To state the obvious, Moonrise Kingdom is the first of Wes Anderson’s films to bear a period setting. The narrator (indelibly played by Bob Balaban) specifies the early 60s. In an interview, Anderson said that the choice was rooted in a decision to portray a period before widespread suburbanization allowed for bridges to take the place of ferries in moving two and fro from the film’s New England setting of Thousand Islands, New York. More broadly he described the period, the 60s when it was still the late-50s in essence, as belonging to a “more innocent America”. The America we see in Moonrise Kingdom isn’t necessarily innocent and aside from the great importance accorded to a Françoise Hardy record given to Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) from her aunt in Paris, the film doesn’t seem to have a great deal of period flavor or what we think of as being familiar period flavor. Each period after all contains within it earlier periods, a maxim stated by Thom Andersen (1, no relation) and represented by the period resonances of Anderson’s earlier films.
The Royal Tenenbaums is set in the 90s but is filled with resonances to the 60s and 70s, most notably in its soundtrack. Rushmore likewise is set in a contemporary world but one still connected strongly to an earlier period, a characteristic mirrored by the feelings of loss felt by each of three characters and who communicate this absence to each other despite differences in age and attitude amongst themselves. For a director not bound by conventional associations and attitudes to the past, the deliberate old-fashionedness of Anderson’s décor, his costumes and use of music is merely the most visible elements of Anderson’s attempt to challenge conventional attitudes towards “the present”. Moonrise Kingdom’s period setting might, to some people, allow for Anderson to make his stories of heightened whimsy more “plausible”. To this end, we have a narrator who introduces the period setting and gives us some background about the obviously fictitious island of “New Penzance”. And yet we see artificial lighthouses, houses and places that look like enlarged storybook images and other odds and ends. We perceive that what Anderson is attempting in Moonrise Kingdom is to construct an artificial surface, over which hang several successful layers of artifices, each in counterpoint to each other. Most visibly is the place that the film’s very young lovers discover, and who we realize in the film’s final shot, has been titled, inevitably, “Moonrise Kingdom”, the small retreat on a beach discovered on one of the “Thousand Islands” where they construct camp and where they enjoy a couple of days of life on their terms before their discovery or “capture” by the adults.
Each layer of artifice in Anderson’s film and especially in Moonrise kingdom is detailed with the skill of a Persian miniaturist. From the costumes which immediately define the characters, the toybox pastels characteristic of Anderson’s framing and use of colour, the transformation of real locations into storybook designed spaces and the little nuggets scattered here and there, pleasurable to observe for their presence alone. A good example is the catalogue of books stocked and read aloud by Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), none of each exists in real life, and each excerpt written (by Anderson himself) especially for the film. The titles themselves, The Francine Odysseys, Disappearance of the 6th Grade suggests a collapse of several books of a kind into single titles or alternatively a few good books multiplied; the memory of reading as registered in the mind of a young person or a bibliophile who forgets more than others learn from reading two or three books.[citation, scenes from these books were later animated and introduced by Bob Balaban]
There’s the obsessive focus on the details of scouting, the pride with which each child comports themselves in the uniform and the minutiae of its activities and details. And then there are the impeccable cameos, Jason Schwartzman as Cousin Ben, the senior scout who ultimately “marries” Sam and Suzy. Tilda Swinton, credited and called “Child Services”, whose red hair summons Deborah Kerr in Michael Powell’s films and whose indifference to her charges and dedication to duty summons up Victorian-era attitudes to orphans. Another Powell reference is Harvey Keitel’s cameo as chief Scoutmaster, with a handlebar moustache and a white napkin covering his face, not unlike Roger Livesey’s Clive Wynne-Candy. And above all there’s Wes Anderson’s uncanny ear for music which is to say his ability to identify regardless of the artist, style and genre of music, a kind of sound that sounds very much like “Wes Anderson Music”.
Moonrise Kingdom uses several pieces from the works of British composer Benjamin Britten. His opera Noye’s Fludd becomes a vital part of the film’s fabric, not merely the plot as does his piece The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra which is the first piece of music heard, on the music player of Suzy’s brother. Along with Britten, we have Hank Williams’ Kaw-Liga and Ramblin’ Man, the former being the incredible leitmotif with which Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) is first seen, riding a canoe down the river complete with frontier raccoon hat. Suzy Bishop’s aunt meanwhile gives her niece a record of Françoise Hardy, whose song Les temps de l’amour captures the spirit of the film, joy so pure that it provokes melancholy when remembered, (“On s’en souviens” goes the refrain of the song). The selection of songs and the original pieces by Alexandre Desplat create an impressive soundtrack that is more than mere wallpaper for the film’s action, it becomes an aspect of the film’s mise-en-scène, counterpointing the editing and the performances without seeming obvious. And more importantly, the selection of music feels tonally consistent within the film despite moving from American country to English classical music and French chanson, joined beautifully by Anderson’s impeccable ear.
The setting of Moonrise Kingdom, rural Americana, and story of young lovers across age and class barriers has much in common with Buster Keaton’s rural epics - Old Hospitality, which revels in fascination with period detail for its own sake and Steamboat Bill, Jr. also a story of star-crossed young lovers and childish parents amidst a weather-stricken rural town. As with Keaton there is a fascination with nuts-and-bolts, the basics of camping, the rudiments of scout organization and the importance of making inventory, maintaining supplies and surviving together, crucial for the very young couple to learn in their time together at the titular self-described retreat, not unlike the lovebirds in The Navigator and The General, who rely on each other to run a ship and a train respectively. David Cairns (2) also highlights the Keaton-like qualities of Anderson’s gags and his approach to action sequences. Like Keaton and also Jacques Tati, Anderson’s humour comes from formal gags and visual surprises. Take the first meeting between khaki-clad scout Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Haywood). This moment is preserved in the first shot of the film’s trailer. The boy arrives backstage and he calls out to a group of girls, all of whom clad in bird outfits and make-up turn back in unison, in the same sudden movement. This slight pivot makes the gag as does the more elaborate revelation of Camp Ivanhoe, beneath the sign is a boy who blows his bugle. We see him first flattened on his right profile but then he turns around and shows a bandage covering his eye, indeed the boy’s name is Pie-Eye.
Of course the presence of these visual puns and effortless pirouettes does provide ammunition to charges of “fussiness” on the part of Anderson’s detractors, perhaps too decorated and too ordered to allow the actors a free hand in movements and gestures. Yet what some call “fussiness” can also be indicative of a larger generosity of spirit in Anderson’s works, one which approaches all his actors, regardless of age, sex, screen time with a sense of equality rare for an American film-maker. By weaving them into figures into a larger tapestry, isn’t Anderson portraying a world where characters can relate to each other equally, and give them freedom to communicate and exchange with each other? Anderson’s understanding of the world of children as one more complex and intricate than generally portrayed in movies, is of a similar nature. Both Sam and Suzy desire independence but they come from different experiences. Suzy, a lonely middle-class child of a nuclear family and Sam an orphan with all the real pain and loss that is usually glossed upon in adventure stories of orphans, the kind that Suzy likes. She shares her love of reading to Sam and notes how all her favorite characters are orphans and how nice it must be to be free of parents. Sam’s reply is quick, “Suzy, I love you but you don’t know what you’re saying.”
What is often surprising in Anderson’s films is the sudden realization of old wounds, painful memories. Danny Glover exposes Royal Tenenbaum’s fraud by noting that he knows that the latter was faking his stomach cancer. When Royal asks, blithely if anyone he knows died from stomach cancer, Anderson cuts to a close-up of Glover saying, “Yes, my wife!” the brief remark underlined by the hardness and anger on Glover’s face conveys years of suffering on the human face. This incident is touched on once and not underlined, so as not to allow us to define the character or the moment solely by this event. Sadness is always a key current in Anderson’s films, one which isn’t always looked at as an entirely negative feeling, in that its positive consequence include the fostering of friendship if and when one discovers fellow sharers of hidden wounds and buried heartbreaks as in Rushmore. The Royal Tenenbaums likewise shows that a troubled, “dysfunctional” family can function properly as soon as they face they accept the consequences of their mutually-inflicted cruelties, and in exchange of the traditional family structure, create a new one that is entirely unique to their shared experience. This makes Anderson, like Howard Hawks, a quietly transgressive film-maker who points the way forward for community relations in a world that radically upends traditional ideas of family and community. Moonrise Kingdom deals with the same theme of joy, community and family rediscovered through a sharing of secrets and exchange of confidences with fellow sufferers, not just Sam and Suzy but also her parents(Bill Murray and Frances MacDormand) and Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) and Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton).
What makes the film so moving and its final shot so mysterious is the film’s evocation of a joy so deep and wonderful that it provokes melancholy as soon as the moment has passed. The finale of the film, reworks the film’s opening at the Bishop house. Where at first we are slowly introduced to Suzy and her brothers, the latter scene adds one detail, Sam in a Jr. outfit of Captain Sharp’s uniform (having been adopted by him). He and Suzy part ways and we see Suzy gazing enigmatically, with a sense that something in her has changed and then we see the painting, the beach with “Moonrise Kingdom” traced in pebbles on the sand, a memory made so perfect in recollection as to inevitably make recreating or reliving impossible, leaving the future of Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop as tentative and uncertain as everything else seen in the film.
1.Thom Andersen is a filmmaker and critic. The above observation comes from Los Angeles Plays Itself (2001). 2 Scenes from these books were later animated and introduced by Bob Balaban. 3 Moonrise Keaton, Shadowplay: http://dcairns.wordpress.com/2012/07/11/moonrise-keaton/