Wes and the War over Quirk: A Moonrise Kingdom Rumble

With Wes Anderson’s latest, Moonrise Kingdom, finally out in cinemas in Australia (yes, rest of the world, we’re a little slow) and weeks away from its DVD release in the States, the internet may not be eager to buckle under the weight of yet another review. But it can always do with another argument.

Three writers – a Wes Anderson Fan (Lena Rutkowski), a Hater (Joseph Lavelle Wilson) and a Newbie (Georgia Symons) – three different takes on Moonrise and its well-coifed director.

In your best Bane voice, “let the games begin!”

Lena Rutkowski (The Fan):

Wes Anderson’s features are frequently accused of being “quirky for the sake of quirky” and, admittedly, Moonrise Kingdom is as warm, whimsical and charming as a pair of floral tea cosies, but it’s also the director’s most emotionally involving work. Weaving together the tale of two star-crossed twelve year olds who run away together to the tune of Francoise Hardy and the search party of awkward adults and precocious summer camp scouts determined to find them, Anderson’s latest is also a poignant homage to childhood escapism, longing and first love.

Sweet without veering into the sentimental, flights of fancy and whimsy are juxtaposed with deadpan delivery and Anderson’s trademark knack for rendering the absurd wholly acceptable in his ornately constructed worlds. Children are stabbed with scissors, parents relinquish their son to the custody of a summer camp with cheery nonchalance, and Suzy, who displays extraordinary make-up skills for a pubescent, packs a record player, kitten and library books for the outdoor escapade, while Sam merely nods with tacit approval. Yet even as Anderson saturates the island location with a 1960s aesthetic and decks his characters in 50 shades of apricot brown, sweeping tracking shots convey the island’s expansive loneliness.

While “quirky” may be pejoratively levelled at the array of idiosyncratic personalities, you’ll find no manic hipster pixie dreamgirls in Anderson’s world – Suzy has violent tendencies and watches the world with a wry detachment through her binoculars, while Sam captures hapless, confident and alienated to an endearing tee. The stellar supporting cast of middle-agers who make up the search party are crippled by regret and fear of failure. Edward Norton is in shorts, action star Bruce Willis is heart-wrenchingly vulnerable as the moustachioed and lonely local cop, Jason Schwartzman shines in his brief performance as a summer camp counsellor leading his team with the bravado of a military general, while Bill Murray is called upon to do what he does best, half-heartedly exhale the wry observations of a man burdened by weltschmerz.

Wes Anderson may be an acquired taste, but if any of his films have ever resonated with an audience in its highly stylised depiction of outsiders too wearied to try and fit in, Moonrise Kingdom would have to be the one.

Apple really should develop a mustard-yellow filter for camera shots and dub it “Andersongram”

Joe Lavelle Wilson (The Hater):

The Royal Tenenbaums V: The Schwartzmanning Moonrise Kingdom is a nostalgic bit of frippery, the cinematic equivalent of knitting tea cosies with your grandmother who remembers colonial history a little too fondly. It is wistful, whimsical, witty. Quaint, quirky, quixotic. Sunny tones, ostensibly eccentric characters and a soundtrack that wants so badly to be an ode to a bygone era combine to produce a watchable rehash of every film Wes Anderson has ever made.

There is nothing wrong with a director having a distinct style. When I first watched The Royal Tenenbaums, I loved it. The aristocratic quasi-fable was a beautiful introduction to the idea that style could be more important than substance, and could in fact carry a film. Anderson seemed to direct his actors to give every line in the most wooden fashion possible. He was deliberately shunning the conventional ways in which emotional depth and growth are shown in cinema. It was a perfectly-shot postmodern ‘fuck you’ to the idea that for a film to move you emotionally, its characters and dialogue had to be believable and engaging. Even then though, it felt too long. The point was made, and everything beyond that was certainly gorgeous but no longer subversively comic. Four films later, Anderson is still labouring the same point.

Moonrise Kingdom feels like an extended Anderson super-cut. His style has crystallised – and lost all inventiveness, originality, and dramatic and comedic punch in the process. This wouldn’t be so bad, if it wasn’t for the smugness which overhangs the film like the storm foreshadowed by its ‘quirky’ narrator. Compared to a film like Drive, which is all about style, but which doesn’t feel the need to give itself knowing winks at every turn, Anderson’s pretentiousness in Moonrise Kingdom is almost overbearing.

A neckerchief! What a delightfully quirky character!

Georgia Symons (The Newbie):

Like an answer called through the ages to Craig David lo those many years ago, this film is EXACTLY MY FLAVA. Let’s be perfectly clear – I have seen a Wes Anderson film before, but it was Fantastic Mr. Fox. Whilst I adored it, I put quite a bit of my enjoyment down to my love of Roald Dahl, and didn’t think that it would be a good indication of his live action work. So I went in with very little idea of what to expect.

This film hooked me from the first frame of the credits. I’d been told to expect symmetry, but wow. What’s so engaging about his visual style isn’t just the precision – although that in itself is staggering – but the way that Anderson consistently uses mise-en-scène as a site of humour. I found myself laughing at almost every shot, as each construction played on some level with absurdities of scale, point of view and physical possibility.

This wonderfully energetic mise-en-scène was the perfect complement to a story that pushed, if not destroyed, the limits of plausibility with every passing plot twist. The dynamics of the main characters are built around the way in which children of a certain age start trying to perform adulthood long before they know what it is, with hilarious consequences. Conversely, the adults in the film are a farce of incompetency, demonstrating how little we ever really grow up. The resultant dialogue, action, and character relationships are all wildly ridiculous, and a joy to watch.

As a newcomer, I may be immune to some of what bothers more battle-hardened detractors of Anderson’s work; namely the alleged same-ness of his aesthetic and thematic concerns across his oeuvre. To be honest, I don’t think it’s ever going to bother me. If I’m up for more of that level of hilarity, count me in!

Lena:

The cult of hipsterdom is centered around a) appropriating traditionally unappreciated or unconventional artifacts, then relishing them for their “quirks” ad nauseum until they are rendered mundane again; and b) contrarianism, or the act of disliking anything most other people like. Paradoxically, the more quirky something is, and the more people that like it, the more it invokes blind hatred of the kind usually reserved for oppressive dictators or people on the internet with poor grammar.

Sure, I won’t deny the onslaught of films in the last decade that have maligned the good old adjective “quirky”. Natalie Portman oozed it by hosting a hamster funeral in Garden State, Ellen Page delivered wisecracks through a phone shaped like a hamburger in Juno, and neither script seemed to require them to be anymore than an empty vessel entirely made up of off-the-cuff habits.

But I don’t feel that “quirk” defines Moonrise Kingdom. Instead, it is the film that masterfully harnesses quirkiness to great comedic, aesthetic and emotionally poignant effect. Deadpan works beautifully to elicit laughs, but more importantly, it renders banal the absurd notion of two children eloping and etching out a living together in the woods, making for a captivating ode to childhood whimsy. The film isn’t “smug” and aloof, as it captures the universal nostalgia for the last shreds of innocence before children become their awkward adult counterparts, restricted from adventure by their own self-doubt.

To dismiss the film as mere “frippery” like Joe does ignores the undercurrent of violence which runs throughout all Anderson’s films (warning: even in Anderson’s romanticized summer camp, a dog meets his demise and Bill Murray is a downtrodden victim of domestic violence who copes by wielding axes). By forcing us to contemplate these darker elements with detachment, Anderson both mocks the sentimentality that permeates those popular “quirky” films, and challenges us to reconnect with our own humanity and feel empathy for his quietly insane characters, even when they won’t let us in.

Georgia saw a clever, sweet and innovative film, and I think that goes to show that half the hating stems from a distaste for stylistic repetition, or perhaps just an irrational aversion to the colour brown. But being a one-trick-pony isn’t a bad thing – it’s allowed Anderson to become a master of his craft, and Moonrise Kingdom represents its culmination.

Joseph:

Woah woah woah – I don’t have a problem with ‘quirk’. Quirk in moderation is good, but in Moonrise Kingdom neckerchiefs and school plays are shoved down the audience’s throat with all the subtlety of Juno’s hamburger phone. ‘LOOK’, shouts Moonrise, ‘LOOK AT THIS TWEE LITTLE SCOUT’S UNIFORM’. The mise en scene Georgia mentioned also contributes to the intense artificiality of the film. Rather than revelling in the staged jokes, however, I found them off-putting. No humour is allowed to happen; each joke is introduced as a joke; the self-awareness of it all is overbearing. I found myself wondering whether the wooden performances could even be considered deadpan rather than just wooden. The characterisation is purely superficial – how are we supposed to care about characters that don’t amount to any more than stupid hats and robotic statements?

There isn’t room, in Anderson’s detailed world, for emotional growth, for any movement other than the tedious progression of the plot towards its inevitable, foreshadowed conclusion. Isn’t the point of dramatic irony that we are supposed to care about the fate of the characters, which is known to us but unbeknownst to them? Why exactly do I care about wooden children dancing like idiots? You can’t have your cake and eat it too, Wes. If you want to make a film which is a series of signposted, artfully crafted jokes that is fine, but don’t give it a lovey-dovey soundtrack and centre it on a supposed emotional bond. Because I just won’t care.

Georgia:

To my surprise, the prospect of rewatching Moonrise Kingdom for this article filled me with a creeping foreboding. Thinking back to my first viewing, my memories were of laughing at almost every single shot, with each passing moment bringing something unexpected. Going back to Wes Anderson’s whimsical wonderland, I knew exactly what to expect. Would it still retain its charm and humour? Or was I about to discover that the film I’d come to love so dearly was in fact a one-trick pony?

I concede, Moonrise Kingdom was not as riotously funny upon second viewing. However, even if it no longer incited laughter with every frame, I was still rooting for Sam and enraptured by Suzy, and I still found the central critique of grown-up-ness to be engaging. In short, the substance of the work stood up against further scrutiny.

Reading back through Joe and Lena’s comments, it feels like Wes Anderson will always be divisive, and for good reason. I think it comes down to how you feel about Brecht. There are many who find that kind of keenly self-aware construction distracting and unnecessary. Personally, I’m so used to Brechtian stylings in contemporary culture that they often serve to heighten my engagement with characters and story. Recognition of the fourth wall can put me at ease and therefore make me feel freer to immerse myself in the plights of the characters than something that ignores the act of its own construction. I can’t imagine this film without its deadpan delivery and self-aware cinematography, and I wouldn’t want to. It might not have retained its full glory on rewatch, but I have the rest of Anderson’s oeuvre in which to relish a little Brechtian whimsy. I look forward to it!

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