Listening to The Kinks’ “Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround” on the way to work has a way of making one think of The Darjeeling Limited, particularly if, after listening to the album, one listens to “This Time Tomorrow”, “Strangers”, and “Powerman” (in that order). The way that the three songs compose the basic structure of the film is provocative. The “Strangers” sequence is the climactic one, and I realized something about it that I want to “publish” here for my reference. Previous Wes Anderson films are structurally very similar, as pointed out elsewhere. There is a basic community often coupled with a plot to expand or renew itself, a social break, and finally the sought-after renewal. Consistent within that rubric is that the relational conflict occurs between members of the established community.
In Bottle Rocket, you basically have Dignan, Anthony, and Bob vying for inclusion in “The Crew”. Midway through, Bob takes off after Dignan’s insensitivity and Dignan punches and leaves Anthony after Anthony “leaves a $500 tip for the housekeeper.” Rushmore begins with Max attending his beloved school and presiding over innumerable clubs. At the prospect of a tighter group, he and Dirk team up with Harold Bloom and Ms. Cross. Betrayals reign when Max and Bloom wrong Dirk and Ms. Cross along with each other. Tenenbaums has the low point of Royal’s lie revealed, Margot’s other life uncovered, and Richie’s attempted suicide. The break in Life Aquatic is a bit more complex, with Ned’s death, Eleanor abandoning Steve, and the kidnapping of the bond company stooge.
The break in TDL is striking in that it is essentially vicarious. The three brothers get in a fight, have their cobra taken away, and are ejected from the train. The fight is superficial, though. We hear, “I love you!” and, “I love you, too, but I’m gonna mace you in the face!” It seems to serve more as comic relief than real conflict. But after their expulsion, they see three boys trying to cross a river. Francis’ cynical “Look at these assholes” remark is full of irony that the three brothers can’t notice, because they are quickly pulled into a rescue attempt. When one of the boys dies, the film, like no Anderson film before it, is brought to a standstill. The break that takes place is as violent as the death it portrays, and it is threefold.
First, there is the return to the boy’s village and the presentation of the boy’s body to his father. Interestingly, only his father is shown, and that at some length. Second, there is the funeral, with the slow-motion long shot of the brothers traversing across the solemn scene to The Kinks. This is the heart of the break, in all its concentrated glory, and the brothers are together, in every sense. Phase three is even more abrupt of a shift than phase one. As they sit, we are immediately taken back to the backseat of the limousine a year prior to the film’s main story.
At no point in this shift (the single shift comprised by the three above phases) is there a loss of community among the brothers. What they experience is vicarious (the loss of one of the young boys) and memorial (recalling the last time they looked death in the face, when they were also together). This film has the trademark Anderson loss taking place after the funeral of their father but before they meet on the train. In a word, it is never shown to the viewer, for the first time in his films. The vibe I get from it is, it happened, and it led to terrible things, and you don’t want to see it. Francis’ motorcycle accident is not unlike Richie’s attempted suicide, from the sounds of it. When Francis unwraps himself, surrounded by his brothers, they and we can see the effects of the period in between.
The more I watch and think on this film, the more I respect it. I find it interesting that, as I look over course descriptions in various cinema departments in the area, it’s The Life Aquatic that is on the viewing list as an Anderson film. It seems possible that it’s more complex than some of his other stuff, but not better. Hopefully TDL will make it on one of those lists in its stead some time.