I love movies. I have loved movies all my life. I grew up on them. When I was eight years old, I managed to convince myself I would make movies when I grew up. Now I am in the process of getting a degree in Film Studies. I write about film more than ever before, partly because I have to for my classes, mostly because I enjoy it, because I have something to write about. Sometimes it helps me understand the film better; sometimes it helps me understand myself better.
I created this blog as a place to showcase my work, and also as an incentive to keep writing reviews, analyses, and essays over breaks, when there’s no one here to grade me.
I have tried many times, and failed, to explain in a coherent manner why it is that I love films. Here is my best—and most coherent—guess.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Baggage: Objects and Spaces as Markers of the Emotional Journey in Wes Anderson’s "The Darjeeling Limited"

 Objects and spaces define the near-maniacally meticulous, color-coordinated, carefully framed and trinket-filled worlds of Wes Anderson’s films. Characters’ possessions and surroundings create and communicate their identities and serve as markers of their gradual evolution throughout the movies, the changing relationships between objects, spaces and characters defining their transformation as they undergo emotional and often physical journeys. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the director’s The Darjeeling Limited (2007), the director’s most conventional road movie to date. The film features all the trademark characteristics of a Wes Anderson movie: a nostalgic concern with the past and an exploration of childhood, “literal or prolongued” in the form of young men in a state of arrested adolescence clambering for spiritual fulfillment, sibling rivalry and family drama, absent parent(s), feelings of meaninglessness, repressed grief and suicidal depression, tonal tension between irony and sincerity, and almost obsessively detailed composition (Orgeron 42). It also contains Anderson’s most blatant—and blatantly, self-consciously clichéd—exploration of the journey theme and its reflection in the film’s production design, costuming, and setting.

“Wake up, Jack” are the first words spoken in The Darjeeling Limited, and the prompting applies to all three of the characters, Francis (played by Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody), and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) Whitman, indeed spelling out the purpose and ultimate result of their pilgrimage: spiritual and emotional awakening. With lives in disarray, the movie’s wealthy trio of white Westerners embarks on a (very self-conscious) spiritual journey across India not merely for the sake of seeing the world, but also for the healing of personal ailments. Their hope is to rebuild family relationships among themselves in the absence of both parents, to “become brothers again, like we used to be.” This journey, a forced family march to enlightenment, complete with laminated itineraries and detailed user instructions for spiritual rituals, becomes a desperate attempt of the characters to escape their station in life and an expression of their unsatisfied yearning for mythic adventure (Foundas 30). The Whitman brothers’ mission is “true modern-American absurd,” in the words of Francis, to “find ourselves, seek the unknown and learn about it,… be completely open and say yes to everything, even if it’s shocking and painful” (Norris 30).

As an updated version of the classic, often nostalgic and romanticized road movie, The Darjeeling Limited self-consciously engages the long American tradition of free men traveling with nothing holding them back from the world at their feet. As Emily J. May points out in “The Darjeeling Limited and the New American Traveller,” Anderson’s characters are not driven, as the road warriors of Easy Rider, by freedom and love as much as fear and ennui. The road film’s romantic ideal was already achieved in New Hollywood works of the late sixties and early seventies, and Darjeeling follows in the wake of this realized fantasy, focusing on that era’s privileged progeny’s listless existence and futile attempts towards meaning foreshadowed by Jean Baudriallard’s America (May). In its barely veiled desperation and selfishness, the Whitmans’ adventure becomes an exploration of the easy riders’ failure, a portrait of collective disappointment with the spiritual emptiness of middle-class American life, the characters traveling halfway across the world to search for truth and meaning that are perceived as unavailable in the cold, crowded cities they hail from. The sense of dislocation associated with the loss of a parent is only heightened in the film by the characters’ being in motion, away from home, in a foreign country (Baschiera 127). Three greedy tourists grabbing at epiphany, they go from one Spiritual Place to another, ringing bells, kneeling, praying and donning ridiculously undersized ritual head-wraps all in an attempt to heal their emotional and,  in Francis’s case, physical wounds.

This postmodern, post-capitalist emotional malaise manifests itself in the film most obviously in the characters’ material objects and clothing. The expensive European suits and accessories the three brothers own not only display their social status, but help the audience visualize their profound displacement in this new environment. The color of the characters’ clothes, for the most part muted and monochrome (gray, black, white, tan, and beige) stands in stark contrasted to the exaggeratedly bright, supersaturated surroundings that burst with warm, lively yellows, oranges, and reds and vivid greens and blues, an imaginary, candy-colored cinematic India of the mind. This auteur-idealized land is “too loaded with color and detail” to be hemmed in by the version the characters initially think will heal their wounds (Dorey 46). It is only when the brothers forego their usual attire in favor of traditional Indian clothing for the funeral that they first start to become immersed in their environment. It is at this time that the characters truly begin to heal, the funeral in India doing the work of mourning inadequately performed at their father’s funeral, the moment suggesting an emotional undercurrent that binds the brothers with the villagers through grief as the Kinks’ “Strangers” plays on the soundtrack (Stephenson).

The trip marks Francis, Peter, and Jack’s reunion a year after their father’s death. All three have been—and still are—strongly affected by this loss, and their journey becomes a necessary step in mourning their father and letting go of their grief, not unlike a rehabilitation program with India serving as the clinic.  As Lotte Philipsen points out in “Synechdoche in Wes Anderson and J.D. Salinger,” everything the brothers do on the road, including searching for their mother, is connected, if not indeed dedicated, to their father. The characters’ inability to move on is made tangible in the form of their belongings, which they lug around in their dead father’s suitcases, blatant, boxy, bulky Marc Jacobs-designed metaphors for emotional baggage. Always more than decorative, the objects in Wes Anderson films contribute significantly to the visualization of the storytelling and to the creation of the characters’ identity (Baschiera 118). This “material synecdoche,” as Philipsen terms it, allows the objects to show viewers the whole personality of a character or the meaning of a situation by focusing on and emphasizing one particular object.

Accordingly, the tan leather bags and trunks in the film, decorated by the director’s own brother Eric, serve a much more important purpose than color-coordination with the brown and turquoise interior design of the titular train. Anderson masterfully uses the running gag of the boys laboriously loading and unloading the luggage from buses, cats, and taxis, dragging it through deserts, across rivers, stacking it on platforms, piling it at the train station, and humorously depositing it next to a yak to define his characters’ inner struggles—as a hilarious sight gag, even when the brothers ride on a motorcycle, that quintessential image of American freedom and non-conformance to the mainstream, their suitcases follow behind them on an over-loaded van. The focus on luggage in The Darjeeling Limited and the recurring image of the characters running with their bags suggest a strong symbolic meaning, implying that the brothers are figuratively on the run, in this case from the assorted domestic and emotional problems in their lives, chief of which is the refusal to accept their father’s death.

The objects featured most prominently in The Darjeeling Limited are the ones the Whitmans’ absent father has left behind: his sunglasses, car keys, immobile red Porsche, a retro shaving set, and the suitcases themselves, personalized with the father’s monogramed ode to himself. It is through these that the brothers maintain a connection to their deceased parent, and the three are constantly interacting with these belongings: they carry them around, they talk about them, and even fight about them—indeed fighting about who gets to preserve their father’s memory through objectification—as they wander between holy sites. Each of these possessions holds important connotations, as do the characters’ change in interaction with these objects as their feelings towards the loss of their father change.

The glasses that Peter wears still have his father’s prescription, as Francis points out. The son’s wearing of them could indicate that he perhaps wants to see things from his father’s perspective, but also points to the impossibility of such a task. Spectacles, generally a device used to understand things better, to see them more clearly, in Darjeeling become a barrier between Peter and the world around him, making it harder for him to see clearly specifically because of the unnecessary prescription. The other object directly related to Peter is the manual razor, which he uses multiple times in the film. The old-fashioned nature of this object imprints it with a feeling of nostalgia that permeates Anderson’s work, while it also remains emblematic of the father’s masculinity. Peter himself must learn through the course of the movie how to grow up and “be a man” in the traditionalist view of the phrase instead of continuing to run away from the looming responsibilities of being a father himself. By the end of the film he will achieve this goal by letting go of the past—in the form of the suitcases—and embracing the future, in which he will perhaps become a better father than his own. This change is significantly marked by the purchase of a very different object, a new vest Peter has bought for his son.

The rest of the Whitman family patriarch’s belongings—the car keys, the car, and the suitcases are linked with the idea of travel. Out of these, the red Porsche undoubtedly becomes a surrogate for the parent himself in the flashback sequence. Peter insists on picking up the car at Luftwaffe Automotive before the funeral, frantically trying to restart the Porsche even though the battery is dead, an obvious attempt to not let go of his father. It is in the trunk of the car that the brothers find their dad’s final belongings, the last suitcase in the set, which contains Jack’s (unread) manuscript, dedicated to his father. The book, Invisible Ink and Other Stories, is the object that most defines Jack as one of Anderson’s author characters, and it contains, illustrated on its cover, another important marker of the character’s identity and inability to let go of the past—his manipulative ex-girlfriend’s perfume, “Voltaire #6.” Jack’s attempt to get over this unhappy relationship by breaking the bottle on the train points out the futility of his attempt to forget her—the compartment will now continue to smell like her for the rest of the trip. It is only at the end of the movie, when he finally—and humorously—acknowledge that his writing is actually autobiographical that he is able to move on, finishing his latest short story by writing “He would not be going to Italy [to meet his girlfriend].”

The objects’ narrative significance in The Darjeeling Limited and their impact on the development of the characters and the meaning of the film are so central to the movie that Stefano Baschiera has gone as far as to suggest Anderson in effect overcomes the separation between subjects and objects, human and non-human (118). As Thomas Dorey observes in “Wes Anderson: Contemporary Auteurism and Digital Technology,”  the director links his characters and their possessions not only thematically, but stylistically as well through  the use of his most easily recognizable visual signature, the inserted God’s-eye closeup. Shot from above, the actors begin to look like objects themselves, their agency removed as their authorial dominance is undermined (68-71). In Darjeeling, the most memorable of these inserts happens not only when the brothers are at their lowest point—about to be evicted from their temporary “home,” the train, but specifically while they are fighting about objects, namely Francis’s $6,000 belt, which he has given to Peter and subsequently asked that he return. The oldest brother’s eventual relinquishing of the belt when he presents it as a gift for Peter’s unborn baby, however, shows how he is growing less attached to material possessions.

The brothers’ transition from the train, for all intents and purposes a luxury hotel on wheels, to having to travel India by foot also marks a change in their relationship to objects and spaces. It is after they have been booted from the train, when they are made to literally stand on their own feet, that the film takes a sharp tonal turn.  The moment is announced with an abrupt, action-film zoom onto Francis’s face as he unceremoniously announces, “Look at those assholes” while peering towards three boys trying to cross a fast-flowing river. The boys’ raft overturns, and the Whitmans race to save their Indian counterparts. The first two are recovered safely, but Peter has trouble with the third. He emerges further downstream, carrying a limp body. “He’s dea—He’s dead,” he stammers. “I didn’t save mine.” This unexpected, drastic tonal shift, which James MacDowell links to the “quirky sensibility” of the new American smart cinema, here takes on a narrative function, the switch to a more serious mood after the boy’s death reflecting the characters’ realization that they need to change in as well (14-17). It is after this point that the Whitman brothers are actually prepared to let go of the things that have so far defined them and reconsider their priorities, an attitude which leads to their ultimate forsaking of their physical and emotional baggage in the final scene of the film.

Anderson’s signature slow-motion coda, although criticized by some as “one of the most bludgeoningly obvious bits of symbolism ever put on film,” works specifically because of the intentionally clichéd use of objects as symbols throughout the entire film (Aisenberg). The closing scene forms a perfect bookend to the sequence that opens Darjeeling, in which an unnamed Bill Murray races to catch The Darjeeling Limited to the Kinks’ elegiac “This Time Tomorrow.” The final scene, in which “Powerman” completes the Kinks’ triptych, shows the brothers, once again late for the train, running but hopelessly slowed down by all their absurd baggage. “Dad’s bags aren’t going to make the train!” one of the brothers yells, and one by one the Whitmans discard the suitcases and trunks to climb upon life’s train free and unencumbered by the past.

By the end of the film, Francis and his brothers have managed, clumsily and perhaps unexpectedly, just what they set out to accomplish, a spiritual journey. “I guess I still have some healing to do,” Francis ventures after he unwraps his head and the three characters study his battered face in a bathroom mirror. “You’re getting there, though,” Jack says, while Peter comments, “Anyway, it’s definitely going to add a lot of character to you.” The obvious couching of emotional ailments in terms of physical scars notwithstanding, all of these statements are true. The Whitmans still have some healing to do, but their pilgrimage has served as an awakening to the need for change. Throughout Anderson’s movie the characters’ emotional transformations are charted through their changing relationship to the objects and spaces they interact with, each shift in this interaction marking another step in the journey. The Darjeeling Limited is, of course, only one example of Anderson’s use of costuming, production design and setting to communicate his characters’ identity and evolution. Bottle Rocket (1996), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), and most recently The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) can also be seen as emotional/psychological journey films in which the characters’ progress is marked by their relationship to objects and spaces.




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