Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited

Dir. Wes Anderson

Viewed: In the Balcony

Sean likes broad horizons:

Three brothers learn to let go of their baggage after a journey through India in Wes Anderson's latest movie. While I cannot say this wasn't another enjoyable story told with some amazing camera work, I will stick by my guns and say I'd still like to see him stretch his storytelling muscle sometime in the near future. While Anderson seems content to focus on the lives of eccentric well-to-do family members coming to terms with each other -- learning to love or be loved -- he continues to impress with his OCD inspired sets, costumes and tracking shots.

There's nothing inherently wrong by defining your characters by what they wear, what they drink, what music they listen to. It's a shorthand that can work well as metaphor and speak to a deeper meaning, which is how Anderson uses it. At the same time, it would be nice to see a character (or a room) that seemed organic. Here we have three suit wearing brothers: Francis, wrapped in bandages (Owen Wilson); Peter, wears father's prescription sunglasses (Adrien Brody); Jack, funny mustache and a convenient iPod stereo good for seducing stewardesses or soundtracking a campfire scene.

The first half of the movie suffers most from Anderson's fetishes as we try to get to know the brothers as they reveal all their quirks, bicker and get themselves in trouble with the staff of the Darjeeling Limited -- the train that's taking them through India on a trip that's being obsessively scheduled and detailed by Francis (where'd they get that idea from?) as a means to a way to bring the brothers closer. It in these scene's on the train where the trio comes off as more self-absorbed and posturing than interesting and when the scenes of thoughtfulness are too quickly followed by slapstick or a mace fight. Like in The Royal Tenenbaums when someone thought, hey, wouldn't it be funny if when Danny Glover is opening his heart to Angelica Houston he falls in a hole? But there are more than a few very funny scenes in the first half that keep you happily going along.

I believe the line, "Hey, look at those assholes" is when the movie shifts gears and begins to honestly make gains to achieve what it set out for. It is in no way a smooth transition, though. The movie goes from 2nd to 5th gear without so much as a warning. Without giving too much away this scene also has the disadvantage of being the only badly shot scene in the whole movie as well -- but when all your characters are in the middle of a river I'm sure it ain't easy. From here on out we finally do start breaking the surface of these characters, which Anderson of course tells us by shedding the characters artifice. In the most powerful scene (possibly more so due to the events in Wilson's life) the three brothers are looking in the mirror; Peter is brushing his teeth, Jack is trimming his mustache and Francis unwraps his bandages much to Peter and Jack's shock. This scene is played without music, and this choice and his perfect use of a flashback scene to their father's funeral a year prior, show that Anderson's skills are taking some steps forward with this film. But the heavy reliance on old tricks -- can we put a one movie moratorium on cue the slow-mo, cue the Kinks? -- leads me to believe that Anderson is spinning the wheels a little bit.

Again, this is meant to be a positive review. There's other things I did and didn't like about the movie, but I came away enjoying it. Most good directors have their abundant fetishes. It's how tolerant you are as a viewer that allows you to accept or embrace them. Tarantino has a million of them -- you can't watch one of his movies any more without forcing you to spending a good five minutes of the movie staring at the bare feet of his leading ladies; I love the guy's movies. Woody Allen, until I think 1999, didn't make a movie that didn't have a neurotic New York Jewish guy or girl in it -- and having the story revolve around the protagonist longing after a woman half his age is a good portion of his filmography. But both these people in their first five or so movies made it abundantly clear that they were willing to play in whatever genre you threw at them, tweak that genre to do their biding, not let it change their style but let their style re-define the genre. And that's what great directors do, they grow. They reach and maybe they fall flat on their faces, but they can say they tried. Anderson is a very young director and I don't think he feels any rush to test himself (though the chilly reception Life Aquatic got may have scared him off a bit). I think he may just need to find that perfect writing partner that even the best of them need. The fact that he's directing an animated adaptation of a Roald Dahl book has me thinking he's interested in broadening his horizons.



Interesting, I loved the first half of the movie. It was probably the funniest Anderson since Rushmore, and the chemistry between the three leads was fantastic; despite not looking a bit like one another, it is instantly believable that they have shared a lifetime of guilt, aggravation, and bitterness as brothers. From Francis's first arrival with three whiskeys, to all three brothers having stopped by the pharmacy prior to the train's departure, to Peter's refusal to acknowledge the power of Jack's story, the comedy is deeply rooted in a lifetime of sadness and frustration.

I think this kind of thing is basically ignored about Anderson, that as inorganic as his sets and characters might be, he instantly makes the interior of his world believable. In Life Aquatic, I believe that Owen Wilson is Bill Murray's lost son, or in Rushmore, I believe that a kid could put together an entire play that brings the entire community together. And it's basically because this appears so effortless that I think he doesn't get full credit. Maybe its me, but I feel less like I'm watching a film then when I'm watching Anderson than with some hand-held grimy camera work. For example, the cinematography in a movie like Children of Men doesn't create a sense of realism, but instead dissonance. Try as you might, you are always aware of the screen, and attempt to create a naturalism or realism end up as more alienating than something like Anderson's overdetermined sets. All the "tricks" of Anderson - the slo-mo, the colors, the music - bring me into his world rather than make it seem unreal.

I will admit that a great deal of my enjoyment from this movie was because Anderson stayed in the same territory, basically bringing back Dignon in all his tragic romanticism and frustration. He is probably my favorite character of all time, and I didn't mind seeing him again. What Dignon and Francis (and really, Wilson himself) signify is the great deal of pain behind Anderson's version of comedy. It can be argued that this sort of "woe-is-me" whining from a disaffected child of privilege is not real pain, or that we should want to hear about people with real, and not existential, struggles. But the absence of fathers and mothers is a painful thing (I suppose) in that demographic and the results (suicide) are every bit as real.

I think you can make the argument that there are more important things to worry about. What I do not think you can argue with is that if you approach the movie without preconceptions of what Anderson should be doing, and look at what he is doing, it is beautiful and funny stuff.

I do agree that the storytelling in the second half of the film marks an improvement in Anderson's narrative skills, incorporating a great (and well eluded to) flashback, as well as a poignant reference to the short film Hotel Chevalier which precedes the film. While I agree that transition was sharp between hilarious hi-jinks and serious tragedy, I do not find much wrong with this. It is in film, and not life, where comedy or lightness gradually is transformed into tragedy. In the real world, the horrible or disruptive things usually do occur abruptly. Hollywood and best-selling novels try to sell a world of foreshadowing and gradual transition through a narrative arc, but it's bullshit and had nothing to do with how we experience the world. I could sense in Darjeeling Limited an uneasiness in the crowd as several scenes seemed to be endings. But like in almost all of his films, Anderson incorporates a number of false or possible endings before finally ending the whole thing. In this, he would surely fail an introductory film class.

Basically, Darjeeling Limited will be another data point for both sides of the Anderson debate. From what I can tell, his movies are not blockbusters and he does not get much credit from critics, so it seems odd that there is an Anderson backlash afoot. This is a filmmaker who is 5 for 5 in making movies that almost everyone I know has seen and can discuss in detail. That is pretty good.


Sean tucks another one into bed:

So you have no criticism for this movie whatsoever? It was perfect? Well, like I said, how tolerant you are of Anderson's fetishes goes a long way to how much you'll enjoy the movie. But also, it will be the deciding factor into how willing you'll be as a viewer to dig underneath the artifice to find the soul in Anderson's movies. While one person might find comfort in Anderson's continual use of the same techniques, the same themes, the same actors to deliver basically the same character, other people might find these things as limitations. I'm not saying I necessarily do, but I can understand that train of thought. I mean, people our age have been dressing up like Anderson characters for Halloween ever since Tenenbaums -- I think this is the type of stuff that causes a popular culture backlash. It can all get a little to precious and cutesy for the hardened cynics of our generation.

I must say though, I'm hardly ever more aware that I'm watching a movie than in Anderson-land. To me, this is not a bad thing. I enjoy scenes like the tracking shot through the different compartments of the train with all the characters together. I don't think Anderson has much use for realism -- Children of Men, a science fiction film, felt much more grounded in reality than Darjeeling. But anyway, I don't really find much use in comparing Children of Men to Darjeeling, (Is it just because both directors use elaborate tracking shots?) Most people who like Anderson (count me in) enjoy his movies because they exist in another world and because he has a unique, off-beat voice. I don't think anyone is out there trying to change his voice when we say we wouldn't mind seeing a movie that at least plays with some different themes. Or even if he wants to use the same themes, how about changing up the dynamic?

I'll keep watching his movies and most likely enjoying them all like I did with Darjeeling and the movies that preceded; but I think some people, perhaps wrongly, thought he might have grander ambitions. You're right -- who are we to say? We shouldn't judge him if he wants to stick with stories about estranged relatives. Like you said, his ability to quickly create meaningful relationships between his characters is clearly one of his best assets and is perfectly suited for this type of thing. When Angelica Houston says something to the effect of, let's not talk and just express ourselves in silence, well that could be the Anderson mantra since he does such things so well. But you know what, it would be great to see these skills he has perfected in a way we haven't already seen 5 times. I don't think it's wrong to want a director you admire to do something besides a satisfying retread of the same material he's more than proven he can handle many times over -- no matter how satisfying it may be.

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