materialism and vindictiveness and simply living life. They are now truly family because they are now truly people. In The Darjeeling Limited, trains - collections of humans, where each person is interesting and beautiful and on their own unique path - are symbols of life, and after such a profound and metaphysical spiritual journey, Wes Anderson makes us all want to get on board. Great movie.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Bloggin' Spielberg

My friend and partner in crime Adam Zanzie and I would like to take this opportunity to announce a little pet project of ours: we'll be hosting a Steven Spielberg blogathon come December. December 18th, to be exact. It will run a full ten days, so that means it ends the 28th, for the mathematically challenged among us (I used a calculator). Anyone and everyone can participate, just please send myself and Adam (or just one of us, if you're lazy) the links to your work when it's published, and I will link to them here as well as on a blog I created specifically for the blogathon (click picture for link).

Also on the blog you will find banners for the blogathon. If you could place them on your own site, I would greatly appreciate it.

Adam Zanzie's email:

My email:

Thanks in advance, everybody.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Kids Today: The Social Network

Two artistic styles that, separate from one another, I've found obnoxious in the past - David Fincher, who found profundity in the grotesque and banal before becoming an Oscar-baiting softy and Aaron Sorkin, best known as a smartass writer of trite melodramas on the big and small screen - form an effective synthesis in The Social Network, aka "The Facebook Movie" (even though "The Mark Zuckerberg Movie" is more accurate and less reductive, but anyway). It's not that their temperaments compliment each other so much as they cancel each other out - Fincher's ice cold detachment effectively counterbalances Sorkin's hacky, show off writing style, while Sorkin supplies Fincher's stoic seriousness with a sense of life and energy. In tandem they've created perhaps the best "Give me an Oscar!" movie in a while, though that's admittedly a bit of faint praise.

One thing that I think is important before continuing: The Social Network is not, ostensibly, a movie about "the Facebook" - that would be boring. I feared that it would be based on the trailer released earlier in the year, but it's a movie about the people who made Facebook. There is a distinction, and a fairly large one at that. Though it's an ingrained part of the world today - honestly, it's hard to imagine going to a party without being tagged in a photo album the next day, and it's hard to meet someone without asking them if they have a Facebook - analyzing Facebook as social phenomenon when it's been around less than a decade would be pretty much a futile effort, and thankfully Sorkin and Fincher avoid that line of thought, for the most part. Though the movie can't resist making a few sweeping generalizations about connection in the digital age, mercifully these examinations comes in the context of Zuckerberg as a human being as opposed to a sociological one. What I find disappointing is that The Social Network is ultimately a combination of two rather cliched stories: triumph of the underdog, of the nerd vs. the jock(s), and a tale of a person who gains everything and loses his soul in the process. And I don't think it brings enough new ideas to these older-than-dirt stories to be a really great movie.

If The Social Network is a great movie - and I don't think it is by any means - it's because of Jesse Eisenberg's performance as Mark Zuckerberg. He so perfectly balances arrogance and insecurity, loneliness and congeniality, bitterness and charisma, that he rises above the rather mediocre material. We're introduced to Zuckerbeg while he's having a typical Sorkin rapid fire conversation with his girlfriend in a bar, and he says something obnoxious about his being allowed into clubs and introducing his girlfriend to "people she wouldn't meet otherwise", which she (understandably) takes a large degree of offense to, and walks out on him, though not before saying to him "When you're alone, it won't be because you're a nerd, it'll be because you're an asshole". I have no issues with taking artistic license, but the real Zuckerbeg has claimed that he had no interest in joining college clubs, and I see no reason to not believe that. Why would he? It's clear he planned to make a ton of money working with computers, so why would he waste time with a bunch of spoiled little shits while they do body shots and play beer pong when he was a blatant careerist, even as an undergrad? But Fincher and Sorkin don't really see it that way, and early on the movie includes a rather hackneyed juxtaposition between Zuckerberg and his group of computer nerd friends working on a website and one of those illicit college parties - you know the kind, with blasting techno music in a darkened hall, where super skinny girls take off all their clothes (in slow motion to boot!), where the cool kids play strip poker while doing ecstasy and - wait for it! - smoke pot, and have sex with each other, and do all those super cool things that I'd imagine Fincher and Sorkin were never invited to do, because this rather unfortunate sequence is played with hostility. Basically, it's a cliched movie party that exhibits how out of touch the two of them are from any kind of modern reality - they're just basically saying "Look at these kids, with their Northfaces and their marijuana and their alcohol and their sexy parties and their internet" - not a particularly unique point to be making, and it honestly makes Sorkin and Fincher look like a pair of cranky fuddy duddys. I think this speaks more to their view of "the cool kids" than to Zuckerberg's, which is fine, but to take such extreme artistic license while projecting your own anti-social anxieties onto another human being is borderline character defamation.

Not to say Zuckerberg isn't worthy of some criticism - he's a ladder climber who stomped on people on his way to the top. He perhaps not un-coincidentally donated $100,000,000 to Newark public schools about a week before the film's release, and I don't think you need to have a PHD to deduce that he was probably trying to pre-emptively repair his image in light of a film that is, really, extremely critical of him - he's called an asshole or something to that effect no less than 20 times during the course of the movie. I don't know how serious a flaw in terms of storytelling that is, but I think this is fairly representative of A) the current hatred of the wealthy elites and B) the resentment of genuine innovators in this country, which admittedly isn't exactly a new development. Zuckerberg created - and he did create it - a tool that fulfilled such a primary function and spoke to such a profound need that it's hard to imagine a world without it. Coming up with something so simple is undoubtedly a form of genius, and if he's as much of a back-stabbing shit as Sorkin and Fincher make him out to be, well, welcome to America. That's how you make billions of dollars. Bill Gates "stole" an idea in the same way Zuckerberg did - and, like Gates, Zuckerberg improved the initial idea, made it simpler, more accessible. You don't become a billionaire by being nice and doing everything by the book. It just doesn't work that way.

What I've frequently found most bothersome about David Fincher's sensibility is his detached point of view, but that detachment helps diffuse some of the idiocies of Sorkin's script. Sorkin's script is just so conventional, and even the interwoven structure - which has invited comparisons to Citizen Kane - feels like it's there strictly to impress. The dialogue is the driving force of The Social Network, and I think it speaks to Sorkin's lack of ability that many of the film's best moments are wordless ones. An event so frequently cited as proof positive of Zuckerbeg's dickishness and cockery, the now famous "I'm CEO, bitch" incident, is played as such an expression of youthful arrogance that it's heartbreaking, with Zuckerberg looking over the cards with the aforementioned expression on it alone in the office of Facebook and wondering what the hell he was thinking - and Eisenberg absolutely nails this poignant moment. Fincher works Sorkin's script, somehow, as it's easy to imagine another director either playing the film as either too much of a celebration or condemnation of Zuckerberg, but Fincher's detachment gives way to a sense of objectivity. Though Sorkin does not deny Zuckerberg's humanity, I still feel like he's a little too harsh on him; yes, he's a bit of a jerk, but he was also a sophomore in college when he suddenly found himself in charge of a multi-million dollar - and, soon enough, multi-billion dollar - corporation. We can cut the guy a little slack I think, as I'm sure there are lots of people who, if they had their every move from their early 20s enshrined in the popular lexicon, wouldn't come out smelling like roses either.

The backbone of The Social Network is a great and truly amazing story, a real life account so littered with drama that it was almost tailor made for a movie. However, Fincher's directorial disconnect helps keep the film from becoming a soap opera, and it is this very disconnect that creates a feeling of isolation, which in turn helps align our sympathies with the lonely Zuckerberg. Though I feel Sorkin and Fincher are too hard on Zuckerberg throughout the picture, ultimately they understand that his know it all exterior is a facade concealing a much more complex person. "You're not an asshole, Mark, you're just trying so hard to be" , a lawyer tells him, echoing his ex-girlfriend's harsh words to him in the beginning of the picture, and though this line is more than a tad sappy - I was so embarrassed upon hearing it that I looked around for a place to hide - it still works, and it's still necessary to the duo's portrait of Zuckerberg. Most affecting is the film's final moment, (again, wordless) which shows Zuckerberg looking over his ex-girlfriend's Facebook profile and adding her as a friend, and hitting refresh on an endless loop. The implications of a man who brought so many people together being unable to forge a human connection himself elevates this insider account of the creation of a social networking site to a more general statement on the nature of loneliness, and is all the richer for it.