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At the heart of Wes Anderson’s self-conscious aesthetic is a curious sort of paradox: on the one hand, he’s a light dreamy enchanter, marshalling a cavalcade of nonstop whimsy and farce that, somehow, he has combined with the strict rigorous cineastic vision of an Antonioni, manifesting itself in muted performances, gruelingly controlled sets, and staging measured to within an inch of its life. I am reminded of a scene in Kubrick’s The Shining where I got so distracted by the amusing pictures of sexy, funky, afro-headed nudes hanging on Scatman Crothers’ walls that I couldn’t pay any attention to what he was seeing on television; at odds with their corny-sleazy purpose as characterization, the pictures seemed to have been arranged with the symmetry and calculation of a coy museum curator. It is a similar effect — art-gallery precision misapplied to screwball comedy — that Anderson makes deliberate use of as a subtle joke, a neurotic element of his humorous vision. In the decade since his reputation first erupted, his unique manner has infected movie comedies in a big way — just as Tim Burton’s style has become the gold standard for cute spookiness. You see it in movies like Election (1999); a beloved cult favorite like Napoleon Dynamite (2004); as well as in forgettable efforts like Running with Scissors (2006).
In Rushmore (1997), the styling made perfect sense, went with the controlling metaphor of the film as play and theatre — the movie itself seemed to be a bright quixotic drama staged by its main character, Max. In Anderson’s 2001 film, The Royal Tenenbaums, there was even more justification for the method: presented as a kind of John Irvingized Salinger novel, the film was a comic-book family epic that seemed to take place in a parallel world of moving waxworks, which, despite a certain soggy sentimental strain, was a distinct advance on his previous work. Here all the stilted shots, the stately processions, the deathly staging, and bright unreal colors beautifully dramatized the stunted spirits of the film’s characters who were so emotionally crippled they could not grow up or change; they even wore the same clothes as adults that they had worn as children.
I thought and hoped that in his next film Anderson would himself grow and shrug off the negligible lost-soul-redemption shtick he had used in Rushmore and Tenenbaums. It had worked well enough in Rushmore because it was done with such a light hand; The Royal Tenenbaums had got by with it because of Gene Hackman’s inspired performance, the way he treated making good whimsically as a theoretical thrill, something exotic he wanted to try out before dying, like seeing the pyramids. Having done with all that, I hoped Anderson might start hacking away at his characters in strange, funny, awful ways.
Instead, his next film was 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. In fairness, about two-thirds of it was pretty enjoyable. This time the metaphor of a play or a novel was replaced by that of a film; the usual cast of Andersonianly quirky characters were put aboard a visually stunning boat captained by Bill Murray, a tyrant oceanographer and naturalist documentarian named Steve Zissou. Once successful, Zissou had lately become a dissipated louse reduced to pathetically seeking revenge on the shark that had killed his partner. Murray’s monstrous attempts to control everything and everyone around him for use in his movies — which he thinks of as raw unmediated nature, but are really just a violently distorted reflection of his perverted ego — are highly entertaining. The movie contains lots of absurd surprises, a slickster nemesis oceanographer, pirates, a casual murder, etc, but there’s a terrible drag in the person of Owen Wilson, who gives a bland performance with a dreadful southern accent — he is Murray’s long-lost unreal illegitimate son who turns out be his true spiritual child, and initiates Murray’s unwarranted redemption, standing the film on its head, landing it in a moral and philosophical cul-de-sac. As Cate Blanchett’s character and others keep pointing out during the course of the film, Murray is not trying to get at the truth of anything, he’s simply using fish, people, and situations to fit the delusional image he has of himself as a great man. So what, then, are we meant to think at the end when Steve Zissou is allowed to exploit the death of the Owen Wilson character so as to make his best documentary yet and restore his renowned reputation as a pop naturalist at a big gala? Is this something a spiritually regenerated person would do? The sterile hypocrisy of it might have been darkly funny if Anderson had not treated it with such sincerity, only barely undercut by the cheesy fakeness of the miraculous majesty-of-the-undersea CGI cosmos that was, I think, genuinely supposed to be charming. All of which completely muddles the film’s Melvillian search for the shark, probably deliberately, giving everything an ill-conceived meandering quality.
Even back with The Royal Tenebaums, I had been oddly reminded of Fellini’s 8½, because of its shiny-candied look and swishing well-orchestrated movements. But in The Life Aquatic, what was latent stylistically suddenly came to the surface: both movies used the idea of the filmmaker as parasite and would-be puppeteer; both attempted to dramatize the artist’s spiritual regeneration after more or less being rejected by their own creations. Yet Fellini’s ambivalence about this inner rebirth, being more obscurely hallucinatory, retains a truer aura: even though the characters are forced through their paces, Guido’s wife-puppet never quite accepts her spot in his circusy reduction of life. Meanwhile Anderson’s film corrodes into camp. Since the director does violence to the logical truth of his material — arresting the fairy-tale ghastliness of the depths to which Steve Zissou will sink through the convenient death of the Owen Wilson character — the film ends up as nothing more than a fancy type of sentimentality, a technically brilliant Forrest Gump of sorts.
Thus with The Life Aquatic‘s generally bad critical reception I had thought Anderson might finally return to the quick, scintillating, dark potential of his best work by doing something really provocative, dazzling, and elegant.
Yet the moment I saw the neurotic brothers board a colorful Indian train in his new film, I knew The Darjeeling Limited‘s ultimate destination would be disaster. Three brothers, presumably rich, played by Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman, have grown apart over the last year since their father’s death. After Francis (Wilson) survives a car accident, which he later admits was a failed suicide attempt, he coerces his brothers, Jack (Schwartzman) and Peter (Brody), to take a train trip with him through a dream-pretty India on what he explains will be a well-planned spiritual journey, complete with helpful assistants and computerized itineraries, and what Francis hopes will be a final cathartic visit with their mother, played with cracked brilliance by Angelica Huston. She’s been living in a monastery for years and didn’t even bother coming home for their father’s funeral. As the film rolls along the audience pieces together that it was this unseen father’s death that somehow broke the brother’s spirits, set them adrift, which, apparently, forces them to act in the monotonous style of all Anderson films. Schwartzman, particularly, is dullness personified, truly dispiriting since in Rushmore he gave one of the most original screen performances I’ve ever seen. Each of the bothers has been assigned a few stark quirks in lieu of anything that might have made them seem really related to one another. Each has a specific character mission. Jack, a writer, must accept his recently failed romantic relationship (as shown in the short film pre-ambulating Darjeeling called The Hotel Chevalier). Peter’s wife is pregnant, he’s not sure how he feels about it. And Francis must learn to live with loss.
Along the way various chuckle-worthy adventures befall them: Schwartzman has sex with the beautiful girlfriend of the train’s conductor; Wilson manipulates the brothers into continuing the journey by stealing their passports and forcing them to follow his precise schedule for their spiritual development; Brody acquires a poisonous snake. The train somehow becomes symbolically lost, an irony pointed out with deadening bluntness by Schwartzman.
But the true Anderson touch comes when the brothers are booted off the train for bad behavior and have to travel by bus, making the film’s title superfluous. This begins a slightly humorous running gag of the boys laboriously loading and unloading a bunch of fancy luggage — which had belonged to their dead father — from buses, dragging it through deserts, across rivers. The boys argue. The spiritual journey breaks down. Yet the whole audience knows all they have to do is sit back, cross their legs, and wait for the magic fix to come, which turns out to be, as in The Life Aquatic, a well-engineered death, that of an Indian child. The dead boy’s exotic family and visually striking funeral — a delicate ritual all in white — are apparently just what’s needed to kick-start the brothers’ inner healing and, once more, set them and their bulky luggage off in search of themselves and their mother. When they find her, shorn-haired, wild-eyed, she childishly placates them with promises of full explanations for her coldly weird behavior then quickly abandons them again, leaving them as lost as before. Even so the brothers manage to have the silly epiphany we always knew they would. What is it? In possibly one of the most bludgeoningly obvious bits of symbolism ever put on film, the brothers are shown trying to catch a train back to their normal lives. Being late as usual, they make a desperate attempt to run after the receding train but are hopelessly slowed up by all their absurd baggage. At last, in slow motion, one by one, each brother drops his load, and happily manages to over-take the train. Get it? In order to get back on track, the brothers must let go of all their old baggage! I actually gasped in disgust at this (causing a number of blurry irked heads in the dimness around me to swivel in my direction), just as I had during the short prologue to the movie, The Hotel Chevalier, where Natalie Portman’s nude body, shown from the side bending over a hotel’s bureau, was so disturbingly thin one could see ribs ascending her frail torso, as if she were a concentration camp victim.
The Darjeeling Limited is very well filmed (excepting the bits of slow-motion), with beautiful colors and exquisite camera work — Anderson knows just how to make us see what he wants us to. A couple of sequences are so marvelously executed, so delicate and precise, that we feel the crackle, energy, and wit that are almost entirely absent in the flatness of the script. The film is swamped by a gooey figurativeness that’s only half-meant to be silly; since Owen Wilson is unable to convey his character’s soupy sorrow from behind his bandages (remnants of his attempted suicide), the movie remains abstractedly adrift throughout, a special feature of almost all Anderson’s films, I suppose, but here lacking any zest.
I see now that Owen Wilson’s character’s attempt to force his brothers on a journey of self-discovery not only puts him in a long line of Wes Anderson’s domineering imbeciles, but shows us a new aspect of the director’s aesthetic I had not quite noticed before. In some sense I had always assumed he identified with the alienated powerlessness of Max, in Rushmore and Margot in The Royal Tenenbaums, but really it’s Max’s willfulness, Royal’s manipulative sneakiness, and Zissou’s and Owen Wilson’s whiny controlling streaks that are truly at the lonely hearts of his films. They’re all spoiled children trying to make the world give them the great wonderful thing they think they want that somehow or other keeps slipping out of their grasps.
Also, in Darjeeling, the director does not use a self-conscious framework for the story, such as the metaphor of the theatre or the novel or the documentary. Therefore he makes the plot itself a figurative device, which shows us that all the paradox of control and caprice mentioned above, which had merely seemed like stylistic ways of dramatizing his material, were possibly always some sort of neurotic ontological quest for Anderson. With each film he seems to be saying that one can only begin to start genuinely living by shrugging off the straight-jacket bonds of a silly, solipsistic system of expectations. What’s odd is that this revelation keeps coming at us with its feet bound in Anderson’s suffocating manner, as if the director were somehow trapped by his own approach, disapproving of it yet unable to escape, and therefore doomed to have to learn the lesson over and over.
What all this means I can only guess. The evidence of Wes Anderson’s (right) films suggests that they derive from a sensibility so inwardly coiled that hard-headed logic, truth, and thought have been violently squeezed out. His cool formal designs, which I loved in the earlier films, have become oppressive to him and oppressive to me too, but in a blah sort of way. His recent work is like a chill morning fog that never quite lifts; what ought to be sunlight showing through the haze turns out to be the orange sodium tinge of a still-burning streetlamp. All of which means that what was once audacious and lovely and new in his work has become safe, predictable, and, worst of all, inspirational sloganeering.