Yesterday I skived off work (if you can call leaving an hour early when you have flexitime hours skiving) to see Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, and enjoyed it immmensely, even though I have it on good authority by that changing tide of opinion I see on the internet that he is well past his prime five movies into his career. While I don’t care about that, I will say that I understand the problem. The Onion summed it up with more pith and humour than I can right now; the guy just keeps telling the same story with the same visuals and the same fussy style.
To that list of tics, add the other recurring techniques and visuals: slow motion with plaintive 60s track in the background, either during a solemn moment or tracking shot (three times in Darjeeling Limited); formalist games (chapters in Royal Tenenbaums, a short film called Hotel Chevalier prior to The Darjeeling Limited); a jarring emotional mood switch about two-thirds of the way through the movie; zero smiling; verbose dialogue; garish set design and an obsession with certain props (the cutesy, numbered luggage that freaked me out by baring my initials). If these things affected you emotionally during Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums but irked you during The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited will probably tip you over into hating him and his preppy hair outright.
With every movie he makes, Anderson strips more casual film buffs from his fanbase, as the tics that annoy people are repeated and show no sign of being retired any time soon. I get that, and sympathise, but I can’t join in, and the reasons are purely subjective. You know the word umami? (ETA: According to Canyon, Yahoo News has been talking about it today, a while after I started writing this, which is kinda freaky). It means “mouth feel” (at least the way I remember it), and is a tough-to-quantify element in taste that makes certain foods satisfying. MSG has it, which is the main reason it is added to meals. Ketchup is rife with umami, though I have difficulty believing that, as ketchup is repellent slime that has no business being anywhere near a plate.
Wes Anderson’s movies make my eyes and brain feel like a tongue being pampered by umami fairies. The colours, the precise (some might say finicky) composition, the mannered performances and dialogue; I just lap them up. I’m sure most people have a creative artist who does that to them, someone whose work just fits in your head and makes you happy. In honour of my tortured metaphor, I shall hereby refer to such an artist as an umamist; someone whose work makes you joyful, even if they have quirks that should stop you from appreciating them as they have done to others. For example, I love his command of the frame, and other people find his compositions too fussy.
I have already gone on about these compositions while criticising Barry Sonnenfeld for doing similar shots. I’m not sure why I find Anderson’s compositional tricks so gorgeous and Sonnenfeld’s stuff ghastly. Perhaps it’s because he won’t have his actors look into the camera too often. Often they are face-on, but looking away to the side. Having characters look straight into the camera (and usually saying nothing, which really pisses me off) gets on my nerves. The only director who can get away with it is Jonathan Demme, and I think that’s because he keeps the camera close and static (again, something that Anderson does). Sonnenfeld does that too, but will dolly in as well, which gets me down. He also can’t direct actors as well as Demme and Anderson, but that’s not where I want to go with this.
Anderson’s use of the entire frame also makes me want to hug him. He’s so eager to fill the widescreen frame, and even though it comes across as static and mannered, it’s all so beautiful and painterly that it (oh man, am I really going to say this?) ravishes the eye (I did it! I can only ask you forgive me). Often his shots are almost symmetrical, but he keeps switching it up, like with this image here.
Yum to the latter one! Anderson very rarely tilts the camera up or down, keeping it on a dispassionate horizontal plane. Fine for short shots, but especially in The Darjeeling Limited he has long shots with much movement and action, and the only way he can capture this is to spin the camera around or crane it up or down, as if the camera is stuck to the head of Number Five from Short Circuit. Again, I can see why that formality annoys many viewers, but suck it, umami haters. Me likey.
Enough about the pretty. Who cares if the story doesn’t work? Let’s just say that if I were to recommend an American Empirical movie to someone who has not seen one before, I would almost certainly point out Rushmore, as it was my first too. If not that, there’s a good chance I would skip his next two films (I love them but they have flaws) and nominate The Darjeeling Limited. It’s not perfect, but it’s written on a similarly small (and satisfying) canvas, avoiding the sprawling narrative template that made the middle two movies less neat but more detailed (manna to obsessive compulsives like myself, but offputting for people who want more focus and less post-modern flummery).
As with The Royal Tenenbaums, the film concerns a fractured family, but this time we follow three brothers (Jack, Francis and Peter Whitman. Like Walt Whitman, geddit?), as they journey through India in an attempt to find some spiritual closure following the death of their father. The narrower focus works beautifully, each line and look and event telling stories about their relationships with each other and the people around them. Of course, it’s funny that Anderson tells this tighter tale in a country as glorious and panoramic as India. Most of the movie takes place in a cramped train, the countryside either obscured by curtains or viewed through a tiny window, with the camera focusing primarily on the faces of the characters.
Only when the Whitmans start to overcome their psychic obstacles do we see them in the midst of the beauty of India, one memorable shot zooming backwards, away from the brothers, further and further, reducing them to dots at the top of an enormous mountain. Aside: no matter how much Anderson might annoy many viewers, it’s worth seeing The Darjeeling Limited for Robert Yeoman’s dazzling photography. Some shots are so lovely that shrinking them down for this blog is never going to do them justice. The only film I’ve seen this year with such eyeboggling colours is Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower.
There’s some broad comedy, often about filial aggression or the presence of Americans abroad (they are treated like the mythical gallumphing Yankee abroad, and while they’re not that bad, they do cause a lot of trouble), but most of the laughs come from the tensions between them, the distrust and cliques they have built through the years leading to various passive disagreements and annoyances. To a hater these jokey moments and the silly things they get upset about (Wilson’s domineering streak, the numbered luggage, a belt that is stolen and gifted and retracted and regifted throughout) would be a distraction, but it’s a conceit used more sparingly than in previous movies, which featured jaguar sharks and polka-dot mice, among other things. When the details pay off, it’s satisfying enough to justify the preciousness. Case in point, Wilson’s annoying personality quirk is explained late in the movie and got a big laugh from the dozen or so skiving cineastes sitting behind me.
Another nice touch is the return of many of Anderson’s troupe of actors, including Kumar Pallana (The Gupta Himself!), Anjelica Huston, Wally Wolodarsky (The Simpsons writer/producer who has hovered at the edges of the WesAndersoniverse since Rushmore), Waris Ahluwalia, and a very anxious Bill Murray, whose early appearance made the travel-deadline-phobic me go into a fit of stress that hung around for a few scenes. The picture you see here is from an early screening of the film, and I honestly have no idea what he’s doing. Is he an emissary of the umami fairies?
Of course, it also signals the return of Jason Schwartzman (here co-writing, along with Anderson and Roman Coppola), who is immoral and yet strangely endearing, possibly because he is dwarfed by his brothers and seems to bring out their protective instincts. Owen Wilson is, of course, present and correct as ever, though I would say I’d like his to start writing with Anderson again. As much as I have liked the last couple of movies, I think it would be good for him if he concentrated on that side of his creative personality for a while (man, I sound like a hen-pecking mother). The new element is Adrien Brody, seen here with Wes Anderson in his usual super-prep mode.
Until now I’ve never understood the appeal of Brody, who I gather is ugly-sexy, or fugly-sexy-cool, or some modern phrase denoting hott yet somehow nott. Part of my mystification is because I’ve not seen The Pianist, but he had great difficulty elbowing everyone out of the way so he could shine on King Kong. Naomi Watts managed it with ease, but he just sank into the CGI background. Here, though, he’s relaxed and funny and heartbreaking. The biggest emotional beats, oddly, come from him, whether he’s crying at one of Schwartzman’s short stories or holding a baby while grieving. The big third-act tone-change happens to him, and his transformation from affectless hipster kleptomaniac to affectless shell-shocked hero is brilliant. With invisible effort he expresses the inner change superbly.
This event also brings in another formal trick, one Anderson has not used before. Until that point many of the details of the movie make no sense. The luggage, the perfume, the objects stolen by Brody; they’re all unexplained, until Anderson flashes back to the year before, and in that scene all of the mysteries of the movie are resolved as meaning comes crashing in. It’s a wonderful device, cascading backwards through the film (and Hotel Chevalier as well), making what seemed like flat moments come alive with emotion.
Perhaps this is one of the main reasons I like Anderson so much. You can either find new stories or new ways of telling old stories. He certainly seemed eager to tell the same story over and over again. The three movies prior to this one have an identical protagonist arc: disgraced genius tries to win redemption, appears to fail, and at his lowest moment does the right thing for unselfish reasons and forgiven by the people he loves. This movie changes that up by having three characters looking for redemption, and chasing another character (their mother), hoping she will try as well. The brothers do well, but while they are willing to race around India getting into fights and nearly getting killed in their search for some meaning and emotional calm, she is not interested, having found her own path. To a cynic, that would seem like not much difference from the previous films, but to a fan it’s a fascinating incremental deviation from the norm.
Okay, I’ve gone on for aaaaages now trying to justify my admiration for this director and this movie, and it might not make any difference to those damnable hataz, but think on this. Woody Allen once made movies of incredibly stuffy formalism, often beautifully filmed, and usually about the same themes with similar plots, with only tonal differences to distinguish them. He was (rightly) praised, Anderson is (wrongly) damned. Fair enough, he’s not made Manhattan or Annie Hall or Husbands and Wives, but still. I’m sure that argument is airtight! Oh yeah.
::And with that, the stench of desperation becomes too much for the blogosphere. Somewhere, a server barfs::