Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited

While watching Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited (which I liked a lot), it occurred to me that there's a kind of dialectic working in Anderson's style.

Thesis: Anderson likes to depict the world as a phantasmagoria, a series of sudden, unpredictable, beautiful changes. To this end, he often cuts with no attempt to preserve spatial relations, preferring instead to use time jumps and fantasy to create improbable transitions, even within scenes.

Antithesis: The characterization, and particularly the dialogue, in Anderson's films is concrete, tied to unusual, coherent characterizations. Not that there isn't poetry in his phrasing, but it's a poetry based on the established types he portrays, who are often difficult, mundane, even unsympathetic. Sometimes he reminds me a little of Preston Sturges in the way he gives hardheaded characters graceful forms of expression.

Synthesis: Seems to me that there's a ballet between these two tendencies in Anderson's films, where the coherent and mundane characterizations are used to motivate wild stylistic changes, or to integrate them back into a semblance of the natural.

The relationship between the phantasmagoric and mundane tendencies in Anderson is fairly loose: characterization weaves a transparent web around the fantasy elements, creating an appearance of integration that has a winking, reflexive aspect.

(There are spoilers coming.)

An strong example of characterization motivating fantasy might be the scene where the Owen Wilson character makes his brothers perform a ritual involving the burial of bird feathers: "Let's go up there," he says, pointing to a hill seen in the background; and a cut takes us to the top of the hill instantly, where the scene continues without pause.

A weaker example might be the first encounter of the Jason Schwartzman character and the train hostess, starting with a mini-profile of his sex addiction ("I want that stewardess" - a terrific line), and padded with mundane details of his awkward but effective seduction technique, but paying off with splashes of exciting contrast: the lovely, lyrical shot of the hostess leaning out the train window at nighttime, shot with fast film stock that captures the dusky sky and intensifies colors; and the sudden cuts that move the seduction rapidly toward the sweet-but-detached sex scene in the men's room.

Examples of characterization serving to integrate fantasy abound. The film's high point, and no doubt one of the most thrilling scenes we'll see this year, is the riverside lateral tracking shot that leads to the discovery of the Indian boy's death. The shot, which follows Schwarzman, is spatially disconnected from the action that led to it (the capsizing of the boys' raft) and lacks narrative coding: we don't know what the likely outcome is. But bits of dialogue gently tighten the narrative's tentative grip on the scene: first Schwartman's frightening exclamation that Brody is covered with blood; then Brody's stunned comments as he stands holding the body: "I didn't save mine." Anderson's treatment of death is masterful throughout this section, bleak without sentiment or loss of focus: Brody's mundane, helpless confessions of his ego involvement in the failed rescue do not mitigate our sense of a life lost, but they do help create one layer of the scene's meaning, its acknowledgment of the limits on the sorrow we feel for the death of strangers/bit players.

The Darjeeling Limited is permeated by a sense of mystery and of what it feels like to contemplate mystery. Not all commentators compare it favorably to Anderson's earlier work, but I'm very pleased with the trajectory of his career so far.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, Dan. Predictably, you're one of the film's few articulate defenders.

I worry sometimes that Anderson's pictorialism doesn't integrate with the narrative design. The incessant whip pans struck me as neat but mannered, as did (in a different way) the repeated use of long lateral tracks shot in slow motion and set to Kinks songs.

We have two such tracks when characters are racing to board trains, but then we have another when they make their way through the funeral. The (maybe unintended) implications of this parallel structure worried me. It struck me that Anderson is using this device simply to dilate and "poeticize" certain moments at any cost. The cost here seems to be a (probably unintended) ratification of the characters' self-involvement, even at the very moment when they are supposed to be experiencing some kind of transcendence.

Something about Anderson's use of music (in this scene and others) bugs me even as I enjoy the music itself quite a bit. Anderson has a spectacular knack for synchronizing the time and melodic trajectory of a piece of music to a sequence (whether a sequence-shot or a series of shots), but the way he uses lyrics that vaguely harmonize with or comment on the action ("strangers on this road we are on") seems easy and bothersome in the same manner as the bridging music used by THIS AMERICAN LIFE or the way contemporary reality TV uses a blanket of pop music to wring an emotional arc out of banal fragments.

But, I'll have to see this again with your notes in mind.

Can you elaborate on your last paragraph a bit?

Noel Vera said...

Hi Dan, came to this belatedly. Interesting what you say about there being two Andersons, in some kind of dynamic tension with each other, but don't you also think Anderson's penchant for strikingly stylized color schemes finds its fulfilment in this film? That his oddball palette is not only unodd in color rich India, but downright at home?

Hotel Chevalier opened the film; it makes for an interesting sidebar--like, oh, how "The Pension Grillparzer" relates to the whole of "The World According to Garp."

Dan Sallitt said...

Noel - I guess it's true that India absorbs some of the quirky qualities of Anderson's palette, gives it a naturalistic dimension. I'd sure like to see Hotel Chevalier - it wasn't in the limited-release print I saw, and by the time I went looking for it on the web, it had been taken offline and included in the wide release.