Sunday, July 1, 2012

Into the Woods (Moonrise Kingdom)

Wes Anderson's 1965-set Moonrise Kingdom may seem like the director's quaint head-in-the-sand approach to a tumultuous historical period, yet all the elements of the era are there. The prepubescent sweethearts who run away together - Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) - from the New England isle they call home into Thoreauvian Nature are like characters out of a melancholy Hal Ashby comedy - outcasts and troublemakers poised to enter the counterculture. The generation gap is touchingly evoked by Suzy's parents, Walt and Laura Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), well-meaning yet troubled and plainly at a loss with how to deal with a child less equipped to deal with troubles of her own. (The depiction of Sam's foster parents is much harsher.) Authority comes in a few shadings: a decent if slightly ineffectual policeman, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis); the reactionary social services representative, who helpfully goes by the name Social Services (Tilda Swinton); and the regimented ethos of the Khaki Scouts, as Sam flees the troop headed by the kindly Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) only to eventually stumble upon a much larger camp, run by the hard-nosed Commander Pierce (Harvey Kietel), that's like a middle-school spin on the Paris Island base in Full Metal Jacket.

All of this could be interpreted as allegorical, certainly, but I don't want to give the impression that that's Anderson's only objective, or even his primary one. Moonrise Kingdom creates a world too rich to be just that; it's the filmmaker's most fully realized universe since his parallel New York in The Royal Tenenbaums. On the commentary track for that movie, during the early scene where Pagoda tells Royal about his estranged wife's new suitor, Anderson said that he deliberately positioned Kumar Pallana so that he blocked the Statue of Liberty in the distance, wanting to avoid any recognizable landmarks in his version of the city (which for some reason pissed off Gene Hackman, when the actor realized what he was doing). The New England of Moonrise Kingdom is completely fictional (though hilariously detailed by Bob Balaban's exposition-loaded Narrator) the actual turmoil of the decade far away, yet it's his most emotionally connective movie since Tenenbaums, the last film Anderson wrote with his original screenwriting partner Owen Wilson (who has, of course, continued to act in most of his movies since). After Wilson came collaborations with Noah Baumbach, whose own films I've admired yet who seemed to bring out in Anderson an airless, inert quality and sourness of spirit in The Life Aquatic and parts of The Darjeeling Limited. If Baumbach and Anderson appeared a bad match, Roman Coppola, who co-wrote Moonrise Kingdom (and formed part of the trio for Darjeeling), looks like a better one, leavening the darker themes - or perhaps synthesizing them - with sweetness and humor.


Auteur that he is, Anderson has received the usual round of stirring defenses from his most fervent admirers, even when it's clear that this time he doesn't need them. The most tedious have taken umbrage with those who don't like the movie "the right way"; others, responding to the criticism that the director needs to do something different, have trotted out the "What did you expect?" argument - specious, among other reasons, for suggesting that for a filmmaker, predictability is a virtue. While it's true that all the recurring methods and obsessions are all in place - deadpan dialogue, startling bursts of violence amid comic-strip paneling, the importance of bric-a-brac, the dichotomy of childhood dreams with adult disappointment - I think that Anderson is using them differently than he has before. (I almost wrote "testing them," but that would imply a strain that's nowhere evident in this seemingly effortless movie.) His films have treated kids and grown-ups with equal respect, all part of the same cultural framework. Here, more than any of his previous works, the spheres of each are blended together - sometimes comically (the sight of Keitel in khaki shorts), sometimes movingly (a bedside heart-to-heart between McDormand and Murray), always in perfect harmony.

So buoyant and delicate is Moonrise Kingdom that watching it reminded me of Michael Sragow's description of Wonder Boys: "(I)n its free spirit and avalanche of blending tones, it feels more organic than virtuosic... The oddball precision of the moviemaking makes you feel as if you're laughing in a dream - and you don't want to wake up." By now "dreamlike" has been applied to so many movies that the word has lost nearly all meaning. Yet Robert Yeoman's misty, soft-focused, green-brown palette - easily the finest work of his career - recalled for me another film: of all things, that "beautiful pipe dream," Robert Altman's western McCabe & Mrs. Miller. "I try to clutch the images to me even as they seem to evaporate like smoke," Charles Taylor said of McCabe. Moonrise Kingdom had the same effect - conjuring experiences I've never had, memories I never knew I wanted or needed.


Ronak M Soni said...

Roman Coppola co-wrote The Darjeeling Ltd, not Baumbach.

Apart from that: yay!

Craig said...

Oops. I did mention Coppola, but Schwartzman was the third screenwriter on Darjeeling. I thought it was Baumbach. Another theory shot to hell.

Adam Zanzie said...

Auteur that he is, Anderson has received the usual round of stirring defenses from his most fervent admirers, even when it's clear that this time he doesn't need them.

Very true. I originally wasn't going to see this despite the ecstatic reviews -- Anderson's the sort of director whose films I usually wait to come out on DVD -- but when my sister begged to see this, I consented, and wouldn't you know it, I didn't regret a buck spent.

This is easily the first of his films I've found completely emotionally-involving. I actually was never much a fan of Rushmore or Royal Tenenbaums because I found the characters in both way too depressing to be funny. Life Aquatic, Darjeeling Limited and Fantastic Mr. Fox I enjoyed somewhat more despite Baumbach's poison pen (which, I agree, is far more tolerable in his own films; The Squid in the Whale is a personal favorite), perhaps because those films were more surreal and distracted me from Anderon/Baumbach/Schwartzman's occasional mean-streak (Bottle Rocket is the only Anderson movie I haven't seen).

But this film is the one that did it. You say the movie conjured up memories you never had, which happened to me, too; there were days during my time as a Cub Scout when I would have liked nothing more than to flee camp and run off with a girl my age. This movie actually sort of reminded me why I quit the Boy Scouts soon after I officially became one in my middle school years: my scout masters were far more agreeable than the boys in my troop, many of whom were growing awfully mean and gung-ho in the wake of 9/11. So this film was nostalgic for me in ways both pleasant and harsh. More the former, though.

Roman Coppola's involvement in the screenplay makes me wonder how much of it is autobiographical. On second thought, the death of the dog almost makes me wonder if Coppola was partially thinking of his brother Gio's boating accident. Though of course a dog also died in Royal Tenenbaums, so maybe the scene was more Anderson than Coppola.

And Willis should totally get an Oscar nod; this might be his best performance since Unbreakable.

Craig said...

I've been told that The Royal Tenenbaums is the movie that best defines me, and I can see that: I don't identify with any one particular character but aspects of all of them, along with the overall tone of the film. If Steven Boone ever asks me what movie is in my heart, I know how to answer.

So, yeah, I love that movie; for me it has only one bad scene (the Hackman/Glover "Coltrane" bit). Moonrise Kingdom, however, has no bad scenes. That movie was made with such easy confidence, with everything in such perfect equilibrium, it's hard for me to quibble over anything. It's too fresh for me to say I think it's his best, but I think it's going to stay fresh for a long time to come.

You've reminded me that I still need to see Coppola's CQ.

Finally, a surprisingly thought-provoking article on an intriguing subject: Does Wes Anderson hate dogs?

Craig said...

Oh, and Adam: completist that you are, you need to see Bottle Rocket. I wouldn't rank it anywhere near as high as Scorsese does - "10 Best of the 90s" - but it's an interesting, assured debut.

Adam Zanzie said...

Actually, I hadn't even heard of CQ until you mentioned it! Haha. I guess knowing the Coppolas, I've come to expect each of them to include autobiographical elements in all of their recent efforts. Tetro seemed like a summation of Francis' childhood (despite his insistence that it wasn't), and of course Lost in Translation was Sofia coming to terms with her failed marriage to Spike Jonze. I know little about Roman's work but I've got a hunch he's smuggled in bits and pieces of his own life in scripts here and there.