Moonrise Kingdom: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Wes Anderson

I don’t normally do this, write singular reviews or pieces about one film. It’s not because I don’t want to, but rather because most of the films I see don’t particularly warrant it, or that the various reviews found in the newspapers and online encapsulate my thoughts, if not to the letter then in the approximate vicinity. But every so often I make an exception. (My Honours thesis, in its own way, was an elongated piece on Across The Universe, but that was kind of different again).
Back in June, at the Sydney Film Festival, I fell in love with Wes Anderson’s latest film, Moonrise Kingdom. Intrigued by his style and the oeuvre he has built up over the past eighteen years and seven feature films, I recently watched all his films, some for the first time, and it was an interesting if slightly neurotic adventure. In many ways, Moonrise Kingdom is the epitome of Anderson’s oeuvre, a kaleidoscope that refracts and refocuses his distinctive stylistic traits and thematic concerns into their most concise, most emotional – most whimsical – evocation yet.

Many critics and reviewers have discerned a series of tropes or thematic concerns to which Anderson returns time and again throughout his films. From the very beginning, in Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, the family – as a unit, dynamic, and as a fractured whole – seem to be one of Anderson’s primary concerns. With Anderson however, the family dynamic is never straightforward, the unconscious result, perhaps, of his own unsettled childhood. “I never planned to do a bunch of movies about families,” Anderson said in an interview with FilmInk Magazine in 2007 on the release of The Darjeeling Limited, “but I keep going back to that well.” “[I] just make the choices that feel right for the movie.” Anderson says in defence of these criticisms. “[It’s] something in my programming. Everything gets run through the same operating systems, and it comes out pretty similar to last time.”
This is not necessarily a negative thing, however. Where other directors might find these themes repetitive and potentially stifling, Anderson consistently plumbs and explores them to their fullest extents, constantly finding new resonances for his films. Likened to other so-called ‘auteurs’ of the American ‘New Quirk’ movement – directors such as Jim Jarmusch, Spike Jonze, Noah Baumbach, Paul Thomas Anderson, and the Coen bro­thers – Anderson’s style relies heavily upon the construction of a world that for all intents and purposes could be our own but is somehow different. All his worlds – from Rushmore Academy to 111 Archer Avenue, to the Belafonte, the Darjeeling Limited, even the Fox’s burrow – exist in their own self-contained enclaves, little islands of reality, slices of familiar among a larger Andersonian whole which we are slowly exploring and charting, one film at a time. The island of New Penzance in Moonrise Kingdom is just the newest addition to ‘The World According To Wes.’ “[He] has a repertoire of highly artificial effects,” writes Bryan Appleyard, “but he uses them in such a way that they intensify one’s feeling for the characters. You come out of an Anderson film thinking ‘That was weird,’ then notice that the world is also weird, especially the one inside your head.” In this respect then, Anderson’s worlds are metaphors for the process of filmmaking, the process of creating the very ‘islands’ which are presented on screen, a process which is reflexively two-fold, a symbiotic metaphor for Anderson’s plots as well as his film-making ensemble.
Like so much of Anderson’s oeuvre, the ordinary becomes extraordinary, through the simple juxtaposition of elements and influences – the scout troop in the storm, and the staging of Benjamin Britten’s opera Noye’s Fludde in the church are just two of the latest in a long line of these working-day miracles. Normally dismissed by reviewers and critics as “a compound of a series of random elements that just happen to be in his head when he sits down to write,” Anderson’s plots – with their myriad complications, unravelings and whimsies – show a strong sense of literary inspiration and tradition, from the Salinger-esque Royal Tenenbaums to the Roald Dahl whimsy of Fantastic Mr. Fox and the bildungsroman progression of Moonrise Kingdom. Like them, part of Anderson’s inspiration is “[the] desire for fantasy to be real,” something which is perfectly captured by Anderson through the young lovers’ emotional adventure. “This is the only time I've been consciously trying to capture a sensation, which is of when you’re a 12-year-old and you fall in love. … I remember that being such a powerful feeling. It was almost like going into a fantasy world. It's stuck with me enough that I think about it still.” Certainly the magic and the whimsy are there, just as they are in every one of his seven films thus far. It’s just that in Moonrise Kingdom they seem to be more keenly observed, more integral to the plot, more specific, more honed and focused, more refined. Perhaps this is the mark of a maturation in Anderson’s style. Likewise, Moonrise Kingdom “doesn’t shy from depicting adolescence as a time of bewilderment, anger and pain.”
Part of Moonrise Kingdom’s brilliance comes though its use of music, something which is consistent throughout every one of his films; you just have to listen to his soundtracks to know that both Anderson – along with music producer Randall Poster – are astute observers of music’s place, function and effect on cinematic storytelling, and both are aware of the inherent and subtle power that music has on film’s narrative. From the opening bars of Benjamin Britten’s ‘Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Purcell’ (what many would know as ‘The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra’) to the closing strains of composer Alexandre Depslat’s whimsical homage, Anderson uses the structure of Britten’s music as with the musical structure and nature of the fugue as a metaphor for the Sam and Suzy’s respective families and the island’s various communities. By breaking the familial group into individuals or fragments, Anderson is able to imitate the family’s cohesion as a group before putting both family and community back together again at the end, (hopefully) stronger, more family-like, and maybe not as neurotic. “The tale can be read as a statement of artistic purpose by Anderson, as the amateurs [performing Britten’s Noye’s Fludde] drawn together by Sam and Suzy – and love – circle the wagons against the outsiders [namely the imposing witch-like character known only as ‘Social Services’], leading to a final showdown in the church – interchangeable here with the idea of community.” It’s a brilliant examination of the power of a community to unite against a threat to one of its own, a celebration of a singular presence against an unrelenting obstacle, and the determination and innocence of its youth to teach it something it needed to learn.
If you were to watch each of Anderson’s films one after the other, you’d see a progression of ideas, styles, themes, techniques from one to the next. While his films are ultimately – fundamentally – concerned with the same things (family, identity, place, recognition, &c), his aesthetic has matured. Scott Rudin, one of Anderson’s producers, says “he’s made the films harder, and I think they’re more emotional for being harder … Moonrise [Kingdom] is, in some ways, kind of a despairing movie, but it’s also unbelievably romantic.” It’s also his “most extra­ordinary and tonally confident film yet,” according to Bryan Appleyard. Unapologetically romantic it may be, it is also a “study in wish-fulfillment. [And] although [the] storyline meanders, it knows exactly where it’s going. Before they’re done, Suzy and Sam will have created a New Penzance legend.”
“There are magical moments all through people’s lives, and those become landmarks – milestone, I guess,” Anderson says. Milestones which we use as markers, signifiers, anchorpoints in our reminisces and memories in later years. It’s eversoslightly saccharine and bittersweet, as intoxicating and heady as your first love, and just as saturated, unpredictable, disarming and charming as you could expect from Wes Anderson. To say the film is perfect is probably a highly contentious claim, but for once, I’m going to let it stick. For me, this is what filmmaking and cinematic storytelling should be about, what it is all about, the greatest evocation of the greatest emotion in the world.

As the credits roll and Desplat’s final homage to Britten plays – ‘The Heroic Weather-Conditions of the Universe, Part 7’ – I reckon it’d be hard to not leave the cinema with a giddy smile on your face, a buzz inside of you, the remembrance of the feeling of falling in love for the first time. It’s to Anderson’s tremendous credit that he imbues Moonrise Kingdom with the same feelings and overwhelming sense of emotional tumult that first-love feels like, that Sam and Suzy’s love story feels like our own; that Moonrise Kingdom feels like one of our own memories. If we can each of us find our own ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ – a place where we can be who we’ve always wanted to be, a place that by another name would not smell as sweet, a place where we are exactly where we belong – then who knows what could happen if we only just let ourselves go, just for a moment, and fell.

Bryan Appleyard. “Rocket Man.” The Weekend Australian. July 14-15, 2012. p16-17 (http://www.bryanappleyard.com/wes-anderson/)
Sandra Hall. “Unconventional wisdom” [Moonrise Kingdom review]. The Sydney Morning Herald: Spectrum. August 25-26, 2012. p15 (http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/unconventional-wisdom-20120823-24nb5.html)
Dennis Lim. “Lost in love.” The Sydney Morning Herald: Spectrum. May 19-20, 2012. p10-11 (http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/lost-in-love-20120517-1yruo.html)
James Mottram. “Wes Anderson: Weird & Wonderful.” FILMINK Magazine. September 2012.
Nev Pierce. “Moonrise Kingdom [review].” EMPIRE Magazine. September 2012.
“An Island Of His Own.” Nick Pinkerton. Sight&Sound, June 2012. Vol. 22, No. 6. BFI, London. p16-19

1 comment:

  1. It's doubtful this will win over any outright Anderson sceptics, but ... this is an exciting reaffirmation of talent.

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