Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Response to Criticism of The Darjeeling Limited

(Warning: Spoilers Ahead)

Mick LaSalle, Rex Reed, Alissa Simon, Kyle Smith, Jan Stuart and Jack Mathews: what do all these people have in common?

Wes Anderson’s critics have often found themselves distanced from his characters’ arrogant, self-important personalities and the director’s overwhelmingly idiosyncratic style. His latest, The Darjeeling Limited, is no exception to such criticisms. And while I feel no responsibility to defend any filmmaker simply because their films coincide with my personal tastes, I feel most critics are lumping Darjeeling Limited too readily into the stock criticism of Anderson’s previous work without examining the film on its own merit.

Many of Wes’ critics feel that they aren’t “in” on the joke of his films, that Wes panders solely towards his reliable twenties hipster fanbase instead of molding and furthering his craft. They find his characters impenetrable and one-note, whose uniform selfishness and self-importance may be beginning to resemble the image-conscious director himself. When examining Wes’ past work, this argument gains ground. After all, aren’t Max Fischer, Royal Tenenbaum and Steve Zissou (and maybe even Bottle Rocket’s Dignan) essentially the same character?

Some argue that the similarity of each of Wes’ films—in their style, characterization and narrative—gives him an authorial touch, making Wes an “auteur”. Maybe. But having a signature style doesn’t necessarily make one a good filmmaker. (In a previous article, I argued that Michael Bay is an auteur.)

But, in Darjeeling, we don’t have one narcissistic protagonist searching vainly to find superficial satisfaction in life…we have three: Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson), Peter Whitman (Adrien Brody) and Jack Whitman (Jason Schwartzman) (yes, they’re brothers). For some, this combination just means the same-old-thing multiplied, but by pitting these exact character types against each other, Wes is finally on to something he’s never explored before.

These wealthy brothers have been taken out of their privileged environment in the big cities (NYC) and fancy hotels (Chevalier) of the Western world, and pitted them in the unknown, unfamiliar East: India. And it is this premise that allows the Wes Anderson archetype to change and grow. It’s as if Max Fischer abandoned Rushmore, Royal Tenenbaum left New York, or Steve Zissou devoted himself to dry land (…sorry, no Dignan analogy here). Their superficiality and selfish desires are immediately apparent to the people of the foreign land—even if the Whitmans are too strung out on narcotics to notice.

Many American college students have had the coveted “study abroad” experience, or at least the summer backpacking trip to Europe before grad school. The Whitman brothers’ journey is reminiscent of such a rite-of-passage. They are looking for an “experience” abroad, namely a “spiritual experience” that will allow them to transcend…well, something; they don’t know quite what. Yet they hardly ever “experience” India—they see India, but they see it mediated through the window of their train while they drink, eat and use too many prescription drugs (after all, what’s an abroad experience for if not getting f*cked up?).

The Whitman brothers explore temples during the trains’ two-hour stops, but they obviously have no knowledge of the region’s religious practices or the temples’ significance. Francis simply orders his brothers to “light some candles and pray to that deity thing over there.” When they sit down to pray, they are quickly subsumed in trivial materialistic matters, as Francis and Peter argue over a belt borrowed without permission. Later in the film, as the characters kneel and pray during a temple service with other Indians, they ask each other, “Is anything happening, yet?” They were clearly misled in thinking India would cater to their needs and answer all their Western wishes. The brothers’ private spiritual mockery involving a feather, and all the ridiculous sounds and motions involved, make fully clear the banality, futility and meaninglessness of their earnestly misdirected spiritual journey.

This is the exact type of arrogant, uneducated perception of foreign countries Americans are so often accused of having. Though the brothers (mainly Francis) seem to be searching for a valuable experience and an education in the culture of foreign lands, they always resort to immediate pleasures and superficial vices, as indicated by the heavy narcotic use. But this point becomes clearest when Jack seduces the train’s stewardess; Jack literally experiences the East every way he can. During their sex act, Jack asks the stewardess what her name is, and Francis simply refers to her as “Sweet Lime”, a drink she serves. Her name is of no concern; she is of no other purpose than to be another artificial component of his abroad experience—she is part of his vacation.


One feminist website has argued this scenario as indicative of the racism and sexism in Wes’ movies. But this argument would infer that we the audience (and Wes) view the Whitman brothers as heroes, that we support their decisions and look up to them as moral and ethical conduits for ourselves—that we see through their eyes. While this is the case in experiencing most American films, it surely doesn’t apply to this one. The distancing style Wes is so criticized for allows us to watch these characters objectively; in other words, we may sympathize with them, but we don’t empathize with them. We don’t feel the repercussions of their bad decisions, but we are allowed to witness them, and thus witness the characters’ inevitable and necessary growth from a moral distance.

Max Fisher, Royal Tenenbaum, and Steve Zissou are all assholes, and it’s hard for us to feel like they deserve what they’re seeking. Yet in the dance scene in Rushmore, the wedding and funeral scenes in Tenenbaums, and the jaguar shark climax in Life Aquatic, the supporting characters suddenly gather around, forgive, and respect each protagonist. And the audience does not always feel the respect and admoration these characters feel (the “placing of hands” in the jaguar shark scene was especially criticized).

However, with Darjeeling, Wes has somehow struck a perfect balance. The style of this film is not quite as overwhelming as in his others, so it distances us just enough so that we are willing to follow these characters, but not be frustrated by their amoral and selfish personalities.

This is what makes the dramatic shift in tone so affecting and effective (unlike in Zissou). With the dropping of their luggage (and the luggage is a frequent, if not redundant, metaphor), the priorities of these characters have suddenly shifted. Saving the children in the river is the first time (we see) the Whitmans act for anybody other than themselves. And rather than resorting to an easy display of Hollywood heroism, the action has its repercussions with the death of one of the children (that it was Peter’s child who died is an excellent way to delve into his character without delving into his character).

Finally, the funeral is a “spiritual experience” and ritual they actually understand. The brothers have unfortunately found the “experience” they’re looking for, and it was not until they were kicked off the train (their Western/privileged belligerence and ignorance catching up with them), not until they can no longer experience the country through a train window, that they can find it. The Whitmans are at last able to confront their reason for escape—the death of their father—in a startling, yet brilliant flashback. Most filmmakers would typically resort to the familiar funeral scene, but Wes opts to show the brothers on the way to the funeral in New York, as they make an emergency stop at an auto shop to pick up a European car. Once again, the brothers’ true emotions are expressed superficially—the mourning of their father is exercised through the fruitless “fixing” of the car.

The brothers have other personal baggage as well that they left outside India, yet they still refuse to acknowledge these troubles outright, only expressing them obliquely through their typical behavior. When the brothers get to the airport, the funeral has had an effect on them, but, just like everything else, they don’t acknowledge it. They resort back to their superficial behavior (Francis orders them to relax with a drink and report back to a small, obscure shrine to give thanks for their trip). Yet, at the last minute, they decide to stay in India and get on another train. Knowing their respective duties elsewhere (Peter is about to be a father), this is not a responsible action. And while the change in their character is not drastic in the convenient (ie. unbelievable) way Hollywood would call for, it is a significant change nonetheless, as these characters have (inadvertently) grown and matured (and spoiled, tortured souls who grow a little bit are far better than heroes in my book).

They literally leave their baggage behind.

The Darjeeling Limited is Wes Anderson’s most mature work to date, as he has finally found the perfect balance between his unique style and subtle characterization. The style, for the first time, does not burden the substance.

Maybe the critics are right. Maybe Wes' films only speak to the twenties hipster crowd (an audience he has supposedly nurtured, according to Christopher Kelly's recent Texas Monthly article [below]). If that's the case, then I think hipsters have a pretty good taste in movies.

...except for Napoleon Dynamite. That was horrible.


Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Screen It? I'd Rather Not...

Before Eastern Promises started rolling its beginning credits, I was exposed to the ordinary dose of trailers, which all had the typical green MPAA disclaimer explaining their approval of said trailer along with the film’s rating and a brief description why. But one of the trailers took me, and probably several other audience members, by surprise. The disclaimer described the following about the film advertised: Rated PG-13 “for strong thematic material including the rape of a child, violence, and brief strong language.”

The trailer was for Marc Forster’s new film, The Kite Runner, coming out November 2nd. Now, I haven’t seen the film, nor have I read the book it was based on, but I’m just going to go out on a limb here and guess that the “rape of a child” described is probably a major plot point in the film.


There is nothing in the trailer that alludes to this part of the film, so I’m also going to guess that it’s a plot point that the filmmakers, producers and/or advertisers don’t want audiences to know about until they see The Kite Runner.

I find it extremely problematic, if not downright infuriating, that the MPAA is so concerned with our aversion to mature thematic material that they would reveal such a potentially essential plot point. What exactly were they afraid of? Were they concerned that, if we weren’t aware of the “rape of a child” beforehand, we would find it disturbing or offensive? But isn’t that, most likely, how the filmmakers intend for us to react to it in the context of the film?

The MPAA, and the Americans they represent, are absolutely mortified with the thought of audiences not knowing every detail of a film that could be offensive. But the increasing caution that the MPAA employs (mostly from parents’ often unfounded concerns) have started to take a major toll on the actual experience of watching a movie, especially to those of us who don’t have children.

Studios complain about spoilers of their films all over the internet, script leaks, pirating, and the like (the recent debacle about an extra’s revelation of explicit details from the new Indiana Jones movie is indicative of this), but what about all the spoilers made in the name of protecting child viewers? (I would include adult viewers that act like children in that category as well.)

And not all of it has come from the MPAA. There’s a website, ScreenIt.com, whose homepage says the following:

“In today's world of economic uncertainty, you need Screen It even more than ever before. You certainly don't want to waste your hard-earned dollars on movies or DVDs that might contain material you'd find objectionable for yourself and/or your kids.”

ScreenIt, for a small monthly fee of $24.95, will give you every single potentially objectionable detail to pretty much any film in major release, including (I’m not kidding) the exact number of times each type of curse word is used, and in what context. Did you know that Jarhead has the “f” word 278 times, 38 with the prefix “mother”? Do you care? Can you believe it's somebody's job out there to count curse words in movies? The site also explains, in great detail, any instance or innuendo of sex or violence in a film, ignoring the potential exposure of otherwise irrelevant story details like the death of a major character. Can you imagine going to a movie like The Departed already knowing which characters are going to die?

If parents rely on sources like ScreenIt too much, they eventually get into a trivial mess of what’s appropriate and what’s not. For instance, is 30 “f” words in a film any more harmful to your twelve-year old than 278 “f” words (38 with the prefix “mother”)?

While I definitely have my qualms with the MPAA, they aren’t all to blame for this proliferation of story information in the name of protecting children. Parents' high demand for this type of information has certainly been a factor in the MPAA’s decisions. And I do, to a point, understand. If I were the father of a young child, I would like to have some idea as to whether or not my son or daughter and I would be having a “special conversation” after a PG-13 movie. But I would also prefer not to know every single story detail going in. Movies are supposed to be fun, and how much fun can they be if you know exactly what to expect?

Go see a movie sometime without knowing the rating, or anything at all rather. Whether or not you like it, you certainly won’t leave saying, “That’s exactly what I thought it would be.” And some films, believe it or not, are supposed to have an element of surprise. And some films are supposed to disturb, shock and, yes, even offend. Don’t be afraid of surprise.

The MPAA disclaimers are at their worst when it comes to the “hard R-rated” films. Recent hard R’s include Hostel Part II (“Rated R for sadistic scenes of torture and bloody violence, terror, nudity, sexual content, language and some drug content”), Saw III (“Rated R for strong grisly violence and gore, sequences of terror and torture, nudity and language”), Rob Zombie’s Halloween (“Rated R for strong brutal bloody violence and terror throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity and language”) and Grindhouse (“Rated R for strong graphic bloody violence and gore, pervasive language, some sexuality, nudity and drug use”).

My favorite description of a film’s rating was for Twister: “Rated PG-13 for intense depiction of very bad weather.” I never knew the MPAA had an agenda against bad weather.

The irony is that the MPAA has no “official guidelines” with which to rate films, yet they qualify each rating with similar descriptions. These descriptions try to give the audience some idea of what to expect, but the terms become more and more meaningless with repetition. And when it comes to the aforementioned “extreme” films, whose content should be obvious to everyone by this point, the rhetoric is at its most ludicrous. Have you ever heard a person say, “Oh, I’m fine with ‘strong brutal bloody violence and terror throughout,’ but I surely won’t stand for ‘graphic nudity’”? And what real difference is there between “language” and “pervasive language,” or “sexuality” and “aberrant sexuality”?

The MPAA separates all objectionable material into four basic categories: sexuality/nudity, violence, language, and drug use. Their rating disclaimers have become so prominent that they’ve even used as part of a film’s advertising (“gratuitous nudity in American Pie 6!”). What happens then as frequent moviegoers become more attuned to these disclaimers, an unintended mental checklist enters their head (or at least mine) that can severely interfere with the experience of watching a movie. What I mean is this: I regularly find myself unintentionally noting the moments in question which constituted the described rating; like, “Now here’s the drug use,” or, “Here’s the terror/gore I was promised.” Even the film I saw after the trailer I first mentioned at the top of the blog, Eastern Promises, would have been that much more affecting had I not known about the gore, nudity or sexual content going in.

This classification and separation of offensive elements is what has lead to accusations of the MPAA being harsher on sexual content then violent content, as evidenced in the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated. While I support the MPAA being pressured to own up to their decisions, I think they’re merely reflecting the status quo determined by parents, lobbyists and movie studios. This is, of course, entirely unfair to the rest of the filmgoing community. And it’s not even a smart economic decision, considering that teens and twentysomethings, not children, are the most frequent attendees of movie theaters in America.

So, having said that, I would close this off by politely asking the MPAA to ease off a little bit and not let their priorities interfere with revealing important plot points of films like The Kite Runner, but I think it’s more appropriate to ask parents to ease off, not spoil movies for the rest of us, and not think it’s the end of the world if your son or daughter hears a bad word without you knowing exactly when it was going to happen beforehand.

After all, everyday life isn’t rated. There’s no way for us to predict if we might see or hear something that we disagree with, but that’s no reason for us to live life with our eyes closed and our ears covered.