Sunday, June 24, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom (5/5)

Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom opens with the sound of the composer Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” which breaks down, piece by piece, each section of the orchestra and then later builds it back up.  The work is reminiscent of opening up a pocket watch in order to see all of the gears working in conjunction.  It is not lost on the audience that as Britten’s music is deconstructed, Anderson presents the inside of a household, using perfectly choreographed camera movements, that is itself immaculately designed by the eye of an idiosyncratic artist.  This got me thinking: is Wes Anderson one of our greatest creators of fantasy worlds? 

It might seem strange to suggest that Anderson should be mentioned alongside people like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George R.R. Martin.  You won’t find dragons or magic spells in his work, but what you will find is a hermetically sealed universe that seems to jump wholesale out of the mind of a singular artist.  Is Anderson’s fetish for vintage audio equipment that far removed from Tolkien’s love of medieval verse?  While every one of Anderson’s films is created in a world that is slightly out of step from our own, of all his live action work Moonrise Kingdom seems to rest out on its own plane of existence. 

And much of Moonrise Kingdom’s potency comes from the understanding that children and adults inhabit distinct and separate realms.  The film takes place in the 1960s on a sleepy New England island, New Penzance, which is not only largely separated from the mainland but also bares a name that would look comfortable written on a map of a fantasy world.  This close knit community is frayed when two young children, Sam and Suzy, go on the lam, making their way deep into the woods of the island thanks to skills Sam has picked up attending the Khaki Scouts.  As the children retreat into the wilderness, the adults scramble to catch up with them.  As we move back and forth between the adult world and the world of children, we understand the distinct sort of dysfunction that infects both.  In the 1960s both Sam and Suzy might have been called “trouble children.”  Sam is an orphan who doesn’t fit in well with his foster family (in fact, his foster father decides that he won’t invite him back to the house after hearing about his flight) and Suzy is prone to outbursts of violence and rage.  But where the children have trouble suppressing their emotions, the adults, in typical Andersonian fashion, hide their dysfunction under a laconic haze.  Suzy’s mother and father (played by Francis MacDormond and Bill Murray) are mired in a loveless marriage, which has led her mother to take up with the local police chief, Sharp (Bruce Willis). 
Wes Anderson clues us into his interest in world making through a series of books that Suzy brings along on her retreat with Sam.  These books carry fantastical names like The Francine Odyssey, The Disappearance of the 6th Grade, and The Girl from Jupiter.  This need for escapism obviously parallels the children’s flight into the woods.  To disappear into the world of fantasy isn’t far off from dropping off the map and slipping out from under the expectations of adults.  Anderson constructs this universe with the help of a map as well as the narrating power of Bob Ballaban, who doubles as a wizard-like character who figures out how to catch up with Sam and Suzy.  As the film progresses, it becomes further and further detached from our world.  In fact, at times it seems as if Anderson is applying techniques he learned in his animated film, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, onto a live action palate.  This allows him to ratchet up the scope of his film towards the end by introducing a flood that seems to be borrowed from one of the world’s most famous fantasy epics, The Old Testament. 

But of all the great fantasy writers out there, perhaps none pervade Anderson’s universe more than the great artist, Charles M. Schulz.  Anderson, never one to be shy about his influences, even names a dog Snoopy.  In Peanuts, Schulz may have created one of the longest lasting fantasy worlds, stretching out over a half of a century.  And while he may have made the adults invisible (they only appeared in the TV specials as indecipherable and disembodied voices), he never ran away from adult concerns.  Where Anderson creates a world where two misfits can largely escape the dysfunctions of the adult world, Schultz had his prepubescent characters shoulder the crushing burdens of existential malaise.  And yet, there’s something refreshing about the optimism found in Moonrise Kingdom, along with much of Anderson’s work (an optimism that Schultz often struggled to find).  He manages to be both critical and highly empathetic towards his characters.  For Anderson, a fantasy world isn’t so much a retreat as it is an invitation, and one that I am never hesitant to take up. 

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