Saturday, 28 October 2017

What to See This Weekend: Collision Courses

Each weekend, The Back Row compiles a short selection of recommendations for readers’ weekend viewing. The links are for the convenience of those who wish to stream the films on the suggested websites (make sure it’s available in your territory before entering your payment details); readers may well prefer other sites with alternative arrangements for the streaming and downloading of films, and can’t be stopped from using those instead.

“The Darjeeling Limited” (Wes Anderson, 2007)

Available on Google Play; on iTunes; on DVD.

The Darjeeling Limited, which reached the tenth anniversary of its theatrical release this week, is perhaps the worst received feature film by Wes Anderson — at 69%, it has the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score, and, when I searched for them, I very quickly found a large number of decidedly negative critical responses to it online — but it’s one of my very favourites, and not only among Anderson’s films. It has in common with the others (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Grand Budapest Hotel) all the hallmarks of Anderson’s style and thematic interests, and the ways in which it’s different are mostly what brought about such strong reactions to it — strongly negative, in the case of some internet commentators; strongly disappointed, in the case of Anderson fans who prefer his earlier or later works (or both); and strongly ecstatic, in those, like me, who see something of great artistry and unparalleled beauty in it.

The story concerns three brothers, convened by the eldest, Francis (Owen Wilson), for a journey across India on a luxurious train known as The Darjeeling Limited. Francis, Peter (Adrien Brody), and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) Whitman have recently lost their father, and Francis has survived a near-fatal motorcycle accident, prompting him to reconnect with his somewhat estranged brothers and mother, on a wishful journey of epiphanies and redemption. The pained and strained family relations are redolent of those in The Royal Tenenbaums, even more so when Anjelica Huston appears to play Patricia, the brothers’ mother. Anderson has once again taken a sharp and deeply empathic view of the unique energies of family life through the prism of bourgeois comfort and privilege, and it’s a marvel, as always, to feel how keenly the emotions represented and conveyed by his film are evoked while he maintains so loftily ironic a position in presenting it. (I find that the most distinctive moments of humour in Anderson’s films arise from the tensions, as well as felicitous alignments, between precisely this emotional force and grand, overarching irony.)

Anderson’s films are wondrous in the way in which they allow the sudden and surprising unleashing of immense and sometimes even destructive emotions and energies, within an exquisitely controlled framework. In The Darjeeling Limited, this is found in the free, unpredictable human movement in and through the frame, by both the principal performers and the many extras used, within the rigid and lateral camera angles and movements, and among the intricately designed sets and costumes. In both the inside scenes on the train or in the convent where Patricia lives, and the outside scenes in towns or in the desert, the film fuses the efficient and unequivocal control and precision of a film studio with the free-form spontaneity of on-location documentary work.

Anderson (who writes the scripts for all his films, and worked on this one with Roman Coppola, the son of the famous Francis Ford) presents an array of humanly uncontrollable, composite characters, from the American principals to the supporting cast of Indian people they encounter. Anderson has each of them as a real, living, bleeding person, not a mere archetype, plot point, or stereotype. In reading many of the criticisms of this film, I feel that audiences simply missed the spontaneous and deeply expressive nuances of performance to be found in it, without which the characters would indeed seem unaffecting or uninteresting. Ten years later, audiences are far more familiar with Anderson’s idiosyncratic style and both recognise and welcome the multiplicitous subtleties of his aesthetics.

The Darjeeling Limited sees and accepts the large risks and dangers of life, of merely living. Death is an ineluctable part of it; the Whitman brothers manage to evade the issue while in America, where they dwell on everything apart from the loss of their father. In India, they are confronted with it brutally and entirely; they gain a far larger and more tragic perspective of their lives and the world as they collide with harsher and more remote realities, as well as with the conflicts with each other they had previously avoided. Anderson satirises and very quickly deflates the silly notions of many privileged people like Francis, who suppose that a simple change of setting, if just taken to the right place and arranged to be facilitated by the right kinds of outside or “other” people, is an easy route to self-discovery and spiritual fulfillment. The Whitmans discover, partly tragically, that no place and its people can meet that kind of hope.

Anderson employs a whole host of references to pop music and the entire history of cinematic expression at his disposal. Even if, like me, you’re unfamiliar with the legends of the Beatles’ pilgrimage to India, or the allusions to Indian and other world arthouse cinema (the one I could appreciate, pointed out by Armond White, was that the road-movie plot refers to Satyajit Ray’s seminal classic Pather Panchali, which translates as “Song of the Little Road”; Anderson famously used music from Ray’s films in The Darjeeling Limited), you can still experience the quality of insight, emotion, and artistic creation of the film. While it seems silly to try and speak about any of Anderson’s films as distinctly better than the others, the expansive energies, furies, and conflicts that the specific and unique filming conditions of this one allowed certainly place it a little apart. Decide for yourself how that affects the value of the film; a viewer who could deny the sublime achievement of The Darjeeling Limited has experienced it on a totally separate plane of perception from my own.

“Nacho Libre” (Jared Hess, 2006)

Available on DVD.

When I wrote about Nanni Moretti’s film We Have a Pope, which turns out to be explosively critical of the hypocrisy of the Roman Catholic Church’s overarching institutions, I affirmed,

“I don’t have much of a [personal or political] cause against present-day Roman Catholic Church, though this year’s 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses is certainly something I find worth celebrating”

Well, that quincentenary has arrived. In 1517, Martin Luther wrote and published his Disputation on the Power of Indulgences, advancing his positions against what he saw as abusive practices by priests and other officeholders of the Church, and sparking the Reformation. The story goes (evidence is somewhat murky) that, on 31 October of that year, he nailed these theses to a church door in Wittenberg. What is sure is that on that day he began his attack on the seemingly unassailable authority of the Church (which, in those days, was an Empire as well as an establishment of religion), asserting, revolutionarily, that inner repentance and faith are what is required for salvation through God’s grace, rather than any intercession through an intermediary, on Earth or in Heaven. The history of conflict that arose from this schism over the last five centuries is too abundant, too well-known, and too sordid for me to go into here in any significant detail, but it’s certainly something to be commemorated. And I do so now, on this blog, by recommending to readers the delightful film Nacho Libre, which, among all its other pleasures, offers a prescription and a vision of unity between the two main opposing factions of western Christianity.

The religious character of Hess’s exquisitely strange comedy is immediately apparent: the characters stand out, in living and saturated colour, against surreal-looking backgrounds, as in illustrations in illuminated Bibles, or the Catholic iconography found in churches. Ignacio (Jack Black), a brother in a Mexican orphanage, is bathed in light as he embarks on something of a combination between a pilgrimage, a divinely appointed quest, and a parable. The son of a Lutheran missionary and a Mexican deacon, Ignacio dreams of becoming a prize-winning fighter in the Mexican wrestling sport of Lucha libre, though it is strictly forbidden and condemned by his order. He moonlights as a fighter, taking the nickname Nacho, simultaneously working to improve the lives of the orphans he looks after and impress the new young nun at the orphanage, Sister Encarnación, to whom he is strongly attracted — but, of course, any romantic attachment and, above all, marriage and sex are are totally prohibited for both of them.

Hess sets up an engaging contrast between the devotional practices and experiences of the monastery, and the worldly ones of Nacho’s secular pursuits and associates. Sister Encarnación warns that the luchadors fight for vanity and empty glory, that they’re “false idols”; Hess recognises this danger in putting on entertaining spectacles for an audience, as he does through his filmmaking. But, as Ignacio fights to a higher purpose, and as a kind of personal calling, and as Hess makes movies with his idiosyncratic and, truly, beautiful spiritual vestments, that risk is overcome. In effect, Hess is calling for a reconciliation of the saintly and meaningfully devout religious practices of the Roman Catholics — devoted orders, a focus on the institution serving the community and particularly the needy, a continually communal sense of worship and mission, the dedication to aesthetic excellence to match spiritual purpose, and the sacraments as outward markers of sanctity as an aim — with the liberties, the liberating varieties, and the personal and inward priority of Protestant culture. The shot near the film’s end of Ignacio and Encarnación running and playing with the orphans in the hills outside the orphanage suggests what a fealty to chastity has tragically cost a rigidly doctrinal church.

“The Black Balloon” (Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie, 2012)

Available on Vimeo.

It’s not necessary for me to say much about this short film, other than that you should go watch it, and immediately. It’s about twenty-five minutes long, and is freely available at the Vimeo link I’ve given. It may be good for me to add that you should watch it in conjunction with the Safdie brothers’ latest feature, Good Time, which is currently showing at select theatres in South Africa, and for which I have considerable admiration (and which I and my friends all thoroughly enjoyed). In the short film, you can see an equally attentive and deeply felt viewing of lives in the Safdies’ lifelong home, New York City, followed on the pretext of a lone, floating balloon — the single black one in a whole group of bright colours. Emotional insight runs in distinguishable veins through the film, and its revelations of locals’ styles and behaviours are not only fresh but boldly creative. The Safdies show a huge, bustling metropolis in which the millions of people struggle and often fail to connect; it can be a painfully lonely place for one constantly cramped with all kinds of resourceful humans. Is there something being said in the fact that, right in the film’s final shot, the black balloon, though one of many, is still travelling alone?

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