Reihan: Defending Wes Anderson

As a part-time ethnic militant, let me just say that the anti-Anderson animus is nutso. Take Thea's remarks:

Like Pagoda, the cute little Indian man in the Royal Tenenbaums (who also appears in Bottle Rocket and Rushmore) who exists solely to do Royal’s bidding, and has an adorable lack of morality. Or the slew of characters of colour - the Brazilian David Bowie (played by Seu Jorge who actually has quite an illustrious film and recording career); Vikram Ray, whose character’s main feature is that he was “born on the Ganges”; the Filipino pirates - in The Life Aquatic.

Pagoda is my heroo: tough and loyal, yet quite willing to stab Royal in the belly when appropriate. He's nobody's fool. If you miss that about him, I have to wonder how closely you're paying attention. And as for The Darjeeling Limited, a movie I saw with my mom, a Muslim woman with a lot of "ethnic pride" who hates V.S. Naipaul for his unflattering depictions of India and Islam (unfairly, in my view), it portrays a lot of its Indian characters -- particularly the railway porters, one of whom is a turbaned Sikh who speaks flawless American English (strange that the ethno-police haven't picked up on that one) -- as cosmopolitan, intelligent, and more than a little disdainful of the goofball foreigners.

These characters are funny not because of their personalities or life situations - unlike Anderson’s white characters - but solely because they’re brown. It’s like Anderson is saying, “The pirates are Filipino! How hilarious is that??” Needless to say, I don’t get the joke.

Again, I have to ask: are we watching the same movies? Because I grew up in a "majority-minority" community and attended a high school that was about 50 percent Asian, I guess I don't have the same chip on my shoulder: white people strike me as amusing and a little exotic, which is not to say I don't think well of them as a group. Some of my best friends are white people. If anything, I actually think Wes Anderson movies are highly ethnic movies about highly distinctive white subcultures: in The Royal Tenenbaums, he "gets" the subculture of cerebral slightly Judeo-Hibernians. Once we give up on the idea that white people are the center of the universe, which we should, it makes sense to have a Tyler Perry of the white man. That's Wes Anderson.

I mean, do you see me writing essays about Tyler Perry's depictions of Banglo-Americans? Or R. Kelly's unflattering portrayal of a plump white Southern wife who two-times her husband with a midget (the midget who was, in a particularly memorable episode, revealed to be, "the baaaaaaby's daaaaaa-ddyyyyyyy")? I mean, no. Because it's absurd. Because these movies have a deeper meaning, and a certain degree of focus and specificity helps these movies realize their ambitions.

How about Wes Anderson's view of women? People: Wes Anderson's view of all women is strange. They are inscrutable by nature, they are highly vexatious, and they invariably lead their male admirers to do insanely stupid and self-destructive things.

This is what really breaks my heart: Wes’ track record with women of colour. Anderson just loves pairing women of colour up with dorky white dudes, shortly after dorky white dudes have been dumped or rejected by white ladies. Even though Rushmore’s Margaret Yang is the fullest of all of Wes’ colour characters, she is still paired up with the loveable/hateable Max after Ms Cross turns him down. It’s the same story with Inez, the lovely Latin American hotel cleaner in Bottle Rocket.

Whoa, this is reading into things in a spectacularly strange way. I'm afraid the sample size is a little small, romances do happen on post-heartbreak foreign adventures (one would hope so), not all of us travel on the basis of an elaborate color-coded map of the world, e.g., I was just dumped by a black woman, so I can only travel in nations that are populated primarily by people of African origin, Margaret Yang was not so much "Asian" as a human being who was brainy and misguided enough to date a pint-sized megalomaniac, etc. I mean, Margaret Yang is a perfect example: like it or not, I think her Asianness really was incidental to her character, and if anything it was a rare Anderson concession to realism: American high schools, even in otherworldly quasi-WASPtopia Texas, are multiracial. Sorry guys: this is of course highly inconvenient in the framework of racial correctness which apparently demands, again, that all rebound relationships must be between partners of the same ethnoracial group.

The interracial relationships in Anderson’s films are not radical. They simply reinforce racism’s most current and insidious form - they take cultural appropriation to the ultimate level by appropriating actual women of colour, a la Gwen Stefani.

*Cough*, "stick to your own tribe, Stefani"! The author doesn't see the irony in this: not only did Stefani "appropriate actual women of colour" (whatever that means: sounds insidious), but she also had long-term relationships with men of color, something that would have exercised the boundary-policers of another generation. She's also a native of Southern California, where Asian kids "appropriate" black and white and Latin styles and sensibilities all the time and are fortunately not aggressively prosecuted for racial copyright violations.

I realize that The Darjeeling Limited isn't getting the best notices, but you know what? It's a damn good movie about being in a twilight age. It takes place in a beautiful place, and it is affecting without being maudlin. Know why the Indian characters aren't at the heart of the movie? Because it's about three American brothers, and how "deeply" are Indian dudes and dudettes, who have jobs to do and lives to attend to, going to engage with them? I mean, if the brothers befriended some fascinatingly unconventional Indian fellow who defied all of our notions of what it means to be brown (this Indian guy hates chapatis and loves burritos!) over the course of three days, I'd find that implausible and frankly idiotic. To be sure, South Asia is, in my limited experience, a pretty verbal place, and plenty of people will talk your ear off. But oh no, that's another stereotype!

Thinking like this is a trap.

Jonah Weiner (Third World avenger!) has a related take in Slate. In truth, this is a really good commission: it is an unfamiliar interpretation of a touchstone for my generation. That doesn't mean it's right.

A few quick things: Kumar Pallana (Mr Pagoda, Mr Littlejeans, etc.) isn't just an "actor" Anderson hired. He's a friend of the Wilson brothers and Anderson from his days as proprietor of the Cosmic Cafe, which was a center of a lot of local artistic "happenings." There are Asian characters in Anderson's movies at least in part because ... there are Asian people in the world. Henry Sherman, the black financial advisor in The Royal Tenenbaums who married the Tenenbaum matriach at the close of the movie, represents ... um, legions of black financial advisors, some of whom are presumably kind of shy and awkward and into the color blue.

As for Rita, the railway steward who makes out with one of the Whitman brothers, um, would you rather she have fended off his amorous advances with an, "Oh no no no no no, sir! It would offend one of my many-headed gods! We are not so liberated like your Western hussies, sahib! Oh yes, bheri bheri good." before doing a little head-waggle, memorably described by Seth Stevenson:

To perform the head waggle, keep your shoulders perfectly still, hold your face completely expressionless, and tilt your head side-to-side, metronome style. Make it smooth—like you're a bobble-head doll. It's not easy. Believe me, I've been practicing.

I leave you on that note.

P.S.- Everyone, please read my friend Christian Lorentzen's essay on Wes Anderson and why hipsters should be shot (gently). I hadn't read it until a friend very kindly sent it my way.

But come on, Anderson and hipsters are too self-conscious, too postmodern, to be racist. Hipsters, though, they may be mostly white (and rich) welcome minorities to their ranks. In fact they get worried if there aren’t enough colors on the social palette; you could hear something genuinely troubling when the Moldy Peaches used to sing, “I’m running out of ethnic friends.” This all seems resonant with a theory I have heard spouted (though never read) by and about young people today—that growing up in “diverse communities” with friends of every color and creed, they are “postracial.” It follows that they make racist jokes without malice, as a way of rebelling against the tyranny of political correctness. Perhaps this is true, and maybe it’s not even such a bad thing: racism isn’t racism anymore it’s just breaking of taboo. We can poke a little fun at Filipinos and Sikhs and Arabs and Germans and people from Kentucky, and then all listen together to the ebony-skinned Brazilian man on the deck of the Belafonte singing “Ziggy Stardust” in Portuguese.

There's a lot of truth to this, though I don't quite share Lorentzen's disdain.