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Name: Dan Sallitt
Location: New York, New York, United States

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 Jonah 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?

October 27, 2007 5:28 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Jonah - the issue of Anderson's camera style is tricky. A lot of people find him rigid, contained, cerebral - and I think that mostly comes from those regulated lateral tracks, and the too-fast dolly shots and pans that almost seem to be controlled by a servo mechanism.

I don't necessarily register the effect of these shots as mechanical. Certainly they give the impression of a mind that on some level wants to strip away a level of aesthetics from the image. I sense him thinking, "Why? Why shouldn't I square off the framing? Isn't this the obvious way to shoot the scene?" Ozu used to get a few such complaints about his frames being unnaturally direct and repetitive, back when American critics were still deciding whether to add him to the Pantheon.

Brent Kite told me that he thought my use of the word "phantasmagoria" to describe Anderson's style was odd, because his primary impression was of the guy "building little shells to hold favorite things." Unlike Brent, I don't get a sense that Anderson wants to exclude chaos from his films, but certainly part of the feeling of his work comes from his attachment to that very, shall we say, disciplined camera style. (Huxley's game of irregular verbs: I am disciplined, you are controlling, he is neurotically compulsive.)

I actually think that Anderson manages to treat the issue of self-involvement in a balanced way. To me, the funeral scene is shot through with reminders that the Americans can go only so far into the suffering of the bereaved Indians, while balancing this moment by moment with the spectacle of the suffering, which is no less moving for being presented in a detached fashion. The narrative puts us, with the Americans, at a distance from the Indians' lives, and Anderson works with that distance, straining against it at times but not pretending that it doesn't exist.

All the slo-mo sequences, which I like, are irretrievably "poetic": they need the music; Anderson simply would not do the slo-mo track without the music, and I can't imagine him trying. The slo-mo/music is not just lyrical, it is also a signal that it's lyricism time, a direct communication with the viewer.

I loved the first slo-mo sequence: it hooked me into the movie. Anderson starts us with the perspective of the Bill Murray character (we don't know at this point that Murray does not play a major role in the film), and pulls that identification away only during the slo-mo sequence, as Adrien Brody passes the older man, and catches the train that Murray so desperately runs after. There's something very Anderson about this moment: objectively speaking, Murray's misfortune may not be so great; but the lyricism of the scene creates a great, abstract pathos around his defeat, and Brody owns the pathos, and forces us to contemplate it, as he looks solemnly back from the rear of the train at the man who was not as fortunate as himself. Anderson knows this is not an important event, that he doesn't have to bring it up again. But, thanks to his lyrical effect, it speaks to us of the anguish of age surpassed by youth.

Given that the first slo-mo scene struck me as quite sad and serious, and that the funeral scene was informed by a sense of the brothers' remoteness from the event, I didn't feel a big disparity of effect between the scenes.

My last paragraph was an attempt to present two aspects of Anderson side by side. First, that he's really not so tidy, that the film is full of significant events and people that come and go, make cameos, never have their story lines wrapped up. And that he tends to jumble the major and minor elements together at key moments, suggesting that his story line is one of many, that he could just as easily have made a film about the Indian family that lost a child, or the businessman who didn't catch a train, or the girlfriend that Schwartzman left in Paris, or the tiger lurking in the jungle. Second, that there's an important layer of self-awareness in Anderson's presentation, that his relationship with the audience is direct and open, that he uses humor and detachment to reduce the fascination of narrative and to co-locate the filmmaker and the audience at a vantage point that is not so immersed in the goings-on.

October 29, 2007 3:42 PM  
Blogger 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."

November 22, 2007 2:31 AM  
Blogger 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.

November 23, 2007 10:13 PM  

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