Monday Over Coffee: "Baggage"

Published May 8, 2023 by Greg Funderburk

Not terribly long ago, our family packed our bags and went to Chicago. During our visit to the Art Institute of Chicago, one particular exhibit made a deep impression on me. Oddly, it was housed in the basement of the museum. The Thorne Collection was commissioned in the 1930's by Narcissa Thorne, a Windy City heiress with a fondness for dollhouses. Her collection is made up of a series of meticulously-crafted, intricately-detailed tiny rooms, miniature models, scaled at one inch to one foot, each evoking a different age and place. Every minuscule chair and sofa is richly upholstered, each carpet finely designed. The little curtains are beautiful, the wallpaper ornate. There's even miniature artwork hung on the walls. Each mini-room is masterfully lit as well, suggesting that the itty-bitty doors and teeny-tiny windows lead either into a little outside world or into another equally small adjoining room. With sixty-eight rooms in the exhibit, one leaves the museum's basement having, in some metaphorical sense, traveled both through time and all around the world. It's mesmerizing.

Two of the biggest fans of the Thorne Collection are famed film directors. When Orson Welles won his Oscar for Citizen Kane, he was asked about the innovations he made in lighting for his movie. He replied with a single word: "Thorne." Another director you might know who cites the Thorne Collection as a major influence is Wes Anderson.

Viewing Anderson's films, one sees it immediately. The aura and ornamentation echoing the Thorne Collection is detectable everywhere—in the composition of every shot. It's in the natural, constant light, the eccentric elegance of the furniture, the charming handmade detail found in every prop. Each costume accessory, every textured wallpaper, the board games stacked in a closet, the perfume bottles arranged on a desk, the charming sofa pillows, the patterns in the carpet along the stairs, the wainscotting, the fixtures, the books on the bookshelves—all of it reflects the feel of the Thorne Collection. To go a step further, Anderson's diorama-like, storybook aesthetic—whimsical, yet melancholy and equal part real, equal part imaginary—is reflected not only in the look of his films, but it's also embedded within the substance of the tales he tells. "With the kind of stories I do—they tend to have some fable element, and I think my visual sort of predilections are somehow related to trying to make that tone and my writing work with performers, something like that," he explained.

From the idiosyncratic cadences his quirky screenwriting requires of his characters, to his unique "tiny room" aesthetic, to the musical choices he makes for the most important scenes in his films, Anderson's movies, when viewed as fables, unlock another layer of meaning in his art. And through this lens, the movie with which he delivers perhaps his most powerful fable-like truth is The Darjeeling Limited (2007), generally considered his most spiritual film.

The Darjeeling Limited follows three estranged brothers—Peter, Francis, and Jack Whitman—each grieving, each flawed, each damaged (one physically, one relationally, one existentially)—as they take a spiritual journey, a train trip across the Indian subcontinent a year after their father's sudden death. The recurring gag and central metaphor of the movie is the image of the Whitman brothers hauling their dad's hand-crafted, cumbersome 11-piece Louis Vuitton luggage set across the Indian countryside, through the train's narrow corridors, and into the foothills of the Himalayas where their mother now operates a Catholic convent. Their baggage hinders them all the way along.

If the movie is a fable, the luggage of course symbolizes the brothers' preoccupation with what they need not carry. They're constantly squabbling over their father's possessions—his prescription eyeglasses, his keys, his car—as well as the memory of his affections. Likewise, they become preoccupied by a series of other wholly unnecessary encumbrances they pick up along the way in India—an incredibly venomous snake, various pharmaceutical painkillers, shoes, a laminating machine, and their long-held grudges with one another—until, in a beautifully-filmed, brilliantly-crafted climactic scene, Anderson poignantly delivers his fable's most useful moral truth. With The Kinks' 1970 song, Powerman, playing over the scene—the lyrics of which deal with discerning what we ought and ought not to pursue in life—the brothers, at long last, comprehend that their grudges and possessiveness are impeding their spiritual progress, and they literally shed their baggage, leaving it behind as they sprint to catch their departing train together.

I suspect that just a quick clip of the fabled Wes Anderson's remarkable film-making might inspire you to let go of what you need not carry anymore. Watch here.

God — Help me shed my unneeded baggage. Amen.

— Greg Funderburk