soft-core cinematic art

belle captive banner

I waited a long time to see one of the difficult-to-find films directed by French author-filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet, so I was excited to finally watch La belle captive, the 1983 film adaptation of his own novel by the same name.  A fusion of Robbe-Grillet’s groundbreaking nouveau roman narrative techniques and René Magritte’s paintings (the original novel is illustrated with some 77 paintings by the surrealist master), Robbe-Grillet the director is obviously attempting a visual tone drawn directly from the famed Belgian surrealist―enigmatic, haunting, and vaguely, indefinably disturbing―but unfortunately ends up with a rather silly concoction of metaphysical pronouncements and rather insubstantially airy concoction of archetypal images and figures.  One can sense a desire to tap into a mythic quality in the film’s vampiric ghosts, fetish figures, detective film overtones, erotic interludes, and invocations of sadism, but it all plays like an outlandishly “arty” (and now amusingly dated) Emmanuelle film, almost evoking a soft-core porn parody of Last Year at Marienbad, whose Oscar-nominated screenplay remains Robbe-Grillet’s most enduring and well known cinematic achievement.

That’s not to say that La belle captive is completely without merit.  Considering the character she plays–some kind of mysterious combination of angel, ghost and vampire–the lovely Gabrielle Lazure makes the most of a figure that functions as little more than a male erotic fantasy; leather-clad, motorcycle-riding Cyrielle Clair cuts a striking figure, but is given even less to do than Lazure, and becomes little more than an object of fetishization. belle-captiveThe film’s closed off, artificial atmosphere does manage to conjure up a sense of languid, erotically overheated hypnosis and is the film’s primarily source of merit, though the dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream structure eventually become oppressive.  When it comes down to it, I found a lot of words and color and images but very little of the poetry I expected.  A disappointment, though I remain intrigued by Robbe-Grillet’s overall aesthetic project, and remain eager to further explore this iconoclastic figure’s work.

worrisome, weird feelings

Dracula’s Daughter (Lambert Hillyer, USA, 1936) is usually cited as an early—albeit heavily coded—depiction of lesbianism in American cinema, and the striking, rather handsome Gloria Holden’s vampiric seduction of the tremulous Nan Grey certainly has a certain sexual charge and narrative prominence that is matched by nothing else in the film.  As if to underline the point, the tagline of the film, emblazoned across all original posters for the film, provocatively screams “she gives you that WEIRD FEELING” while others promise that “she’s more sensational than her unforgettable father!”

And in a sense, I agree.  As I’ve written elsewhere, one of my main critiques of the Dracula mythology, first in Bram Stoker’s infamous novel and then the film variations that followed, is that it becomes a point of closure for the rich homoerotic undertones that had imbued earlier vampire lore (I’m thinking in particular of the lesbianism of Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla and, even earlier, Polidori’s undoubtedly queer The Vampyre).  What Stoker instituted instead, as I wrote, “establish[ed] precedents that are comparatively dull in their clean, unambiguous delineations (undead=evil, strict heterosexuality, etc).”  As such, Dracula’s Daughter serves a step away from Stoker and back towards the sexually ambiguous possibilities hinted out by le Fanu and others.  At least in theory.

But whether or not one cares to interpret it as a cinematic site of coded lesbian desire, it’s unfortunately just about the only thing to recommend the film—the rest of the narrative is rather tired and lackluster (and clocking in at barely 70 minutes, still manages to be feel both padded and extremely rushed).  Opportunities for moments of genuine eeriness and fright appear frequently but are generally squandered.  Frankly, the film doesn’t deserve Holden, whose patrician presence allows her to kind of cut through the rest of the film like some kind of knife, imperiously slicing through the bumbling stock characters and rote plot points surrounding her.

[These and many more striking poster images for this film can be found here.]

the pages of noir: a list for the noir reader

The Pages of Noir: The Novels that Became Film Noir

Big Sleep Vintage Book Cover  In a Lonely Place Vintage Book Cover  Nightmare Alley Vintage Book Cover

After several conversations with a friend about film noir and the various literary texts that helped inspire and then quickly developed a symbiotic relationship with the cinematic style that retrospectively became recognized as noir, I started compiling a list of novels (as well as a few short stories, theatrical plays, and the occasional radio play) that was adapted for the screen by Hollywood during the noir heyday of the 1940’s and 50’s.  It was initially for my own reference, but thought others might be interested as well.

This list, I’m well aware, is far from exhaustive, especially as I have intentionally decided to focus on literary texts that are still potentially available to a reader today (so, a printing within the last 30 years or so).  The vast majority of noirs germinated from some kind of literary antecedent, but many seem to have vanished upon their initial printings, and now the films they inspired often serve as the only continued testament to their existence.  Additionally, in the past decades the renewed interest in both film noir and the hard-boiled detective, urban mystery and pulp genres have led to the publication of a number of anthologies collecting long-unavailable short stories, and those stories are at present very much underrepresented on this list, and will hopefully be added sometime at a future date.

Also, purists will undoubtedly spot many dubious inclusions on this list, ranging from non-American films to films made before or after the historical period recognized as producing pure film noir, and the only defense I can offer is that I chose to embrace the fuzzy, impossible-to-define nature of the term “film noir” and opted to include the occasional precedents and several successors of note that might be of reading interest (without delving into neo-noir, which I felt would quickly take me too far afield).  Tips and suggestions of titles to add, editions and republications I should be aware of, etc. would be very much appreciated.

And most importantly, happy reading!

The Pages of Noir: The List

A Gun for Sale by Graham Greene – This Gun for Hire (1942, Tuttle)

The Asphalt Jungle by W.R. Burnett – The Asphalt Jungle (1950, Houston)

The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing – The Big Clock (1948, Farrow)

The Big Heat by William P. McGivern – The Big Heat (1953, Lang)

The Big Knife (play) by Clifford Odets – The Big Knife (1955, Aldrich)

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler – The Big Sleep (1946, Hawks)

Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich – The Leopard Man (1943, Tourneur)

The Black Angel by Cornell Woolrich – The Black Angel (1946, Neill)

The Black Path of Fear by Cornell Woorich – The Chase (1946, Ripley)

The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding – The Reckless Moment (1949, Lang) (later adapted into The Deep End (2001, McGehee and Siegel))

Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes – Out of the Past (1947, Tourneur)

Bunny Lake is Missing by Evelyn Piper – Bunny Lake is Missing (1965, Preminger)

La Chienne (Poor Sap or The Bitch) by Georges de La Fouchardière – La Chienne (1931, France, Renoir) and Scarlet Street (1945, Lang)

Christmas Holiday by W. Somerset Maugham – Christmas Holiday (1944, Siodmak)

Clean Break by Lionel White – The Killing (1956, Kubrick)

Criss-Cross by Don Tracy – Criss Cross (1949, Siodmak)

Dark Passage by David Goodis – Dark Passage (1947, Daves)

Deadline at Dawn by Cornell Woolrich – Deadline at Dawn (1946, Clurman)

Detective Story (theatrical play) by Sidney Kingsley – Detective Story (1951, Wyler)

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain – Double Indemnity (1944, Wilder)

The High Window by Raymond Chandler – Time to Kill (Leeds, 1942) and The Brasher Doubloon, (1947, Brahm)

The Fallen Sparrow by Dorothy B. Hughes – The Fallen Sparrow (1943, Wallace)

Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler – Murder, My Sweet (1944, Dmytryk)

The G-String Murders by Gypsy Rose Lee – Lady of Burlesque (1943, Wellman)

The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett – The Glass Key (1935, Tuttle) and The Glass Key (1942, Heisler)

I, the Jury by Mickey Spillane – I, the Jury (1953, Essex)

I Wake Up Screaming by Steve Fisher – I Wake Up Screaming (1941, Humberstone)

If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King – The Lady from Shanghai (1947, Welles)

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes – In a Lonely Place (1950, Ray)

The Killers and Other Short Stories. by Ernest Hemingway – The Killers (1946, Siodmak)

Kiss Me, Deadly by Mickey Spillane – Kiss Me Deadly (1955, Aldrich)

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye by Horace McCoy – Kiss Tomorrow Goodybe (1950, Douglas)

Knock on Any Door by Willard Motley – Knock on Any Door (1949, Ray)

The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler – Lady in the Lake (1947, Montgomery)

Laura by Vera Caspary – Laura (1944, Preminger)

Leave Her to Heaven by Ben Ames Williams – Leave Her to Heaven (1945, Stahl)

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett – The Maltese Falcon (1931, Del Ruth) and Satan Met a Lady (1936, Dieterle) and The Maltese Falcon (1941, Houston)

Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain – Mildred Pierce (1945, Curtiz)

Night and the City by Gerald Kersh – Night and the City (1950, Dassin)

Night Has a Thousand Eyes: a novel of suspense by Cornell Woolrich – Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948, Farrow)

The Night of The Hunter by Davis Grubb – The Night of the Hunter (1955, Laughton)

Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham – Nightmare Alley (1947, Goulding)

Phantom Lady by Cornell Woolrich (as William Irish) – Phantom Lady (1944, Siodmak)

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain – Ossessione (1943, Italy, Visconti) The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946, Garnett)

Rear Window (originally “It Had to be Murder”) by Cornell Woolrich – The Window (1949, Tetzlaff) and Rear Window (1954, Hitchcock)

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett – Roadhouse Nights (1930, Henley)

Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes – Ride the Pink Horse (1947, Montgomery)

Serenade by James M. Cain – Serenade (1956, Mann)

Sorry, Wrong Number by Lucille Fletcher – Sorry, Wrong Number (1948, Litvak)

The Spiral Staircase: Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White – The Spiral Staircase (1945, Siodmak)

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith – Strangers on a Train (1951, Hitchcock)

Sweet Smell of Success (play) by Clifford Odets – Sweet Smell of Success (1957, Mackendrick)

They Drive by Night by A.I. Bezzerides – They Drive By Night (1940, Walsh)

Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson – They Live By Night (1949, Ray)

Thieves’ Market by A.I. Bezzerides – Thieves’ Highway (1949, Dassin)

The Woman in the Window (originally Once Off Guard) by J.H. Wallis – The Woman in the Window (1944, Lang)

Woman in the Window Vintage Book Add

Cross-posted at Goodreads

Read So Far:

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (review)
The High Window by Raymond Chandler (review)
The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

marilyn monroe (finally) speaks for herself

Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters by Marilyn Monroe
Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment, eds.

To be honest, I had never noticed how prominently books feature in Marilyn Monroe iconography, but now that it’s been pointed out, it’s almost impossible to miss.

Apparently, this was no accident, for as Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment ask in their introduction to this volume, do we know of any other actresses from the period who “sometimes took pains to be photographed reading or holding a book?”  And this wasn’t merely a ploy to counter a fast-crystalizing reputation as an airhead, a dumb blonde, a beautiful face with nothing substantial behind it.  As Buchtal and Comment note, Monroe was “passionately fond of literature.”

And what did she read?  Oh, just UlyssesSwann’s Way.  Carl Sandburg’s six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln.  The personal library she left behind included titles by Milton, Flaubert, Dreiser, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Ellison, Beckett. Never graduating from high school and embarrassed of the fact, as a blossoming starlet she began taking night classes at UCLA in literature and art history (attested to in detailed notes on Italian Renaissance art included in this volume).  She cultivated friendships with Sandburg, Edith Sitwell, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, to say nothing of her famous marriage to one of America’s foremost playwrights which would certainly have exposed her to the mid-century intelligentsia and literati.

In the decades since her death, it has become widely accepted to think of “Marilyn Monroe” in terms of a binary: Marilyn Monroe/Norma Jeane Baker.  The luscious blonde sex goddess/the emotionally and mentally fragile woman behind the glamour and wide smile and come-hither gaze.  But with this collection, bringing together a recently unearthed assortment of journals, notes and letters, upsets that binary.  Certainly not the Marilyn of the silver screen, not quite the tragic, victimized off-screen Norma Jeane, a complex woman instead emerges: one who certainly was beautiful, glamorous, and sexy, one who was also emotionally scarred from a traumatic childhood, but one who was also curious and creative and introspective and literary.  A woman who actively pursued a creative and artistic life.  A woman who was by no means “just a dumb blonde.”

It’s not that I read every line of this book; in fact, after a while I read very little, instead opting to look at the carefully reproduced pages, studying the erratic handwriting, scattershot layout and curious spelling mistakes (Marilyn probably had some form of dyslexia).  It’s not that the poetry is good, and is probably of interest mostly to those willing to dutifully scour it for clues to her psyche and psychological makeup (I am definitely not one of those people).  To be honest, most of this is the type of scrawling that should be read by nobody but its creator; coming from different circumstances, this is not stuff that would be fit to publish.  But, of course, legends and icons are a different situation altogether.

Because really the quality, even the content itself is beside the point: this is Marilyn/Norma Jeane in her own words, speaking for herself.  And it’s been a long time coming.


Mine-Haha or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls by Frank Wedekind

Even just a cursory glance over various analyses of Wedekind’s short novella shows that interpretations tend to be just as conflicted and baffled as my own.  Because, well, this text is just weird.  Really, really weird.

The story, revolving around an unorthodox boarding school young girls become mysteriously initiated into, places each girl into a hierarchical “family” of seven other girls, and over the next seven years rigorously trains them in ballet and to play instruments.  By their sixth and seventh years, the girls, teetering on the edge of puberty, are then employed by the school to perform in elaborate nightly performances to help finance the institution, and judging from both Wedekind’s detailed descriptions of the performances as well as the vocal reactions of the audience, the plays are selected for their “tastefully” lascivious plotlines and elements.  The girls, unable to comprehend the double entendre of the actions they are performing, are then ushered out of the school once the menstruation process is about to begin.

If this sounds like boarding school erotica–if not actual pornography–countless descriptions and actions, often presented as asides, do little to dispel such a charge (i.e. “if you missed even a small step, you felt the cane on your legs, a sensation that trickled up to the back of your neck.  Gertrud always smiled when she beat us”).  Or such scenes of swimming in the stream, with “hundreds of girls… undressing ready to sunbathe” (they swim naked, of course), or the narrator’s remembrance of her role as one of the peasant girls in her first performance, in which she remembers that they “had nothing to do but lie on the steps and display [their] naked upper bodies and calves.”  Umm, yeah.  Creepy.

But just when one has pretty much written off Mine-Haha as esoteric smut (albeit beautifully written, extremely fascinating smut), Wedekind switches gears, and suddenly giving the entire story a liberal, even feminist slant: the description of the performance features prominently its main female dancer trapped in a cage, railing against the injustice of her situation, and it retrospectively echos a brief moment earlier in the narrative when the narrator and several other girls stand at the large, barred iron front gate of their school in which they note the “heavy bolt” that prevents their access to the mysterious world beyond.  While nothing is ever explicitly stated, it is clear, however, that more is involved now than an elaborate fantasy.

This squares with Wedekind’s reputation, then, as one of the most vehement and articulate critics of European bourgeois culture in late 19th century, particularly in regards to its repressive stance in regards to sex and sexuality (one of the reasons why Spring Awakening still seems so audacious and modern, capturing such a huge American audience over the last few years).  And so that becomes the pièce de résistance of weirdness—suddenly what has seemed so queasily porno-ish is now being positioned as a progressive, utopian social vision.  It’s an odd dynamic that the novella is never able to resolve (though really, Wedekind might not even have realized it was something that needed to be resolved), and that’s what created such a conflicted, unmoored reaction in me.

Which brings me to why I even read this in the first place.  As it turns out, several years ago a French film director took the contradictions and ambiguities of Mine-Haha and transformed them into a masterful film.  Among other things, in Innocence (2004), Lucile Hadzihalilovic completely reworked this material, positioning it as a dreamy, evocative metaphor for female sexual maturation, though she is careful to retain many of the ambiguities and complications that marks Wedekind’s novella, leaving them eerily unresolved as well (which caused its own minor controversy when the film was released).  As such, placing literary and cinematic texts next to each other creates a fascinating dialogue, their uneasy reflection in each other resolving some issues and questions but opening up even more.

Which, it must be admitted, is exactly as I was hoping for, as I’m writing on this topic for my thesis, and I was hoping to use this novella and adaptation as a key example.  And now I can.

Review Cross-posted at Goodreads

parisian escapades

Dans Paris (France, 2006), Christophe Honoré’s loose, Nouvelle Vague-inspired riff on J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey was my most anticipated film of 2007—and the powers that be sure made me wait long enough to finally see it (an almost nonexistent theatrical release, then a delayed DVD release, etc, etc).  Happily, it didn’t disappoint despite my ceaselessly growing anticipation; indeed, far from it: in many ways it’s much more than I dared let myself hope for.

Split into two very distinct but intertwined storylines embodied by two brothers, we have Roman Duris as a transformed “Franny,” heart-sick and pitifully bundled up in his private, somewhat silly miseries, and Louis Garrel as “Zooey,” irresistibly, almost obnoxiously gregarious, prone to spouting ill-timed but well-meaning insight and advice.  Like in Salinger’s story, intricate family dynamics drive the film, as does the interplay within the cramped familial apartment, a much lived-in space perpetually echoing with memories and the ghosts of the past that hover in forgotten corners.  Perhaps it was because I was just starting Bachelard’s seminal The Poetics of Space when I watched this film that I was particularly attuned to the matter, but I can’t think of another film that comes near to Honoré’s precise depiction of how people act and interact within their most intimate spaces—particularly their homes—unashamedly lounging about in various states of undress, blissfully unaware of how any “objective analysis” would quickly reveal the ridiculousness of the little soap operas that unfold behind closed doors and drawn curtains.  It’s rather miraculous to behold, in a low-key way.

But Honoré never allows the proceedings to get too insular—something which could be considered both the strength and the weakness of Salinger’s novella—using Garrel’s youthful antics (cue Demy) out and about in Paris (cue Band of Outsiders) to counterbalance the dark pathos of Duris’s emotional breakdown.  A lovely film which seems so slight and ephemeral at first glance but which I have a haunch might be an impressive, perhaps even  a legitimately important achievement.

endless returns

One of my great pleasures is introducing Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, USA, 2004) to unsuspecting individuals… I always worry that its extreme talkiness will bore, but it has always worked its magic and everyone I’ve yet shared it with has been enchanted.  This time around was no different.  I’ve reached the point now where I can anticipate every sequence, even every word as it unfolds—and while the film never changes I certainly do, and I look forward to what my reaction each time around will be, as the film doesn’t necessarily reveal new nuances upon each revisit, but instead triggers unexpected revelations in myself.  I’ve just finished Jonathan Rosenbaum’s autobiography Moving Places: A Life at the Movies where he uses the (justly?) forgotten Doris Day vehicle On Moonlight Bay as a springboard for extended Proustian reveries… Before Sunset functions for me much the same way.  Still the greatest film I’ve ever seen, or the most special one (if there’s any difference between the two at all).

not-so-sentimental education

In his thoughts on the documentary For the Bible Tells Me So a few months back, my friend Lin made a comment about the infamous Anita Byrant pie-in-the-face incident that forced me to confront my ignorance of gay history—I had no idea who she was! It subsequently became one of my New Years resolutions was to educate myself on the subject, if only because it has long been my vague impression that the lamentation from some quarters that the homosexual community is no longer politically engaged can be primarily attributed to (and I’m pointing a finger squarely at myself) here) not possessing even a passing awareness of our history. And as one not content with indulging in such willful ignorance, I started off by reading:

Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilizations is an illuminating survey from the farthest reaches of human civilization through the Enlightenment, and while obviously an impossibility, while reading it Crompton’s book it certainly seems to be an exhaustive analysis of the subject. As such, there is so much that could be expounded on in great length, but instead I’ll stick to a few sadly scattered thoughts:

—I went into the book with a few general tidbits gleaned from elsewhere about the general acceptance of homosexuality in ancient Greece as well as their penchant for pederastic relationships, but what I wasn’t expecting was the sheer wealth of information that has survived from ancient times regarding male/male relationships (unfortunately, except for Sappho, information on lesbians is almost nil). As almost all of it comes through the surviving art, in a lot of ways the book comes off as a general survey of the era’s literature as most of the major players (and many, many more minor ones) of the period are in some way included. I used that I used it as an excuse to justify not reading something specifically GRE-approved in my preparation of said test.

—Not that I thought the Middle Ages was a garden party for anyone involved, but I honestly wasn’t expecting the overwhelming intensity of the rising Christian church’s demonization of homosexuals over the course of several hundred years. Any natural disaster was the cause of rounding up homosexuals for public burning in an attempt to convince God that said area was not the modern equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah (whose development as a potent, effective symbol of decadent, shameful homosexuality is analyzed in length in the chapter Crompton devotes to ancient Hebraic culture), and the degree and widespread intensity of torture is head-spinning (gruesome public castration—which you weren’t expected to survive—was the most common prelude to burning, to the delight of thousands). But even more disheartening than the gleeful hate of the masses is the downright loathing espoused in book after book, pamphlet after pamphlet, sermon after sermon by the philosophers, theologians, preachers and priests of the time. I know it’s become commonplace in academic circles to move away from the term “Dark Ages” in describing this particular time in history—but for homosexuals, it’s still the most apt label imaginable.

—One of the most valuable elements of Homosexuality and Civilization is the chapters on ancient Asia—and not just because it provided a much-needed break from the atrocities of Medieval Europe. Spending time with ancient China and Japan we encounter literally a completely different world occurring simultaneously with the Middle Ages in Europe, for with the exception of cycles of particularly fervent following of Confucian philosophy, homosexuality was generally an issue that was at least tolerated, and at some times and places, actively embraced. And for those of us whose major source of information on samurai life is through the films of Kurosawa, how surprising it is to find that a pederastic system startlingly similar to that of ancient Greece was a rather basic element of samurai culture! In the rich history of both the Chinese royal and education systems as well as Japanese theater Crompton discovers much to explore—and what’s all the more amazing is that Crompton admits he’s only touched the tip of the iceberg as much still remains untranslated (and therefore unavailable) to Western scholarship.

—The chapters on the European royal courts and its many sexually dubious monarchs are great fun to read as the “enlightened” noble classes viewed homosexuality (of both sexes) to be almost commonplace among the elite of the population, and therefore discussed it frankly in their private with a great deal of wit (I laughed out loud during several passages). And the book ends with the inspiring writings of British reformer Jeremy Bentham whose progressive ideas on equality remain stunningly progressive even for a so-called “enlightened” society as modern day America.

I can’t remember the last time I got so quickly through a 500 page book. And aside from the sheer amount of information he provides, what makes the book so endlessly fascinating is the nuance Crompton allows in his approach—he rarely can be accused of resorting to generalizations (and in the cases he can it’s very clearly the result of space constraints) and he has a very keen sense of the variation caused by such factors as location, socio-economic status and gender. There’s also an admirable fairness in Crompton’s approach—even while dealing with worst atrocities at the hands of so-called Christians he also makes clear in his conclusion that the religion cannot be completely condemned out of hand. And, of course, it helps that he’s an engaging wordsmith and a remarkably fluid writer, something that’s not always a given when approaching academic texts. A book of tremendous value—and as should be obvious, one the deserves to be widely read.

“dad’s bags aren’t gonna make it”

Just a few moments into The Darjeeling Limited (2007) and it all made sense to me—at some point someone is going to bundle up all of Wes Anderson’s films into a stylish box set, and the resulting collection is going to be the cinematic equivalent of reading J.D. Salinger’s 9 Stories. For better or worse, it seems pretty clear that like the elusive author, Anderson has settled upon carefully attending to a little universe he has created, one comprised of a very select group of actors playing variations of essentially the same characters in what are essentially variations of the same stories. And just like I happen to like Salinger, I happen to like Anderson’s whimsical little tales for what they are, all the while acknowledging that what I’m witnessing is essentially a limited, extremely insular worldview.  But that’s very much the pleasure of it as well.

Salinger’s Franny and Zooey is the text that seems to hover over the Anderson oeuvre, and if from it The Royal Tenenbaums brilliantly took its cues for character, setting and tone, then The Darjeeling Limited gleans from it structure, form and content, with Hotel Chevalier, a brief, impressionistic tale of romantic miscommunication playing Franny to the Zooey-esque spiritual searchings of the feature length Darjeeling Limited. Like Zooey, The Darjeeling Limited is a story of misplaced spiritual yearning, with the desire for an elusive mystical experience covering for a much deeper, more important need: that of emotional healing. The main difference, of course, is that Zooey takes place in a single overstuffed apartment in Manhattan while Anderson packs his characters off to India to come to essentially the same revelations (that is, finally coming to grips with death, the reinforcement of even the most dysfunctional of family units, the acceptance of personal responsibility for one’s life situation, etc.).

If the train trip through India literalizes the spiritual/emotional/psychological journey aspects of the story, it certainly adds a problematic element to the proceedings, despite the fact that Anderson is always quick to point out the shallowness that comes from the infantile nature of his characters. Lamentably unaware of their obliviousness, the brothers Whitman (ah, another literary reference, this time rather tellingly to our archetypal literary narcissist) stumble through rituals of Eastern religion just as they blunder through the Indian countryside, and when that proves to be futile, Western Christianity rears its head via an encounter in an isolated Catholic monastery (though that only serves to reemphasize once again the shortcomings of religiosity).

Unsurprisingly for Anderson’s world, it takes the unexpected presence of death—of an outsider, no less—to finally set the brothers in the right direction, that is, directly back towards home. That the brothers finally seem to be finally moving on by the time the final classic Kinks tracks is cued (perhaps a bit hamfistedly symbolized in the dispersal of elegantly embossed luggage, however beautiful the slo-mo sequence might be), it also shows a step forward for Anderson… yes, the past is still hangs over the head just as it does for all of Anderson’s characters, but at least there seems to be a definite indication that there is movement being made in a forward direction, with the chance of moving on.

Interestingly, even if an Indian adventure proves futile for the brothers, the wide open expanses always lurking outside the diorama-like train compartments seems to give Anderson the space to breath and develop his most fully realized film since The Royal Tenenbaums, still his best film to date. And the introduction of knock-kneed, sad-eyed Adrian Brody into the Anderson universe is nothing less than revelatory (this is likely his best performance since winning his Oscar).

Overall a fantastic film, and I for one eagerly await the next chapter of Anderson’s “story.”