[21 February 2008]
Wes Anderson is a rare a filmmaker whose signature appears on every frame of his films: the composition of a scene so precisely cropped that Jane’s (Cate Blanchett) ball of gum dropped into a glass of water in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou demands our attention; the color palate so carefully chosen that the royal blue of Henry’s (Danny Glover’s) blazer betrays him as the outsider in every scene in which it appears in The Royal Tenenbaums; the camera movement once so effective as it uninterruptedly scanned a ship in Life Aquatic or a fire truck in The Royal Tenenbaums or “The Heaven and Hell Cotillion” in Rushmore, and now, thanks to a certain wireless carrier, so inescapable from New York to Calivadatexida.
With a few notable, usually manic exceptions [Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) from Rushmore, Dignan (Owen Wilson) from Bottle Rocket, and Royal himself (Gene Hackman) from The Royal Tenenbaums], Anderson’s characters seem perpetually sleepy, though from too little rest or too much is never exactly clear. They say things like “Be nice to Alan. He’s my nemesis” in such a way that I can’t tell if it’s so transparent that it’s hackneyed or so emotionally open that it’s genius.
All of this is to say nothing of the slow-motion: Usually accompanied by the exact right song at the exact right moment—witness The Faces’ “Ohh La La” at the end of Rushmore—and best when it gradually slows the characters down as it does at the end of, well, at the end of all of his movies, Anderson’s use of slow-motion is rivaled only by that of Quentin Tarantino at the end of Kill Bill: Part One when O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) leads the rest of the Crazy 88s to their final showdown as that beat that should be by the RZA, but isn’t, thumps.
No, there’s no doubt that Anderson has mad skills and cool to spare. The question about his work that remains unanswered is, to borrow a phrase from last summer’s blockbuster, is there more there than meets the eye? Do all of those cinematic bells and whistles draw the audience in and thus increase the emotional impact? Or, rather, do these tricks keep the characters at arm’s length and coerce a response from the audience that feels like emotional investment but that is in actuality the product of a keen—one might even say “manipulative”—sense of style? Basically, do I feel that lump in my throat at the end of The Life Aquatic because Zissou (Bill Murray) is walking while carrying a six-year-old boy on his shoulders, an image that suggests that this megalomaniac who has lost, in rapid succession, his best friend and the man who may or may not be his son, is that lump because this man might finally be able to put his own ego aside and live a life that considers the needs of others, a future represented by his apparently budding relationship with said six-year-old boy? Or is that lump there simply because the scene looks so rad?
You are forgiven if after that loaded example you think you know where I stand on this matter, just as I hope you’ll forgive me for not having quite made up my mind, yet. Truth is, after Anderson’s first four features, the jury still seems to be out. In some ways, the question doesn’t even apply until Feature #3: Bottle Rocket, though a fine debut, is disqualified from the conversation for being just that, a debut, which is to say that we’re allowed to identify it as a source but not as a full-fledged example. So, sorry, that heartbreaking scene of Dignan walking back to the prison in chains, turning and giving an “It was worth it, right?” look, that scene remains an example of potential rather than fulfillment.
And though I count Rushmore as a nearly perfect comedy, it’s a movie that doesn’t ask to be taken as seriously as Anderson’s other offerings. I hesitate to say that it settles for being a comedy, because I don’t want to suggest that comedies are somehow inherently inferior, but it settles for being a comedy. Undeniably, a line like “This is my father, Bert Fischer. He’s a barber” is among the finest that Anderson and his writing cohorts have ever produced, but for Rushmore to be a serious contender in this fight it would have to let its characters’ flaws breathe rather than play them for laughs, focus more intensely on Max’s relationship with his father, and leave all of that love triangle business for the B plot. And, anyway, enough people picked up Bottle Rocket after Rushmore that the latter qualifies in some ways as Debut 1A. Expectations were low enough that it could still delight, a luxury that will not be afforded to, say, Diablo Cody’s next picture.
The first real test of Anderson’s style emerged with The Royal Tenenbaums. Whereas Rushmore was able to fly under the proverbial radar with a pre-indie-darling Bill Murray and a group of relative no-names, The Royal Tenenbaums featured a hip (Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow) and august (Danny Glover, Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston) ensemble that couldn’t be ignored. Never mind the cliquey festival circuit, Anderson was suddenly helming a bonafide prestige film with Oscar-size ambitions (it received a Best Original Screenplay nomination, but lost to Cameron Crowe and Almost Famous).
For the most part, The Royal Tenenbaums builds on the success of the earlier fare. For every precious scene including a sheet-made fort for adults—albeit emotionally stunted adults, but adults, nonetheless—or a closet full of board games, there’s one in which Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson) cuts his hair, his beard, and then his wrists as Elliot Smith fills the soundtrack. (This scene is sure to be re-scrutinized as Owen Wilson, one of the Oscar-nominated co-writers of the movie, apparently attempted to take his life in a similar fashion. That Luke Wilson, Owen’s brother and the actor who portrays Richie in the scene, allegedly discovered Owen on the bathroom floor only adds to the intrigue, if you’re into that kind of thing.)
The brilliant barber line from Rushmore is actually trumped in The Royal Tenenbaums when Chas (Stiller) nakedly confesses to the father with whom he has been estranged for the past 35 years, never mind the movie’s 100-minutes, that he’s “had a rough year.” “We’ve had a rough year, dad,” he says. “I know you have, Chassie,” responds Royal. And there—sans soundtrack, slow-motion, the red tracksuit, or any of Anderson’s other devices—is the example of just how sneaky sensitive Anderson can be when it all comes together. It’s the moment when he trades “cool” for “good”.
The problem is that the trade doesn’t last long. Unfortunately, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is neither cool nor good. His fourth film saw Anderson’s preciousness—never one of his more endearing traits—morph into something even uglier: pretension. Somehow in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, Sailor (Nicolas Cage) can present Lula (Laura Dern) with a candy necklace and say, “There’s one for damn near every reason I love you,” and it sounds like the sweetest thing a multiple felon ever did say to his girl. But in Life Aquatic when Ned offers Jane a necklace made of a seashell and peppermint dental floss you just want to puke. It’s not that the gift isn’t a sweet gesture—Trina Lembke, my eight-grade girlfriend, would have loved it—but, rather, that the entire scene, maybe even the entire relationship, exists so Ned can make the offer.
Ned and Jane do end up being moon-eyed over one another, but make no mistake: the necklace came first. Life Aquatic misses the mark in other regards, as well: the adventure parody with the pirates falls flat; the animated sea creatures are irrelevant (though in fairness the scene with the jaguar shark in the end is sublime); and, despite reports to the contrary, a minstrel singing David Bowie songs in Portuguese doesn’t add so much ambience as it does annoyance. Most disappointingly, however, is that the characters are neither empathetic nor interesting. In The Royal Tenenbaums they are solipsistic, no doubt. But their solipsism gives them something to overcome; in Life Aquatic they just take it fishing. And, honestly, in the end, I would have preferred that the whole pack of them remain lost at sea.
I appreciate that this is a lengthy wind up for an article that is supposed to tell you whether or not the recent DVD release of Anderson’s fifth film, The Darjeeling Limited, is worth 90 minutes of your life on a Saturday night (short answer: “yes”), but these are the issues that I carry with me when I sit down to watch one of his movies. They are the issues that kept me away from the theater for the first month of The Darjeeling Limited’s theatrical release. They are the issues that ultimately led to such a sense of relief when The Darjeeling Limited, though not without its flaws, proved to be a return to form for Wes Anderson.
As is the case with most of his work, the plot is simple: Three estranged brothers, the Whitmans, arrange to meet on a train in India to (1) become brothers again, (2) embark on a spiritual journey, and (3) say “yes” to everything. This list is actually enumerated by Francis (O. Wilson), the brother who orders for the table, confiscates their passports, and sports bandages around his head from when he smashed his motorcycle into the side of a mountain. Peter (Adrien Brody) takes the most offense at Francis’ controlling ways, but he is not without his own emotional baggage: His wife, whom he forgot to tell about his journey, is pregnant – seven and a half months pregnant—and he seems to have a problem with filching everything from cars to sunglasses that once belonged to his father, who died a year ago when he was hit by a car.
And then there’s Jack (Jason Schwartzman), the youngest of the three, who probably once tried to rationally moderate fights between Francis and Peter but who has now been reduced to macing them in the face to settle their disputes. Jack is a writer who steadfastly denies that his stories are drawn from his own life. He pines for a woman (Natalie Portman) he left in Paris, though a tryst he has on the train with Rita (Amara Karan), a servant, calls his devotion into question. When the trio is eventually evicted from the train, Rita asks Jack, “What’s wrong with you?” Jack answers, “Let me think about that.” The question could apply to all three brothers, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the answer lies in their true destination: their mother (Anjelica Huston), who shunned her ex-husband’s funeral in lieu of spending time at her convent at the foot of the Himalayas, and who seems none too anxious to see her three sons.
Jack and the character known only as Jack’s Ex-Girlfriend (Portman) are the subjects of a short film called “Hotel Chevalier”, which is also known as “Short Film (To Be Played Before Feature)”. The short was included in the festival version of the full-length movie, inexplicably removed when it was in limited release, and then wisely reapplied for the wide release. Though the DVD lacks the abundance of Special Features that accompany the Criterion editions of both The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore, it at least gives you the option to watch “Hotel Chevalier” before the movie proper, and I highly recommend that you do.
Not only does “Hotel Chevalier” provide some helpful-though-not-necessary context for The Darjeeling Limited (and explain an otherwise head-scratching cameo, or one of two anyway), but it is a gem in its own right. Schwartzman and Portman play two recent-but-distant lovers—the former holed up in an extravagant French hotel, the latter paying an unexpected visit, both achingly sexy in their recklessness. Stylistically, it serves as a kind of primer for Anderson’s major work, but the sparse dialogue between the two, though in many ways typical Anderson, functions much more effectively in this abbreviated form.
With so few words, the story reveals itself in silences and bruises and toothpicks. And when they do speak, they devastate. “If we fuck I’m going to feel like shit tomorrow,” she says, only inches, it seems, from feeling like shit. “That’s OK with me,” he replies. Recounting them here, the lines do seem as if they are pulled from one of Jack Nicholson’s novels in As Good As It Gets (“‘You saved my life,’ she said. ‘You’d better make it up to me.’”), but as delivered by Schwartzman and Portman, they work. You feel it.
I don’t know how long I would last in a conversation with Portman’s character before I recognized her as someone in whose life I shouldn’t get entwined and found someone else at the party to talk to, but here Anderson gives us just enough that she remains sympathetic. In fact, the movie’s success lies in this ability to be slight and mysterious, yet at the same time satisfying.
This sense of mystery spills into The Darjeeling Limited, but, interestingly, its source isn’t India itself, as one might expect. True, Francis tries to impose mystery upon the alien land when, overlooking a squalid city, he deadpans, “I love it here. These people are so beautiful.” But he only gives lip service to the sentiment. This is not an E.M. Forster novel. He doesn’t really believe it, and neither do we.
Instead, the real source of mystery for the brothers is their relationship with one another. Variations on the line “Don’t tell Peter/ Jack/ Francis” permeate the first 30 minutes, as they confide to one brother but not the other something as simple as, say, an earlier return ticket. “I wonder if we could have been friends in real life,” asks Francis as the three sit around a campfire. “I mean, not as brothers but as people.” With all apologies to Hamlet, that is the question, and this matter of forging a relationship that should be natural and the value of such an endeavor is at the heart of what’s going on here.
As always, Anderson couldn’t have a more appropriate cast. Though physically no one would ever accuse Wilson, Brody, and Schwartzman of sharing the same biological parents, everything about their demeanor and their interactions with one another suggests that they have a mutual history. Wilson and Schwartzman are old hat at this, both having worked with Anderson before. The revelation is Brody, a most welcome addition, who simply has the right face for Anderson’s world. He rarely commands the screen so much as he does when he is shaving or reading one of his brother’s short stories. Here’s to hoping that like Wilson, Schwartzman, Bill Murray, and Anjelica Huston, Brody becomes a permanent member of Anderson’s creative family.
As it turns out, Brody’s character, Peter, ends up being at the heart of the movie’s emotional center. Now on foot, the Brothers Whitman encounter three Indian boys who fall victim to an accident in a river. Francis, Jack, and Peter leap into the water to save the three endangered boys. Francis and Jack succeed. Peter does not. Though he had his, he lost him when the boy smashed against some rocks. “He’s dead. He’s dead,” he says, wet and bloody, as he joins the others safely on the shore. “I didn’t save mine.”
The group of six now—five living, one of whom, Peter, carries the dead in his arms—return to the boys’ Indian village, where they are welcomed, a gesture made all the more poignant because they are, collectively, failed heroes rather than real ones. Anderson spends more time here on the preparations for the funeral than he does on the funeral itself—the aftermath of the death rather than its putting to rest—and he brings his entire repertoire to bear: the formal attire that looks like pajamas, the Kinks singing “we are not two, we are one”, the slow-motion. But you know what? He should.
Like the scene in the musical in which the characters just feel so darn much for each other that they have to burst into song, this sequence demands this kind of heightened treatment: the compartments of the train now far, far down the track, the wide open space of the village truly does feel as if boundaries have been transcended as three brothers who still mourn the loss of their father watch a father mourn the loss of his son. The movie’s lone, well-placed flashback drives the symmetry home, as we revisit Francis, Peter, and Jack on the day of their father’s funeral in a scene that, come to think of it, would have made a fine five-minute movie of its own.
The problem with The Darjeeling Limited is that the scene at the village ends around the one-hour mark, and the following 30 minutes fail to match its intensity. A false exit at the airport doesn’t help the momentum as the boys decide at the last minute to continue their journey to visit their mother, a decision that is no kind of decision at all because ever since her first mention ten minutes into the movie, her appearance is inevitable. The choice to continue is made in pantomime, with Peter histrionically tearing up his ticket.
The next scene finds the three of them squished onto a lone motorcycle seat as they buzz on down the road. I found myself wishing for the credits to roll at this point: Three reunited brothers enjoying their time with one another so much that they want to make it last. But Mama Whitman we have been promised, so Mama Whitman we must get.
Women in Wes Anderson’s movies inspire men to do things like throw tennis matches, run over a boy’s bicycle, write and produce hit plays, and attempt suicide. They are at best muses, at worst objects of desire, with Sister Patrician Whitman falling firmly in the latter camp. Anjelica Huston brings gravity to this woman, who feels a greater responsibility toward the strangers in this corner of the world than she does toward her own issue, but part of that gravity is a sense of coldness.
When Francis asks her why she didn’t go to their father’s funeral, she responds, “Because I didn’t want to.” She says things like, “The past happened. But it’s over, isn’t it,” to which they reply, “Not for us.” I can’t help but think of a pilgrim who spends a lifetime scaling a mountain to ask the sage about the meaning of life, and when he gets there the sage replies, “What are you asking me for?” Their promised time with their mother is cut short when she flees in the night. But she leaves breakfast ready for them. The maternal equivalent of a note on the pillow after a one-night stand.
The challenge here is that I never know exactly what they want from her. Is it to ask about the funeral? Is it to confess that Francis’ motorcycle crash wasn’t an accident? To tell her that she’s going to be a grandmother? Or is it to simply spend the night under her roof like they did when they were boys? I think ultimately it’s to confirm what they seem to have known on some level all along, the point that makes this journey so critical: their father dead, their mother geographically and emotionally distant, they have only themselves in this world. “You’re the two most important people in the world to me,” Francis says as they embark on their trip, lo these 91 minutes ago. “I’ve never said that, but it’s true.” You don’t believe him, as it sounds like yet another line that feels like the right thing to say but that has nothing underneath to make us think that it is actually so.
By the end of the movie, however, you realize that Francis is right, the real coup being that he doesn’t have to say it again. By this point, we feel its truth. As much as they have been at any point in their lives, they are, as they leave their mother’s convent, brothers.
Aside from “Les Champs-Elysees”, which plays during the final credits, I didn’t leave the movie humming a new favorite song. If I think about it, I remember a Rolling Stones tune playing at some point, but it did little more than reinforce a surprising lack of appreciation of the Rolling Stones (a deficiency, I know). The point here, of course, is that The Darjeeling Limited strikes me as being the clearest example yet that Wes Anderson does not need to rely on those aforementioned cinematic bells and whistles to move his audience. I’ll even overlook the unnecessary slow-motion at the end in which the brothers throw aside their baggage to catch the last train out of town. (Get it? Baggage?)
Instead, the lasting image I’ll take from The Darjeeling Limited is the one that Anderson offers before taking us to black: the scenes from a camera fixed to the exterior of a train as it clickety-clacks forward, the countryside speeding by, the rails extending into the distance. Because Wes Anderson is most definitely back on track.
Anderson devotees and casual fans alike will be disappointed by the scant extras featured on the DVD. As usual, Criterion set the standard with tricked-out editions of Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic that included commentaries, documentaries, audition footage, deleted scenes, and fake interview shows, among other additions. Fox’s version of The Darjeeling Limited offers the aforementioned option of also watching “Hotel Chevalier”, in addition to a theatrical preview and a 20-minute featurette that will enhance one’s appreciation of the intricacies of the art direction and the complications of shooting in India and on a moving train. The featurette is of the best variety—spliced together scenes of the movie being filmed rather than staged interviews with the filmmakers in front of a drop with the movie’s logo splashed across it—but given Anderson’s cult-like following, the studio could have offered his core audience much more. The lack of special features almost makes you wonder if another version is forthcoming; it certainly makes this release a rental rather than a purchase.