Moving train: Observations on a Wes Anderson soundtrack

I can’t decide whether or not to tell you to watch Wes Anderson’s iTunes-only short, Hotel Chevalier, before you watch his new feature-length, The Darjeeling Limited. But I can tell you to watch both, in whichever order you choose. (I could also tell you that in the short Jason Schwartzman gets Princess Leia’s ma real nekkid real fast, following delightful and wry dialogue. But that would only be appealing to your baser instincts and tempting you to download before you finish reading this post.)

Those who complain about Anderson’s coldness towards his characters, his adolescent wheel-spinning, his anal-attention-to-detail preciousness simply must not be part of his intended audience. And I must be exactly that, since I’ve never really been able to watch one of his films without a knowing, gnawing sympathy in my stomach — laughing until I annoy my neighbors and tearing up even when I probably shouldn’t. (We love him, that is, because he first loved us.) Shout out to my brother-in-law Mark for showing me Bottle Rocket back when it was first on DVD — er, VHS.

Since I’ve only seen Darjeeling and Chevalier each once, however, and since I’ve not yet listened to the soundtrack outside the theater, I’m perhaps not yet qualified to make serious comments on any of the above. But I have spent a serious portion of my weekend thinking about Darjeeling (it sticks, which is good) and the ways in which Anderson so consistently works with music to produce soundtrack albums that at times rival the movies themselves. In the case of Life Aquatic, unfortunately, the soundtrack outdid the film. But that’s just what will happen if you put “Gut Feeling” by Devo on the same album as Bowie’s “Queen Bitch,” let alone all the Seu Jorge renditions of Bowie songs.

a spiritual journey awaits

No such problem with Darjeeling, which in some ways has the most understated of any of Anderson’s soundtracks. It’s also the one that is most self-conscious about the way the music weaves in and out of the story and the medium itself. In a movie where each of the central characters — three brothers, played by Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and Adrien Brody — is as much a control freak as Ben Stiller’s character in The Royal Tenenbaums, Schwartzman’s character manifests his neurosis by controlling the music wherever he goes. As so many of us do these days, he packs with him on his travels an iPod dock, and so his character plays an additional role: DJing a good chunk of the soundtrack. (It’s a bit like Margot putting on the Stones record in the tent scene in Tenenbaums, but more consistently a part of Schwartzman’s character, whose music-controlling impulses climax when he abruptly stops the Stones’ “Play with Fire” in a crucial scene, right on the word “mother.”)

Controlling the music is simply one form of control (“Mother May I?”) the Whitman brothers compete for and collaborate on: Owen Wilson’s character has laminated itineraries ready each morning to keep them on track and orders his brothers’ meals for them; Adrien Brody’s character hordes their dead father’s effects, which rightfully belong to them all; and all three brothers unite in rituals of constant medication, cooking up cocktails of local Indian pharmaceuticals and Scotch. But of these habits, Schwartzman’s iPod tic is the one that most fully colludes with the form of the film itself. If their prominent/disfigured noses, overgrown Beck-greased bangs, and impeccable suits suggest they all may be partly Anderson himself, the hands-on soundtracking may be one of the most meaningful parallels between a character’s habits and the auteur’s.

And yet there are surprises, and smart ones. We get some of what we’d expect from an Anderson soundtrack, to be sure: Kinks tunes, a front-and-center Stones song, a couple obscure gems from the late 60s, one of which sets the mood for the Chevalier short, so good it will make you want to shell out $18 for the album. But Mark Mothersbaugh’s baroque noodlings are gone, replaced here by pre-existing film scores: music taken from the films of Satyajit Ray and Merchant/Ivory. We’re supposed to take it, I think, that the Ray borrowings are homage, and the Merchant/Ivory name-drop an attempt on Anderson’s part to acknowledge the ways in which his characters reenact colonialist mindsets — at least for a good portion of the film — to acknowledge, that is, the ways in which this is yet another in a long line of movies about rich white people on a train through India. (He seems to want to recognize and undercut this problem at once by making sure his Indian train conductor doesn’t sound like Apu from The Simpsons.) The recycled scores, then, establish filmic tradition as well as an ironic sense of geographic authenticity.

If life itself, for Anderson, is best figured in metaphor by modes of transportation (the claustrophobic but linked traincars here seem to update — and make a more universal gesture than — Zissou’s isolationist submarine) it’s also clear that popular music is meant to govern life’s most pointed, transitional moments, almost as if they couldn’t happen without someone pressing “play” or putting the needle on the record. His films, which all, at the most fundamental level, grieve the impossibility of perfect childhoods and family relations, tell the kids it’s alright by matching a song perfectly to the mood.

There’s a fantasy behind his carefully choreographed soundtracks — think of the songs that play while his characters run in slow motion — which has broad appeal to members of a certain demographic. But the fantasy is somewhat paradoxical: the music you listen to confirms your alterity; yet at the same time it tells you you’re okay. If you can just match music to the mood (and always carry your music with you), you’ll somehow survive. Anderson’s films essentially carry the same message, none more forcefully than the newest: It doesn’t matter if your family doesn’t understand you, as long as you have a record player (or a tastefully stocked retro iPod) to get you through. He soothes the ongoing desire for understanding by giving you the only balm you ever had in the first place. But he does it so well you can’t help but thank him.

35 responses to “Moving train: Observations on a Wes Anderson soundtrack”

  1. Dave says:

    Pre-coffee brain: Wait, who’s Princess Leia’s ma? Wouldn’t she be really old?

    (Time elapses.)

    Pre-coffee brain: Oh. Her. This is one of those straight-guy things, isn’t it?

  2. Dave says:

    tastefully stocked retro iPod

    Love the retro iPod, but favor some tastelessness in stocking it. Otherwise, life becomes a Wes Anderson movie.

  3. Rachel says:

    Debbie Reynolds?

  4. 2: ah, but dave, your ipod is the new supersonic silver one, so you don’t have to worry about being trapped in a wes anderson film anyway. the one jason uses in the film is *so* 20th century.

    3: that’s very funny. but i meant leia’s mom, not carrie’s. though maybe schwartzman and reynolds could team up if wes ever decided to direct a remake of harold and maude.

  5. I was hoping someone would download and comment on that video. Hint hint. Or did the Debbie Reynolds throw everyone off?

  6. I also assumed some of y’all would have opinions on Wes, his soundtracks, etc. — or is it just that you all agree he’s the cat’s meow?

    I know a couple folks I respect, at least, are getting tired of his schtick: I borrowed the observation about the parallels between Wes’s schnoz and his actors’ from PPP: at least that’s the implication I read in her reference to “epic noses.” She doesn’t seem to have liked the movie as much as I did.

  7. Dave says:

    D00d, I’m at work. I can’t have naked ladies dancing around on the computer.

  8. she kind of does some weird yoga-like poses more than dancing.

  9. Tim Wager says:

    I clicked on the link for the vid, but couldn’t get it to work. Maybe it’s a conflict with Firefox. I’ll try it with IE.

    I loved Rushmore when I first saw it, and then loved Bottle Rocket even more when I watched it soon thereafter. Then, well, then it kinda wore thin for me with The Royal Tannenbaums, the second viewing of which confirmed for me that it’s just a sequence of quirky music videos strung together with characters and situations that are just quirk piled on top of quirk. Some of the quirks are funny, yes, and I love to look at beautiful people and lush, intricate sets as much as the average American viewer. However, I felt empty, unfulfilled, and used after watching RT and Zissou.

    Don’t get me wrong: I love wondrously rich visuals accompanied by late 60s and early 70s chestnuts from The Kinks and The Rolling Stones (and Cat Stevens and The Faces and The Creation and David Bowie, etc.), but they just don’t add up to a completely realized movie for me.

    It’s my opinion that Anderson piles up the details and quirks to cover over the fact that there really isn’t very much going on with his narratives (and in retrospect, I sorta feel this way about Rushmore now, too). There certainly is pleasure for me in seeing his movies, and he really is very talented when it comes to putting together images and music that capture the alienation of his characters (and target audience), but there never seems to me to be a point at which the scenes aggregate or cohere into a really satisfying story.

    This won’t necessarily stop me from seeing the new one, of course, because I’m a sucker for those songs and the wistful images of a world that I wish existed, but I’m not getting my hopes up for it. Perhaps one might argue that Anderson’s meta-point is that as consumers we always feel empty and used after our encounters with products that promise to deliver but don’t, and so he makes movies that mimic and re-create this feeling. However, I think that would be just covering over for thin screenwriting.

  10. Tim Wager says:

    #9 turned out longer than I meant it to be.

  11. hooray for dialogue and disagreement.

    The Royal Tannenbaums, the second viewing of which confirmed for me that it’s just a sequence of quirky music videos strung together with characters and situations that are just quirk piled on top of quirk.

    RT is probably my favorite movie ever made, and it’s certainly my favorite WA movie. To me it’s the most fully fleshed of his films — the biggest and best ensemble, the funniest, the most emotional. I left the theater with my sides in pain from holding in the laughter (because most people around me *weren’t* laughing as much or as hard as I was) and at the same time I was moved to tears more than once. I identified with so many characters on so many levels.

    I wonder what it is, Tim, that makes me feel so akin to his messed-up crew and leaves others I know (you included) feeling jilted at the theater.

  12. brooke says:

    I don’t think of myself as a big Wes Anderson fan, but I realized after reading this that I have to cop to it. Royal Tenenbaums is my favorite Anderson, and one of my all time favorite comedies. I start laughing at the opening scene (the family flag atop a turret at the Tenenbaum estate) and don’t stop until the credits.

    I have to disagree about Life Aquatic, though. I really liked it — perhaps not as much as Rushmore or RT, but I’ve watched it more than once and still think it’s funny. The key to Anderson’s films, IMO, is casting — Bill Murray and Angelica Huston playing off each other is brilliant. A close second is good wry writing.

    Until now, Anderson’s soundtracks actually haven’t stood out that much to me, with the exception of The Life Aquatic. Brazilian Bowie covers = awesome. I’ll have to play closer attention to the soundtracks the next time around.

  13. brooke says:

    Hey Bryan in #11! What you said. Royal Tenenbaums is a movie for the ages.

  14. ruben mancillas says:

    I loved Royal Tenenbaums but hated LIfe Aquatic-the films, not the soundtracks-his soundtracks are consistent winners. I also think Bottle Rocket was/is overrated and Rushmore (sadly) is heading that way as well after repeated viewings. That American Express spot is the best though.

    There’s an article on Slate right now calling Anderson out for his racial/cultural representations.

    If you want cross generational coupling involving a Darjeeling cast member take a look at I Heart Huckabees-apparently Huppert intially balked at her sex scene with Schwartzman because she remembered holding him as an infant.

    If you’re looking for a bit of not only straight guy, but borderline disturbing/Mr. Skin level straight guy discourse (only one of my many potential answers to Dave’s question of What Is It Exactly We’re Trying to Do here on TGW) on Ms. Portman’s aversion to disrobing for her art you need only ask and I’ll end (further) up on the Patriot Act watch list.

    Along that line, can you fine cineastes help me? Who, if anyone, is the new Winona Ryder?

  15. Tim Wager says:

    “Tenenbaums,” of course, not “Tannenbaums.” Duh.

  16. trixie says:

    does jason schwartzman annoy anyone else besides me (and farrell?)
    we were toying with the idea of avoiding the new WA because of his presence.
    i think i will have to see it now.
    damn you, waterman!!

  17. Bryan says:

    ruben — not sure how to answer your question. will think about it.

    trix — you have to see the movie. there’s a real lines brothers quality to some of it. or their bizarro counterparts. i don’t remember JS from anything but rushmore, which i liked. but he’s fine in this.

  18. I have a horrific Great Whatsit confession to make: I’m not a big afficianado of music. I don’t feel like I can comment on this post.

    Before I make anyone faint because of disbelief (because I know you would jump to have sex with music if it was embodied into a single being), let me pontificate. A lot of the reason I’m not a huge lover of music is because a large amount of music out there has lyrics. When I listen to songs with lyrics, I can’t understand the words because I’m hearing impaired. Unless I’ve got them memorized or I can read someone’s lips that are mouthing the song, and unless it’s got fantastic background everything else, I don’t get much out of it.

    Thus, since a great deal of music nowadays has lyrics, I would rather read. I’m also extremely frugal and poor, so I don’t feel like collecting a huge amount of instrumental. I’m a big fan of Pandora Radio and radio in general (simply for background music while doing the dishes or while doing homework), but I’m not widely familiar with artists and the sounds associated with them

    However, because you guys are such big fans of the stuff, I’m open to any suggestions on how to become more familiar with the music world. Music videos are good,. but I don’t know where to find a free-flowing (like radio) source; YouTube doesn’t feel like it works for me because you actually have to know specifically what you want to watch to find it. We don’t get MTV on our cable package… any other suggestions?

  19. Dave says:

    Kate, I don’t listen to lyrics much, either, even though I’m not hearing impaired. Bryan in particular has an intense involvement with song lyrics, as do some other people on this blog, and it’s also usually easier to write about lyrics than about the music, so lyrics get a lot of attention in popular music writing. But really, nearly all the music I like I like because of how it sounds. My main requirement for lyrics is that they either be not obviously stupid or else so garbled that I can’t understand them at all.

    If you like a variety of sounds, try the audio stream from WFMU, which we link on the sidebar. Rarely the same song twice.

  20. Jeremy says:

    I agree with Tim re: WA (aside from the end of the comment, which gives him way too much credit). I love Rushmore (and Bottle Rocket, to a lesser extent), but everything else has seemed all style, little substance. But the thing is, I often like things that are all style, little substance, which is the case here, too. I didn’t like RT nearly as much as Rushmore, though I loved the sets and the costumes and the music–as a series of vignettes that are, yes, somewhat like a string of music videos. And Life Aquatic was silly, even a bit embarrassing, but that cutaway image of the ship, with all those blocks of colors, like a pastel Rubik’s Cube, made the movie for me.

    And, yeah, Trixie, Jason Schwartzman was great in Rushmore (he was supposed to be loveably annoying, of course, in that role), but after that, I can’t think of a role in which he wasn’t sort of, welll, insufferable.

  21. Adriana says:

    Phew, I’m feeling less sheepish about my devotion to the Life Aquatic soundrack, which I still listen to ALL THE TIME. The movie became our family movie for very personal reasons, but I will say that I’m with the camp that sees some soul in Wes, as exasperating as he can sometimes be.

    I’m dying to see Darjeeling and am glad *someone* out there liked it. Hotel Chevalier, hmm, still thinking about it. I had a hard time not rolling my eyes. Maybe I’ll like it better after seeing D. Thanks for posting the link, though.

    Adriana (not Lane)

  22. Bryan says:

    it’s also usually easier to write about lyrics than about the music, so lyrics get a lot of attention in popular music writing

    should i be taking that as an insult, dave?

    I can’t think of a role in which he wasn’t sort of, welll, insufferable.

    maybe i should just go google him or look at the IMDB, but i can’t think of what else he’s been in. help!

    am glad *someone* out there liked it.

    and how am i supposed to take that? am i just easy? i’d like to think my opinion counts for something more than just *someone*!

    kate: i agree with dave. i can’t think of anything better to listen to 24/7 than, and it has very little to do with lyrics. in case you haven’t read this far back on TGW, you can find my loveletter to that radio station here. i’m pretty confident your uncle would back me on that one.

  23. Bryan says:

    jeremy and tim: i’m inventing a new category for you, with your own anacronym: TCFWA — too cool for wes anderson.

  24. Dave says:

    should i be taking that as an insult, dave?

    Not at all. I’ve just noticed it in lots of music writing, including my own. Although I don’t pay enough attention to most lyrics to talk about them.

  25. Jeremy says:

    for the record, i’m definitely not TCfWA–i should reiterate that i like his movies because they’re so stylish (and am willing to forgive his other inconsistencies as a result). and Rushmore is actually one of my all-time favorites. since both Tim and i are lauding his style, after all, perhaps the acronym more appropriately should be NCEfWA: Not Cool Enough for Wes Anderson.

  26. Dave says:

    Also — anacronym — awesome.

  27. Jeremy says:

    jason schwartzman’s oevre: shopgirl, slackers (not to be confused with the linklater film), marie antoinette, i heart huckabees, etc.

  28. Bryan says:

    hey man. it’s late. but i’m home.

  29. Bryan says:

    27: i’ve only seen MA off that list, and you’re right, he was annoying. (anannoying?) but so was louis. and so was that movie. so it’s hardly him we need to blame.

    i watched an IFC clip with him and adrien brody and wes talking about the movie, and i was struck by the thought that JS was trying to *be* wes anderson — same hair, same style. he’s just stouter and shorter. i have a soft spot for him, though, because he’s so short.

  30. Dave says:

    No, “anacronym” is a great new coinage. Use it for things like WAC and FUBAR.

  31. Adriana says:

    Oh now Bryan, you know your opinion means more than just someone. By the way, the NYT gave the movie a mostly positive review as well.

    As for easy, I guess we’d have to let Steph answer that.

  32. Yeah — AOScott seemed to like it in spite of himself. But I think he liked it for the wrong reason: that is, because it seemed to him to allow its characters more interaction with the world outside their self-indulgent bubble. But their interaction with an Indian village (not to give too much away) was to me the least genuine and least satisfying part of the movie. I didn’t need his characters to transform and grow quite as much as they did.

    This does bring me back to my question for Tim, though: I think it was AOScott as well who reviewed RT and complained that Anderson seems to put his characters beneath glass and to keep them emotionally at a distance from himself and from his viewers. I don’t experience his characters that way at all. I find them to be rich reflections of many of my own emotional states as I try to have an adult relationship with myself — which is never easy. Maybe it’s that Tim’s just too mature for WA. (I know that couldn’t be the case for Jeremy.)

  33. James says:

    1) I also assumed you meant Debbie Reynolds; which nevertheless did not prevent me from starting the download before reading your post. Was both pleasantly surprised and surprisingly annoyed to realize it was Natalie Portman. I’m not sure what this indicates.

    2) I lived in the San Juans from ’96 to ’01. (Friday Harbor, then on Lopez). THAT would have been a trip to run into you while picnicking on the beach.

    3) Paris is loaded with awesome. Cindy and I went last Spring, and she toured around during the day while I signed books at the Salon du Livre. But we were escorted around by my publisher nights. Going to Belgium next Friday, then some spots in France. And looking forward to my kids being more Anna and Molly’s ages, so they can come too!

  34. Tim Wager says:

    Bryan, honey, two of my favorite movies of all time are “Strange Brew” and “The Three Amigos,” so I won’t claim the maturity high ground when it comes to WA. I wish I could, but I can’t. My problem, too, is not emotional distance from the characters; it’s that all the characters seem to me to be less than two-dimensional, just a few quirks thrown together. Take, for instance, Luke Wilson’s character in RT: loves his sister, gave up professional tennis, keeps a hawk. That’s it, really. His every appearance on screen has multiple references to these “traits” without developing him. It’s tiresome and boring, eventually.

  35. Ruben Mancillas says:

    # 17 Bryan, are you still thinking on this for me? No one else has stepped up yet (for shame, Zitter) so I am counting on you.