'Moonrise Kingdom' and the necessary Gizmology of Wes Anderson
You are bound to read, now that his new film Moonrise Kingdom is in theaters, that Wes Anderson’s work is too “quirky,” “twee,” “precious,” “dollhouse-like,” or in some other way childlike, to be important.
Anderson is, you will read, obsessed with precocious kids, or with the trappings of wealth and whiteness, and couches these obsessions in a suffocatingly mannered fantasy world; his work rejects, rather than reflects, the real one. Anderson is a stunted artist, obsessed with the trappings of childhood and abhorrent of adulthood's disappointments.
But it's the details they really prey upon: The music, the inventions, the camera-work, the dialogue, the props, the costumes. They seem perilously close to actually getting the point.
With Anderson, form and content are unified so fiercely that to grow irritated with the objects, the sets, the costumes, the linguistic tics, is to ignore the greatest theme at play, one which is not a childish pursuit at all: how we become people.
What are children to do with the inevitable disappointments visited on them by their parents? How do they make their lives their own, and how do they escape the fates their parents map for them without intending to? How also do children manage to get out from under the oppression of adults who have screwed up, come to inhabit their own sadness, or failure, or loss? How did we?
The only way to throw away childhood and become ourselves is to create other worlds, alternate realities apart from society or parents. We do this with the tools in our hands, by transforming our relationships to objects, environments, and other people into fantasies we think we might wish to make real. We endow the objects around us with talismanic qualities, create little environments of our own and defend them with military fierceness, and we kiss someone. Fantasies are all we have to base our adult selves upon. Otherwise we become replicas of our parents. And as soon as we're done, the gradual process of adulthood, which is really the serial compromise of those fantasies to reality, begins. And we know where it ends.
That's why, far from being slapdash and mixed up, Anderson's worlds are precisely the ones they have to be, because they are made by his characters, who have a mission to accomplish. To see that adventure through their eyes is an extremely rigorous exercise. It requires sympathy with the characters, which means ditching the real world altogether and watching the characters develop in their own.
The dismissive critical responses that come with any Anderson release betray a wish, it seems to me, to avoid seriously confronting the one terrible conflict that is the origin story of every single one of us: we were children, and we grew up. Everything Anderson does, he does in scrupulous faith to that enterprise, and couldn't be done otherwise. Whatever position you take, there is no other filmmaker working today who creates worlds as spectacular as these little worlds, these gizmos, of Wes Anderson. And nobody worth listening to believes he makes them carelessly.
For Anderson, it is if anything a formal constraint on the work that these objects, environments, and relationships become the focus of the camera eye, and the way for children to get out into adulthood (or adults to get on with adulthood). He cribs fetishes from his own life, certainly, but he also makes us feel as though these elements have been synthesized for his characters out of whole cloth, and feel radically specific to their lives and experiences.
In Rushmore, motherless Max must accept his loving real father, a barber and not a brain surgeon, and reject, then accept his loutish pseudo-adoptive father (Herman Blume) in order to advance. In The Royal Tenenbaums, all the children must reckon with what a royal jerk Royal Tenenbaum has been for their entire lives. In The Life Aquatic another terrible father must be dealt with. Darjeeling Limited allows even a dead father to loom over the lives of his sons, who must also find ways to get about the business of life (and, in one case, with fatherhood of his own). In Moonrise Kingdom, this theme is at hand yet again, as two children—one a bona fide orphan, the other a daughter to parents who have lost their way—escape and create their own lives, their own fantasies, their own kingdom.
The shot that opens Moonrise Kingdom pans across, up, and down a New England house, revealing its inhabitants going about their activities and in so doing revealing to us a bit about those inhabitants. It's a style we know well, yet it remains compelling because it is a spectacular way to make us use our eyes to take in all we can of the spaces and bodies that make up the fantastic world we’re entering. As with all of Anderson's films, this world is filled with all sorts of stuff. The house speaks of wealth (it's big), and bourgeois culture (the children are listening to classical music), and anachronism (that music is on a battery-powered record player).
Further curiosities pile up, building the world around the house, from a campground to a country church to a hidden cove. All of these become pregnant with associations for the people moving in and among them. The sum total is New Penzance, a coastal island somewhere in New England in the year 1965, where we are going to see the tale of Sam and Suzy, star-crossed 12-year-old lovers, unfold. Our guide to this world is known to us only as The Narrator (Bob Balaban), a local naturalist and meteorologist. Like any good Shakespearean fool (and there are more than a few elements here that are wonderfully Shakespearean), the Narrator opens and closes the action, even pops up in one or two scenes to make sure things are staying on dramatic track, and regularly gives us the weather. Our Virgil is also a weatherman, telling us which way the wind blows.
To get back to that record for a moment. It's a recording of Benjamin Britten in the form of an instructional record album ("A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra," conducted by Leonard Bernstein), the sort that used to get spun in primary-school music classes, introducing kids to the various personalities of the orchestra (“here come the oboes...”), making the grown-up world comprehensible to a child’s mind by breaking it into bite-size portions and personifying its components or, to put it another way, allowing a child's mind to invent the music anew. These are ways in which children may imagine lives outside of parents and institutions and structures, and into independence.
Sam and Suzy (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward) quit their lives (he a ‘Khaki-Scout’ summer camp, she her parents home) to run off together in hopes of literally making a new life together in the woods of the New England island. Sam is an orphaned foster child whom even his foster parents reject and who is disliked by the rest of his scout troop. Suzy is a fantasy-novel lover whose parents, lawyers Walt and Laura Bishop, (played by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) have drifted apart, referring to one another as “counselor” and lingering about their great house, always apart. At one point, lying separately in twin beds, and talking of the only thing keeping them together, their children, Laura says “We’re all they’ve got, Walt.” He waits a beat before replying; “It’s not enough.”
When the kids disappear, Walt and Laura react with various forms of hysteria, breakdown, and concern, but it's Sam’s troop leader Scout Master Ward (Ed Norton) and the melancholic local sherriff, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) who launch the all-out search effort across the island and step in as the children’s would-be surrogate guardians. Amid all this, the iron fist of all would-be guardianship, in the form of government-deployed Social Services (that's all the character, played icily by Tilda Swinton, is known as), looms; she looks to take Sam, once he’s found, and deposit him in some sort of juvenile hellhole. Meanwhile, the adults in the story have their own dramas to sort through, and these are treated with tenderness and seriousness, yet there is a sense in which their window for self-invention has closed, and that closure highlights the importance, the necessity, that the younger protagonists be allowed their own chance at self-invention.
While Sam and Suzy get to live out their wilderness romance, they learn about each other, show their weaknesses, admit their love, kiss, French kiss, dance to French pop, read to each other, swim, and invent a world. They do this, in typical Anderson fashion, largely through objects. Suzy shares her love of fantasy novels, Sam shares his skills in outdoorsmanship (they collaborate on meals, eating off a makeshift set table), Suzy shares her Françoise Hardy 45, Sam makes her earrings from fishhooks and beetles. He has to pierce her ears to get them on, but there’s a sense in which this newly forged jewelry is the ultimate symbol for the reality the pair are forming. There’s an echo, too, in those earrings, of the one item pinned to Sam’s Scout uniform that’s not Scout-oriented, an old pearl brooch that belonged to his mother. One's an emblem of Sam's past, the other a creation of the future.
The couple are found and escape a number of times, leading to a final fast-paced chase through the coastal landscape as, all the while, a great and terrible storm nears.
In the end, the storm (or, perhaps, the Tempest) has come and gone, and a new world has emerged, with some lovers united, some torn apart, but all pointed in new and different directions. Even the idyllic cove from which the film gets its name, Moonrise Kingdom, (christened such by the young lovers) is not what it was.
These "real" events are all put in motion by the fantasies of two children who are growing up.
Isn't it naive to reject childhood?