Enlightenment: Wes Anderson’s film The Darjeeling Limited, featuring Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman
The Darjeeling Limited by Wes Anderson, American Empirical Picture/Collage/Fox, 2007
The Wes Anderson Collection by Matt Zoller Seitz, Abrams, 2013
The Parisian philosopher and poet Francois Marie Arouet (1694-1778), better known to most of us as Voltaire, was one of the men—along with Denis Diderot, David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, Immanuel Kant, John Locke, Isaac Newton, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Baruch Spinoza—who were part of an important turn in western civilization: a turn toward reason as instrumental in organizing public and personal life, creating an age of enlightenment. Francois Marie Arouet, Voltaire, was one of the men of enlightenment. Voltaire, a liberal and witty man, and a writer of poetry and plays and fiction as well as philosophy, was a critic of authority and of religion. He believed in reason and relevance—applicability, usefulness. His ideas sometimes brought him trouble from those with authority—and he was imprisoned or exiled. Yet, Voltaire’s life was full of accomplishments and pleasures: his life was admirable. Voltaire made himself a companion to Marquise du Chatelet (Gabrielle de Breteuil), a mathematician, an inspiring and well-placed woman; and for a time Voltaire became a royal court favorite, and subsequently a member of the French academy. In addition to creating literature, Voltaire wrote on history and science. His works include “The Lisbon Disaster” (1756), a poem; the novel Candide (1759); and the Philosophical Dictionary (1764). Voltaire’s independent mind and his inclination for satire would continue to cause controversy: Voltaire encouraged his fellow citizens to laugh at the faults and foolishness of those with power. There was wisdom in such laughter. Enlightenment remains one of the principal ideals of human life.
In the western world, enlightenment is an ideal associated with reason and knowledge and liberty and progress, an ideal associated with ideals. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, intellectual discourse in different fields—in science, philosophy, political theory, literature, and the arts—was galvanized by the belief in the significance of study and the transformation of human possibility. Reason was key in understanding nature, the world, the cosmos—and the goal of many thoughtful men was to use that understanding to improve human life. Reason was to be pursued despite the customary limits of place or position, or the inherited beliefs of religion or tribe. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the promotion of enlightenment followed the great Renaissance of the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries: the Renaissance was a renewal of the philosophy, principles, and projects of the ancient world of Greece and Rome, the classical world, with its great regard for the human mind and the rigors of thought. In the age of enlightenment, there was a broadening of culture and conversation, an achievement of a cosmopolitan perspective that affirmed democratic liberty, social reform, and national self-determination. Ordinary human life would be improved as much as the general movement of society. In the eastern world, enlightenment had less to do with reason than with spirit. For Buddhists, the trouble of the world—and the pain in one’s life—is caused by willful wanting, and the inevitable frustrations and conflicts that come with that; and enlightenment is to be found when one lets go of that vexing desire. However, that is only one form of eastern thought: Hinduism is another, and it is full of magical beings and metaphors and rituals and things. What have westerners made of the eastern world? The eastern world has been visited by westerners, the encounters recorded in memoirs and stories; and literary works, from Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901) and E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924) to the fiction and essays of V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie, have captured the attraction and tensions. The historian J.J. Clarke has written on enlightenment in the eastern world, and how westerners have perceived it: in his book Oriental Enlightenment (Routledge, 1997), J.J. Clarke argues that India and other eastern countries and their cultures have represented a positive alternative to western values. Often the eastern world has represented both ancient tradition and modern change for westerners—the eastern world has been interpreted as needed.
In Wes Anderson’s 2007 film The Darjeeling Limited three Americans visit India, and one goal is enlightenment. The Darjeeling Limited is probably not a film for everyone; it does not seem now—but there is so much in it that one hopes that one day it will be a film for everyone. It is an intelligent, lovely, unique film, focusing on three characters, three estranged brothers, who are believable for their temperament, for their idiosyncratic ways of being in the world. Their trip to India is itself not hard to imagine—life is full of such seekers. Written by Wes Anderson with Roman Coppola and one of the film’s lead actors, Jason Schwartzman, The Darjeeling Limited is a strange pleasure, full of shifting sights and tones; and the film, with production design by Mark Friedberg, was filmed by Robert Yeoman, and edited by Andrew Weisblum. In the film, Jason Schwartzman is Jack Whitman, Owen Wilson is Francis Whitman, and Adrien Brody is Peter Whitman, three young American men, brothers of privilege and some personal pain. Their father has died, and they have been abandoned by their mother; and the brothers have not been together since their father’s funeral a year before. One suspects, from certain comments, that the brothers have loved their parents but have not been particularly close to them (the older brother claims that he, Francis, has been responsible, partly, for rearing the three of them—Francis is well-intentioned but tightly controlling, with worries all his own). During their trip in India, the brothers visit shrines with established spiritual prestige, but much of their travel is taken up with the contentions among the three, and with rather mundane distractions. That inconstant and indirect seeking of enlightenment is part of what makes the endeavor convincing.
Wes Anderson’s aesthetic is one of fine detail and quiet, sensitive moments, and the drama in his work is based on eccentric personality, emotion, and intelligent thought; and the intricacy of Anderson’s vision—the attention given to the way everything looks, to the minutest aspects of form and the relationships among persons and objects and environment, with each image containing layers and textures—is quite usual for miniature works, but his stories expand with many characters and locations and situations. Wes Anderson’s films are not small, though they may seem so at first glance. Wes Anderson’s short film Bottle Rocket (1994) became a feature film of the same name two years later, Bottle Rocket (1996), and was followed by the much acclaimed Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), Hotel Chevalier (2007), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). The Darjeeling Limited has the atmosphere of a lark, of a digressive adventure, one in which insight is gained.
The film The Darjeeling Limited begins with Peter running to catch the train, which has left the station: Peter (Adrien Brody) is able to hoist himself onto the moving train, leaving an older suited man, who had been running as well to catch it, on the platform. The three brothers, Peter, Jack, and Francis, meet on the train that gives the film its title: the decorations on the old-fashioned train are hand-made, with little designs of animals, portraits, and scenes. The face of one brother—Francis (Owen Wilson)—is bandaged, after a motorcycle accident: it is a visual expression of his pain. The film is about the trip, which Francis intends as a chance for the brothers to bond, and, also, as a spiritual journey. Should a smart young man with money be able to will himself into enlightenment and love? How many of us have thought we could do that; or still think it? The brothers’ father has died, their mother is gone, and they have divided up their father’s beautiful luggage between them, Louis Vuitton luggage designed by Marc Jacobs—the most attractive and expensive baggage. One of the brothers, Peter (Brody), finds other things—eye glasses, shaving razor—of their father that Peter absorbs into his own life, suggesting memory, grief, and entitlement. Peter borrows some of Francis’s things without asking, too. The brothers are too close and not close enough; boundaries have been crossed, and are crossed, and there is distrust and pain and resentment. Some of the resentment regards the older brother Francis’s authority, or the keeping of secrets by Peter, or the revelation of family secrets by Jack (Jason Schwartzman) in his biographical fictions. The trip is not as simple as it could or should be: Francis on the train has an assistant, Brendan (Wally Wolodarsky), who is helping with the itinerary and getting supplies. Jack is attracted to a female train server, Rita (Amara Karan). One brother, Peter, is expecting a baby with his wife Alice (Camilla Ruther) and nervous about it; and he is using the trip as an escape from responsibility. The young men have intelligence and some sensitivity, but they lack maturity. They—western, educated, bourgeois and oddly fragile—do not know yet what they could or should be responsible for, and what they must leave to others, or to chance.
The Darjeeling Limited is a beautiful, spirited film. It has an interesting surface—one has to see it but also see into it and beyond it. Wes Anderson is a film director whose work speaks in dialogue and in film form and shifting images. “His frames are, once again, stuffed with carefully placed curiosities, both human and inanimate; his story wanders from whimsy to melancholy; his taste in music, clothes, cars and accessories remains eccentric and impeccable,” noted New York Times film critic Anthony O. Scott, after calling Anderson’s sensibility precious—only to clarify the film as doubly precious: a beautiful, carefully made film featuring self-conscious, vain characters (September 28, 2007). A. O. Scott admits, “Part of the pleasure of watching it comes from never knowing quite what will happen next. Not that everything that happens is pleasant. Wes Anderson’s world may be a place of wonder and caprice, but it is also a realm of melancholy and frustration, as if all the cool, exotic bric-a-brac had been amassed to compensate for a persistent feeling of emptiness. The Whitman boys may seem happy-go-lucky, but on closer inspection they don’t look very happy at all.” That last observation is, of course, the true content of the film—pain can be found in all kinds of lives. Yet critic Scott decided that filmmaker Anderson did not go as far as the film directors Anderson admires—Jean Renoir and Satyajit Ray—in understanding and presenting the complex diversity of the surrounding world.
Genius is the creativity of hard work—choosing what, why, and how you want to do something, then having the discipline and commitment to do it, and doing it with energy, imagination, and thought, accomplishing one’s purpose with a depth, range, and vision of excellence and singularity. Jean Renoir and Satyajit Ray had that genius. The director of the films Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), The Lower Depths (1936), Grand Illusion (1937), The Rules of the Game (1939), The Southerner (1945), and The Golden Coach (1953), the filmmaker Jean Renoir (1894-1979) is one of the legendary men of cinema, someone from whom a wide range of artists draw inspiration. Jean Renoir, the son of painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, had a sense of complexity and of truth; and while Jean Renoir sometimes depicted the middle and upper classes in his films he did that without false admiration or pretension: he was more likely to offer critique or satire. The great Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) made about twenty-nine feature films, not counting documentaries or short films: Satyajit Ray was the maker of The Apu Trilogy —Pather Panchali or Song of the Little Road (1955); Aparajito or The Unvanquished (1956); and Apur Sansar or The World of Apu (1959): a series of films about the youth, education, and marriage of a poor Bengali boy. Satyajit Ray made, also, other favorites: The Music Room or Jalsaghar (1958), about an aging, nostalgic landowner; Devi (1961), about Hindu beliefs; and The Big City or Mahanagar (1963), about the liberation of a young woman who finds necessary work and a sense of freedom. Pauline Kael thought Satyajit Ray a natural filmmaker, someone whose work contained a lot of love for what and whom he photographed. Akira Kurosawa said that not seeing Satyajit Ray’s films was like not seeing the sun and moon. Both Renoir and Ray have a grasp of a certain fundamental human dimension—the feeling beneath looks and gestures—in addition to the beauty of their photography or the drama of their scenarios. The odd thing is that Wes Anderson’s technique is so formidable some people miss the fact that there is a lot of complicated—contrary, deep, vexing—feeling in his work.
It is strange to think, but important to remember, that the films of Satyajit Ray, so very much admired by Wes Anderson and many of us in America and Europe, are less popular in India, where many people prefer musical spectacles in cinema: India, with its native, Dravidian, and Aryan roots; its sacred writing, its sense of equality and fairness; and its long cultivation of crafts and culture—India with its caste system and its duplicities and its poverty. How has India’s material world been able to grow so recklessly in light of its established spiritual traditions? Hinduism is a very old religion native to India, the land of the Indus river, its beginnings older than written history; and Hindu mythology is full of gods, magical beings, and heroes, inspiring literature and the arts. Buddhism and Jainism came later (the person we referred to as Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was born almost three thousand years ago). Buddha thought human life full of suffering, and that suffering was caused by attachment to the world and its things—with peace coming through the necessary forfeiting of that mundane attachment, with the pursuit of a more accepting, balanced, and thoughtful perspective, purpose, and practice. The spiritual traditions of the east have been as limited as the spiritual traditions of the west in creating a paradise on earth. The world’s financial, military, and political powers, of course, do not wait for our individual enlightenment or communal development. Thanks to the conquests of Alexander the Great, there was Greek influence on India in art and science. Yet, after more military changes in power, Hindu priests—the Brahmin class—became of greater influence in the social order, bringing with the prominence of the Brahmin class a lasting caste system; although, with time, Hinduism would be influenced by aspects of Buddhism. The Muslims would come too, a thousand years after the death of Christ; and the Mongols, led by Tamerlane, in 1398. The Mogul (or Mughal) dynasty, founded by Baber in 1526, is considered a high point of Indian culture (the Taj Mahal was built by that dynasty). European colonialism would reign, beginning in the seventeenth century, and not ending until the mid-twentieth century, with national independence attained thanks to men such as Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, and the popular revolt of the Indian people. Indian cinema has a long, rich history, during and after colonialism—but popular cinema has meant the pleasures of entertainment, with its celebrations of beauty and romance and wealth, more than the serious considerations of art.
D.G. Phalke made a feature film of a Mahabharata story, King Kharischandra (1913), India’s first feature motion picture, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Film Studies (2012) assembled and written by Annette Kuhn and Guy Westwell. The Indian film industry in the early twentieth century—the 1920s—began to make very many films, many of them popular, of both mythology and contemporary dramas. The Light of the World (1931) by Ardeshir Irani was the first sound film made in the country. The many languages of India found a place in film, but Hindi-language musicals drew the largest audiences. The Indian desire for independence was represented in film, too; and Italian neorealist films had an influence, as did developing film societies, and government support. Some Indian films of note can be located with a little further research: Do Bigha Zamin, or Two-thirds of an Acre (1953); Mother India (1957); Pyaasa, or Thirsty (1957); Meghe Dhaka Tara, or The Cloud-Capped Star (1960); Jaane Bhi Do Yarro, or Just Let It Go, Friends (1983); English, August (1994); Lagaan or Land Tax (2001); and The Great Indian Butterfly (2010). The Indian film industry remains vast and successful, but films such as that of Satyajit Ray are an acquired taste—as are those of Jean Renoir and Wes Anderson.
Wes Anderson has the taste for the films of Jean Renoir and Satyajit Ray—but that does not mean that Anderson will imitate them in every regard. One learns—and pursues one’s own purpose. The Darjeeling Limited is a Wes Anderson film, not a Satyajit Ray film. A short but appreciative review in Film Empire, a British magazine, by the writer Angie Errigo at the time of the film’s 2007 release had two succinct paragraphs that are worth repeating, for the fact that Errigo watched the film with attention and found its actual content and meaning (while alluding to reports of actor Owen Wilson’s personal misery and ill health):
“Despite all Francis’ efforts to control the other two, his plans go awry when they stray from temple visits into a string of disasters. When the train itself goes off on the wrong track and a railway man explains, ‘We haven’t located us yet,’ he’s speaking to the Whitman condition. Even more blatantly symbolic is the motif of the Whitmans’ luggage, to which the brothers cling jealously, along with their resentments, throughout. But it is handled wittily as a centrepiece in the delightful storybook production design, itself set off beautifully against vibrant locations.
Owen Wilson, without whom Anderson has never made a film, plays the eldest brother and self-appointed patriarch with a haunted insecurity behind his confident humour. Wilson’s Francis has recently had a near-fatal accident, so for most of the film his face is bashed up, his remarkable nose hidden under a bandage. Given awareness of Wilson’s recent troubles, the dismaying state of his Francis enhances the poignancy of the brothers’ predicaments beyond what was foreseen and scripted, though Brody and Schwartzman more than hold their own as his rivals in grief and slapstick.”
In India, the three brothers Francis, Peter, and Jack, encounter order and wild nature, tradition and modernity and rural life, chaos and color and community, dry air and delicious spice—the human condition in a different place. The brothers stop to visit a market in India; and one of the brothers, Francis, buys a pair shoes; another, Peter, buys a poisonous snake; another, Jack, pepper spray. One half of the pair of shoes will get quickly stolen; and on the train the snake will get loose; and the pepper spray will be used by to separate two of the brothers as they fight. There is a genuine and great sense of entanglement and intimacy created among the brothers. Francis, while the three visit a religious shrine, learns about a spiritual ritual involving peacock feathers and wishing; and Francis acquires the feathers so that he and his brothers might perform the wishing ritual—but Peter and Jack do not read or follow the written instructions, though they claim they have, and Peter and Jack do not perform the ritual properly. One of the hidden purposes of the trip—planned by Francis—is a reunion with the boys’ mother Patricia (Angelica Huston), who has become a nun in a convent in India. Patricia no longer sees her primary responsibility as wife, widow, or mother. Her withdrawal from family is, at once, strange and personal and understandable. Did the brothers get their self-centeredness from her? Did they get their inclination to seek transcendent personal meaning from her? Mother and sons do have one moment of silent, odd, pleasant communication.
The mother has organized a meal—anticipating or dictating food preferences—in the same way that Francis does with his brothers, suggesting that Francis learned the method from her (the tastes of the brothers have been observed, are known: that knowledge is possessed and demonstrated—something that can irritate: no one likes to be thought predictable). However, the next day Patricia, their mother, is gone; she, again, has abdicated her responsibility to her sons—who, after all, are now grown men—for other responsibilities, for spiritual devotion and the people of another land, of India. The brothers are at once foolish and sad. They are not very different from some of the young men that some of us have met in the world’s cosmopolitan cities. They are not that different from some of the men that some of us have met in the world’s poor locales. It is not as easy for men to find joy and purpose as one would think. There is a great deal of competition for attention, energy, time, and thought. It is as easy to find the wrong opportunities as the right. There is one time during their trip when the Whitman brothers are forced out of their own family circle, beyond their self-concern, transcendent of their own desires: Francis, Peter, and Jack see three very young Indian boys trying to cross a stream with their own baggage—one assumes the India boys are performing some necessary service for family—and the Indian boys fall into the water, and the Whitman brothers rush to help, but one of the Indian boys does die. Life can be that dangerous in certain parts of the world. The brothers attempted to meet a genuine challenge. Irrfan Khan is a father in the village who meets the westerners on the sad occasion. The Indian villagers are grateful for the help of the Whitmans; and feed and shelter the Whitman brothers and ask them to stay for the traditional funeral. It is a genuine spiritual event—rising out of grief and culture. A genuine challenge, a genuine spiritual event—with something to be glad of, and something to mourn. The Whitman brothers, after the funeral, after their visit with their mother, prepare to go back home, but decide to stay a little longer; and while running to catch another train they leave much of their baggage behind.
It is significant for men who have been oriented toward things—to material things; to old wounds and resentments—to fling their baggage away, abandoning it. Will that baggage be claimed by others? Will it be of use to anyone but them? Earlier, there was a theft of one of Francis’s shoes by a shoeshine boy. Of what use is a single shoe? The theft of one half of a pair of expensive shoes would seem to be an iteration of western fears that the west and its citizens own things—of various kinds—that others want, even without a practical use for those things. What could the stealing Indian boy do with one shoe? Is the leather of use? Is the style of the shoe something to be replicated? Was the Indian boy confiscating a little of what the colonialists stole decades earlier? The theft reverberates back to the national origin of the bourgeois brothers and the people of color left behind in cosmopolitan locales: Native Americans, African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, and African and Muslim emigrants. One thinks of expectations of theft there, in the western world—expectations carried by ordinary citizens, by captains of industry, by civil authorities—and by the police force.
Americans of European descent, and Europeans, Caucasians, white people, suspect that their peace, prosperity, privilege, and power have been earned at the expense of others—and they have: that is the history of colonialism, of slavery, of discrimination in education, law, housing, and political participation. White people fear and expect anger and retribution. They know that they themselves would be angry and vengeful if other people had stolen their land, natural resources, or other property, enslaved them or their ancestors, or paid them little for excruciating labor, and failed to make equal and fair opportunities available. White people know that they would try to recapture some or all of what they have lost. When they see a person of color, they imagine that this might be the person who will try to take what they have acquired. The police force—muscle and aggression; the dumb arm of the law—are protectors of property first; and, the police, too, following the intellectual orientation and fear of their superiors, have the same expectation of theft: suspicion is assumed, and nothing is more natural to them than brutality in the execution of the law—and thus we have the regular abuse of innocent people and the consequent headlines, scandals, and protests. It is fascinating that people of color in foreign countries are always interesting, the subject of intelligent speculation and sympathy, the kind usually withheld from people of color in one’s own country. Somehow, when thinking about African-Americans, their fellow citizens rarely think of Frederick Douglass or Gina Prince-Bythewood, Kia Corthron, W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, Mahalia Jackson, Michael Jordan, Alain Locke, Toni Morrison, Richard Parsons, Orlando Patterson, Colin Powell, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ida B. Wells, William Julius Wilson, or the president, Barack Obama—nor do they think of teachers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, farmers, mailmen, or electricians; or even of the characters and insights to be found in films such as Antwone Fisher, Boomerang, Chameleon Street, Daughters of the Dust, Devil in a Blue Dress, Eve’s Bayou, Ganja and Hess, Get on the Bus, The Great Debaters, Jumping the Broom, Losing Ground, Sankofa, and Sidewalk Stories: rather, many people think of the pictures of criminals seen on television or in the local paper. The worst members and worst moments in African-American life are taken to represent the whole. Yet, white people insist on thinking of themselves as innocent. The concept of whiteness allowed ethnic populations from other countries to lose the negative connotations of their own history: the Irish and the Italian and the Polish, who were looked down on in England, and on the European continent, were able to be blank slates, blank figures, rising in American society, shaped by their own whim and work. Blacks remain as representative of dark facts and possibilities.
In an appreciative and thoughtful consideration of The Darjeeling Limited, the Canadian writer and religious studies professor Barry Stephenson examined community, ritual, and passion in the work of Wes Anderson: the pilgrimage of the three privileged but damaged brothers offers the possibility of healing—there is something to be healed. Barry Stephenson thinks a principal subject of the film is family life, what Stephenson calls prima materia or first matter; and that the western mourning process is inadequate—commercial, shallow, and that India and its mourning tradition presented—sadly, necessarily—something better, more genuine: in mourning for a little Indian boy, the brothers were able, also, to mourn for their own father. “In Wes’s World we find a number of persistent themes and a recognizable cinematic style: sibling rivalries; absent fathers and mothers; wayward, oddball families; feelings of meaninglessness, suicide attempts or ideation; narrative montage and mise-en-scène; slow-motion shots overdubbed with alternative music; a shooting style that calls attention to itself; a slow pacing; a rather static, photographic camera; a mood both comical and dark; and a coterie of actors who persistently inhabit Anderson’s films: Owen Wilson, a longtime friend and collaborator, Angelica Huston, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman—a tragicomic fraternity of friends and colleagues somewhat as peculiar as the characters they play. If ritual is bound up with the rhythm of repetition, ritual is a tacit force informing Anderson’s work. He returns, again and again, to a consistent style, and to work and rework the prima materia of family strife, angst, and a sorrow without a source. Form and content conspire in reflecting and projecting Wes’s World,” wrote Barry Stephenson in the online Bright Lights Film Journal (November 2011, Issue 74).
What Wes Anderson, with his co-writers Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, has done with The Darjeeling Limited is to create a new and genuine experience for himself, his actors, and his characters. In commentary that __The New Yorker_ magazine film critic and journalist Richard Brody wrote for the Criterion Collection, Brody noted, “I was surprised to learn that Anderson’s approach to his subject was both documentary and personal from the outset. He had conceived of the film while staying in Paris with Schwartzman in 2005; the two strolled through the city at night, walking the actor’s dog and talking, and Anderson had the idea that the stories and personal matters under discussion would make for a good film. Schwartzman recalled Anderson telling him, ‘I think we should write a movie about three brothers in India. That’s kind of all I have now, but the three of us will get together every night and we’ll tell our stories. It will be the most personal thing we could possibly make—let’s try to make it even too personal.’” (Wes Anderson confided another source for the film to Richard Brody: Husbands (1970), a John Cassavetes film about three men in mid-life, after another friend has died, three men trying to make sense of life, reeling in pain and rage.) The Wes Anderson collaboration for Darjeeling with his friends and associates was intimate and spontaneous—and the film’s production, on an actual train, had the same elements, with the actors spending a great amount of time together. Richard Brody said something that reconciles content and Anderson’s style: “_The Darjeeling Limited_ shows his universe to be that of a conservative avant-garde, a refined aesthetic that conveys a severe ethical code in which a failure of personal responsibility or of sensitivity is also a lapse in taste” (from the Criterion Collection essay, posted online October 12, 2010).
The Darjeeling Limited has a wonderfully rambling quality. Its shifts in tone are part of what make it compelling and convincing. Its focus here on something superficial, and there on something profound, make the film more like our lives than two hours of dark brown, slow, somber earnest exploration—the style of so many would-be serious films—ever could. It is easy for critics and observers to forget that realism and naturalism are styles, forms of interpretation and presentation—rather than real life itself. Some people seeing a film about poverty or war feel brave or politically virtuous for doing so. They consider seeing a film in which fashion or laughter or romance or wealth have a large place as being much less serious than poverty or war. For those who do not want to remember that art is an interpretation of life, rather than raw experience, the affirmation of artifice that one finds in Wes Anderson’s work is a cheerful reminder that they find bitter. Artifice—content that appears as what is beautiful or clever or invented; content as style—is one of the resources of humanity, one of the things that make life bearable. Nature is not enough. Life is not enough: we must imagine a better reality and response than the ones we find on an ordinary day. Wes Anderson knows that. “Like his other work, this is light comedy (albeit comedy that flirts with an appealing ridiculousness) that carries with it a satisfying intelligence,” said Mike Scott of the New Orleans Times-Picayune (October 19, 2007), commenting on the sensibility of The Darjeeling Limited —its serious subject, its bright style—and appreciating the story of three young men who have lost their parents (their father to death, and their mother to a new spiritual commitment in a foreign country). Mike Scott registers that the young men are suffering, though they may cling to drugs or sex or money as distractions or substitute satisfactions for familial love, noting Adrien Brody’s sensitive performance: “Brody is the film’s heart. Owen’s character may be wounded physically, but Brody—convincingly brokenhearted and betraying the scared little boy inside him—embodies the psychic wounds all the brothers carry on their spiritual journey.”
It is interesting to wonder to what extent Wes Anderson’s muse may be male. Anderson seems to be making films about the possibilities of male identity, responsibility, and fulfillment. Watching Owen Wilson, who has with The Darjeeling Limited been given a role that allows him to acknowledge his own person trouble, I thought that there must be deep friendship between the two men, Wilson and Anderson. (Anderson has spoken of their creative collaboration, saying that he thinks of Wilson even when they are not writing or working together.) Wilson’s character Francis feels responsible for others but overwhelmed by his own feelings. There is something quirky about Owen Wilson, something smart, well-intentioned, and obsessive, something a bit quarrelsome—he argues for what he thinks is right. There is a sensitivity there that one might not expect—he cares. Owen Wilson was in both versions of Bottle Rocket and in The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Owen Wilson is a thief in Bottle Rocket, a writer of westerns with a drug problem in Royal Tenenbaums, a southerner with money and daddy issues in Life Aquatic, the voice of an otter in Fantastic Mr. Fox, and a hotel worker in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Jason Schwartzman was in Rushmore, Hotel Chevalier, Darjeeling, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Jason Schwartzman as Jack in The Darjeeling Limited is self-conscious and withdrawn but observant, aggressive but sensitive, creative and sexual—a convincing personality for a writer. Schwartzman was a talented but lazy student in Rushmore, a bewildered lover in Hotel Chevalier, and Ash, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Fox, in Fantastic Mr. Fox, and a greedy but helpful scout in Moonrise Kingdom, and a hotel desk worker in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Adrien Brody’s first film with Wes Anderson was The Darjeeling Limited, followed by Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Grand Budapest Hotel. In The Darjeeling Limited, Brody’s performance is completely embodied—as a young man of reserve and style, of entitlement and insecurity, coolness and sympathy. In Fantastic Mr. Fox, Brody gave his voice to a field mouse; and in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Brody is the dark-suited villain with a moustache, the son who cannot wait to inherit his mother’s immense estate.
Wes Anderson’s male characters do not have the usual armor—there is something a bit transparent about them, an effect that can be difficult for some observers, the kind who confuse pose for actual self. Anderson’s work gestures to the absurdity of the human condition—not only that we are born to die, or that we remain at a distance from our best hopes, but that we have a great deal of trouble even remaining consistent with our selves from moment to moment. Women and men have great roles—dynamic, eccentric—in Wes Anderson’s oeuvre, which yet can be considered homosocial, though not homosexual: there are negative references to homosexuality (or bisexuality) in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Wes Anderson has not given us—and it is not easy to imagine Anderson will give us anytime soon—a work comparable to those containing characters with the same-sex entanglements, emotional and erotic, of It’s Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in which He Lives, and Brokeback Mountain, Death in Venice, Edward II, Ernesto, Fox and His Friends, Gohatto, Happy Together, Kinsey, Longtime Companion, Looking for Langston, My Beautiful Laundrette, Philadelphia, Wild Reeds, and Total Eclipse. Who knows what the future will bring?
Wes Anderson has become a significant figure in cinema—the world of moving pictures, celluloid, video, digital, or other; moving pictures constructed as story, essay, poem, painting, or object; creations of imagination and intellect and instinct; philosophy and prophecy, dream and nightmare; projections in places public or private, in color or black-and-white or both; images seen close or at a distance, of long duration or short; shaped or found, polished or rough; contemplated and perceived, appreciated or neglected; a tradition of works, a history of entertainment, and a panoply of commentary. With filmmakers such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Joel and Ethan Coen, Alfonso Cuaron, Julie Dash, Ava DuVernay, Spike Jonze, Abbas Kiarostami, Ang Lee, Richard Linklater, Terrence Malick, Steve McQueen, Christopher Nolan, Walter Salles, Julian Schnabel, Martin Scorsese, Abderrahmane Sissako, Steven Soderbergh, Elia Suleiman, the Wachowski siblings, Michael Winterbottom, and Wong Kar Wai, Wes Anderson has become one of the most interesting film directors of his time, not in spite of his imaginative inclinations but because of them. “Since his debut film, Bottle Rocket, up through Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, writer-director Wes Anderson has carved out a niche as American cinema’s most eccentric, lyrical poet of family dysfunction. He’s at it again in The Darjeeling Limited, a precious, picaresque film about three brothers searching for spiritual meaning in India,” began Ann Hornaday in her Washington Post film review (October 5, 2007), before Hornaday described the story, and the film’s appealing palette, fun spirit, and metaphors (fancy baggage), before concluding, “The Darjeeling Limited has its charms, chief of which is watching three terrific actors evince with unforced ease the rewards and resentments of brotherhood.”
“Wilson, Brody and Schwartzman are like a contemporary, depressive version of the Three Stooges, and there’s something inspired about Anderson’s decision to cast them as brothers. They are linked not only by their prodigious noses, but also by their air of melancholy. And yet, what do they have to be sad about? Like many of Anderson’s characters, the Whitmans are privileged, but this time the wealth becomes another source of absurdist humor. Francis wears a $6,000 belt and $3,000 loafers. Jack chooses a five-star Parisian hotel for his can’t-get-out-of-bed nervous breakdown. They are, by any measure, ridiculous, and yet you can’t help but feel sorry for them, they’re so trapped in their little self-absorbed, self-mythologizing bubbles. Even when tragedy strikes, joining their fates with the fates of three young Indian brothers, they remain strangely like spectators,” summarized Carina Chocano in a particularly thoughtful review in The Los Angeles Times (October 5, 2007), recognizing the brothers are privileged, selfish, and also genuinely hurt—their selfishness might be a response to their wounds. That the Whitman brothers—grown men who act boyish—are allowed to be, and seem, foolish is no accident; and suggests the honesty, as well as the generosity, of Anderson’s vision. Foolishness is a fact of humanity, and does not dismiss one from the realm of human attention. In their accoutrements and with their consuming spirit, the Whitmans—the white men—are embodiments of contemporary western culture: they have their limits and their potential. It is possible to think that the indulgent comedy of The Darjeeling Limited—with its acceptance of human flaws—goes back further than the Three Stooges, all the way back to the works of Boccaccio, Chaucer, and Rabelais, comedies of appetite and impudence. Carina Chocano, too, recognizes that Wes Anderson creates fictions in order to tell the truth and sustain the spirit.
It is not privilege that makes the Whitman brothers not worthy of trust or interest, but, rather, a capitulation to weaknesses—to fear, to greed, to resentment, and to the inclination to self-medicate—that raises doubts about intelligence, morality, and sense. Are the brothers able to see beyond their own individual perspectives? The spiritual journey—in which one has little but one’s own intelligence, intuition, and intention as guide—is but an allegory of life, an abstraction, a symbol, a tale of what is or may become significant. For the online Slant magazine (October 11, 2010), Glenn Heath Jr wrote an appreciation of the 2010 Blu-ray release of the film The Darjeeling Limited, a package that included a written appreciation by film reviewer Richard Brody, and video criticism by Matt Zoller Seitz, the author of the beautifully, brilliantly impressive picture book The Wes Anderson Collection (2013) from Abrams, a tome that has interviews with Anderson, acknowledging influences and inspirations, and which has, also, hundreds of varied illustrations. (Richard Brody and Matt Zoller Seitz are usually exceptional at providing the description, analysis, and celebration one expects in good film criticism.) Glenn Heath Jr, in his Slant article on The Darjeeling Limited, recalled a conversation from the film: “‘If we weren’t brothers, do you think we’d be friends in real life?’ Jack asks Francis and Peter. All three grudgingly agree they probably wouldn’t. During these reflective moments, Anderson’s use of the tracking shot takes on a swivel effect, ping-ponging back and forth between actions in elaborate long takes, departing from the presence of one character to find the sudden absence of another. The visuals become even more dynamic when the Whitmans depart for excursions into urban and religious districts. There’s hollowness to their time together, a revelatory sadness hiding beneath the façade of sacred places and objects that hold no spiritual value over them. Surrounded by the mystery of new experience, the Whitmans fold inward and relegate back to their old selves, making further broken bonds a forgone conclusion.” The cliché is that family is forced upon you but you choose your friends—and, yet, these brothers are trying to choose each other; trying, with difficulty, to achieve reconciliation. Does that sound familiar? The Whitmans cannot simply find enlightenment—they must choose it; they must pursue it as a part of their lives, creating it as they live.
Being poor looks pretty much the same in every age—one is vulnerable to man and nature, time and change—exposed, weathered. Being privileged looks a little different in every age, but there are consistencies in how one glitters, intimidates, and indulges—and both poverty and wealth can disguise character. It is life’s challenges that test us—and diminish or expand who we are. Is it possible for us to learn from our experiences, and to grow? Do the Whitman brothers grow? We observe the characters in a Wes Anderson film, but not with the voyeuristic invasion of many films. In The Darjeeling Limited, when the brothers share pain killers, we do not see any specific images—no psychedelia—to suggest how they are affected, allowing us to share the peaceful high. Nor during a sexual act does the camera caress the bodies, allowing us the same or a similar pleasure as the characters. When a weary young woman lights a cigarette, we do not see a close-up of the cigarette or of her lips nor an indication of how relieving it is to smoke. We are observers, not participants—and that may be part of the distance some viewers feel in Anderson’s work, and why they are repelled. Wes Anderson’s work lacks the common touch, the usual vulgarity. His work is that of the imagination but also of good taste (discretion, respect). It is not our lives that we are watching, but that of the Whitman brothers and the people they know or meet—figures in a fiction. Yet it is that comprehending distance that is both grand and generous, allowing us to see more of the world—figure and ground, human within world—than usually we would. Criticism can help us to identify important facts, ideas, and perceptions in art and culture; changes in how craft is conceived and executed; and connections between work and world. However, some critical observers were not convinced by The Darjeeling Limited. “Wes Anderson has attempted a film of strong emotion, but entrapped in the self-imposed coolness of his style, he has created a wistful, decorative emptiness—with a handful of obligatory flailings in the direction of random meaning,” wrote Mick LaSalle in the San Francisco Chronicle (October 4, 2007), appreciating the attempt and the actors, but concluding, “The film is eye-popping and gorgeous but vacant, a diversion and a deflection pointing to a meaning that never arrives.” Amy Biancolli, a writer at a different chronicle, The Houston Chronicle (October 19, 2007), did not think the actors were enough: “It’s an affected film about disaffected people, and no cast in the world could save it.” What can one say to that? See the film again. Think about it more.
Men and women as individuals, as artists, as intellectuals, as citizens in society and government, are always trying to balance diverse elements and ideas and impulses and requirements—and the accomplishments that last usually embody that balance. What lacks balance is troubling—and attempts are made to correct it. The work of art is more than a mirror of the world. It is more—it is correction and supplement and alternative. It is invention. The exemplary critic wants more than repetition and routine. The exemplary critic is the one who asks, Is this work intelligent, good, right, sensitive, true? The exemplary critic is one who asks, If no other work existed but that of the artist under review, would we have a portrait of the human condition that is creative and complex, interesting, of use? Would we have a portrait upon which a civilization can be built? Wes Anderson’s work, film after film, is a vision of a world (world after world after world) that is unique—and each world in an Anderson film has complexity and vitality. It is a very aesthetic, very fine vision. I suspect that there is a common fear of a wholly aesthetic, or even wholly intelligent or moral environment: that such an environment would be airless, forbidding animal vitality, unforgiving of error—inhuman. Wes Anderson’s vision is quite aesthetic, but it is far from airless: it is human, with charm, delicacy, humor, intelligence, and sympathy.
The film critic Matt Zoller Seitz’s large format book The Wes Anderson Collection (2013) is scrapbook and scriptural interpretation, containing essays on Wes Anderson’s films, interviews with Anderson, and photographs, paintings, and drawings. Matt Zoller Seitz’s The Wes Anderson Collection, with an introduction by Michael Chabon and illustrations by Max Dalton, is both informative and fun, with memories of filmmaking, and storyboards, and details of the shift from script to actual scenes; and the book has become something of a favorite of mine for late night reading—along with Pauline Kael’s For Keeps (1994), Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Essential Cinema (2004), Toby Talbot’s The New Yorker Theater (2009), Manthia Diawara’s Black American Cinema (1993), and Gonul Donmez-Colin’s Turkish Cinema (2014). Matt Seitz has been an admirer of Wes Anderson since the independent 1994 short film Bottle Rocket, which Seitz perceived as “the work of people who knew film history but didn’t treat the past as homework” (page 32); the short film that was extended into a 1996 feature film, with compromising interference from the studio Columbia Pictures. Matt Seitz’s book is full of film references and connections: clearly Anderson was fond of Alfred Hitchcock, Elia Kazan, Orson Welles and other film world masters. Seitz is sensitive when it comes to discussing a figure such as Max in Rushmore, a young man both ambitious and helpless, full of confident declarations and no power to enforce them; or perceiving the Tenebaum family (The Royal Tenenbaums) as a bunch of defeated geniuses; or noting how The Darjeeling Limited contends with issues of control and chaos, as the brothers stumble toward enlightenment. It seems, too, that The Darjeeling Limited is, in part, about a search for love—and the film itself has love in it, in how it was made, in the quality of its attention.
The philosopher John Locke recognized our thinking as essential to our human identities, and thought that our labor gave us claim to property, and Locke affirmed the social contract. Isaac Newton articulated laws of motion and gravity, and formed philosophies—analyses and propositions—of color and sound. Voltaire mocked the pretensions of aristocrats and academics, finding value in a life of affection, sensible contemplation, and work. We are the inheritors of the age of enlightenment, but we do not use fully our intelligence in the pursuit of our lives, our happiness, or our prosperity, or in our consideration of others. Artists remind us of our choices, of our possibilities. It is difficult to be an artist—inspiration, education, intelligence, imagination, and passion, as well as discipline and stamina, are required; and there is usually not enough support or understanding of the artistic process or of the resulting art work. Art is an experience of a form, a craft, a rhetoric, a mastery of images and sound that takes as its subject human experience—love and hate, joy and pain, isolation and community: art is less an expression of emotion, than an examination of it—and the purpose of art is appreciation, understanding…Genius does know itself, and has its own mission, and works on its own schedule.