Eastern Promise: Wes Anderson Hops The Darjeeling Limited
A couple of years ago, Esquire magazine asked Martin Scorsese to nominate the "next Scorsese", ie the most promising filmmaker of the younger generation. Marty's vote went to Wes Anderson on the strength of his first two films: Bottle Rocket (straight to video here!) and Rushmore, a curious comedy about a precocious 15-year-old who's the king of his private preparatory school.
Since then, Anderson's profile has continued to rise - first with the starry The Royal Tenenbaums, then The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and now The Darjeeling Limited - even if he's yet to hit a box-office homerun. It seems like each movie gets a mixed critical reaction, does middling business, and then turns into a big cult favourite as soon as it reaches DVD.
Not that everyone's impressed. The relatively expensive Life Aquatic, especially, seemed to rub people up the wrong way: too quirky, too whimsical, too flippant, too esoteric, apparently.
In 2006, Steely Dan (musicians Walter Becker and Donald Fagen) published an open letter to the "Maestro": "There was a time when Giants walked among us," they mused. "And, damn, if you, Wes Anderson, might not be the one to restore their racial dominance on this our planet."
Having buttered him up, they set about kicking him down for his "self-imitation, and a modality dangerously close to mawkishness…"
Anderson always tells the same story, they said, concerning "the enervated family of origin" (they even copyrighted the phrase). And each film recycles the same stylistic tics: "eccentric visual design… period wardrobe… idiosyncratic and overwrought set design", plus 60s British pop music and the same core actors: Owen and Luke Wilson, Bill Murray, Seymour Cassel.
Then they volunteered two songs for his next soundtrack.
It was a cheeky move, but it sums up the mixed feelings Anderson inspires. It seems like everyone responds to one of his movies more strongly than the rest, even if they are all much the same. Anderson's signature is so strong, it's easy to spot him for an "auteur" - but it's also easy to complain that his regard never strays far from the vanity mirror. Steely Dan had it right: he is obsessed with family, the disappointment we imbibe from our parents, the difficulty (impossibility?) of breaking free from these often stultifying relationships.
The Darjeeling Limited is no different. Three grown man-children - poor little rich boys Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson - run away from grief over their father's death and their own private sense of failure, and towards a vague hoped for reconciliation with their mother (Anjelica Huston, no less).
Like his neurotic, self-absorbed heroes, Anderson may have headed to India with an idea of recuperating from the relatively rough ride he got on Life Aquatic and "experiencing" something new. But as his characters learn, you have to be open to experience something. For much of the movie they're bottled up in the fastidiously designed colonial train of the title, and even when they're not, Anderson doesn't show us the real India anymore than he gave us the real Marine-world in his last film (or the real New York, for that matter, in The Royal Tenenbaums).
I'm not complaining. I love Anderson's whimsical melancholia, his literary witticisms and decorative visual flourish. Yes, it's hermetic, but we're all trapped in our own world-views (again, it's something his characters learn). Anderson just has a more rarified vision than most of us, and he expresses it more artfully too. Not too many filmmakers inspire comparisons to JD Salinger and Henri Matisse.
Most of all - and this is hardly an original observation - I love the way he counterpoints music and visuals to synthesis an emotional epiphany. The example everybody always quotes is Margo (Gwyneth Paltrow) reentering Ritchie (Luke Wilson)'s life as Nico sings "These Days", but you could point to a couple of equally inspired moments in each of his films; Elliott Smith's "Needle in the Hay" as Ritchie decides to slit his wrists seems painfully prescient. The Sigur Ros song playing as Team Zissou spot the Jaguar Shark is just sublime. In the new film, there's a montage I won't spoil set to the Rolling Stones' "Play with Fire" which deserves to become a permanent fixture on any video jukebox; the Kinks get a good work out, and several songs composed by or for Satyajit Ray evoke India more palpably than any of the location footage…
All this is very Scorsese - he practically invented the idiom. But Anderson's music is even more intimate and subjective than Scorsese's, it expresses his tongue-tied melancholics in ways they can never put into words for themselves. He's the perfect iPod auteur. Like the best pop songs, his movies infiltrate your unconscious - you think there's nothing there, but each time you go back you find something more.
That doesn't make Anderson the filmmaker of his generation necessarily. Not this Anderson - I reckon Paul Thomas Magnolia Anderson has greater breadth and variety; unlike Wes, you can never predict what he's going to do next. But, hey, if he's not our Scorsese, Anderson W. could still be our very own Woody Allen…
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