Friday, August 1, 2008

The Darjeeling Limited

We saw The Darjeeling Limited tonight. I can never figure out why some foreign movies open in Japan immediately and some take forever; clearly big dumb blockbusters have the edge over small, articulate indie films, but some big dumb blockbusters take longer than others. Anyway, this isn’t a big dumb blockbuster, so I wasn’t surprised it took a while; in fact, I was surprised it hit the theaters at all. We happened to catch it on the last day of its engagement at a curious theater in Kawasaki, the Kawasaki City Art Center, a brand-sparkling-new complex that’s run by an NPO. The theater felt like the Carpenter Center at Harvard: black and red, no frills, but a good place to concentrate on a film.

So anyway, neither of us are exactly Wes Anderson fans; I’ve seen one of his, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Mrs. Tanuki hadn’t seen any; but we wanted to go see a movie, and the only things remotely interesting were this, The Happening, and the new Miyazaki Hayao, Ponyo. The latter two are movies that don’t excite us by directors who do; we haven’t been able to bring ourselves to see them yet. So Monsieur Anderson it was.

As Mrs. Tanuki says, it’s pretty much impossible to take a bad photo or shoot an ugly film in India: this one’s a Xanadu of color and texture, but I’m not sure how much credit Anderson can really claim for that. Nevertheless, it’s important: as a friend once taught me, the essence of a film is its visuals, and I think we’d be a fool (all of us, collectively) to argue too much with a film that shows us beautiful things. This one does.

But what of things Anderson can claim credit for? Here are thoughts on three of them, for what they’re worth (the thoughts or the things, take yer pick). (Oh, and, spoiler alert.)

1. The widescreen format works particularly well for the train setting, and Anderson uses it nicely. I’m thinking of the key scene where the mother tells them all to try to communicate their thoughts silently, and we get first an Ozu-like boxing of the compass between the four characters in the scene, and then we travel to the right along the titular train, only now the train also includes rooms that aren’t in the train—hotel rooms, hovel rooms. Anyway, the long slow movement to the right along this “train” is quite effective, showing us every major character and a few minor ones, everybody in his or her own solitary compartment, traveling together yet separately through life (Anderson’s metaphors aren’t always the subtlest, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing).

This sequence does a couple of other nice things. One, by showing everybody going about his or her own business, apart from any interactions with the three Whitman boys, it gives some of these secondary characters a degree of autonomy that fleshes them out as characters. This is particularly nice to see with regard to the Indian characters, given how they’re constantly in danger of turning into props for the boys’ story.

And, two, Anderson sets this sequence to the Stones’ “Play With Fire,” the lyrics of which echo Peter Sarstedt’s “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely),” played earlier, in describing a jet-setting woman in terms of the material and mental accessories with which she defines herself—but Jagger adds a touch of aggression, bringing this jet-setter into contact with someone more dangerous, less restrained. In the context of the film, what is this suggesting? That these highly repressed characters, with their six-thousand-dollar belts and carefully chosen iPod playlists, by trying to get in touch with their deepest feelings, are playing with fire, and if they actually succeed they’ll find something like what we see in the last image in this pan down the train: the tiger burning bright (well, actually kind of lurking in the dark).

2. The music in this film was a treat for an inveterate Kinksphile like the Tanuki. Yes, God save the Kinks. And, of course, the Stones. The classic British rock soundtrack might have had more meaning here than just the well-chosen lyrics, though. The Kinks and the Stones didn’t do it, but many of their contemporaries made the same spiritual journey to India that the Whitman boys do—more importantly, the same one their Boomer mother does. Either they were seriously trying to find a spirituality they couldn’t find in Knightsbridge, or they were going shopping; maybe both. Anyway, in this film you have echoes of that, I think. But soft echoes: you have the Kinks and the Stones and, very conspicuously, not the Beatles. On the other hand, you do have the three brothers seen in profile walking in single file down the runway, with Jason Schwartzman barefoot. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to think of the cover of Abbey Road there.

3. As usual, Anderson has a great feel for sibling relationships. A lot of people call his characters artificial or stylized, and no doubt they are; but they’re stylizations based, at least in this case, on a keen sense of the dynamics of a certain kind of sibling relationship. The interplay between the three brothers is well written, well directed, and well acted.

1 comment:

Cat said...

Now I want to listen to the movie soundtrack through on its own...We saw this movie when it came out, and for some reason, it alienated me, which may be a broader Wes Anderson problem for me (wasn't crazy about The Royal Tenenbaums or The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou either. Oddly, given my obsession with irony, I think that I have trouble with tone with Wes Anderson, and I never quite know how to engage with his characters. I do agree about the gorgeous visuals, however, and your review gave me food for thought.

On a sidenote, you are so happy you did not choose to see The Happening instead! It is actually laughable, and it should be terrifying. The initial concept sounds so very chilling, and yet somehow, the rendering makes it campy. It wasn't boring, but it didn't work either.