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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Tuesday
May292012

« In Which We Meet In The Meadow »

The Kids Table

by DURGA CHEW-BOSE

Moonrise Kingdom
dir. Wes Anderson
94 minutes

From above, it’s easy to imagine Wes Anderson’s production of Moonrise Kingdom resembling a fine scale model railroad: coastal New England homes landscaped with ferns and red cedars, with nearby inlets and a pebble beach, and flanked of course by a series of rails for tracking shots. As per Anderson’s request, trailers were not allowed on set and actors were expected to show up camera-ready. The effect? Dioramic. The opening sequence? A dolly shot through a dollhouse. And the director? In a manner, Gulliver-sized. Picture Anderson poking one eye through a window as his finger pokes through another, readjusting the needle on a miniature record player or using tweezers to fill a runaway girl’s picnic basket with books. His airtight world shaped by the romance of expressing first-time feelings with a hobbyist’s delicate, near-crazed hand.

Set in 1965, Moonrise Kingdom is the boy meets girl, girl meets boy, both meet world, story of Sam and Suzy, played by newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward. Together they hatch a plan to flee their respective families and summer camp, and be together. Suzy leaves behind her brothers and her parents, Walt and Laura Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) while Sam escapes his Khaki scout troop led by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton).

Upon discovering both of their disappearances, a search team is organized — a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Search Team or something from an Hergé comic. Sam’s foster parents are quick to tell local sheriff, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), that they no longer want Sam back. An epic storm begins to brew and Social Services shows up, played by caped-crusader Tilda Swinton. Jason Schwartzman and Harvey Keitel (written perhaps with Seymour Cassel in mind?) make appearances. Bob Balaban narrates. Meanwhile, Sam and Suzy play house, in a tent. Like Pierrot and Marianne without the primary colors. Like Kit and Holly without the killing.

Suzy is the sum of her parts — which at twelve consists of prized possessions, her imagination, growing suspicions about her parents and parenting, and a preoccupation with love. Her nose, slightly turned, gives the impression that if she tried, like Samantha in Bewitched, could twitch and perform a spell.

In the company of boys — her three little brothers or the Khaki scouts — Suzy becomes Wendy. Her inexperience more elegant and less brooding than theirs. We learn that she has an aunt who brought her back a Françoise Hardy record from Paris. Suzy hugs it because it is foreign, feminine, and free; her expression of early onset desire. She will move on to Anna Karina and eventually, Anaïs Nin.

Hayward, who has been a member of Mensa since she was nine, will likely be courted by Miu Miu and invited to audition for Mad Men. Coincidently, time wise, Moonrise occurs almost in tandem with Mad Men’s current season: Suzy Bishop, Sally Draper’s freewheeling, blue eye-shadowed foil. Go-go boots vs. Saddle shoes. Running away to her father vs. Running away from her father (among others). In this way, Hayward could play Sally’s first real best friend. They could pass notes to each other in their shared copy of The Bell Jar. Or ditch class and wander to Tompkins Square Park where someone will offer them mescaline.

In one of Moonrise’s scenes, after setting up camp, Sam proposes they list an inventory of everything the two have brought; standard scout practice. As Suzy catalogs her books, three cans of cat food for her cat, her binoculars, no brush (she’ll use her fingers to comb through knots, no big), I was reminded of Joan Didion’s essay, “On Keeping a Notebook.”

She writes: “Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentment of loss.” Sam, an orphan runaway whose foster parents have disinvited him back home, is exactly that. And while his impulse to account for their belongings is due in part to his scouts training, it also seems deeply necessary to Sam. A brief moment in which he can list what is his, and hers, and theirs to share.

Time and again our childhood presents itself as a tribute to past events rather than a remembrance of them. We bestow it with our present day’s understanding of how things work. I do not recall once using the word ‘adventure’ as a kid, but I certainly went on a few. Imagination, fictional heroes, a sense of enterprise, and an older brother reluctant to play — indispensable.

But to try and congeal our childhood, to make it exact, is much like staring at one’s reflection for too long. The familiar grows unfamiliar. It is best, I imagine, to keep the blur. As a kid, the Pulitzer seemed far more praiseful when I thought it was the “Pulitz Surprise!” As though a man in a suit knocked at Philip Roth’s door with balloons and a giant check. The alphabet too, enjoyably sped up and somehow richer when perceived as Elemeno-P! Still, I am forever envious of anyone who can identify his or her first memory with clarity.

Because we cannot re-learn newness or re-experience the seconds before our first kiss or first cruelty, we keep kernels. That’s what Moonrise does. While the conversation might be lost, we do remember where we were sitting when an adult, perhaps feeling especially vulnerable, spoke to us for the first time as if we were one too. Or how during that one summer, there was a bad lighting storm and a girl named Suzy who wore her mother’s perfume. Or the way our parents looked on especially hot days in various states of undress.

In Didion’s essay, she refers to her childhood note-keeping as a “predilection for the extreme,” spinning stories not from “accurate, factual record,” but from some intersection of what is familiar with what is unknown— perhaps the writer’s truest romance. I imagine Laura Bishop speaking to her family through a megaphone as Anderson’s exaggeration, his “predilection for the extreme,” of parents and their sometimes yielding, droopy effort. But also, of those widening gaps that exist between some parents — a love that knows no better than to wear itself out. Halfway through the film I imagined down and out dads, Walt Bishop and Royal Tenenbaum, at a nearby dive bar, while Frances, Bruce, Angelica, and Danny Glover, dine and gab at the Bishop house. Both parties, bittersweet.

In his 1962 manifesto, “White Elephant Art Vs. Termite Art,” Manny Farber reproves Truffaut’s  “reversal of growth” in his films, stating that the filmmaker’s passage, “back into childhood,” depicts youth in a false, insincere manner. It’s feasible that Farber on Anderson would sound much like Farber on Truffaut: “…the critic-devouring virtue of filling every pore of work with glinting, darting Style and creative Vivacity.” After all, Moonrise does shy from momentum. At its most violent — emotionally and physically — naïveté emerges unbreakable. At their most desperate, characters remain taut.

Similar to an aerial view of Anderson’s set resembling a model railroad (which incidentally reminds me of Farber’s painting, entitled “My Buddy”), Moonrise Kingdom adapts the real into curio-type make-believe. Pinocchio storytelling, reversed. The world and its troubles, as Farber notes about Truffaut, are shrunken. “Suicide becomes a game, the houses look like toy boxes — laughter, death, putting out a fire — all seem reduced to some unreal innocence of childhood myths.”

However, there is absurdity and a fondness for the silly in Anderson’s portrayal of childhood. It’s of another world entirely. A group of Khaki scouts build their tree house a few stories too high. Like something from a Shel Silverstein illustration. Wobbly it soars and yet, the scouts see no problem with it. Some embellishments are more subtle. Suzy, an avid reader, sits with her back straight, rarely slouching, and with her book held upright directly in front of her face. Only cartoons, spies, and kids who are pretending to read, read like that. In Wes Anderson’s world, unnatural posture comes off as whimsy. 

During production, Billy Murray taught Gilman how to tie a tie and McDormand showed Hayward what a real typewriter looks like. Both images could pass as scenes in the film. Both images, a child’s first. Casting two kids whose faces and voices we’ve never seen or heard before, who were suddenly sharing scenes with legendary actors, certainly adds to the film’s offbeat charm. While his films have many clear influences, Gilman and Hayward are brand new, imperfect and not yet easy to place. Without his scout uniform, glasses, and Davy Crockett hat, I can’t be sure what Gilman even looks like.

Owing to Anderson’s penchant for trinkets, Moonrise appears too dear in parts. One “Jiminy Cricket!” comes very close to being one Jiminy Cricket too many. But there is comedy and tragedy, and parents who fail. There are gestures that declare love and choices that are brave. Ear piercing in the wilderness accounts for both. In some scenes and in small portions, the dialogue is wonderfully defenseless. In this way, Anderson, who co-wrote the script with Roman Coppola, expresses feelings as if they were an English translation of a foreign proverb: clumsy, a bit chunky, but just right. A brand new way of saying something tired but heartfelt.

Durga Chew-Bose is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about Seventeen. She tumbls here and twitters here.

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