Thursday, September 6, 2012

MOONRISE KINGDOM - FILM REVIEW (2012 - Directed by Wes Anderson)

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I many times thought peace had come
When peace was far away,
As wrecked men deem they sight the land
When far at sea they stay.

And struggle slacker, but to prove,
As hopelessly as I,
That many the fictitious shores
Before the harbor lie.


- Emily Dickinson
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I've never been too fond of the films of Wes Anderson. They've always struck me as a bit pretentious and unnecessarily angsty. Being pretentious is affecting an unwarranted or exaggerated importance, and I've always felt that Anderson treats his stories as if they were about far more than they really are. What are they about? Well, angst consists of feelings of anxiety, apprehension or insecurity; and, angst is what the characters in a Wes Anderson film are usually full of. Arguably, the idea of feeling anxious and insecure as a permanent part of your every day life is a wholly modern phenomenon. It used to be that anxious and insecure feelings were those unique emotions that one experienced while (a) getting shot at with bullets on a battlefield, or (b) at the beginning of your own wedding.

I can't understand how angst became cool, but if there's a film director who is guilty for making it cool, that director would be Wes Anderson. I've always refused to applaud hipster quirkiness merely because it's different from the mainstream. Being strange only for the sake of being strange is quite dull. Irony ought not to be something you engage in to achieve social status (which is how our culture now views irony). That makes it no fun at all. Irony used to be a tool used by the good-humored for the sake of genuine laughter. Now it's used for the sake of the smirk.

I found Bottle Rocket (1996) dull because it was a story about tired middle- class white young men looking for stupid ways to cure their boredom with their own selves. There was no good reason for Luke Wilson's character to be tired in the first place (other than the fact that he was stuck inside an Anderson film). There was nothing inspired or redemptive about the story or even its ending. Owen Wilson is occasionally a funny guy, but alone, he's not enough to save the artless script he helped Anderson write. Rushmore (1998) next was more of the same. Bill Murray was given a few charming moments, but why would you make a film where those moments are the exception to the rule? And why is it supposed to be funny to watch Murray have to compete with a 15-year-old Jason Schwartzman for the attentions of a grown woman? Why are we supposed to enjoy the idea of a teenager who learns how to cheat and manipulate like an adult? A marriage is summarily dumped. The old-world schoolmaster is portrayed as stuffy and irrelevant. The plot is driven by twists and gimmicks that ring hollow.

But, let's not spend much more space here criticizing. Suffice to say, I disliked how The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) used problems that cause many people pain and suffering in real life for the purpose of ironic humor. I found The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) the most watchable of Anderson's films, but there was still something downright inhuman and inconsistent about its characters. And, having two brothers of my own, I thought The Darjeeling Limited (2007) just didn't get brotherly relationships at all.  Instead Anderson seemed too busy substituting quirkiness for heart. I couldn't even summon the motivation to see Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and I may be wrong about it, but the snarkiness of the trailers was just not the sort of humor I would ever want to encourage in any child. In summation, it may be unsatisfactory to force myself to lay a finger upon a substantive reason why I've found these films to be lacking.  But, there's been a persistent emptiness about them that I can't shake off.

So why all the grumbling?

I've explained my aversion to Wes Anderson's trendiness because now, for the very first time, he has finally won me over. I didn't find this one empty. In fact, even more than that, Anderson has put together, in Moonrise Kingdom, what is arguably the best and most enjoyable film of the first half of 2012. In my opinion, this one is different from everything else he's ever done.

For one thing, it has actual spiritual depth to it. It has characters with believably human failures and triumphs. Angst is not the point of the film. It has heroes, consciences, and genuine moral dilemmas that are more than stylistic tropes for the sake of winking irony. Unlike in The Royal Tenenbaums or in the The Darjeeling Limited, the thing the characters in this story are searching for is something more substantive than just some rote existential self-actualization.

There is something different here.  This time the style does not overcome the substance.

A good way to describe many a Wes Anderson character would be as a lost soul. His films are full of lost souls. Self-obsessed, self-centered, self-reflecting and self-referential, in spite of all their strangeness they often represented the modern man or woman quite well. But try as hard as I could, I wasn't able to find any moments of grace or redemption for any of them - at least, not until now.

All of a sudden, we are given something special.

Meet Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman).

First, he's in a Wes Anderson film. Second, he's an orphan who has been shuffled from foster home to foster home. Third, he's an outsider who doesn't fit in with the other guys. He's interested in things wiser and deeper than his fellows and they just don't understand him. Because they don't understand him, they don't like him. Because they don't like him, they bully him. So, if there's a single main character in this film who's supposed to be filled with modern angst and anxiety, it's Sam. But ... he isn't.

Sam is the type of twelve-year-old who would encounter anxiety, poke it with a stick, and perhaps stuff it in a jar as an odd curiosity (to be shelved in a corner along with other collected jars of popular 1960s values like pacifism or self-expression). For all his background, he's the single most self-confident character in the film. Bullying is an obstacle he shrugs off. Narcissistic adults bore him rather than influence him. And real life problems, for Sam, are questions to be considered philosophically, preferable with a lit pipe of tobacco. Sam is essentially twelve-year-old Daniel Boone meets Huckleberry Finn meets Frank Morris. (New to the movie screen, Jared Gilman studied Clint Eastwood's character in Escape from Alcatraz (1979) to help inspire himself to play Sam.)

The American rugged individualist is not a character you’d think you would be likely to see in a Wes Anderson film. Such a character has too many old-world values that are out of place in our modern therapeutic age, much less in a film about angst and trendiness. But Sam is that character. And he IS out of place.

And yet, as the film opens and you begin to learn a few things about Sam, you realize that he is still missing something. He's still just a child and is therefore not supposed to be in the position he's in, surrounded by a suffocating adult world of hopelessness and futility.

The thing about forcing children to grow up faster than they ought to is that they often begin to desire grownup things. Granted there are desires that are natural for man, woman and child. Most of us, however, will agree that there are desires unique to being a child and there are other desires unique to being an adult. It follows that there are things adults ought to desire. (The grownups in Moonrise Kingdom - Captain Sharp, Scout Master Ward, Mr. & Mrs. Bishop - all want things that they do not have.) And there are things that it is healthy and good for children, as children, to desire. Many of our desires are left unsatisfied. That does not mean they are still not worth desiring. So then, what we ought to find most interesting of all are those things that all of us, no matter what age, ought to desire.

A question that naturally arises when watching Moonrise Kingdom is whether Sam is trying, much too early, to be an adult. Is he asking for things he is too young to ask for? Given that we are looking at a story about children, to answer this question and to try to consider this film in the unique light that it deserves, let’s turn for a moment to the essay written by C.S. Lewis entitled “On Three Ways of Writing For Children” (most recently published by Harvest Books in the collection, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories).

It's not that this film is made for children. In fact, I'm not sure how old my own children someday would have to be before I ever let them see this film. But I'd be conflicted, because it's an adventure film that would probably highly appeal to children. Now that I am completely absorbed in the world of grownups, I cannot approve of many of the choices that Sam makes in Moonrise Kingdom. The problem, as Lewis points it out, is that the world of grownups often thinks of children in a rather condescending manner. He writes:

“Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” (pg. 25)

The great thing about Sam is that neither does he desire to be grown-up, nor does he worry about appearing too childish. Due to his circumstances, he is pursuing responsibilities and a relationship that we would consider him to be too young for. When he admits to one particularly disconcerting childish inadequacy, he comments on it philosophically - “Some people frown on these problems.” He doesn't worry about his own age. He doesn't condescend to adults any more than he would look down his nose at his fellow Khaki Scouts. Instead, he focuses intently on finding what he wants and the person that interests him most in the world is a girl.

Meet Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward).

First, she takes being an introvert deadly seriously. Second, she comes from a dysfunctional family. Both her parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) are, unfortunately, lawyers, and there are a whole collection of good reasons why their relationship is going poorly. Third, she's a voracious reader of fairy tales and science fiction. When she undertakes the twelve-year-old equivalent of an elopement with Sam, she brings a suitcase that she has mostly filled with books. She explains to Sam, quite matter-of-factly: “These are my books. I like stories with magic powers in them. Either in kingdoms on earth or on foreign planets. Also, time travel, if they make it realistic. Usually, I prefer a girl hero, but not always.” Her views on life are shaped by these books and she willingly reads them aloud to anyone willing to listen.

Is this escapism? It could be. But let's finish considering C.S. Lewis's thoughts on the subject. He writes that fairy tales are “accused of giving children a false impression of the world they live in. But I think no literature that children could read gives them less of a false impression. I think what profess to be realistic stories for children are far more likely to deceive them. I never expected the real world to be like the fairy tales. I think that I did expect school to be like the school stories. The fantasies did not deceive me: the school stories did. All stories in which children have adventures and successes which are possible, in the sense that they do not break the laws of nature, but almost infinitely improbable, are in more danger than the fairy tales of raising false expectations.

Almost the same answer serves for the popular charge of escapism, though here the question is not so simple. Do fairy tales teach children to retreat into a world of wish-fulfilment - ‘fantasy’ in the technical psychological sense of the world - instead of facing the problems of the real world? Now it is here that the problem becomes subtle. Let us again lay the fairy tale side by side with the school story or any other story which is labeled a ‘Boy’s Book’ or a ‘Girl’s Book,’ as distinct from a ‘Children’s Book.’ There is no doubt that both arouse, and imaginatively satisfy, wishes. We long to go through the looking glass, to reach fairy land. We also long to be the immensely popular and successful schoolboy or schoolgirl ...

But the two longings are very different. The second, especially when directed on something so close to school life, is ravenous and deadly serious. Its fulfilment on the level of imagination is in very truth compensatory: we run to it from the disappointments and humiliations of the real world: It sends us back to the real world undivinely discontented. For it is all flattery to the ego. The pleasure consists in picturing oneself the object of admiration. The other longing, that for fairy land, is very different. In a sense a child does not long for fairy land as a boy longs to be the hero of the first eleven. Does anyone suppose that he really and prosaically longs for all the dangers and discomforts of the fairy tale? - really wants dragons in contemporary England? It is not so. It would be much truer to say that fairy land arouses a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise the real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted. This is a special kind of longing. The boy reading the school story of the type I have in mind desires success and is unhappy (once the book is over) because he can’t get it: the boy reading the fairy tale desires and is happy in the very fact of desiring. For his mind had not been concentrated on himself, as it often is in the more realistic story.




I do not mean that school stories for boys and girls ought not to be written. I am only saying that they are far more liable to become ‘fantasies’ in the clinical sense than fantastic stories are. And this distinction holds for adult reading too. The dangerous fantasy is always superficially realistic. The real victim of wishful reverie does not batten on the Odyssey, The Tempest, or The Worm Ouroboros: he (or she) prefers stories about millionaires , irresistible beauties, posh hotels, palm beaches and bedroom scenes - things that really might happen, that ought to happen, that would have happened if the reader had had a fair chance. For, as I say, there are two kinds of longing. The one is askesis, a spiritual exercise, the other is a disease.”  (pgs. 28-30.)

I would argue that Sam and Suzy in Moonrise Kingdom both exhibit the right sort of longing. They both have the longing that is cultivated by a reading of fairy tales. They are not old enough yet to make the wisest of choices. The problem-ridden adults in this story still know a number of things from far more experience than they do. But they are looking for the right things. And in their looking for them, they impress and disabuse the adult characters of a few fantasies of their own.

Mr. and Mrs. Bishop have been living in their own fantasy. They've been pretending that everything was alright when it wasn't. When the events of the story first astonish them, they simply project their own ideas and failings onto the kids. Mrs. Bishop tries to comfort Suzy by telling her that she knows how she feels. She's made dumb decisions in the past too. She's questioned her own decisions and wondered why she's stuck with a miserable life of her own. But her thinking of her daughter in the same way that she thinks about herself doesn't help. Suzy quickly disabuses her mother of this kind of thinking, and the end result is that Mrs. Bishop realizes that she ought to change, that she still can change and start doing the right thing.

Mr. Bishop also recognizes that he has been failing as a father.

Mr. Bishop: You’ll be better off without me.
Mrs. Bishop: Stop feeling sorry for yourself.
Mr. Bishop: Why?
Mrs. Bishop: We’re all they’ve got, Walt.
Mr. Bishop: It’s not enough.

This realization is fundamentally important if he is going to start providing for his daughter as he should have been. (And in how many Wes Anderson films, anyway, have you heard a character tell another character to stop feeling sorry for himself?) He hasn't been the sort of father who notices when something is wrong with his daughter. He hasn't been the sort of father who even pays attention to his own wife. These things might not be easy to do. They might not come naturally to him. But he realizes that he ought to have been doing them.

To Sam and Suzy, in spite of everything else that is wrong, life is still an adventure. No matter what their problems have been, in and out of what they have for homes, they take joy in one another and in exploring the world around them. I don’t know many guys, if any, who wouldn’t enjoy taking one special girl out on a wilderness expedition like Sam does for Suzy. I don’t know many girls who wouldn’t become just a little more enchanting by reading fairy tales aloud in the woods along the lines of “Shelly and the Secret Universe”, “The Francine Odysseys”, “The Girl from Jupiter”, “Disappearance of the 6th Grade”, “The Light of Seven Matchsticks” or “The Return of Auntie Lorraine.”

Each time they decide to act on their view of the world, they somehow simultaneously manage to wake up the adults in their little community and to endanger their own selves in a sort of Romeo and Juliet fashion. Sam and Suzy’s innocence and naivety endangers them just as much as do the failures of the adult world which they wish to keep apart from. But, these two children are simply not going to be alright by themselves. They need things that they cannot yet provide for each other. Sam, at least, as a strong inkling of this. He understands the value in family in a way that Suzy does not. “I always wished I was an orphan. Most of my favorite characters are,” Suzy tells him bitterly, “I think your lives are more special.” Sam can’t let talk like that go by unnoticed. “I love you,” he tells her, “but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

That the children need the wisdom and protection of the adults in this story becomes self-evident. They are still mere children after all. Mr. Bishop’s worry that the wisdom and protection of the adults will not be enough for the children becomes the worry of the film audience. Even the most stalwart of the adult characters, Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) is soul-searching in regards to his own inadequacy as to what he believes he was supposed to do for Sam. It’s a worry that soon drives him to prayer. The moments when he narrates in his log the events of the day after Sam goes missing are both significant and surprising. Jeffrey Overstreet wrote in his review that there is a devotional quality to the Scout Master’s log and there is. It’s almost as if Clifton Webb had improvised upon the meditations within St. Augustine’s Confessions.

This strange sense of the sacred glimmers faintly and allusively behind the themes implied in little details throughout Moonrise Kingdom. Composer Benjamin Britton's music and his church musical play, "Noye's Fludde," alludes to it. Themes of love and marriage, lost or gained, are infused through it. And, a deep moral sense of duty and responsibility, often lost, neglected, unasked for or thrust upon different characters, are tied to it.

The Bishop parents are bothered by the responsibilities they have forgotten. They both have the opportunity to decide that they have to do better. Scout Master Ward is impressed by responsibilities he may not even have considered in leading a Khaki Scout troop. Early in the film, one of the scouts asks him what his real job is. He explains that he's a math teacher in real life. Further reflection later changes his mind.  With determination, he suddenly looks the boys in the eye and declares: "I’m going to change my answer, in fact. This is my real job. Scout Master, Troop 55. That’s us. I’m proud of that. I teach math on the side," and he proceeds to lead (and possibly lose) them.

Even Sam’s initial antagonists, the Khaki Scout troop, have twinges of conscience. They live by a code. They believe in the responsibilities they’ve been taught in their code. In spite of their dislike for Sam, they can’t help but be impressed by his bold and ambitious plans of action. Skotak, one of the scouts, questions whether they ought to ally themselves with Sam against the forces that are determined to thwart him. “He’s a fellow Khaki Scout, and he needs our help,” Skotak says, “Are we man enough to give that?” The result is a pleasantly new found comradeship that is genuinely and conspiratorially convivial.  From revelations of loyalty like that, only further adventure is inevitable.
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Captain Sharp: I agree with you. That’s eloquent. I can’t argue against anything you’re saying - but I don’t have to, because you’re twelve years old ... It takes time to figure things out. It’s been proven by history: all mankind makes mistakes. It’s our job to try to protect you from the dangerous ones. If we can.
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The cast of this film is one of its joys, not the least of which is Bruce Willis as the police captain, Sharp. Mostly and fondly known to us for his tough guy roles, Willis occasionally gives a turn as a vulnerable and self-effacing character. His mousy and weak-willed Dr. Ernest Menville in Death Becomes Her has always drawn laughter, but his Captain Sharp in this film will draw sympathy and warmth. Willis doesn't mind playing here the opposite of the tough guy. Captain Sharp as a character is sad, lonely, soft-spoken and susceptible to the stronger wills around him. He doesn't seem to have had any real responsibilities as the New Penzance island police captain.

Suddenly, in Sam, he sees a vulnerability in someone else that he identifies with and that is in danger of being abused. Perhaps Sharp can do something about it. If he's not too uncertain about himself, maybe he can finally protect and do something for someone else besides himself for the very first time. This potential second chance is what makes Captain Sharp appealing.

This film is primarily designed for the joy of the characters and the story telling, but it can’t help but play a little with a few of our preconceived notions. Sam and Suzy, and what they want, seems outlandish to us. It would be different if it was only played for laughs, but the genius in the story telling here is that it takes some of these things quite seriously. We are tempted to laugh at Scout Master Ward’s childishness in how passionately he takes his command in the Khaki Scouts, but how can you, at the same time, really deny the nobility of it? The things that Sam and Suzy desire could have just been a joke, but somehow they aren’t just a joke.

The lines in this film between mock serious and honestly thoughtful are dubious. You find yourself in the former at one moment and then in the latter the next.

As the film continues, you get the uncomfortable feeling that they are dallying, unwittingly, with fire. They are making life and death decisions that could permanently change or destroy or delight or even kill them. There is a wildness to it. Children are not supposed to be allowed to engage in the Quixotic in real life. The world around them is broken. A storm is coming. Imagery from Noah’s flood fills the screen and we can smile and enjoy Wes Anderson’s style while, at the same time, engaging in the deeper questions that he invites us to consider. Is young love really as ridiculous as we think it is? Can children make commitments and decisions that bind them for the rest of their lives? Should they even be allowed?
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Sam: Did you love someone ever?
Captain Sharp: Yes, I did.
Sam: What happened?
Captain Sharp: She didn’t love me back.
Sam: Ah.
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Moonrise Kingdom is worth seeing because it is about two children who engage in the spiritual exercise C.S. Lewis said that children who are interested in fairy tales engage in. They are not looking for material success in the adult world. They don’t want to be like the grown-ups. Their longing is for something of deeper significance. Their longing motivates their choice to undertake the adventure that they attempt. And, their inexperience and childishness will most likely be the end of them if they are left to themselves. This film is worth seeing because the adults in the story, in spite of all their faults and failings, are awakened to the fact that Sam and Suzy are both worth saving and very vulnerable.

Underneath all the humor and quirkiness and style, there is a profound sense of tragedy here.

Wonder and innocence are things that we forget and destroy. Adventure is something that we ignore. Childlikeness is something that we neglect and discourage. As we consider the real world, we get caught up in the drudgery and pursuit of self that our culture applauds. We dismiss the truth that there are higher values out there for our consideration. Whether it’s a khaki scout troop code, a marriage vow or an ancient original path of the Chickchaw harvest migration, there are causes and ancient beliefs in rights and wrongs, customs and responsibilities, traditions and institutions that often seem so out of place in our contemporary spheres. Out of place as they may be, there is a little something of an adventure in the possibility that we could go back to them. Reaffirming what has been lost is sometimes the first step towards peace or redemption.

1 comment:

  1. I would certainly agree with your assessment of this being arguably the best film of the first half of the year. I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

    And, you should watch Fantastic Mr. Fox. It is one of my favorite movies, period. I never was much of a Wes Anderson fan, in fact, I disliked all of his films as I watched them until Fantastic Mr. Fox. But as I've rewatched them I've grown very fond of a couple of them and am tolerable of the others. Fantastic Mr. Fox was excellent and I would rank Moonrise Kingdom (even though they are very different films) right alongside it.

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