Monday, June 25, 2012

New Film: Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

A gesamtkunstwerk or 'total art work' constructed from American folk and craft traditions much more than the classical arts, Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom (2012), from an original screenplay by Anderson and Roman Coppola, builds its diegetic world of hobbyist watercolors and kitsch nautical prints, primary school literature and amateur theatrics, homemade costuming and mass-manufactured Davy Crockett coonskin, Protestant church architecture and stained glass, Hank Williams and children's records. Moonrise Kingdom, however, is also dominated by mid-century English composer Benjamin Britten, who provides the most conspicuous exception to the picture's cultivated, if still semi-fictionalized 'Americanness,' not to mention its clear preference for more popular lower forms. In fact, it is Britten's modernist art foremost that provides Anderson's film with its governing aesthetic principles and climactic subject matter.

As to the former, it is Britten, along with the name-checked Gilbert and Sullivan - Moonrise Kingdom largely is set on the fictional island of New Penzance - who offers a model for artistic synthesis in the operatic form that is presented in the in-film production of Noye's Fludde. (Britten also composed original music for that other total art, cinema, with his collaborations on Alberto Cavalcanti's 1935 Coal Face and Basil Wright and Henry Watt's 1936 Night Mail being the most notable.) Likewise, it is the diegetic presentation of Britten's pedagogical-experimental Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, early and late in the film, which telegraphs Moonrise Kingdom's own quasi-Brechtian separation of elements, with Mainer-type Bob Balaban, for example, presenting the film's narration in omniscient, on-screen direct address rather than in the more traditional voice-over.

With respect to the film's subject, it is Noye's Fludde, a "miracle play" that the director acted in during his adolescent years - in this sense it provides a means of accessing the filmmaker's personal history; a means of conjugating the aesthetic with the autobiographic - which is refashioned in the image of Anderson's arch narrative: the broken, in one sense or another, family unit that is reaffirmed if not actually reconstituted at picture's end. In Moonrise Kingdom we have both examples - however tentatively in the case of the former - with twelve year-old runaway "khaki scout" Sam (Jared Gilman) ultimately finding a new foster father in bachelor police-captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). Anderson indeed recomposes his new family following "the region's worst meteorological disaster of the second half of the twentieth century," a 1965 hurricane of Biblical proportions that comes as the small island community is preparing for its annual production of the Britten opera. In Max Fischer lookalike Sam and the clear-rimmed spectacled Captain Sharp (see the director), Anderson seems to be replaying both his own biographical-cinematic past, while also filtering his personal experience of divorce during his childhood years through the young lead. Moonrise Kingdom certainly qualifies as a deeply psychoanalytic cinema, though a cinema that has been displaced not only onto a faux-New England setting, but also four years before the Texan Anderson's birth.

Moonrise Kingdom is no less notable as an emblematic narrative for Anderson's "Generation X," both in terms of that familial breakdown that disproportionately impacted the children of the 1970s and also of the post-modern culture that would reach its cinematic apogee amid and immediately after the peak of the VHS era. Anderson's postmodernism to be sure is ever apparent in Moonrise Kingdom's constituent combination of high art and kitsch, in his narrative taste for inventory (and letter writing) and what amounts on some level to his construction of joke diegetic worlds. In his exploration of the latter, Anderson shows a predilection for fluid, metronymic camera movements, flash pans and hard comedic cuts, whether he is mapping the dollhouse-like space in which the lead Bishop family resides at Summer's End or showcasing Camp Ivanhoe to the rhythmic beat of a snare drum. As with Rushmore (1998) and the four features that would follow it, Moonrise Kingdom emphasizes the artifice which provides the major-key for Anderson's art; there is in his latest, as ever, a very strong sense of an extrinsic narrator behind this fetishized, if still largely invented world. His is a cinema of aesthetic mediation.

Then again, Anderson does allow for at least the feeling of the organic and the spontaneous, as for example when Sharp and Edward Norton's Scout Master Randy Ward respond loudly in tandem to Social Services (Tilda Swinton) that it was "the girl" and not Sam who was responsible for stabbing a fellow Khaki Scout in the leg. This same sense of the unregulated likewise emerges in various moments of Sam and Suzy Bishop's (Kara Hayward) courtship, as when Sam twists violently and awkwardly as they dance to Suzy's favorite record in their secluded cove. Anderson, in other words, does not close his narrative world off entirely from the bits of life that spring not from his excessively detailed diegetic space, but instead from the actors who assist in bringing the world into being.

At this juncture it is imperative to remember that Anderson's cinema, in addition to being an art director's cinema, is also an actor's cinema with Jason Schwartzman's Rushmore lead - he does fine work in Moonrise Kingdom once again as Cousin Ben, camp employee and the magistrate responsible for marrying the twelve year-old leads for a jar of nickels - and Gene Hackman's eponymous patriarch in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) providing two of the more indelible comedic performance in recent American cinema. No one dominates Moonrise Kingdom to the same degree, though Norton's compassionate, deeply committed scout master does deserve special recognition. In general, Anderson and Coppola distribute their best visual gags and dialogue fairly evenly across the star and unknown child cast members alike, whether it is Bill Murray's sudden, angry shoe toss, one scout's insistence that he won't be the one to forget his weapon, before wielding a homemade mace, or another's speech in the treacherously high tree house (Norton notes that falling would mean certain death), even as one of the structure's thin walls is sucked away.

Moonrise Kingdom's pathos too, however mediated at times, finds expression in a number of the wounded protagonists, though ultimately this is the story of a first love between the orphan Sam and the extremely troubled Suzy. The latter likewise serves to focalize a unique visual perspective within the narrative, gazing through her binoculars that she calls her "magic power" in keeping with the fictitious fictional children's lit that she consumes throughout. In one particularly eventful use, she spots her mother (Frances McDormand) furtively clasping Captain Sharp's hand. While the film's concluding familial restoration does not allow for their coupling, Sam and Suzy's mildly libidinal pre-teen romance does offer a form of contingent alternative future for the older couple; they provide their parents' narrative doubles.

There is every reason ultimately to describe Wes Anderson's latest as a masterpiece, when one considers the skill with which Moonrise Kingdom integrates Noye's Fludde, the counter-intuitive appropriateness of Britten to the picture's folk art references and narrational structure and the film's deeper resonances with not only the director's personal history but also that of his generation. Or, one might simply note that Anderson has never done better work than his decisively funny and indeed genuinely romantic latest.

Let me thank my wife, Lisa K. Broad, for her special insights into Britten's work. Also, I would like to dedicate this review to the memory of the late film critic Andrew Sarris, and to his wife, Molly Haskell.


Anonymous said...

Excellent piece. I mean, I'm still awaiting the film desperately, but what a comprehensive and astute dissection of the film's influences/workings this surely is--which is why I so admire this blog. And then you call it his masterpiece, just when I thought I couldn't get more excited.

Michael J. Anderson said...

Thank you bmtr, that is very kind of you!

Fredrik Gustafsson said...

I also think it is Anderson's best. But that's probably only because it's the one I saw most recently. Every time I see one of his films I think "This is the best one." The consistency in quality is extraordinary.