Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Director: Wes Anderson
Writer: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola
DP: Robert Yeoman
Editor: Andrew Weisblum
Score: Alexandre Desplat
Producer: Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales, Jeremy Dawson
Starring: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray
Distribution: Focus Features
Length: 1 hr. 34 min.

A Wes Anderson film should be easily recognizable.  You can expect tightly controlled lateral camera movements, symmetrical compositions, fastidious art direction, and centering objects in the frame. The aesthetic of his films has been described as being like a dollhouse; a playful, colorful piece of fastidiously crafted structure, and a simulacrum of life achieved through that structure.

At some point in Moonrise Kingdom, I noticed a yellow cup against a blue wall, and the deliberateness with which it was placed there occurred to me. Normally that's not something one would notice in a film, but Anderson's meticulous design vaguely exposes the film's construction; asymmetrical details like that, then, remind you that the film takes place in a created world. This is important; the film is a story of structures and artifices, systems of infrastructure created by people to serve their community.  At best, these systems offer protection from the capriciousness of life and nature, and in doing so they help individuals find the place where they're happiest and can best make those around them happy.  At worst, these systems become a device upon which individuals can foist their responsibilities, a barrier that allows them to remain impersonal and therefore protected from feelings of accountability, guilt, and concern.

The main characters of the film are children living under such systems.  We're introduced to one of them in the opening scene: Suzy Bishop, a 12-year-old girl played by Kara Hayward.  The opening scene also introduces us to her home, a heavily organized place with strict rules where the parents address their children from a distance, using a loudspeaker.  The film does not explicitly state that she's living with her immediate family until later, and her home is such an impersonal place that this is not implicit - the immediate impression is that she lives at an orphanage or some similar facility rather than a familial home.  Even later in the film, this impression is enforced; her parents, both lawyers, refer to each other as "counselor" rather than by their first names.

The second main character is Sam Shakusky, played by Jared Gilman, a young boy living at a summer camp for Khaki Scouts (the film's equivalent to Boy Scouts) on New Penzance, the island where Suzy's home is located and where the film takes place.  The camp, Camp Ivanhoe, is introduced as a place of order and discipline, run exactly according to the demands of the Scoutmaster Randy Ward, a man who operates totally by the rules, played by Edward Norton.  Before the events of the film, Sam Shakusky escaped Camp Ivanhoe and vanished, much to Scoutmaster Ward's chagrin.

Suzy and Sam, two children who have spent a good portion of their lives being cared for by systems of infrastructure, decide to escape from their respective environments and run away together to live in the woods of New Penzance.  Children in Moonrise Kingdom can act with surprising conviction and intelligence, but they aren't mature; they're ill-prepared to face realities that are totally unfamiliar to them.  Unfortunately, they're faced with a choice: Be protected from those realities by remaining within the restrictive systems of infrastructure, or be free to find a place among people who can offer them intimacy and allow them to bring out the best in themselves.

The problem is that they shouldn't have to make that choice.  There is nothing inherent in infrastructure that should prevent them from finding an identity. Their trouble stems from the way other people exploit infrastructure. Suzy's parents rarely interact with anyone without layers of mitigation and testing, even when there are things they know they should say to each other. Sam's foster parents ship him off to summer camp and reject his eccentric presence in their home; his previous foster homes treated him the same way. Both Sam and Suzy's caretakers either enforce or capitalize on a strict rule of law, simplifying their responsibilities significantly by rendering them impersonal.

This has an almost dehumanizing effect on Sam and Suzy. They're labeled as "troubled" or "problem children," and the apparent lack of willingness to help them implies that it's their fault. To an extent, they understand that it's not their fault, that they're facing an unfair situation.  But they still end up in a state of mind where they would rather attempt to run away from that situation than try to address the people responsible for it.

The visual structure and machinery of Moonrise Kingdom contrasts with the stunning landscapes of its pastoral island setting, evoking the impulsive natural forces that stand in opposition to infrastructure. The presence of nature is threatening, to an extent; as early as the second scene, a narrator warns us that a terrible storm will occur at some point in the film. Still, it's always shot beautifully because nature can be beautiful - nature exists within people too, after all, and the film serves as a reminder that it needs to be appreciated in that context.

I would label Moonrise Kingdom as my favorite of Anderson's work that I've seen.  Apparently even some people who are fans of Anderson (at least, among those whose opinions I would be exposed to) find themselves turned off by it, sometimes arbitrarily.  I really can't fathom the reason for this, but it's not something that would stop me from recommending the film to everyone.

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