August 27, 2015

Wes Anderson’s Lost Spiritual Quest: A Call for Stories of Male Evolution.


“I want us be become brothers again like we used to be and for us to find ourselves and bond with each other. … I want us to make this trip a spiritual journey where each of us seek the unknown, and we learn about it. … I want us to be completely open and say yes to everything, even if it’s shocking and painful. Can we agree to that?” ~ Francis, The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

About a decade ago, acclaimed director Wes Anderson started taking some flak for what critics perceived as repetition of childish content, or content he had imagined in his youth. I didn’t agree with the Hollywood echo chamber at the time, but I also never really got Anderson’s films until “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (2004). Despite being a twentysomething, I related far too much to Bill Murray’s rendition of a man in mid-life crisis.

As I reacquainted myself with Anderson’s back catalogue (and discovered his feature debut, “Bottle Rocket”, from 1996), I started to notice symbols, character types and traits that reappear in a seemingly intentional way: the overachieving kid, the has-been adult, the disgruntled wife, ex-wife, or widow and even the pregnant woman. Then there are the inanimate ones, like jumpsuits on a team of men.

Certain of these have continued in Anderson’s later films—some as central as children living with an adult level of emotional complexity, and some as peripheral as a triangular tent.

But no character type stood out more to me than the contemporary white/Western man in a state of failure, disgrace or disillusionment. Anderson has always portrayed such figures, and the patriarchy that surrounds them, with equally iconic dry humor and visual panache. It has begun to take on a symbolism for the current state of “civilized” white society. In short, something needs to change—and it is, ever so gradually.

This male figure is a planner/problem-solver, yet childish and self-centered (egotistical, narcissistic). He likes his team in uniforms that celebrate his leadership. He craves adventure and excitement to the point that he’s willing to use guns and do something illegal. In some cases he also deals with depression, occasional bouts of suicidal ideation and drug abuse. He’s not entirely sure that life is worthwhile in spite of the inevitable tragedies.

“Bottle Rocket” doesn’t show much development of this persona. The message is more like: “Love him or hate him, that’s how he’s going to be.” But “Rushmore” (1998), “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001) and “The Life Aquatic” do demonstrate an element of personal evolution. The male in question—whether a teenager or a senior—grows up at least a little bit. He becomes more considerate. He stops repressing his emotions and actually feels them. He overcomes his disillusionment and regains a zest for life.

These changes all indicate productive self-development. To me, any kind of self-development has a spiritual aspect, just as any spiritual practice inherently promises some self-development. But the one Anderson film that takes an overtly spiritual angle is “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007).

Francis orchestrates what he calls a “spiritual journey” for himself and his two younger brothers through rural India. He schedules visits to shrines and other religious spots, and prepares a ceremony for them to complete. He has called them together a year after their father passed away, and it’s clear they’re all still in mourning—or maybe they haven’t even truly started grieving yet. They’re still carrying their father’s heavy baggage, both literally and symbolically.

“Darjeeling” is one of Anderson’s least regarded films, and it does have a frustrating stop-and-go aspect in the second half. But it beautifully contrasts white American and Hindu/Indian cultures. The brothers arrive in shambles, one in bandages, two with relationship problems, all mixing narcotics and alcohol and then fighting with each other. The tension (self-grasping, an Eastern philosopher might say) builds until their train humorously gets lost. Diverted from the cherished plan, this is where the real journey begins.

Most notably, they find themselves part of a genuine funeral process—one of the most sacred moments in any of Anderson’s films. The tension melts. They are totally present and alive. The brothers get their “spiritual” experience by releasing their expectations for what it should look like.

From “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009) onward, the storytelling becomes more cartoony, and the characters more like caricatures. Both that film and “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012) have some redeeming qualities (Mr. Fox does undergo some of development). But Anderson’s latest, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014), feels like merely a dark action shoot-em-up with less depth or heart than many actual cartoons. While Anderson’s earlier films invariably contained tragic events, Grand Budapest somehow feels the least hopeful.

For a while I thought the loss of a spiritual progression might have had something to do with who wrote the stories. While Owen Wilson hasn’t contributed to the writing since Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson does continue to collaborate in that department. Either Anderson has abandoned his own spiritual quest, or he never actually had one to begin with.

I feel so disheartened about this because, first of all, Anderson is one of the most influential filmmakers of my lifetime—and secondly, because the world desperately needs stories about old-paradigm white men finding their way into a new, more sustainable paradigm of living. Even “The Simpsons Movie” (2007) got this dead-on, with Homer’s shaman-inspired epiphany that other people matter just as much as he does.

These kinds of stories set the bar for what’s possible in the minds of millions of people. I realize they’re not the only thing that makes a difference in changing minds (and by offering vicarious experience, they can even prevent actual evolution).

But as for what influence is possible in film, Anderson’s innate ability to portray the raw nuts-and-bolts of contemporary existence makes him particularly apt for the job. Although, perhaps his train has not yet gotten divinely lost.


Author: Nick Meador

Editor: Evan Yerburgh

Image: Flickr

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