Song of the Day #4,830: ‘Play With Fire’ – The Rolling Stones

In 2007, Wes Anderson released the most divisive film in his catalog, The Darjeeling Limited. You’ll find this movie at the bottom of most fans’ rankings, yet it won a prize at the Venice Film Festival and earned twice its budget at the box office. It has the second lowest Rotten Tomatoes score among Anderson’s films but it hasn’t enjoyed the reassessment of The Life Aquatic, the only one below it.

As I wrote yesterday, almost all of Anderson’s movies deal with grief to some extent, but The Darjeeling Limited puts that theme front and center. The film follows a trio of brothers traveling on a train through India after a yearlong estrangement following the death of their father. They are weighed down with emotional (and physical) baggage and seeking a spiritual awakening.

Using India as the backdrop for the healing journey of three rich white guys is inherently problematic, and the film doesn’t try very hard to avoid that pitfall. The few non-white characters with speaking roles mostly exist to serve the character development of the brothers. The death of an Indian child is used as a plot device to bring the trio closer together.

At the same time, the ugly American behavior by the brothers feels very intentional. The Indian characters are mostly annoyed or amused by the intruders’ presence, and their lives are interrupted but unchanged. It’s a movie about three flawed, obtuse, privileged men, and probably pretty accurate in its depiction of their experience abroad.

The bigger question is, why make a movie about these three in the first place? Wes Anderson, like a lot of white, male filmmakers, is most comfortable writing about white men. In this movie, set in a real foreign country as opposed to the more invented settings of his previous films, that fact stands out in harsher context.

Those limitations aside, The Darjeeling Limited is beautifully designed and filmed. Much of the movie was shot on an actual moving train, and the camerawork and editing makes the most of the unique location. Anderson regulars Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman have great chemistry as the brothers and a late appearance by Anjelica Huston as their mother takes the film up a notch.

In fact, the last 20 minutes or so of this movie is strong enough to make up for a lot of its earlier shortcomings and send you out on a real high. Never underestimate the effectiveness of a slow-mo shot of somebody catching a train set to a Kinks song.

[Verse 1]
Well, you’ve got your diamonds
And you’ve got your pretty clothes
And the chauffeur drives your car
You let everybody know

But don’t play with me
‘Cause you’re playing with fire

[Verse 2]
Your mother she’s an heiress
Owns a block in Saint John’s Wood
And your father’d be there with her
If he only could

But don’t play with me
‘Cause you’re playing with fire

[Verse 3]
Your old man took her diamonds
And tiaras by the score
Now she gets her kicks in Stepney
Not in Knightsbridge anymore
So don’t play with me
‘Cause you’re playing with fire

[Verse 4]
Now you’ve got some diamonds
And you will have some others
But you’d better watch your step, girl
Or start living with your mother

So don’t play with me
‘Cause you’re playing with fire
So don’t you play with me
‘Cause you’re playing with fire

13 thoughts on “Song of the Day #4,830: ‘Play With Fire’ – The Rolling Stones

  1. Dana Gallup says:

    When you began this exploration of Wes Anderson films and rewatched them all through the eyes of present-day 2021 Clay, who is more apt to appreciate emotion and sentimentality, particularly as a husband raising two daughters, and who is more sensitized to social concerns about white male privilege and diversity, particularly given that your wife and kids are people of color and have sensitized you to these issues (along with recent events like George Floyd, “Oscars so White, “ Golden Globes so male, etc), I was wondering if you might like less and be more critical of Anderson’s relatively emotionless, sterile, mostly white male movies.

    Indeed, to date, at least to my knowledge, Anderson has made little to no effort to move away from emotionless, sterile white male themed films. And, as I recall, you have noted and agreed with the criticism against other artists you admire, and rewatched their films, whose older work has not aged well or who have not evolved emotionally or embraced diversity. Quentin Tarantino comes to mind as one example.

    So why does Anderson get a pass as 2021 Clay rewatches his filmography? It seems, at least so far, that your admiration for Anderson has only grown, even though I would proffer that Anderson has not.

    • Clay says:

      I completely disagree with your characterization of his movies as emotionless and sterile. They aren’t schmaltzy but they are definitely emotional. It’s one of the things I love most about them.

      They are also definitely white and male, as are the films of way too many great filmmakers. Favorites of mine like The Coen Brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson and Martin Scorsese are similarly limited in their focus.

      Tarantino has diverse casts but also gives himself a role where he uses the N-word five times in a 30-second scene, so he’s a little bit messier.

      But I don’t think the solution is to criticize white men for making movies about white men, or to push them to make other kinds of movies. The solution is to give more opportunities to filmmaking women and people of color.

      I do find the lack of diversity in Anderson’s casts irritating. Interestingly, he does a fair job with Asian representation but — apart from Danny Glover in The Royal Tenenbaums — he has almost no Black or Hispanic actors in his films.

      I notice that Jeffrey Wright and Benicio Del Toro have major roles in The French Dispatch, so that’s good to see. He tends to work with the same rotating cast in all his films, and I’d like to see him add more diversity to that roster.

      • Dana Gallup says:

        I think the use of Asians has far more to do with Anderson’s pretentious/precious style than a desire for diversity. Indeed, one could argue Anderson is hindering rather than supporting diversity.

        And as for emotion, I have admittedly not seen every film, and there are others I have not seen for years, but I don’t recall ever being moved, emotional or even touched. I find his movies and the characters more odd than human and more sterile than warm.

        • Clay says:

          Whoa! Having an Asian actor in a movie is pretentious? What does that even mean? I suspect it has more to do with the fact that his personal circle of friends included several Asians when he was starting out, and he put them in his films.

          • Dana Gallup says:

            Ah, I didn’t know he ran in Asian circles–that makes it more genuine. Still, while any diversity is better than none, I don’t really see including Asian actors, let alone an Italian actor, as a hallmark of diversity.

          • Clay says:

            I think Asian-Americans who rarely see themselves onscreen in Hollywood productions would disagree. It’s the reason Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi were considered milestones.

          • Clay says:

            Was the “Italian actor” reference about Benicio Del Toro? If so, he’s Puerto Rican.

        • Clay says:

          (Maybe you’re talking about setting Isle of Dogs in Japan, and not the use of Asian actors in supporting roles in earlier films?)

  2. Peg says:

    I know I saw this film but not really remembering it. What I do remember about all his films is the quirkiness factor. Mostly it really works for me and I can escape from the harsh realities in life and enjoy myself for 90 minutes or so. Also he always brings together some of my favorite actors ❤️

  3. Peg says:

    It’s the same way I feel about Woody Allen

  4. Amy says:

    Weighing in on the lack of diversity in the films of Anderson (and all the rest of the white men you mention above), I, too, believe the remedy is providing more opportunities for diverse filmmakers to tell their diverse stories.

    That said, unlike Woody Allen, for instance, who populates his films with “his” New York of the upper east and west sides, Anderson tells these whimsical stories that could easily have more diverse casts if that was of any interest to him. That it hasn’t been is not a fault, but it does make his films less interesting than they otherwise could be.

    As for the Puerto Rican 😉 Del Toro and black American Jeffrey Wright, they are two outstanding actors who I fear will get little chance to plumb the depths of the humanity of their characters as they often do. That said, they do up Anderson’s pretentious factor by a couple of notches, as it’s difficult to imagine two actors of color more regularly associated with quirky, independent, and heady material than these two. 🙂

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