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.


Krauthammer said...

I haven't seen this movie since it came out, so I'm a bit fuzzy on the details, but it's probably my favorite of the Anderson I've seen and you do a good job of explaining why here. I never understood the claim that the movie was an exercise in privileged white exotization of "the east." It's focused on the white protagonists, of course, but I remember it consistency portraying the "spiritual journey" as misguided and naive, what comfort they are able to get at the end comes as they stray from their original wrongheaded track.

This was also the first movie where I felt Anderson's affectations stopped feeling like affectations and became fully natural, which is weird because most people at the time seemed to have thought the opposite.

Ryan Kelly said...

This was also the first movie where I felt Anderson's affectations stopped feeling like affectations and became fully natural, which is weird because most people at the time seemed to have thought the opposite.

That's more or less the exact way I felt - even The Life Aquatic, which I love dearly, as much as I love The Darjeeling Limited, isn't exactly 'natural'. Ed Howard, in his comment on my Fantastic Mr. Fox piece, wrote that he found the details suffocating in those two films, which in turn created a feeling of claustrophobia. For me the feeling is literally the exact opposite - Anderson, like all great artists, helps me look at the world with a fresh set of eyes. To me, these ingrained details, meticulous though they may be, are essential to Anderson's mode of expression, for better or worse.

J.D. said...

What a fascinating, well-written re-appraisal of this film. I will admit to largely ignoring this film when it came out despite being a huge fan of Wes Anderson's films just because the trailers really failed to wow me or interest me at all but I finally caught up to this film on the gorgeous Criterion DVD and enjoyed it quite a bit for many of the reasons you stated so eloquently.

One thing that struck me about Owen Wilson's character is that in some ways he seems like Dignan from BOTTLE ROCKET all grown up. He is aggressive optimist, dreamer who has everything planned out for everyone else much like Dignan. Interesting...

Ryan Kelly said...

Thanks so much for the kind words, J.D. I too wrote off this film when it came out, because at that point the only Anderson I'd seen was The Royal Tenenbaums, which I didn't (and still don't) like very much, and the trailers did indeed make it look like another token indy quirk fest. Once I gave the rather hated Life Aquatic a chance, I thought maybe I was wrong about him, and then The Darjeeling Limited virtually convinced me. So I see where you're coming from on that.

Great call on the Wilson character being an extension/continuation of the Bottle Rocket character. That never occurred to me, but now that you say it it makes perfect sense.

Thanks for reading.

Adam Zanzie said...

You've made me realize why I'm not too big on Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums: I find Anderson's characters in the former film hard to identify with, and his characters in the latter film hard to sympathize with. What I like about The Darjeeling Limited is that he doesn't glorify the brothers' bourgoisie existence and instead shows just how pathetic they are before letting us get to empathize with them and accepting them for who they are. I thought long and hard about putting the film on my Top 50 of the Decade list earlier this year, but couldn't find a way. I bet if I watched it again I'd appreciate the film even more. Also: as a modern movie about India made by a white filmmaker, it OWNS Slumdog Millionaire.

I wasn't as impressed with Hotel Chavelier, as you might have guessed from my comment over at Ed's place when he reviewed the film back in February. But your review describes it in such eye-opening detail that I seem to have missed the point of it.

Ryan Kelly said...

Adam, I really love his sensibility and aesthetic sense, so the earlier, shallower features still have an intrinsic appeal to me. And yes, I love that in The Darjeeling Limited he's very honest about the petulance of the three bothers; as opposed to just telling us to care for them, he finds ways for us to learn to love them, which isn't the same thing.

And yes, it is clearly superior to Slumdog Millionaire, which honestly doesn't even need saying. Though I don't hate Slumdog like I'm told I'm supposed to.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Ryan! It was engaging. You're titles are always so clever. :)

MovieMan0283 said...

Lots of interesting observations that I'll keep in mind if/when I revisit the movie, but as it stands now I'm kind of on the opposite side of this one. I liked the film well enough - more than Life Aquatic - but like many others, I feel that Anderson lost something after Royal Tenenbaums and hasn't gained it back. Maybe that something was Owen Wilson as co-writer (though I understand he didn't contribute as much to Tenenbaums as to Rushmore), a certain self-aware melancholy humor, less acerbic and self-conscious (yet somehow more dark) than Baumbach's (who I'm not convinced is the healthiest collaborator for Anderson).

I find it hard to see Rushmore in particular as "shallow" - to me it remains the most aware yet acute expression of Anderson's vision and its place in the real world. Tenenbaums is the logical progression, further into the fantasy and to date the fullest expression of Anderson's wistfully romantic universe.

No, he can't stay there forever and I agree that Life Aquatic & Darjeeling represents at least attempted steps forward. If Rushmore and Tenenbaums represented a precocious "childhood" phase in Anderson's artistic development (when aesthetic and narrative assumptions were more or less unquestioned, and the bloom was still on the freshness of his engagement with the world), then Life & Darjeeling are, I suppose, "adolescent" - fumbling somewhat, more awkward, yet more aware than the earlier films. Perhaps they represent somewhat stumbling steps forward, necessary to get wherever it is he is headed. Certainly that fantastic shot in Darjeeling - which you rightly highlight - may be the best thing Anderson's ever done and if he can continue in that direction, we may have some treats ahead of us.

Not sure where Fantastic Mr. Fox fits into all this (though I love your observation about the wolf fitting in with Anderson's embracing of the unfamiliar) - on the one hand, it may be a wiser and more "complete" film than his mid-00s movies, but since it's animated & based on famous source material it seems to stand outside his output somewhat.

You seem to have an honest-to-God flat-out different emotional response to Life Aquatic & Darjeeling Limited than I did, so to a certain extent we may be talking at cross-purposes. But that's my POV. I'd also add that I'm not sure "acceptance" is the direction he needs to go in - sometimes the wolf IS threatening, and even though in some ways they were more sheltered and sequestered, the earlier films seemed to acknowledge this better than the later ones, even with the presence of death in both. For some reason, the depression in Life & Darjeeling feels like an affectation for me whereas in Rushmore & Tenenbaums, whatever its romantic glow, it seems more real. Again, maybe it's Wilson.

MovieMan0283 said...

I kind of contradict myself above, one minute calling Rushmore more aware than the later films, then calling them more aware than it. I guess I'm talking different awarenesses here. Rushmore is still the only film of his in which I feel the real world has a presence; Max's megalomania and creativity crowd it out to a certain extent but he still has to negotiate with something that resembles humble, everyday reality. I don't get that from the later films (including Tenenbaums here) in which the entire world onscreen marches to the beat of Anderson's drum.

On the other hand, Anderson is less aware of himself as an auteur in Rushmore - later on he will comment on and question his own stylistic tics, try to mix them up a bit, and with increasing earnestness and self-consciousness try to critique his own limited viewpoint (not by projecting and then purging the characteristics onto an individual, as he does in Rushmore, but by suffusing such critiques throughout the body of the film itself, if that makes sense.)

Ryan Kelly said...

Thanks Lianna!

Ryan Kelly said...

MovieMan, I certainly don't mean to make it out like I don't like his earlier work - I do, though I have major qualms with The Royal Tenenbaums. Rushmore I'm especially fond of. But what I mean when I call it shallow is that I think it ignores a tangible connection to the real world - the implications of Fischer's friendship with the upper class Herman Blume are virtually ignored; it's just an element of the nostalgic coming of age tale. It kind of takes their class differences for granted. I adore it because I think it's an incredibly honest tale of adolescence, but I wish it went deeper than it does. The Darjeeling Limited, though symptomatic of the fact that Anderson's visual sensibility has grown more pronounced, to me has an understanding of a world outside of the in-film universe's frame of reference.

What you say about the later film's pounding to the beat of Anderson's drum is absolutely true, though in this case I would argue it's a virtue. I really don't think his visual sensibility is just a flourish, I think it's a necessary mode of expression for his stories and his compositions, camera movements, and details within the frame that many accuse of merely being the mark of an anal-retentive twee so-and-so (I'm not saying you're saying this) I think is used as a visual shorthand for his characters. He bypasses a lot of melodrama because he says so much about his characters visually. That's true of Tenenbaums, as well, but I found watching that movie to be an almost deadening experience, whereas his last three are extremely energetic, whimsical works.

And I'd agree that it would be nice if he worked with Wilson again, though I seem to like Baumbach more than you do (more than most people do, in fact). Yeah, he's a bit of a misanthrope, but Anderson's buoyancy helps balance that sensibility in a unique way.

And sorry for the delayed reply I was emerged in scholastic activities yesterday... lame right.

MovieMan0283 said...

No worries, Ryan, my attitude towards the blogosphere is more glacial than most - it often takes me weeks or even months to catch up with people's posts so I'm not one to complain about late responses to comments!

As for Rushmore, I see what you're saying but I think that relationship's the ONLY example of Anderson gliding over the real world in that film - elsewhere, with the public school, with Max's lies about his own background, even with Murray's "get the rich kids in your sight" speech, we're not quite in fairyland. Indeed, that one cut in which Max rides his bike out from the public school and pulls up into the courtyard of Rushmore, while not particularly subtle, nicely sums up the movie's difference to me - the latter location is a metaphor for Anderson's private universe, to which he escapes from the more boring or harsh details of reality, but by acknowledging this within the film itself, he's not hiding it as much as he usually does. At least that's how I took it.

Ryan Kelly said...

Joel, I must say that makes me rethink my central criticism of Rushmore, a film I'm extremely fond of. This is why I love discussing movies, helping me to look at things differently.

Now I want to watch Rushmore again. Criterion should release THAT on Blu-ray soon....

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