Tuesday, October 16, 2007

New Film: The Darjeeling Limited

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited, from a screenplay by Anderson, Roman Coppola and co-lead Jason Schwartzman, replicates a strategy inaugurated in the director's 1998 Rushmore and repeated in his 2001 masterpiece The Royal Tenenbaums, where the narrative is refracted and shaped by a (second) referent art form. Whereas theatre is the formal-thematic key of the earlier work and the novel - more fully, to be sure - defines the latter, The Darjeeling Limited proceeds according to its connections to the cinema itself.

The Darjeeling Limited opens with Anderson's axiomatic leading man Bill Murray rushing to reach the eponymous train as it departs from the station. As Murray languishes, proving ultimately unsuccessful in his attempt, Adrien Brody's Peter speeds past, reaching the caboose from which he will shortly observe the lagging star - characteristically, Anderson marks this pivotal sequence with slow motion and the film's first (and arguably its most beautiful) pop song, The Kink's "This Time Tomorrow." Indeed, as Anderson registers this passing of the leading man torch, so to speak (the film's other two male stars, Schwartzman and Owen Wilson, belong squarely to the director's regular troupe), he likewise indicates the film this could have been but will not be - that is, Murray's next vehicle. Rather The Darjeeling Limited, reflexive from its opening moments, becomes the story of three brothers on a journey to reconnect with one another, with a figure from their collected past and with their spiritual selves - albeit under the coercion of Wilson's Francis.

Following this opening sequence, Anderson's soundtrack largely highlights a more South Asian inflection, utilizing Ravi Shankar's scoring from Satyajit Ray's landmark Pather Panchali (1955), which certainly also reinforces The Darjeeling Limited's filmic point of reference. When Anderson's taste for classical Anglo-American pop/rock does reemerge, however, Anderson provides Schwartzman's Jack with an iPod and dock to allow for its presence within the film's story world - its diegesis - rather than on its non-diegetic soundtrack. In this way The Darjeeling Limited refers again to the combination of image and soundtrack that defines not only Anderson's latest but the entirety of his mature corpus.

Speaking of Jack's songs, when he endeavours to woo a pretty rail attendant, Amara Karan's Rita, he opts for Peter Sarstedt's "Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)," which happens to be the same track he plays for Natalie Portman in the film's companion short, Hotel Chevalier (also 2007). Ostensibly, Hotel Chevalier provides Jack with his back story, and gives a face to his ex. Yet, considering The Darjeeling Limited's film-conscious rubric, the existence of the accompanying short proves essential to the feature's situation within the aforesaid logic. Indeed, when Jack reads the ending of a story - he has only written the ending he admits - to his brothers late in the film, they are none other than the words he spoke to Portman in Hotel Chevalier, which is itself an ending without a beginning (like his story, again). Similarly, for those spectators who have not seen Hotel Chevalier, The Darjeeling Limited might itself repeat this pattern.

Portman, it is worth noting moreover, does appear momentarily in The Darjeeling Limited: namely in an extended tracking sequence that places Portman, along with Murray, Brody's wife glimpsed briefly in a flashback and the crew members of the eponymous train, on a newly reconstituted iteration of 'The Darjeeling Limited.' To back up, we see this quintessentially Anderson cross-section after the brothers and their lost mother (Angelica Huston) agree to continue their time together, communicating without talking. What results is another of the film's overtly reflexive gesture, in its case the linking of disparate characters in the narrative in a single strip - with the separate compartments serving as single frames. Indeed, given The Darjeeling Limited's status as a work of the train-travel sub-genre, it becomes evident why Anderson would chose cinema as the picture's referent medium - both for its modern connotations and again for its ready-made visual analogies.

The aforementioned references in fact do not stop with the train or the music or even Jack's story but find further expression in both the film's most dramatic moment - a child's death: again, read Pather Panchali and also Jean Renoir's The River (1951) - as well as in the setting for the picture's ultimate reunion, the Himalayan monastery (cf. Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus [1947]). Likewise, the film's ubiquitous use of zoom lenses further moors The Darjeeling Limited's visual rhetoric in the terrain of the unequivocally cinematic - while perhaps extending an additional reference to the look of 1970s era popular Indian filmmaking (as practiced by Sippy and Desai among others).

At the same time, in spite of The Darjeeling Limited's clearly circumscribed echoes of the cinematic art form, what may be most striking about Anderson's latest is its continuation of the preoccupations of his mature work, Rushmore onward. Once again, we have a family, broken up, beset by tragedy, which is attempting to move forward, to rise from the wreckage that their lives have become. (We have redemption through action, as when the three brothers rush to save three drowning boys, which leads to the death mentioned above.) This fundamentally mythic story of perseverance is distilled most clearly onto the wrapped head of Wilson, who we will later learn was not the victim of an accident but a suicide attempt. With this revelation perfectly/horribly mirroring the real-life suicide attempt of the same star, it might seem natural to wish that Wilson heeds his auteur's humanistic optimism, whether or not one agrees with the film's dismissal of the efficacy of the spiritual that The Darjeeling Limited would seem to posit. Like the New Age iterations of the faiths it depicts, The Darjeeling Limited represents a form of spiritual tourism.

In closing, The Darjeeling Limited may indeed invite criticism on the register of its (potential) cultural insensitivity. Then again, that this milieu seems to so perfectly suit Anderson's preoccupations - and moreover, since his references highlight a genuine thoughtfulness in terms of the sub-continent's celluloid tradition (at least with those works best known in the west) - this reviewer feels inclined to defend Anderson's intervention. To say nothing of the film's, and the country's, sumptuous visuals, which I have yet to speak of: the baby blue train, the ever-present saffrons, the stark, northern landscapes - this is a work that reflects its foreign subject both humanely and beautifully. (I must point out that my brother Mark, in an email correspondence on Anderson's body of work, rightly underlined the director's preference for primary colors that is again predominate in The Darjeeling Limited, and is surely an essential source of the film's pleasure. As is the fact that it is simply funny.) In short, The Darjeeling Limited is a work of striking auteurist achievement, and a clear return to form after the disappointingly shallow The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004, the one exception in his career-spanning string of achievements). Here it is not simply decor for its own sake, but a world that registers Anderson's world with thematic and visual precision.


matty said...

I had trouble getting into this film. I tried, but felt we had been on this rail before.

Michael J. Anderson said...

Matty, you have undoubtedly been on that rail before, which I think accounts for much of its beauty. To me, the fundamental similitary - the variations on a single (set of) theme(s) - is part of what makes THE DARJEELING LIMITED among the year's better works. To compare, I am very excited to see the Dutch show at the Met in NYC, not because I anticipate seeing something unexpected from Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, et al., but rather that I will again experience the pleasure and see the beauty that their unmistakable idioms provide. So too, the latest Wes Anderson - please forgive me the comparison with the Dutch masters; once every three years, a nearly identical new work from the director is quite welcome indeed. This is the auteur theory in practice, not simply as a method of organization.

Also, I suspect this is the sort of Wes Anderson film, as similar as it is, that will separate the dyed-in-the-wool auteurists, from the pretenders.

And I know you didn't mean anything by it... I was simply inspired.

Michael J. Anderson said...

A related thought on auteurism in practice: last year's Eastwood's strike me as the opposite sort of work that we find in THE DARJEELING LIMITED. Those are your INFORMER'S to your STEAMBOAT 'ROUND THE BEND'S of the world to use a John Ford analogy, which is to say that are your works of obvious and rather reductive social/political conscious than in retrospect are far eclipsed by your lighter, albeit thematically and motivally consistent fare. Give me your TRUE CRIME'S and you can have your GRAPES OF WRATH'S. THE DARJEELING LIMITED, to only partially get back on track belongs thankfully to the former camp. It's not clear whether Anderson could do the other, though I do think STEVE ZISSOU shows us his style in decadence, divorced of anything beneath its clever surfaces.

Matt Singer said...

"...a nearly identical new work from the director is quite welcome indeed."

Sorry Mike, but I think that's poppycock. An artist shouldn't grow? Shouldn't try something else? If I read your review correctly -- correct me if I don't -- the vast majority of the pleasure you took from Darjeeling was the fact that it was a)just like Anderson's earlier movies and b)just like a few other movies you've seen i.e. Renoir's The River (and, according to Anderson, it most certainly is).

This is where we differ. I want a director who understands film history as well as his own filmmography, but I also want one who isn't afraid to expand his repertoire, something that (so far) Anderson has been incredibly hesitant to do. This movie felt just like every movie he's made before. And if I want to see those, I've already got most of them on DVD.

Your example of the art show is interesting, but I think a bit of apples and oranges. To put your theory to the test, let me ask you this. You say a nearly identical new work from an artist is a good thing. If that's the case, how do you justify the Beatles? If you really feel that way I think you're going to need to trade in your copies of Sgt. Pepper's and The White Album and pretty much everything else they recorded after 1966. Or hell, how about Hitchcock? If he kept making works that looked alike, they'd all be 39 Steps-ish spy thrillers.

And the fact that you continue to praise True Crime over other Eastwood's is just the gall icing on the aggravating cake. How many times have you seen it to be such a fan of it?

Michael J. Anderson said...

Though maybe not consciously even, I suppose my comments were in some sense a challenge to the reputed Mr. Singer, the eternal Pauline Kael to my Andrew Sarris. (Why else would I have involved Eastwood's 2006 diptych?)

I guess I should begin by stating that my favor for the latest W. Anderson follows in no small part from the emphasis I continually place (for better or for worse) on art as an act of communication and therefore on intentionality. Because of these insistences, I tend to favor works that either a) indicate a coherently communicated idea; or b) suggest a personality. W. Anderson's latest seems to me to indiciate a personality, a sensitivity toward material that figures many of the same concerns as his earlier work. Whether or not we see W. Anderson, we see his constellation of concerns, what's important to him as an artist.

These concerns are relatively mythic - the broken home/family rebuilding itself and moving forward (following tragedy) - and remain no less salient in our context. In other words, W. Anderson seems to still want to say the same thing he has been saying, which I don't have a problem with. What he has done in TDL is found new contexts (India, a railroad, cinema) for on-going concerns. This seems more than enough to me.

Of course, I criticized the latest Angelopoulos ("The Weeping Meadow") a couple of years ago on the basis that the director has not moved forward artistically. When I did this, the point was the he had not moved on from the Modernist aesthetic (and late-mid-century Marxism) that was virtually out of date when he applied it in the mid-70s. There is nothing to indicate that W. Anderson is similarly out of step with his world.

Finally, the Hitchcock point is good, though "The 39 Steps" is in many ways recapitulated in "North by Northwest," of which I might ask what is new here?

Matt Singer said...

Indeed, North by Northwest is, in many ways, a reworking of The 39 Steps. Of course, the difference is Hitchcock made somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 films in between the two, with movies as vastly different as Lifeboat, Spellbound, The Trouble With Harry, and Vertigo. For your analogy to work Wes Anderson would need to make twenty more Darjeelings over the course of twenty-five years. And maybe at this rate he will! It's already been about ten years since Rushmore...

Also, rereading your comment to Matty, I found another problem with your argument (Maybe I am Kael after all, I can't seem to leave it alone). You write:

"I am very excited to see the Dutch show at the Met in NYC, not because I anticipate seeing something unexpected from Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, et al., but rather that I will again experience the pleasure and see the beauty that their unmistakable idioms provide. So too, the latest Wes Anderson - please forgive me the comparison with the Dutch masters; once every three years, a nearly identical new work from the director is quite welcome indeed. This is the auteur theory in practice, not simply as a method of organization."

Correct me here if I'm wrong, but isn't the difference the fact that you've seen the paintings already whereas you haven't seen Wes Anderson's new movie? The Rembrandts et. al. are providing a familiar pleasure, for sure, but you've seen them already -- so isn't that more akin to seeing a retrospective of older Wes Anderson movies?

By this definition Mike, if you were going to see a comedian — say Chris Rock — you would prefer it if he simply recited all of Bring the Pain instead of trying new material. Now Bring the Pain is amazing -- but if I was going to see Chris Rock, I'd want to hear new stuff! I've already got the CD of Bring the Pain (although it's called Roll With the New) -- let's try something else.

And maybe it won't be quite as good. Frankly, I was disappointed by his last set of new material Never Scared. But I appreciated the fact that he didn't just speak about the same crap he'd covered before (for example, it featured tons on fatherhood, something he'd never addressed before).

Michael J. Anderson said...

With respect to the Dutch show, I was referring to those works which would be new to me - either works I have never seen in person or others that I don't remember seeing in any format - which unfortunately were not that many in number (it was a show from the Met's collection). The real pleasure in the show, as it turns out, were the more minor artists who I tend to skip over in my more rushed tours of the main collection.