Pax Arcana was never more excited for a movie’s release than he was for The Royal Tenenbaums, the follow-up to Wes Anderson’s astounding roman-a-clef Rushmore and outrageous-if-amateurish Bottle Rocket.
We were less excited for The Life Aquatic.
We could care less about The Darjeeling Limited.
There’s a lot of things that bug us about Anderson. One is his preference for quirk over substance. Quirk works when, like Rushmore, it seems to grow organically out of convincingly quirky characters.
The quirk factor destroyed The Life Aquatic, a movie so in love with its costumes and sea-faring hipster vibe that it forgot to tell a story that anyone would care about.
We admit we’ve also been a bit perturbed at how Anderson treats race. It’s not we think he’s racist. But he does seem to include an awful lot of brown-skinned characters in his movies as loyal sidekicks (Pagoda in The Royal Tenenbaums), meek love interests (Margaret Yang in Rushmore, Ines in Bottle Rocket, or Henry Sherman in The Royal Tenenbaums), or plain old sight gags.
Over at Slate, Jonah Weiner says things haven’t gotten better with The Darjeeling Limited, and it’s time people started paying more attention to this:
Like his peers Zach Braff, Noah Baumbach (who directed the excellent Squid and the Whale and co-wrote Life Aquatic), and Sofia Coppola (whose brother Roman helped write Darjeeling Limited), Wes Anderson situates his art squarely in a world of whiteness: privileged, bookish, prudish, woebegone, tennis-playing, Kinks-scored, fusty. He’s wise enough to make fun of it here and there, but in the end, there’s something enamored and uncritical about his attitude toward the gaffes, crises, prejudices, and insularities of those he portrays. In The Darjeeling Limited, he burrows even further into this world, even (especially?) as the story line promises an exotic escape. Hands down, it’s his most obnoxious movie yet.
In fact, the entire premise of The Darjeeling Limited (three American brothers look to reconnect after a year of drifting apart) seems to adhere closely to a very white, very American bourgeois cliche: The long curative trip through a nation of exotic brown people.
The film is gorgeous to look at: The color palette is riotous, and Anderson’s rapacious eye for bric-a-brac binges on the Hindu prayer altars and crowded street markets of Rajasthan. But needless to say, beware of any film in which an entire race and culture is turned into therapeutic scenery.
From the Beatles’ 1968 hang with the Maharishi to the recent “Imagine India” flower show at Macy’s, South Asia has long been a hotspot in the American and European orientalist imagination. But for a director as willfully idiosyncratic as Anderson, it’s surprising how many white-doofuses-seeking-redemption-in-the-brown-skinned-world clichés Darjeeling Limited inhabits.
None of this makes Anderson less of a talent, but Pax Arcana desperately hopes he uses his next film to channel his considerable energies into making something a little more, well, intellectually mature than he usually does. Anyway, it’s worth considering.