Wednesday, October 31, 2007
NO PLANS, NO GOALS, NO WISHES, NO WANTS
“You chose total freedom and but you got total loneliness. The time comes when, if you go on you destroy yourself. You head for destruction. If you want to live you stop. My friends who stayed on the road are dead now, or else they fell apart: alcoholics or junkies, because the loneliness ate them up in the end.” –Farmer speaking to Mona
This critical conversation extends itself into the visual language of the film, as do several. "If you want to live, you stop." VAGABOND (1985) is in fact punctuated by moments where Mona, our detached and wandering loner, forges past stop signs, but not before pausing for a hanging moment. She is recurrently given explicit warnings, both tactile and in conversation, but falls deaf to them, as if impelled to her own end by indifference. Mona’s arrogant fatalism is what differs her most from, say, the altruistic driven character of Alex Supertramp of INTO THE WILD (2007). In fact, it seems apt to be discussing Agnes Varda's VAGABOND in lieu of the recent release of Sean Penn’s film. Both share an uncompromising spirit of refusal and follow an usher who has arguably no roots in this ‘world of reason’ on their rebellious migrations. While the commonalities of these films are striking (structure, premise), their differences are stark and mostly attitudinal. Mona of VAGABOND is virtually the opposite of Alex of INTO THE WILD though they make roughly the same larger decisions, affect those they encounter by their intensity, and meet with a solemn and solitary finality. Where Alex is aimed (reasonably so), Mona is aimless. He seeks a means, and she seeks an end (whether or not she understands it). Mona has no interest in building loyalties or to be changed by her encounters, nor does she strive to offer any returns of thanks or wisdom, while Alex is explicitly seeking a kind of purity, a truth that he desires to share. “Maybe I’ll write a book when I get back, about my experiences.” He rejects the tenets of man and law with knowledgeable discretion, not bitter totality. To be fair though, Mona makes a curious gesture of selflessness by giving blood, and not for food or for money. She pawns it off as "killing time," but in a way it might be the best way for her to lend herself, because it is done from a distance, detached completely from those who will take benefit. In a sense, it could be taken as her own obscure manner of "living on," in the way that an artists work is their own vying for posterity. I'm reminded of Francois Ozon's unsympathetic and complex LE TEMPS QUI RESTE (2005), in which the young, rather insensitive, and bitter Romain, dying of cancer, makes a final gesture of amends by helping a family conceive, naming the child the sole recipient of all his wealth. Its a small moment that doesnt swell or turn saccarine, just as Mona's moment remains as passing as any other in her downfall.
Mona is a base individual, whose ambitions are wholly selfish and sensual (that’s not to infer that she is simplistic). She seeks no attachment and boasts a harsh ambivalence towards those she encounters (though some evoke a brief sensitivity from her, such as Assoun, “the man with the kind eyes.”). We never really get wind of her motives or of her heart. VAGABOND is insular to a brief period of her wandering, as revealed and anchored by scenes of those scorned individuals interviewed in the police investigation of her death. What we do get, in terms of motives, is a latent superficial remark that explains a part of her disdain, but it comes across as more of a shallow pretense to a deeper concealed impulse we’ll never know. “I hated being a secretary. I quit those bosses, but not to find another boss on the road,” she says to the farmer’s accusation of her laziness and inadequacy. “You don’t want anything. We give you land, you don’t do anything with it. Your heads empty….You’re no drop-out, you’re just out. You don’t exist.” “Fuck your philosophy!” she exclaims.
The film floats on a motif of stark but elegant lateral panning shots, calling a likeness to Mizoguchi and the more unsparing moments of his etherial but realist masterwork UGETSU (1953), with the camera held back, hung in observation by detachment. Unique to VAGABOND is that these shots convey, not only the attitude of Mona, who sidesteps responsibility and repercussion (save for her demise), but also function as microcosms of the film itself. Several of these lateral shots start before Mona, catch up to her and then rest at a point ahead of her, alluding to her transitory nature and the parenthetical narrative. One of these shots is particularly telling. The camera begins at the top of a stone wall, it pans left somewhat swiftly and imperfectly, passing Mona who is seated and looking at photographs, resting well ahead of her on a tangle of winter-worn branches. The photographs that we are shown shortly after, lean to the form of the narrative, being itself a composite of flashbacks and fractured recollections, mere snapshots in the lives of those who encountered Mona, and but a snapshot of her own.
This much is certain; Mona meets her end, falling waerily headfirst into a ditch covered in wine dregs. It is a meager affair as pitiful and solitary as her life on the road, seeming more like a pained resignation as it unravels. It’s not a surprising result, mostly because it is the first thing we come to know of her existence, but also because the film constantly breeds an impending finality, (another quality it bears in common with INTO THE WILD), as if it could end at any moment. Although INTO THE WILD conceals Alex’s death till its final moment, and all the while you hang upon his volition, VAGABOND folds its hand on Mona within the first five minutes. Even if Varda held back till the end like Penn did, it would be evident that Mona was at a dire threshold. The most direct implication of her character and demise is that of the dialogue between Mona and the woman tree specialist, who drives her around half delightedly, half curiously, for presumably 24 hours. The woman is explaining the work that she does; seeking a cure for diseased plane trees. Mona boasts an obvious disinterest. “It invades the tree and kills it. We can’t stop it. All plane trees are doomed. The epidemic began, we understood too late.” “How dumb,” Mona replies. “Not to stop the plague is even dumber,” the woman recants. “Anyway…” says Mona, rolling her eyes. After this conversation, the woman drives them onward, but the camera turns from them to the heart of the withering infected tree she had cited, set upon its final days. This is a perfect illustration of how Mona is herself infected. Her sickness is that of constant refusal and a debilitating velocity. These qualities are as much a cancer as the fungus killing the tree, a sickness that is all too late understood and has no “resistant strain” to stave its course. Remember what the farmer said of his wayward friends, “the loneliness ate them up in the end.” Neither kindness, nor company, nor security, nor warning can lull Mona to stillness, though ironically in all her travels she never really gets anywhere and in fact collects a loose orbiting family of members unaware of each other’s proximity and relation. A number of those whom she affects, are drawn into passing encounters with one another, like bodies caught in the tail of a comet, drawn to bitter realizations or reflections of themselves. If nothing else then, Mona was a wandering mirror covered by a filthy scrim.
Monday, October 15, 2007
Yes, Anderson uses literal baggage (the three brothers' dead father's luggage) to represent ......baggage. The luggage, split between Jack, Francis, and Peter is the physical representation of how they carry their "emotional baggage," as a mechanism of loss. Anderson pushes past metaphor and into metonym. It is what it is. The baggage of their dead father.
Though it was obvious from the start, Anderson has developed such a characteristic dialect that each film is a landmark in the process of a language, which is great fun for those who view him as a craftsman. Anderson emphatically and confidently engages the medium on all fronts. With DARJEELING, Anderson has made a considerable effort to ensure himself as a filmmaker with longevity. Its a new coctail of familiar elements. Easily one of the funniest films in recent years despite its somber undercurrents, DARJEELING is about a fractured family suddenly together again which compares directly to TENNENBAUMS but Anderson is not as generous or direct with flashbacks and context in his new film. Part of its excellence is how and when we learn things about each character and their relationships....in passing.
THE DARJEELING LIMITED is great step forward for Wes Anderson and also a welcome step backwards. Though still imbued with his usual modes; saturated colors, hand-crafted sets, often centered framing, theatrical timing, arial detail shots - and above all, quirky characters trying to relocate and recapture themselves after great trauma - this film is a new leaner amalgam. THE DARJEELING LIMITED is Anderson’s most mature work, being that it is the result of an instructive and deliberate retrospection. He has extracted the most functional and creative elements of his practice rather than simply carrying on. As was said of Mizoguchi's SANSHO THE BAILIFF (1954) by critic Tadao Sato, "after an artist has delved deeply into his work, he often arrives at his simplest style of expression. In this film (SANSHO), needless drama and imbellishment are eliminated." I think this is true of DARJEELING as well, or at least that it is a notable step in a similar and effective process of distillation by Anderson. This is a film about three people who are rendered vacant by loose ends and questions, not necessarily about who they were and who they will be afterwards. Its simply about the force that finally breaks them from their glazed-over lives so that they can engage all that is happening to them presently. Recall what Jack says of his final short story (which is part of the script for Hotel Chevalier). "It's just an ending, i dont have the beginning yet." DARJEELING is an ending before a beginning. It is merely the fog lifting.
DARJEELING moves at a different meter than his past works, more kinetic in ways (it takes place on a train), and more insular in timeframe and structure. The principal characters, three American brothers (Francis, Jack, and Peter - Owen WIlson, Jason Swartzman, and Adrien Brody) hampered by the death of their father, scarce mother, and destructive emotional patterns, obscurely seek reconnection under the efforts of their eldest (Francis, who is secretly taking everyone to see their estranged mother who is now a nun in rural India) after a year of separation.....on a trip to India no less. They bounce around uneasily in tight spaces in which they still manage to keep secrets (items they comically, compulsively, and connivingly forfeit to one another). Even when they are outside of the train their emotional and geographical exile keeps them in a fixed interaction, therefore the energy of the film comes ironically from its systemic confinement.
It should be said that while the brothers stay in close orbit of one another, their greatest developments occur when they don’t have walls to impact...when something happens beyond their narcisism and scope to which they must measure themselves spontaneously. For Anderson, confinement works for pacing, but openness works for variety and character development, and the two are balanced well.
Anderson curbs his often compulsive quirky flashbacks and exchanges them for fragmented recollections spoken in passing (sometimes written in short stories by Jack), which are linked and flourished in one perfectly placed, lengthy, late flashback (a fantastic piece of filmmaking on its own).
Another measure of maturity in DARJEELING’s rather random but calculated unfolding, is that it isn’t terribly romantic ... romantic in the sense of the characters breaking down to honestly embrace the culture whereby wholly changing themselves. They don't, in fact they fight it for the most part, engaging in inda shallowly and cynically - something they don’t significantly shake. They embrace the quality of the train, passing things by. While to some degree they are each changed, they are much the same in the end, continuing their base neurosis and tendencies, but with a lightness and self-awareness gained. Though all three share a singular impetus of suffering, they grow on their own terms and to the extent that they need, becoming honest and reflexive for the first time in a long time.
Like in all Anderson’s films the characters seek to reclaim vestiges of their former lives and must do so by ultimately letting them go (a quality carried throughout the films passing layers), and never painted so aptly than by the brothers tossing their dead father’s luggage - items they’ve carried with great inconvenience, individually and together, literally and emotionally, from the beginning - in order to catch their last train home. Anderson apparently has the ability to lace an entire film with, and make you relish, an obvious metaphor because it is utterly simlple and perfect, and I'm all the more impressed.
Friday, October 5, 2007
"Exile to Exile: no man who loves is free."
There are films that can ensnare you from their first moments, perhaps by a solemn note, a mood, or a stirring image. ‘INTO THE WILD’ is not one of those films per se, but only because it is so actively about having no roots, something that carries into its entire structure. Even its most resplendant or revealing moments are kept momentary so as to avoid a hampering or irresponsible romanticism (not that its void of it). Chris McCandless, self called Alex Supertramp and sublimely portrayed by Emile Hirsch, is 23 years old and decides to rightly abandon his upper middle class cacoon as part of a "walden-esqu' rebellion after graduating from college. He wanders westward, organically migrating from place to place, never staying too long, and never losing sight of his prevailing goal…"a great Alaskan adventure," despite the beckoning of human relationships wherever he goes. What's important about Alex is that his transience never translates to a ‘non-presence’ but rather an impending impermanence in everything but our observation of him. He has a notable, lasting, and authentic effect on every life he touches and the weight of that impact is emotionally palpable. Jan, the wayward ex-hippie he deeply befriends, says to him with a wounded but loving affection, “Just get your bag and go on. I don’t think I can handle a hug,” as he leaves her company for the last time on his journey north. Perhaps people see in him an old spirit recapturing its boundlessness, and it indeed intoxicates. Its a curious thing that this boy of 23 is the bearer of wisdom and soul to a host of seasoned bodies. He almost makes them seem like children, but by harmless default.
INTO THE WILD is a progressively entrenching story, brilliantly weaving two, forward linear threads that reveal ever more of themselves and each other, leading to an appreciation of the inevitability and necessity of Alex's initial departure (something that endures but also grows as his travels bear fruit). Structure is a key element to the story, but mostly in terms of how we've come to know Alex's exploits historically. In terms of the research done for the book and subsequent film, the first comprehensive information attained was Alex's journal of Alaska, so this is where we begin. For the author, the rest of the process was a hopscotch search for significant people mentioned in Alex's earlier documentation. Like the author and perhaps Alex's meandering memory while in the wild, we periodically jump between threads, appreciating ever more his honesty and aspiration, and the toll it took on his family. As each moment passed to the next, I was swept more swiftly along (too gentle a term), all the while feeling a kind of subtly wrenching impending loss even as Alex was ever present to me, as though in every encounter I took upon myself both Alex’s insatiable drive and the sadness of those scorned by his transience. The sweeping sensation I speak of is less the elegant breed, and more like the scene in which Alex stumbles into the raging Alaskan river that has widened its neck and sharpened its bite since last he crossed, threatening to rush him downstream and cutting him off from any escape. "I am literally trapped in the wild," he writes in his jornal. Its strange, but I was so uniquley moved by the exponential quality of my experience of this film; its nakedness, its naivety, its romanticism, its fairness, its splendor, its simplicity, and its unsparingness, that I can’t really come to criticize it, for if I did, it would be like spitting in the face of one of the most genuine human ambitions…to be free in truth, and to understand that freedom has its own tenacity, for in many ways it grinds against the arch of law and convention that welds our society together. INTO THE WILD, beyond schema and splendor, is an earnest embodiment of Alex's singular drive, and it is utterly convincing and above-board in its manner.
The pertinence and power of Sean Penn's film is helped greatly in terms of timing, for now it would be exceedingly more difficult, if not impossible for Alex to make the affecting journey he did without being arrested, detained, fined, or reprimanded in some way, particularly as a result of most post 9/11 security measures. He serendipitously made his pilgrimage on that all too shallow precipice between the fear bred by the cold war and the fear bred by the war on terror. In a way Alex was fighting his own war during this "peacetime", a primordial war that is both genuine and borrowed (He's never shy about his influences and often quotes Tolstoy and Thoreau to articulate his attitudes. "Jack London is king" he declares once). Alex's is an existential war with tactics ruled by passivity, not inaction mind you. His weapons are books, a rabid intellect, an unfailing sincerity, and the resilient feet that carry him from the exile of loveless privilege and obligation to an exile of self-discovery and broken borders. In that sense, Alex is perched upon yet another precipice between two polarities, one he rejected and one he aspired too (even though both leave him quite alone).
In Indian /Hindu culture reincarnation is a staple belief. It is understood that each incarnation of physical life is a process of learning, suffering, and purification until the individual is ultimately delivered to enlightenment, at which point the soul is free of the exhaustive cylcle. While watching Alex strive in his objections and survive in solemnity, I couldn't help but think of those individuals who choose to live outside of Indian society as posessionless beggars or "untouchables," so that they might suffer or endure enough to be finally released from cyclical captivity in life. Alex sees the looming cage around himself, but has an equal eye for the resplendent beauty beneath and beyond the superstructure, something he's "doesn't mind calling God." What he seeks "rather than love, money, faith, fame, or fairness...is truth." Every step he takes is toward truth, both in the moment and aggregate. At every opportunity, he forfeits his wisdoms (sometimes words forfeited to him by other wise men) in an effort to reduce and relinquish whatever holds him to this world of reason. "If we admit that life can be ruled by reason, then we destroy the possibilities of existence."
Not to divulge too much, but Alex finds his truth, and it is a somber chord struck to the core. Like the tortured composer who plays a sharp note and smiles on its perspective and healing asperity, Alex writes his epiphany in the margins of Doctor Zhivago with a heartbreaking lag and concision and resigns to its finality bathed in cold and light. For this reason, there is nothing of failure in his journey, though "some blunders and absurdities had crept in," for his greatest goal is met with wide open eyes and a smile.