EDITOR'S NOTE: We are proud to present an unusual and personal series of articles by critic Peter Tonguette about grief and mourning on film, and how certain moviegoing experiences affected him in the aftermath of his father's death. Peter's series includes pieces on Hereafter, The Darjeeling Limited, Running on Empty, Men Don't Leave and A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries. If you would like to read the introduction to the series, Pictures of Loss: Introduction, click here. If you would like to read part 1 of the series, Pictures of Loss: Hereafter, click here. If you would like to read Pictures of Loss: Running On Empty, click here. If you would like to read Pictures of Loss: Men Don't Leave, click here. If you would like to read Pictures of Loss: A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, click here. -- Matt Zoller Seitz
About a year-and-a-half after my father died, I was at the Ohio Theatre (a former Loew’s movie palace in Columbus, Ohio) waiting for a screening of To Kill a Mockingbird to begin when I mindlessly reached for my inside jacket pocket. I seldom wear the navy blue blazer I had on, and I suppose I was curious to see what old to-do list or movie program I might find stuffed in it. What I found instead was some unused Kleenex tissue, neatly folded in the shape of a square. “What was that doing there?” I thought at first.
Then I remembered one of the last times I had worn this jacket.
When my father was buried at Dayton National Cemetery (he was an officer in the Air Force before going into banking), I tried to go prepared. I wanted to absorb what was said at the service. I wanted to take in the physical surroundings where my father would be laid to rest, as unimaginable as it is for me to write those words, even now. More than anything, I wanted to anticipate what my own reaction to all of this might be. I did not think I would break down, but I knew enough to know that I could not be sure.
So, in lieu of a handkerchief, I must have placed the folded Kleenex tissue in my inside jacket pocket. I had forgotten all about it until eighteen months later, as To Kill a Mockingbird was about to begin.
When I went to see the movie that ordinary Sunday afternoon in June, it was just another thing to do. I loved Harper Lee’s story and Robert Mulligan’s direction. I wondered what Gregory Peck’s courtroom speeches would sound like in a big theatre. But I was not thinking that I would relive my grief. Then again, I wasn’t expecting to find that Kleenex either.
I realized that day that I would never be able to see an old favorite the same way again. When I revisit certain films now, the magic has dissipated. I’ll always remember how genuinely hilarious I thought Bringing Up Baby was when I saw it for the first time at age sixteen. My reaction was not unlike Peter Bogdanovich’s during his first viewing: “I screamed with laughter, but also with amazement: they had done this!” When I saw the movie again this summer—this second summer without my father—I admired it as much as ever, but something was missing. Missing in me. Bringing Up Baby should be laughed at, not “admired.”
When I decided to have a look at Wes Anderson’s films for the first time since my father’s death, I wasn’t sure what to expect. In my mind’s eye, I pictured nothing but the joyous derring-do of Anderson’s protagonists, like Max Fischer leaving a case of bees in Herman Blume’s hotel room or Raleigh St. Clair listening to a private investigator’s report on his wife Margot Tenenbaum’s extramarital activities. As far as I was concerned, these movies represented the same thing Bringing Up Baby did: a happier time, now lost.
The movies, however, told a different story. A decade ago, in his seminal Film Comment essay on Anderson, Kent Jones identified Max Fischer’s “profound anger and sadness over his mother’s death” as the source of the character’s iconoclastic behavior. In his films since Rushmore, Anderson has become even more preoccupied with mortality. It seems to have been his raison d’être in making The Royal Tenenbaums: “I was trying to make a movie in which there was the possibility that people could die,” he told Film Comment’s Gavin Smith. In that film, of course, the eponymous patriarch does die, and it is the death of, respectively, a beloved friend and a beloved father in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited that inspire the quests that occupy the main characters of those wonderful movies.
Until The Darjeeling Limited, I think much of this was lost on me. When Max Fischer sat beside his mother’s grave in a smoky cemetery, I know I liked the shot (which, the director says, was influenced by the great final shot of Peter Bogdanovich’s Daisy Miller), but I don’t remember connecting with the emotion. As for the funeral that concludes The Royal Tenenbaums, I think I saw it mostly in dramatic terms—a satisfying grace note to end with. I certainly wasn’t thinking about my own father.
But by the time The Darjeeling Limited came out, I was older. So was my father. The three brothers in the film—Peter (Adrien Brody), Francis (Owen Wilson), and Jack (Jason Schwartzman)—seemed roughly my age. And their father (who has recently died as the film opens) seemed roughly my father’s age.
The movie struck a chord.
In a dozen superficial ways, The Darjeeling Limited got under my skin as no other Anderson film had before. I related most of all to the middle brother, Peter. Let’s start with his first name. For as long as I could remember, my parents had instilled in me a sense of pride in my given name. They liked it and so did I. Growing up, I never knew another Peter, but that didn’t bother me—to the contrary, it made me feel even more special. Oddly enough, I associate my name with the British movies my mother took me to as a child. She would invariably point out the many Peters among the cast and crewmembers listed in the end credits of films produced in England.
Now, all of these years later, there was a Peter in The Darjeeling Limited. It meant something that he was called that rather than Dignan or Max or Royal or Steve Zissou.
In the film’s opening scene, Peter sees the apparition of his father (Bill Murray), who is racing to catch a train somewhere in India. At the last moment, Peter, who is supposed to be on the same train, runs past him, but not before doing a double take. After Peter hops on board, he pauses to take a long look back at the ghost of the man he’s left behind. He seems disbelieving for a moment—could it be him? He lifts up the pair of sunglasses he’s wearing—which turn out to be his father’s—to seemingly get a better view. But then reality sets in—whoever it is back there, he isn’t going on any train trip—and Peter turns away, his eyes downcast, his lips pursed.
As I’ve said, I saw a great deal of Peter in myself. I felt I shared his thoughtful, serious manner—not for me, the whimsy of Max Fischer. I admired his sense of style, too, especially the trim Louis Vuitton suit he wears throughout the film. I liked the insouciance with which he lit a cigarette, even though I myself didn’t (and don’t) smoke. As one who suffers from migraines, I even related to his headaches, which seemed so much like my own (if his perpetual massaging of his temples was any indication). My point is that I think my identification with Peter allowed me to comprehend his stoic grief in the scene I just described. “That could be me,” I thought to myself. “That is how I might look or act if I experienced a death in the family.” I would have been quick to add, “And thank God I haven’t.”
But now I have.
Watching the film again, I seized on the scenes that dealt directly with the brothers’ grief. As Meghan O’Rourke writes in her memoir The Long Goodbye, “I was hungry for death scenes.” It reminds me of the way Peter, seated for dinner with his brothers on The Darjeeling Limited, keeps returning to the short story Jack has written about the day of their father’s funeral (“He had been killed suddenly, struck by a cab while crossing the street”), in spite of the distractions—Francis’s odd behavior and appearance, the two German ladies seated across from them—that surround him. Later, he excuses himself to re-read a portion of the story in the men’s room on the train. He does so by himself because he finds he is moved to tears and doesn’t want to cry in front of others.
Wes Anderson gets it: We let so few see how we really feel.
I have become convinced that Anderson was wrong when he told Gavin Smith that in his earlier films “one thing you knew is that none of these characters could die.” If that is the case, then why, in Rushmore, do I think of Max’s mother every time Max is on screen? And Edward Appleby every time Miss Cross is on screen?
Of course, this is a recent development for me. When I have watched Rushmore in the past, I always looked forward to one especially lovely moment. It comes during the montage sequence set to Cat Stevens’s “Here Comes My Baby,” after Max has asked Miss Cross for them to remain friends “in a strictly platonic way” and has agreed to her request to “make a go of it and settle down at Grover Cleveland.” It’s a very quick shot: at a game of tennis, Mr. Blume and Miss Cross are resting until Max enters the frame and shoos Mr. Blume back onto the court. So that Max can sit next to Miss Cross. Max flashes her a broad smile, which she sweetly returns.
This moment always reminded me of the terrifically romantic first line of Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus: “The first time I saw Brenda, she asked me to hold her glasses.” Maybe it’s because both scenes are set at country clubs.
In that exchange of looks between Max and Miss Cross, I always thought I was watching a hopelessly smitten kid and a beautiful, carefree young woman. But now I see an orphan—and a widow. I am as surprised by this reaction as I was by what I found when I reached for my inside jacket pocket.
Peter Tonguette is the author of Orson Welles Remembered and The Films of James Bridges. He is currently writing a critical study of the films of Peter Bogdanovich for the University Press of Kentucky and editing a collection of interviews with Bogdanovich for the University Press of Mississippi. You can visit Peter's website here.