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Notes On Otherness, Part One: Wes Anderson

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When I first read that the new Wes Anderson movie was took place in India, I was nervous. My first thought was, it seems a grotesque catering to his twenty-something audience (of which I am a part), many of which (this part, I’m not a part of) idealize India and go there to “study abroad”. Just as Anderson enabled their love of everything from Asics to 60s pop, he was now indulging in their strange obsession with India. Within a few minutes of reading about ‘Untitled Wes Anderson India Project’, I readjusted my thoughts and considered Anderson’s previous four movies, all of which are reversals of expectations and essentially, genre deconstructions. As ‘Bottle Rocket’ parodied the heist movie, ‘Rushmore’ the youth rebellion picture, ‘Tenenbaums’ the screwed-up family drama, and ‘Life Aquatic’ the action movie, it is safe to say ‘The Darjeeling Limited’ will take an equally complicated view on the “going to a foreign country and finding one’s self” movie, making Jonah Weiner’s article for Slate ‘How Wes Anderson Mishandles Race’ all the more frustrating.

I’m not one to immediately dismiss claims of racism or “race mishandling” but I do like to take a close look at such claims because when the claims are unwarranted, it only makes it harder for the worthwhile accusations to be taken seriously. I haven’t seen ‘Darjeeling’ yet, so I’m admittedly talking half out of my ass here, but I’ve seen all of Anderson’s movies quite a few times, wrote an 80-page Undergraduate thesis about one but also wouldn’t exactly call myself a member of the Anderson cult; he’s a good, not great director. What annoys me about Anderon’s work is what annoys many, his twee-ness, his quirky obsessions, but what I love about Anderson is that in every movie, the quirks are ultimately demolished by real-world problems, emotions, and yes, social and cultural politics. Even as Anderson seems to be stumbling around in his obsessive, doll-house unreality, his movies are constantly poking at and highlighting aspects of our real-world. For example, Jeff Goldblum’s streamlined and cold scientist is a parody of Apple product-obsessed elitists (there’s a quick visual gag involving an iPod in ‘Hotel Chevalier’ too).

Anderson is an ironist, not in the sense of him not taking anything seriously, for his movies are very, very affecting but an ironist in the sense of being highly aware of himself and his movies and what they are doing. Anderson is well aware of genre, film history, and is Kubrick-ian in his casting of actors for their past filmography and their real-life personae. So, when Jonah Weiner reads ‘The Darjeeling Limited’ as simply “…beware of any film in which an entire race and culture is turned into therapeutic scenery.”, I can’t help but think he made this decision before seeing the movie with Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ in-hand. Of course, Weiner has seen the movie and I haven’t, but it seems to be a movie about movies in which white characters find themselves through another race/culture and not a movie in which that happens and is validated.

The basic plot involves three brothers, headed by Owen Wilson in what seems to be an update of his Dignan role, using India to find themselves. I know an ongoing joke in the movie is the way the characters are given laminated itineraries for the day, that will highlight the many “spiritual” places in India (Stanley Fish would’ve called the brothers’ actions “boutique multiculturalism”). The joke of the movie seems to be the way a bunch of white brothers search-out transcendent moments. The irony is of course, that one cannot contrive or seek-out life-changing events (reading the should-come-with-a-spoiler-alert article in the new ‘Film Comment’, it seems like the brothers lives actually become changed once they veer off-course).

Weiner essentially says this (“Sometimes Wes Anderson winks at the brothers’ fetishistic attitudes toward India, but he eventually reveals his own”) and then cites said SPOILER-ALERT scene as an example. Okay, so SPOILER-ALERT: There’s a scene where the brothers, at their lowest point, end up having to save three drowning Indian boys; one drowns, they attend his funeral. On an artistic level, I think Anderson is depending too much upon these kinds of “moments”; in the trailer I saw, I even spotted it as that “moment” because of the hand-held cameras…but as a part of the movie, this does not sound like a scene that suggests that some Indian boy had to die for the brothers to stick together but that it’s the point where they are suddenly immersed in the reality of India and reality of the world (DEATH.). It is at that point in the movie (if it follows Anderson’s past formula) where they can no longer sit back and objectify their reality (and India).

Weiner’s second problem with this scene is that comedy is derived from it. At the same time, he critiques Anderson for not “wink[ing]” at the scene’s obvious borderline offensiveness (forgetting the movie itself is in part, one huge wink) but Weiner’s thesis is how Anderson uses India and jokes- especially when the punchline is purposefully misinterpreted- become obvious examples of not taking an issue seriously. A joke that Weiner ignores that I recall from the aforementioned ‘Film Comment’ article is that one of the brothers, holding the dead child, says “I didn’t save mine.” If that isn’t a joke about (not at) the brothers’ cultural objectification, I don’t know what it is! Weiner instead focuses on a joke that comes after the un-winking funeral sequence, in which the brothers are shown in “gorgeous late-day sunlight” (signifying gained knowledge?) and then “the camera slowly zooms out to reveal a cartload of Indian porters behind them, carrying the brothers’ considerable baggage”. This is reduced to a “sight gag” by Weiner but it is a loaded sight-gag. Presumably one about how all that junk that just happened to the brothers, witnessing a drowning, attending the funeral, only kinda sorta changed their perspective; they are still blissfully ignorant assholes, in short, they are still humans (people like Weiner do not like movies full of humans, they prefer symbols). The scene is not a joke at the expense of those Indian porters but a joke at the brothers’ obliviousness (and a purposefully corny joke about literal and figurative baggage). Weiner makes the rookie mistake of conflating what an artist portrays with what he supports.

The next move is a willful misinterpretation of the “minority” characters in Anderson’s movies. I will certainly concede that Anderson is not the greatest handler of race, however I’d dare Weiner to name another Hollywood director that even makes an attempt to address issues of race and class. Anderson, in movies that are never directly about race (although often about class, Anderson handles this flawlessly), still finds places to subtly address and acknowledge it and for that, he is snarkily challenged…most apparently in a simplistic laundry-list dismissal of Anderson’s minority characters.

The first issue with Weiner’s list is the way that it only relates to brown or yellow people. Why is Klaus in ‘Life Aquatic’ not a mishandling of Germans? Ms. Cross of ‘Rushmore’ has hints of the cliche of the British intellectual but this is not a concern of Weiner’s. Anderson’s movies too, often do women a bit of a disservice, as they are either sexless or sexually overactive. By only reading those brown and yellow people as misrepresented, it puts Anderson’s work into a conventional Hollywood sense of race and representation the director has never subscribed to: Anderson’s movies use archetypes (and stereotypes) that apply to all of the characters, from Margaret Yang to Steve Zissou. It is very easy to reduce any of Anderson’s characters to offensive stereotypes if one is so inclined.

But that is a writerly sin of omission (however convenient it might be to omit European and Women characters) and Weiner’s big sin is commission, as he willfully misinterprets the minority characters he does address. Anderson’s minority characters are shown to be sane and rational in a way that his privileged whites choose not to or in more sympathetic moments, just seem unable to be. Yes, ‘Bottle Rocket’s Inez is a “projecting screen” for Anthony’s romantic ideals but this is never seen as a good thing. I would also say that very few movies that aren’t directly about Latino culture, give a better outsider’s perspective on the culture than ‘Bottle Rocket’ and this is obviously because Anderson is from Texas! ‘Rushmore’s lack of minorities is only appropriate, for it is simply a fact that you’re not going to find a lot of minorities at a prep school. Margaret Yang begins as a parody of the studious Asian but she turns out to be a lot like Max. Recall that Max sort of really falls for her when she admits she faked the results of her science project; she is NOT the studious, do-gooder Asian. If the movie were called ‘Margaret Yangmore’ I might have a problem with such a simplistic presentation but given her total of like 10 minutes on-screen, it’s fairly complex. Danny Glover’s Henry Sherman of ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ is a true supporting character in the movie and is pretty much the only sane character of the bunch. Sherman does not “meekly endure” Hackman’s racist jabs, he strikes back screaming, in a scene that only ends when Etheline breaks them up. Hackman calling him “Coltrane” is a joke on the petty idiocy of racial comments: How is Coltrane even offensive? That’s the joke of the scene and reasons for Henry’s initial meekness: he’s unsure how he’s even being offended. ‘Life Aquatic’s multi-cultural crew is a nod to 60s or 70s concepts of diversity; one must remember that Anderson must cast a crew that Zissou would cast and Zissou is an out-dated guy so, he still subscribes to out-dated concepts of racial sensitivity. It is also frustrating that Weiner takes this jab at Anderson when Weiner’s perception of race is incredibly simplistic, the kind of faux “with-it” dislike of whiteness only found in a white person:”Wes Anderson situates his art squarely in a world of whiteness: privileged, bookish, prudish, woebegone, tennis-playing, Kinks-scored, fusty.” Other than “privileged” (and even that is up for debate) none of the other descriptors scream-out “whiteness”.

Weiner’s coup de grace is when he chastises Anderson for yes, in one way, “point[ing] out his characters racial sensitivities” but “ultimately [presenting them] as endearing quirks”. First, what separates Anderson from many of his peers is that his characters’ quirks end up being far from endearing. His characters begin as cute and quirky but those slowly become real-life fuckups that leave the characters stagnate. For example, look at something like ‘Garden State’ wherein Natalie Portman’s tendency to lie is shown as cute and endearing. That is never given a real-world perspective (in the real world, we call her a LIAR). Viewing ‘Hotel Chevalier’, it is clear that Anderson is playing off of ‘Garden State’s “quirkiness” and shows the downside of it, the manipulative, harsh side, exemplified by Portman’s cruel manipulation of Schwartzmann. So, the characters’ racial insensitivity is not an endearing quirk but simply a quirk, which you know, is sort of what it is. Anderson’s characters are rarely overtly racist (even Hackman does it out of malice, not racism) and show equal amounts of ignorance when they try to talk to others, consider others’ emotions, and even consider their own. The racial insensitivities of Anderson’s characters is rightfully presented as a minor, personal flaw which when lined-up with problems like dead parents, depression, suicide, incestual longings, etc. just makes sense.

Written by Brandon

October 2nd, 2007 at 5:42 am

Posted in Irony, Wes Anderson, iPOD

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