Sunday, June 10, 2012

Making that world

Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom is a beautifully crafted jewel of a film, a complete pleasure to watch, but ultimately subject to the inherent limitations of any beautifully crafted jewel, that you can’t ultimately do much with it except put it back in the box. It’s summer in the mid-60’s, on a group of islands off the coast of New England; an orphaned pre-teen boy, Sam, runs away from his scout group to hike across some old Indian trails with a local girl, Suzy, who became his soul-mate at first sight. The other scouts, her parents and the local cop all head off after them; if they’re caught, he’ll be removed to the mainland orphanage, perhaps separating them forever.

Wes Anderson

I know my first sentence swung rapidly from enthusiasm to dismissiveness, but that’s the most accurate way I have of summing it up. When I came out of the movie (which elicited a rare ripple of applause from the Varsity audience), I felt completely happy and elevated, but I also had no idea what I was ever going to write about it. I mean, I could describe this scene or that scene, or say how I particularly like this bit or that bit, but where would that ultimately get you or me? For all its strengths, Anderson’s cinema doesn’t add to our sense of the world or of ourselves as the most significant films (at least as measured by my criteria) do; he just doesn’t see himself as that kind of artist.

In a recent Salon interview he put it this way: “My kind of movie — the kind I’ve always been interested in making — are ones where part of it is that we’re inventing a setting where I hope the audience has never been before. Part of the experience of the movie is going into this world, and the characters are a part of the world. They’re a part of what is making that world.” He’s proven his facility at refining these invented environments, and cinema wouldn’t exist without such dreamers – the trip to the Moonrise Kingdom doesn’t perhaps fall so far from Georges Melies’ voyages to the moon and to subterranean fairy kingdoms. But then Scorsese’s Hugo recently reminded us of how easily the world lost its taste for Melies’ visions.

Moonrise Kingdom

All of that said, although Moonrise Kingdom might sound in outline like a rather regressive project – eschewing the mainland, the present day, and to a great extent adulthood – it carries a rather moving sense of melancholy and regret. Suzy’s parents, both lawyers (occasionally addressing each other as “Counsellor”) have long fallen out of love it seems; she dallies with another man, and he seems to have had all the colour drained out of him. Likewise, the cop is lonely and almost affectless, and the scout master (who composes his daily log over a cigarette and a stiff drink) just bleeds a desire to count for more than his profession as a high school math teacher seems to allow him (the scouts actually seem like a godsend for Anderson, bringing along their weird rituals and iconography, and their sense of an idealism that no doubt seems naïve and archaic now, but embodies an honest desire for community and a kind of clarity). And even the two children have the least heady “love” affair you’ll ever see on screen – the magic of their relationship consists in large part of its matter-of-factness, which Anderson rather magically manages to keep from seeming like a mere stunt (you might find his approach to some aspects surprisingly frank).

In previous reviews, I’ve summed up Anderson’s familiar style as being defined by, among other things, distinctive fonts, bright colours, slow pans, chapter headings, a stark use of close-ups alternating with a “figures in a landscape” approach to framing elsewhere, a certain laconic terseness in the dialogue, an avoidance of over-emoting, and left-field musical choices. When I reviewed The Darjeeling Limited a few years ago, I said it all “has the effect of draining the flavour from everything he looks at.” I didn’t like that film, about three brothers on a “spiritual journey: his view of India seemed to me just another source of gimmicks and bric-a-brac, presented without a shred of real engagement or integrity (I think I liked his earlier work – especially Rushmore I guess - more at the time, but it hasn’t had much staying power with me). The familiar style hasn’t changed here, but it certainly didn’t rub me up that same way. The opening credits play over a tour of Suzy’s house, as her brothers listen to Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra – it has the appearance almost of a giant doll’s house, but Anderson’s shot-making is too precise to connote play, feeling almost scientifically rigorous. Britten’s record (combining stirring music with a narrative guide to how it’s all done) reinforces that sense of investigation and instruction, as do the repeated head-on shots of Suzy looking through her binoculars (the film also has a narrator, who at various points instructs us in such matters as weather patterns and crop yields).

Rear Window?

In some ways the set-up reminded me of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, but the intent isn’t voyeuristic – there’s nothing furtive about the act of seeing here, because this is a world that comes most alive from being observed. This is the glory of signature Anderson shots such as the sight that greets Sam and Suzy when they open their tent one morning, raised on a narrow strip of beach: they encounter what seems like half the cast arrayed before them, perfectly arranged across the frame. You wouldn’t want to change a single detail of such shots: if Anderson wasn’t a filmmaker, he could have single-handedly reignited the art of window-dressing.

Anyway, I was already feeling more positive about Anderson because of his previous film, the animated Fantastic Mr. Fox, which seemed to me a rather wonderfully peculiar fantasy (and rather oddly, his most fully realized examination of a fully complex community), and Moonrise Kingdom certainly continues this upward evaluation. Really, there’s nothing about it not to like. It’s hard for example to see Anderson as a great director of actors exactly, certainly not if that means “drawing them out” as the phrase goes – this is why the inscrutable Bill Murray is so vital to his universe. But the new film’s cast – including Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton – is pitch-perfect, and very well-integrated. And the film has any number of grace notes and moments of sweetness that I haven’t mentioned. In fact, the longer I keep writing this article, I realize that maybe I’m not in such a hurry to put the movie back in the box after all.

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