Jack: "I wonder if the three of us would've been friends in real life. Not as brothers, but as people." Brotherhood is the focus of Wes Anderson's beautiful fifth film, The Darjeeling Limited. I'm a gigantic fan of the works of Wes Anderson, and I'm glad I saw this one five days before the end of 2007 so I could confidently declare it one of my favorites of the year. It's the tale of three brothers who come together a year after their father's funeral for a "spiritual quest" led by the quixotic Francis (Owen Wilson) on a train ride in India. Lothario Jack (Jason Schwartzman) and nervous Peter (Adrien Brody) join Francis for a wild ride through their own hopes and fears in India's hinterlands.
The Darjeeling Limited is like Anderson's other movies -- you'll either find it a bit fussy and mannered, or you'll fall for its whimsy whole-heartedly. I think it's up there with his best work (although I pretty much consider all his work near his best, especially the underrated The Life Aquatic). Every one of Anderson's major films -- Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic -- focus on the notion of family and grief being intertwining vines, of the bubbling traumas that link in family interactions. This is an utterly inexhaustible subject, of course, and Anderson has mined it well. But he also adds his kind of precious and finicky storybook sensibility to it all, investing a ton of energy in the environments, stylizing every gesture and moment. Judging from The Royal Tenenbaums DVD, Anderson spends a lot of time thinking about things like the wallpaper on sets. The Darjeeling Limited is his first movie to take place entirely in another country, and visually, it's a colorful dazzle.
First off, you simply have to watch Darjeeling in tandem with the short film Hotel Chevalier, a prologue to the events of the film. (Apparently in the US Darjeeling actually played in theaters without Hotel Chevalier, kind of like lopping off the first 10 minutes of the movie.) Chevalier is a very European, brooding and enigmatic opening act that focuses on Jack Whitman and his estranged girlfriend (a luminous and battered Natalie Portman). It's a brief scene but it kind of sets up the themes of the film – trying to leave the past behind, but trapped in its waves.
Francis: "I want us to become brothers again -- and to become enlightened."
Watching Darjeeling on the big screen, I kept catching the loving details Anderson added to the setting. His movies are about setting as much as they are about character, a meticulousness you don't tend to see often in modern movies. I've never been to India and don't know how much of Darjeeling's kitschy design is merely Anderson's fantasy verison of India, but either way it's a beautiful evocation of a place. The Darjeeling Limited train, with its endless filigrees, religious icons and colorful characters (an angry manager, a sexy stewardess), is one of the great film train settings.
Owen Wilson is an actor who often cruises along amiably playing the same indignant, good-natured clown but Anderson's movies bring out his best instincts. He's great here, a control freak who's impotent, battered in a mysterious accident and covered with bandages for most of the movie (it's a shame the real-life problems in Wilson's life have overshadowed what I'd call one of his best roles). Schwartzman returns to the Anderson fold for the first time since Rushmore with a great turn as Jack, a would-be writer, barefoot and mustached, a ladies' man despite his short, vaguely porn-star appearance. Oscar winner Brody is perhaps the most mysterious of the brothers, Peter, who's run away from fatherhood to India. In cameos you'll find familiar Anderson repertory players like Bill Murray and Angelica Huston, but the three brothers carry most of the movie and their jocular surly bonding propels it. I'd say this is the funniest of Anderson's films despite the undercurrent of tragedy which swims to the fore in the final acts.
There's a warmth to The Darjeeling Limited and its battling brothers that is nearly the equal of The Royal Tenenbaums, and in some ways it feels like Anderson's trying to wrap up his big themes of screwed-up relationships and forgiveness. He's at the point in his career where he could either begin repeating himself with diminishing results or start heading off on new paths. There's a lot of old Anderson in here, but enough hints of a new perspective that I feel like this train ride is a step forward. Either way, I get enough pleasure out of his flicks that I'm along for whatever journey Wes heads out on.
Peter: "I love the way this country smells. I'll never forget it. It's kind of spicy."
I know, CDs, how old-fashioned am I? But while I do download music, I can't quite give up the tactile pleasures of owning an actual CD. Auckland's awesome Real Groovy Records is one of my favorite haunts, a place a record-store geek can while away hours digging through the bargain bins. Here's the tunes that perked me up this year nearly gone by:
1. LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver - Irony turns into something a bit deeper in James Murphy's fantastic second album as "dance-punk" act LCD Soundsystem. Catchy electronic beats marry to smooth, dry songwriting. The goofy satire of his earlier work is here with "North American Scum," but an elegant wistful beauty comes to light too with the superb "All My Friends." An aging hipster's lament that it can't all stay the same as it ever was, and the disc from 2007 I played more times this year than any other. (Full review here.)
2. Ryan Adams, Easy Tiger - Ryan Adams is so prolific that it's often hard to appreciate his output, but even his throwaways will stick in your brain. But with "Easy Tiger" he's put out his most polished disc since "Gold." The soulful country troubadour crossed with a burned-out junkie's passion matures into a fine crafter of songs with gentle gems like "Two" and "Goodnight Rose." He's like watching a young Neil Young and marveling at all the songs that might come out in the future.
3. Neil Young, Chrome Dreams II - Speaking of Neil, here's a surprisingly lovely and eclectic set by one of the greats, considering it's a "grab bag" of miscellany including one epic that dates back nearly 20 years, the sprawling 18-minute "Ordinary People," one of the best songs of this or any year. It's packed in with a varied but overall very good set of Neil songs that try out everything from garage-rock to sentimental ballads, like a greatest hits that never was.
4. Of Montreal, Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? - Early Bowie and T Rex in an electronica blender, with a dash of Pavement. A strangely fey and dazzling disco-pop album about the rise and fall of one man's soul, with the smashingly intense, 11-minute long "The Past Is A Grotesque Animal," the beating heart at the middle of it all. Like the sound of a nervous breakdown with a beat you can dance to. (Full review here.)
5. Arcade Fire, Neon Bible - Their 2004 debut "Funeral" got a lot of ink, but this dense and melodramatic follow-up is just as good I think. Few bands can pull off the over-the-top rock 'n' roll savior thing they're going for, but tracks like "Black Mirror" and "No Cars Go" make it happen. A towering noise that casts a glittering spell. I get to see them live next month at Auckland's Big Day Out, can't wait!
6. I'm Not There original soundtrack - Tribute albums never quite work, but somehow, this two-disc ode to Bob Dylan is a marvel, with artists from Cat Power to Wilco to Antony and the Johnsons putting their spin on Dylan's legacy – props to them not going for the obvious songs and pulling some rarities out for a go. More than 30 songs and most of them put a fine spin on Dylan's world. Bonus points for the mesmerizing 1967 Dylan and the Band tune "I'm Not There," finally getting an official release from the Basement Tapes. (Full review here.)
7. White Stripes, Icky Thump - The most consistently eccentric band that sells top 10 albums, and another gem-packed ramble through Jack and Meg's closets. The Mexican wrestling theme "Conquest," the fuzzed-out "Icky Thump," the charming ditty "Rag and Bone" - it's all kinda sloppy and silly, and that's its charm. Keep on doing what you're doing, guys. Maybe less bagpipes less time, though.
8. The National, The Boxer - This one snuck up on me, a dour, moody suite of rock anthems that reveal themselves on repeated listens to be miniature masterpieces of tone and longing. Brooding bartione voice, fantastic drumming and songs that build in power. Perfect for a 3 a.m. post-nightlife chill-out. Or spiral into despair, whatever floats your boat. (Full review here.)
9. The Stooges, The Weirdness - Men in their sixties trying to pretend they're still punk, this comeback should've bombed (and a lot of people did hate it), but heck, I found this pure dumb rock fun at its clearest – music that's disorderly, inelegant and crude, with a slight wink to it. Not The Stooges of 1969, and really, how could it be, but an amusing revival. (Full review here.)
10. Wilco, Sky Blue Sky - A retreat from the dazed psychedelia of their last discs into mellow country pop, it's a "taking stock" album but still a welcome back porch singalong, Jeff Tweedy sounding relaxed and at peace and he can't help but spread that vibe a little bit. Better than I thought on the first few listens.
Honorable mention: The latest by New Pornographers, Björk, Foo Fighters, The Shins, and Iron and Wine are all good stuff. Best live shows: The New York Dolls were terrific fun and so loud I think they broke my ears, and Bob Dylan was a living legend in fine form, but despite my qualms about the staging, I have to admit my trip to see Ryan Adams in August is the show I remember the best of 2007 – outstanding solos, riveting vocals and a passion that while occasionally misguided (really, couldn't they turn up the lights a bit?), it worked in the end and the songs certainly stuck with me.
...A quick post to verify that we have indeed moved and we are alive. The shortest move we've done in years (across town, as opposed to 6,000 miles, 500 miles and 2,000 miles among moves I've done in the last decade) but still hard work and sweaty. Moving would be so much easier if I was illiterate (less books to move).
And yet here we are in our very own house that we actually really own for the first time ever and it's pretty darn cool. Peter even got to put our (borrowed) Christmas tree up! We still need about a million things from a coffee table to dish soap but it'll come. Our garage stinks of elderly Newfoundland from the last tenants and it's suddenly turned extremely hot as NZ cascades into summer. But we are well.
Thanks kindly for everyone chipping in on the last post to say they like the blogging. I'm looking a bit of a tweak and rethink in the coming weeks to better fit the blog into the "life" so to speak and allow me to post more frequently and with more to say. In any event, thanks for reading and now I have to go hammer something into a wall somewhere.
...Egad, I know, it's been almost a month. An utterly insane month -- packed with a wonderful, very busy 2 1/2-week visit by my parents, and a lot of stressing about the new house -- which we're moving into this weekend! Ackthpp! We're settling earlier than we thought (at first it looked like early January), and so there's been an orgy of packing, furniture-buying to replace all the stuff we sold in Oregon over a year-and-a-half ago now, and learning about utilities, home repairs, etc. Oh, and working a very busy job.
Anyway. I've been mulling over the future of this here blog a lot too in the past few weeks, trying to decide if I want to continue it in 2008. It's been a tremendous amount of fun for me for nearly four years now, but lately it's felt harder and harder to find the time and inspiration. I've been wavering between "call it a day" and "take a break" and "dive into it with new inspiration". One of my problems is that my posts always turn out longer than I think, so maybe I need to just do shorter, more frequent posts. Or maybe I should step back and concentrate on paying writing efforts in my so-called free time.
I've also kind of become "that guy" who looks a lot at his hit statistics and comments and wonders who he's writing for and so forth, if anyone's reading, etc., which isn't any way to really run a blog if you're just doing it for fun. So perhaps I'll just throw this rambling ramble open to the floor and ask – should I keep the Spatula Forum going in 2008? What say you, humble readers?