Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Darjeeling Delimited; or Three Quirks for Mystic Monks and the Strenuous Oddity of Blue Men Hopping; Plus Undeniable Proof that Al Gore Is Running

A rather anxious Tamilda the Genius 10yr Old here, seeing as it's past one o'clock in the morning and game two of the T-Ball ALCS is tied in the 11th inning 6-6... But wait! A base hit! And now a wild pitch! 8-6 Cleveland! Darjeeling Limited catches a break! My review will be largely positive now, I anticipate... unless Cleveland wheels out a T-Ball stand named Borowski in the bottom half of the 11th. You can never trust that T-Ball stand.

OK. Darjeeling Limited is a story--wait, another base hit, 9-6!--about three brothers who have, for various reasons, become estranged after the death--and one would also assume before the death--of their father. And so, estranged, they estrange themselves from whomever they are with in Europe or the U.S. and meet up in India... for whatever reason they meet--wow! 10-6 Cleveland now!--on a train in an unnamed place. Apparently meeting in say the Bombay or Calcutta airport wouldn't have worked... Why? Because if they'd simply met in an airport then Wes Anderson wouldn't have been able to open the film with the tremendous and self-reflexive metaphor that marks the film as Anderson's own:

Wow, a home run by Gutierrez! 13-6 Cleveland!

OK, sorry. They just keep scoring runs and I feel it's my duty to record them. Anyways here's the opening to the film: Bill Murray sits in a taxi, driving through anonymous urban India, jumps out at a train station, doesn't pay the driver, grabs two old-school suitcases, and takes off at full tilt jowls jiggling huffing puffing after a departing train that seems to be pulling away from him... it's a schlubby moment, and by the time it was over I already felt tired and bored, a bit like I felt 15 minutes ago at the top of the 11th after about 11,000 foul balls.

But then: a change in the music! We remember that this is Wes Anderson, the Human Ipod. He hit shuffle and we know that something is going to happen and it does: Adrien Brody running, lither and less jowly than Murray, but with an equal number of outdated suitcases--surpassing Murray and catching up to the train, tossing his baggage on the back, hopping aboard and gazing meaningfully at, first, schlubby Murray who's been left behind and then, second, at an Indian kid, maybe 14, who's standing right beside him. The kid had watched the whole affair and hadn't lifted a finger, and before Brody walks into the train he looks the kid right in the eye, sort of like how Larry David tries to divine the truth by staring at someone's face for minutes and minutes and minutes. Brody does basically that, albeit more briefly and without the slowed down Woody Allen music, and you get the impression that what he's trying to divine isn't the Indian kid's quote unquote Otherness, but somehow his youth. That he's trying to figure out how this kid could have just stood there, stoically, the whole time and simply observed the over-obviously Oedipal struggle in which Brody had outrun Murray.

(Perhaps it's significant that at the end of the movie Jason Schwartzman--the youngest brother, a thoroughly ironized writer who's always barefoot and looks sort of like a cross between George and Ringo in their Indian days--reads the ending to one of his short stories and Brody tells him "I like how mean you are..." both in the story and in real life... Brody's character seems like he's sort of bad at being mean, that he sort of fails at it, and in doing so somehow makes his meanness worse--like how being cut by a dull blade hurts more and does more damage than being cut by a sharp one.)

In any case, it's quite an opening. It's startling. A truly brilliant example of everything that film should do. And, given it's unbelievably obvious casting of Murray as the outrun schlubb, I'm sure that Anderson wanted people to try to figure it out, to talk about it. Which I will... but maybe not in the way he expected. I expect he expected that the opening would signal a rebirth for Anderson who'd relied too long on the father-figure-ly Murray for inspiration. Indeed, it is a movie about fathers, and in an intellectual way it's sort of beautiful: there's a juxtaposed funeral of the brothers' father and the death of a little boy where the brother's mourn both the death of their father and the death of their former, feuding, childish selves; there's the meta-narratological stuff with Murray and Schwartzman; the Stones play when I was clearly expecting the Beatles; and at the end of the movie the brothers chase after a train and cast off their baggage, literally--the baggage that had been given them by their father. It all fits together.

But it doesn't quite work.

The Departed, too, is about fathers and sons, except that that movie, as they say, works. You care about the characters (some of them), and what happens to them feels somehow like it matters--matters to you, matters to them, and matters in a much bigger way. It feels as though what they're going through--their father/son/Freud issues--and how they resolve or unresolve them has consequences for humanity as a whole. Except for brief moments, The Darjeeling Limited doesn't feel consquential, and perhaps this is because its characters aren't characters, but bundles of quirks. Not bundles of quarks (though they are presumably those too), but bundles of quirks, and habits, and idiosyncracies.

A recent Atlantic Monthly article called (I can't believe I'm typing this stupid pun out) "Quirked Around" argues in a Melvin Jules Bukiet-esque manner that our culture is plagued by Quirk. And while its author, Michael Hirschorn, seems far more congenial than Melvin Jules Bukiet (he doesn't, for example, at any point in the essay advocate for the death of kittens), his point is more or less the same: that quirk is usually bad. Not always, but at least usually.

We’re drowning in quirk. It is the ruling sensibility of today’s Gen-X indie culture, defined territorially by the gentle ministrations of public radio’s This American Life; the strenuously odd (and now canceled) TV sitcom Arrested Development; the movies of Wes Anderson; Dave Eggers’s McSweeney’s Web site; the performance art, music, and writing of Miranda July; and the just-too-wacky-to-be-fully-believable memoirs of Augusten Burroughs.
I don't want to get into all of the examples that Hirschorn cites... but seriously: he finds Arrested Development quote unquote Strenuously Odd? Everything S.O. about it is simply an exaggeration of the S.O. culture we live in--A.D. didn't, for example, simply invent The Blue Man Group. There are actual Blue Men, dozens of them in a dozen cities, who hop around like lunatics playing drums the size of above-ground swimming pools. And hundreds of thousands of people have seen them and loved them--have recommended to their friends and lovers and elderly grandmothers that yes, You should go watch the blue men hop around.

So Q: what's more Strenuously Odd: a TV show that makes fun of silent Blue Men hopping around like lunatics, or the actual Blue Men hopping around and selling computer chips? I guarantee that Michael Hirschorn and his S.O., whoever that may be, have been to one of those shows and have walked out saying "that was really great" and "incredible" and "for a while I forgot they were even blue." I guarantee, in other words, that deep down Michael Hirschorn is True Blue Loony.

I mean seriously, what in the hell is this? (And remember, I'm 10, so I don't use the word "hell" lightly--you wouldn't believe what would happen if my mom or dad or Shelley found me saying much less publishing-on-the-internet this word outside a strictly theological context). So what is the Blue Man Group doing selling Intel Processors? It's economically sanctioned, socially approved MADNESS. Not quirk. It is, plain and simple, Insanity. It's Capitalism and Schizophrenia rolled into one.

Anyways, my point is that huge sweeping statements like Melvin Jules Bukiet's (Wonder Is Bad) or Hirschorn's (Quirk Has Become Strenuous) seem to a) like most sweeping statements, fall apart when actually analyzed with concrete examples--I don't really agree with the majority of Hirschorn's, for example; and b) miss something vital about our culture--neither of them really understands that there is a complex historical context governing why Quirk and Wonder are so prevalent and overworked today, and it seems impossible that any vital piece of art could overlook these contemporary obsessions, even if it ultimately rejects or modifies them. Traditional, Quirk-Allergic Art can't stop the capitalist and schizophrenic drumbeat of the Blue Man Group.

(And worse: perhaps nothing can--but that's beside this point).

But back to India and Darjeeling Limited. Back specifically to a blue man named Vishnu. If Vishnu is the Preserver, then I would say that what Wes Anderson needs is Shiva, the Destroyer. He needs a flaming blue man to dance his last two movies to smithereens and begin again. Hirschorn is right on this: Anderson is drowning in Quirk. I don't want to give anything away, but I'll say that the outrunning of the schlubby Bill Murray, the tossing aside of the patriarchal baggage in The Darjeeling Limited to me rings false. It is a simulacrum of a rebirth, of a starting-over. The film is aware of the falsity of an outsider trying to attain spiritual enlightenment through the half-assed appropriation of a foreign religion, and yet... it holds out hope. Here, look: Shiva destroys The Entire Universe, and I think that maybe that's what Wes Anderson needs to do. To destroy the fictive universe he created in Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums (two, by the way, of the defining movies of our times, in my humble opinion), and begin anew.

Speaking of failed rebirths, I guarantee that Al Gore is going to run for President. The Proof? Well, he just put out three video blog thingies on hot political issues (Iraq, Domestic Wiretapping, Universal Health Care). But couldn't he just be employing his newly gained influence in the wake of his Nobel Peace Prize? Couldn't he just be scaring Hilary and Obama into taking stronger, more progressive stands on these issues? Yes, perhaps, except that look: these new videos are BORING BORING BORING. The Old Gore Is Back! Go Gore 2008!

1 comment:

uncomplicatedly said...

P. & I just saw this movie & thoroughly agree with your review, especially the part where you say,

"The film is aware of the falsity of an outsider trying to attain spiritual enlightenment through the half-assed appropriation of a foreign religion, and yet... it holds out hope."

It seemed to me like the film was trying to have it both ways, to ironize emotion & still be genuine. What are we to do with lines like "Guess I still have a lot of healing to do," which is on one level a bad pun, on another level so cheesy as to be ironic, and on a third level completely earnest? Tenenbaums & Rushmore managed to actually be honest-- a lot of things were funny, but the feeling was real. My favorite line in Darjeeling was "I didn't save mine," which had the startling hopeless bluntness that Tenenbaums and Rushmore had in spades.