``SO WE BOTH HAVE DEAD PEOPLE IN OUR FAMILIES``: DEAD PARENTS AND PROCESSING GRIEF
When we are presented with any form of character-related narrative – be it factual or fictional – it is a natural instinct to begin processing certain questions. At a fundamental level, these questions are in the nature of who is this character? Are they good or bad? As the story develops further and the spectator becomes sutured into the narrative these questions become more complicated, such as why is this character behaving in this manner? Is this behaviour in keeping with the pattern previously established within the diegesis, or are their actions out of character? We then begin to seek out psychological causes for the characters’ behaviour and actions.
However, no two people ever watch the same film. There is no such thing as an ideal spectator, and our individual interpretations and overall judgements depend greatly on extra-textual factors such as mood, concentration and experience. Before beginning to examine the ways in which Anderson’s texts and characterisation resist such simplistic readings, it will be beneficial to revisit David Bordwell’s principles of narrative form in cinema, as briefly touched on in the introduction. Bordwell’s thorough examination of narrative form defines narrative as a process (Narrative in the Fiction Film, xi) rather than a system. In contrast with the spectator of psychoanalytic or apparatus theory, his spectator plays an active role in the process of interpreting the narrative. Bordwell’s ideal spectator is a “hypothetical entity executing the operations relevant to constructing a story out of the film’s representation” (30). As such, the function of the spectator is to comprehend the narrative, which in turn provides him or her with a series of operations, or cues, which can be read (29). This process is performed through a combination of factors, or schemata, including prior knowledge and experience (comparison or contrast with similar narratives) and interpretation of material and structure (33-4). However, these schemata can become increasingly difficult to read when the characters are intentionally dishonest or unreliable.
From The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915) to Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015), the dominant mode of film narration has favoured the goal-oriented protagonist who overcomes challenges and obstacles set in their path in their pursuit of a specific goal. This classical narrative mode has left the contemporary spectator largely inured to a mode of narrative that forcefully underlines emotional development before it can be accepted. The deliberate presence of disruptors in Anderson’s texts will often confuse this pattern and thus affect verisimilitude and the spectator’s acceptance of character. Explaining his economy with characterisation and his restraint with melodramatic modal tendencies, Anderson says, “whatever emotions you’re dealing with, you just show enough, you don’t linger on it” (Jones & Smith, 29). This practice often denies the viewer of the cues and schemata that we have come to expect. It is for this reason that Anderson’s texts do not lend themselves to casual viewing, but will often require reinvestigation and reappraisal. Therefore, revisiting his films with the knowledge of a protagonist’s ultimate redemption is not only beneficial, but sometimes essential as it rewards the viewer with a better understanding of the emotional path of the character.
Kim Wilkins argues that Anderson’s characters are pure cinematic constructs that “do not directly relate to authentic lived experiences, but rather are presented as cinematically constructed figures whose improbable experiences and reflexivity are facilitated by, and imaginatively confined to, one particular film” (25). These cinematic characters may well amuse and entertain between the opening and closing credits, but any empathy disappears from the moment that the viewer leaves the auditorium. This interpretation of Andersonian characterisation corresponds with Jeffrey Sconce’s reading of the “smart” American film and plays to a postmodernist reading of his work. However, Deborah J. Thomas observes that Anderson’s framing, camera angles, sound and performance is used to unsettle the intimacy between the viewer and his characters (98). While debunking some of Sconce’s arguments, she contends that the structure of sympathy in Anderson’s work is more complex than that of classical cinema. Muted reactions and odd behaviour create “a more ambivalent and occasionally ‘perverse allegiance’ to character [for the audience]” (102). Thomas also disagrees with the common consensus of Anderson’s blank, underdeveloped characters. “One of the criticisms of Anderson’s work is that his stylisation of performance is somewhat overdone, so that the characters are not developed beyond mere caricature” (108). She cites this use of stylised performances as evidence of a symbiosis between character and aesthetic in Anderson’s films. This symbiosis mimics his protagonists’ distance from their own emotional interiority. This emotional impotence is due to unresolved grief, “a theme apparent in all of Anderson’s features, except perhaps Bottle Rocket” (108). She describes the smart film’s combination of realism and ironic detachment as melancomic. This melancomic dissonance makes rare moments of affect – such as Max’s submission to Herman at his mother’s grave, or Francis admitting that he deliberately tried to end his life – all the more powerful. These moments create a psychological realism in character development uncommon in fictional cinema. In spite of Anderson’s sparse approach to character development, these moments occur regularly in Anderson’s work, and serve to increase the sense of viewer allegiance with these characters.
Another barrier to spectator empathy is Anderson’s precise shot compositions and overwhelmingly dense mise-en-scène. But as Chris Robé observes, these technical aspects are employed to stylistically emulate “the very repression of loss that [Anderson’s] protagonists feel. The films embody a melancholic structure whereby loss serves as an absent presence, not often directly addressed but nonetheless significantly influencing both narrative momentum and mise-en-scène” (107). While Anderson’s aesthetic is instantly recognisable for its careful construction, his precise style can often obscure themes which are very human indeed. For example, few will be unfamiliar with the trauma associated with the death of a parent. Rushmore (1998) and The Darjeeling Limited (2007) are noteworthy for addressing this trauma in an unconventional manner. In doing so, these two texts illustrate one of the advantages of death. That is, the dead can no longer disappoint. The dead assume a romanticised ideal that the living cannot match, as emphasised by the resentment directed at the surviving parent by the protagonists in both texts. Each film also utilises a tripartite of protagonists – each damaged in their own way – and tease out narratives of conflict, forgiveness and ultimate resolution. As with all of Anderson’s work, the emotional damage of these characters is apparent from the outset, but the roots of trauma are hidden. The causes become apparent only with the benefit of hindsight and repeated viewings.
Let us begin with a quintessential example. Rushmore’s Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) can be read either as an ambitious youth with a tendency for being creative with the truth, or as a lying, sociopathic megalomaniac. The aggressive manner in which he pursues Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams) could be reasonably perceived as stalking. He manipulates those around him to achieve his goals and makes numerous attempts on the life of his best friend, Herman Blume (Bill Murray). The audience first learns that Max’s mother is dead 20 minutes into the film’s 93 minute runtime. However, Max offers this piece of information in the context of trying to woo Rosemary. By this point we have already listened to his lies about studying at Oxford or the Sorbonne, in spite of possessing an appalling academic record that sees him on the brink of expulsion. He has already passed his father off as a neurosurgeon rather than a lowly barber, and appeared in a daydream fantasy in which he proves an unprovable algebra equation in front of a crowd of awestruck students. So by this stage the viewer is aware that this overreaching, underachieving protagonist has a flimsy relationship with reality and a tendency to be economical with the truth. The audience does not discover that Max’s mother is truly dead until we are shown her grave a full hour into the film (Fig. 1). This important piece of narrative information would go some way in explaining his erratic behaviour, but in the interim Max has managed to alienate Rosemary, Herman, and quite possibly the viewer.
Fig. 1 – After 58 minutes the audience finally discovers the truth about Max’s mother
As Rushmore begins, Max Fischer appears to be an adolescent with all the answers. He has already discovered that the blueprint of fulfilment is to “find something you love to do and then do it for the rest of your life.” In Max’s case that something is being a student at the prestigious Rushmore academy. Unfortunately, he is one of the school’s worst students and faces the possibility of expulsion should he fail another class. An introductory montage conveys the extent of Max’s extracurricular activities. This workload includes editor-in-chief of the school journal, president of the French, calligraphy and beekeeping clubs, vice-president of the stamp and coin clubs, captain of the debate and fencing teams, manager of the lacrosse team, founder of the astronomy, bombardment and skeet societies, and the school’s choirmaster. He is also the director of the Max Fischer Players, an amateur dramatic society that stages elaborate homages to Hollywood movies. The suggestion is that Max’s poor record is because of his excessive pursuit of non-academic interests, but the tragedy of Max – and the source of his melancholy – is that he is simply not a polymath.
Max was originally awarded a scholarship for a play he wrote on the Watergate scandal. It was his mother who, before her death, recognised her son’s nascent talent and submitted the piece to the expensive private school. This is a key piece of character-building information, but Anderson does not linger on it and the viewer may not absorb it. In spite of his boundless confidence and infinite ambition, all of Max’s efforts beyond playwriting consistently fall short. While his plays exhibit a prodigious talent for creativity and theatricality, they also form a link with his deceased mother. The phenomenal success of his playwriting endeavours leads Max to presume that his talents are transferrable to any other activity he can set his mind to, thereby intensifying his connection to his mother through the Rushmore Academy. Unfortunately this success is unmatched by any of his other exertions, including his romantic pursuit of Rosemary. Each successive piece of work he stages is an appeal for his mother’s approval. Yet the desire to remain a perpetual student – and consequently to fester in childhood – is emblematic of his paralysis and a lingering consequence of his mother’s death.
Max brings his natural aptitude for directing and performance beyond the stage and into the outside world. Like the child actors acting out roles of maturity in his staged adaptions of Serpico and Apocalypse Now (retitled “Heaven and Hell”), Max performs the role of adult from the perception of a child; smoking, drinking and exaggerating his sexual exploits in his curiously asexual pursuit of Rosemary. Max’s friend and nemesis Herman is also portrayed as a broken character. His is an unspoken trauma; purportedly caused by his experience in the Vietnam War and compounded by a lingering disappointment with his familial, professional and personal achievements. When Herman also falls in love with Rosemary, he tells Max, “She’s my Rushmore.” Given Max’s chronic record, this statement is not as noble as it first appears. It implies that Herman considers Rosemary as a pleasantly fulfilling activity, rather than something he is particularly suited to. Herman’s pain manifests as an inherent sadness and melancholy which is displaced when he falls in love with Rosemary. Due to the principally melancomic mode of Rushmore, the inappropriate age difference in this romantic triangle is glossed over. Both Max and Herman pursue Rosemary, but only Herman is considered as a potential suitor. Rosemary is closer in age to the 15 year old Max than to Herman Blume (Bill Murray), yet the elderly businessman is not viewed as an inappropriate match for the grieving teacher until the denouement, when both characters have redeemed themselves through the processing and ownership of their respective traumas.
At the time of Rushmore, Anderson’s fastidious proclivities were relatively undeveloped and unrecognised. However, by the time of his fifth feature he had both cultivated his trademark style and cemented his reputation as a cold, clinical filmmaker. On its release The Darjeeling Limited was greeted with the same predictable criticism that has been applied to the director’s other works. “In making yet another film about dysfunctional families with dead or unreliable parents […] and competitive, independently wealthy siblings […], without showing the most modest advance as either a comic stylist or a dramatist, Anderson is evidently encumbered by his own cargo” (Gilbey). Furthermore, The Darjeeling Limited managed to alienate those critics that had previously championed the filmmaker. “Directors who breathe the rare air of the wacky bourgeoisie are wide open for ridicule, especially from viewers who mistake eccentricity for coldness. But until now, Anderson’s damaged, destructive characters never felt cold” (Biancolli). Again, the problem is that much of the humanising characterisation is obscured by Anderson’s overt, precise aesthetic. Narrative disruptors are abundant, and a cursory viewing obscures many of the text’s ample opportunities for empathy.
A year after the death of their father, the three Whitman brothers are reunited on a cross-country train journey through India. Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrian Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) have not spoken since their father’s funeral. After suffering a life-threatening motorcycle accident, Francis’ is compelled to seek a reconnection with his brothers. He tells them that his aspiration for the trip is to “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.” This near-death experience has left Francis oddly in touch with his emotions, and he repeatedly tells his brothers that he loves them. Peter and Jack meet his affection with bewildered reciprocation, but once they are trapped in the close quarters of the train, each brother knows exactly which emotional pressure points to press to provoke a reaction. Freud refers to this catastrophic repetition as traumatic neurosis, and it “emerges as the unwitting re-enactment of an event that one cannot simply leave behind” (Caruth, 2). The Whitmans soon revert to their old patterns of behaviour and mutual distrust. Francis’ attempt to engender a spiritual epiphany in a controlled environment is doomed to failure. The concept of attaining enlightenment without knowledge or suffering suggests a type of spiritual tourism. Inner peace cannot be bought, and a spiritual journey cannot be manufactured. In spite of their initial acquiescence, Peter and Jack begin to rebel against Francis’ strict itinerary almost immediately.
The repetition of traumatic patterns of hurt are not unusual in Anderson’s films, but in The Darjeeling Limited, the hurt is often intentional. Cathy Caruth uses the example of Tancred, the tragic hero of Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata to explain the concept of the subconscious repetition of trauma. In Tasso’s story, Tancred unwittingly kills his beloved Clorinda in battle. Traumatised by this act, he then strikes out in anger at a tree with his sword. When blood gushes from the tree and he hears the voice of Clorinda, Tancred realises that this tree holds the soul of his beloved. Thus he has unintentionally wounded her twice (2). This unknowing repetition of trauma is particularly symbolic of the Whitmans’ deeds throughout The Darjeeling Limited. As Caruth reminds us, trauma does not diminish over time, “but rather in the way that its very unassimilated nature – the way it was precisely not known in the first instance – returns to haunt the survivor later on” (4). Like the sorrowful voice of Clorinda, the repetition of these destructive patterns constantly brings the pain back to the surface. Reliving this pain through familiar patterns of paternal bickering serves as a dull reminder of what was lost, and provides the Whitmans with the opportunity to relive it. Though constant, these disputes are not significant or powerful enough to address the trauma that was ignored in its first incarnation and the brothers continue in a state of emotional paralysis. It is only after the brothers have been evicted from the controlled environment of the train that they experience a genuine epiphany. The catalyst for change proves to be bearing witness to the drowning of a young boy. Through witnessing the shock of death, and bearing witness to the overwhelming grief of the child’s father, they can finally readdress the grief that was originally passed over and buried. The Indian funeral proves to be the catalyst that compels the brothers to relive and reconsider the events of their father’s funeral a year earlier (Fig. 2 & 3). Once they arrive at this realisation, Francis can finally acknowledge that his physical wounds are self-inflicted, and his motorcycle accident was an intentional attempt to end his life.
Fig. 2 – The funeral of an Indian boy is the catalyst that allows the Whitmans…
Fig. 3 – …To finally bear witness to the grief originally ignored and unprocessed
The Darjeeling Limited is perhaps Anderson’s richest text in metaphor and symbolism. Their father’s death is the discernible cause of the Whitmans’ trauma, but further analysis suggests other sources of pain and unorthodox methods of coping with it. The most blatant emblem of the brothers’ trauma is their father’s elaborate set of monogrammed luggage. This conspicuous link to the source of grief has been allocated between the three brothers and is a perpetual presence. Their literal baggage becomes increasingly burdensome, particularly when the Whitmans are forced to travel by foot (Fig. 4), yet they still cannot discard it. However, their father’s emotional baggage is symbolically jettisoned once they dispel their demons and undergo a true spiritual epiphany. Francis’ physical presence also bears the scars of his inner emotional trauma, his heavily-bandaged face struggling to conceal the pain within. At one point his tooth falls out; a common interpretation of the anxiety associated with loss. When he finally removes the bandages and sees that his physical wounds are still severe, he realises, “I’ve still got some more healing to do.” Peter maintains a connection to his deceased father by coveting and fetishizing his belongings. The set of luggage is split between the three brothers, but Peter also carries his father’s car keys, uses his razor and wears his eye glasses (which still contain his prescription lenses). The implication is that Peter draws comfort in looking at the world through his father’s perspective, but the prolonged use of the unneeded spectacles is another source of perpetual pain and renders him with constant headaches (earning him the nickname “Rubby”).
Fig. 4 – The baggage inherited from their deceased father is a literal burden
Francis concedes that his original hope for a spiritual journey through India with his brothers was a subterfuge concealing an ulterior motive. He has discovered that the Whitman’s runaway mother, Patricia (Anjelica Houston), is living in a convent at the foothills of the Himalayas and hopes to finally confront her with his brothers. “She’s been disappearing all our lives. We weren’t raised to be treated like that – it’s just not done.” Patricia was not present at their father’s funeral and has established a pattern of repeatedly abandoning her children. It is evident from the totemic fetishizing of his belongings that the Whitmans have placed their father at an elevated level in the absence of their mother. Paternal favouritism is also broached by Peter, who boasts “I was his favourite. He told me that with blood all over him, laying in the street, right before he died.” The dead’s advantage is that they become idealised. Unlike the living, they can no longer fail or disappoint. Following an early fraternal argument, Francis asks his brothers, “Did I raise us… kind of?” This offhand question is deeply significant, and can be read in two ways. Given the absence of their mother, Francis may be asking his brothers if they consider him as fulfilling the maternal role during their formative years. The fact that he asks, “Did I raise us” infers that their father was also an absent figure during childhood. Francis ordering dinner for his two brothers is an act deeply symbolic of a maternal identity, a suggestion which is reinforced when their mother performs the same act when they are reunited with her. Another reading could suggest that his question was unfinished, and might have concluded “did I raise us… kind of… badly,” which would suggest that he carries guilt and regret for not fulfilling his duties as role model and guardian for his younger brothers.
When the Witmans finally confront Patricia, the encounter does not transpire as they had anticipated. While not as self-serving as some of Anderson’s patriarchs, Patricia is an undeniably unconventional parent. She has abandoned her maternal duties in order to become a surrogate mother to many, and is simply incapable of providing her children with the love and redemption that they have come looking for. Patricia values her independence above all else, including the emotional needs of her children and rebuffs the questions that they have travelled so far to ask. Patricia bluntly tells her children that she simply doesn’t see herself in the way that they want to see her. She placates them by saying that she is sorry for the loss of their father and apologises for not attending the funeral. Patricia has moved on and she sees these traumatic events as being in the past, but for Francis, Peter and Jack, they are still very much in the present. Patricia leaves them to sleep with the promise of addressing their concerns the next morning, but when they awake she has abandoned them yet again. Patricia’s subversive refusal to conform to the typical maternal role at a key point in the narrative is another disruptor in empathy. Her disappearance denies the spectator a degree of resolution, and leaves the Whitmans to seek out their own redemption.
Cynthia Felando’s study of Houston notes that her roles for the director depict self-assured female role models in predominantly male-centric environments. Houston achieves this feat without conforming to the stereotypical gestures and expressions associated and expected in the conventional Hollywood performances of middle-aged femininity (68). Where Anderson’s male characters are immature, self-obsessed and vain, his female characters – typified by Houston – are independent, self-assured and content. From the maternal Etheline Tenenbaum to Patricia Whitman’s refusal to conform to societal conventions, Houston’s characters become increasingly independent and self-assured in the course of her three roles for Anderson. Patricia is the diametric opposite of Etheline, who lives to serve her children. Her rejection of maternal duty may be vicariously pleasurable, but it is a clear narrative disruptor in the path of viewer empathy. The letter she sends to her sons asking them to stay away indicates that she is capable of communicating with her children, but has simply chosen not to.
The tripartite of protagonists in The Darjeeling Limited are ostensibly no more appealing than Rushmore’s Max. Francis is an emotionally manipulative control freak, while Peter is another Royal Tenenbaum or Steve Zissou in the making. He is a thieving, errant husband who has abandoned his wife just as she is about to give birth to their first child. These are not attractive character traits, and should not elicit sympathy from the spectator. Yet instead of railing against these characters, the viewer warms to them over the course of both films. As in life, no Anderson character is all good or bad, but a combination of both that reveals itself gradually to the audience. Anderson’s morally ambiguous protagonists display conflicting attributes, and are obvious contributing factors to the consensus of his problematic characterisation. The dilemma of bearing witness, character allegiance and audience empathy in The Darjeeling Limited is complicated by the three-brother structure. This allows for a complex narrative of ever-shifting loyalties. For example, one brother will often leave a location as another enters, or may reveal an item of information under the provision of not telling the third. A variation of “Don’t tell Peter/Jack/Francis” is the most recurring line of dialogue in the film. In a diametric opposite to the family circle of trust, the Whitmans are operating under a triangle of suspicion and duplicity. Each protagonist conceals something from one while revealing it to the other, and these allegiances shift from one scene to the next, forcing the viewer into a game of narrative catch-up.