Monday, November 12, 2007

One Way Trip to Somewhere

Maybe four or five times a year, I anticipate a movie's release. This number might sound low, but it's not because I don't like movies. I actually go see fifteen or twenty movies a year, and wouldn't spend the $11 if I didn't want to enjoy what I'm about to see. I love movies and--maybe more so--I love going to see new movies. These days there's just less to look forward to. The film industry (not unlike the music industry) is more invested than ever in making predictably lucrative movies. So, the vast majority of "new" releases are either:

1) Sequels. (Some still worth checking out.)
2) Prequels. (Few still worth checking out.)
3) Re-makes. (Rarely worth checking out.)

That comprises (to my estimation based off no actual research or facts) about 77% of the new releases. Add in another 15% for "Iraq-based" foreign affairs flicks (Hollywood's misguided attempts at being, um, "relevant"? "Important"? "SMART"???) and another 3% for moody interpersonal stuff starring Zach Braff in which the girl leaves and the guy've got a 5% window for something that I'd type into my calendar and make plans to go see a week before opening weekend.

The most noteworthy of these last year, The Departed, was the rare release that actually exceeded my expectations and ruthlessly kicked my butt. This year's crop has been semi-disappointing:

1) Oceans 13 - Alright.
2) Pirates 3 - Eh.
3) American Gangster - TBD.
4) The Darjeeling Limited

Which brings me (finally) to my point: Wes Anderson is the only American film-maker whose new releases I greatly anticipate, and will continue to until he 1) dies 2) goes into a coma or 3) starts to suck in ways I can't yet imagine. I guess if Coppola made something new I'd have to check it out. And, now that I think about it, I have seen every new Lucas and Scorsese release for the past ten years. But that was more due to my interest in those films individually, or in a franchise collectively, not the career and unifying vision of one writer/director.

I did not come to Wes Anderson immediately. Like most, I saw Rushmore (his second film) first, then retroactively viewed Bottle Rocket. It's fashionable now to call Bottle Rocket "the best" because it's so clearly not. It's precocious and funny and smart and well-acted, but remains a film with a smaller scope. The folks who favor Bottle Rocket are saying more about themselves than the movie itself--these are the same people who would accuse a band like the Counting Crows of "selling out."

Rushmore, introducing Jason Schwartzman as the underachieving overachiever Max Fischer, established both Schwartzman and Anderson as unique and remarkable talents. Anderson really debuted his directorial style in this film--theatrical framing, single, sweeping shots, colorfully vivid photography, etc.--one that has become as influential as any in the past ten years (Napoleon Dynamite, Little Miss Sunshine, etc.). Combined with his gift for deadpan quirkiness, idiosyncratic characters, and (if there is such a thing) intentional unintentional comedy, Anderson had carved out and nurtured his own incredibly powerful niche--The Aesthetic of Quirk.

The Royal Tenenbaums took the successes and themes of Rushmore further and pushed them harder. This story of a family's faded glory (the patriarch now broke, the parents now divorced, the three "genius" children now grown and comically failing) fulfilled every promise made by Anderson's first two films. His unique style as a writer and director--previously alluded to, or not fully developed--was now in its best form, straddling the line between absurdist comedy and understated tragedy with effortless grace.

Tenenbaums was, and remains, my favorite film of the last ten years. It is the rarest of accompishments--a flawless work of art, whose substance transcends its own scope, and whose style becomes inescapably influential. In this old blog, I called Anderson's brilliance "Shakespearean," and I still believe that. This film was so effortlessly ingenious, and the nature of its perfection so humbling and apparent, that was the only thing I could compare it to.

Now a devoted fan and hopeless fanboy, I anticipated Anderson's fourth film, The Life Aquatic, with schoolboy impatience. I can't say it disappointed me because I didn't expect Tenenbaum-ian perfection, but it was obviously less-great than the two films preceding it. While Anderson's greatest gifts reveal themselves in punchy dialog and precocious characters, Life Aquatic relied too heavily on silence and subtext to do its heavy lifting. What remained was an occasionally moving and beautiful film that lacked real color.

The Darjeeling Limited
, accompanied by Hotel Chevalier (a short film that precedes the feature as its "Part One"), continues this progression. Anderson has taken his Aesthetic of Quirk and pushed it once again further--perhaps too far--to a point of aloofness. His gifts for tightly-framed story-telling, vibrant dialog, and paradoxical behavior are largely missing, leaving only his trademark visual style and familiar themes (e.g. three siblings, now adult, try to reconcile their family's broken past) for fans to recognize and enjoy. The film, set in a cross-country Indian train-ride, is maddeningly elusive. Sure, the performances are good. Sure, the film looks beautiful. Sure, India itself is a wonderfully integral part of the story, and as a setting is treated with respect, thoughtfulness, and familiarity. Sure, the best parts of the movie are still better than basically everything else out there.

But there aren't enough of them. And, what's worse, the film doesn't seem interested in creating them. The dialog itself is spare (one scene even vocalizes this, as the characters attempt to communicate their problems non-verbally), and the actions often limited. The story--like the train--has a destination in mind, but doesn't ever get there. In fact, it literally gets lost, despite being on rails. This is all clearly intentional by complaint is with the decision itself. For the most part, the film's strengths lie with Anderson's trademark directorial style, but never with his typical substance as a writer. Also, it's just not very funny.

But here's the problem: too many people will like this film too much. Or, at the very least, they'll proclaim to like this film too much. They already do. Because it's fashionable to unconditionally love Wes Anderson, criticism of his latest release would risk being "un-smart" or much worse, "uncool." And because it looks like a Wes Anderson movie, it must be as smart and relevant and hilarious and resonant as a normal Wes Anderson movie. But it unfortunately isn't there. Not nearly enough. Anderson himself is a loquacious guy--and his greatest characters, most revealing scenes, funniest moments, and best lines have always come from equally verbal people. This movie pushes the silence too far, but without the subtext picking up the slack.

But Part One, the short Hotel Chevalier, gives hope: a man is in a hotel room. He gets a call from a girl. She wants to come up. He resists, then consents. Then he showers and puts on a suit. He queues up a hopelessly goofy-yet-beautiful love ballad on his IPod. It plays on constant repeat, in anticipation of her arrival. "Tell me the thoughts that surround you/I want to look inside your head..." She comes up. They talk, wary of each other. There is a past here that is slowly becoming apparent, but never through the dialog itself. Finally she approaches him, things begin to happen. They stop briefly. He notices mysterious bruises on her body and asks about them (Anderson often uses physical scars to infer a painful past). She ignores his comment. Music continues in the background. Then:

Her: "Whatever happens in the end, I don't want to lose you as my friend."
Him: "I promise I will never be your friend, no matter what."

I want to look inside your head, yes I do...

This is a moment of remarkable clarity and complexity. In one climactic exchange, we know their past, their troubled present, and their doomed future. It's the kind of dialog an entire movie can stumble around but Anderson so often delivers with breath-taking precision. It's Anderson saying, "Yeah, I can still do this...I'm just choosing not to." Wes Anderson has always aspired to look inside his characters' heads--his greatest gift is getting inside people, their mixed motivations, their complex behaviors, their desires and demons. The problem with Part Two, The Darjeeling Limited, is that the audience itself is rarely let inside, too.

You dance like Zizi Jeanmaire,

P.S. One of my favorite sports writers occasionally comments on pop music and the result is almost always embarrassing and disastrous. All this to say, I'd hate to be the musician who writes pathetically inaccurate things about movies. I'm an admitted film ignoramus. I invite all you film buffs out there who know better to disagree with me/put me in my place. Am I wrong about Anderson's latest? Lord I hope so. Please tell me I am.


ross k. said...

The film really worth seeing this year is Runnin' Down a Dream, Bogdanovich's documentary about the career of Tom Petty. Just so everybody knows. If you can, see that.

I have the feeling that a film buff would defend the "auteur" ideal of a director being wrapped up in his own style, just so film class didn't feel like a waste of time, but I think that that ideal rarely works out. Usually, it's the kiss of death when anybody gets wrapped up in his own style and quits moving action along. It gets in the way of the story, and story is the boss.

Even though they're different kinds of movies, when I watched Superbad, I thought, "Oh man, how are they gonna get out of this? What'll happen next? I can't wait for what's next." Watching Darjeeling, I knew what was next--nothing--and I didn't care. A string of non sequiturs, a bunch of funny-strange but ultimately moments that I'm supposed to monitor closely. The pressure crushes them into anti-events.

In other news, there is an important article up at MSNBC now about how they've found toxic levels of formaldehyde gas in the FEMA trailers for the Katrina victims. Those people have not caught one single break.

ross k. said... the third paragraph, I meant to say, "funny strange but ultimately fruitless moments." I just left "fruitless" out. So my sentence promised something and left out a crucial ingredient. Like the moments it described.

Michael said...

I'm a fan of Anderson, but for some reason I never could get into Rushmore.

I've watched it. I've even analyzed it for a film class. I get that it's smart. I know that it's well done.

But I never enjoyed it.

The Royal Tennenbaum's on the other hand, I loved. I'm also a fan of the life aquatic, one of the most beautiful and colorful movies I've ever seen.

I haven't seen Darjeeling yet...if I do, I'll let ya know what I think.

Mysteries of The Orient said...

your comments are spot on. this movie was simply too sparse.

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