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.



Will Clifton said...

well. now i have to go see this movie again. i could tell something was different. i mean, what i love about his movies is that i can feel good about relating to the asshole protagonist. i love loving someone people hate i guess.

i definitely felt wes anderson's take on americans traveling abroad. get high, get drunk, do everything without getting anything out of it.

and man does this guy know how to use slow motion. throwing the baggage, running to save the kids, looking out the window at the end. mmmm.

banapaulo said...

This is a very perceptive review. I've seen Anderson's films since Rushmore and yet strangely this is the only one I've genuinely enjoyed, and I think you've hit upon why.

Excellent blog, keep going with it (if you have the time).

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