Friday, April 25, 2008

white movie friday : the darjeeling limited

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’s films have appeared to widespread white-hipster acclaim (The Royal Tenenbaums in 2001 and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou in 2004), I can no longer overlook something blithe, annoying, and almost suffocating about Anderson's work—its whiteness. His handling and apparent attitude towards non-white people, and towards their differing perspectives, is especially disappointing, and nowhere more so than in his most recent movie, last year’s The Darjeeling Limited.

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. Darjeeling provoked annoyance and dismay in the racially conscious portion of the blogosphere, and rightly so; Slate also provided an insightful analysis of Wes Anderson's whiteness. There’s more to say, though, about this movie's dressing up of white tourism as noble self-improvement.

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 Anderson would adopt such a tired, racist framework, because he seems so smart and talented. As Jonah Weiner writes in his analysis of the film, “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. [This film] showcases an obnoxious element of Anderson that is rarely discussed: the clumsy, discomfiting way he stages interactions between white protagonists—typically upper-class elites—and nonwhite foils—typically working class and poor. . . . Needless to say, beware of any film in which an entire race and culture is turned into therapeutic scenery. . . . “

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, Anderson’s movies are always aware of themselves as movies, continually winking at the audience about their own staged, cinematic artifice, instead of pretending to be mere windows on the world. In this movie, for instance, the usual post-climactic character montage shows them in separate compartments of a moving train, each a clearly constructed, homemade-looking imitation of the characters’ settings—a bedroom, a hotel room, a train compartment, a bedroom, another train compartment, and so on. It’s a cleverly self-conscious twist on a cinematic storytelling convention, and it implies Anderson’s effort to let his audience in on what he’s doing as a filmmaker.

However, while Anderson does seem aware of race in a dutifully liberal way, since he makes some effort to diversify the casting choices of, at least, his secondary characters, the races he thinks about clearly do not include the white one. In the movie’s production notes, Anderson sounds just as blithely unaware as Francis, Peter, and Jack do of his privileged status as a First-World white adventurer, and just as willing to use places occupied by Other People for his own singular purposes: “I decided I would like to make a movie in India, I decided I would like to make a movie on a train, and I thought I’d like to make a movie about three brothers. Then I asked my friends Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola to join me in writing the movie and we all went to India” (Laurier). Again, Anderson may be speaking ironically here, downplaying what it took to make his movie, but the lack of interest in India and its people expressed by these words also seems expressed by his movie.

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)


  1. Lol I just got this in my Netflix. Thanks for your comment!

  2. I like your analysis, and I haven't seen the film as of yet, but I will provide my feedback as soon as I watch it since I am Indian after all.

  3. while this is a good start, there are other aspects of wes anderson movies that are also troubling. don't forget about the easily-forgettable indian man that is in all of his movies. in the royal tenenbaums he is 'pagoda', in other movies he's unnamed. he stands around, sometimes being a loyal pet to white people and other times simply acting as a prop. in some of anderson's movies he seems to exist solely as decoration, or some sad attempt to diversify the cast.
    another disturbing thing is that anderson's films are highly successful but still not considered "mainstream" or hollywood-ish, therefore it almost has no excuse for the blatant racism in his movies. anderson's movies are made for an alternative audience--one that likes to think of itself as smarter and more aware than those that watch mainstream movies. yet wes anderson movies so often do the exact same thing. it's like the packs of hipsters that buy Converse when it's owned by Nike.

  4. Huh. Well, I saw the cluelessness of these white brothers in India as one of the points of the movie. Their visit to India was a visit to the "holy places" on a strict timetable and of course, shopping! I thought Anderson was doing a satire of upper middle class whites, whose intent was to see a country but not too closely. Until the brothers come in contact with the group crossing the river, "look at these assholes", and become part of a family through tragedy. Maybe I'm seeing too much, or not seeing the level of overt racism you do, but I saw a tone of white people behaving badly throughout, and thought it was intentional. When they ditched the expensive luggage at the last, I was happy to see it go, and got the impression they had learned something. Anyway that was how I saw this movie- yes it would have been unbearable to take at face value, which is why I thought it was satire. And yes, I'm white.

  5. Does "dutifully liberal" casting mean perpetually silent brown servants, a la Pagoda? Because unless it does, I think you're understating the case somewhat.

  6. Katie, I see Anderson's casting as "dutifully liberal" because it is diversified, to some extent, but only in minor characters. It seems to me that white liberals want a few people of color around, but they don't really want to deal with them as human beings, especially if such people of color have disturbing or perplexing things to say. (For what it's worth, I consider myself further to the left than a liberal.)

    Thanks for the full explanation of your initial interpretation of the movie, Jim. It sounds like after having some things pointed out about it that differ from your first interpretation, you're still sticking with it. So, maybe I can't convince you that the film itself expresses a racist mindset, especially within the short space allowable in a blog's comment section, but I wasn't raised to be a quitter, so I'll try.

    I would say that "anonymous" above makes great points about a particular non-white character in Anderson's films, one who's always basically the same character. Kumar Pallana is an Indian actor who has appeared in all but one of Anderson 's films. He doesn't really act, though--he usually just stands or sits around, voicelessly, and in "Darjeeling," he dies so namelessly.

    Pallana's character does have a name in the other three usages Anderson has made of him, but they're names that to me demonstrate the more general belittling tendencies that Anderson has when it comes to non-white people. In Anderson's first film, "Bottle Rocket," Pallana's character is given a name, the actor's own first name, Kumar. In "Rushmore," though, Pallana plays Mr. LittleJeans, and in "Tenenbaums" his character's name is Pagoda. It's as if Anderson can't be bothered to assign this character a realistic name (which such a person in real life would obviously have). Worse yet, when this person does get a name, it's more like the name of a pet than that of a human being.

    In "Darjeeling," Pallana's character again says nothing, appearing from behind a newspaper as he sits with the main characters. He's listed in the credits as "Old Man." Diehard Anderson fans will recognize him from other movies, and indeed, that seems to be exactly why he's in this one. He thus becomes a visual joke of sorts, and again, a mere prop to place next to the main characters so that we can see them, as you might say, cluelessly ignore this man.

    I agree that Anderson does occasionally highlight the racial obliviousness of this movie's central characters, but they're supposed to be, overall, lovable guys for Anderson's largely white-hipster audience to "relate to." More to the point, though, the obliviousness that they exhibit to the individuality of Indian people, and their willingness to use them as a whole, and their country's landscape, almost entirely for their own purposes, is something the movie itself does too. The one exception for the characters--their attempt to rescue drowning Indian boys--is not an exception for the movie itself. Those boys and their grieving families remain nameless for viewers, as well as voiceless, since subtitles never provide us with their anguished words.

    I suppose one might argue that the belittling names of Pallana's characters reflect the racism of the characters around him rather than that of the filmmaker. Making that argument, though, would require overlooking the racist usages to which Anderson himself puts non-white people and a non-white nation.

  7. It's worth noting, too, that white people's "ironic" racism is still experienced by many people of color as.....racism.

    In my experience, this "ironic" racism can be more humiliating because it is a setup - if I laugh along, I'm seen as a "good" POC and white people feel comfortable being racist around me, which they immediately take advantage of. If I don't, I'm seen as a bad, troublemaking POC who has no sense of humor and is "playing the race card."

  8. I like your analysis of the film after I finally saw it. Although the peaceful moments in the village following the child's death are beautifully and respectfully done, I was surprised that the "ironic" racism continued after those scenes. It didn't make sense that the brothers went back to such throught provoking observations such as "wow, this country sure smells spicy."

    I would have understood if the brothers learned from India after being forced to actually intergrate with the culture, but it was incredibly dissapointing and a bit saddening that he would continue with thoughtless lines from the characters who in the end just minimalize their experience in terms of how it made them even more enlightened people than the arrogant jerks they already were.

  9. Thank you for coming back to let us know what you thought, SEPL. Yes, it is sad that the movie let you down like that. But not surprising.

    Do you think any Hollywood or American "Independent" films get India right?

  10. My god, people.

    It's a movie.

    A white man can only make a movie from a white perspective.
    Otherwise, he wouldn't be WHITE.

    He is only acting, thinking, believing, and seeing as what he was born as; a white male.

    Wes Anderson is white. He was not born in India, he is not Indian; he cannot understand the Indian culture.
    The thing about how India smells "spicy" was put in there to be humorous and a jab at our ignorance, because that's what EVERY white person-or anyone who has never been to India-says when they leave.

    Wes Anderson is not racist. He is white.
    Unless there's some new theory now that every white person is racist.

  11. "A white man can only make a movie from a white perspective.
    Otherwise, he wouldn't be WHITE."

    Other folks have managed to write in another's perspective. Witches of Eastwick, for one, was written in female perspective by a guy. He was on NPR relatively recently. I'm a wee bit exhausted, but there are tons of other examples.

  12. If Wes Anderson wants to make a movie from his perspective where the Indian is in the background, then that is his prerogative. He doesn't understand the Indian perspective and why should he? He is writing what he knows. I don't think people are watching this movie to be enlightened about Indian people or culture, if they are, it's rather offensive to a culture that is over 2000 yrs old. I am an Indian and I when I saw this movie, I didn't have an issue with how he represented Indians, I have learned a long time ago that you can't expect much than a convenience store worker or a geeky Indian kid who can't get laid in Western movies. Indians have Bollywood, even though most of their movies are sub par, or just plain suck, we have enough representation there. I don't need or want any validation from the white media. Why does the white media have the be the end-all for everything? There are lots of Indian film makers out there who can make a difference. The one guy I had a problem with was M Night Shymalan, who consistently makes the whitest movies possible, even down to AVATAR, casting white actors in Asian roles, but even he has a right to make any kind of movie he wants, regardless of race. Honestly, the main issue I had with Darjeeling Limited was hoe incredibly self centered everyone was..

  13. I think the film was poking fun at the "white" search for adventure and spiritual enlightenment. How did you miss the humor of that?


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