Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 28, 2007 2:05 pm 
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Saying yes to everything, or trying to anyway

The first thing to note about Wes Anderson’s new film (featuring Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Adrien Brody, as the Whitman brothers, Francis, Jack, and Peter respectively) is that it was shot in India, mostly on a colorful old train traveling across Rajasthan. The train perhaps replaces the elaborate constructed set of the ship Anderson used in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. That ship was a bit of an albatross. The movie cost $60 million to make and is Anderson’s least admired work. The train is part of a faster and cheaper production and it’s crucially different: it’s a real train, in motion during the shoot. It’s still perhaps an arbitrary and whimsical set—and has the kind of bright pastel colors Anderson likes—but this time, as Brody has said about the shoot, they were learning to "live in the moment," just letting things happen, and using whatever they observed of Indian life as elements in the film. Every time they turned around there was something unfamiliar, remarkable and new to see; if they could, they worked it in. This isn’t navel-gazing (though there’s that) but also discovery and wonderment. It’s partly a homage to Anderson’s fascination with India and admiration for Jean Renoir’s The River and the films of Satyajit Ray. The soundtrack isn’t just sweet Seventies rock but music from Ray’s classics.

Every Anderson film is about families (and his crew and casts are like family); this one is mostly, of course, about sibling relationships. Wes wrote the screenplay together with Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, who're both cousins, and old friends of his—and hence like brothers, paralleling the film’s three. They also went to India and took a trip before the writing, living the experience before they made it into a screenplay.

Darjeeling’s trio of obviously privileged sons have been estranged for a year, since their father’s death—which their mother, Patricia (Angelica Houston), now in a convent near the Himalayas, chose not even to attend. (There’s a flashback of the brothers en route to the funeral, with Barbet Schroeder as a German mechanic.) Francis, the eldest, has summoned Jack and Peter to this Indian train voyage as a way of bonding, and at the same time seeking spiritual enlightenment.

But before we get to that, there’s a kind of pendant, called Hotel Chevalier, which sometimes will be shown with Darjeeling, sometimes not. It’s a ten-minute film with Jason Schwartzman and Nathalie Portman. And it’s a perfect little film in its way. Schwartzman is already Jack, though the film was completed a year earlier. He’s enjoying solitary luxury in a nice Paris hotel, when his girlfriend (Portman), also estranged, turns up. Jack, who likes to go barefoot and wear expensive suits, is a writer, and this sequence comes up in Darjeeling as a short story he’s working on. Hotel Chevalier is a bridge into the full-length film, and was also a way for Schwartzman to readjust to working with Anderson as an actor after the long interlude since Rushmore.

Everyone is damaged. We know how actually damaged Owen Wilson is from the news of his recent suicide attempt; and Anderson’s comedies are perennially tinged with melancholy and dysfunction. Francis (Wilson) arrives with his head all bandaged up from a terrible motorcycle accident. Peter (Brody—the only Anderson newcomer among the principals) is running away from the pregnancy of a wife he regrets marrying. Jack is pining for the girlfriend of Hotel Chevalier, who has apparently slept around. She can’t commit to him and he can’t give her up. The brothers stop at temples and see sights and shop—for Indian medicines to get high on; poisonous snakes; pepper spray. The men are bossed around by the train’s chief steward (Waris Ahluwalia), and Jack has a quick affair with a stewardess, Rita (Amara Karan), whom the others know as the sweet lime girl. Francis, who bosses his other brothers around, also has a secretary and planner, Brendan (Wally Worodarsky) who prints up and laminates little copies of their itinerary, which changes from day to day, and has such tasks as keeping track of the brother’s extensive array of custom Marc Jacobs Vuitton luggage, which belonged to their father, and finding adapter plugs. Brendan eventually defects, but Francis hopes to lure him back.

The brothers effect a rescue of some boys in a capsized raft near a waterfall; but the boy Peter tries to rescue doesn’t survive, and they all go to the funeral. They weren’t going to go and see their mother, but they do; Huston gives an especially strong performance. A ceremony to celebrate their bond and spiritual union goes wrong, but later they do it again. And this time it works. The movie begins with Bill Murray (Steve Zissou in Anderson’s last outing) who runs after the train and misses it. The throwing away of the baggage is perhaps a little too obvious a symbol.. Maybe the rescue episode feels contrived and emotionally detached.

Either you like Wes Anderson or you don’t, no doubt. But if you share my impression that he’s one of the most important American filmmakers of his generation, his new film is obviously essential viewing. It looks like this time has gone better than the last, even if Nathan Lee is right in saying it’s more "a companion piece to Tenenbaums than a step in new directions." It will be nice if a lot of people get to see it proceeded by Hotel Chevalier (which, anyway, will be on the DVD). The New York Film Festival 2007 has chosen The Darjeeling Limited for their opening night film. Anderson’s later films are all elaborate twittering machines. It’s interesting that this time the machine has such a strong element of chance, that it happens, and is found, rather than is constructed: there is a new direction, which is to just let things be, or, as Francis says in dictating the course of their journey, to "say yes to everything." To try to, anyway.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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