A Train Between Worlds: The Darjeeling Limited

I wrote up a draft of what was going to be a blog post about Wes Anderson's 2007 movie The Darjeeling Limited, but then decided it might be fun to turn it into a video essay instead. And so "A Train Between Worlds: The Darjeeling Limited" was born. Because the narration was originally going to be a blog post, the video is a bit text-heavy — it clearly didn't need to be a video per se, but I think it's more enjoyable in that form, especially because I could include various songs from the film's soundtrack (many of which were taken from other movies' soundtracks). For reference, the entire narration is available on the video's Vimeo page, and I'll paste it below the cut here.

The Darjeeling Limited has been one of Anderson's least popular and least critically lauded movies, but up until this year's Moonrise Kingdom, I thought it was his most accomplished and satisfying. I like all his movies a lot, but my taste is weird — where most people seem to find Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox the most satisfying, I'd rank Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou higher, much as I enjoy the others. Later this summer, I'll probably try to create a companion video about The Life Aquatic to explore some of its intricacies.

Meanwhile, a new online film journal has just appeared, Screen Machine, and the first issue includes an excellent essay by Huw Walmsley-Evans that looks at Wes Anderson and the question of realism.

And if you haven't yet seen Moonrise Kingdom, seek it out. Even people whose taste isn't as questionable as mine seem to like it.

video narration script: 

A Train Between Worlds

Wes Anderson's movies often show the conflict of private worlds with public ones, the intersection of real worlds with fantasy worlds, the collision of dreams with cold, hard reality.   The Darjeeling Limited extends these conflicts, intersections, and collisions with great precision, serving as both an extension of Anderson's art up to this point and a significant development of it.

Written by Anderson, Roman Coppola, and Jason Schwartzman, The Darjeeling Limited's story actually begins with a short film made a year before: "Hotel Chevalier", written and directed by Anderson, which tells the story of Schwartzman's character, Jack Whitman, who has become a hermit in a luxury hotel in Paris. There, he is visited by his ex-girlfriend, played by Natalie Portman.

Many of the details in "Hotel Chevalier" will gain meaning in The Darjeeling Limited, where Jack meets up with his brothers, Francis and Peter, for a journey through India that Francis has organized, complete with a daily laminated itinerary provided by an assistant who has been instructed to stay out of sight. The brothers haven't seen each other since their father's funeral, and Francis seems to think this spiritual journey will do them all some good.

To understand some of what the film is up to, we need to first separate its worlds, because it is easy to see a movie as a single representation of a particular reality, but Anderson's movies work more as separate realities that, by the end, find at least a moment of unity.

First, we can define two basic realms: the realm of determining influences outside the film, and the realm of the film's own story.

The most important outside influence, aside from the influence of the filmmakers' own personalities and tendencies, the production limitations, etc. — the most important outside influence is that of other movies, particularly movies set in India. These influences are not only acknowledged by Anderson, but are given life in The Darjeeling Limited through allusions and, especially, through music — much of the musical soundtrack of The Darjeeling Limited comes from the movies of Satyajit Ray, Ismail Merchant & James Ivory, and Nityananda Datta. An additional significant influence was Jean Renoir's first color feature, The River.

Within the film's own story, we have a plethora of worlds. There is, to start, the separate worlds of each brother. Though from the same privileged American family, the brothers are, like the Tenenbaum siblings, quite different personalities. Their father seems to have been the uniting force that kept their family together; with his death, not only have the brothers gone their separate ways, their mother has also completely disappeared, having refused even to attend the funeral.

But the family itself, or at least the unit of the brothers, is a world as well, despite personality differences. They have shared experiences, shared memories, shared expectations, but especially they share a cultural, linguistic, racial, gender, and class background. This is significant because, for all their differences as individual human beings, it is this shared background that will create many of the meaningful contrasts throughout the film.

For instance, there is India. Within The Darjeeling Limited, India is both a place and an idea, and it is not at all a single world — it is, rather, a series of fantasies and realities. Francis, for instance, has a fantasy of India as an exotic place of spiritual power, a place he and his brothers can go to get in touch with their souls or their destinies, then return, cleansed and invigorated, to their regular lives.

Francis, though, is a bit of a control freak, and this side of his personality is humorously at odds with the intuitive, even random, nature of spiritual quests. In his mind, a spiritual quest should be like traveling on a train, able only to go forward or back, a clear route ahead laid out by the rails, with good views from the windows and stops along the way and then a destination, a terminus, clearly marked on the ticket bought at the station.  This is related to another world within The Darjeeling Limited: the world of objects and commodities. Francis wants a commodified spiritual journey: he wants to be able to do what he's always done, which is buy what he thinks he needs or desires, thus to possess and control it. Places and people that survive on tourist money do so through such commodification, but the tourist and the merchant of products for tourists do not look at the world through the same vantage point. The Darjeeling Limited's story is told through the point of view of three tourists, but again and again the audience is given reason to be skeptical toward, amused by, or aghast at their tourism. If anyone is being made fun of, if anyone is worth laughing at in this movie, it is the Whitman brothers.

Thus, there is an India that exists in the background and corners of the movie, an India of complex realities, an India that is not the tourists' India.

The tourists come into contact with that India when they encounter the boys at the river. A life-and-death crisis is a great leveler and unifier. Identities momentarily disappear in the brute, shared reality of human existence. They return, of course, at the moment when the crisis is over, and so the Whitman brothers go back to being themselves, and though celebrated for their heroism, they are still very separate from the world they enter. Their father's funeral and the funeral of the boy that Peter couldn't save inevitably intersect in the brothers minds, but though the two events can be parallel, they can't ever really be united — their differences are too vast.

And so though the brothers have entered a world different from the stereotypical, fantasized one of their expectations, unity is still elusive. They still feel like the same people they were before this immense experience — before this event that, in a typical movie, would provide just the spiritual meaning that they had sought. But it doesn't. It can't. Reality is too thorny, too knotted to give way to the simple, easy epiphanies of fantasy.

The brothers continue on, growing ever more ragged now, less organized, less the prisoners of their own self-images. They are inching their way toward changes that will bring their understanding of the world into some sort of congruence with the world they actually inhabit.

This happens after they find their mother. The encounter itself is disappointing to them — once again, they had pinned their hopes on a great eureka moment of reconciliation, personal growth, and family unity. It doesn't happen, though. To unify her own worlds, their mother has sought out a kind of willful ignorance, the determined simplicity of a distant, monastic life that has no room, really, for her previous life. Therefore, there is no room in her world for her sons, and she leaves them, once again.

But unity has been found for one moment — for one moment around a table, this group of people with the same background, this family, sits together. A bit awkwardly, yes, but together. Anderson is always very careful with shots and cuts, and so the formal unity in this moment is both meaningful and, for someone sensitive to the way the events and their representation converge, emotionally affecting.

But the real payoff — indeed, in many ways, the film's climax — comes with what the scene cuts to: at first, we seem to have moved back to the village, where the children are praying before bed, but this is revealed to be a single moment within, literally, a train of moments. Various characters we have encountered through the film, or who have been discussed and are important to the brothers' lives, have their own rooms on this train.

A kind of unification has been achieved. The movie itself, the story and its characters, is a unifying force. We've already seen this with the references to other films that all show very different views of India and, in many ways, life. Within The Darjeeling Limited, those different views briefly and allusively inhabit the same space.

Which brings us back to "The Hotel Chevalier". One of the people on the train is Jack's ex-girlfriend; this would be mystifying to anyone who hasn't seen the short. But it shows us that the short and the feature work in tandem, as separate realms that echo each other. "Hotel Chevalier" showed us a person trapped in a room who, by the end, is able to step outside onto a balcony and show his view of Paris to his girlfriend. It is, for him, a step toward generosity. He shares the way he sees the city, he shares his personal world and his perspective on the greater world outside.

The story of "The Hotel Chevalier" is, within The Darjeeling Limited, literally a story — Jack has written it up, denying its reality, insisting it is fiction until, at the end, he seems to be able to admit what is obvious to his brothers: that he's writing about his own experience. "The Hotel Chevalier" and The Darjeeling Limited at that moment gain a of unity of their own, like strands of DNA or the parallel rails of train tracks.

After these moments of convergence and congruence, the brothers are finally able to be free, to move toward a kind of life that has previously eluded them in their selfish or self-centered worlds, and to give in to a spontaneity, even goofiness, that is, within the reality of the film at least, a powerful unifying force.

And so they literally shed the baggage they inherited from their father, and they seem to find, in the last moments, a wholeness that had previously eluded them. All the various worlds of life may be separate, and we as individual creatures may be stuck in our own perspectives, but under the right circumstances, and with the right mindset, we can watch a movie and lose our baggage and jump on a train and ride the rails of a shared, and pardoxically unpredictable, destiny.