Friday, September 17, 2010

Things White People Like (The Darjeeling Limited)

To me, the most interesting fact pertaining to Lady Gaga appearing on the cover of Japanese men's Vogue in a dress made out of raw meat is that there exists a publication called Japanese men's Vogue, which got me thinking: What kind of man would read it? My first guess was high-earning homosexuals, who have more disposable income because they don't have kids. But then I remembered that, in neighboring South Korea, dressing like a dandy didn't necessarily have a homosexual connotation. For instance, in the early part of 2009, the most popular Korean TV show was Boys Before Flowers, which was based on a Japanese manga and TV series about a group of effeminate teenagers called the Flower Four, who attend an exclusive private school in Seoul. The leader of the group, Gu Jun-pyo (Lee Min-ho), would often wear fur-collared coats and had a perm, and two of the secondary flower boys would sometimes make catty comments about the plot ("All I know is that school hasn't been this interesting in years"). In short, the only way for it to be any gayer would be for the boys to join a glee club coached by Jane Lynch and Rock Hudson.

Anyway, like the Sex and the City movie (2008)--also very gay--which I saw with Heather in Busan, Boys Before Flowers was in large part a fantasy of posh living for the masses. The heroine, Geum Jan-di (Goo Hye-sun), is a girl from a working class background who's courted by two of the flower boys. And according to Wikipedia, "The drama series influenced men to take their appearance even more seriously and try to gain the 'pretty boy' image that existed among the F4 characters in the drama. More South Korean males started to wear cosmetics and viewers in South Korea and beyond started to notice overseas filming locations of the drama as possible holiday destinations."

However, while Boys Before Flowers and Sex and the City represent an overblown fantasy of conspicuous consumption, during the US Open, all the ads for luxury items assume that the people watching can actually afford German cars, French cologne, and diamond-encrusted watches (no, seriously, diamond-encrusted wacthes). Advertisers, of course, want to pitch their wares to the most educated and affluent segment of the population, because they have the most money to spend. So even if Grand Slam tennis draws fewer eyeballs than other major sporting events, the people who do watch it are precisely those whom advertisers are most eager to target. I remember back when I "studied" commerce, in one of my lectures the professor mentioned how certain brands were particularly eager to advertise during an obscure MTV series called Aeon Flux (1995) because it had the audience they desired. In other words, to judge by the ads, the people watching tennis on TV are more likely to have helped cause the global economic collapse than to have lost their jobs and homes because of it. (One of the main reasons for the economic meltdown, incidentally, was that a lot of poor people got hoodwinked into spending, or rather borrowing, like millionaires.) Conversely, I'm sure that Glenn Beck's TV show gets huge numbers, but one of his chief sponsors is something called Goldline, which is so obviously a scam designed to bamboozle the least sophisticated members of society (that is, the people who like Beck and Sarah Palin--not to mention Beck and Palin themselves) that it's become an easy punch line for The Daily Show.

Speaking of rich people, it's impossible to discuss the films of Wes Anderson without talking about wealth and privilege, since the subject is almost as central to his work as it is to Sofia Coppola's. Anderson's second feature, Rushmore (1998), was about a teenager, Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman, Coppola's cousin), who goes to an expensive prep school on a scholarship, and is so ashamed of his father (Seymour Cassel), who runs a barber shop, that he tells his classmates his father is a brain surgeon. Early in the film, Max befriends a self-made millionaire industrialist (Bill Murray) when the latter gives a talk at Max's school, in which he tells students like Max to take down the kids who were "born rich and are probably going to die that way" (which could refer to the industrialist's own sons, whom he despises). Anderson's subsequent film, The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), was his first set outside of his native Texas, and it marks an overall shift in his orientation, with the rich kids taking centre stage. (Incidentally, one of the characters is a former tennis pro, and Anderson would later direct a commercial for a credit card company that advertises during the US Open.) And by the time of The Darjeeling Limited (2007)--written by Anderson with Schwartzman and Roman Coppola--it's simply taken for granted granted that the characters are fabulously wealthy without the film making any particular point about it.

The latter film invites comparisons with Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation (2003), since in both a colonized Asian country serves as an exotic backdrop for a story about rich white people. However, the two films differ significantly in how they view the people who live in those countries. Coppola's film, set in Japan (which was occupied by the United States after World War II), is a racist's view of Tokyo. Of course, it's possible to make a film about a bigoted character without making a racist movie (Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino [2008], for instance), but Coppola uncritically identifies with her characters' xenophobia, inviting viewers to laugh at how Japanese people mispronounce English words (it goes without saying that the American characters don't speak Japanese). In one of the film's broadest and ugliest scenes, a prostitute commands Bill Murray to "lip" her stockings, and then in case we didn't get the joke that Asian people are stupid, starts rolling around on the floor. On the other hand, The Darjeeling Limited, which is set in post-colonial India, sees the people there as people, even those that don't speak any English at all (although many do, India having the most English speakers of any country in the world), which is all you can reasonably expect from an American director making a film in Asia.

The story, about three brothers on a spiritual journey, can be divided into three large acts. As the film opens, Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrian Brody), and Jack (Schwartzman) haven't spoken to each other in a year, but when Francis has a near-death experience, crashing his motorcycle, he asks his two brothers to come to India to join him on an adventure aboard the Darjeeling Limited and become brothers again. (Aside from Jack, who's a novelist, the brothers don't have any discernible source of income.) Like Wilson's character in Bottle Rocket (1996), Francis tries to micromanage everything, having his assistant, Brendan (Wallace Wolodarsky), print out a detailed itinerary for each day, as if one could build trust and find spiritual enlightenment on a schedule. However, the spiritual journey is an abysmal failure precisely due to the brothers' inability to trust one another, and when their constant bickering escalates into an all out brawl, the Chief Stewart (Waris Ahluwalia) kicks them off the train in the middle of nowhere. In the second part of the film, the brothers decide to abandon their spiritual journey and find the nearest airport. However, en route they see some peasant children who are about to fall into a canal. When they inevitably do fall in, the brothers jump in to try to save them, but one of the children doesn't make it. The brothers are invited to the funeral, and there's a flashback to the day of their father's funeral (which they missed due to their bickering). In the final section of the film, the brothers decide, instead of getting on the plane, to go see their mother, Patricia (Anjelica Huston), who's become a Catholic missionary at a secluded monastery. At each stage of the plot, the brothers attempt to perform a silly ritual involving three bird feathers. The first time they attempt it, when the Darjeeling Limited gets lost, they get sidetracked by bickering. After they get kicked off the train, they make a second attempt but do it wrong because of a miscommunication. But by the third attempt, at the monastery, they're in perfect harmony with each other.

It's indicative of the film's narrative density that I've had to leave a lot out of the above description, including the short film, Hotel Chevalier (2007), which is designed to be shown before the feature, and which the latter alludes to in a number of ways. In the short, Jack is hiding out in a ritzy Paris hotel, where he's been staying for over a month (he's only half kidding when he estimates that his bill so far is 750 million Euros, begging the question: Why doesn't he simply get an apartment?), when he receives a surprise visit from his ex-girlfriend (Natalie Portman). A cynic might view the whole thing as an advert for a posh lifestyle, down to the ex-girlfriend, whose chic androgynous haircut is obviously intended to remind viewers of Jean Seberg in À bout de souffle (1960), as if to say: If you crash at expensive hotels and listen to indie folk rock on your iPod, then you too can schtup anemic indie girls like ribby over here.

In the feature, this visit--like the incident at the garage that made the brothers miss their father's funeral--becomes the basis for an autobiographical short story written by Jack, which he reads to Francis and Peter near the end of the film. At the end of the short, Jacks' relationship with his ex-girlfriend is very much unresolved (they're neither broken up nor back together). Similarly, while aboard the Darjeeling Limited, Jack gets involved with an Indian woman, Rita (Amara Karan), who isn't sure whether she has a boyfriend, or if they just broke up, or if they're about to. Twice in the film, Jack, who knows the code for his ex-girlfriend's voice mail, jealously listens to her messages. The first time he does this, it's at a small train station during a routine stop. (Jack is even wearing his yellow Hotel Chevalier bathrobe at the time.) As Francis and Peter watch from the train, the latter betrays Jack's plan to flee to Italy, inspiring Francis to take Jack's passport. When Francis and Peter get into the brawl that will get them all kicked off the train, Jack maces them in the face, shouting when they come after him, "Stop including me!" Similarly, by spending the last year abroad, Jack has excluded himself from the family. (An important prop in both the short and the feature is the designer suitcase that Jack takes with him to Paris, which was part of a set owned by their father. We learn in the flashback that Jack discovered it in the trunk of their father's car on the day of the funeral.) However, after their visit to the monastery, when Jack reads his short story about the breakup to Francis and Peter, he adds the ending, "He would not be going to Italy." And when Peter pays him a compliment suggesting that the story is autobiographical ("I like how mean you are"), Jack doesn't try to deny it as he did earlier with a different story story based on the incident at the garage. At the end of the film, as a sign of their renewed trust, Francis returns to Peter and Jack their passports, but they agree that it's safer if Francis keeps them. And rather than getting on a plane, we see them boarding another train, the Bengal Tiger (obviously an echo of the opening sequence, in which Peter has to run to catch the Darjeeling Limited, but this time, leaving all their luggage on the platform), which one might infer is taking the brothers further into India rather than immediately back to the west.

Of Anderson's six features to date, half of them--The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)--are about patriarchs (and in two of those, as well as this film, Huston plays an estranged matriarch). In a sense, The Darjeeling Limited picks up where The Royal Tenenbaums left off, with the death of the father. (One could also see it as a bizarro world remake of Bottle Rocket, but instead of real life brothers playing unrelated friends, here you have three actors who aren't related and don't look alike playing siblings. And at one point, Jack wonders aloud if they could've been friends in "real life--not as brothers, but as people.") Early in the film, Peter confides to Jack that his wife, Alice (Camilla Rutherford), is seven and a half months pregnant with their first child (and to pay him back for spilling the beans about Italy, Jack reports this back to Francis--or was it the other way around?), but before he can become a father himself, Peter needs to first grieve the loss of his own. It was Peter's insistence on driving to the funeral in their father's car (in order to demonstrate to Francis that he was the one who was grieving the most) that caused them to miss the service in the first place. At the end of the flashback, when the three brothers are in the limo on their way to the funeral (which has already started, and which we never see them arriving at), Peter discovers that he's still holding the keys to his father's car, and a year later in India, he's still hanging on to them, as well as his father's prescription sunglasses. By superimposing Peter's grief for his father on top of that of an Indian peasant (Irrfan Khan) for his son, whose death Peter blames himself for ("I didn't save mine"), Anderson suggests a commonality bridging cultural, linguistic, religious, and economic differences that's denied to the characters in Lost in Translation, where Japanese culture is viewed as impenetrably weird.

During the flashback sequence, Francis learns that Patricia won't be attending their father's funeral, having evidently thrown him over for another father-figure, Jesus Christ. Her short haircut, incidentally, links her to Jack's ex-girlfriend, and during the brothers' visit to the monastery, she fiddles with a miniature music box fixed to Jack's suitcase, echoing one shot in the short film. Also, the brothers' visit coincides with Ash Wednesday, and the black soot on Patricia and the brothers' foreheads rhymes with an earlier sequence in which Rita puts a red dot on the same spot on the brothers' foreheads, suggesting another cross-cultural commonality.

At the risk of reviewing the audience, Anderson (like Coppola) essentially makes movies for rich white people--and I include myself as a member of said audience, even though I'm not really rich (not Sofia Coppola rich, anyway) and I'm not really white either (I could pass for Italian). In an essay on Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire (2008) in CineAction!, Ajay Gehlawart writes, "'Crucial' for Boyle is that his film be seen as 'a Bollywood film in the sense that virtually all the cast and crew are from Bollywood,' yet also, crucially, not as a Bollywood film, in the sense that, 'it is a good story'"--which is to say that, in contrast with Bollywood pictures which are aimed at the broadest and least sophisticated audience, Boyle's film is intended for a relatively discerning western viewership. And The Darjeeling Limited assumes an even more sophisticated viewer. Significantly, its primary invocation of Indian cinema isn't Bollywood-style spectacle (as in the rather dreadful musical number behind the closing credits of Boyle's film), but Ravi Shankar's sitar music from Satyajit Ray's neo-realist inspired Apu trilogy: Pather panchali (1955), Aparajito (1957), and The World of Apu (1959). And in contrast with the ugly music video aesthetic and broad melodrama of Slumdog Millionaire, Anderson's style is as refined and elegant as Stanley Kubrick's, and his nice guy humanism places him in the same company as François Truffaut.

Anderson's films not only function as advertisements for luxury items (here, the brothers' suits and suitcases were designed by Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton), but are themselves luxury items, and he's been as savvy about protecting his brand as Jim Jarmusch and Wong Kar-wai. (The Darjeeling Limited I hear will soon be coming out in a deluxe edition Blu Ray from the Criterion Collection with a cover designed by Anderson's brother.) A few years ago, some one remarked to me that they felt Rushmore was "pretentious" compared to a comedy like Penelope Spheeris' Wayne's World (1992)--which I also consider a masterpiece. At the time, I found that inexplicable, but now I think I understand what they meant. Anderson is an incredibly sophisticated filmmaker, arguably the most impressive now at work in the American mainstream (rivaled only by the likes of Noah Baumbach, Todd Haynes, Jarmusch, Spike Lee, David Lynch, and Terrence Malick). So no matter how much of a humanist he may be, making films for such a discerning, knowledgeable audience (i.e., hipsters) is inevitably kind of elitist.

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