Friday, July 27, 2012

The Young Person's Guide to Wes Anderson, Part 2

Suzy (Kara Hayward) on the lookout in Moonrise Kingdom.

Some artists have to stumble on their great subjects; but Wes Anderson (as I discussed in the first part of this critical diptych) always seemed to have at least a rough idea of his ideal canvas - or rather his  two ideal canvases. He has always been drawn both to the miniature, and the rambling fable - an odd combination, frankly, and one that has usually led to ungainly movies.

But in Moonrise Kingdom, I'd argue Anderson has balanced these two impulses at last, and found the perfect scale - and frame - in which to work his magic.  I think Moonrise will quickly be seen as a landmark in his oeuvre; but whether it will actually open up new horizons for this rather self-satisfied filmmaker - well, I'm less sure of that.

But first, why Moonrise marks an artistic apogee for him; it has to do with his love of the miniature, and his constant flirtations with faux-naïf artifice.  Anderson likes to remind us that we are always watching a movie in his movies, and what's more, that its sensibility is limited - the way a prep schooler's evocation of life would be.  He does this, I think, to remind us that beneath the faux-naïf is a real naïf; he himself lacks the experience or wisdom to draw human beings as they actually are.

Such stances, however, lead to trouble when they seed their own twee self-satisfaction - when a movie self-consciously avoids truths that the audience itself is mature enough to guess. Thus the edge of smugness that presses against the surface of The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou; we have a pretty good idea what's wrong with the people in these movies, even if a twelve-year-old wouldn't - and we have a pretty good idea that Wes Anderson has a pretty good idea, too.

But the pen-pal protagonists of Moonrise Kingdom, Sam and Suzy, are only twelve or thirteen themselves, and so the film's innocence feels real, and its central idyll - when they escape to an enchanted isle to conjure what they imagine is romance - casts a spell over the whole picture.  Their evocations of adulthood can only go as far as Anderson's own; suddenly, in this miniature landscape, everything they do resonates with everything their director wants to do, too.

Sam and Suzy play at romantic sophistication in Moonrise Kingdom.

They're too young for actual sex, of course (indeed, when they cuddle poor Sam warns Suzy he has been known to wet the bed).  But they have their ideas of what love should be like; Sam (Jared Gilman), in his Davy Crockett hat and corn-cob pipe, sees himself as the pioneer type; meanwhile Suzy (Kara Hayward) styles herself a knowing, wounded sphinx.  Thus she introduces Sam to the mournfully whispered Gallic pop of Françoise Hardy, and they spend their afternoons dancing with hilarious beatnik solemnity (above) to her favorite 45's (on a record player with seemingly endless battery power).  That is when they aren't gazing into each other's eyes with pen-pal ardor, or Sam isn't piercing Suzy's ears with fish-hooks (yow!).  They're not aware of their own blankness, of course - nor of the fact that they're probably mis-matched.  The brief congruence of their very different, but self-aware, sensibilities is enough.

There's another level of resonance to this encounter, of course - it occurs in '65 or so, après le déluge, before the pop innocence of the 60's toppled into the druggy squalor of Haight-Ashbury and Woodstock. Thus the world around Sam and Suzy is still very much ordered in the manner of the 50's (and even the 40's), and quite sure of its own benevolence, and of course it comes looking for them.  Sam has escaped from Camp Ivanhoe, a "khaki scout" enclave (yet another variant on Anderson's prep schools) run by another perplexed innocent - in shorts, no less - Edward Norton, who spends his days diligently optimizing everything, even the flush of the camp latrines (until he encounters our own Marianna Bassham, who has a charming repeat cameo in the movie).

And again as usual in Anderson, the innocence of this virtual boarding-school is balanced by the darker world of the damaged people who send their kids there: Suzy's parents, for instance (Bill Murray and Francis McDormand) are two lawyers so romantically alienated they call each other "Counselor" in bed - and the movie hints that Suzy's rebellious melancholy has been sparked by her knowledge that McDormand has taken up with the local policeman, Captain Sparks (Bruce Willis).

Here lies the rambling side of Anderson's fable, often rendered with an awkward mobile camera - but still tinged with storybook magic (and accompanied, with perhaps a nudge from the director, by Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra"). For dysfunctional as these folks may be, they hang onto their flawed humanity - unlike the super-competent child welfare authority (Tilda Swinton) who is outraged by error of any kind, swoops in to take charge of Sam (who is, as fairy tales demand, an orphan).  With her pale beak and predatory eyes, Ms. Swinton is quite a frightening administrative matriarch, and apparently shorn of all empathy (she's actually named "Social Services," and speaks calmly of "shock treatments - if necessary!"). Obviously, she's Anderson's version of that other fairy tale perennial - the evil stepmother.

Lost and found - Edward Norton and his scouts get a glimpse of romance.

Fear not, Sam is saved from her clutches (although he winds up getting shock therapy from a lightning-strike), and he eventually finds his natural home at the quirky hearth of Captain Sparks, an obvious father-in-waiting.  Indeed, as sometimes happens in Anderson's fairy tales, local society is set to rights at the end of Moonrise Kingdom - but only after a literal déluge, a flood also accompanied on the soundtrack by Benjamin Britten (whose charming Noye's Fludde is heard throughout  the movie - particularly its choruses for children, appropriately enough).

To be honest, it seems to me that Anderson loses control of his film a bit toward the finish - there are almost too many chases, and witty as they may be, the film begins to feel cluttered and rushed.  But it really doesn't matter, because by then the movie has a quality which is rare in millennial film: resonance.  This used to be one of the hallmarks of great dramatic or cinematic art - and yet resonance is all but extinct today (so I'm not actually sure whether what we're getting out of the millennials is really art at all, or something else).

Part of the reason for this collapse lies in the millennial love of genre - which can seem resonant at its birth, but which by definition is quickly defined and broken down into constituent parts.  But resonance depends on submerged connections and symbology - as soon as its connections become explicit, they're no longer resonant.  And perhaps it depends on something else, too - the materials of actual life.  Wes Anderson is a highly self-conscious filmmaker - and yet his work is generally sourced in his own experience, which perforce, like any life, has its own mystery.  Indeed, as a child Anderson performed in a production of Noye's Fludde, and of course all his films are littered with the touchstones of his actual adolescence.  He has been working and re-working this material for years - and sometimes, as in Moonrise Kingdom, when his children's theatre comes into alignment with actual children's theatre, something magical happens.  But this is what makes me think of Moonrise as more of a culmination than a new beginning.  Its pitch is sometimes perfect, but its tune is quite familiar.  To reach this kind of peak again, Anderson may have to mine his life for something new - maybe even something that happened after prep school.

Children's theatre within children's theatre - the cast of Noye's Fludde in Moonrise Kingdom.


  1. I am surprised you devoted so much space to this movie. It's a kids film. The only thing that makes it seem like more than that are all the technical tricks. Take those away and you get the kind of film Disney might have made in the 60s and 70s--The Parent Trap or In Search of the Castaways.

    There's no real emotional depth, no insight into the complexities of childhood. The best you can say about it is that it's charming, but that's really not saying much.

    It shows the state of American film that critics have no other movies to write think pieces about than this cutesy drivel.

  2. Well, sorry it didn't float your boat. I'm not claiming it's a great motion picture - a "minor classic" is what I'd call it. But I think it's going to be the best we see from Wes Anderson, and like it or not, he's a "major" film director these days. I share your general dismay over the current cinema, though. I'm not sure when exactly we are going to face the fact that this generation may be the least talented ever.

  3. I went to see the movie after your review. My wife paraphrased from another review that compared it to Ferris Bueller's Day Off as a generational influence so I don't think you're far off.

    The major difference to me is that everybody making movies in Walt Disney's day had children or at least lived in a culture where generally men got married before 25 and had kids in their 30s. Probably for John Hughes they still got married early and maybe had kids but were then divorced. Their kids are Wes Anderson's generation.

    I am Anderson's age, but I got married around 26 and had kids soon after. I'm not saying much like the major creators in my generation, it's pretty disconnected. I feel like they all spent their 20s and early 30s travelling and having a lot more fun and maybe just now are having kids.

    I'm not saying having children is the only experience you can have after prep school, but it's probably the one that makes most people the adults they are going to be (good and bad), and it seems relevant to this movie.