Review: Moonrise Kingdom

by Sam Buntz

“BERT FISCHER: You’re like one of those clipper ship captains.  You’re married to the sea.

MAX FISCHER: Yes, that’s true. (Pause.) But I’ve been out to sea for a long time.”

-from Rushmore

In Wes Anderson’s new film, Moonrise Kingdom, Sam (Jared Gilman) asks Suzy (Kara Hayward) what kind of bird she is, after he sneaks into the girls’ dressing room backstage at the local church’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde (or Noah’s Flood—Britten’s musical re-working of a 15th Century mystery play.)   She replies, “I’m a raven.”  First, consider her role in the play, and then consider the role she is portraying in Anderson’s film and you’ll see how they coincide.  In case you haven’t read the Book of Genesis in a while or watched any 15th Century mystery plays, Noah sends the raven out from the Ark to find dry land— but it keeps going “to and fro” (back to the Ark and back out to sea).  Eventually, the raven finds dry land and decides not to return—alerting Noah to the fact that it’s getting close to time to unpack the Ark.  In the movie—which also features a storm/flood (which isn’t to give anything away, since it’s mentioned at the very beginning of the film)—.Sam and Suzy are together a pair of ravens, a pair of outsiders, not unlike Max as figurative clipper-ship captain in Rushmore.  Pre-teens eloping together, they both could share the sentiments expressed by Noah’s raven in a little poem by W.S. Merwin: “Why should I have returned? / My knowledge could not fit into theirs.  / I found untouched the desert of the unknown, / Big enough for my feet. / It is my home…”  The little kingdom by the sea that Sam and Suzy establish is just such an unknown—big enough only for the ravens’ feet.

I mention Anderson’s allusions to the Noah story to give the reader a sense of what a high level of aesthetic activity he’s operating on, in addition to highlighting key themes.  Moonrise Kingdom is the kind of film that will undoubtedly reward repeat viewings—there are certainly more treasures to be unearthed than I can manage to uncover in a relatively brief article.  At any rate, to continue with the movie itself: in a recent interview, Anderson said, “I’m drawn to outsiders…and people who have originality in their personalities.”  Anderson’s fans—among whom I proudly count myself, without any reservations whatsoever—would probably all confess to feeling the same way.  Suzy’s reading preferences again highlight this theme—the privileges and perils of outsider-hood.  She tells Sam that the books she likes tend to be set on “foreign planets,” typically featuring female characters—and we see her reading a book entitled The Girl From Jupiter, with a blue-skinned young alien girl on the cover.

Earlier in the film, we see her reading a book entitled Shelly and the Secret Universe.  In a sense, the film Moonrise Kingdom is itself a “secret universe”—maybe even an aesthetic Noah’s Ark, destined to make it through the flood.  The island of New Penzance is by no means a utopia, but it exists in a fully aestheticized universe—a kind of second Nature hovering about three or four feet above our own.  People still have plenty of problems in New Penzance, but these problems exist entirely within the strict parameters of art, of the Ark—order persisting over and above the flood.

As the movie begins, we hear a recording (which will be replayed at the end)—put on the record player by Suzy’s brother. (They still use record players in this odd time-out-of-time, which we are informed is the latter half of the 20th Century, but could very well be the kind of time that exists in that odd second Nature hovering a few feet above the everyday one.)  It happens to be an educational recording of Benjamin Britten conducting an orchestra, breaking a musical piece down into its separate parts—playing them all together, and then playing individual sections (woodwinds, percussion, etc.)  It is this neatness of composition, at once seamless and at once comprised of so many observable, interlocking pieces, that informs Anderson’s own method of creation.  It is a humorous metaphor for how he will develop and play his own characters off one another.  Really, he is as impeccable an artist as a French aesthete of the early 20th Century—everything needs to be and is under control.  Even something like death or orphanhood (or vengeance enacted with a pair of lefty scissors, for that matter) can be transfigured by Anderson’s stylization into something sensible—not morally or cosmically sensible, necessarily, but artistically. He uses his style —as they say, “oft imitated, never equaled” — to add, in Percy Shelley’s words, “grace and truth to life’s unquiet dream.”  It is not just “art for art’s sake” (though it works very well as “art for art’s sake” if you want it to), but it is art as a safety net for life—a way of lifting us up from whatever low level we’ve managed to sink to and reflecting our own lives back to us in a way that makes them seem to have a plot.  Anderson has spoken of the intense influence that J.D. Salinger has had on him as a creator, and I believe that he inherits this rare ability directly from Salinger.  It is the ability to be a “catcher in the rye” and to actually use art as a way to catch or save us from misanthropy.  Salinger accomplishes this routinely in Nine Stories (and in all of his other books), which has always somehow seemed to me to be the Salinger book that has had the most influence on Anderson.

One of the things I like most about Wes Anderson is that he clearly asks himself, “What is the movie that I would most like to see in the world right now?” And he goes out and makes it.  If you can do that, you can do no wrong in my view.  Moonrise Kingdom is at once unpredictable—Anderson keeps us on our toes, we don’t know where it’s going—yet inevitable, as all great art needs to be.  When it gets to it’s final destination, we abandon our uncertainty and say, “Yes—that’s how it needed to be.”  We see that, truly, it is “not chaos or death—it is form, union, plan…”  In short—it’s the best thing I’ve seen in a while.

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