What do you do when everything is available – sex, flowers, the stereotypes of life and death? This is America’s problem and, through America, it has become the whole world’s problem.
– Jean Baudrillard (1)
The American traveller has long been a subject of nostalgia and romanticism; travelogues such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road retain a strong presence in the collective American conscience. Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) in Easy Rider (Hopper, 1969) were conceived as another pair in the long American tradition of road warriors, successors to On the Road’s Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty – two American men with nothing between themselves and endless miles of American road.
As they travel the vast emptiness of the American southwest for their destination of Mardi Gras, they embody the Romantic ideal; free men on the open road with nothing holding them back from the world at their feet. The appreciation of the women they meet and the surrounding landscape provides an enjoyable distraction. After reaching their destination of New Orleans, accompanied by prostitutes on their acid trip, Wyatt tells an ecstatic Billy that they blew it. They hit the road once again, but don’t make it very far before they’re both blown off the road by hateful locals. Their American dream comes to an end in a fiery explosion in rural Louisiana.
If Easy Rider personified America’s peace and free-love generation of the 1960s, Wes Anderson’s films may quietly be on their way to articulating a current trend in American culture, more closely aligned with fear and ennui than freedom and love. Anderson’s films focus on the disaffection of the American upper class and their paradoxical search for meaning within the confines of their wealth. Anderson effectively presents an America in which the Dream has been realized and the resulting collective ennui that follows any realized fantasy. Jean Baudrillard’s America (1988) was published at the midway point between the four decades that separate Easy Rider and The Darjeeling Limited (2007). Its meditation on America near the end of the 20th century as a “utopia achieved”, whose privileged progeny inhabit listless existences while engaging in futile attempts toward meaning offers a compelling backdrop for exploration of Anderson’s films.
The Whitman brothers of Darjeeling are a wealthy trio from Manhattan who reunite a year after their father’s death to embark on a (very self-conscious) spiritual journey across India. The brothers travel through India by train to “become brothers again”, to “seek the unknown … learn about it” and “say yes to the shocking and painful” proclaims Francis (Owen Wilson), the eldest, a successful businessman recovering from a suicide attempt (to Baudrillard, a futile, selfish act that one commits only to prove to himself he can do it).
While the East has long been a destination for Westerners, the Whitmans’ journey to India as a source of spiritual refuge reveals an American traveller that explores not for merely the sake of seeing the world, but for the healing of personal ailments when allowed by extensive economic means. In its barely veiled desperation and selfishness, the Whitmans’ adventure takes on the tone similar to a post-collegiate study abroad trip, replete with the sex, drugs and recklessness now implied in such exploits. In their anxious, calculated attempt to “experience something beautiful”, Anderson’s Whitmans are the listless products of Baudrillard’s utopian America, or marathoners who exhaust themselves for the sake of feeling alive: “Do we continually have to prove to ourselves we exist? A strange sign of weakness, harbinger of a new fanaticism for a faceless performance, endlessly self-evident.” (2)
In its portrayal of three wealthy Americans as utterly at loss with their lives and unfulfilled by the numerous pieces of luggage filled with expensive clothing that they cart around, Darjeeling acts as a portrait of post-capitalist malaise and the spiritual emptiness that results from a lifetime spent in pursuit of the means to acquire tasteful accessories. The America of Anderson’s characters is not a place of possibility and freedom, as it was for Wyatt and Billy, but one of crushing limitations in all of the material objects it offers.
Viewing The Darjeeling Limited as an update of the classic American road movie suggests that America is no longer a spiritual place of discovery, but a land of people who feel they must venture far outside of it to find a sense of truth. A reading of these two films concurrently suggests a vast change in America’s landscape and a seismic shift in the attitudes of the American people.
The shifting nature of America as existing in the two films’ characters’ consciousness is revealed in their choice of clothing. Wyatt proudly adorns himself and his motorcycle with the American flag; it appears an act of rebellion, a statement to the world (or the American South) that he will re-shape America around his dreams of freedom. Billy’s get-up is an ode to another glorified era of America’s past: the Wild West. In 2007, as Americans abroad, the America that Billy and Wyatt lost is written all over the Whitmans’ faces. They wear expensive European suits and accessories, and carry around luggage personalized not with any country’s flag, but with their father’s monogrammed ode to himself.
Where Wyatt and Billy are the would-be champions of a new, free and optimistic America, Francis, Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) are its discontented orphans, the embodiments of the easy riders’ failure. Born into a nation all but depleted of spiritual possibilities, the brothers travel to India, an exotic land halfway around the world. The developing nation is currently becoming a more accessible (and fashionable) destination for American tourists such as the Whitmans, wealthy and searching for truths perceived unavailable in their cold, crowded cities. All three brothers arrive in India in a less-than- indestructible emotional state; Jack is getting over a manipulative girlfriend, Peter is running away from his looming responsibilities as a new father, and Francis is covered in bandages from his recent suicide attempt. This collective fragility takes the place of Wyatt and Billy’s unadulterated quest for the essence of themselves as Americans and of America itself.
The brothers begin their travels by train, a virtual hotel on wheels, while Easy Rider’s protagonists travel on two wheels, inches above the road, surrounded by open air. Only after their absolution do the three Whitmans appear on a single motorcycle, reminiscent of the iconic Easy Rider image (the brothers are followed by a car carrying their mountain of luggage in a self-conscious visual gag). Where Wyatt and Billy’s journey is one of a search for personal fulfilment through exploration with America as a sacred text to be decoded, the Whitmans’ journey serves as more of a rehabilitation program, with India serving as the clinic.
Here, the role of contemporary masculinity is called into question. Wyatt and Billy, as free men of their country and men in command of themselves, are presented as the most virile of modern males; they live within nature and garner the attention of women wherever they go. The Whitmans, by contrast, clearly exist as men in a post-feminist society, in which they are rendered less sure of their masculine roles. Jack’s fling with the train hostess, Rita (Amara Khan), seems an exception to this theme, but even she takes control of the situation, leaving Jack wanting. Peter is running away from fatherhood, and Francis has recently tried to kill himself, rendering them at least weak if not pitiful.
Arriving in a busy Indian town, Francis’ shoe gets stolen by a child. Before recovering the moment as source of opportunity for spiritual growth, Francis proclaims that the single shoe is worth a couple of thousand dollars, which he figures is enough to buy a building in the market’s centre. They walk through the city, arriving at a group of children playing stick ball. “These people are beautiful”, says Francis as a group of Indian people perched above them look down and laugh at the group of incapacitated tourists.
The brothers bicker, declare the journey a failure and pack up to leave before discovering three young children in danger of drowning on a river. Despite their efforts, one child doesn’t survive. The brothers are invited to attend the child’s funeral, paralleling the last time they met, at their father’s funeral a year earlier. It is the first time the brothers appear out of their suits, and instead in light pyjamas as if to blend in with the people of the village. The traumatic death of the child brings them together as well as forces them to evolve. Francis experiences firsthand the true senselessness of a premature death, and Peter for the first time imagines himself as a father. The experience proves to bond the brothers together in a way not before possible, and they opt to extend their trip, ultimately forging a bond they’ve never shared before.
As the South-Western United States is presented as an awe-inspiring background for Wyatt and Billy’s spiritual journey eastward, the landscape and people of India act as the “exotic”, fetishized Other that shape the Whitmans’ travels.
The film opens with the warm tones of a crowded small city, inviting the viewer to gape at the novelty of such a scene. Where Hopper relies on the dramatic landscape of the American South and South-West in Easy Rider to lend the film an air of the sublime, Anderson is enamoured with the rich tones and textures of the Indian landscape and the novelty they embody to both the film’s characters and viewers. The fact that Anderson takes the Whitmans to India to experience a pristine truth is revealing of the changing landscape (literally and figuratively) of America; had Wyatt and Billy traversed the same path today as they did in 1969, they likely would’ve been greeted with the stale uniformity of strip malls and housing developments.
Easy Rider’s soundtrack is a comprehensive portrait of the era the film represents; the songs that run throughout the film are now iconic in their ubiquity forty years later. The Byrds’ “Wasn’t Born to Follow” perfectly encapsulates the mood of the film’s beginning, as does Roger McGuinn’s version of “It’s alright ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” of the film’s ending. The non-diegetic soundtrack acts as an aural complement to the vast landscape that surrounds Wyatt and Billy on their journey.
Darjeeling features mostly Indian music in its non-diegetic soundtrack, but interspersed into their journey are a few deliberate attempts at creating a mood, or projecting an experience onto a song. Jack’s ubiquitous iPod, ultimately an isolating and manipulative (and manipulated) machine, plays Peter Sarstedt’s “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)” from 1969, and Jack later selects The Rolling Stones’ “Play With Fire” from 1965. The combination of Jack’s iPod as a perpetual mood-setter and the preference for music from a previous era and generation is in stark contrast to the proud contemporaneity and organic nature of Easy Rider’s soundtrack. Anderson generally eschews contemporary music in all of his films, and for Darjeeling he abandons Western music almost entirely, featuring mostly Indian songs from the 1960s and ‘70s and a few British artists of the ‘60s. This appears as a deliberate nostalgia for another time and place, and a refusal to acknowledge the cultural reality in which the Whitmans exist, imagining them as almost timeless.
Easy Rider’s sublime natural landscape acts as a natural habitat for the main characters; they are at home in the beauty, seem to be able to happily coexist with it and disappear into America’s woods and mountains. Darjeeling, however, presents a different scenario; while the natural world as presented in the film is sublime, it’s more explicitly exotic. In a flashback to the previous year, the Whitmans are shown in their natural habitat, the cold streets of Manhattan, riding in a limousine and wearing expensive black trench coats. When comparing these two scenarios of the films, one gets the sense that ever experiencing a world like the Whitman brothers’ is exactly what Wyatt and Billy were trying to escape. Forty years after their filmic deaths, one can’t help but wonder if their journey was carried out in vain.
The endings of Easy Rider and The Darjeeling Limited films are starkly contrasted and perhaps betray Baudrillard’s vision of America as a desert of vacancy and human decay. While Hopper takes a decidedly defeatist view on the new American freedom his film initially appears to epitomize and promote, Anderson suggests that even the most rich and miserable of Americans can, as Francis puts it, “experience something … it’s very important to us.” Unlike Billy and Wyatt, Francis, Peter and Jack achieve exactly what they set out to accomplish (however clumsily): a spiritual journey, something beautiful.
Perhaps a simultaneous reading of the two films can reveal not so much a declining state of the American ideals, but a shifting focus within Baudrillard’s achieved utopia. If Hopper’s characters and film set out to change the world, and failed, perhaps Anderson’s characters and film set out to achieve personal fulfilment, and succeeded.