A few notes on Moonrise Kingdom:
1. Survival Narrative:
While growing up, Jean Craighead George’s novel My Side of the Mountain worked well as a master narrative around which I could arrange the details of life. For those who have unfortunately not read this book while still under the fertile canopy of childhood – it is a story about a young boy that leaves his family to live in the Catskill Mountains. He adopts a peregrine falcon, makes a small home inside a giant tree, and becomes adept at living off the land. Throughout the book are scattered wonderful little diagrams of wooden fish hooks, snares, and various tools for survival that make the entire story seem utterly possible.
The first thread of narrative in Moonrise Kingdom riffs on this literary tradition (see also Swiss Family Robinson, Holes, Tunnel in the Sky, Hatchet, etc…). But in a similar way, all of Wes Anderson’s films are about survival, and not strictly in an existential sense. Things step up a notch when Max cuts Blume’s brake lines in Rushmore. In Royal Tenenbaums Royal’s cancer diagnosis turns out to be a sham, but this doesn’t really matter as he does eventually die and somewhere in there Richie’s attempted suicide makes real what the tangled web of Tenenbaum conflicts had always obscured. The Moby Dick overtones of Life Aquatic lead to the unexpected loss of Ned, cradled by Zissou in his final moments. Also: Pirates. Fantastic Mr. Fox evokes survival in a more whimsical sense, but the high stakes are ever-present. It is hard to wander very far in Anderson without stumbling across life-or-death moments. The off-kilter vibe we find in his cinema derives from the way this sense of peril and chaos is embedded in his carefully manicured sets.
I found this layer of Moonrise Kingdom compelling for two reasons:
- First, the first time we see Sam, my wife leaned over and asked: Was that you? Yes. Yes it was, down to the coonskin cap and glasses (though I had more Boy Scout badges and a neater uniform than Sam). As I very clearly recall, the Khaki Scouts are a boy’s first experience of a world that has hard and fast rules, that requires compliance, beyond which the abyss of nature is waiting to claim us. The Anderson hero is one willing to step out into the metaphorical wilderness, to get enough distance from familial codes and tacit assumptions in such a way that they can see them for what they are. Apparently binoculars help.
- Second, this straightforward narrative of survival is such a clear rendering of Anderson’s directorial voice – Sam and Suzy’s flight into the wilderness a mythical rendering of what we humans are all about. If the narrator is to be believed, this is a film about an inevitable, looming peril. If Anderson is to be believed, this is the basic narrative trajectory of life.
2. Love/Marriage Narrative:
But Sam doesn’t go alone, which cues me into another element of Anderson’s storytelling I hadn’t fully grasped before. Anderson is not just interested in survival and its mechanisms, but the grace of grounded relationships. Or better: the idea that a survival is about being able to negotiate the redemptive power of love.
At first glimpse, the hasty marriage of Sam and Suzy appears to be a bit of whimsy that makes light of the austere institution of matrimony. It seems as frivolous as its context. Yet this is actually another occasion in which Anderson takes marriage as a concept very seriously. We could quickly file again through his films and find married couples together, divorced, encountering each other again and wondering how to deal with the residue of intimacies real or imagined. We don’t need to look any further, however, than the scene in which we see Suzy’s parents in separated twin beds talking about work – their only common extant language. They are aware that they have nothing to offer their children:
Wife: “We’re all they have.”
Husband: “That’s not enough.”
It is a sad, characteristically Anderson scene in which we can glimpse the full range of adult fears in one curio boxed frame. This he contrasts with Sam and Suzy on the beach. These beach scenes would be tawdry or worse in the hands of a different director, but here they are surprisingly true and gentle – Anderson’s vision of adolescent innocence challenging our social warrant to think of it as shocking or inappropriate. We shouldn’t overlook the wonderful reversal of Anderson’s typical character development here, as most of his films conceive of a loss of innocence as the place at which our ability to have and maintain authentic relationships begins to crumble. Here that innocence is still intact.
This makes Sam’s Moonrise Kingdom a sort of Andersonian Eden, in which the imbalances at the heart of his films dissipate or simply fail to obtain. This, Anderson says, these two little kids in a tent on a beach with a BB Gun and a bunch of paperbacks – is what we have lost. It is lovely that Sam and Suzy can only conceive of responding to this experience in terms of eventually getting married. In Anderson’s world, they simply can’t help it. For marriage is not a contract but an act of rebellion against the pettiness of life.
(Coincidentally, there is a great Ray Bradbury story about a rocket ship that explodes in space, hurling its astronauts in their survivals suits out into the cosmos. The entire story is simply dialogue between the remaining astronauts as they slowly drift out of radio range to their deaths. This image of people drifting until they are no longer in range is a good filter for most of Anderson’s films.)
3. Flood Narrative:
And then along comes Noye’s Fludde to bind these different narrative threads together. If we think of flood narratives in Joseph Campbell terms, they are stories about worlds so out-of-whack that they simply have to be erased. The aberrant systems or behaviors are judged by the deities involved with causing the flood to happen, and the remaining goodness of humanity is preserved by the survival of a few people – in this case Noah and his family.
When the predicted storm hits the island, the water begins to rise. Rivers of water flood roads and channels while Social Services is on its way to claim Sam in compliance with state policy. It all comes to a head in the church at which Noye’s Fludd is being conducted as the town also gathers to seek shelter. Sam and Suzy, in revolt against a system that would revoke their citizenship in Moonrise Kingdom are saved at the last minute by Captain Sharp – claiming Sam as his own son.
If this is a true flood narrative, we have to ask: What exactly is being judged? I think it is pretty clear here that Anderson has enacted this flood as a devastation of the “long defeat” of adulthood. But even more specifically, all the subtle ways by which adulthood robs us of the ability to love freely, without any reason or expectation of result. Few in Anderson’s films get to experience this untutored kind of love – Sam and Suzy perhaps the first. Regardless, this judgment narrative in Moonrise Kingdom helps clarify the thematic and structural boundaries of Anderson’s other films in that we can see them as a set of indictments against the drift that happens in marriage and sibling relationships. When that gravity fades, families are doomed to spooling off in different directions.
In the last scene we see Sam painting the cove after the camera has panned from Suzy nearby. We can see that the flood has abated. Many of the frictions and anxieties that had plagued the island prior to the great flight of Sam and Suzy have been resolved in its wake. Sam is no longer fatherless. Suzy, hopefully, no longer effectively parentless.
4. Additional Comments.
Moonrise Kingdom marks a high point in Anderson’s cinema (even if The Life Aquatic remains his masterpiece to date). Every element in Anderson’s past films is revisited here in the plight of the characters on this island, including the ever-present reliable narrator that is himself subject to the incoming storm he has been describing. It is a good place to start reading his films as a canon of sorts.
And as a filmmaker, Moonrise Kingdom elevates my respect for Anderson’s voice and craftsmanship to such an extent that I couldn’t help but watch it as a part of that classic constellation of films about childhood like 400 Blows, Les mistons, Small Change, Le ballon rouge, Where is the Friend’s Home?, or The White Balloon. That’s… not bad.