Friday, October 12, 2007

Movies: The Darjeeling Limited

Disclaimer: I have not yet seen Hotel Chevalier.

All of my friends (and plenty of critics) are currently hating on Wes Anderson. Because I so adored The Darjeeling Limited, and thought it was clearly his best movie since The Royal Tenenbaums (his best movie ever, in fact, one of the best movies ever), I will be here writing a lengthy defense of the film, the filmmaker, his aesthetic, his cast, and our generation (!) A tall order. Perhaps I will work backwards.

I will start by talking about myself. I think this is fair, since Wes does the same thing. My most critical friend said that the movie "had nothing to say and it did so with a lack of expediency." What my friend didn't notice is that the movie has quite a bit to say, and it's basically the same thing that The Royal Tenenbaums has to say. I think Rushmore might have had similar things to say as well. The film demonstrates for us, with much decoration, our neuroses, of which all that decoration is a major part. My parents were not wealthy, and so custom-tailored suits, monogrammed pyjamas, and designer 11 piece luggage sets are not part of my neurosis. My parents were, however, artists and intellectuals of a kind, and therefore writing short stories on hotel stationary, dressing pleasantly inappropriately, and taking romantic cross-country journeys by rail in hopes of self-discovery are part of my neurosis. Projecting a kind of image, furthermore, is a part, if not the core, of my neuroses; partially thanks to my parents, who "encouraged" my intellectual talents and pursuits, partially thanks to my teachers, who lavished all the more attention on me as my precocious vocabulary expanded faster than the universe itself. Some (over?) involved parents give their children room to explore interests and talents (and help them along the way; my dad took me to the library every Saturday and gave me a book by H.G. Wells when I was ten). This both beneficial and unhealthy; it makes for interesting, quirky, gravitational young adults who are somewhat socially maladjusted (see Margot Tenenbaum's sexual escapades, for example).

Remember Naomi Watts' character Dawn in I Heart Huckabees, breaking down into "Don't look at me. I just want to be left alone. I'm sick of this. I'm sick of you all looking at me. Look at me. Please, please, please, everybody. Everybody look at me now. I am so pretty. I am so pretty. Look at me. Everybody just wants to be me. I'm pretty." The Tenenbaum "children," like Darjeeling brothers Francis, Peter, and Jack, like me, and, I bet, like Wes, constantly act in such a way as to silently shout "Look at me! Aren't I so smart? I'm so smart! Look at me—love me!" and then shift, "Don't look at me; I'm a mess; I'm a disaster; I can't take the pressure." It wouldn't be correct to say that our entire generation feels this way, but I do think it would be correct to say that a subset does, and that subset includes me and most of my upper-middle class, college+ educated, twenty-something, urban-dwelling friends (please note that I've left out white; I've done so deliberately in favor of the "United Colors of Benetton" effect, and if you don't know what I mean by that, you are not part of our extroverted, insular subset.) We desperately need attention (having had it lavished upon us from an early age by our parents and teachers), and so we try and try to impress the people around us with our pretty looks, our intelligence, and our good taste (just look at my blog, where I basically brag about all of the high-faluting books I'm reading, and all the foreign art films I'm watching. Better yet, look at how chill I am—how post-modern—to admit that I'm bragging. Look at me!)

In The Darjeeling Limited, each brother is struggling to grow up and verify his existence, having lost his parents and their attention. Francis has just tried to kill himself, but didn't succeed. Peter is about to become a father, but he's still a child playing dress up with his father's sunglasses and razor. Jack insists that his autobiographical stories are completely fictional, the clearest metaphor for detachment from reality in the film; it's as if he suffers from PTSD, except that the stress was his entire life thus far. It's easy to see why anyone who faced more material struggles—poverty, or homelessness, or even just absentee parents—would find these brothers and their complaints rather annoying (One of my favorite Woody Allen bits: "In my family nobody ever committed suicide, nobody... this was just not a middle-class alternative, you know? I—my mother was too busy running the boiled chicken through the deflavorizing machine to think about shooting herself or anything.") But for me, well, I identify.

People criticize Wes for being too precious (and precocious, but that's different, and anyway, we all are, and he's not, really, I mean, he's a grown man, so now he's just brilliantly talented and skilled—a real top-notch artist). They are annoyed by his obsessive-compulsively constructed tableaux. Well, here's what I have to say about that. He's an artist! He's not lazy! He's paying attention! If only all filmmakers composed each frame so that it could stand alone as a photograph. My favorite shot in this film is made on the train, around one of the bunks, when all three brothers faces pop into the frame, with Adrien Brody's arm swinging down around them. . . I wish I could plop a picture right in here, but because it's just (an exceedingly artful) random bit, the still can not be found on the internet. Watch again, and you will know it when you see it. I won't even take the time to go into the richness of color, which we expect from Anderson (and from movies about India alike), or the beautiful sheen of the crumbling buildings and atypical vehicles (ditto). Basically, the man has taste, and we know it. If you disagree, you're probably not in my club, and I don't want you in it anyway.

There are two more things that I want to defend, because they have been attacked by my nay-saying compatriots. Those are a) Adrien Brody's performance, and b) the figuration in the plot of an Indian boy's death. I will start with Brody, because it's a less loaded issue. My witty friend said "Adrien Brody only deserves mention that he deserves not to be mentioned." Au contraire, my friend, you are witty, but you are wrong. Brody's performance is perfect. He manages, despite being an Anderson neophyte, to out-Wilson Wilson, out-Schwartzman Schwartzman, and to ultimately out-Wes Wes! How does he do it? There is some luck involved, of course; his tall narrow frame, drooping eyes, and sorrowful-comical banana nose contribute, but the effete way he puts his sunglasses on, the way he looks stonily into, through, and past the camera lens (thus into, through, and past the audience), and the pristine absence of camp in his stylizing (no silly mustache—Jason, what were you thinking?! Wes, how could you have allowed that?!) (no bonehead bandages, either—remember Luke's bandages in Tenebaums? Those were good bandages). . . Well, I rarely use ellipses, but I can only trail off with a sigh at his total perfection; he is my new favorite.

And now, the ever-so-slightly stick topic: the death of the Indian child. Much harped on by professional (excessively PC) critics, one of the plot highlights is the imminent danger of three Indian brothers about to drown when crossing a river; Francis, Peter, and Jack jump in to save them, but one dies (Peter's—who's else could it be? Remember, he is the one with the worst case of fatherhood issues). One of my friends lambasted this: "an Indian boy has to die in order for them to discover the true meaning of Christmas," but I don't think that this is the case. While the (beautifully art-directed) funeral does bring the brothers back together, I refuse to buy into the bleeding heart's poo-pooing that a brown boy has to die to save the relationship of the whites. How reductive shall we be? Death seems to be the only shock strong enough to bring these otherwise self-centered brothers together; they last saw each other a year ago, when their father died. There is parallelism, and there is symbolism, and there is fascination, but there isn't any racism.

I realize this post has a pretty crappy, unorganized trajectory, but that reflects only the disorganization of my thoughts, not of the film, which is perfect and brilliant and wonderful. And if you don't think so, no Voltaire #6 for you.

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