Upon leaving Moonrise Kingdom I felt it was the best film Wes Anderson had made — a feeling which, at the time, I could only express in words like “honest” and “mature”. In an A.V. Club interview actor Bob Balaban once commented “I was really sad Truffaut wasn’t watching it, because he would have just been crazy for that seven-minute scene on the island with the boy and the girl” — and after finding The 400 Blows quite a bit rougher than I remembered it, I suspect my sentiments are related to Balaban’s: that Moonrise Kingdom, while retaining the stylistic quirks of an Anderson picture, was far more grounded in its exploration of regions shared with Truffaut. It felt different than what I’d seen Anderson do before.
Read at Unsung Films: Moonrise Kingdom.
An entry in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson gave a few more clues: “Wes Anderson seemed to me enormously promising, if not yet clarified… Thus, the agonies of family dysfunction have been chilled by a kind of visionary novocaine [referring to The Royal Tenenbaums]… I wasn’t quite sure where it was all going — or whether the soulful melancholia was getting too close to self pity… WA seems to exist at the far end of a very private, isolating corridor.” (A messy job of quoting on my part, I know); though I was defensive at first reading, having recently discovered Anderson for myself, I was arguing on behalf of a few picks — which were, pretty much, just Bottle Rocket, Rushmore… and the idea of one of the first directors I could recognize as such, apart from his films; The Royal Tenenbaums through The Darjeeling Limited have since struck me as an increasing abandonment of real substance with gestures of style to cover. What lies beneath the self-conscious mannerism of these films is a question one might validly ask, though others’ likings have generally dissuaded me from doing so; whereas subsequent viewings of Rushmore made slight touches like Blume’s involvement in the Vietnam war more apparent (and the film a more layered piece), only the overall structure of Tenenbaums was hidden before — which previously left me with the impression of a drawn-out soap opera or party game: each character is assigned a trait, then paired off in random combinations until feature length has been achieved. Narration fills in expository gaps, there’s enough money for a bail-out if things get too rocky, and nothing very serious is at stake — The Life Aquatic, especially, follows this pattern, the too-convenient arrival of a character like Eleanor smoothed over with a zoom-in.
Richie’s suicide attempt and the Aquatic crew’s pirate island escape are moments that lunge above such a static feel — to form a crooked metaphor, there is an energy one could get from using a song like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” in a film, but outfits from the time won’t do it alone. Otherwise, I pretty much agree with Thomson’s dismissal of Fantastic Mr. Fox: it works; yes, it’s effective, but, to put it simply, why should we remember it when it’s done?*
Read at Unsung Films: The Darjeeling Limited.
Even in structural terms alone, Moonrise Kingdom is a complete about-face of this trend: the company from previous films is present, but this story’s sights are purely set on Sam and Suzy; their first encounter is far from happenstance, their reunion even less so. The pair of close-ups that accompany this sighting is a riveting moment: a brief pause in the progression of events; a suspension of anything like an objective view of the situation — we see them with all the solemnity and deep importance in which they experience seeing each other. There’s more than enough space within the narrative for a bit of circumstance — Sam’s demonstration of his scout skills to Suzy work as “breathing room”, and flesh out each of their personalities a bit more; Suzy’s forgetting her binoculars — the most artificial intervention on their writers’ behalf — belies what is otherwise a very well-handled film. More importantly, it leads to a chase scene fraught with that most elemental kind of tension: indignation at the way things are; a hope that our hero will escape those pursuing him. Basic, but they really moved me in a way I didn’t expect an Anderson film to.
By the time this late scene came about, it was par for the course of Moonrise Kingdom. On its head the film might seem to be working on the principles of a melodrama — the “suffering of an innocent”; a tale like so many others, of couples seeking refuge from their heartless oppressors. And yet, there is little “suffering” here, though threats often loom near; to suffer, in the melodramatic sense, is a passive activity, whereas Sam and Suzy are in constant flight. The rest falls into place around their action: adults and scout members look petty in their wake, even as we understand their logical (or childish) reasons — especially because we do. What Sam and Suzy want is impossible so long as their rules stand; if we feel compelled to shelter them, it’s because their dream is more than a fantasy — they go ahead and create Moonrise Kingdom on their own. (Which also gives the intrusion of this space a rather bitter taste, though the breaking of the news is also, paradoxically, one of the film’s best comedic moments.)
Almost always, the film has some of these emotions within reach; its range is, as I have said, greater than any previous Anderson film, probably because the stakes are higher: the existent love of its couple, along with the perils of separation and shock therapy, are far more immediate than the vague disintegration of his other protagonists; it gives the film an edge that is often blunt and occasionally raw with feeling. Instead of adults acting like children, we have children very much at the mercy of adults — and ones who seem dismayed at the same powers they’re affiliated with; Scout Master Randy Ward, who might best fit among the director’s previous ensembles, looks more let down than anything at the idea that Sam would not want to stay in his camp; the repeated costume, again a mainstay from past films, is worn with genuine affection for the structure and safety it represents, while Captain Duffy Sharp, ostensibly one of the more dutiful adults, goes through his motions halfheartedly. His sudden turn, like the steeple which its protagonists hang on to by a miraculous thread, is less a concession than a relief.
Read at Unsung Films: Rushmore.
All of this had been floating in my mind, more or less, since I first saw Moonrise Kingdom; The Grand Budapest Hotel has since confirmed what I suspected. While I find the narrative to be a bit flimsier than that of Moonrise Kingdom, it is nevertheless a strong continuation of Anderson’s development (or clarification, if you will): Budapest Hotel only touches upon the aching territory Kingdom inhabits, but I found its (seemingly) off-handed mention of Agatha’s succumbing to the “Prussian grippe” two years later devastating. The same can be said for that character’s heroism — one need not create wrenching material to be affecting, but this shift towards… a fuller, shall we say, perspective has been an enormous breath of fresh air — I daresay his wit and nuance shall always be present to balance the complete picture.
In his entry on Anderson, Thomson notes, “So far so good. Watch this space,” followed by what I presume is the updated edition’s text: “Alas, The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited did not fill or occupy this space…” before concluding his assessment with a rather deadpan, “So watch this space.” The space has been filled.
* This same criticism has been applied to some of Truffaut’s own works — I’m certain I once read a quote along the lines of, “Watching his films are like taking a shower: they’re pleasant while they last, and dissipate when they’re finished.” — or something of the sort, which I have been unable to find again. Also like some of Anderson’s works, I am struck particular scenes such as Antoine Doinel lying in bed and listening to his parents arguing, while stretches outside that film’s famous moments can be hard to watch, in real time, and maintain appreciation for.
Director Wes Anderson on ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ and working with Bill Murray:
The Grand Budapest Hotel: Director Wes Anderson Official Movie Interview:
Wes Anderson – Jason Schwartzman Talk Darjeeling Limited:
Wes Anderson’s ‘Life Aquatic’: The Cousteau Connection: