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Conversation Piece

Once More, With Feeling

Some call Wes Anderson’s new movie, The Darjeeling Limited, mounting evidence of the filmmaker’s racism—others, of his inability to make a decent film.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about Wes Anderson’s new movie, The Darjeeling Limited, and it’s not just bloggers trading emoticons over the ass-shots of Natalie Portman in the film’s 14-minute prologue. The movie proper, which stars Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman as three brothers on a spiritual journey-by-train across India, has become the topic of debate based on its portrayal of India and its people. To those critics calling Anderson out as racist are just as many die-hard fans leaping to the filmmaker’s defense. TMN Contributing Writer and South Asian travel enthusiast Pasha Malla recently sat down with his good friend, Mike Baker, a Montreal-based film scholar with an ongoing interest in Wes Anderson’s movies, to chat about these responses.
 

Pasha

I don’t understand what’s offensive about The Darjeeling Limited, to be honest. It’s an offense to anyone who was expecting a good movie, maybe, but I’m not so sure about the race stuff. I haven’t read any Indian writers railing against it. And don’t these critics give any credit to the Indian actors in the movie? Do people think they’re too clueless to have worked on a project that might be morally objectionable?
 

Mike

While I don’t disagree with the observations and the analysis, it just feels overstated. I like the comment “at best offensive, at worst racist,” because it leaves an opening for the idea that Wes Anderson is so wrapped up in his own little world that he doesn’t realize how this stuff plays to an audience that doesn’t embrace his films uncritically.
 

Pasha

My feeling, actually, is that the movie could be more racist—or at least explore attitudes among travelers to India that are inherently racist or based in stereotype. I suppose there are attempts at critiquing tourist attitudes in the movie, but they manifest mostly in glib, ironic lines like, “It smells… spicy.” And those are the sort of moments that I actually love in Wes Anderson’s movies—like Gene Hackman’s “Coltrane” bit in The Royal Tenenbaums. But the problem with Darjeeling is that the lines aren’t even funny.
 

Mike

True enough. There’s almost a sort of self-censorship at play, as though Anderson wants to make sure people aren’t afraid to read “dumb American tourists” into the motivation for the characters’ experiences of the country.
 

Pasha

Sure, but even then there’s nothing dynamic to the three brothers’ responses to India: Owen Wilson’s character is jazzed to be there and the other two are ambivalent. I don’t know anyone who’s ever visited and experienced indifference. I’m sure at least one of those characters would have negative feelings toward the country. The eldest one has these ideas that it’s spiritual and amazing, which India can definitely be—but, to anyone who’s never been there before, it can also be a disgusting, off-putting place, if you choose to see it that way. I think the lack of tension in the brothers’ attitudes speaks to a general lack of dynamics in the movie. Maintaining a laconic tone is one thing, but why set a film in India—such a rich, vibrant place—if you’re not going to engage with the country beyond one of your white characters fucking a train steward?
 

Mike

Well, that gets back to the argument that Wes Anderson horribly mishandles race. I have to admit being uncomfortable with a story that swings on thin plot points like Schwartzman’s character finger-banging and speed-fucking the Indian Other and Brody’s character waking up to the imminent pressures of fatherhood only after he fails to save the drowning brown boy. There is an expendability to these non-white characters, something I don’t feel with Kumar Pallana’s recurring roles in Anderson’s other films (he played Pagoda in The Royal Tenenbaums), for example, or Danny Glover’s role in The Royal Tenenbaums.
 

Pasha

I think that speaks more to a general problem of solipsism in this movie than Wes Anderson being a bigot—an accusation I think is ridiculous. Everything is peripheral to the main characters’ own emotions and experiences, something that might also be true of the Tenenbaum family or Bill Murray and Owen Wilson’s characters in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, and this time it just happens to take place somewhere with brown people. It’s less racism than narcissism: The film refuses to allow the characters to engage with anything beyond their own anxieties, something more symptomatic of how Anderson makes films than how he deals with race.
 

Mike

Well, then let me ask you this, because you’ve visited the country—and not because you’re brown, which you are, though delicately so: Given Wes Anderson’s claims that he wanted to leave the U.S. and shoot on location, forcing himself and his actors out of the sort of comforts they were used to on earlier films, was it a total miscalculation on the director’s part that his storyworlds could exist in India?
 

Pasha

No, not a miscalculation at all. India is a country where irony and understatement almost don’t exist. The tension between that and Anderson’s sense of humor had the potential to produce amazing things. But he’s made a movie without any tension whatsoever, and he didn’t engage with Indian culture beyond appropriating it for visual effect. He could have built those sets and shot in the Nevada desert. There’s nothing to indicate that India plays any role in how this particular story is told. If anything, in telling it he shrunk more inside his own head. As a filmmaker, Anderson creates worlds where everything operates as a device—true of most storytelling, for sure, but when he does it self-consciously, as an aesthetic and narrative choice, at his best, he makes it work.
 

Mike

Like the faked interior tracking shot toward the end of the film. It locates each of the characters we’ve met in a train compartment fashioned after their “real life” location at that moment in the story’s events.
 

Pasha

The artifice is self-aware, and it works; it’s even charming. Maybe if he’d pushed those stagey moments even further, he might have been able to create a Wes Anderson world in India. But I think for the most part the film suffers from attempting to exist in India as a real place, where I’ve found that every little detail and interaction captures your attention (especially to people like me who visit from elsewhere in the world). Because of that, you have to engage with your surroundings, and neither the characters nor the film itself really do that. In fact, I think Darjeeling suffers as a movie from the same naivety and superficiality it attempts to lampoon in its three protagonists.
 

Mike

I think one of the only ways to make the film work (assuming the foundation remains the same) is for the brothers to reunite with their mother earlier. She could expose not just the root causes for their anxieties, etc., but also spark some kind of clash that motivates the tension you were hoping for. Maybe the brother played by Owen Wilson maintains the same emotional trajectory, while Schwartzman’s character grows to hate the place and the people because of how he views his mother’s decision to live there and the happiness she appears to have gained by leaving her family behind. Anyway, as it is, they reunite, lose her, and then still go off and do their goofy peacock feather ceremony in some half-baked effort to gain enlightenment.
 

Pasha

An earlier or more resonant meeting would also give them a chance to engage with her experience of India, having lived there, versus their own as visitors. Or even for them to see something problematic in her role as a missionary—maybe she’s missing something that they’ve found. My main issue is that I have no idea what any of those characters’ experience of India might be. That makes me assume, because of his intention in making a movie there, that Anderson had no real experience of it, either. I picture him walking around doing location scouting, only.
 

Mike

Walking? Probably not.
 

Pasha

Right.
 

Mike

About this lack of emotional depth to the characters: If the film is born from some pampered experience shared by three like-minded brothers (and potentially by its creator’s similar experience), why should we expect anything different just because it’s presented to us by way of dolly shots, slow-motion, and an iPod score?
 

Pasha

That iPod shit was embarrassing.
 

Mike

Don’t get me started on this… in a film filled with missteps, exposing the “source” of all the music by way of the iPod thingy was just stupid. But back to the characters. The male steward, played by Waris Ahluwalia, was really problematic: a Sikh-American New York hipster plays the role instead of a local actor; he loses his partner to Jason Schwartzman, but it’s never really mined because we’re to assume that Schwartzman is the one to cheer for within the Wes Anderson universe.
 

Pasha

Yeah, he’s a perfect example of a peripheral character being ineffectual. But, again, I don’t think it has anything to do with race.
 

Mike

It’s consistent with all Anderson’s movies except Rushmore, which tells a story that in large part bears a very close emotional resemblance to parts of our own lives—male or female. It’s about alienation, achievement, self-realization, love, loss, and it’s not limited to the character of Max, which is why it succeeds. The emotional themes are shared by not only the main characters, but everyone in that movie—
 

Pasha

Magnus, Dirk, Max’s dad…
 

Mike

—so while most of the events and set pieces are fantastic, the subtext resonates and makes the whole experience warm and comforting. We watch and re-watch that film because it feels honest. In Darjeeling, I feel like I have a better idea of how Reeta’s cooch smells than I do how she felt about her partner or the impact their breakup has upon her, let alone the reasons for it.
 

Pasha

There are hints that he is going to do something interesting, including a few moments where he tries Bollywood techniques, particularly the quick-zoom from long range. I thought he might go somewhere with that—incorporating the tropes of popular Indian cinema in some way. (If he isn’t going to engage with the real country, then at least he can steal from its movies.) But I think that happens twice and the film never goes anywhere with it. So something we haven’t seen before from him almost creeps its way into the film, but in the end Anderson just seems completely incapable of escaping his own aesthetic.
 

Mike

Well, that’s a very interesting idea. But it would almost certainly require that he hire a cinematographer from the Bombay movie industry and not relegate his design team to recreating his brother’s pencil drawings in living color. If the film were based on his ideas and vision, but used an “outsider” film crew in their execution, there might be ways for Anderson to succeed on the terms I presume he intended for Darjeeling.
 

Pasha

India should have taken him out of his own head; it didn’t.
 

Mike

Now that I’ve seen it and thought about it, Darjeeling feels inevitable—this was the misstep that was bound to happen if Wes Anderson kept on the same trajectory. For a time, The Fantastic Mr. Fox was going to be the follow-up to The Life Aquatic, and until pre-production issues slowed things to a crawl, it would have been. Obviously, the animated feature will force Anderson to think about storytelling differently.
 

Pasha

Which is what we’d hoped—and presumably he did, too—this time around. It’s telling that the parts in New York are actually pretty good.
 

Mike

My great hope is that the follow-up to The Fantastic Mr. Fox will be a small, performance-led film set in Manhattan.
 

Pasha

Or that if he does go back to India again, he’ll have a real story to tell.
 

Mike Baker is a postdoctoral fellow in the Centre for Cinema Studies at the University of British Columbia. His daughter is cuter than your daughter. Pasha Malla is a film school dropout who has worked as a camp counselor, elementary school teacher, and group home coordinator. His first novel, People Park, has just been published. More by Mike Baker & Pasha Malla