Screening Log #72: Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Written by Roman Coppola and Wes Anderson
Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring Jared Gillman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis, Ed Norton, Bill Murray, and Frances McDormand




To one degree or another, all creative human activity is an affirmation in the face of entropy. Everything, in time, falls apart; to build or creative is to affirm the value of the creative act and the individual behind the gesture, despite its inevitable dissolution. As such, there is something noble and naïve, perhaps, at times, blindly heroic, about any attempt at organizing or structuring something in the world. In artistic terms, there is also an element of the fantastic that emerges when a piece is overly structured, when its corners are too neatly tucked, its seams too cleanly sewn. Under the duress of structure, a short story or film or painting moves into the realm of the archetypical and the fable. A strange correlation emerges between the particular specificity of the presented details and their facility to be read in an allegorical or universal sense.

Wes Anderson is nothing if not a filmmaker of impeccable construction and structure. Each of his films is comprised of meticulous stylistic choices that cover every inch of ground from colour schemes to wardrobe, set dressing to dialogue, and his thoughtfully composed images. His style of direction often simultaneously calls attention to the fabricated nature of the image while allowing for a manicured naturalism to emerge from his actors by employing long, intricately choreographed, tracking shots along both vertical and horizontal axes. Where, to my mind, this meticulous style, and his often striking, though precious, aesthetics frequently detracted from the emotional consistency of many of his previous films, Anderson found a strong thematic foothold in The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Here, the director found subject matter that was at once perfectly in tune with his rigorous aesthetic and stylistic proclivities while also being appropriate to the allegorical implications opened as a consequence of this hyper-real constructedness.

Anderson’s newest film, Moonrise Kingdom, borrows liberally from The Fantastic Mr. Fox in terms of its fabular structure. As is usually the case, Anderson’s film deals explicitly with ideas of family, its construction and consequence. Here, the protagonist is orphan Sam Shakusky, Jared Gilman, entrusted to the care of the Khaki Scouts on the island of New Penzance under the watch of Scout Master Ward, Edward Norton. The year is 1965 and Anderson dresses his characters and sets with equal care, evoking both the period and his own distinct aesthetic at the same time. Sam has made secret plans to abscond from the Khaki Scout camp in order to rendezvouz with Suzy Bishop, Kara Hayward, which he organized via penpalship after an electric meeting in the girl’s dressing room of a production of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde the year before. The pair’s disappearance alerts the girl’s parents Laura and Walt, Frances McDormand and Bill Murray, the aforementioned Scout Master, and the island’s sole law enforcement officer, Captain Sharp, Bruce Willis, who may be involved in an extra-marital affair with Laura Bishop.

A young romance develops between Sam and Suzy at a brisk pace, their tentative advances playing out with a sort of preternatural frankness against a natural backdrop. Sam’s practical survival know-how is contrasted with Suzy’s more abstract engagements with literature and music, the two forming an archetypically complimentary pair that bridges the gap between living in the world and making culture. The consummation of their early adolescent romance comes in stilted gestures while they fittingly stand in the liminal space where the waves crash ashore, astride both the worlds of childhood innocence and adult romance. The couple rename this beach the titular “Moonrise Kingdom” before being apprehended by the adult forces tracking them and are forcibly separated forever, for all intents and purposes of the adults involved.

The group that once spurned Sam for being an unbalanced orphan change their stance after hearing that Sam’s foster home has given up and that he will be remanded to the care of Social Services, the institution embodied by Tilda Swinton who only goes by the same Social Services for the duration of the film. Social Services promises a potential round of shock therapy, pending Sam’s psychological evaluation. Here, the film becomes something more like an escape film, with the boys smuggling Sam and Suzy to a camp of older scouts in the hope of allowing them a future together.

These later events all transpire foregrounded against the storm which the film’s narrator, Bob Balaban, has warned against from its outset. The storm can be read to represent the chaotic forces of the universe, its raging water destroys damns built by man, its thunder splinters a church steeple. Indeed, here the universe’s natural tendency to destroy the created structures of man, whether physical or societal, is demonstrated. The narrator, too, represents one mode of narrative framing employed by Anderson. The film also begins with Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, its narrator explaining how a piece of music is built around variations on a theme played by various instruments in cycle before culminating in a harmonious unison. This diegetic music also functions as a heavy statement as to how Anderson will organize his film, its elements all functioning as variations on central themes. The flood of the storm echoes the flood of Britten’s play, Sam and Suzy’s relationship echoes that of Laura Bishop and Captain Sharp, etc. The film is structured in tightly regimented coils even as it allows for chaotic elements that upend civilized institutions.

This chaotic element is also manifested in several visual gags that Anderson employs, allowing a sort of irreverence to seep into his usually very controlled compositions: a tree house teeters cartoonishly high atop a limbless tree, a young gymnast begins a spectacular trampoline routine to the right of a serious conversation Sam and Suzy have about their legally illegitimate wedding, etc. Where Anderson once took great pains to make the intensely technical work that went into his productions explicit – The Life Aquatic‘s scale cutaway of the Belafonte, for example – here, this sort of work remains implied and off-screen. Anderson moves the camera laterally and vertically through the Bishop’s household through the film’s beginning, at one point even pulling back through a table that Walt casually closes after the camera passes. The viewer is given the suggestion of the complexity of Anderson’s shots without having their internal workings completely demystified.

Between this loosening, slight as it may be, of Anderson’s strictly structured visuals and the decisions to set the film in period and around emerging adolescent love, rendering his aesthetic and thematic predilections more appropriate than not, Moonrise Kingdom achieves a less tenuous balance between its craft and its content than some of Anderson’s other work. By opening his window to a little fuss and chaos, Anderson broadens the relatability of both his characters and the film in which they appear. There is a signal here that perhaps Anderson is willing – it was never a question of being able, or of having the skill – to allow a small crack in his work that allows the rest of us in. His earlier films were remarkable, admirable, even, for being conceived in their smallest details, but, being conceived so completely, there remained no room for the film to accommodate that which was other than itself; there is no room for passengers inside a perfect snow-globe. Perhaps the dawning night of maturity invoked by Moonrise Kingdom‘s title gestures not only to the adolescence looming in the lives of its protagonist, but a transition for its director as well. I feel comfortable stating that, until that moment, the universe will have never fallen apart with such meticulously wrought whimsy.


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