Thursday, September 6, 2012

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


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

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.