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Moonrise Kingdom

Devotees of Wes Anderson seem to regard the release of a new film from the director as a kind of cinematic holiday. Not quite an annual event, but always a cause for celebration. To film lovers so inclined, Anderson's latest feature, Moonrise Kingdom, should offer more of the festive same. And more yet; sort of Christmas and the Fourth of July. But to those of us - we few, we grouchy few - who come to this latest work from the writer/director with any sense of reservation, Moonrise Kingdom might prove to be rather too much, a holiday that's lost all meaning while clinging to its ceremonial excess. Sure, it's a lovely parade, a richly constructed 94-minute show complete with fireworks. But would it be impertinent to ask the point of all this?

As the busy closing credits indicate over a child-narrated Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, a small army of individuals were involved to achieve the look of Moonrise Kingdom. Nonetheless, the culmination of this varied input is unmistakably something we have come to know as a Wes Anderson film.  Moonrise Kingdom begins with a sequence somewhat reminiscent of the ship cross-section in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, a camera tracking back and forth upstairs in the household of the Bishop family, giving us glimpses of the activity and careful placement of objects in each space. It should come as a surprise to no one who has seen any of the director's previous films that the the house bears a name:  Summer's End - the moniker itself full of Andersonian wistfulness.

After some preliminary shifting, we see all of the Bishop children gather in an upstairs room of the lighthouse home.  This being a Wes Anderson film, the kids do nothing so intellectually prosaic as watch Gunsmoke or even The Man From U.N.C.L.E. on television. Three boys, apparently triplets, sit or lay with heads propped on elbows on a rug listening to the aforementioned Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra on a very mod, very 60's (the film is set in 1965) two-tone record player. The sleek record player is destined for some traveling in Moonrise Kingdom, much to the chagrin of one of the lads. Perched above the little classical music fans in a window seat reading one of her favorite novels is the eldest of the Bishop Children, Suzy.

The Bishop residence lies on the fictional island of New Penzance. The topography and meteorology of the presumably New England isle are occasionally addressed by a kind of narrator, played by Bob Balaban, attired throughout like someone who's done a lot of shopping at the nearest L.L. Bean outlet (impeccably adjusted to period, of course).

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of New Penzance are camped a group of strangely-named young men known collectively as the Khaki Scouts. Or as the frustrated father of the Bishop family (Bill Murray) refers to them at one point to their leader, "your beige lunatics."  That leader, Scout Master Randy Ward goes through an amusing morning check of his troops and sits down to breakfast.   Looking about him at the picnic table, he realizes that one of the Khaki Scouts is missing. This the bespectacled Sam Shakusky. A note of resignation is found on Sam's cot and a hole cut into the side of his Troop 55 tent, covered by a map.

A brief though richly detailed flashback explains to whom, if not exactly where the disgruntled Khaki Scout has run. One year earlier we see the scouts assembled at an island church, attending a production of Britten's Noye's Fluddle.  Mr. Anderson did apparently participate in a production of the Britten opera during his childhood. Noye's Fluddle (Noah's Flood) was written by the British composer to be performed in a church or hall, mainly by amateurs. He might not have had the elaborate production in mind that the director lavishes upon his church in New Penzance. Nonetheless, it's not enough to hold the attention of the restless orphan who is Sam Shakusky.  He breaks away from his group and wanders cooly behind the scenes, encountering all manner of costumed young performer, before happening upon a small flock of girls readying themselves for the stage. "What kind of bird are you?" our assured hero asks. When the average looking girl in the blue costume begins to explain just what sort of avian creature everyone at the makeup table represents, Sam interrupts her and points at the girl (and straight at the camera) in the middle, "No, what kind of bird are YOU?" The striking, sable-clad young woman is a Raven.  She also happens to be Suzy Bishop.

Sam wins Suzy over with his precocious savoir-faire. When the offended blue bird reminds him that he's not supposed to be there, he calmly replies that he won't be staying long. Sam also notices that one of Suzy's hands is bandaged. Typical of his disarming (and not terribly realistic) directness, Sam asks her about it. "I got hit in the mirror," Suzy says. "I lost my temper at myself."  A subsequent flashback humorously demonstrates that fits of rage are something that Sam and Suzy have in common. Before they part that first fateful night, Suzy slips Sam her address. A young romance blossoms in epistolary fashion, much as the talented Sam also includes some paintings. "He does watercolors; mostly landscapes, but a few nudes," reveals Laura Bishop (Frances McDormand) to her incredulous husband, examining the letters after it is discovered that Suzy has run away.

Suzy and Sam meet as discussed in their exchange of letters and set off for the cove of their young dreams.  Clueless adults and some generally well-armed Khaki Scouts take up their pursuit.

Anderson might demonstrate a detachment from reality that rivals the 21st-century version of Woody Allen, but the director of Moonrise Kingdom would seem to possess a much stronger sense of what he wishes to accomplish, both in terms of the broad outlines of his story as well as the visual setting of scene. He also gives every indication of being able to achieve those wishes with precision. Therein lies the surface strength and underlying limitation of Wes Anderson as a filmmaker and his latest feature.

The hallmarks, some might say the precious obsessions of the writer/director, are here in their normal profusion. There is the fetish for uniforms and a general tendency in wardrobe (mainly male) that would seem to indicate the clothing of eccentric, well-to-do,vaguely intellectual East Coasters thrown into a closet and and made to commingle incestuously, a kind of preppyism run amok. There are buildings, a boat and a stylized bus stop all neatly labelled. Even a turtle yanked from its watery home by Sam bears a name (Albert, for the record). One can easily imagine a young Wes Anderson receiving a label maker for Christmas and proceeding to have the time of his life. There are flags, there is cool gear (a product placement deal with the people at Coleman would seem to be in effect) aplenty and there is plaid everywhere. There are those fanciful names, confined here mainly to the Khaki Scouts: Lazy Eye, Jed, Nickleby, Gadge, Izod. There almost had to be someone named Izod. There is but one instance of gratuitous slo-mo; perhaps Anderson should be commended for that.

Even more commendable is the overall look of Moonrise Kingdom.  It's hard to think of a director who more consistently presents such a rich mise-en-scene, both in terms of color and composition.  Compare him again to Woody Allen.  Aside from certain of the performances, the art direction in Midnight in Paris was about the only aspect of the film rightfully lauded.  But the dreamy, luminous interiors were not matched to any extent by the exterior photography.  It might have been partially a matter of Gil Pender occupying Paris at once past and present - not to mention the fact that Allen wasn't working with an Avenger's-type budget - but there also seemed a kind of laziness at work when Gil and his lovely 1920's friend, Adriana, are to be seen walking by a decidedly contemporary traffic cone in one shot.  The visually lush if hermetically-sealed world of Moonrise Kingdom offers no such clumsiness.

Beyond the heavy saturation bombing of color (and pattern; good lord, the plaid!) and the attention to detail in terms of the placement of objects, there is also a playful mastery of perspective.  The Bishop residence is first seen as a painting, subsequently made real with an exterior shot of house, the small and large houses, the real and pictured, one in the same.  The changing perspectives is paralleled by the the shifting view from Suzy's binoculars as they travel around the island as much as that record player.  There is also the more subtle matter of visual mood and film style.  Anderson and his cinematographer Robert Yeoman chose super 16mm photography for Moonrise Kingdom.  The relatively lightweight 16mm cameras offered more mobility for the the island exteriors and remote settings.  The corresponding film stock chosen has a slight graininess which suits the period.  Both the film and the natural light utilized lends some of the exterior shots of Suzy and Sam an almost smoky quality, the refracted afternoon light of shooting reminiscent of 60's and 70's films and commercials.

All of which is to say that Moonrise Kingdom looks very, very good. The same can be said, as usual, for the the sounds accompanying the images in a Wes Anderson film. Just as each frame seems as rich, perhaps more rich than ever, Moonrise Kingdom offers what may well be the most complex and varied of all the soundtracks to Wes Anderson's films, which tend to treated as much as an event as the films they accompany. The mix of classical music, pieces composed for the film by Alexandre Desplat and Mark Mothersbaugh and a few Hank Williams tunes constitute a soundtrack in the best sense, imaginatively enhancing the images with which it is paired most any given time in the film.

Once such instance of an apparently sublime marriage of soundtrack and film occurs when Sam and Suzy have reached their destination on New Penzance. This the film's eponymous cove, the name revealed only later, in the final moments of Moonrise Kingdom, another graceful instance of a painting echoed by a shot of the real thing, both showing large letters spelled out across the sand.  It's rather the opposite of an S.O.S., more a case of "we're just fine, leave us alone, " than "help!"  As Sam and Suzy first approach their destination, it bears only a technical map demarcation. It will have to be renamed they decide. What the cove might lack in evocative name, Sam and Suzy more than compensate for with their stylized expressions of young love. The headiest moment of which is a dance on the beach to Francoise Hardy's "Le Temps de L'Amour." The dance and music, of course, offer a kind of perfection, any awkwardness excised or expertly choreographed to add a nice touch of versimilitude. It's the sort of sequence which so draws people to the films of Wes Anderson. And really, what is not to love?

The scene does show a director in complete command of what he's doing, but to what end? Is this really a celebration of the poignancy of first love, of adolescent longing and alienation, or an exploitation of it?

Suzy explains that the Francoise Hardy record, her favorite, has come courtesy of a Parisian godmother.   But really, the record has essentially come from good old Uncle Wes.  It's one of many instances in which these supposed kids are draped in a sophistication well beyond their years.  This is true not only in a visual sense but in the frank exchanges the two have, which demonstrate a self-awareness that many adults do not possess.  Their declarative statements  - "It's possible I may wet the bed"; "I think they're going to get bigger" (Suzy speaking of her still-forming breasts) - are spoken in clean, non-overlapping sentences.  The directness with which Sam and Suzy often speak is actually more consistent with younger children.  By adolescence, the defenses have usually sprung up; candor, when it comes, does so in more oblique and rare fashion.  But the psychology clarity is as adult as the record selection.

Moonrise Kingdom is certainly a fairy tale, but whose?  In the 1980's the movies took us back to win the Vietnam War, history be damned.  In the past 10 or 15 years, script writers have gone back to win the war of high school, the war of adolescence.  In these revised histories, the nerdy boy is rendered cool, he gets the girl, he wins.  The young women in these stories - Portia Doubleday as Sheeni Saunders in Youth in Revolt; Emma Stone as Olive in Easy A - are generally not only pretty but demonstrate a sophistication of which most worldly women of 35 would be proud.  Not surprisingly, most if not all of these stories have been written by men.  This consistent with the male tendency to look askance at midlife (or its approach) and try to beat the clock by going back and starting again. All of this is sort of the writer's equivalent of the red sports car, the abandoned wife and family and 25-year-old girlfriend.

This trend found, if not its origin, at least a considerable amount of impetus in Wes Anderson's Rushmore (written with Owen Wilson).  There at least, Max Fischer was essentially a kid.  This despite his precociousness and his impressive accomplishments (Calligraphy Club president, Astronomy Club founder, etc.).  This is also true in Richard Ayoade's Submarine, a film that might seem a Welsh Rushmore at first glance, but owes most of its inspiration to Harold and Maude.  As this regression continues in film, the connection to reality becomes ever more tenuous.  Sam Shakusky, short of stature and bespectacled of young face, wins the fairly stunning, comparatively statuesque Suzy.  The nobility of his cause also eventually wins most of the avenging Khaki Scouts to his cause (all but the suitably blonde Redford, who understandably carries a grudge after being stabbed by Suzy with her lefty scissors).  This is a version of coming of age that is the kind only played out in films.  And given that Sam gets to be short and average looking while Suzy is tall and pretty, it would seem to signify a male fairy tale.

It's a plaid, plaid world.   Just a sample of the swoony production design in Moonrise Kingdom

When the Khaki Scouts first catch up with Sam and Suzy, they make an ill-advised attack.  They might be but two, but our young lovers have rage to spare.  The attack, like virtually all action in Anderson films, be it an altercation or just a conversation, is broken and cartoonish  We don't see the brief skirmish, just it's amusing aftermath:  the routed Khaki Scouts in retreat and a motor bike somehow over a cliff and lodged in the branches of a tree.  The only real victim of the confrontation, besides the Khaki Scout made to feel the wrath of Suzy and her lefty scissors, is the Troop 55 dog, Snoopy.  "The bastards," says Sam as he and Suzy find the poor pooch impaled with an arrow.  "Was he a good dog?," asks Suzy."  "Who's to know," responds Sam.  

It's quite funny, that "who's to know," delivered expertly by young Jared Gilman as Sam, the words carrying the world-weariness of a middle-aged man.  But then, it's also funny to dress a kid kid up and see him flopping around in a grown man's suit.  Or putting a little top hat on an aggrieved cat or dog.  But none of these things really constitute art, or particularly audacious attempts at wit.    

It would seem to be possible to make a film about innocence, youthful longing, first love, whatever, and still allow the kids the dignity of resembling Earthlings of that general age. This does not necessarily preclude the flourishing of directorial style. Or even poetry. And wouldn't that be a more courageous thing to do? Wes Anderson continues to demonstrate great imagination of a kind. But his work also continues to take short cuts to emotional resonance, which leaves an aftertaste of manipulation much more than an enduring connection with something real.

The earnest if hapless Scout Master Ward is played by Edward Norton. Norton is quite good as the scout leader and he's given the closest thing to a real person to play among the adult characters in Moonrise Kingdom. It's a nice touch that the dedicated Khaki Scout leader is shown to be a smoker of cigarettes. There's something consistent there with the slight nervousness, the amusing attention to detail. But Anderson and his writing partner Roman Coppola don't stop at a reasonable level of detail. It's symptomatic of Anderson's worst tendencies toward preciousness that Scout Master Ward is also seen with a snifter of brandy at his table when dictating his daily log into a reel to reel tape recorder. Ultimately, there's little interest shown in creating real characters, especially among the adults in Moonrise Kingdom. Mainly they're just wardrobes with simple emotional states attached.

As for those states, there's usually something rotten in them, the various dark provinces of adulthood.  There is in Moonrise Kingdom and elsewhere in Anderson's work a view of adult life reminiscent of Saul Steinberg's famous 1976 New Yorker cartoon, "View of the World from 9th Avenue," in which beyond Gotham and the Hudson there is little more than a wasteland until one arrives at the Pacific.  Adulthood as presented by Anderson is often such a bleak expanse of disappointment beyond the colorful, precocious world of childhood.  The theme finds its most hopeless and emphatic expression in an exchange between Walt and Laura Bishop, the statements issued from their separate beds:

Walt - "I hope the roof flies off and I get sucked up into space. You'll be better off without me."
Laura - "Stop feeling sorry for yourself."
Walt - "Why?"
Laura - "We're all they've got, Walt."
Walt - "It's not enough"

Is everybody happy?  Is anybody happy?  The generally glum adults in
Moonrise Kingdom.
There is also the matter of orphans or the seeking of an absent mommy or daddy that is common to several of Anderson's stories.  You would think Mr. Anderson was a foundling himself for manner in which this potent but not terribly original sort of storyline recurs in his work (in conjunction with several different writing partners).  It reminds one of the disproportionate effect that having ineffectual parents and being forced to work for a short time in a boot polish factory applying labels had on Charles Dickens. Of course, much as Dickens worked out all manner of  psychic baggage in his stories, he also managed to present an extraordinary range of characters and situations from most every level of 19th century English society.  Wes Anderson has shown the ability to create little more than variations on the same theme.  He was not an orphan, but apparently his parents' divorce, occurring as it did when he was just eight, has had a significant effect on the man and his work.  Unfortunately, it produces over time not only the effect a wallowing egocentrism (if that early disappointment has had such an effect), but rather cheap storytelling.

This brings us back to the issue of a story ostensibly about children, rebellion and young love having very little to do with the actual young lives in which an audience is being asked to make an emotional investment.

There was the unusual but broken family of The Royal Tenenbaums.  In addition to the tangle of child and parent issues with the Tenenbaums, Anderson seems in some ways like the Owen Wilson character in that film, a successful artist of a kind who longs for what he doesn't have.  In both The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited there is a questing after parents gone or who won't seem to properly acknowledge their children.  And then we have the plucky orphan who is Sam Shakusky in Moonrise Kingdom.  It creates the temptation to hoist Anderson on his own petard, using a line that Sam delivers to Suzy, after she muses,  “I sometimes wish I was an orphan. All my favorite characters are.” Sam replies, “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.” We all have our pain, but I'm not sure Mr. Anderson knows much about the experience about being a child without parents. And even if he is able to bring some real sense of loss to bear in his work, he has gone to that well far too often.

Alas, the poor kids, Sam and Suzy. They don’t get sent flopping all over New Penzance in adult clothing. But they bear a more significant burden. They bear all sorts of adult longing and frustration. They’re not really characters so much as projections. The projections of adults, filmmaker and audience alike, who have had their ideals curdled by life experience and long to go back and get it all right, return to a time when anything seemed possible. The projections of our rebellion against the stifling constraints of adult life, or more sadly, more accurately perhaps, the sense of rebellion we wish we had.

Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward fare rather well in these difficult assignments, especially Ms. Hayward. 

There's always an element of escape in film, being taken out of one's own life for 90 or 120 minutes.  Not necessarily a bad thing.   More so than any of his previous films, Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom provides an exceedingly lovely place to which one might escape, a visually replete world that resounds with an impeccably chosen soundtrack.  But while we're escaping our lives and working out some of the issues therein, let's leave the kids out of it, shall we?   



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