A Conrad student informed me in Scotland that Africa is merely a setting for the disintegration of the mind of Mr. Kurtz. Which is partly the point. Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the breakup of one petty European mind?
--Chinua Achebe (1974)
Rushmore, released in 1998 as writer/director Wes Anderson’s second movie, has long been one of my favorites. I find the lovelorn struggles and hyperbolic ambitions of its high school striver, Max Fisher (played by a budding Jason Schwartzman) consistently clever, humane, warm, and other adjectives that often attach themselves to movies that I like.
As the years go by, though, and two more of
Anderson regulars Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson, and honored guest Adrien Brody, star as three American brothers who follow in the banal footsteps of innumerable white male adventurers. They climb aboard a train in India, and then meander through gorgeous, stunningly exotic scenery, which is populated by masses of undifferentiated, oddly untroubled dark people.
White people make up a relatively small (though rather indeterminate) portion of the earth’s population. But in movies of this sort—from Queen of the Nile to Out of Africa, from Treasure of the Sierra Madre to Lost in Translation, from Tarzan of the Apes to Planet of the Apes—whites and whites alone occupy center stage, in lands populated almost exclusively by non-white people. Darker characters only emerge as individuals, and then only briefly, when the white central characters have some use for them.
These adventure films are “white movies” because they’re made by white people, about white people, in order to appeal to a white audience. They're also white movies because they exhibit a common, often unconscious tendency of white people, which is to "naturally" see themselves at the center of things, and to put themselves there when they’re not. This white tendency usually means that they most enjoy movies when they can imagine themselves as, or in some close relation to, the central characters. People enjoy movies when they can get involved with them, but the whites-in-foreign-lands movie usually offers few attractive points of entry for non-white viewers, even if the foreign land depicted happens to be their own.
In The Darjeeling Limited, instead of the American Wild West, the Great White North, the Dark Continent of Africa, or the Mysterious Orient, the staging ground for self-involved, self-interested white adventurism is Crowded, Dusty, Vaguely Spiritual India. After boarding the charmingly antiquated train that provides the movie’s title, the brothers Whitman (er, "White Man"?), namely Francis (Wilson), Peter (Brody), and Jack (Schwartzman), busy themselves with pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, their prodigal mother, their dead father, their connection with each other, spicy interracial bathroom sex, and so on, alternately ignoring and using the Indians who continuously swirl around them.
It’s disappointing that
The only way I might be able to defend the apparently unwitting whiteness of this movie and its characters is to see one or the other, or both, as ironic. After all,
As that other, famous blog on white people wrote in its infancy, the “stuff white people like,” or at least a lot of them like, definitely includes Wes Anderson movies. But if a white person is among the fair-minded, socially conscious sort mildly satirized on that other blog, then enjoying The Darjeeling Limited requires overlooking not only its cartoonish, self-serving treatment of an entire nation and its individuals, but also the unexamined whiteness of its central characters. And to do that would surely make a person conflicted, on some level, between thinking that race doesn’t matter, and knowing that it does.
Why not take a journey, instead, into the heart of whiteness?
(here's the trailer for The Darjeeling Limited)